Learning to Love and Leave: Glacier National Park to Canada

Above valleys filled with low white clouds, along a cliff-side of shattered stone, where mountain goats stand sentinel over u-shaped canyons and sub-zero winter winds and snowdrifts dwarf all the gnarled alpine firs, there began in me a realization that Glacier National Park would be this trip’s crowning jewel – if not for the park’s wildness, then for its dramatic scenery.

It drizzled all morning our first day out. The rain fell not from a dark ceiling of clouds but rather a swarm of swirling white ones. Many crashed into the peaks on our level, wrapping us in wind-borne mists.

We climbed high over the pass at Scenic Point. Clouds gathered in the dale below, curling catlike – as a moving fog does – into the creases of distant canyons. Light and shadow danced across the land.

Chimichanga, Hedgehog and I paused in the wind and rain near the top of the pass to gaze over fog-banked valleys.

“I can already tell,” I said, “that it’s gonna be hard to get anything done here. I can’t take three steps in a row without reaching for my camera.”




  

It was the first day of the last leg of our journey. Within our group of five, we all knew the CDT was in the bag. So we planned to slow the pace. To walk fewer daily miles. To enjoy ourselves – coasting, rather than racing, to the Canadian border.

The fact of finishing, however – the emotion and reality of it – made me uneasy. Before disembarking from East Glacier, I wrote in my journal:

“Strangely, the ending of this thing is making me confront the fact that I’m still trying to figure out how to live my life. I guess I’ll be doing that right up until the day I die; but right now everything feels fluid. Impermanent. Reality is a slippery fish. I can’t seem to get a grip on anything at all.”

We camped the first night at Oldman Lake and woke the next day to climb into a craggy wonderland, up and over Pitamakan Pass. Light from the rising sun angled up the valley, throwing peak reflections in crystal relief on placid lake surfaces. The trail switchbacked. When I reached the top, Chimichanga was on a side adventure – his lank figure a tiny dash crossing the crest of a razor-sharp wall in the distance.

Messed Up sat at the pass beneath a signpost in an obvious state of rapture, for the basin below was spectacular. I joined him to await Chimi, Dayglo and Hedgehog. I think we were both searching for words to describe the view’s beauty and the emotion it stirred in us – an endeavor bound for failure – so Messed Up simply said:

“This place is incredible.”

When everyone arrived, we took this photo:

From there we descended into the basin. Elks bugled and waterfalls roared in the valleys – the lush vales of stream bed and wood, of decaying thimble berry and blonde Timothy grass.

“I love that sound,” Messed Up said of the bugling elks. “It’s so wild.”

 

We took a gradually ascending trail up an enormous wall to Triple Divide Pass, so named because its watersheds drain into three separate oceans: The Atlantic, the Pacific and Hudson Bay. (Thanks, Bob, for that little bit of info!)

The trail itself was hewn into cliff sides, which rose above us to our right as we climbed, while to our left plunged the ever-growing drop to the canyon floor. We stopped now and again during the climb’s throes, not because we needed rest – by then, after more than 2,700 miles logged on our legs, we could simply climb mountains of any elevation straight to the top. In fact, Chimi sometimes joked about it, saying, “We’re invincible terminator machines now. We don’t ever have to stop.” But we stopped here and there on this particular climb because the scenery stopped us. We stopped to stand in thrall at trail’s rim, with the rocky massifs tearing up into the sky of driving clouds and the wind soughing in toothpick forests way down deep beneath our feet.


 

We lunched at Triple Divide Pass before descending again to a waterfall, where we filled our bottles. Dayglo remarked that the pooling stream would be a good place to swim, if only it weren’t so cold.

“It’s amazing how cold it’s been for this whole trail,” Dayglo said.

“Yeah, I feel almost like I didn’t get a summer this year,” I replied.

And Messed Up, hearing this, riffed on Mark Twain:

“The coldest winter I ever had was the summer I spent on the CDT.”

 

As we walked I kept thinking about how disorienting endings are. I told my friends that I didn’t know how to meet the monument at the Canadian border. Should I be relieved? Should I be happy to have accomplished this goal? Why does the thought of finishing make me sort of sad? Glacier National Park, meanwhile, was such a magical place. It felt perfect in a way. Almost as if the entire walk was meant to culminate in the park, which, for its superlative beauty, presented itself as the ultimate distillation of all that went before, so much so that when you got there, you simply accepted that fact on face value. You were like, “Oh, okay. Yep. I see how this fits. It’s a given. Duh.”

And I said to myself, “I don’t know why anyone would ever leave this place.”


  

One morning I looked up and saw a white dot high on the mountain. I couldn’t tell what it was until we neared. Then I saw it was a mountain goat posted at the lip of a high rock pillar. “That might be the coolest animal ever,” Dayglo said of the goat. And it’s true. The goat was super-duper rad, the way he sat there, right on the cusp in complete nobility. He didn’t seem to have an agenda other than to rise in the morning and find his post and gaze regally down into the valley, as if he were surveying his domain. We walked beneath him for about 20 minutes. Then, without prompting, he turned from the cliff side and moved away.

The recent fires at St. Mary’s Lake detoured us to St. Marys, a little gateway village to the park. We hitched up Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s polite to make smalltalk while hitching, but I left that in the deft hands of Chimichanga and Messed Up. Nowadays, for some reason, I can’t hardly stay awake in cars. I get in, feel the engine and movement, and snooze. I fell asleep in three of the last five hitches. It’s weird. I dunno. Anyway. On this particular hitch, I did wake, though, when we pulled aside to view a distant glacier. I read a sign that said all the Glaciers in Glacier National Park would likely melt out by 2050.

What will we call Glacier National Park then? … National Park?

We walked the Highline Trail alongside a feature called the Garden Wall, where we began taking side trips. We climbed steep trails to Grinnell Glacier Overlook, Ahern Pass and Sue Lake Overlook. When I reached Ahern Pass, Chimichanga and Dayglo were descending, and it was a cold early morning, and I was in the mood of deep thought. So much of day-to-day life is predicated on mood and mindset. Well, this last walk through Glacier was pretty dang lousy with reflective romanticism – at least for me. So when I reached Ahern Pass, I remember struggling with the idea of finishing and with the dawning realization that my life was moving on, while also pondering another question – one which I chew on frequently: Why has it become so important for me to spend time in the mountains? And, in connection, why do I feel the need to understand these mountain landscapes?

Do you know how you can often feel a truth before you can explain it? Well, that’s how it was.

And I stood very still on a rock in the howling wind and gazed down the valley east of Ahern Pass, a place of grays and browns, composed primarily of chunky boulders. In the bottom sat two silvery tarns, one draining into the other. I watched wind rake chevrons across their silvery surfaces. And I allowed myself to linger in the cold and ponder my relationship with the landscape – a meditation which I wrote down in my journal immediately after it passed:

I’m sad to be leaving this life, I thought. But I don’t have to be if I keep coming back to it. If I drive myself always back into the mountains. But why do I feel this way? I mean, what do these places stir in me? I think it’s a complicated question to ask, tied to upbringing and anxiety and existentialism and the mandate in my heart and mind lately that life should be spent in pursuit of beauty – in all its variegated forms.

There is certainly something in these landscapes, complex in relationships, that reduces all into an essence. Maybe it’s the raw contact with life: the fact that life and death happens here, in a pure form, in a form free from civilization’s interference. Perhaps that’s why coming out here feels so important. Perhaps it’s the action of standing here before such beauty, of moving through the great beauty, of partaking in it while also being receptive to it. You must tune your mind in a certain way for it to be properly receptive of beauty, which is why I want to understand what I see. At any rate, what the wild makes me desire, I think, is greatness – but not greatness in the sense of, say, Julius Caesar. No, looking at this glacial valley, at these wind-riled lakes, what comes over me is a desire, finally, to be good. By that I mean do right. Yes, the natural world makes me want to be a good man. I don’t know that it can show me how to be a good man. I don’t know that it teaches those kinds of lessons. It might. But what I’m sure of right now, in this moment, is that it sparks in me a simple desire to be a good man. And that must be enough; because, after all, it’s a point from which to start and re-start. Wilderness has always been associated with renewal. So this is it for me then: A place for always turning and re-turning, a constant rejuvenation of the good in myself, which occurs so readily in the alembic of this world’s operatic spaces.

I don’t know how long I stood at the pass. But when I came back down my friends were gone. The trail from there curved into a huge bowl. A cataract crashed on the far side, and I could hear it, but nothing else. Nothing but silence.

I thought, How can a place so big be so quiet?

I met up with my friends at the waterfall.

“You were up there for a while,” Dayglo said.

“Shit got spiritual,” I replied.

He pointed up at the waterfall. “That’s a spring, by the way. All of that water is coming right out of the mountain.”

I put my face in it and drank deeply and the water was fresh and cold.

Later we took another side trip to Sue Lake Overlook – a shelf on a high wedge of rock. We ate lunch there, admiring the cliffs and the pinnacles and the dying glacier. It might have been our most epic lunch spot yet. When it came time to move on, Chimichanga said, “I’ll be right behind. I’m gonna stay up here for 15 minutes or so.” Having come off Ahern Pass earlier that day, I knew what he was up to. And so I left him with his thoughts.

We camped our last night at Kootenai Lake, in a valley called Goat Haunt. In the middle of the night a bull elk came crashing through camp, not five feet from Messed Up’s tent. Day broke, and Chimi and I made a final side trip up a mile-long trail to a place called Goat Haunt Overlook. From there, we had an overhead view of Waterton Lake, a royal blue elongated body of water with curvaceous contours surrounded by birch and fir and pine trees.

Chimi pointed to the opposite shore:

“The trail goes right down the far side of the lake over there,” he said, “and then … well, really, that’s it. The border’s at the end of the lake.”

“There she is,” I said. “Our last stretch.”

We stood silently as that sunk in.

“Does it feel like it’s been a long time?” Chimichanga asked.

“Yeah, man, it does. At least I think it does. How about for you?”

“Not really. It wasn’t a drag. You know how when you’re working in an office and it can just get that drag. Well, I didn’t get that drag. Everyday – almost constantly – we saw something new. I think that made the time go by faster.”

“I see what you mean. When you think about it that way, it does seem like it went by fast. I guess I just feel like I’ve done a lot. And I’m still not sure how to feel about finishing this thing.”

We started heading back down toward the lake.

“If you think about it,” Chimichanga said, “it’s an absolute luxury that we get to do this. Not many people get to take half a year out of their lives to go walking wild and free in some of the most beautiful places in the world.”

He might have been telling me how to feel about finishing. I’m not sure. He might have been telling me to just be thankful.

We strolled up to the border on a sunny afternoon after jumping off a bridge into a crystal blue swimming hole. It was September 25. I rounded the corner to see Chimi staring out at Waterton Lake. He was standing on a beach by the dock. I didn’t realize where we were until he said – still staring out at the lake – he said: “This is it, dude. I haven’t gone up there yet.”

And then my eyes fell on the monument – which was, in a sense, the objective of our striving over these past 159 days.

“Holy shit,” I said, “the Canadian border.”

I went down to the beach with Chimichanga, reluctant to touch the obelisk.

I guess this is the end, I thought. Then: How do you christen a moment like this? What’s the proper attitude?

Our other buddies showed up – Dayglo, Hedgehog and Messed Up. I remember Hedgehog smiling and doing a funny little shimmy-dance. I remember laughing. Then I went up there to the monument, squared off to it, grabbed the point of it with my own two hands and screamed at the top of my lungs – screamed into Canada, into the north, which was always our direction of travel.

From that point, the celebration was on. We popped bottles, hugged and congratulated one another, stood in a circle passing various libations, then sat on a floating dock, sipping champagne, enjoying the warm sunny day and the imposing mountains and the autumnal foliage and the gentle rolling of the tide beneath the dock.


What a place to finish, that lonesome Waterton Lake. I’m not too sure how long we sat dockside. All I know is the moment felt perfect – good and long and warm and perfect.

Although we’d completed the CDT, the nearest town was still four miles off. We had to walk – or, well, more accurately, stumble – the whole way to Waterton Township. I pondered over and again how it’s funny to think a journey would end when in the end you just keep on walking.

After an imbroglio with Canadian customs we wound up the next morning in a Montana town called Browning. I needed to hitch to East Glacier, and Chimichanga and Dayglo were in the hotel business office searching for flights. None of us had much of a plan.

“This is such a weird situation to be in,” Chimichanga said. “I’m literally just clicking around on the computer trying to figure out where to go next – what to do in life.”

The existence of travelers: always at home, forever at sea.

Dayglo and I said farewell, then Chimichanga said, “I’ll come see you off.”

We went to the front of the hotel and stood in the portico.

“Well, this might be it,” Chimi said. “We’ve walked a long time together.”

“It’s been fun,” I said. “It’s been great.”

“I don’t care if it’s three years or five years, we’ve got to go on another adventure together.”

“For sure, man. There aren’t many people I could spend that much time with. I just get sick of people, you know. But that didn’t happen with you. It’s a good partnership we had.”

“Yeah, it was a good sidekick thing we had going on.”

We promised again to keep in touch, hugged and parted – me walking out toward the road, him turning back to the business of figuring out what the hell to do with his life. The wind blew as I crossed a dusty lot. I was thinking “how is it possible to feel sad and excited for life at the same time,” when I heard Chimichanga holler across the field: “Be strange, but don’t be a stranger!”

I waved goodbye and stepped onto the wind-blasted highway. My American flag bandanna flapped on my backpack strap. I saw a green sign that said “East Glacer 12.” “That ain’t so bad,” I said to a pile of dirt. And then I threw a thumb.

All of that would’ve been a fitting ending to this whole thing, but as fate would have it, Chimichanga and Dayglo wound up hitching to East Glacier as well. My train to Seattle was delayed, and we sat in a bar watching TCU play Tech. It was a close game. My train finally arrived when TCU finished the game-winning drive. I ran out into the street at dusk just as my train pulled away, sending me on a crazy hitching adventure racing the train to West Glacier. Some nice dudes drove about a buck 20 to get me to West Glacier in time. A wild ride, but by God, we made it.

We always seem to make it.

During the following days, for reasons unknowable to me, the goat standing cliff side on the pinnacle of rock kept recurring in my thoughts. The way I live my life I see symbols and layers in everything. It all tells a story. Living this way, I think, makes life more interesting. And I think about that goat standing sentinel over the valley and then I think about how, unbidden, he simply turned and walked away. Nothing prompted him. He just determined it was time and went on living his life. And I think that’s the way life goes. You just finish things and when their time is up you turn and carry them in your heart and walk on. That’s all I really know how to do, anyway, and so that’s what I’m trying to do now.

  
  

 

   

 

Posted in Backpacking.

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