Navigating East Glacier and the Blackfeet Reservation without a Car

With the current rental car shortage, I wasn’t sure whether a stop at Glacier was going to be feasible, but after some research, I discovered inexpensive public transportation options in and around the park (more details on that later in this and the next post). As I was planning the trip, I also heard an NPR report that–after a full pandemic shutdown and very successful vaccination campaign–businesses on the Blackfeet Reservation were eager for tourists to return; that, combined with consideration for the train schedules, made me decide to stop first at the East Glacier Amtrak Station on my rail trip west from Minneapolis.

East Glacier Amtrak Station

As a woman traveling alone, I try to avoid traversing unfamiliar places in the dark whenever possible. Since the East Glacier train arrival was scheduled at 6:40 PM, as opposed to the West Glacier arrival at 8:23 PM, I figured East Glacier would be the safer bet–especially considering the train’s propensity for delays. Though the west side of the park is more developed than the east, there is a smattering of lodges in walking distance from East Glacier, and although I almost never spend money on hotels, I wisely anticipated that after 20 hours on the train, I would step off to find myself a little bit land sick–that feeling when you try to regain your footing on solid ground, but it feels like you’re still moving.

I anticipated my land sickness because I had gotten it during my last rail pass trip in 2017. I’d caught my first train of the day in the June gloom fog of a Santa Monica sunrise, and just before sunset, I stepped off the Coast Starlight in San Jose, feeling unsteady. I stumbled into the train station bathroom, mentally equating my vertigo and nausea to that I’d felt during the 2011 earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument. During the earthquake, I’d been in my basement office at the university where I taught in Fayetteville, North Carolina–around 250 miles south of the earthquake’s epicenter in Louisa County, Virginia–when suddenly I felt dizzy, like the ground beneath me was moving. The sensation passed quickly, and I remember being uncertain as to whether I was coming down with a stomach flu or whether there had just been a very minor earthquake. It turned out to be the latter. So when I stepped off the train in 2017, I thought perhaps there was a tremor, but it turned out to be nothing more than the memory of the train’s motion having imprinted itself on my bones. I’d simply grown so accustomed to the rocking that the sensation persisted for several hours after I stepped off the train, and I felt quite ill as I made my way toward my Couchsurfing host’s house in San Jose.

So since I knew this time around I wouldn’t have long before sunset and would probably feel a little land sick, I begrudgingly made a reservation for one of the overpriced rooms at Glacier Park Lodge, the only hotel in walking distance from the station that still had some availability. I figured that to make up for the expenditure, I could camp for the rest of my time in Montana and then Couchsurf just about everywhere else.

Glacier Park Lodge, as seen from the East Glacier Amtrak Station

When I stepped off the train feeling woozy with land sickness and a little stiff from sleeping on the train’s observation deck the night before, I knew I’d made the right call. The reviews of Glacier Park Lodge had mentioned that the rooms were woefully out of date for the price (an accurate assessment); however, I found the staff to be very friendly, and I was grateful in spite of the cringe-worthy price for a safe, comfortable place to sleep upon my arrival.

In the middle of the night, I woke and couldn’t fall back asleep, so I journaled in my notebook for awhile about my trip to Minneapolis and my experience at the George Floyd Memorial, which had been on my mind frequently since I’d visited a few days before. Eventually, I got out of bed and made my way to the Lodge’s restaurant, where I had granola, yogurt, and fruit. Then I spent the rest of the morning writing and set off that afternoon to explore the Blackfeet Reservation, where I had plans to pitch my tent at the Sleeping Wolf Campground.

Researching transportation options outside the park, I had come across Blackfeet Public Transit and had called to ask whether tourists were permitted to use the service. I learned that for a mere $5 fee per ride, someone from the Reservation would pick me up and drive me 13 miles to the campground, which was a just short walk from Browning, the main town on the reservation. Given that the price of the ride was so low and that I knew business had been slow during the pandemic, I made a point of tipping generously.

Tent sites at Sleeping Wolf were also very inexpensive–$10 a night–but only one other tent site was occupied, where the campers were packing up to leave. The RV section of the campground was more well-populated, but it was situated in a different part of the campground so that the tent section felt more secluded than I’d been expecting.

My little bitty backpacking tent, before I put the rain flap on

I pitched my little one-person, quarter-dome tent and then headed off to explore the Museum of the Plains Indian, just a short walk away in Browning. In one of the rooms, local artists were beading and painting, displaying their works for sale, and in other parts of the museum, there were examples of traditional dress and ceremonial items used in rituals such as the Sun Dance. When I asked whether pictures were permitted, the docent replied, “Well, we won’t be watching that too closely,” so I decided not to post any here. The museum is certainly worth a visit, though, for anyone interested in Native history and culture, as well as for those who appreciate fabric arts and beading. A short video I watched there, combined with a conversation I describe later in this post, piqued my interest in relations between the Blackfeet Nation and the National Park Service, and I’ve since done more research on the matter. It’s a troubling history to say the least, and at this point, I have only scratched the surface; what is clear, though, is that the history deserves wider recognition and inspection–especially with regard to the shady deal through which the U.S. government acquired the property in 1896 and the ways in which the subsequent establishment of Glacier National Park stripped the Blackfeet Nation of their rights and access to the land.

After my visit to the museum, I grabbed a quick dinner at the casino, returned to my campsite, brushed my teeth, and then fell asleep before the sun had set; for a few hours, I slept deeply. Then close to midnight, I was awakened by a large truck with a very loud engine pulling into a campsite nearby. At first I was merely annoyed by the lack of campsite etiquette (i.e., you should turn off your engine & headlights promptly if it’s late), but then several adult males started yelling over the engine noise in a way that set me on edge. I heard one of them yell, “Come at me, man,” and I couldn’t really tell whether he was kidding or genuinely looking for a fight. The ruckus went on for several minutes, and I figured the smartest thing for me to do was to stay put and be quiet. I figured that for all they knew, there could be some kind of Rambo in my tent with a sawed off shotgun, and I certainly wasn’t going to open my mouth and crumble the illusion of that possibility. Eventually, I think the camp host turned on a floodlight nearby, and I heard one of the guys say, “I don’t think we can stay here, man.” He yelled, “Sorry if we disturbed you” a few times, and then the truck sped off. To my surprise, I was able to fall back asleep quickly and woke at dawn, well-rested.

I walked again to the casino and bought a cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee, which I cherished slowly while sitting on a bench in the warmth of the morning sun. Back at the campsite a couple of hours later, a driver from Blackfeet Public Transit picked me up to take me to the Saint Mary’s Visitor Center on the east side of the park. He introduced himself as Daryl, and about halfway into our forty-minute drive, I was so captivated by our conversation that I asked if I could have his last name and write about him on my blog.

Daryl St. Goddard is the great great grandson of Chewing Black Bones, a warrior and medicine man who led his band to the area now known as the Chewing Black Bones Campground. St. Goddard been driving for Blackfeet Public Transit for 19 years, and before that, he worked to help clear Going to the Sun Road each season as the snows melted.

“Dangerous work,” he explained, and I had a vague sense that it must have been based upon what little I had read about the road, but I couldn’t truly appreciate how dangerous until I was cruising along the cliffside about an hour later, watching one of the other passengers sitting closer to the guardrail gasp and clench her eyes shut each time we rounded a curve.

The view from the guardrail-side of Going to the Sun Road

I learned that during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, the tribe made an arrangement with the National Park Service to keep the eastern entrance to the park closed–a move that, combined with solid mask mandates and stay-at-home orders–helped to lower the number of cases on the reservation. Now, more than 90% of adults on the reservation are vaccinated, and the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voted in March to reopen the eastern entrance to Glacier. The arrangement has been complicated, though; for instance, St. Goddard mentioned that the tribe and the park service had reached an agreement prior to reopening that the park would require proof of vaccination from visitors. However, park officials had not followed through on that part of the bargain.

The morning was hazy, and I asked whether it was fog or smoke from the wildfire burning inside the park. He said it was smoke, that the wildfires had been becoming more and more numerous, the snows coming later and later. We were driving along Divide Road, and I noticed some sculptures on the mountainside. Daryl asked if I’d like to stop and see them.

“If you don’t mind,” I said.

He replied that he wasn’t in a hurry and swung the car around. As we approached the first sculpture, he explained that a man on the reservation, whose name he couldn’t remember, created the pieces from scrap metal he salvaged from old cars. I looked for a plaque or a marker with the artist’s name, but there was none to be found.

Sculpture on Divide Road with wildfire haze in the background

I learned that Daryl has four daughters of whom he is very proud: one is in veterinary school, another is a physical therapist, a third is a social worker, and I meant to go back into my notes to fill in what the fourth did, because Daryl spoke so highly of each of them, but I was scrambling to keep up and forgot.

Daryl spoke with the classic cadence of a Native storyteller, so it came as no surprise when he told me someone had recently made recordings of him speaking. There have been a lot of efforts recently to preserve the language and storytelling traditions of the tribe, and whereas children on the Reservation some years back were not permitted to speak the Native language in school, there is now a certain honor that goes with learning the language and thereby helping to preserve the culture.

Sculpture on Divide Road with wildfire haze in the background

As we walked among the sculptures on the mountainside, Daryl described a ritual whereby two members of the tribe who had been diagnosed with cancer stood in the center of a corral, with buffalo walking in smaller and smaller circles around them until eventually, the buffalo were brushing up against the men’s bodies while people sang.

“Buffalo carry a lot of medicine in them,” he says, “and there’s medicine in the songs.”

I was kind of hypnotized by the time we reached the Visitor’s Center, where I showed my National Parks Pass to get through the gate, as well as the shuttle ticket I had purchased in advance for Going to the Sun Road, but not once upon entering the park was I asked for proof of vaccination. Daryl asked me how much the Blackfeet Public Transit driver had charged me on the ride from the Lodge to the campground.

“Five dollars,” I said, “but that doesn’t seem life enough. You can charge me whatever you want.”

“Five dollars is right,” he says, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t even cover the cost of the gas.

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