Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Montana, Parts 1 and 2

Montana, Part 1

Greetings from Kalispell, Montana, where the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, and a local resident can give you much better directions than Mapquest. My cousins Nancy and Charlotte and I are on the road again.
Before setting out I made a list of what I needed, and yesterday morning the three of us were dancing around each other, packing (“I'm ready!”), and unpacking (“On second thought, I don't need this, or that, or those”), and doing last minute laundry. Then we packed the car (“We're ready!”) and then we re-packed it (“Wait – this will fit in here”).
Finally we were off, heading east on I-90, bound for adventure, old friends, and relatives unseen for forty years who live in Montana.
We stopped in Idaho to see the Old Mission east of Coeur d'Alene, “the oldest building in Idaho.” The oldest structure partially built by white people in the four-walls-and-a-roof style, that is. It is a Catholic Church that was built between 1850 and 1853 by the Coeur d'Alene Indians, and the Jesuits who came to settle there.
The Old Mission is a state park now, and the church building is almost empty inside, with a few sparse exhibits. The altar is there, as are two side altars with iconographic paintings and decorations. The hand-hewn floorboards are shiny with age and care, and behind the altar you can see the mud and straw construction that is covered by wood elsewhere. There are two pews up front facing the altar, and one kneeler. Engravings of the Stations of the Cross were hung around the walls of the church, as is customary in a Catholic church, and there were a few iconic paintings of saints.
One painting is of a happy priest or brother and a happy nun, with joyful saints fluttering above them in heaven and tormented souls capering in the flames of hell below. This one bothered me because I have problems with “scare the hell out of them” theology. Just my opinion.
At several places both inside the church and scattered around the property were stations where you could push a button and hear recordings of Coeur d'Alene storytellers. Charlotte and I listened to one tale of going up the mountain with grandmother to gather huckleberries and make jam over the campfire. Inside the church an endless loop played liturgical music and Indian prayer and song.
The Mission has a public restroom which turned out to be an outhouse. Clean, well constructed, well maintained, and if you sit down, a nice cooling updraft. The first, but not the last, of this type of facility encountered on the trip.
We kept going east from the Old Mission and stopped for a late lunch in St. Regis, Montana, where we discovered we had cell phone reception for the first time since leaving Coeur d'Alene, and like E.T., we called home. We also discovered in St. Regis that we had crossed into the Mountain Time zone. I had not thought about this happening. Suddenly it was one hour later. Cousin Charlotte assured me that I would get the hour back on the way home. Good. I'm getting older fast enough without dropping odd hours here and there. Another thing I did not know was that cellphones KNOW what time zone you're in and adjust their clocks to local time. This gave me a little bit of a heeby-jeeby.
From St. Regis we headed north up the Clark River, and then up the west side of Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake is a large body of water with miles of shoreline, waterfront cottages, little marinas filled with boats, and scenic roadside lookouts. To the east beyond the lake stand the Rocky Mountains.
At the north end of the lake sits the city of Kalispell, in a broad grassy valley with the Rockies on the east side and the Bitterroot Mountains on the west. I would say it is beautiful there, and it is, but beautiful seems such a worn-out, overused, and inadequate word to describe the area. This was a problem I would continue to have in Montana. Words can't describe the scope, the magnitude, the sheer drop-dead gorgeousness of the land. We went when the weather was sunny and fine and not too hot, so that may have enhanced the impression of heaven on earth.
We stayed in Kalispell for a couple of days, catching up with friends and family, and then we went to Glacier Park.
Next time: Glacier Park and heading home.

Montana, Part 2: Glacier Park*

When last seen, our intrepid spiritual smart aleck, amateur tourist, was in Kalispell, Montana. Here we pick up the narrative:
On Wednesday we loaded Charlotte's Camry and pulled out of Kalispell on Highway 2 headed for Glacier Park.
Kalispell is located in the grassy Flathead Valley. As you are driving on the valley floor heading east, the Rockies are in front of you, and there is an abrupt change from flat land to mountains. There is no gradual ascension into the mountains. There are no foothills. You just drive east and bam! Suddenly you're in the Rockies.
Soon Charlotte announced that we had just crossed the continental divide, and she pulled into a rest stop there so we could contemplate this fact. I've never crossed the continental divide in a car, only in trains and airplanes, so this was new for me, but I have to tell you, the divide itself is not more picturesque than the surrounding mountains. I took pictures anyway.
We drove on a while longer and suddenly we came around a turn and bam! There were the Great Plains! I was shocked. It only takes a couple of hours including a rest stop to drive through the Rockies? I was raised on tales of the brave pioneers crossing the Plains and then crossing the Rockies, and I always thought that the Rockies were a pretty substantial physical barrier, but if you cross on Highway 2 from Kalispell, not so much.
At East Glacier we headed north on Highway 49 to Highway 89. By this time we were on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. They were called Blackfeet because they wore dark moccasins, I learned. I always wondered about that.
We came to where a forest fire has left untold acres of dead burned trees on both sides of the road for miles. Finally we passed through the burn and came to unburned landscape and then to St. Mary, a little settlement from which you can enter Glacier Park on the Going to the Sun Road. We entered the Park, and headed west.
Now, many people over the years have raved to me about the beauty of Glacier Park, but now I've seen it and realize that there are no adjectives that adequately convey the beauty, the wonder, the awesomeness, the steepness and wetness and snowiness that is Glacier Park. So now I'm raving about the beauty of Glacier Park. You must go see it, and soon, because the glaciers are melting fast.
The Going to the Sun road was completed in 1932. It is just under 50 miles long, and is currently being re-built, one section a year for the next 8 to 10 years. It is two lanes of narrow, sometimes twisty, sometimes hair-raising road clinging to the sides of sharp peaks above deep valleys, taking you past the falls and vistas and flora, and the deer, bear, and bighorn sheep, and road construction, of the Park. If you're afraid to drive this road, there are park shuttle buses and antique red tour buses. It took us about three hours to wander from east to west.
The only wildlife we saw was one deer, a young buck grazing near a rest room near Lake MacDonald. We saw none of the grizzly bears which Park literature, rangers, and signs warn you about repeatedly.
We returned to Flathead Valley at the end of our day, and stopped for the night in Bigfork. The next morning we got up and went to Kehoe's Agate Shop, where we saw more gem and silver jewelry than you can imagine is possible, and where we also realized for the first time that Montana has no sales tax.
Then we had lunch at the Hot Diggity Dog hot dog stand in Bigfork, and headed for home, and the Pacific Time Zone, and at least one casino where Nancy won some money, as she always does. At the end of the trip we parted sadly, saying, “Next year, the Grand Canyon!”
I can hardly wait.
*Note: Officially it is Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park because it straddles the border with Canada.