This past week, my best friend since childhood sent me an email regarding Glacier National Park, in northern Montana. His message prompted me to revisit a family story I wrote that also included my experience in that park. Though the piece is longer than my typical blog posts, I enjoyed the reminiscence, and hope you will too. As always, thanks for stopping by.
An engineer to the core, my father’s lifestyle was controlled by structure and planning. Hints of impulsiveness typically arose from mechanical brainstorms he meticulously thought out, scrutinized on paper, then precisely constructed into practical applications that would save his employer––or our family––either money or time.
I was reminded of this observation one evening when my wife and I watched the movie Field of Dreams. Speaking of his departed patriarch, Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, said, “The man never did one spontaneous thing in all the years I knew him.” I looked away from the TV. That was my dad, too. Hell, detailed itineraries even dictated our family vacations. But then a memory flashed into my head that sidetracked my opinion.
1964: A sunny August morning as Mom, Dad and I ventured further west toward Glacier National Park. The surprises that day began after breakfast, when we detoured onto fresh concrete slabs of divided highway, the pavement so pristine it gleamed like a silvery-white ribbon, stretching into the Montana horizon. Neither paint nor the assortment of automotive excrements had violated its sparkling surface. As far as the eye could see, my parents and I represented the only trace of humanity.
Dad spoke over his shoulder. “Care to drive, Sport?”
At fifteen years old, I was legally unroadworthy. But if that didn’t matter to Dad, why should I be concerned? “You mean me?”
“None other, Sport. So, do you, or don’t you?”
“Silly question,” I replied.
Following a brief roadside exchange, we continued our journey, with me at the helm. Complete authority behind the wheel thrilled me to the bone. For miles and miles I piloted our car like a seasoned veteran. Only the approaching northern end of the detour could curtail my excitement––that and my father’s directive. “Better pull over, Sport.”
Disheartened, but still flying high, I stopped on the abbreviated shoulder, relinquished command, and put my mother’s mind at ease. But what a ride.
By afternoon the three of us entered Glacier National Park and cruised the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The temperature had fallen. A thick haze veiled the skies and embraced the taller peaks. Shafts of light filtered through the clouds and gleamed from Saint Mary Lake. Moistened needles on the tall pines and fir trees glistened on the mountainsides. Dad drove slowly, allowing our eyes and minds to absorb the scenery, and accommodate Mom’s attempt to wear out the shutter in our Instamatic. Despite the slow pace, we both knew stopping wasn’t part of Dad’s plan––or was it?
As we approached a trailhead marked “The Loop,” a crowd of folks milled around a backpack toting Park Ranger. With nary a word, Dad veered onto the parking lot, and got out of the car. Confused by his actions, Mom and I stretched our legs too as Dad strode toward the Ranger. The two spoke briefly, then Dad returned bearing a wide grin.
“Let’s go,” he said. “They’re leaving in a few minutes.”
“Leaving for where?” Mom inquired.
“For a hike in the mountains––to a chalet. C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
Bewildered, but intrigued by Dad’s sudden burst of enthusiasm, Mom and I donned our sweatshirts and dug out our windbreakers. Dad grabbed the camera, several rolls of film, and then locked up the car. In a matter of minutes, we’d gone from road-blocking, picture-snapping tourists, secure in the warmth of our vehicle, to mountain-climbing outdoorsmen, about to embark upon an unexpected wilderness adventure.
My parents and I were the last to join the excursion and had to catch up to the other hikers. Together, our group trekked through aspen and conifer-filled forests, beside free-running streams, with cold water as clear as the ice I remember my friends and I mooched from the milkman each summer. As we continued uphill, the woodland opened to meadows of tall grass, then granite-strewn tundra. The Ranger pointed out Rocky Mountain Goats, poised on the uneven terrain and Yellow-bellied Marmots that scolded us for invading their territory. Further on, a heavy fog engulfed the trail as our troop inched along a narrow ledge bordered by sheer cliffs above and below. For safety’s sake, the ranger had us take a breather and wait until the cloud eased by. We found self-assurance by leaning against the rock wall,.
Three-and-a-half miles and twenty-two-hundred feet later, our assemblage approached the Granite Park Chalet, a remote stone and timber structure resting on a small plateau, approximately six-thousand-eight-hundred feet above sea level…WOW, what a view! Upon reaching the backcountry inn, our Park Service guide explained that, after a brief rest, he would be returning to the trailhead. We could either accompany him or––for a modest fee––eat dinner and stay overnight at the chalet. Because Dad was on a spontaneous roll, he opted to stay.
Once we over-niters signed in to the guest log and got acquainted, the chalet staff escorted us to the lower level mess hall, where they doled out a no-nonsense meal of watered-down soup and a cheese sandwich. Conversation amongst the guests and staff revolved around our hometowns, the breathtaking hike that brought us together, and the spectacular setting that now enriched our souls. Depleted dishes were hastily retrieved because all food remnants required prompt disposal before dusk. Hmmm, what’s the rush?
As sunlight faded, the staff encouraged us to remain indoors because they’d planned a special treat. Like kids at a birthday party, we guests complied, our minds astir with anticipation. Once darkness prevailed, staff members politely herded us onto the upper deck at the rear of the chalet. Another staff member waited beneath an immense flood lamp. Curiosity drew us tightly together as the bright-as-day light illuminated a garbage dump and a half-dozen scavenging grizzly bears. The man controlling the beam provided our surprise––an interpretive talk on the omnivores and their capabilities. My mind focused on one fact. Even at four-hundred pounds or more, the bears could run one-hundred yards as fast as most track stars.
After satisfying our appetites for information, the congenial host answered questions, and then bid us goodnight, with one stipulation. “For obvious reasons, latch your doors and remain inside until morning.” The thought of becoming bear cuisine drew mutual consent from the crowd.
Compared to basic motel amenities such as electricity and indoor plumbing, our chalet accommodations were Spartan at best––steel cots with pancake mattresses, enough Great Northern Railway wool blankets to smother an elephant, a flashlight, and a “honeypot” beneath each bed. Vertical timbers–– minus the typical chinking–– formed our lodging’s interior and exterior walls. Absolute privacy wasn’t an option. Then again, with nose-diving temperatures, only Eskimos would consider undressing before burrowing in. The only threat imposed came from the wind’s unnerving lullaby. As we lay in the blackness, high-speed gusts inspired banshee-like whistles from between the mismatched logs. A stack of Great Northerns provided our only protection.
Upon surviving the night, my parents and I awoke to golden shafts peeking through the cracks. Snowflakes decorated the floor. Since the honeypots remained unchallenged, our first priority was to uncoil from fetal positions and bee-line to the outdoor privies. Opening the door to our room revealed a glowing orb that hovered in a clear azure sky. Its brilliance reflected off a thin crystalline layer and highlighted the summit. WOW, all over again!
After answering Nature’s call and consuming a bare-bones breakfast––juice and a sweet roll––Mom, Dad and I checked out and began our descent. About twenty yards from the chalet we passed a last-minute hiker cocooned in a “mummy bag” on the open ground, presumably asleep. Bear tracks in the snow encircled the hearty camper and caused me to wonder. Is the guy really asleep, or did he have a coronary when the grizzly snorted in his face. Guess we’ll hear about it on the evening news. Dad took a picture and we moved on.
Further down the trail we spotted additional huge paw prints in the muddy path. Surrounded by meadow grass nearly as tall as us, Mom and I shared wary glances. Dad took more pictures.
As we neared the trail head, the sight of our car brought a mild sense of relief, a connection to a world more familiar. Yet, it also represented closure to an off-the-cuff experience I was unprepared to leave behind. My father’s words returned. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.” And so it was. My parents and I shared a few more hikes together, but none as memorable as the Granite Park Chalet outing.
Yes, slide rules and schedules were Dad’s modus operandi throughout the majority of his life. But for two weeks every year, family vacations often exposed a unique side of the man, an impromptu attitude he otherwise neglected to exercise. It was as if he revisited his childhood and the annual sabbaticals he’d shared with his nomadic clan. Much like the conclusion to Field of Dreams, experiencing Dad’s youthful exuberance in those moments was pure joy. I’m confident that the stoic identity I attached to my father would fail to exist if only we could have kept him on vacation.