It was hard to imagine anything competing with the incredible range of natural wonder contained in Olympic National Park, but onward we marched. Forsaking our relentless northern course, we turned to the east. Glacier National Park was the target.
The wheels on the bus gripped the Washington highway and flung it behind us in a blur of Trump signs and long shadows. We found a secluded road in the Snoqualmie Pass to park for the night, although the darkness covered a significant amount of mud that nearly trapped us in an unpaved mire without cell signal. Thankfully, it only claimed a shoe, which we were able to recover.
We stopped around noon at the Wild Horse Monument, overlooking the Columbia River. There we swept out the van and did our best to remove the mud and dirt from the night before. When you've been hiking on beaches, in rainforests, and out in damp woods, you tend to track a lot of detritus back into your vehicle. The organic matter from the last several hundred (or thousand) miles fell amiably from the laminate flooring to bounce to rest on the asphalt parking lot, next to a pile of spilled popcorn. The floor is a little difficult to sweep, so some of the sand and grit that I've painstakingly tracked into the van stayed put in the cracks and crevices.
Driving across Washington took all day. We stopped briefly along the way, refilling our bread and cheese supplies, but made pretty good time across the state. As we drove across the border in Montana, an amazing shift in the scenery occurred
The greens darkened. The blue of the sky deepened. It as as if someone took a massive contrast dial and turned it up around us. Montana looked like a well-adjusted photograph, and we hadn't even gotten to the mountains.
As has been our habit, though, we didn't make it into the park boundaries until well after sunset. We were finally going to meet up with our long-lost posse, who had saved us a parking spot at their campsite. Pulling in road-weary and tired, we greeted our friends, split a beer, and crashed.
Their plan was to rise early and do some serious hiking. We planned to join them, but the compelling argument put forth by our sleep-addled brains put those plans to rest. We didn't fully awake until mid-morning, by which time our crew had crawled silently out to hike. Oops. Fortunately, we had made it to Glacier National Park, and there was plenty for us to do.
We grabbed some wolverine-themed coffee from a gift shop, hung around the visitor's center, and realized that the hike our friends had gone out to conquer had already been conquered by snowfall. In fact, many of the hikes that we were hoping to hit were closed due to this presumptuous post-season precipitation.
After much deliberation, we decided to drive along the famed Going-To-The-Sun Road: fifty miles of gasping and narrow lanes. The precarious perch of a top-heavy vehicle made the gasp-inducing views feel even more heady and ethereal.
We rubbed shoulders with a fantastic new breed of automobile, the Red Jammer. These mini-buses ferry visitors about the park in a most imperialistic fashion. It honestly looks pretty great, although we never found out how one secures passage on the erubescent vehicles.
We drove alongside the gorgeous Saint Mary Lake, during which time my worst nightmare almost came true: a woman came running towards the van waving her hands, clearly distressed. We slowed and rolled down the window.
"A woman's collapsed back there on the trail!" My mind was racing. Yes, I had been certified in wilderness first aid, but I probably wasn't the best person to be helping here. But what did I expect, driving an ambulance around? Sooner or later this was bound to happen - a person in a life or death situation sees the red lights and assumes that I'm going to help them. What then? Do I attempt to help, even though my time would probably better be spent getting more professional help? Or do I wave and drive off, removing someones faith in humanity and my own faith in myself?
"Can you go find a park ranger and tell them to call help?" The woman was now right up to Jenn's window and peering pleadingly at us.
I jolted to my senses, said a quick word of thanks, and promised to do just that. I hit the gas and we lumbered in search of help. Although we were consumed with the gravity of the situation, Jenn shot me a knowing glance. I had oft confided my fear of being mistaken for an emergency medical technician in jest. Here it had almost come to pass.
We found a ranger, who turned on the flashing lights and sped off, leaving us to nervously laugh. I don't know what happened to the woman, but I have full faith that the park service did everything in their power to secure her well-being.
Our deasil route crossed the continental divide and took us to the northeastern half of the park, whereupon we immediately and punctually started hiking so as not to be caught in the dark.
Only joking. We spent hours on the road, stopping and taking photos, and spent another hour or two at the various visitor's centers, and only actually got out on the trail around 5 pm.
The hike that we chose was the Grinnell Glacier Trail. The trail was supposedly closed about halfway through, due to ice and snow, but the first 3.8 miles were beautiful and open. Given our late start, an abbreviated hike seemed appropriate.
We packed ourselves up, taking a few snacks and extra layers in case it got cold, and set off. The sun was high, along with our spirits. The temperature was perfect for hiking, just cold enough to warrant a flannel, but not too cold.
We crossed a wooden bridge over a small stream, shouldering past a man who was set up with a camera lens large enough to hide a Four Loko inside. He helpfully offered up the advice that a grizzly bear and cub had been seen in the area. He was waiting with a killer view of the river, hoping they would show up again. I took this information excitedly, and walked ahead eagerly. Jenn - who up to this point had been professing her great desire to see wildlife of all sorts - was decidedly less enthusiastic.
As we passed more hikers, we received further rumors and half-confirmations that there was a bear up ahead. Our personal feelings on the situation continued to diverge.
But on we hiked. The views were no less spectacular than those that we had seen earlier in the day. Lupine flecked the hillsides as clouds rolled on and around the mighty peaks on all sides. We kept a wary eye out for signs of bears. A few miles in, as our guard was beginning to be let down, I uttered those silly words "I dunno. Maybe the bear is gone."
The phrase sprang from my mouth, rose 20 feet above us and off the trail, and manifested into nothing less than a female bear and her cub, intent on eating and not being disturbed. We gaped. We gasped. We tried not to make any sound. Then we tried to take pictures with our woefully inadequate phone cameras. What ended up working the best was placing the lens of the camera delicately on the eyepiece of my binoculars, then carefully lining up the shot and pressing the photo button without moving the whole setup.
I must admit that I'm not sure if it was a grizzly or not. Black bears can also be quite brown, despite their hue-specific moniker. We didn't get close enough to find out.
Eventually, we moved on, and were treated to one of the most beautiful views that I've ever seen. Photos hardly do it justice, but I have little else with which to convince you. The sun painted the rugged blue peaks and delicate flora with subtlety and light. All we did was whisper our awe for a time.
A little further along, and we were greeted by a chain across the path and a warning that the conditions beyond required technical gear and expertise in order to traverse. We watched a few folks with some such gear and know-how walk past us in the opposite direction and decided that we would give it a shot.
It was interesting. We crossed an ice bridge over a mountain stream. We walked unsteadily along a waterfall, getting soaked. We trekked through snow and at times had to leave the safety of the ground to do some non-technical rock climbing. The worst was the drifts of snow that had completely covered the trail that hugged the hillside.
The snow had frozen on top, leaving it slippery and dangerous. Loosing your footing would mean a long slide down into very steep terrain. We kicked footholds into the crunchy exterior and teetered carefully across the obstructions.
After one of these tribulations of exploration, we stopped to remove our flannels. All this hiking was hard work, and even in the shade, we were overheating. As I attempted to stuff mine into my tiny daypack, I thought I heard somerocks fall behind me. I looked up in time to see a few pebbles escaping their comfortable homes on the cliffs to join the diaspora below. But the source of their exodus? A mystery. Returning to my mission, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. That feeling of being watched crept into my brain, and I slowly raised my head. Down the path from whence we came was an apparition in brown and tan, marching with purpose, straight towards us. It was a hoary marmot, and it was determined to investigate our presence.
Apparently, we were trespassing in some fashion, because the marmot strode at us with a confidence that I've rarely seen outside of local government bureaucracies and bit my shoe. Startled, we felt powerless to do anything as the marmot continued its investigative mission. It circled us, deciding whether or not to press charges before retreating unhappily, no doubt to write a strongly worded letter to the local zoning committee about the proximity of the trail to its domicile.
The sun was making longer and longer shadows out of the snow-tipped peaks on our starboard side, so we continued on. At the end of the trail was a glacier, and since we had come this far, it seemed only fitting to see it through.
The going was getting cold and treacherous, with the path ever more covered by ice and snow. Eventually, we lost it altogether. We had a rough idea of where we were going, but that's not always the most comforting thing to tell yourself as the sun sets and the temperature begins to drop.
At this point, we had gone considerably off of the trail, and were now scaling the snow drifts instead of traversing them. I had adopted an animalistic method of scrambling up them using my hands and feet before gravity had a chance to pull me back down. Jenn tended to pick her way around the edges, walking up the vegetated borders, a strategy that my throbbing, snow-chilled hands contemplated jealously.
We had been scrambling for what seemed like hours, but even a sense of reckless adventure can only fuel two people for so long. We were cold. We were cranky. And as amazing as this hike and these views had been, it was time to admit that perhaps we had overextended ourselves, and it was time to head back. The way back was filled with enough uncertainty that it seemed unwise to attempt in the dark. To top it all off, our friends didn't know where we were since we had split this morning. We had a few snacks between us, but nothing that would come close to supplying us if we got seriously lost. And since we hadn't seen the actual trail in about an hour, it was time to face that possibility.
We finally agreed that it was time to head back. Jenn needed to use the facilities, and from the top of another snow hill, I spied a copse of trees that would offer an ideal location. She grudgingly agreed to climb yet another slope and trudged into the cover.
A minute or two later, as I tacitly looked in the opposite direction, I heard her yelling. Fearing the worst, I came running. Before my lovely partner, there stood a sign.
She had found the glacier!
We excitedly ran out to see it. It was sandwiched between two mountains, completely in the shadows, so we didn't get any good pictures of it. But that didn't stop us from running up onto it and standing in the fading light, atop the Grinnell Glacier. Joy and surprise at our fortune coursed through our veins as we whooped our success across the valley, no doubt disturbing grumpy marmots aplenty.
Neither of us had been on top of a glacier before, so it seemed only appropriate for us to descend in style. Jenn sledded down, using her rainjacket, and I slid, using my feet as a snowboard. I find it difficult to remember a time when I felt more free than that moment, flying down a glacier with a plume of snow and ice in my wake, teetering on the edge of control and laughing the whole way.
We made our escape, seeing neither marmot nor bear as we made haste back to the van. We crossed the chain border before the sun truly began to set, which meant that the darkest part of the hike was also the easiest. Scarcely had we found a campsite and threw some soup on the stove when our heads were nodding. There was dark and there was light.
In the morning, we decided to go back into the park to visit some of the truly alpine areas. It was early, so we had a rare straight stretch of highway to ourselves. I opened up the throttle gleefully, just in time to see a huge grizzly bear lope across the road. This time, there was no doubt. The characteristic hump on its back rocked with every heavy footfall as the great beast ran at full-tilt in front of the van. I slammed on the brakes, and realized how poor of a job I had done in packing the various loads behind me the night before. The bear made it safely across the road, radio collar bobbing as it scrambled up a hill and out of sight. We were safe, but my guitar had surreptitiously moved from its cozy home next to the fridge to rest in my lap, along with an assortment of other unsecured cargo. We mourned the loss of our favorite woodwick candle and moved on.
We backtracked along the Going-To-The-Sun Road to Logan Pass, where we ventured out the the Hidden Lake Overlook. The trail was busy, although hiking it felt like scrambling up the bunny slope of the local ski hill. Since my hiking boots were still soaked from the previous day's adventure, I wore a pair of old, tread-bare running shoes. It made for much hilarity as I skidded oft across the ice.
We had seen bighorn sheep from the parking lot, and a golden eagle while we were driving, so we were feeling quite satisfied with our exposure to wildlife. The only common creature that we hadn't spied was the mountain goat, which people on the trail were reporting up ahead. As we wandered towards a wooden boardwalk that overlooked Hidden Lake, I grabbed Jenn's shoulders. "What if just around this tree, there was a giant-"
We rounded the tree and a large, shaggy creature regarded us disinterestedly from a distance of no more than 10 yards. Two black horns jutted from its head, and its ruminant eyes stared hollowly in opposite directions. The mountain goat chewed and turned to walk away. The people around us who witnessed the whole scenario laughed as we gaped at each other.
Glacier National Park was an incredible place, and one that I fervently hope to re-visit. But we had places to go and people to see, so after a half day spent laundering clothes and re-supplying in the town of Hungry Horse, Montana, we headed south.