On day two of my trip, I began what would be an ongoing contest with myself: to see how quickly I could get out of bed and on the road in the morning. The night before leaving a town, I would pack everything up (the little I had allowed myself to unpack in the first place; if I was just staying somewhere for one night, I didn’t even bring my suitcase in, I just dug clothes and underwear out and shoved them into my shoulder bag – and it’s funny the kind of fashion decisions one makes while rooting through the trunk in the dark at midnight), and everything else I needed to use in the morning would be laid out neatly and deposited back in my bag as soon as it was used. This orderliness was due to two factors: first, I am incredibly, ridiculously impatient. The faster I could get through the formalities of hair and clothes in the morning and get on the road, the better. Second, having everything in order was a way of maintaining sanity. As my friends know well, you can always tell my mental state by my surroundings.
Anyway, I was back on Highway 2 by 7am. I finally got a glimpse of all the nothingness I could only imagine the night before, and it was even less spectacular than I thought. Whereas eastern Montana was all hills and scenic vistas, central Montana is rolling grasslands as far as you can see. (Do you remember that scene in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert when they come up over a rise in the Winnebago and see the Outback laid out before them for miles and miles, going on forever? I had that exact same moment leaving the town of Glasgow.) At this point, I realized that I was relating whatever landscape I was seeing to something else I had seen before, e.g. ‘Central Montana is just like Colorado, only less arid.’ This developed into a game: ‘Kansas with a hint of southern Oklahoma.’ ‘Iowa without the Iowans.’ ‘If Pennsylvania and Missouri had a baby, only Kentucky was the real father, and he was abusive.’
I wondered what I was going to be like after a few more days spent alone. I started to worry.
Left: There’s a ton of road construction on Highway 2. It’s often down to one lane for traffic going both directions, so you have to sit and wait for the Pilot Car to lead you to safety. Right: Cut Bank, Montana, the coldest spot in the nation.
Another thing about Montana: you know those little markers you sometimes see on the side of the road where someone was killed in an accident? Generally a cross and flowers? (Speaking of which, the creepiest one we ever saw was on the Deep South Roadtrip: three crosses on the side of the interstate. One said ‘Jennifer’, one said ‘Jason’, and we didn’t catch the name on the last one. That’s probably for the best, because I’m sure it said ‘Heather’. Since we didn’t see it, we were safe.) In Montana, those crosses are an organized effort. Everywhere someone has died on the road, they put up a little white cross. Often, you see clusters of crosses. I saw way more dead people than living people on Highway 2.
Road Trip U.S.A. told me never to pass a gas station in Montana with less than a quarter-tank of gas, so I obeyed. I was stopping often to pee and get beverages, which is also a good way to stay awake when you’re driving in less-than-interesting territory. I reached Shelby around 10am and drove into town, having seen a billboard with the magic word on it: espresso. I found the little ice cream shop, and ended up with not only a really good iced latte, but a scoop of sugar-free raspberry gelato. I sat there and wrote postcards, then scribbled in my travel journal: i’ve been asked four times if i won this car on ‘the price is right’. I’ve had these license plates for a year and a half now, and no one has ever asked me that before. Bizarre.
I reached the St. Mary entrance on the east side of Glacier National Park at 2pm. According to a sign on the highway, I was 30 miles from the Canadian border, and Canada closes at 11pm. I was a little nervous about driving through the Rockies with my potential power steering issue, not to mention the fact that my brakes were in bad shape when I left home. I had been meaning to have our friend, Nathan, replace them, but hadn’t had the time. Also, I had never driven through the mountains before. Not mountains like these, at least.
I stopped quickly at the visitors center to get maps of the hiking trails. At the gate, I decided to spring for the $50 annual national parks pass, which ended up being worth the price. I drove a few miles into the park, then stopped and took a short, steep hike to see a waterfall.
On the way back up, I encountered a group of four Amish people, two men and two women. The men asked me about the hike. Why was I so amused to find Amish people hiking in our National Parks? I think it was the idea of the women sporting hiking boots under those heavy, impractical dresses.
I got back in the car and drove up and up, pulling off the road to take a million pictures. I reached Logan Pass, the continental divide, at 6600 feet elevation. The visitor center was mobbed. I followed the signs to the hiking trail, which led to an overlook point a mile and a half away. I got a few hundred feet up the path before noticing that it disappeared into a snow hill. I climbed over it and saw that the whole side of the mountain was covered in snow. The pathway peeked out in a few places. There were people all over the place, so I decided to climb up there anyway. I was worried about being cold in my tshirt and capris, but hardly anyone was wearing a jacket, and it was warm and sunny. In fact, it was so sunny that I had given in and put suntan lotion all over, even on my face, knowing that I was going to get zits because of it (skin cancer is worse than zits, apparently).
The snow was starting to melt a little in the sun, especially near the path. I quickly discovered that the best way to climb through it was to run in the looser stuff away from the path, rather than where it was hard-packed and slippery. So I kind of leapt and bounded my way up the hill, taking some pleasure in passing everyone, including the snowboarders. I jumped past a guy who gasped, “I can’t do this, I live at sea level!” I was unused to the altitude, so I was out of breath immediately, but didn’t feel tired at all. About two-thirds of the way up, there was a tiny, narrow trail along the edge of a steep hill. All of a sudden, I was terrified. I was wearing slippery running shoes. I have the worst balance ever. (No, really. I have trouble walking in a straight line. Something about the inner ear infections I had constantly as a kid.) Luckily, there was a long line of people creeping slowly along the edge, so I was forced to take my time. I tried not to think about the climb back down. By the time I got near the top, my shoes were soaked, and there was snow creeping down my ankles and into my socks. The ground was muddy, and we had to pick our way through streams by balancing on rocks. At the overlook, there was a crown of people lounging in the sun, eating protein bars and drinking gatorade. We took each other’s pictures and enjoyed the view. I tried hard not to think about how I was more likely to make it down the mountain inside a giant snowball than on my own feet.
I was starting the downhill trek when I heard a noise to my right. Just as I turned to look, a mountain goat went barreling past me. Then two more came down the hill, all of them making this loud bleating noise that sounded exactly like ‘mom!’ And they were actually yelling for their mom, who appeared on the other side of the slope, surrounded by hikers with cameras. Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m completely unprepared for any sort of wilderness adventure, because I find myself asking questions like, ‘Can mountain goats hurt me? Should I be standing this close?’ (I’m the same girl who’s impressed with the preparedness of the other snow-climbers just because they’re wearing hiking boots and carrying walking sticks.)
Once I got back to the snow-covered part of the hill, I discovered that it was easier to run downhill as well, as long as it wasn’t so steep that I couldn’t stop. The snow seemed about ten times more slippery, but I managed to stay on my feet. When I got back to the narrow trail, I stopped, scared to go any further. To whoever was listening, I said, “I’m really afraid of dying on this mountain right now.” The woman ahead of me turned and said, “SHHH!” Very slowly, we crept along the trail, teetering on the far edge whenever people had to pass going the other direction. A few times, I started to panic and had to just stop and stand there, up to my calves in snow. But I made it through, and ran the rest of the way down the hill. By the time I got to my car, my feet were numb from the cold, and I was starving.
I drove down the long descent from Logan Pass, noticing that my brakes were squealing. Another mountain goat wandered into the road and up to my car. I got an impromptu car wash at the Weeping Wall. I spent a few contemplative minutes on the stone beach at Lake McDonald. I stopped at the west entrance visitor center to write postcards, and I was on my way.
I got back on Highway 2 and started looking for a place to spend the night. I almost peed my pants with excitement when my cell service returned in Kalispell, Montana. I drove around to five or six hotels, running in to ask about their rates. Half of them were already booked up, and they were all ridiculously expensive. Exhausted and irritated, I dragged out my AAA guide and found a listing for the Glacier Gateway Motel. The woman behind the counter was the owner, and she obviously took a lot of pride in taking care of the rooms. It was perfect: a tiny little cubicle with a twin bed and shower stall, very clean, and $40. It might as well have been the Ritz, as happy as I was to be staying there. I dumped my stuff in the room, grabbed the local newspaper, and quickly found an ad for a restaurant with the other magic word: vegetarian. I ate dinner on the patio at the Knead Cafe, digging through a stack of travel brochures I’d picked up at the motel. On my way out, they give me a huge loaf of rosemary-tomato bread, because they had leftovers. I went back to the hotel happy, took a long shower, examined my hard-earned, glowing sunburn, and made a bunch of phone calls just for the sheer novelty of having a signal again. By 11pm, I was asleep.