getting there

You can be taught so much, but the sense of anticipation cannot be taught.

Paulie Malignaggi
I got the start-state right, but I’m nowhere near Glacier.

The day before Richard and I left for the long drive to Glacier National Park and the start of the Continental Divide Trail, I played my flute for three services at St Ambrose of Woodbury. Father Williams and five friends gathered around, laid their hands on me and blessed my trip.

It was magic – and so heartfelt – especially after his homily on the day’s gospel, you know when Jesus is out in the fishing boat with his disciples and a huge storm kicks up. Rather than help out, he takes a nap!

Though later, he calms the storm – the lesson being to live a life guided by faith and not by fear, because, in Father Williams’ words, ‘fear has no rights’ and can prevent you from a life of love, curiosity and generosity.

It’s funny how just the right words enter my life just when I need them. Here I was taking mapping classes, making gear lists, doing a shakedown hike and putting together enough food to feed a famished hiker for weeks on end and all I needed was some wisdom to focus my mind.

Yet my nights were all tossing and turning, but Monday was D-day and we were out the door at our planned time, with only a few tears as Richard got slightly bossy about how to pack the car. ‘We really should have bought a bigger car,’ he said, thinking of picking up three more hikers along the way and gear.

But that had to be set aside so we could go, the friends I planned to meet waiting for me to pick them up. And we were blessed with a cooler day, the clouds stacked up like fluffy gray cotton-balls, a child’s drawing to the horizon.

We flew across the state, pulling in briefly at Maplewood State Park, our last look at a particular brand of verdant green and abundant water among glacial-carved eskers and kettles. Red winged black birds slap trilled and white pelicans fished, heads underwater, their fluffy feathered rear-ends up in the air.

World’s Largest Tin Family
North Dakota sunset.
Geese in flight

In North Dakota, we slalomed through construction zones at 75 miles per hour, green fields reaching far towards the horizon. A sign pointed out the Continental Divide, well ‘a’ continental divide at just over 1,000 feet.

At New Salem, the windshield heated up and I fought to stay awake, but smile as we pass the worlds largest fiberglass cow, huge and black on a pointy hump of land. In fact, everything beyond is made up of humpy bits of land protruding from the prairie.

Richard wisely takes the wheel and rouses me as he suddenly takes an exit for the ‘Enchanted Highway,’ a road of massive scrap metal sculptures heading south from Gladstone to Regent.

‘Should we go; it’s out of our way?’ Richard asked as he speeds us up the hill to the first sculpture, a giant dreamcatcher filled with the silhouettes of flying geese. ‘Hey, there’re geese in flight atop fence posts all the way up the hill! We gotta do it!’

The two-lane road wound past flat-topped mesas, down into a coulee filled with cottonwoods, birds scattering out of the way of our car. A country road has a different rhythm to the interstate, inviting our eyes up to the vast sky and the grasses dancing in the hot, dry wind.

Leaping deer – fortunately made of metal – led to giant grasshoppers, a fisherman’s dream with a tiny man and his tiny boat fifty feet in the air, catching a fish at least 10 times his size. A joyous Teddy Roosevelt led to giant leggy and wide-eyed pheasants and finally a family of three, the woman Richard pointed out was not handsome. Two pronghorn antelope ran next to the road.

We were hungry and it was still an hour to our hotel in Dickinson, but helpful signs along the way urged us towards the ‘castle’ at the end of the road, a converted school filled with suits of armor, private rooms and a full bar. We ordered hamburgers and met Gary who made all of this happen over thirty years. What possesses someone to create something fanciful, a roadside attraction, a whimsy and a business all at once?

Soft brown eyes and a pert rear end.
Badlands
Slumping in action.

We set our alarm for 4:30 and rolled out of bed as the sun rose to have Theodore Roosevelt National Park as much to ourselves in the cool morning air as possible. He escaped to this wild, desolate place after losing his wife and mother on the same day. It buoyed his spirit and gave him purpose to work as a cattleman.

Now, we can drive the roads and take short hikes. The prairie dogs peep loudly, as they comically scamper about their towns and bison find the choicest grass, sometimes rolling in the dust. We followed a mini-heard up the road, tails swishing like windshield wipers over their small and shapely rear-ends, large, soft brown eyes peering at us from massive heads. Short walks brought us to badland overlooks and deeply eroded hillsides frozen in the act of slumping.

But a long drive awaited us still in Montana now with a speed limit jacked up to 80. We followed the Yellowstone River, the largest wild river still intact in the US, carving its way through steep cliffs dotted with Rocky Mountain Juniper. I was hot, much hotter than it should be this early and I have the a/c cranked on high. Our gas mileage was awful.

In Billings, I met Oceana my friend from the PCT who plans to hike 500 miles of the CDT. Her boyfriend’s parents invited us to dinner at their house at the edge of the rock cliffs. We laughed, shared stories, drank and ate, but Oceana and I both have that amped up nervousness of two hikers about to embark on something big, something unknown, something hard to grasp all at once.

Ingenious use of a ground cloth to double as hitchhiking sign.
The Subaru stuffed to the gills.
Hiker chicks in Great Falls on our way to Glacier National Park.

She showed me her pack and it elicits panic that I’m taking far too much. But when I speak about my other hikes, it elicits from her a feeling of being an imposter. Can one ever feel like they have it all dialed in? We did our due diligence, have a boat load of experience and have made our choices, but still, it never quite satisfies until we take that first step.

I played my flute in church the previous week too and my mind filters back to the lesson on that day when Jesus compares the kingdom of god to a mustard seed. It’s so tiny and yet becomes something large. All of that potential is contained in something seemingly insignificant. In that case, the priest focussed his message on how everything we do begins with something small and nascent, something undefined, yet ready to burst forth.

I fall asleep but jolted awake by Emily’s text that she’s ready to be picked up at the bus station. Like all bus stations in any city anywhere in the world, a sketchy cast of characters loiter in the poorly lit lot, redolent with pot. And there she is, her pack on her shoulder all smiles and tan. The age of my daughter if I had one.

We both fall into our beds, Richard already knocked out and morning comes early, with repacking up to roof.

The trail awaits, but with six hours to Glacier, the trail still feels like an idea. My walking it is still an idea. It’s not possible yet to know what happens, and it’s definitely not possible to know yet whether I’ve done my preparation perfectly. With that unknowable aspect and ambiguity comes ambivalence and second-guessing, but as my dad pointed out just as I got ready to leave, each day reveals itself like opening Christmas presents under the tree one by one.

The motel clerk had directed us to a food truck for breakfast burritos just down the road at a Ford dealership. We took then back to Oceana’s and spread out on the shaded patio. Just as we finished, the fourth person in our party texted us that he got us permits for Glacier. We’re starting tomorrow!

The route is random with one day only 3.5 miles, but we’re getting started and maybe taking our time and exploring will be worth it. As we leave Ocean’s boyfriend’s parents on their steep driveway, excited, relieved, ready to get this party started – the car bottoms out and we scrape the asphalt, leaving a bit of ourselves behind.

Storm on the prairie near Glacier National Park.
Funky East Glacier
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Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

Reader Comments

  1. Safe beautiful travels, Alison! Have confidence-you are an experienced through hiker, smart and careful enough to continue learning while nature rewards you with her beauty and wonder.

    1. it is truly a wonder out here, Jennine! I am bowled over by how green and lush it is next to staggering peaks. It challenges me, but I will figure it out one step at a time.

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