Are we really here?
As the van rumbles along a dirt road in a morning rain shower, Lydia and I keep our eyes peeled to try and see an entrance sign. Glacier National Park is supposedly to our right as we drive north down a dirt road that traces the western boundary of the park. Huge mountains reaching up in to the clouds seem to guard the entrance, wherever that may be. All around us there is evidence of forest fires from previous years. Charred skeletons of trees dot the landscape, some are still standing while some are leaning on to their neighbors or lying on the ground. Its clear that this forest fire happened a number of years ago because of all of the visible regeneration.
Finally the road turns in to poorly maintained pavement, and an unmarked right turn seems to lead in the right direction. It seems strange though. All of the other parks had signs for miles and miles before getting there. We are supposedly right on the boundary, where are all of the signs? We cross a bridge over an emerald colored glacial river, and after a couple hundred more feet finally we see the sign: Welcome to Glacier National Park.
But where’s the entrance station? Where’s the ranger sitting in a booth ready to collect thirty five dollars to enter the park and hand us a brochure? Where’s the long line of tourists waiting to get in like the other parks? It seems peculiar. We continue forward, and after about fifteen miles Glacier’s famous Lake McDonald comes in to view. I look over at Lydia: “I guess we found the back way in?”
Still a bit confused, we walked in to the Apgar Visitor Center and grabbed a hiking map, some postcards, and a bumper sticker. Looking at the map we see that we had in fact found the one road in to the park without an entrance station. We guessed that it must not be used enough for them to want to staff it. We decided to take a short hike along the shore of Lake McDonald that day so Lydia could paint. The weather was a bit unpredictable with patches of rain and patches of sun.
We only walked a couple miles before Lydia saw the view she wanted to paint. As she set her easel up, I took my seat on a rock. The tops of the mountains that surround Lake McDonald drifted in and out of dark rain clouds, and I wondered how I’d spend my time on the shore. I had brought a book to read and the journal to write in, but I didn’t feel much like reading or writing. I just wanted to sit still and soak it all in. Again this question pops in to my mind: Are we really here?
The next day we woke up next to a river. Rain drops still coated the van’s windows from the heavy rains the night before, making it hard to see what was outside. After admiring the mountains and burned forest around us over morning coffee and muesli (which has become a tradition), we drive back in to the park through the unmanned entrance.
Today we are planning on hiking out to Avalanche Lake, a glacial lake fed by waterfalls that pour down the cliff sides around it. Its a relatively short and flat walk, so we figured it would be good for today since the forecast is calling for high chances of rain. After a quick lunch, we set out with a small day pack and all of Lydia’s painting gear.
The beginning of the trail travels through an old forest with gigantic cedar and hemlock trees. I couldn’t help but think about the word resilience. Some of these trees are two hundred feet tall and over one thousands years old. I’ve never seen such big cedar trees. In central Vermont they never get tall like this. Having done some carpentry I know that one can mill some very rot resistance lumber from Cedar and Hemlock. A lot of the old barns in Vermont are paneled with cedar boards for this reason. We even chose to build out the interior of our van with hemlock, so the trees seem like old friends.
I imagine though that by allowing these trees to continue to grow they are of even more value. What they offer in resilience to our barns or houses is only a fraction of the resilience they are capable of lending to the local ecology as old grandfather/grandmother trees. This is the term given to trees that have gotten so large they are actually capable of taking care of the smaller trees around them by sharing nutrients through their roots. I am certainly no expert on the matter. I have heard though of an old cedar forest in a different part of Montana that holds so much moisture it creates its own weather system. This has allowed it to evade centuries of forest fires. As Lydia and I walk by these giants I place my hand on one of the cedar trees that is particularly large. I want to ask it, “can you teach me how to be resilient?”
Shortly down the trail we encounter a river cascading through a narrow shoot. Years and years of running its course here it has carved a miniature canyon. Not long after the forest opens up to reveal cliff sides shooting up in to the clouds. At this point in the hike I realize I am surrounded by great beings, all of them holding the wisdom of eternity. Some of the rock formations in the park are four to six billion years old. Maybe thats why I feel like I could stare at cliffs like this my entire life and still learn something from them each day. The fact that they are not revealing themselves completely, hiding their high peaks behind fog and rain, only adds to their mystique.
When we arrived at the lake, heavy rains moved in. We admired what we could see, but it was clear Lydia wouldn’t be able to paint this afternoon. Fog was thickening, and we were getting poured on. We sat for a little while longer, not minding that we weren’t getting the full view of the cliffs and waterfalls. It was beautiful like this too, the rain and the clouds lending their own intensity to the scene that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
After not too long we headed back down the trail, past the hidden mountain peaks, past the river, through the old forest, all the way back to the van. We were wet and tired and hungry, but satisfied. The question persisted to appear in my mind. Are we really here?
A train grinds by right outside our window in the morning mist. After tiredly cooking dinner the night before we decided to drive halfway to the other side of the park to be able to hike in the Many Glacier area that morning. We had accidentally driven past the spot we had intended to sleep and had decided in our exhaustion to camp at a horse riding trailhead just off the road. The train rumbled by every couple hours through the night just two hundred feet from our campsite.
We opted out of morning meditation in the light rain and horse poop, had our coffee and muesli in the van, and hit the road. Since it costs money to camp in the park, we had gone around the south border of it to sleep for free. We still had a little over an hour of driving this morning to get to the Many Glacier area.
We finally arrived at the road leading in to Many Glacier, another poorly maintained paved road with potholes and frost heaves. We didn’t even make it to the entrance station before Lydia found an incredible view she wanted to paint. The road in to Many Glacier runs along the border of Lake Shelburne, another gorgeous lake surrounded by mountains upon mountains. We stopped at a pullout that was empty, as Lydia wanted to paint with nobody else around. Of course this didn’t work, as many people pulled over simply to see what her painting looked like.
When she finished her painting we headed towards the park, only to be turned around at the entrance station. The ranger said that the area was full and we had to wait a couple hours for enough people to leave. “There is nowhere to park and hardly any room to drive around in there,” they informed us. We didn’t realize this was possible. A couple hours later the rangers let us know we could enter. The woman working the entrance station informed us that Glacier National Park had totally blown up in popularity these last few years. She suspected social media might be to blame. She told us that last July Glacier was the most visited park out of all the other parks in the United States.
This all really made me wonder, if so many thousands of people are so interested in visiting these protected wild lands, why does that not show up at all in our current political climate? Are people just not making the connection or just not getting involved?
We took a breath taking and restful walk around Swiftcurrent Lake, made some dinner, and drove all the way back to the other side of the park to sleep. The next day was to be our big hiking day. The plan was to hike the twelve mile Highline Trail, one of the best reputed trails in the park.
I have heard that the fear of heights is one of the most basic fears programmed in to the human mind. “Lydia! Everything alright?” I ask shortly down the Highline Trail. “Just hold on a minute, I’m scared of heights,” she responds softly to me. To her right is a cliff side and a couple feet to her left is a two hundred foot drop. The Highline Trail begins at Logan Pass, the high point of the Going to The Sun Road. Both the Going to The Sun Road and the Highline trail were made in a similar fashion. They are narrow and windy paths blasted out of cliffsides with large drops on one side of them.
We had intended to get here a lot earlier. Foxy (our van) surely wouldn’t have made it up the road, so we decided to take the parks free shuttle up to Logan Pass. The shuttle took a lot longer than we expected, and we found ourselves starting our twelve mile hike around one pm. The last shuttle was to leave “The Loop,” the end point of our hike, around seven pm. I know from experience that a normal hiking pace is about two mph. This left us not a moment to spare, seeing as hiking twelve miles at two mph would get us to The Loop at exactly seven pm.
With this in our minds we started off at a quick clip, only to be slowed down by a line of about fifteen hikers all stopped on the trail. A mountain goat was hiking down the trail and stopping to munch on grasses every fifty feet or so. Turns out this trail is very popular among both tourists and animals. Because the trail is blasted in to a cliffside, the mountain goat had no way of stepping off of the trail and we and about fifteen other hikers had no way around him. As he took his time strolling down the trail and munching on grasses, we started to wonder if we would make it to the end point on time.
Finally he found a way to step aside, and very cautiously we made our way past him. I’d only ever seen mountain goats as small white dots way up on hillsides, now I was so close I could have touched him. That was pretty special.
Leading up to today we had been watching the forecast. There had been a lot of rain and some lightning all week, and this day had the lowest chances of these events. To our delight, for the first time since we got to Glacier it was a beautiful sunny day with total visibility. All the birds and wildflowers felt like they were rejoicing in the alpine meadows we traversed. The snow melting in the afternoon sun made all of the streams run hard past us. It was one of those days where things felt like they couldn’t get any better. Every turn of the trail opened up to reveal stunning views of the mountains and valleys around us.
We loved all the ground squirrels and marmots who crossed our path. At one point an entire herd of big horn sheep trotted down the trail towards us before stepping off to the side so we could pass. We were making good time, smiling the entire way. Lydia’s fear of heights had passed quickly, and she was psyched to be out in this beautiful wilderness.
We arrived at The Chalet, a hut made from stone and wood, just before five pm with four downhill miles left to go. We were just slightly ahead of schedule, though we had no time to spare. Both Lydia and I were getting tired and Lydia’s toes were in a lot pain as her hiking shoes were a bit too small. To add to the urgency of the situation big thunderclouds started to appear on the horizon. It was clear that we had to keep moving.
We hustled down the last four miles as quickly as we could, but we weren’t quick enough. About a mile before reaching the loop the storm hit. First came a slight rain, and then we could see these strikingly beautiful lightning bolts weaving and dancing their way through the sky in three different directions before striking the ground. Thunder rumbled and the wind began to whistle through the pine trees. As thunder boomed louder and louder, the sky filled with lightning. We quickened our pace a bit, but what could we do? We put on our rain jackets and tried not to think about the lightning as we walked the last mile. Luckily the storm passed just as fast as it had come, and soon the evening sun was shining on us.
Ten minutes later we arrived at The Loop. It was six thirty, we had plenty of time until the last shuttle out. There were so many people waiting though that we couldn’t all fit, and they had to send up an extra shuttle. We waited at The Loop until about seven forty five, wet, exhausted, and hungry, having last eaten just before noon. We got back to the van at nine pm and still had to cook our dinner and drive to our campsite. We finally filled our bellies and didn’t get to camp until around eleven pm. We slept very well that night!
Our last day in Glaicer was a bit of a rest day. We caught the shuttle again this time all they way over Logan Pass to St. Mary Lake. Lydia brought her painting gear. I spent the day sitting by the water and admiring the views, similar to how I had the first day. I had brought a book to read and the journal to write in as Lydia painted, but I felt like doing neither. I just wanted to soak it all in. And again this question popped in to my head, are we really here?
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in a place and truly show up there. The word tourism has been in my mind a lot. Lydia and I were living on the same farm in Central Vermont for the last three years together. I remember on the farm we would always have a celebration at winter and summer solstice. Farming being so tied to the seasons, these were bigger holidays than Labor Day or Fourth of July.
There was this strong feeling inside both of us of being deeply at home and familiar with the land and the seasonal shifts that occurred month to month. During one of the winter solstice celebrations, one of the farmers shared a poem. Though I forget who wrote it, what it was titled, and even the wording of the poem, the message stuck with me. The last verse of the poem was something along the lines of, “If you want to truly know a place, you have to stay their for more than one year.”
A lot of people visit these parks each year. It can actually be very overwhelming. It’s a side to National Parks that I haven’t written about yet. It can be really hard to feel like you are actually in nature, almost as if you are in an amusement park or a museum instead. The trails can be crowded and the small roads jammed with traffic. The cultures and economies that have built up in a lot of the small towns surrounding the parks are geared towards people who will be there for maybe two weeks maximum, tourists. Everyone is trying to sell you something. I often have wondered in these towns, how do the locals feel about all of this?
It all feels a little disrespectful. Thats why I keep asking myself, am I really here? Am I really showing up for this land the way it is showing up for me? Yes I did see this mountain range one day in July, but I have not witnessed it in August, September, October, November, Etc. I have not witnessed it in my sadness, in my joy, in the shifts of emotion that occur throughout a year. So have I truly seen it? Am I really here?
To travel like we are I think we have to be mindful not to be tourists. By this I mean not to treat a local economy as if it is made to serve our every wish and not to treat the natural world like its an amusement park. Instead, can we arrive in a place as someone open to what it is willing to offer, as someone willing to bend to its wishes? Then we might truly learn something and truly be there. We are going to leave this park soon, and I have to ask myself again, how well have I shown up for this landscape and this community? Have I only taken and not given back?
Was I ever truly here?
Field Notes —
Emerald, turquoise, mint, sage, and robin’s egg blue-
Waters tinted by cerulean sky and glacial silt
Clear as crystal
Shinning jewels beneath rays of sun light
Yellow star field meadows
And sturdy green shoots erupting out of melting snow
The aroma of pine tree thickets is heavily intoxicating
My eyes feast on the jagged crown of heaven’s peak
Flats and cliff sides dip their feet into a hazy valley lake
Flanked by inlets of tree line
Bear grass rises like bursts of moon light upon leggy graceful stems
A fawn’s first steps
Fragile and awkward
In the evening they embroider deep dark silver worlds
As wisps of mist and fog silently invoke the dark magic of night
The shadow of fire leans on ridges and foot hill
Marching burnt deadwood
The color of crow feather
Finds its place in the ragged twilight hour
Sun tanned and stream kissed
I find myself empty and full
Like the wind and the river