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Trekking the Rockies of Glacier and Banff

I. The Way West

It wasn't supposed to go this way. We were supposed to leave right after breakfast for our honeymoon vacation - our dream trip to Montana and Alberta, Canada. But a wisdom tooth in the back of my mouth had other ideas. The pain was constant and horrible, and after breakfast the only trip I took was to the dentist.

"You have two options," the dentist told me. "I can give you medication that will tone down the pain or I can extract the tooth."

"Yank it," I told him.

"Oral surgery on your vacation? Are your sure?"

"Yank it," I assured him, having no intentions of missing even one day of my honeymoon.

Three hours later found me sitting in our '69 Chevy with the windows down and the wind blowing my hair. I was wearing new jeans and a white western shirt, and a wad of cotton inside my mouth the size of New Jersey. Pretty romantic if you're into the "mumps look." Still, I wasn't going to let a little thing like surgery, sutures and blood hold me back. We were going out West!

This was our dream trip. I had never been farther west than the Black Hills of South Dakota, and neither Richard nor I had ever seen a mountain. Our honeymoon would take us to Glacier National Park and a little cabin in the Rockies, then backpacking in Banff in the Canadian Rockies. After picking up the prescription pain killers at the drug store, we finally headed out of town toward the North Dakota/Montana border.

Considering we first left at high noon, the Chevy seemed to eat up the miles. In a couple hours we were in Fargo-Moorhead, on the Minnesota-North Dakota border. It was a quick stop for food, as we had skipped lunch in order to hit the road. I had been warned by the dentist to eat nothing that couldn't be sucked-up through a straw, so I forced down a chocolate malt, and later, at a gas-stop, I had a strawberry shake. Between the ice cream and the pain killers, I was having a great time indeed.

We sailed along the interstate from Fargo to Bismarck when something curious happened. When we crossed the Missouri River everyone was wearing cowboy hats and boots. Gone were the familiar North Dakota grasslands. Now there were cattle ranches in all directions. And horses, and pickups, and dust. Suddenly we were "out West." It happened just that fast.

Dickinson sunset

As we neared Dickinson, I saw my first Dakota sunset. The sky was mauve from horizon to horizon, and I snapped a picture from the car window. I knew it wouldn't be great, but I wanted the memory. After fifteen years of dreaming about it, I was finally out West!

The first night of our honeymoon was spent in a wonderful old hotel in downtown Dickinson. It had been built in the late 1800's and had been refurbished to fit the time period. It was so exciting I bounced on the bed and told Richard that so far, the trip was everything I had hoped for.

After a long soak in the tub, I slipped into my lace nightie and waited on the old brass bed as Richard showered. Actually, I got up and looked out the window down onto Main Street. I looked past the cars and the lights until all I saw were covered wagons and women lifting their skirts to escape the mud. In the sky above me, a three-quarter moon was white as milk, while the hotel's gauzy curtains rippled in the breeze and felt like silk against my skin. When Richard emerged from the bathroom, all showered, shaved and cologned, he found his new wife in the lace nightie sound asleep on the bed. The pain killers and chocolate malts had done me in.

North Dakota Badlands

The next day, after an early breakfast, we continued on our way toward the Montana border. Not far from Dickinson was the North Dakota Badlands. Here in the salmon-colored pinnacles the morning sun danced between the peaks, and shadows formed, moved and disappeared as though a thousand shadowy figures lurked in the sandstone walls. At first sight, the strange and wonderful shapes of the Badlands are so startling that it seems they must have formed by a convulsion of nature tearing up the earth in a mighty drama. But they were formed by agents more powerful but less spectacular than volcanoes and earthquakes: their peaks and pinnacles were sculptured by the slow cutting out and washing away of rock by frost, rain, and other forces of erosion. Pierre Jean De Smet during a visit to the Badlands in 1848 said it best:

...Viewed at a distance, these lands exhibit the appearance of extensive villages and ancient castles, but under forms so extraordinary, and so capricious a style of architecture, that we might consider them as appertaining to some new world, or ages far remote.

Mule Deer in creek

I wanted dearly to go exploring but yesterday's late departure required that we move on. I wouldn't be disappointed, however, because the strange and fascinating landscape continued well into Montana. As we drove along, pronghorns dashed like zephyrs across the barren knolls. The whiteness of their rumps seemed to shine in the morning light as though giving off their own light independent of the sun.

About 100 miles into Montana, somewhere near the Charles Russell Wildlife Preserve, we spotted a backroad that was too appealing to pass up. The small dirt road ambled off into the middle of nowhere and was surrounded by semi-desert and barren rock. The landscape looked like Africa and I felt like we were on safari. Not far along the dirt track was an old bridge. Below was a wash, and standing in the middle was a large mule deer. It watched us with interest, but never moved, and I snapped a picture as we stopped to look. This was a one in a million road, where every 500 feet offered something new to see. Ahead of us now were more badlands and a wall of rock that towered in a spectacular fashion up to 150 feet above the desert. We got out for awhile and just looked around, wondering where in the world we were. It was a wonderful feeling.

Rock Mounds
Serengeti-like terrain

Later as we continued on, we came to an open area that resembled the Serengeti. Antelope dotted the landscape. They do not bound like deer, but are the swiftest runner of all North American animals, being able to attain a speed of over 40 miles per hour. We took a picture of the terrain, and regretfully, drove back to the highway.

An hour later found us in an entirely different environment. Big sky country...the grass plains of Montana. This is cowboys and buffalo country, Plains Indians, the Missouri River Breaks, cattle spreads, huge farms, and prairie. We were sailing along, enjoying the wide-open spaces that Montana so amply provides, when ten miles outside of Havre, the Chevy started to act funny. After a look under the hood, Richard was afraid it needed a valve-job. There was nothing to do but hole-up for the day in Havre and hope that they could fix it by morning.

Tractor on Montana plains

It was 92 degrees when we found a motel and quickly thereafter went up to the local Dairy Queen for something quick and cold. The mechanic at the garage, a friendly guy who was even willing to fix the car on the 4th of July, had given us his El Camino to use and recommended we go out to see the Fresno dam. It was only a few miles west of town, and though the heat was a killer, we were ready for a little more adventure. The trip was worth it. The Fresno dam was impressive, with water from the Fresno reservoir plunging swiftly over the towering dam. A wall of mist shrouded the area - mother nature's brand of air conditioning. After a personal tour of the entire complex, we headed back to town. The Buddy Holly Story was showing at the local theater, and we were more than willing to sit in the air conditioning for a few hours.

Approaching the mountains

Luck was with us in the morning. The Chevy was fixed and the problem had only been a valve spring. This fact, however, was discovered only after half the valve job had been done. We left the mechanic the obligatory arm and a leg and headed out of town. The Chev gobbled up the miles as we crossed the last half of Montana. Then, driving out of Cut Bank, we had out first glimpse of the approaching Rocky Mountains. I grabbed the camera and anxiously took a snapshot from the car, but was secretly disappointed. They looked so "small." Nothing like the pictures back home in my tourist books.

I never took my eyes off those "hills" the last 40 miles to the park. I kept trying to will them into getting bigger. And of course they did, but they were sneaky about it. They would disappear for a time, behind clouds or thick forests, only to reappear looking much different than they had five minutes before. By the time we got to the east side of Glacier, I was so enthralled, I nearly forgot my camera.Approach to Glacier
Fumbling, I took another unprofessional car-shot, just so I would always remember that famous approach. St. Mary Lake A few moments later, as we stood on the road overlooking St. Mary Lake, the view fulfilled my every dream. To this day, there has been nothing as stirring as the first moments in the shadows of those peaks. I believe Richard had to pry me from the asphalt so we could continue our journey.

Suddenly we were on Going to the Sun Highway, guarded by massive summits in every direction. I felt like an owl, the way my head kept spinning round and round. And I've never seen Richard grin so much. The road is a magnificent east-west 50-mile drive that crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and traverses the towering Garden Wall. Going to the Sun is truly in the top five of the most spectacular roads in North America.

Going to the Sun Highway

Our lodging was a small little rental cabin near Lake McDonald. Every time we stepped outside, we were greeted by a panoramic view of the mountains. Of course the best way to see anything is to hike into its midst. The very next day we set out early for the Trail of the Cedars. The trail passes through what naturalists call a climax forest of western red cedar and hemlocks. These patriarchal trees are the final species in the forestation cycle. When they come into an area, they gradually block out the light until less shade-tolerant species can no longer survive. The cedars and hemlocks will continue to be the dominant tree, and the forest will remain at this stage unless there is an outside influence, such as fire. Then the long process of reforestation would begin, pioneered by shrubs and lodgepole pines, succeeded by spruce and fir, climaxed by cedars and hemlocks The hike is named for the western red cedars that tower above the trail. As we walked, there was a subdued, greenish light that created an aquarium-like atmosphere on the forest floor where ferns are banked against mossy logs. Avalanche Creek flows nearby and as we strolled along its banks, we came upon a ground squirrel having a little breakfast. He would be the first of many animals we would see on our journey.

Ground Squirrel

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Copyright ©1996
Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

September 13, 1996