“Make the time to break free of our normal lives, and head out and experience something different, something new. . . step out of the easy! (“Reveal the Path” – movie)
Take a deep breath, then another! The air is crisp, replacing what’s been filling your lungs overnight – the stale feeling that accompanies being confined on an Amtrak train for 28 hours, since Chicago. Outside, the air smells of pine; you imagine you can taste it. The overnight trip was just long enough to allow the anticipation to build. You’ve read the books; you’ve seen historic photos & documentaries; you’ve heard adventure stories from friends. It rained yesterday, and you worry about a repeat downpour. You’re only here for one day! You wonder how long it takes to get up into the mountains, where you’ll see the beauty of Glacier National Park firsthand. You’re excited, and you’re not alone!
A hearty laugh and a firm handshake greet me as I board the free shuttle that will take me up the mountain. Sunny is full of stories, about. . . well, just about everything. She chatters away, almost the entire way to the end of her route. She pauses to make a call to shuttle headquarters, reporting cars parked illegally along the side of the narrow road. They are stacked up against the gray rock face of the mountain, so that tourists can crowd against the guardrail of a particularly popular overlook. Before she starts talking to the dispatcher she tilts her head in your direction, saying “Keep track of where I left off, so I can finish the story. It’s a good one!”
We’d transferred from a mega bus to a smaller shuttle van, and met our driver, Sunny, who has been driving for 9 years. “Yeah, I just hate it!” she says sarcastically. She seems pretty content with her transient life, visiting other parks in New Mexico, Georgia and Louisiana in the winters. She volunteers there, receiving a free site for her 38 ft. motorhome, in return. Her German Shepard (aka her “9 mm with Teeth”) is along for the ride, as well as her 6-toed Hemmingway cat. She needs a big motorhome, so they can each have some space, for much needed “alone time.”
Continuing her story, she speaks of an 80-year-old cyclist who rode all the way across the park, up and down steep slopes, for his milestone birthday. He’d ridden the same route 40 years earlier, from Apgar to Logan Pass, and back, tackling 3500 feet of climbing in one day. He’d loved that trip, but he’d gotten away from cycling for a while, as happens when life gets in the way of recreation. When his wife passed away before him, he’d slipped into a deep depression. “Cycling,” Sunny declares, “is what got him out of it!” There was a big celebration when he finished his ride, and Sunny and the other drivers gained a huge amount of respect for cyclists. . . except for the ones who don’t adhere to the posted speed limit, racing down the steep declines at top speeds.
My seatmate on the shuttle is a younger girl traveling with her boyfriend, who recently lost his job. She’d decided to quit her job, and join him on a 3-month adventure, visiting several of the National Parks along the way. They are 2 months in, and pretty spent, but having a blast getting the most out of their annual park pass. “Why not now?” she asks, with a shrug of her shoulders. They only other thing they’d be putting her paycheck towards is a down payment on a house. Her heart was “all in” on this adventure! Work and home life will be there when she returns. I recommended that she read “Miles From Nowhere” by Barbara Savage, which I’d just started reading on the train, the day before. It’s about a husband and wife who walk away from their corporate lives to cycle around the world. I warned my new friend that Barbara approached life with a similar outlook to hers, and ended up spending 2 years out on the road, on two wheels. We agreed that didn’t seem like a bad place to end up seeing Canada, Spain, Morocco, Scotland. . . . after riding across the U.S., starting in California.
Also on the Glacier shuttle were three 20-something hipsters, with big dreams of serious hiking that day. They were rattling on about GoPro cameras, while they compared hiking equipment. Black Diamond hiking sticks were folded up for easy carrying, and stashed away, cinched by bungee-like cords at the base of their backpacks. They sipped from Camelback backpacks, hydrating while still comfortably on the shuttle. Their LA sportiva hiking shoes definitely made them look like they knew their stuff, and the puffy vests from REI Co-op would protect them when they got up into the mountains, should the temperatures drop too low. It was 11:45 am when they boarded the shuttle, which seemed to me like a late start for the 6 – 7 hours of hiking I overheard them talking about. But they were fit enough to attempt it; the “Triangle Triathlon 2014” T-shirts had me convinced.
The Amtrak had arrived at the West Glacier stop at around 8 pm the night before. I stepped off the train, along with just a handful of other visitors, with excitement. There was still some light, and the last hour on the train had only raised my expectations. Just across the street from the train station was my hotel – Glacier Highland Motel and Resort. Dinner at the restaurant, which is also a bar / gas station / souvenir shop, was unexpectedly good. I don’t typically expect bison sliders and veggie quesadillas served with delicious seasoned French fries, accompanied by the local amber, on draft, at a roadside stop. With a full belly, I fell asleep to the Olympics – it was a night for men’s swimming, I think.
The next morning, breakfast included lots and lots of coffee, after restless sleep on the train and little sleep the night before. I’d attempted to a sleep, in the unfamiliar bed of the hotel, but insomnia had me up at 2 am. I’d given up and headed outside, reclining on the Adirondack chairs that sat in front of every door of the motel. The chairs faced the mountains, the train tracks & the promise of what the next day would bring. Although I was alone in the dark, listening to the quiet night and breathing in the pine-filled air, I suspect that this is precisely what the row of chairs is there for. I’m not the first to be restless, in anticipation of expected adventure the next day. There was good conversation over a breakfast of egg scramble, brambleberry pancakes and wheat toast. I was confident that the waitress, who kept my coffee cup at “Full”, had seen the likes of me before – full of excitement, but also a novice to the area.
The cost is $15 / person for admission into the National Park. Vehicles lined up across a row of booths, several cars deep, to get into the park. Approaching the 1st window to ask where pedestrians should go, I was told to get in line. It was a beautiful day, and the park was filling up with families, naturalists and adventurers. The National Parks offer an annual pass, which gains access into any of the parks. I’ll be sure to purchase the pass next year, and plan to get my money’s worth.
It’s a 2 ½ mile hike on a paved bike path, from the West Glacier entrance to the Apgar visitor’s center, where the free bus will take you on a 1 ½ – 2 hour ride up to the trailheads at Logan Pass. Arrive early to avoid the line for the bus, if you can, but don’t pass up on that breakfast! It actually takes 2 vehicles to get you to the top – a larger bus loaded with 30+ visitors takes you about ½ way, to Avalanche. Then visitors split into groups that load into smaller vans, which can handle the twists and turns of the mountain road. The driver of the larger bus, Sunny’s counterpart, tells me that she thinks she’d do just fine maneuvering the larger vehicle all the way to the top. . . they just haven’t let her try! She pokes fun at some of the new drivers, whose training involves riding the route with the more experienced drivers, at first. They do so with wide eyes! More than once there has been a driver who says – on her first day – “I’m not driving that!”
The shuttle driver’s job is very seasonal, in line with the tourist activity, and it turns out that our driver actually lives 200 miles south of the park, and is up for her 2nd summer to drive the big bus. “Look at my office!” she says, gesturing at the massive front windshield that takes up almost the entire front of the bus. We’re not quite ½ way up the mountain, but the view is breathtaking, all pine trees and mountains, with their highest peaks covered in a light fog that will lift by midday. The excitement builds as we cruise beside quickly moving streams, and she points out a distant waterfall that she hasn’t been able to identify, despite checking all the books and “asking around”. As we enter a more densely wooded stretch of the route, she again makes a wide, sweeping gesture. “I call this my Cedar Tunnel”, she explains. It’s evergreen after evergreen, the earth scattered with thousands of pine needles, and I’m squinting and scanning, wondering if I’ll see a bear. Last year there was a bear on this part of her route for three days. Our driver rode past him as many as 6 – 8 times a day. “You’d see him, and just gasp!” she says, with a chuckle.
Earlier, at the visitor center, a Park Ranger was giving a brief talk about what to do if you encounter native wildlife while visiting the park:
Mountain Goat: Do NOT encircle it, attempt to pet it, or move in close to take photos. Give it space! It can knock you off the side of the mountain, if provoked.
Bear: Do NOT leave a backpack where a bear can get to it, or attempt to feed it, in any way. “The worst thing you can do to a bear is let it eat the food in your pack. It will get used to human food, and seek it out around humans. It will end up having to be shot by the park rangers.” Why? To protect us tourists. This isn’t Yogi and Booboo!
Marmot & Ground Squirrel: Do NOT feed them! They will beg. They are very accustomed to people, and very interested in your lunch. They are everywhere up on the mountain, you are sure to encounter a dozen or more, and they BITE!
After about an hour and a half, the 2nd shuttle bus makes it to our destination, Logan Pass. The clouds have opened up, and the sun is making its best attempt to warm things up. Families are trying to eat their lunches at the visitor’s center, but the marmots and ground squirrels aren’t shy. Signs warn against feeding them, as the ranger had done, but these chubby little beasts have clearly talked a hiker or two into slipping them a bite of PB & J, and a handful of trail mix. When we disappoint them, by not giving in to their feigned hunger and pleading eyes, they try another tactic, posing for the camera. No luck. Still, I suspect they won’t go hungry for long.
The fog continues to break up. It obscures the highest mountain peaks, but the view still takes your breath away. Row after row of trees meets tall grasses and wildflowers. Yellow, purple and red push their way up through vibrant green patches. These are hearty grasses, and determined flowers, thriving at the high altitude and in the rocky terrain.
I only had a couple of hours to spend on the trails, and I hoped a mountain goat or bear might make an appearance. I doubted that was going to happen, in the relatively close vicinity to tourists, and their excited shouts along the trail. My camera was assembled, and strung around my neck, just in case. We took the path just across the street from the visitor’s center, which is known for its narrow sections on the edge of a cliff. It’s a long way down, so one-way traffic is the norm. Hikers step aside to let others past in the opposite direction, holding on to a long green rope that is bolted to the side of the mountain, to help them stay on the path. On the way out from our drop-off point my hand is on that rope almost every inch of the way, but on the way back I’m feeling more confident, and I’m able to take more photos. I notice one nervous hiker gripping the rope with white knuckles, and advancing hand-over-hand, so that she is constantly in contact with the rope. For her it’s a mental “lifeline”. If she physically lost her footing, I question whether the rope would do much to aide her in staying upright.
I was only 45 minutes along the trail, engrossed in the landscape and planning the framing for my next landscape shot, when I heard a quiet mumbling behind me. I couldn’t quite understand what was being said, until “Straight ahead!” was blurted out, loudly enough for me to make sense of the exclamation. Straight ahead, ambling casually towards me, was one of those Mountain Goats that the ranger had warned us about; I remembered that, if startled or feeling trapped, it could decide it didn’t want you on the path, and charge toward you. The path was a bit wider at this point, which came with the disadvantage that there was no rope to hold onto. (Suddenly I had great confidence in that silly rope!) I froze, not knowing entirely what to do, then did the one thing I felt most capable of. I started taking pictures. I was confident that over the years the goat had experienced many Canon, Nikon and Tamron lenses pointed in his general direction, so I figured that he wouldn’t see my activity as any sort of threat.
The goat looked us over, sniffed around at his surroundings, then started pawing at the ground, digging away the dirt at the side of the trail. He turned his broad side towards us, buried his head deep into the grass and flowers, and started chomping away. I guessed this was a lunch stop. Within moments a group of about 20 tourists came to a halt on the other side of the goat. Their tour guide left a good distance between himself and the goat, resigning to wait until the goat moved from the path. After a few minutes, he shouted to us, “If you move closer, and find a wider section, you can flatten yourself against the rock, and he’ll pass you on the trail.” We followed the guide’s instructions, but we couldn’t make the goat move in our direction. We waited him out for at least 20 minutes, not ready to turn back from our hike, but not wanting to approach the goat and upset him.
This creature seemed calm enough, and quite disinterested in us. He only had one horn, but I’d been head-butted by enough juvenile billy goats at the Columbus petting zoo to know that he could knock me off balance with one good jolt. I suspected that his single horn could do some damage as well, while I wondered at the story behind the loss of the other horn.
After a time, the guide on the other side of the goat stomped and shuffled his feet, clicked his hiking sticks together, and took a few steps toward the goat. That annoyed him enough to get him moving in our direction. It turned out that the group of tourists had been slowly trailing the goat for some distance, and was ready to get back to the trailhead. With what I can only describe as a bored expression, the goat took his time getting to us, and past us, on the trail. I imagine he was longing for the quiet of the previous day, when the rain had kept hikers off of “his trail”.
Every hiker on the trail from that point on asked about the mountain goat, told us about the mountain goat or was excited about the chance to see the mountain goat. The trail carried a new energy, imparted by our furry friend. I hated to crawl back onto the shuttle, but knew that the ride back down the mountain would be beautiful. I was grateful to have the chance to experience this ride!
I’d thought I’d encounter wide open spaces, and a sense of peace, solitude and wonder at Glacier, but the part of the park I saw was abuzz with activity. The park was full of stories, and personalities, day hikes, adventures, and mountain goats! I loved every minute of it! This was another of my whirlwind trips, with less than 24 hours from the time I walked off of the train until it was time to board the next train, headed further West, to Portland.
Pulling away from the station, I knew I’d like to return again, for a bike adventure of my own. Given the opportunity, I’d then like to return again, to find that solitude that I know is there, a bit further off the beaten path.
Back on the train, I found a copy of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine, and discovered “Alone in the Woods” by Tom Anderson, Naturalist and Educator. The train had passed through Minnesota the day before, and the magazine had come along for the ride. Anderson wrote about a group of 6th graders brought into the woods, given a chance to breathe the forest air, full of moss, dirt, trees and waterways. They each spent a bit of time alone, away from eachother and away from the demands of the modern world. Anderson reports the experience of one student: “It was so quiet at first”, she said, “but then I heard a bird that sounded like a computer!” She paused and cautiously admitted, “At first I was scared, but then after hearing the funny-sounding bird, it got real quiet for a while. It was so pretty and . . . I felt like I could see within myself.”
What a beautiful experience. The insight of a 6th grader, together with my own very small taste of Glacier, is what will draw me back to the park, to experience it anew.
Join me on my next adventure,
Glacier National Park (U.S. National Park Service): https://www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm
Things to do @ Glacier National Park: https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/things2do.htm
LA Sportiva hiking shoes: http://www.sportiva.com/
Triangle Triathlon: http://racesonline.com/events/triangle-triathlon
Reveal the Path: http://revealthepath.com/