I’ve been home from the Northwest for nearly a week now, but my mind (and my computer) remain loaded with powerful images of austere peaks, lush meadows, vibrant wildlife, and cottony clouds that fill mountain clefts like ice cream in a bowl. A lot of that time was spent in Montana, and along the way, I learned a few things.
In Montana, you can legally drive 80 miles per hour on most interstates, and the limit is 70 on many roads that would have a 55 mph limit in other states. In my younger days, I’m sure that would have been fun. These days, not so much — especially in areas such as the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which has an open range law that allows cattle and horses to roam freely and hang out on the highway. Hitting a Virginia deer back in June was quite excitement enough.
On the Parade Rest Guest Ranch near West Yellowstone, I learned that signing up for a horseback ride doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be riding a horse. After asking the most experienced riders in our group to raise their hands, the wranglers put them on big mules, both of which lived up to their stubborn reputation. I’ve ridden mules before, but was thankful to take our sunset ride on a horse named Blondie. I’m not sure that nose-to tail-walking really qualifies as horseback riding, and we had strict instructions to stay in line. Even so, the mountain meadows filled with wildflowers, aspen, firs, and lodgepole pines were amazing, while tree swallows and woodpeckers nesting in their upper-floor aspen condos added a special charm.
In the town of West Yellowstone, I learned that you never know who you’ll run into, or where. When we stopped at the City Creamery for some of their famous homemade huckleberry ice cream, the guy in the window was Carter Benge, a recent Campbell Divinity graduate who was doing a summer internship at First Baptist Church of West Yellowstone. Dishing out ice cream helps to support the program and offers opportunities to mingle with the community.
Once the Nurturing Faith Experience in Yellowstone and the Tetons was completed, Susan and I drove seven hours north while remaining in the same state (you can do that in Montana) to see if Glacier National Park is as impressive as we had heard. It is.
The rugged peaks in Glacier aren’t the highest around, but they jut from the earth like jagged teeth, with deep and verdant valleys swooning between. It’s a big country with big animals spread here and yon, some more reticent than others. There are small critters, too, of course, including ground squirrels not opposed to begging for handouts and hoary marmots fattening themselves up for the coming winter.
I learned that the sky really does seem bigger in Montana, but I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the mountains take up part of it, or because the clouds are so captivating that they keep turning your attention upward.
Maybe it’s because you often see the sky twice, reflected in clear glacial likes ranging through all shades of blue and green.
In Montana I learned that there’s a reason why Glacier National Park is also known as Glacier National Parking Lot. The famed “Going to the Sun” road, 50 miles long, is the main drag through the huge park.
Parking lots are few and far between along the narrow road, and popular spots like Logan Pass fill up by 9:30 a.m., leaving visitors to circle the lot like vultures hoping to nab a spot when someone else leaves, then trying to be patient and polite when someone else swoops in to take it.
We learned in Montana that if you venture far from the beaten path, you need to carry bear spray, and preferably avoid walking alone. We were kept off of one path because of reported bear activity, and came across a fresh track (probably black bear) while on another trail, and that was quite close enough. After spotting the track, we sang a couple of choruses of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” and hoped that it was true.
While bears are shy, the deer are less so. While hiking to Grinnell Lake above Many Glacier, we came across a mule deer that walked down onto the path to enjoy some favorite forage. It traipsed along the trail for at least ten minutes, with no apparent concern for hikers and their cameras. Near Bowman Lake, beyond Polebridge in the rarely visited west side of the park, whitetail deer take little notice of either campers or hikers.
Speaking of hiking, I learned that miles are longer in Montana. Maybe that’s why they have a higher speed limit on the highways. On the trails, I could swear that the numbers in the so-called 2.7 mile hike past Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine to the still waters of Lake Grinnell must have been transposed.
After hiking the outward leg, we were lucky to catch the last boats back across the larger lakes, or we might have been hiking in the dark, even though the summer sun in northern Montana doesn’t set until 9:30 p.m. and the skies glow for an hour after that. As it was, we climbed into the car with sore feet and the sudden realization that we may not have been more than 30 miles from our B&B as the crow flies, but we weren’t crows. It took a good two hours of steady driving to get back.
In Montana, I learned (or was reminded) that some of the most memorable sights are the less acclaimed ones.
We hiked down a trail from the Jackson Glacier overlook one day because it was the only parking place we could find — and discovered an amazing set of cascades just south of a place on the creek marked “Horse Ford.” The small set of falls wasn’t mentioned on the trail guide and may not even have a name, perhaps because Glacier has such an embarrassment of watery riches and falls that they can’t name all of them. It was a picture-book setting for a picnic (if only we’d brought food), and a terrific place to refill the water bottle with cold glacier melt.
In Montana I learned anew how destruction can give rise to beauty. Like all forested lands, Glacier is subject to wildfires, and 2015 was the most active year since 2003. Along with several other stretches across the park, a large swath of land near Lake Josephine was burned, but fireweed is already coloring the rocky forest floor again. The lodgepole pines actually need an occasional fire to propagate: their seeds will only germinate after being exposed to the sort of temperatures created by a forest fire. It will take time, but the charred remnants of the old trees will fall, and a new forest will rise.
In Montana, I learned (again) that words are inadequate — no amount of prose can do justice to creation’s highlights. Pictures may be worth a thousand words each, as the saying goes, but they can only hint at what it’s like to breathe in the brisk air and the wonder of a land that defies description. The Big Sky country is an amazing place to visit, and I hope to see it again. Even so, as the trip wound down and we made our way back eastward, it was good to be greeted by ripe tomatoes on the vine and recall that there’s no place like home.