Missoula Wildfires and Glacier Grizzlies

Day one of coast to coast road trips have been quite colorful for Carl and I.  In 2013 we left Pittsburgh on route to Seattle, and our first night on the road brought us to Louisville, Kentucky, where we immediately walked into a drug fueled vandalism incident in the lobby of the downtown Econo Lodge.  Narrowly avoiding being detained by the police as witnesses, we found no restaurants open at 9:00pm save for a kebab shop where the lone employee was dressed as a fairy (there were fake ears involved and everything), grabbed a beer, then walked back to our motel, avoiding piles of puke on the sidewalk like landmines.  We passed 10+ vomits on our 15 minute walk, so it felt like froggering our way through the wreckage.  Luckily the half dozen police cars that were stationed outside the motel earlier had dispersed, so by the time we got back it didn’t feel like we were walking into an imminent shoot out.

In the end we spent only about 2 hours out and about in the city, but to this day I still refer to Louisville as the worst place in the world.  I mean, I’m sure it’s probably lovely there and full of great people, but for me it remains a vomit stained black hole in the universe.

That was 2013’s first day on the road; day one of our 2017 Seattle-to-Pittsburgh venture was much less intense, but the first 48 hours of our trip still rank fairly high on the “what can go wrong, will” spectrum.  Leaving Seattle early in the morning we spent eight hours on the road to Missoula, Montana.  I’d consider these hours to be uneventful.  We stopped for a picnic lunch, pumped gas, cleaned the windshield, and began a book on tape.  Nothing overly eventful or unusual, just regular ole road trip to report.  Passing into Montana though, we began driving towards a dark cloud.  Soon, after much debating and squinting, we realized we weren’t driving towards a storm, but towards a fire.

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The sky was cut into two distinct halves: one part clear blue, one part hazy opaque and tinted champagne pink.  Windows were rolled up elsewise charcoal scented air permeated the car.  Less than forty minutes till arrival and with no internet connection (welcome to Montana!) we drove with crossed fingers that we’d be met by a downtown and not ash.

Missoula’s one of those places where were it not for gps navigation you wouldn’t know you’re nearing that destination.  With a population of 72,000 it’s the second biggest city in the State, but the drive in could be described as: cows – cows – grass – cows – downtown Missoula.

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There are no suburbs.  Only farms.  Sans a cell the simplest directions to find Missoula would be to drive towards the “M” embossed in the hill overlooking the city.  On the trip I found Western cities built below dusty hills and red rocks have a habit of imprinting the terrain with the initial of their local high school or college (if the area is large enough to have a college that is).  Missoula, blessed with both, is the proud owner of an “M” (The University of Montana) and an “L” (Loyola High School).  Sometimes this tradition works: “M” for Missoula or “B” for Butte.  Sometimes it can be a bit confusing: Brigham City’s “I” for instance.

In Missoula buildings are brick and decades old, few higher than five stories, giving the entire city the feel of small town Main Street USA.  Breweries are plentiful given there are nine in the city limits, and are highly walkable to one another so we were able to hit up two spots during our evening. Imagine Nation brewing is a brewery/community center combo, hosting blood drives, AIDS tests and farmers markets, while Draught Works has the most lovely outdoor space: muraled and misted, perfect for our 95 degree day.  A river cuts through the city (I mean, this is the setting of “A River Runs Through It” after all), a communal piano on the main drag was played as we walked back to our motel in the smoky sunset.  This place may not be a bustling metropolis, but it doesn’t lack for charm or that feel-goody vibe that makes a place feel like it’s perpetually Christmas Eve.

At dawn Carl jogged up to the eponymous “M”.  Wildfire smoke captured the sunlight, creating a fuchsia and lilac sky that blended into the shadows of the surrounding hills.  This locale was a giver of gifts, for along the trail Carl found a dozen Coors Banquet beers accompanied by a torn beer case.  He walked into our motel room at 7:00am, sweaty and panting, carrying two unopened cans.

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At checkout, a man carrying a baby stood in the motel parking lot and as I started towards the front office, he asked “checking out?” I responded yes, and he took the keys from me then and there between the white painted lines on the asphalt and told me to have a good day.  Sometimes I wonder if they live there now — the man proclaiming squatters rights when they try to evict him.

Packing the found Coors in our car cooler, we promptly hit the road, Glacier National Park being our next stop. A National Park always placing on “top ten park” lists, we were chock full of anticipation. Excitement only escalated during the drive.  Bison could be seen out the windows, as could signs advertising every variation of huckleberry: huckleberry jam, huckleberry candy, pancakes, syrup — the whole huckle-kit and caboodle. Other things seen from that trusty drivers side window?  A barn painted “Meth” on one side and “Not Even Once” on the other, a moose crossing road sign featuring a crunched up car in front of a moose head, and a “10,000,000 Square Centimetre Mall” billboard.  Signage alone, not even including the sunflower fields and bison sightings, the ride was incredible.

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Coming into Glacier from the South the first thing you’ll pass in the park is the Apgar visitor center.  Their main priority here? Bears. Only about 1,500 grizzly bears remain in the United States and over 800 of them are in Montana, making Glacier one of the most frequented places in the country where a Grizzly sighting is common.  As soon as you step foot into the visitor center you’d think you’re entering a war zone.  Announcements blast on loudspeakers for bear awareness talks at 10:40, 11:15, 11:30, 11:40..etc., you’re given a pamphlet titled “BEARS!”, and are given instructions to make a lot of noise when hiking, not run on trails so as not to surprise bears, to hike in groups of 4 or more, when to engage bear spray, to protect your stomach at all costs  in the event of an actual bear attack, and if all else fails to “fight back”.

An already anxious person, after five minutes in Apgar my bear fear was palpable.

The Going-to-the-Sun-Road is said to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world, but I spent a majority of the drive asking Carl bear related questions like “I ate an orange in the car earlier, will the bears smell the orange oils from afar?” and “Since there’s only two of us and we don’t have bear spray, should we like, tailgate a nearby couple?  Will that trick the bear into thinking there’s four of us?”  I also waxed philosophical on bears, asking such deep questions as “You know, bears rep a lot of products… honey, toilet paper, cola… I’m even told to prevent forest fires from a bear.  Is there an animal equally as deadly as a bear that tries to sell me more goods?

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Make no mistake, the drive along the 50 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun-Road is truly spectacular.  The lakes are so blue they look like they’ve been filtered, mountains have more layers than a wedding cake, and fields of huckleberries line up along the roadside like soldiers (Guilty admission: we pulled over and picked a pint or two of berries to top our morning cereal.  Staunch followers of the “take only memories, leave only footprints” rule, we told ourselves that there were thousands of berries that would go to waste in a matter of months and that they’d grow back next year).

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However, as gorgeous as our surroundings were, it would not prevent my mind from forming a new question every few minutes along the lines of: “Do bears have a preferred sweat smell just as humans have a perfume preference?” and “Can bears smell my fear of them?

Being in the park for only a day, we had room for just a single hike.  Feeling daring, we decided to drive into Many Glacier post our Going-to-the-Sun-Road jaunt and embark on an eleven mile hike to Grinnell Glacier; this proved to be a bit too ambitious.  Arriving at the trailhead around 3:00pm on a 94 degree day, eleven miles compounded with 8100 feet of elevation started getting to me just a few miles in.  You know when you’re driving around on a hot day and the road ahead gets wavy due to heat?  Well, imagine hiking through that.  We’d walk up what felt like five flights of stairs, then be blasted with the hot breath of a pissed and hungover God. I swear, those heat bursts would even blow my hair back as we approached them.

After only three miles I started to get whiney.  “It’s sooo hotttt”, “I don’t know if I can doooo thissss arrgghhh” kind of stuff.  Super fun to be around, surely, but we’d spent years in Seattle where the temperature stays super mild and a 90 degree day is a rarity. And while we’re active hikers, the heat started to take a wallop.  Shortly after hitting a most refreshing waterfall we decided to turn back.  If I was turning into a whimpering puppy this early it was best to cut the hike to seven miles rather than the full eleven.

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Neither of us were pleased about turning around.  Carl wanted to complete the hike and so did I, but I already felt like I was nearing spontaneous combustion from heat overload.  Oh that it were that this was the darkest the hike got.  Within ten minutes of turning around we came upon a couple, mid seventies, who were having difficulty.  The man’s white canvas shirt was stained with trail dirt.  He’d fallen and was limping terribly, his hips pointed in a painful 60 degree angle between his neck and knees.  His partner couldn’t have been more than 5’1’’ and was struggling to help him down the rocky and slip-prone path.

Carl, who I’ve always considered to be one of the kindest people to ever have existed stopped to help.  The man had pulled a muscle in his back.  Badly.  Carl being a runner who’s had experience with pulling similar muscles offered up the best stretches for the situation and after this briefing we wound up paired off: woman to woman and man to man.

Let’s call this couple Cheryl and Michael — they’d been together only for a few years, meeting later in life after their respective spouses had died.  They’d found happiness after great loss and spent their time travelling the world together.  Cheryl couldn’t recommend Easter Island enough, and shocked that Carl and I had been together for seven years without marrying, told us that when we finally decided to tie the knot that Easter Island was the place.

Cheryl and I walked ahead talking while Carl and Michael followed.  Whenever I looked behind me Michael was putting all of his weight on Carl’s shoulders or was making very slow and painful looking progress downward.  I tried to leave a larger gap between our two parties so that Cheryl wouldn’t see how bad the situation was, but if we lost sight of them for more than a few minutes I’d run behind to check their status.  We met them shortly after five when the sun was high and all was well, but five turned to six, turned to seven, and beyond.

Most groups passed by without looking twice, a few even saw us as a nuisance  due to our slow pace and quickly blew by once room allowed.  Some did stop to offer up help — water was given, multiple parties told us they’d inform rangers of Michael’s situation, and two young women even offered to give us their bear spray, but Cheryl declined saying she couldn’t bare if anything happened to them in their attempt to help her.

According to the infinite amount of bear information given to us, bears are active at dusk and dawn, resting during midday, and now getting on eight the sun was setting.  No longer were we surrounded by flocks of hikers.  We were alone in the forest.  I was tired and hot and hungry and for all the talk of groups of four being the magic anti-bear number, I’m pretty sure this didn’t include groups with an injured and limping member.

I began to crack.  With two miles left to go, Carl and I had run out of water.  We had spent over three hours accompanying Cheryl and Michael and we needed to get out of the forest and find help.  It was a tearful goodbye.  Hours before  when it still seemed we’d get out in the early evening we had planned to have dinner together at the lodge.  Now, with the sun low through the trees, Cheryl told us their room number, asked for ours, then pressed a wad of twenties into my hand saying that’s for the dinner they would have bought us.  I tried to give them back, but she started to cry then I started to cry and I threw the wad of bills into Carl’s backpack.

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Nothing tells you to get a grip more than a seventy-five year old woman crying.  And when I finally lost it and tears streamed down my face I apologized saying “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m just really afraid of bears”.  She countered by saying “Gracie, I’m so happy you’re afraid of something because you’re superwoman”.  Dammit Cheryl.  I cried harder.

We left them by the ferry shelter on Grinnell Lake in order to give the rangers of a finite location to find them , then ran the last two miles.  With no water, we clapped constantly while singing “Why Do You Build Me Up Buttercup” to make noise.  Finally, at the very end of the trail we came upon a ranger in his vehicle and reported where we’d left the couple.  He’d had reports of their situation from some of the other hikers and was glad to know where to direct the rangers, who were already out there looking for them (my faith in humanity was immediately restored hearing that people really did seek out help).

The most interesting part of this ranger meeting, totally missed to me at the time, was that he had a gun slung across his lap.  Not a handgun, but a big hulking rifle.  His face betrayed no surprise, nor worry nor fear upon hearing our news.  Clearly he carried the weapon at all times and I’m guessing was no stranger to climbing mountains in search of the injured.

Post-ranger we ran to the car, drove a half mile, then immediately witnessed two grizzlies scavenging for food along the roadside.  I admit there are anxieties I have that are unfounded: my constant fear I’ll forget how my legs work while mid-stair; my Kevin McAllister fear of basements; and my personal favorite: a belief that one of my front teeth is eroding faster than the other (a concern I’ve brought up to my dentist only to hear “that’s not a thing that happens”).  Seeing the grizzlies on the mountainside, I was able to tell myself that I was afraid for evolutionary purposes and that I was allowed to get choked up in fear while singing 80’s Motown tunes in the forest.

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Montana highways have an 80 mph speed limit.  Exhausted and desperate for food and a cold beer, I was extremely grateful for this. During checkout the following morning a note was waiting for us from Cheryl.  She and Michael had made it out, albeit late, but she was sure they had made it out because of us. We left a message back, then promptly left Montana (I won’t say what was written in our message, it’ll have to be one of those Lost in Translation kind of moments).

On our drive the preceding evening though, with Alt-J in the background, we came as close to the horizon as I believe man can be and watched the moon meet the mountains.  There’s always going to be a grizzly or a boogeyman in the darkness somewhere, but with the universe so so lovely, I swear the world stopped, leaving us alone to speed through it.

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