Leaving Seattle meant we were embarking on a more rigorous leg of the trip, and what better way to start that off than with a very long drive. 486 miles long. We drove for so long that we went from lush, green, and mountainous scenery to barren and dry rocks then on to farmland and finally back to freshly growing forests and glacial mountains. We passed a town in Washington state called George. We passed fields of crops that had been labeled for people on the highway to learn about what was being farmed (SURPRISE! Potatoes...). We drove through swooping highways that ran next to rivers that were swollen to the tops of the banks with muddy water. It was like driving through a Woody Guthrie song.
Our destination was Flathead Lake, Montana. Flathead is one of those places that winds up on all these travel lists for "prettiest places in the USA" and "stops out west that you cannot miss!" and whatnot. The thing that really sealed the deal for me was this photo circulating on the internet:
Because we were scheduled (ha! we still has a schedule back then!) to make it to Montana over Memorial Day weekend, I had even booked a campsite right on the lake. It was the most expensive campsite we have had on this trip to date at a whopping $31 for the night, but it was definitely up there on the list of most gorgeous.
On driving days (which we have deemed to be any day with a drive that is more than six hours) that also happen to be camping days the sunset is a huge factor in how much time we take on the road and how stressed we feel getting there. Luckily, the sunset at Flathead Lake was one of the latest we had seen. It was at 9:24 on May 25. Isn't that crazy? Dangerously close to the sunset times in Norway, where Sam's sister lives. To balance it out we also lost an hour as we drove back from Pacific to Mountain time, another time issue that tends to come up (as I write this we are in the Atlantic time zone, which does not even exist in the United States).
We arrived and set up camp – finally getting the chance to air out our wet tent – and even managed to start cooking before the sun went down. Kids kayaked on the Lake and rode their bikes around the camping loop. Big Arm State Park clearly seemed to be a "locals" kind of park, which tends to be a different kind when compared to all the big national parks we had seen previously. More kids and bikes and dogs. More big groups of friends hanging out. A wider spread in age. Up until this point, much if the national park attendance had been us and baby boomers that had already made it to retirement.
We stayed up late, sitting on a log and sharing a bottle of wine while looking at the lake as the stars passed above and car headlights came around a road on one of the inlets.
The morning brought a slight hangover, parfaits, and repacking the camping gear and the car. We stuck our toes in the cool water and concurred that we would definitely consider swimming if we didn't have to drive for three more hours up to a park named Glacier (brrrrr) that day. Driving while soaking wet wasn't exactly something we were interested in getting into. We were slated to explore glacier that day and wanted to use the time for that!
An important detail that shouldn't be overlooked here was that Sam and I both woke up feeling a little sore in our throats and a little stuffy, though Sam definitely felt worse than I. My current theory is that our sinuses kicked into schlime* overdrive when we went from a very humid rainforest atmosphere to a very dry mountain atmosphere. Any ENT doctors out there should definitely feel free to chime in. Us feeling bad hadn't really impacted our plans too much though. We each sucked on a cold eeze as we drove, hoping that would somehow help.
Soon we started a very high paced drive through the Montanan countryside. It sure was gorgeous. I think Sam and I both agree that it was some of the prettiest landscape we have seen on the entire trip. A big sapphire lake with rolling emerald hills rising out from it. Cherry orchards in abundance all along the way. Big fluffy and bright white clouds that might drop a little rain even when the sun was shining and the rest of the sky was blue. A huge variety of trees with new growth and many shades of green. Perfectly cared-for log houses with hunter green tin roofs. The pictures we took couldn't even start to capture the beauty we felt we were seeing, despite Sam's abilities.
We took a little detour in addition to the scenic route mainly because I think Sam was having fun with the maps and didn't have phone/internet access while I drove. It was worth it regardless because we saw a few more bald eagles eating something gross in a field and a pheasant running around, its bright red and green feathers a stark contrast to the chartreuse grasses it tried to hide in.
We arrived at the west entrance of Glacier only to learn that much of the park was still closed for the season due to snowy conditions. Luckily a ranger (seriously, rangers are your friends!) explained that we could head over to the eastern side of the park and have a better chance at seeing wildlife and doing a little hiking. We decided to stop by our hostel on the way to the other park entrance, listening to a classical music mix of cello-centric pieces that Sam had put together a few years ago. Along the way, this is what we saw:
See? Totally fitting.
We arrived at Brownie's Hostel and checked into our room. Yes, there is a hostel/bakery near East Glacier national park. A private room was nearly as cheap as our campsite from the night before and came with a bed and WiFi. Win-win. The building was almost 100 years old, but I think that only makes it cooler. After we chucked our stuff, we padlocked the clapboard door (feeling quite a lot like the old dudes of the west) and headed off on our steel horse with wheels to see Glacier. The drive was breathtaking.
En route we saw tons of livestock and saw plenty of signs about open ranges, which luckily prepared us for a band of real horses that decided the grass was greener *right* on the other side, just next to the road. A few miles later two grown horses and a very very young foal were doing the same. Before I knew it (did I mention I passed out, in the napping sense, on the drive?) we had arrived! Sam seemed a little more antsy to get out of the car than I did, probably because he had been manning the gas pedal unchecked for so many miles.
Sam had a trail in mind in hopes of just gaining a bit of a vantage point and we strapped on hiking boots and winter coats and made our way to a trail head. Each of the three trailheads I had seen at this park had very clear warnings about bear activity, strongly encouraging bear spray for hiking groups with 3 or fewer people. Want to know what I was thinking when I read that?: Seriously, Glacier? Everyone knows I over worry. How can you do this to me? How can I push the warnings out of my mind and take this hike at 5pm at the end of hibernation season through bear country? Ugh. Well, I guess I'll carry these big rocks with me to defend Sam and I against grizzlies. And I'll do my best to make lots of noise since Sam won't be paying any attention at all because he'll be clicking away on his camera. How can I be a better sport than I was at Crater Lake, land of the avalanche?
Well, I can tell you I sure did try. Five minutes into the hike we were climbing over a pretty fresh patch of trees that seemed to have succumbed to a snow melt avalanche just days before. I'm talking 30+ pines using on each other all down a mountainside, though none looked to be more than ten years old. Soon we were safely above the treeline, which helps not only with avalanches, but also with bears (in my mind). We looked up at the small patches of snow on the mountains above and saw a small herd of sheep grazing. Looking out to the other peaks reminded me if my very first hike with Sam to the Tannheimer Tal in Austria in 2007. We've sure come a long way in seven years, but I'm still battling the voice of fear that runs through my brain, making me an inherently overly cautious person.
As a storm rolled in we decided to check out part of another trail we had scouted on the way in and hiked back down. The other trail was in trees (eeek) and I totally forgot to mention the duck we saw at this trailhead in the way in! It was dead. And it had its head torn cleanly from its body. Imagine the stories I was making up there! No wonder I was all cautious on our walk. Who eats just the head of a gall-dern duck?? Rather than get hung up on what kind of animal just eats a duck's head, Sam decided it was time for a photo.
At this point I was really battling my silly inner fears and the refreshing rain that was rolling in across the peaks above was helping quite a bit. Little creeks were already swelling and the rain pushed water over the edge in little rivulets. It was cool enough that it almost felt like ice rather than rain. We spent a few more minutes taking pictures and then decided to leave mainly because it was unclear that any restaurant would be open after 9, a problem we ran into repeatedly on our trip. It was already 7:30 and we were nearly an hour from town.
On the drive back we saw a female moose preparing to cross the street in front of us as we rounded a bend. Sam stopped in time and I attempted to take a photo before she disappeared, but I realized the settings were all wrong just a moment too late. Luckily Adobe Lightroom could still produce this photo of our moose after we adjusted all the settings a lot.
Of course that caused us to miss our turn, and as we backtracked we rounded a bend again we saw a beaver! This time I had the camera settings right, though my ability to photograph wildlife out of a car window leaves much to be desired compared to Sam who grabbed the camera as the beaver crossed the road into his side. Don't worry! We had pulled over to the shoulder already and hadn't seen another car for more then 30 minutes.
Once we got back into town we made the rounds to see if there was anywhere that could feed us. We wound up following nicely hand painted billboards to a bar outside of town that also had a kitchen that was still up and running. Phew!
At the end of the meal we went back to the hostel to work on blog posts into the wee hours of the morning. Well, Sam worked. My hands were tied as he used the computer to organize photos for the posts. Instead I read a little and made several cups of camomile tea for each of us in hopes of soothing our throats. By the time we went to bed we sure slept like angels though.
The morning brought sorer throats and a list of annoyances to deal with. Sam was such on the phone with El Paso traffic ticket people again to see if his letter had arrived. On that call he learned that the first person he spoke to had told him to address the letter to the wrong department. The ticket itself didn't have his proper name written on it and the address they had listed for Sam was incorrect because of the officer's illegible handwriting. Sam was given further instructions on how to deal with protesting the ticket, but there was a lot of back and forth. Not long after that Skype call was finished, the transformer for the hostel blew. Luckily I had already heated the hot water with salt and lemon to gargle and help our throats. To stop the trail of not so fun stuff, we loaded the car and grabbed one of Brownie's famous cinnamon rolls before skipping town with Yellowstone a mere 7 hours away.
*schlime = mucus in German. I bet you couldn't have guessed that. There are so many words like that in German that I bet you'd be fluent by just knowing a few verbs and throwing on a German accent. E.G. schmutzig = dirty, brezel = pretzel, blumen = flowers, antibebepillen = birth control...