The Glacier Experience

David wants to go to Glacier National Park, so that’s what we do.

On our first morning in Glacier we take a Red Bus Tour, thinking it’ll be a good way to learn about the park and get a feel for the various hikes. Hiking is basically all there is to do here. Having done no research, I packed cold weather clothes. To my dismay, the temperature is in the eighties; but honestly, the word glacier is in the name of the place, so cold weather is a given. Yet I smolder in my sweaters, jeans, thick socks, and hiking boots while everyone else runs around sleeveless and in shorts and sandals. It’s not the first time I've been inappropriately clothed and it won’t be the last.

The air smells of smoke. And the sky, which should be a blinding blue is, instead, a hazy gray. Our bus driver/guide tells about the Sprague Fire, which has closed a portion of the park. The fire started a couple of months ago when a tree was struck by lightning. So far it’s taken out thirteen thousand acres. 

“It’s what nature does,” our guide merrily informs. “The fire renews the forest.” He sounds like he’s in love with fire.

The tour takes us up the Going to the Sun Highway, a motorway made up of switchbacks overlooking steep cliffs, filling me with the horrifying knowledge that we’re going to fall over the edge and die. But instead of dying we arrive at Logan’s Lodge, which marks the Continental Divide. Above us, smoke. Below us, smoke. There’s much talk of bears, moose, and mountain-climbing goats, but a goat could cross a hundred feet in front of us and we’d be unable to see it. 

“No one seems concerned about this fire at all,” I tell David.

“Part of the experience,” he says.

The first day the smoke is bearable. The second day it’s less so. By the third day the sun isn’t visible and our fellow hikers wear filter masks. Our rental car is covered in ash. People doggedly go about the business of enjoying their vacations. There are mountains all around us, but we can’t see them.

As advised by friends, we spend four nights in West Glacier in Apgar village, and three nights in East Glacier, at St. Mary’s Lodge. Both cost as much as a four star hotel room, but they definitely aren’t that.

In Apgar the cabin we stay in has a ceiling so low that we can touch it—and we are not tall people. The shower is so tight that I bump my elbows every time I turn. The toilet paper is like wax paper. The sheets are clean, but the fabric is pilled. There is a one-person-at-a-time kitchen. Taped to one of the cabinets is a note asking us to please wash the dishes. I don’t give this much thought until it’s time to go and I run tepid water over the cups and silverware and stick them in the drainer.

“I hope the last tenant did a better job washing the dishes than I did,” I say.

“I don’t think expecting the paying customers to be responsible for cleaning the dishes for the next people is a wise policy,” is David’s response.

When it’s time to move from Apgar to St. Mary’s we stop for a hike at Two Medicine. As I’m standing in the restroom line, the woman in front of me mentions that she’s been staying at St. Mary’s and is now on her way to Apgar.

“How was St. Mary’s?” I ask. “We’re going to be there tonight.”

“They charge way too much for what it is,” she says.

I like the room at St. Mary’s Lodge better than the cabin in Apgar. It has a television and a comfortable shower and the sheets are softer. With no kitchen, though, and only a couple of restaurants in the area . . . oh well, we didn’t come here for the cuisine. This part of the park, too, is full of smoke. I’ve begun to cough, my nose is bleeding, and my eyes are red and burning.

When David asks at the front desk where the nearest liquor store is, the man tells us that the Canadian border is only twenty minutes away.

“Let’s go to the duty free and get some Grey Goose for the room,” David suggests. So that’s what we do.

“Why are you coming to Canada?” the border guard asks as she examines our passports.

“We’re going to the Duty Free,” David tells her, pointing across the street to the white square building with signage that declares Beer! Souvenirs! Cigarettes! Duty Free!

The woman grunts acknowledgement and returns the passports.

We drive across the street, park, go in and find our Grey Goose. The clerk, a woman in her early twenties, is the only other person in the shop. After David pays, he grabs the bottle to carry it out, but the clerk stops him.

“I have to deliver it to you,” she explains as she takes a choking grasp of the neck of  our Grey Goose. “Just drive over there and wait beneath those trees.” She points to a cluster of thin trees thirty yards away, just beyond the border station. Though we’re familiar with the procedures involved in buying duty free, this seems unnecessarily clandestine.

We get in our car. She follows us out and, clutching our bottle, clambers into a van. We drive across the street with the van following close behind. She has left the shop unattended, which goes against every known retail directive; but, as nobody but the border guard is in sight, I guess the shop is safe from marauders. But still, what would she have done if there had been other customers in the store? We circle behind the Canadian border office and come to a stop beside the three scrawny trees. There’s a sign posted on one of the trees that says DUTY FREE PICKUP AREA. The clerk gets out, approaches David’s window, hands him the Grey Goose, and tells us to have a nice evening. She gets in her van and drives back across the street.

Sometimes rules force people to act in absurd ways. Bewildered, we chuckle all the way back to our room in St. Mary’s, where we sip Grey Goose from plastic cups and watch the coverage of Hurricane Irma.

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 Smokey!

Smokey!

 This cute little bar was forty miles from anything. We ate a really nice lunch here. 

This cute little bar was forty miles from anything. We ate a really nice lunch here. 

 In taking this picture, David slipped on the rocks and scraped his arm pretty badly. 

In taking this picture, David slipped on the rocks and scraped his arm pretty badly. 

 Every once in a while the air would clear for a few minutes. 

Every once in a while the air would clear for a few minutes. 

 Everybody on the hiking trail was offering to take pictures of everybody else on the trail. 

Everybody on the hiking trail was offering to take pictures of everybody else on the trail.