Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 1

Or, altars, altars everywhere
(Part 1)

1. Glacier Country Rodeo

It’s a little awkward to come to one of these alone—especially a small-town rodeo, all families and high school couples, an announcer with an anecdote about everyone and everyone’s horse. In addition, I’ve arrived straight from the airport and bought myself three hot dogs, which I now consume in the far corner of the bleachers, dribbling relish on a pair of jeans I’m supposed to wear for the whole trip. The sky gets steely and the wind picks up. I watch glassy-eyed bulls spin furious circles in the dirt.

2. Whitefish Mountain Resort

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The best time for me to ride a resort is the day before it opens: the trails are clear but the lifts are closed, so I can venture down blacks a few hundred yards at a time without worrying about getting run over or passed in the air. Of course, this means I earn my turns: after an hour of pedaling I arrive at a mid-sized Jesus that I unthinkingly assume marks the end of the climb. I’m feeling good—that wasn’t hard at all!—so I descend and do it again. This time I notice that the trail continues on, higher. Much higher. I’m tired now; I fume. “Who puts Jesus at a false summit?” I demand of the statue, out loud. Oh, I think, then. Oh.

3. Whitefish Bike Retreat

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This is a hostel so pleasant it hurts my heart. Inside is airy and spotless and everything that can be made from old bike parts is. Outside the trails leave ten yards from the door—perfect, buffed-out, roller-coaster singletrack through wildflowers and quiet woods. I stop halfway through my ride to swim in a lake. A small brown fish leaps up in front of me; my mad giggling echoes on the water, frightens the ducks.

Everyone else staying here is semi-local, or following the Tour Divide route at their leisure. I’m doing the math on what it would cost to extend my reservation for another week, or month, or year; I need a reality check, stat. “How’s winter?” I ask the girl running the desk. She has the strong shoulders and sensible bearing standard here, it seems. “Alright if you ski,” she says, judiciously, but goes on to describe months of darkness, tells a story of driving for hours in pursuit of a freak break in the clouds just to weep at the feel of the sun on her face.

I consider everything I do to avoid extremes—of weather, of politics, of feeling—my instinct for the split difference, the even keel. I don’t know how to proceed. What’s the more realistic aspiration? A new personality or a timeshare?

4. God’s Ten Commandments Park

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It’s about a half hour from latte art and bikepacking bag rentals to this. The center itself is closed but I stand for a few minutes before the crosses, listening to the wind buffet the billboards. I turn a slow circle to read them one at a time, each reminder of where I am, each warning of where I’m headed.

5. Glacier National Park

The Going-to-the-Sun road opened to cars just yesterday. It’s a must-see, but in truth I’m not enjoying it: I inch past the balaclava’d cyclists braving the traffic and the cold and feel dirty for driving—and I’m too worried about hitting someone to look around. When I do, I find the black and ragged crags somehow unfriendly, at least compared (as I inevitably compare them) to Yosemite. The places I really want to go are under snow.

On the east side, though, the rock is of another palette and the sky has burst into light above whitecapped lakes.

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The first mile of my hike out of Many Glacier is a slog along a pack-train route, a mess of ankle-deep mud and manure and mosquitoes and my own mortal terror of bears. But the payoff, when it comes abruptly into view, is colors like I’ve never seen in my life.

By chance I arrive between two big groups and have a full hour here alone. I use it to watch the lake change with the light—turquoise, cerulean, teal, azure—and the clouds spill over the rim of the cirque. I pick up smooth pebbles from the shallows and put them back, listen to a waterfall spattering snowmelt onto moss. High on the red shale, I see a mountain goat (my first!), scramble after it until the point that caution overtakes me. That’s not far, to be honest. However, there are tiny star-shaped plants between the rocks.

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(The tail end of this trip was to Missoula and surrounds—part 2, here.)

 

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