Glacier National Park Without a Car, in the Rain

(August 8, 2021)

I woke up this morning around 5 AM to the sound of heavy drops splashing against the rainfly of my one-person tent. It’s the same tent I took on my solo, cross-country train trip in 2017, but that time, I somehow managed to get from Atlantic to Pacific and back without having to test its water resistance. It was still dark this morning when the storm rolled in, so I felt around the seams of the tent to make sure there was no water dripping in or pooling in the corners. It was still storming when I woke again at 7–warm, dry, and grateful not only that the rainfly was doing its job, but also that the storm might help to quash the Hay Creek Fire that had been burning in the park for the last two and a half weeks.  

I lingered in the tent awhile, wondering how long the storm would last. Since there was no cell reception to check the radar, I formed a mental plan as to how I would dress and break down my tent in the rain before making my way toward the Amtrak station to catch the Empire Builder to Seattle that evening. I’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t keep your pack inside your tent in case a trace of some scent lingered that might attract an animal; since there had been a light mist before bed, I’d put the rain cover on my pack, just outside the door to my tent. So in the morning, I simply unzipped the door, pulled my pack toward me, and retrieved some moisture-wicking clothing and my raincoat. Once I was suited up, I ventured outside to the bear-proof storage bin where I had stored my toiletries, and then I trudged off to the bathroom to brush my teeth. 

Then I returned, deflated my pillow and sleeping pad, and rolled everything up. I tucked my eyeglasses away in their case to avoid the hassle of rain-fogged lenses and fumbled to put my contacts in without a mirror. Then I broke down my tent and stuffed the sopping heap into its case, knowing I would need to pull it out again for a good cleaning once I reached Seattle. I crammed everything into my pack and stored the tent in an exterior side pocket to avoid dampening the precious few clean underwear and socks I had left since I’d last done laundry in Minneapolis.

During a normal season, the Glacier Park Shuttle stops across the street from the campground, but since the Sprague Creek stop was not in service during the pandemic, I heaved my pack onto my back and slogged a mile from the campground to Lake McDonald Lodge, propelled forward in spite of my sore knees and calves by the promise of hot coffee and breakfast. (I’d hiked over 17 miles on the the day before, mostly on the Highline and Garden Wall Trails.)

For my 2017 trip, I’d brought a pair of heavy-duty, water-repellent hiking boots, but I opted not to lug them around this time because they were bulky and a bit warmer than I would have preferred for August. I’d decided instead to bring one pair of good quality rubber flip-flops and one pair of lightweight Brooks Ricochet running shoes, which had served me well on my various hikes and jogs up to this point. Since there was considerable overgrowth along the road to the Lodge and I would be carrying a 30-pound pack, I went with the sneakers. For socks, I wore one of my two remaining clean pairs: some lightweight Feetures I use often for running. Within five minutes, I realized the combination was not ideal, and for the third time already on the trip, I wished I’d brought more merino wool Bombas–the only socks I’ve found that are truly all-weather (thick enough to have adequate moisture-wicking properties while still keeping my feet cool enough in the summer and warm enough in the winter). A man driving a U-haul truck stopped and asked if I wanted a ride, but I figured wet feet were less potentially dangerous than a random man, so I declined. Luckily, I had just a short way to go, so I sloshed to the Lodge and changed into the Bombas, which in spite of being quite dirty made my feet feel dry and warm even though my shoes were not. (Fun fact: I later figured out that enterprising people had resorted to renting Uhauls in order to circumvent the rental car shortage.)

The restaurant take-out window by the lake. I ordered a coffee, a sausage biscuit, and a hashbrown. Seeing my pack, the server asked where I was headed. I explained that I had a train scheduled out of Whitefish at 9 PM, and he asked if I was walking. I shrugged. He raised a thumb and his eyebrows to ask if I was hitching. 

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m taking the shuttle to Apgar, and I’m wondering if there might be a bus or something from there.” 

He nodded. “You look resourceful.”  

I nodded back. “I am.”  

He handed me the coffee and told me I could pick the food up at the window around the corner in five minutes or so. I moved aside, took off my pack, stretched my legs, and remembered what another server had said yesterday about how he and some friends wanted to take the train from West to East Glacier sometime. I thought I’d read somewhere that the East Glacier station was open only during the summers and West only later in the year, but I figured it was worth double checking. So I waited out the weak Wifi signal long enough to figure out that I could indeed change my reservation to depart from West Glacier rather than Whitefish, and I could walk two and a half miles along a bike path from the Apgar Visitors’ Center to the West Glacier Amtrak Station. Furthermore, the rain would be on lunch break from 11-12 AM. As much as I wanted to see Whitefish, the weather forecast made it seem like more trouble than it was worth. I reasoned that it was writing weather, anyway, and I could do that from any dry location with a power outlet. 

So after breakfast, I sat in the Lodge and wrote until around 10:30 and then caught the shuttle to Apgar Village, an adorable little outpost on the west side of the park that I regretted not having explored in nicer weather. I didn’t know how long the break in the rain would last, though, so I found the bike path and headed in the direction of the Amtrak station.

About a quarter mile from the West Glacier Amtrak Station, a small stretch of Going to the Sun Road was lined with some charming little shops and restaurants. I had quite a bit of time to kill before the arrival of the Empire Builder, so I ordered huckleberry pie à la mode from the West Glacier Cafe and settled in to write.

Huckleberry pie à la mode from West Glacier Cafe

That afternoon, I posted a photo of myself at the Grinnell Glacier Overlook from the day before, and although most of my Facebook friends cheered me on, a couple expressed concern that it hadn’t been safe for me to hike the Highline alone. My sense is that people usually mean well by this kind of concern, and it is true that under certain circumstances, I am less risk averse than many; it comes from having grown accustomed to volatility in my early childhood. When some of your earliest memories involve things like being hidden in a closet by your older sister so that you won’t get trampled by the fist fight happening in the living room, your adult brain becomes capable of a mental calculus a lot of people aren’t wired for. For instance, how might the risk of something like hiking alone compare to, say, the risk of being a victim of domestic violence? Might something as common as marriage actually be more dangerous, statistically?

Glacier National Park: The Highline Trail and Glacier Overlook

(August 7, 2021)

At sunrise on my second day in Glacier National Park, I woke up in my tent at the Sprague Creek Campground and walked about a mile to the Lake McDonald Lodge. The dining room of the restaurant there had recently closed again due to concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19, but they had a take-out window open out back. I ordered coffee, granola, yogurt, and berries and ate breakfast by the lake.

Lake McDonald

After breakfast, I headed toward the Lake McDonald shuttle stop and caught an eastbound bus to Logan Pass, where I had hiked a portion of the Hidden Lake Trail the day before. Since I didn’t have much time for research before my trip, I’d been chatting up rangers, camp hosts, and random strangers in the park to get recommendations about what I should do and see; just about everyone pointed me toward the Highline Trail.

The day before, I’d been both captivated and frightened by the narrow path I saw from the window of the bus: a tiny ribbon of dirt that looked like it could have dropped from the sky and fallen upon the mountainside, barely held up by the sheer cliffs below it.

The beginning of the Highline Trail, not far from the Logan Pass shuttle stop

Setting out, I told myself I would merely check the trail out and turn back if I felt at any point like hiking it alone was a bad idea. I had a day pack with essentials like bear spray and water, and I was glad I’d brought a headband that covered my ears because the mountainside was cold for August and very windy.

The hike from the trailhead (across the street from the Logan Pass shuttle stop) to the Loop shuttle stop is 11.8 miles, but at the 6.8-mile mark, the Highline intersects with the Garden Wall Trail, which leads to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook–“Strenuous, but worth it,” my camp host had said. “The best part of the whole hike.”

Once I was out on the ledge, I felt giddy with the heightened awareness of my every step, conscious that if I lost my footing, I could fall a hundred feet to the road below. There were plenty of other hikers, though, and as we passed each other, one would pause to let the other pass. The steepest part of the trail lasted for less than half a mile, and by the time I got past it, I felt confident enough to keep going. The reward was miles upon miles of stunning vistas, and I felt a little like Julie Andrews in the opening scene of The Sound of Music.

Fireweed growing along the Highline Trail

The farther I traveled, the fewer hikers I passed, but the trail was still decently populated. I think the longest I went without passing others was about 30 minutes, if you don’t count the wildlife: deer, marmots, chipmunks, bighorn sheep… There was chatter among the hikers at one point that a grizzly had just been seen in the area, but I thankfully didn’t encounter it. I’d seen a mama and cubs the day before from a safe distance at the Hidden Lake overlook, and that was enough for me.

Marmot posing for Glamour Shots

When I stopped to photograph this chipmunk near the base of the Garden Wall Trail, another hiker stopped and said, “He is not scared of you at all!” On the contrary, I think he was flirting with me.

When I got to the base of the Garden Wall Trail, a sign indicated that the hike to Glacier Overlook was .6 miles, but the hikers coming down warned me the distance was closer to a mile. The elevation gain is nearly 1000 feet, and my quads burned mightily on the way up. “It’s worth it,” passerby kept assuring me. The nice part about hiking it solo was that there was no one to keep up with or slow down for, so when I felt like it, I simply paused a moment to rest. I happened to be keeping pace with another woman hiking solo, and I learned that she was staying at the nearby Granite Park Chalet with her sister, who had decided to spend the day painting. Having heard about the hike through word of mouth, I had no expectation of what I would see when I reached the top. Some hikers the day before had shown me photos of Grinnell Glacier from a lower vantage point, but I had no idea how breathtaking the view from the overlook would be.

Glacier Overlook

At the top, the other solo woman and I snapped a photos of each other and then sat in awe for awhile until my rumbling tummy called me toward the Chalet, where I’d heard I could buy snacks. The Chalet is about 3/4 of a mile from the junction of the Garden Wall and Highline Trails and was built by the Great Northern Railway in the early 1900s. With a couple of outhouses separate from the main building and no running water, conditions there are rustic, but the premises looked quite charming from the outside. Most importantly, they were selling snacks from a take-out window, and I bought some almond cookies and trail mix, which I sat down to enjoy at a nearby picnic table.

Granite Park Chalet, as seen from a distance on the Highline Trail

A few bites into my almond cookie, a boy I had noticed earlier on the Garden Wall Trail called out to me, “Hey, that chipmunk’s about to crawl up your leg and steal your cookie.” The kid exuded coolness. He had a big afro, buck teeth I could tell he would grow into, and what I believe people refer to as swagger.

“Is that right?” I asked, looking around for the chipmunk in question, who was indeed scurrying around my feet.

“Yeah,” he said. “My favorite part about being up here is when the chipmunks crawl up people’s legs.”

I laughed. “Hey, I saw you hiking up to the glacier a little bit ago. Was that incredible or what?”

He told me he had hiked with his dad the day before from the Loop to the Chalet (opposite from the direction I was traveling), and they were staying there a few nights. His dad used to work in the park and had brought him on this trip for his birthday. He was turning nine.

“Your dad sounds pretty cool,” I told him.

“He is,” the boy assured me. “He’s taking a nap.”

When I finished my snacks, we bid adieu, and the kid strutted off to work the crowd like the rock star I’m pretty sure he’s destined to become when he grows up.

View from the Granite Park Chalet of the junction where the Highline Trail intersects with the Garden Wall Trail, leading up to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook

The rest of the hike down to the Loop–just under 4 miles–was more desolate, the trail hemmed in by thousands of skeletal trees burned in the 2003 Trapper Creek Fire. In the absence of leaves, the wind wheezed through the trees, and heavy clouds weighed down the ashy, asthmatic landscape.

Hiking from the Chalet to the Loop, you see (and hear) evidence of the 2003 Trapper Creek Fire.

The day before, on my ride from Browning to the Saint Mary Visitor’s Center on the east side of the park, I had noticed a haze in the mountains that my driver had confirmed was coming from the Hay Creek Fire that had ignited from a lightning strike a little over two weeks prior. The signs of climate change were apparent all around me, and on the shuttle earlier, I had overheard a woman reading to her family that the park currently has only 25 glaciers–down from 150 in the mid-nineteenth century–all of which, glaciologists predict, will be gone by 2030.

Though my hike ended on a somber note, I felt fortunate for my health and for the circumstances that had motivated my journey to begin with–even though those circumstances included losing my job of 11 years and going through a series of online dating debacles so heinous I decided I should travel alone cross-country (again) and live out of a backpack for a month to remind myself I’m awesome and happy on my own.

(Here’s a fun sidebar:

*In June, there had been an environmental worker who strung me along for five dates and then messaged–while I was being broadcast live on YouTube, judging the Southern Fried Poetry Slam–to say I reminded him too much of his ex.

*In April, there was a surgical resident who declared his love after three weeks, asked me to move in with him, and then showed up on my doorstep a week later, explaining that he had “figured out in therapy” (as though he should get a gold star for that) he wasn’t actually in love with me; it had simply been nice to “have someone around again.”

*In March, there was a bank manager who, after a few dates, said he was thinking he might like to take me with him to Cuba, and then promptly ghosted me.

I could go on, but I think that conveys the gist.)

Because the universe is hilarious, though (at least it is if you’ve cultivated–as I have–a morbid enough sense of humor), the day ended with a surprise twist. I took the shuttle back to Lake McDonald Lodge, grabbed dinner from the take-out window, and was sitting by the lake, eating some delicious steelhead trout, when my phone dinged. (There was a weak wifi signal at the Lodge, so this was one of the only places in the park I could send or receive messages.) It was a message from the bank manager:

I think you should know I was in a coma for three months following a bad accident and just got back state side. Sorry if you felt I was ghosting you. I wish you the best and sorry if I caused you any discomfort.

When I asked about the accident, he told me he had fallen off a cliff. I replied with my sympathies and then immediately texted my two closest girlfriends to find out if they too couldn’t help but wonder whether the man might just be a compulsive liar.