September 13, 2012

The Great American Road Trip - Going-To-The-Sun and Backroads of Rural Montana

Continued from The Great American Road Trip - Missoula.

We were like three bandits, taking off in a packed car in the early morning hours. It was what the day called for if we were going to do everything on our agenda. Today we drive north, to Glacier National Park and then back south to Helena for the night. I saw a picture in a travel magazine once of Glacier National Park and the Going-To-The-Sun road that runs through it, and it was one of those moments that changes you. It's as if the very makeup of your body's cells change, the driving force of your life steers a little bit differently and you will always have that place in the near periphery of your mind, your compass pointing closer in that direction. That's how it is with places for me sometimes, I can not rest until I have at least gulped in a lungful of air from that space on this earth.

Glacier National Park from the Going-To-The-Sun road.

After exiting the Interstate east of Missoula, we head north on Highway 93. Within a few miles we are surrounded by beautiful Montana countryside. This is what you call "God's Country". Perhaps it is for lack of a better term or maybe it is too easy, too lazy to call it that, but for the challenge and for all non-believers out there, I'll take a crack at describing it. God's Country is a place so powerful that it awakens you from the inside out. A sun rises, warm, from within and slowly spreads throughout, making your cells vibrate until you feel more alive than before you came to this place. It momentarily takes your breath and brings you into the present moment. Worries, sadness, even laughter are halted with no explanation needed, you are here and you are now and you are part of it and it is part of you and there is no separation between you and all that is. It is not necessarily a place so stunningly beautiful that you exclaim out loud in admiration, instead, it submits you to expansive silence and reminds you that you are part of something that is bigger than just yourself, like an opening into all that could be.

Morning in rural Montana.

I was the one driving, so I only captured a few snapshots with my point-and-shoot camera balanced on the steering wheel. There are some places where I do not want to take a photograph, I want the image in my mind to be the only one I have.

Countryside from my point-and-shoot camera.

Eventually we reach Flathead Lake, a huge, long, beautiful blue lake sometimes lined with the homes of lucky people. I wonder what winters are like here? For miles, the road travels between the lake and hillside orchards with an occasional roadside stand full of fresh cherries.

The road to Flathead Lake.

Flathead Lake.

Three hours after leaving Missoula we find ourselves on the Going-To-The-Sun road. We pass Lake McDonald, lined on one side by a dead forest, apparently caught in a wildfire some years before. The road heads up into the mountains, passing both raging blue creeks and quiet meandering ones. After a lot of climbing on the mountainside road, the valley opens up beneath us and I understand why they call it Going-To-The-Sun. At one point we stop and are treated to a young Bighorn Sheep scampering across a patch of snow across the street.

Lake McDonald and the missing forest.

On the banks of Lake McDonald.

The amazing color of a glacier melt river.

The meandering waters of the valley lands.

Poppy, enjoying the fresh air on our way up the mountain.

Stopped, alongside Going-To-The-Sun road.

A young Bighorn Sheep.

Poppy wants to jump after a rabbit.

A beautiful lake on our way back down the mountain.

Again, Poppy wants to jump down the cliff!

It is a bit sad to leave Glacier National Park, such a beautiful place to breeze through, I wish.... Well, this trip is not about national park visits, it's a drive-by tour, a whiff, a glimpse, a hint, a taste to find out what places call you back. I am disappointed, but not because the Going-To-The-Sun road did not live up to my expectations, but because it did. Driving it without the opportunity for exploration is like listening to a symphony behind a closed door.

At a gas station outside the park, I go into a convenience store to get a snack. It is busy and full of Native Americans.  It is surreal and it makes me strangely happy. I am the minority and I am here visiting their turf, I guess as it was hundreds of years ago.

The backroads of Montana do not disappoint. As we get further from the mountains, the trees disappear and the earth rolls in long lulling swells of grassland and fields. Sometimes it feels so wide and endless that I fear I will drift into nothingness, that my being will just vanish amongst the landscape. Perhaps that is how we keep our lives small and manageable, through containment. Here it seems borderless and boundary-less with no reference with which to know myself. I could be anything or nothing. I could be everything or never known. Here, you could ask yourself and really feel it, who are you if you are nothing, what are you if you have everything?

At some point along the way, we decide to scratch Helena and go all the way to Bozeman. It is a few hours further but then we would have less driving to do the next day. So, I start doing some research on Paul's iPhone about pet-friendly hotels in Bozeman. Service is spotty and weak at best, so I don't have much luck.

In the small, dusty, tired town of White Sulphur Springs, we stop because we have AT&T service and Paul tries booking a place to stay in Bozeman while I play fetch with Poppy in an abandoned, dry grassy field across the street. After forty minutes in the dwindling sunlight, Paul finally gives up in frustration and we decide to head on to Bozeman and find a place to stay when we get into town. If only I knew what was in store for us.

White Sulphur Springs

A storm is brewing to the south, maybe it will miss us and blow through before we get there. The stormy clouds and the setting sun produce some beautiful evening light.

Highway 86 is a windy road through very rural Montana countryside north of Bozeman. It is twilight, but I can still make out the soft beauty of the lovely farms and ranches. It is too dark for photographs so I just enjoy the ride and the fresh smell of land that has recently been cleansed with rain. The road is still wet from the storm that must have passed through here very recently. It calms me in a way that makes you realize that you can be even calmer than you already are.

We arrive in Bozeman and drive along the main street downtown. There are a lot of people out, but I guess it is Friday night. It is different than I remember it twelve years ago. Then, it was the closing weeks of winter and probably a week night and the downtown seemed empty and people, scarce. Of course, it is more built up, added to, and improved with bustling restaurants and bars. Maybe we could leave Poppy in the room for an hour or so and check out the evening vibe.

We pull into Rodeway Inn, a place I had managed to identify as a pet-friendly hotel. It is windy and cool and damp, probably from the recent storm, and we have to dig our jackets out of the car for the first time on the trip. The girl at the front desk is very nice and informs us they have no more rooms. In fact, she would be surprised if any hotel in town had any rooms, they had been booked every weekend all summer long, but she would call us if she had a cancellation. Of course, I thought, we are only a couple hours drive from Yellowstone, of course they are going to be booked up. The shock and panic settle in, the only towns within an hour or so drive are closer to Yellowstone, not further away, and any rooms they might have will be booked as well. What are we going to do?

Starving, we walk across the street to get the only food that seems to be anywhere in sight, McDonald's. Now, I am a little ashamed to admit, but I like Chicken McNuggets. Maybe it is because they were first introduced when I was a kid and I was grateful for the alternative to their gross hamburgers (not that we were treated to McDonald's very often at all), but a road trip has become my excuse to indulge in my guilty pleasure. It is 10pm and the McDonald's is packed full, I doubt one more person would be allowed to enter for fear of being fined by the Fire Marshall. After a very long line at the counter, a plain, young woman with light brown hair and a European accent takes my order.

Paul is outside with Poppy furiously working away on his iPhone trying to find us a room, but it is looker more bleak with every try. Are we going to have to sleep in our car? Are we going to have to drive a couple of hours to find a room? Its already late and most people are probably checked in to their reserved rooms, our chances of someone cancelling at this hour are slim. This is what you get for being spontaneous and not planning ahead. I go back in McDonald's to wait for my order, with all the people, they seemed to be taking a very long time. Finally, I get my to-go order and quickly walk outside. Paul is on the phone and it sounds like he found a room.
"How about I give you my information when we get there? We are just across the street." he says and hangs up.
"She found a room at the Rodeway Inn?" I say.
"Yup, and I almost didn't answer her call because it was from a Portland area code!"

We walk across the street to the Rodeway Inn. The young woman seems really happy that she found us a room. It turns out she is from Portland and is going to school at Montana State University, the phone system is so complicated at the hotel that she called us from her personal cell phone to tell us of the last minute cancelled reservation.
"It was crazy," she said, "Right after you left, the room cancellation flashed across my computer screen. I think you got the last hotel room in Bozeman."

Maybe foregoing the plan and being spontaneous can work out after all.

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