I had prepared myself for driving across the great plains; in fact, was looking forward to it as a real American experience.  But when I crossed into Montana, much of my fascination with the flatlands had been already reserved and spent in North Dakota.  Plus, my previous visit to Montana –Glacier National Park and driving the western highways 10 years ago – was more of a “mountain top experience.”  Geographically, I knew a large eastern swath of the state was NOT mountains, but as I marked my progress on my map on Hywy 2 across the northern stretch of the state through forgettable towns, it felt like I was moving like a glacier, and I was eager to just cover the miles.

The landscape didn’t change much, a continuum of rolling plains, but the use of the land seemed to change from North Dakota.  Cattle and horses were more common and while farming was still a visible enterprise, it felt less like a modern industrial complex.  The “Big Sky” was ever-present.  The towns all seemed fairly devoid of charms.  I hate to say it, but the addition of a fast food franchise might have made some of the towns more charming.  I mean, I hate what’s happened to America how chain stores and eateries have displaced local businesses, but it’s even worse when there’s not even a surviving local business around to displace.  One thing that does seem to thrive in Montana, is casinos.  I don’t mean the big resort type.  Just a little nook in every gas station or restaurant will suffice.

I stopped for dinner in Havre, one of the bigger towns.  I skipped the chain restaurants on the fringe and went to a main street Mexican restaurant that adjoined a small casino.  The restaurant half was entirely empty.  Some young boys on skateboards watched me park and recognized me as being from somewhere else.  “What are you doing in this lousy town?”  It’s true that I wouldn’t want to live there and already had no interest in passing through it again, but I thought of the “Hometown Tour Guide” video contest I created for Academic Expeditions, based on the ideal that every town has a heritage to be proud of, so I tried to be positive.  I replied, “Well, it’s not bad, better than the previous towns I just passed through.”  This was true.  “You should try living here for a while; you’ll see.”  I told them to have a good night, and as I walked away I imagined that somewhere in the future that boy will be working in an office in some metropolis, and Merle Haggard’s “Big City” will pop up on his lunch break playlist and he’ll say to himself, “Those were the days, when I could ride my skateboard with my friends down main street.”

I put in long hours driving to hasten my trip across Montana and killed a million headlight lured bugs on the front of my car.  I stopped to sleep at a wayside in Chester.  Directly across the road in the lamplight, I could see a diner and it looked every bit the quintessential roadside diner.  An enterprising hipster would drool to have that small building.  I slept a quiet and solid night dreaming of the breakfast I would have there in the morning.  Even after the sun rose, there was a quiet to the place and very little traffic on the road.  I woke up and walked across the street to the diner and looked through through the large window.  I could tell by some of the things stored inside that it was no longer in operation.  The only business going on was a large rock out front that had a hand written sign taped to it that said “Free” above a small pile of clothes and nick-nacks.

When I was little and our family drove from Oklahoma to the Rockies, we’d play a game with each other to see who would be the first to spot a mountain on the horizon as we headed west, and we’d all be amazed at how long it took to actually get to that mountain as it slowly grew larger and larger in our windshield.  I played this game with myself as I eyed the map and saw I was nearing Glacier National Park.  I was thinking I should have already seen one as the rolling plains I had grown tired of kept persisting.  Then all at once a mountain came into view.  Not as a peak on a distant horizon, but a fully formed mountain that was actually quite near as it revealed itself through a fog.  That’s when I realized that the smoke I had smelt was not from a nearby campfire, but from a pervasive drifting haze from regional wildfires.  I knew there were fires in the area, but as the fires are localized, I thought the smoke would be too.  No, the smoke blanketed everything – not in a thick, suffocating way arising directly from flames, but in a more general amplified way like a settling fog or mist that limited visibility to only a handful of miles.

And thus Glacier National Park actually took on the appearance of Smoky Mountain National Park where the further away the ridge line was, the more it blended into the light blue of the sky.  It was still a very impressive scene, and fortunately I had been here before to see it with the clear vistas.  My previous trip was a 5 day backpacking trip into the interior trails.  This time, I stuck to the roads mostly (El Guapo is not allowed on the trails in National Parks) and visited parts of the park I didn’t see before.  I went to Two Medicine lake and Running Eagle Falls in the south part.

When I read that the Canadian side of the park (Waterton Lakes) DOES allow dogs on the trail, I decided to make an impromptu hop across the border.  The circuit roads to get there, along with some delays at the border meant that we spent more time in the car than we did on the trails.  Still, we got to see the impressive Prince of Wales hotel perched above the Waterton community and the lakes below, and hike up the Bears Hump trail to a rocky overlook.

We returned back into the US and spent a short night on a road side pull off in GNP.  I got an early start at sunrise to drive up the famous “Going to the Sun” Road that crosses the continental divide.  It was nice to be one of only a few vehicles on an otherwise busy road, but it felt like a ghost world near St. Mary’s lake where you could see the charred trees from recent fires.  Up near Logan Pass, there was no fire damage, but the hazy smoke was still all around, such that the mid-morning sun glowed orange through the haze like it had just risen.  I left El Guapo in the car while I did a quick run over the pass down to Hidden Lake.  He certainly would have tried to chase the mountain goats I passed, as he has with all the other animals we’ve seen from the car:  prairie dogs, buffalo, cows, a black bear, a moose.  The lake was surprisingly not as frigid as I thought it would be, so I took a brief swim in its super clear waters before running back.

The previous day, though impressive in scenery, had felt tiresome because I felt I was rushing and staying inside the car too much.  So when we got to the other side of the park, I inflated my SUP and took El Guapo out on Lake McDonald.  The waters were very placid and neither of us got wet at all as we floated/paddled to the other side and back.   I also just floated in the middle of the lake for a while and enjoyed a picnic lunch and some wine I had packed up.  Even with the limited visibility in the haze, Glacier is a special place.  Not the easiest place to get to, but I think it’s worthy of its label as the “Crown Jewel” of the NPS.

Leaving Glacier to the west, I rather expected the chain of mountains to just continue, but the landscape reverted back to rolling plains interspersed with lower elevation mountains.  As I thought about what route I wanted to continue west, I took stock of my trip thus far.  Scenery.  The silent observer.  Keeping on the move.  More scenery.  I was feeling disconnected socially.  When I conceived the trip originally, it was not my purpose to visit family or friends I already knew, but to enjoy the serendipity of strangers.  But I was not really meeting anybody; nor giving the time or energy to it.  As I updated my Mom and Dad on my progress in Montana, they told me I had cousins that lived near there and gave me their numbers.  I figured I wouldn’t go that route, but last minute, I decided to give them a call, and they promptly invited me to come stay.

A few hours later, I was in St. Regis at their house.  Now even though I was visiting “cousins” they could qualify as strangers, as I only met them a few times decades ago.  This may seem surprising to anyone who knows the Mostellers and how dedicated we are to family reunions, but you also have to know that my dad was the 12th of 15 kids.  These cousins were just a few of many cousins I have, and their mom was Aunt Edith, the oldest of my dad’s siblings.  So apart from being a generation older than me, they also have lived their lives in the Pacific Northwest.  So separated by geography and generations, we had a good bit to catch up on.  I enjoyed hearing some of their stories of the family from the early days and of Grandpa Pappy who died before I was born.  I’ve been a family archivist for while and I surprised them by showing them some old photos on my laptop that they hadn’t seen before.  I also enjoyed the comforts of home – a cozy bed, meals and a real shower for a night before hitting the road again.  Special thanks to cousin Russ, his wife Margie, and cousin Gary for welcoming me on short notice.

I spent a total of 3 nights in Montana and felt ready to keep heading west.  I sang John Denver’s “Wild Montana Skies” as I headed toward the border of Idaho…