I have come to find that Glacier is a place to renew, refresh, recharge and rebalance. We make a point of making a pilgrimage … and it does feel like a pilgrimage … every year.
Glacier reminds me very much of the vast Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada, where I used to tramp around in my youth. It’s wild, jagged, breathtakingly spectacular … and best of all, uncrowded.
When I lived in the Sierra, I didn’t have the slightest interest in nearby Yosemite. Too many things had gone horribly wrong with Yosemite. Too many people, too many cars, too many gift shops, too many bus tours. The same is very much true with Yellowstone.
Yellowstone is too full of the kind of tourists that, for lack of a nicer way to put, I simply cannot relate to. These are people often driving RVs, with plates from Florida or Texas, who rarely venture more than a quarter mile from the parking lots, who stop for an hour to take snapshots of Old Faithful, fully plugged in to their iPods and cell phones the whole time, hit the nearest gift shop for postcards and knickknacks, then leave like a bat out of hell, because they have to get to the Idaho Falls KOA before sundown and then have a long drive the next day to Las Vegas. Trust me, when I’m around these kinds of people in the parks, I have to expend a lot of energy to not be a wilderness snob. (“Must fight … inner contempt …. for rude … obese …. Yellowstone touristas …. with NASCAR caps …. and yipping lap dogs on a leash….”)
I know the parks are for everyone, I know these people pay their park fees, too, but it’s too many people like that, clogging the roads and parking lots, which is why I don’t go to Yellowstone, and neither do most people in Montana I know. Yellowstone and Yosemite to me are examples of what went wrong with America’s National Parks. They have been turned into Disneyland with trees. They are relics of a bygone era when national parks were not seen as true wilderness, but tourist destinations. Maybe these parks did their part to help teach people the value of outdoors (much like marine parks taught kids to love whales and orcas, but are now relics), but they aren’t for me.
Glacier is a park done right.
One of the advantages of Glacier is that it’s hard to get to, way up on the northern border. There’s only one major road through the whole park. And the accommodations are few and rustic, which keeps away the tourists … I can’t relate to. It attracts the people who “get it,” in my opinion, who genuinely appreciate wilderness. There’s a few very nice campgrounds, a couple of backcountry chalets (You have to reserve a bunk in these chalets a year in advance), and there’s also some old-fashioned, beautiful lodges. Many Glacier Lodge is my personal favourite. One of the joys of the lodge are all the cool people you run into in the hallways, out on the deck, in the tiny bar, which has one of the two televisions … IN THE ENTIRE PARK. People who “get it.” Old, young, young families. They all seem to “get it.”
For some of these people, staying in a rustic lodge, then catching a ride in a Red Jammer up Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass is their idea of being in the wilderness. And that’s fine with me. They still “get it” in their way. My idea is different, which is to get as far away from the roads as possible, as high as possible, into the realm of the mountain goats and grizzlies … not people. When I come back to Many Glacier, I don’t feel like I’m in the wilderness, I feel like I’ve returned to civilization.
I fell in love with Glacier several years ago before I actually moved to Montana (and to a lesser degree Grand Teton, which probably has less than half as many people as nearby Yellowstone, though the scenery is more spectacular). Unless you show up on Fourth of July or Labour Day weekends, the Glacier crowds aren’t bad. I’ve hiked the high country and barely run into a dozen people.
I’ve climbed seven mountains so far in Glacier (I hope to climb a beast this year called Mount Reynolds. Still not sure I can do it.). I’ve seen clouds blowing straight upward as I’ve stood on top of Swiftcurrent Peak after a clearing storm. I’ve had baby mountain goats licking my arm for the salt in my sweat. I’ve heard the echoes of the bighorns’ epic bugles against the massif of rock at the Continental Divide known as the Garden Wall. I’ve walked through meadows full of marmots scurrying to collect grass for their dens for the winter. I’ve literally had to sit down on the trail on top of 7,000-foot passes and ride out 90-mph gusts threatening to blow me off the ridge. After a long day hiking or climbing, I’ve sat on a deck chair and drink Red Jammer Huckleberry Crème Soda or Red Jammer Root Beer, or a Moose Drool or a Scapegoat Ale (You are allowed to buy bottles of beer in a tiny mini-store in the basement and take them out of the deck. They will even give you a lemon for your beer.) I’ve seen early in the morning the Milky Way glistening off the water of Swiftcurrent Lake below the hotel. There’s literally nowhere else like it I can think of.
I’ve never understood why so many elected Republicans just don’t seem to value wilderness and the parks. Montana’s Denny Rehberg is notorious for his open hostility to creating new wilderness areas in the state. Tom Coburn fought, at an almost pathological level, creating new wilderness areas in Oregon and California (I don’t know why an Oklahoman would care so much about Mount Hood, Oregon.) I remember a Republican Congressman in Washington state I met named Jack Metcalf who was on the House Natural Resources Committee (he was part of that GOP class of 94) and how he told me he valued the national parks – then weeks later I discovered he had written and introduced a bill to sell off a bunch of national parks to private concessionaires. One of the parks on his “hit list” was a tiny, gorgeous national park in the San Juan Islands where I lived at the time. I was furious at what a lying rat bastard he was. That bill never made it out of committee, fortunately.
I’m sure some Republicans care about the wilds, but, I’m sorry, I just haven’t met very many (or any off the top of my head I can think of, frankly).
Though Glacier hasn’t been damaged in the way Yosemite and Yellowstone has, it’s under severe pressure, politically, climatically. The park suffered from not-so-benign funding neglect under Reagan. The Going-to-the-Sun Road was allowed to crumble. They twice had to close it for months because it was falling apart. Now, thanks to funding from the Obama administration, the road is being rebuilt. It will take 10 years and more than $100 million.
The latest pressure is a new insane law passed by Congress and signed by Obama to allow loaded handguns in national parks. This law was literally written by the NRA. Are we going to see a bunch of yahoos in the park packing heat this summer? I wonder. Just because they can … and no other reason?
Of course, Glacier’s glaciers are under pressure, too. They have shrunk dramatically the past 20 years; the photographic evidence is startling. What the park has now are small remnants of the old glaciers. In another 10 to 15 years, they may be completely gone.
The party will be going on all year. I plan to be a part of it for a week this September.
Photos by Pepe Lepew!