With a bit of time between jobs, I did what any sensible person would do and hit the road with Dad on another US road trip. On our way we’d hit some classic cowboy locations like Monument Valley and Yellowstone, but for me the highlight was the northern most point of our 4000 mile loop, just a stone’s throw away from the Canadian border.
The air changes when we stop for gas in Choteau, Montana. After a week in the dry, dust and blazing sun, I step out under a thick grey sky and feel damp drizzle hanging in electric air. Forget the south’s endless sunny days, this is exactly what fall is supposed to be. The crisp smell of rain, a bright chill on the breeze, and whispers of winter hiding just around the next corner.
The temperature continues to drop as we drive north and just before East Glacier Village the road starts to climb. I rave to Dad about the landscape and the weather and how the changing colors, the aspen, the spruce and the damp chill in the air reminds me of my beloved Vermont. And then all of a sudden I see something that sends me into an excited and probably unintelligible babble. The first snow of the year is swirling down through the trees.
Dad doesn’t quite share my enthusiasm for driving a small RV over an unexpectedly snowy mountain pass. Hector, our vehicle for the trip, has had his share of problems and this would certainly be an awkward time to have car trouble. Two blowouts in as many days convinced us to give up on visiting (the obviously cursed) Dinosaur National Monument. We’ve also had a host of less critical problems like issues charging the secondary battery, which doesn’t affect the way the vehicle runs but leaves us with no lights and no water pump once the battery runs down.
Today however, Hector’s a trooper. We roll into Glacier National Park safe and sound and manage to grab a campsite at Rising Sun right on Saint Mary Lake. A wonderful view of the storm raging around the peaks on the other side sits right outside our front door. I dig out my winter layers and wander off to explore the campground and pay our camp fees, smiling all the way.
“Careful, there’s a black bear over that way”. I look up from my reverie and sure enough, in the short time I was gone a bear has moved in a few sites down from us. She seems totally unfazed by people. So much so that a couple trying to leave camp have to honk their horn violently at her just to get her to move out of the road. Some nights I’ve kind of missed sleeping in a tent, but I’m glad that we’re in an RV tonight with her hanging around. The ranger turns up with his bear spray about a half hour later hunting for her and must manage to scare her off. We don’t see our unwanted camp visitor again after that.
Hector did a great job of getting us to camp but the secondary battery is dead and we’re without lights again. On top of this Dad turned the fridge up too high by accident and most of our food has frozen. For dinner we’re reduced to decidedly chilly sandwiches with a side of tortilla chips and a dish that we will later name salsa snow cone. Certainly not living in the lap of luxury but this absurd scene ends up being one of the more memorable moments of the whole trip. There is something comical about us both sitting around in the dark, huddled up in all the winter layers we can find, eating a slab of frozen salsa.
I snug up in all my clothes to go to bed, peeking out the window for one last look at the snowy peaks before settling into my warm cocoon for the night. Even with my eyes shut I can somehow still sense the mountains looming outside in the darkness.
The storm is still hanging around the tops the next day and the road over Logan Pass is closed from snow. We drive in as far as we can, which is not a long way and the clouds are hiding a lot of the mountains, but there’s something spectacular about the peaks standing firm while the storm battles around them.
We wait around for the morning to see if the road improves. The clouds do start to clear out but the road is still too icy to open so eventually we give up and decide to stay at an RV park for the night to get showered and do some laundry, both of which have been a long time coming. Hector has a shower on board and plenty of hot water but we haven’t had enough battery to run the water pump. Finally getting clean is bliss and the RV park may not be quite as spectacular but it’s still full of aspen turning gold and sneak peeks of the snow capped mountain tops.
The night is cold. It was cold the night before too, but that was just wear all your clothes to bed cold. Tonight I wear all my clothes to bed and still can’t get warm. The chill sets into my feet and keeps me tossing and turning throughout the night, trying in vain to find a position where my toes will thaw out. It’s a relief when the sun finally rises in the morning. Dad has had a similarly uncomfortable night but a hot drink and loitering in the sunshine warms us up in no time.
The road still hasn’t fully opened but the skies are clear and the road is at least open as far as Logan Pass today. We decide to drive up as far as we can and then backtrack and loop around the other side to West Glacier. We have to go over that way anyway to drive back south so we may as well see as much of the place as we can, even if we can’t drive all the way through.
The drive is well worth the wait. The first section we’ve seen already but it’s a totally different day today. The moody grey storm clouds are gone and the surface of the lake is dead calm, making a perfect mirror for the beautiful giants. Once we’re past the lake, the Going-to-the-sun Road curls it’s way high up into the imposing peaks. Around every corner is a view even more dramatic than the next until finally we hit the road closure at Logan Pass where the road drops down into West Glacier. From high at the top of the pass we’re nearly eye to eye with the glaciers and mountain tops. We roam the snowy trails around the top, gazing down on the thawing valleys below.
The snow storm may have slowed us down, but in a way we couldn’t have picked a better time to visit Glacier. The crowds in the summer certainly had an easier time seeing the sights, but we were lucky enough to see the peaks at their finest; wild and temperamental. There are plenty of places to go for an easy holiday in some sort of natural Disneyland where everything will go perfectly to plan, but the landscapes that really get into your soul are the ones that don’t always cooperate.
Listening to: Elko – Railroad Earth