Leaving Glacier we stopped in an adorable town, Augusta, for brunch. We chose Chubby’s Diner and we were totally taken with the signage, which, among many others, included the following admonitions: “Tabs are due the 1st of every month – not when you feel like paying” and “due to the number of weirdos not paying for their food we will no longer serve outside. You can still order, prepay and eat outside if you desire.” Oh, Montanans.
I should also share the story of a little gem of a man we met in Glacier. While using the nockies (also known as binoculars, to y’all non hip campers) at dusk to hunt for bears we met a man from Choteau who came up to Glacier every fall with his wife. (Choteau is a small, relatively middle-of-nowhere town on the drive into Glacier). His accent and outfit alone were charming enough, but I most intrigued when overhearing his conversation with another camper a while later. He and another man started talking all things animals and anti-government when the second gentleman began to talk about a book he’d read. He started, “Have you ever heard of the book –?” and before even getting to the title our man from Choteau cut him off with a deadpan response of “Oh, I don’t read.” And that was that. Ha! I had never heard such an unbridled conviction admonishing literacy. I will forever associate Choteau with the man who doesn’t read and ain’t ashamed. Oh, Choteau.
Anyhow, we spent our last few days in Montana in the college town of Bozeman. We have little to share with you about the draw of this town as we sought it out primarily as a shelter from the storm, a wifi hotspot to catch up on the blogs (which, as you can see, we shamefully slacked on afterwards. Sorry readers!! Catching up soon!!!!), and a place that might have a nice dinner for Alan’s 36th birthday. (36! Can you believe it!? Time flies). Our first semi-disappointing AirBnB experience was had in Bozeman, but only in that we tried to find a place to stay the day before we arrived which was never confirmed and so we had to opt for a cheap hotel last minute. No big loss, as for less than $100 we had two(!) large beds and a pleasant enough room to blog, free wifi all day and waffles in the mornings.
Our first night in Bozeman we checked out Montana Ale Works for some good brews and some snacks, and it’s a solid option if you’re itching for a beer and some barfood. The next night, Alan’s birthday, we went to Plonk, which came highly recommended by friends we met on the road. It was a lovely dinner, though writing this now over a month later I remember little about the food itself, other than us asking the waitress her thoughts on certain dishes vs. others, to which she replied that the pork belly appetizer was delicious but “not that big” and “light.” Friends, it was six inches thick of pig fat. Lordy. Montanans do “light” meat like meat eating champions! After dinner, though Alan tried to go home, all tired and full of pig fat, knowing him well enough I convinced him to check out nearby Copper Whiskey Bar for a drink, and then rushed us out just in time to get some birthday desserts before the local co-op closed. We went for a walk around town while we enjoyed the treats and I sang him happy birthday using a lighter as his “candle” to blow out. Rounding the corner on our walk home, we came across the cutest rock star in history… a thirteen year old guitar player/singer and his dad! Oh. My. Goodness. We stood and watched, all smiles, as this little kiddo serenaded us with a cover of Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.” I requested Freebird in encore, but it was not yet in his repertoire, so we heard Sweet Home Alabama before I decided this was definitely where I wanted to spend the $5 I found on the street in Portland and had been carrying in my pocket for the “right occasion” ever since. I wish I got his name. He’s going to be the next Mick Jagger. You rock, little man, you rock. Having had a few cocktails at our dinner I left little Jagger with the $5 bill in his guitar case and flashed him the rock/devil’s horn signal and a hearty, “ROCK ON!” Go on, judge me. I was bewitched by his pre-teen rockstarness.
::world’s littlest rockstar::
::getting our birthday treats::
::keep on rockin in the free world::
I leave you with a couple other interesting things to note.
Somewhere on the road in Montana we saw a billboard for the Testical Festival (testyfesty.com). Woah. So, that’s a thing apparently. I’ll let you check out the website for yourself if you’re so inclined. (Yes, the website is really testyfesty.com)
Reading Update. I figured I’d share some of the more interesting reads I’m enjoying on this trip, and while in Montana I finished Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. Beautiful book. I’ve read a number of her novels now and I’m so totally enamored with her. Her work is chock full of delicious sentences. Every sentence is pure delight and mastery of the English language. To the point that Alan disenjoys my company while I read her work because I want to stop at every page to share with him a sentence, or a beautiful metaphor she’s used, or the entire chapter. Oops.
August 30, 2013 (Friday) – As I noted earlier, I am covering Yellowstone in its own post as it is deserving and we covered the park in two days. Today was the first, which entailed a very early start. We hopped in Dave’s rented SUV with some of his family in Big Sky and he drove about an hour to the town of West Yellowstone, MT. Dave organized and hosted a full-day tour, I believe the company was Buffalo Bus Touring Company. We did the lower loop tour which may have been modified from the traditional route as this was a private event.
We visited Upper Yellowstone Falls which is nice but not comparable to the spectacular Lower Yellowstone Falls which sit at the end of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Flip-flops sufficed for the walk down Uncle Tom’s trail despite the warnings of how treacherous it is. The up-close vantage point of the falls and nearly constant rainbow make this well worth a little effort.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Uncle Tom’s trail at Lower Falls
Rainbow at Lower Falls
After a pre-packed lunch on the bus we arrived at Old Faithful having just missed an eruption. The good news is that it is called Old Faithful for a reason so we were secure in our belief that the next eruption would come within 90 minutes. Moreover, the lodge there is spectacular and our two gargantuan scoops of huckleberry ice cream (for a very reasonable $3.60) helped pass the time. We walked much of the loop around various thermal features, some of which look like hot tubs with mesmerizing colors.
Near Old Faithful
Happy Huckleberry campers
Old Faithful delighted and then we continued to Fountain Paint Pots where we were treated to a not-so-ordinary eruption of Fountain Geyser. Though diminutive compared to Old Faithful, it was awesome to see the boiling water slosh around violently when the steam dissipated. In the same area we observed a steam hole where the fissures emit a sound like a jet engine.
Fountain Paint Pots
The day was wonderful, except for hitting my head inside the bus really hard, twice, and mildly breaking my sunglasses in the process. Our guide was Matt Henry and he was excellent. Very knowledgeable and informative while also lighthearted and funny. The town of West Yellowstone looked a little Western kitsch but kind of neat. There is the well-regarded Playmill Theatre, some BBQ joints and of course touristy shops and tour companies.
September 7, 2013 (Saturday) – Today we headed east from Bozeman to Livingston, MT then south on Route 89 through Gardner and entered Yellowstone through the Roosevelt Arch. The approach was lovely.
The Albright Visitor Center area is like a small town/campus with a justice building, post office, etc. Undine Falls was quite nice. We saw some pronghorn up close and lots more bison today.
At Tower Roosevelt service station I noticed the word Longmeadow on the Excel Dryer…small world, it seems that company is based in East Longmeadow, MA. From there we drove 20+ miles out the Lamar Valley as this is nicknamed America’s Serengeti and we had aspirations of sighting some serious wildlife. Alas, we did not. In luckier times, folks may see elk, bears or wolves.
We re-traced our path then drove south to Canyon Village and past the lake to exit out the south entrance. It was pretty in this area with a river gorge.
Some recollections on what I might have learned in Yellowstone: Ravens are super smart and they will steal things from your bag if you are not very careful. There are legends of ravens stealing cash and diamonds. Then again, they are from Baltimore. Bison can apparently jump up to 6 feet vertically and run 35 mph. They may look slow and laborious, but…Our guide told us of the Sheep Eater Indians, I think a band of Shoshone, who fashioned bows from the horns of bighorn sheep. Yellowstone Lake lies at over 7,000 feet and is the largest lake in North America at such an elevation. A wolf can eat 20 pounds of meat in a sitting…like me at Peter Luger.
As I am unconscionably behind on these posts, it is time to try something different. I will write some in a more summary and informal way. While it pains me to let the quality drop a little, the alternative is continuing to fall farther and farther behind. Here goes…
September 5, 2013 (Thursday, cont’d) – After checking into the Western Heritage Inn we did a bit of work before driving a very short way to Montana Ale Works at 8 pm. There was a wait but Jenni quickly grabbed a table in the lounge area. It is a huge space, reminiscent of a high school gym but a little narrower and maybe even longer. It is fairly dark and loud but good for those with years to go before AARP membership. My Steep and Deep from Lone Peak Brewery of Big Sky had an ABV of 8.1% and was delicious. This place has tons of beers on tap and all are available in half or full size and cost about $2.75-3.75 for a half or $4-5 for a full. Quite a bargain.
The NFL season opener was on. The Broncos were playing so the TV flashed Elway’s career start and end dates and Jenni thought he was deceased. I got buffalo wings which were crispy and not a ton of sauce. Kind of like a mix between the wings from Espresso’s in Medford and a more traditional offering. The blue cheese was thick and yummy. Jenni’s Pyramid Nitro Weiss Cream Ale tasted like a beer / cream soda combo. This is the kind of place I believe would do well in most college towns.
Sept 6, 2013 (Friday) – Although it was my birthday, we spent the whole day working in the hotel room. Well, we did enjoy some make-your-own Belgian waffles and mediocre coffee in the lobby of our hotel in the morning. And we fit in a 7-minute workout in the room. Look up the 7-minute workout which is 12 exercises for 30 seconds each with short intervals. I cannot imagine it is a perfect substitute for longer workouts, but it is better than nothing.
Enjoyment increased when we walked into town and secured a table by the open windows at Plonk. This place was recommended by a friend we made in Walla Walla. The pork belly appetizer was perhaps the largest portion of said dish I have ever eaten. The texture was a little tougher than usual but I loved it. Our scallop appetizer was a hit. I ordered a steak and enjoyed it but was underwhelmed. It was a NY strip but appeared (a one-knuckle rather than two-knuckle thickness) and had the tenderness more of a ribeye. The waiter said that is because it was grass-fed and from the valley. Environmental concerns and animal rights aside, I like my beef corn-fed. I have found pretty consistently that the steaks I have enjoyed the most are not those eaten in cattle-raising regions. Rather, they are the steaks I get in fancy steakhouses in big cities. Places like Peter Luger, Mastro’s, Bones, Wolfgang’s, Gibson’s, Peter Luger, Strip House, Sparks, Grill 23 and, of course, Peter Luger. That said, Plonk is a nice place with a very good menu and we enjoyed our meal. We passed Blackbird on the way to dinner which also looked good.
After dinner we went to Copper Bar which was in a downstairs space that was very upscale ski lodge. There was a stone wall, long bar with copper and dark wood. A youngish crowd. I ordered the rough mule which substitutes rough stock spring wheat whiskey for vodka. Bad idea. We walked around the block to work up an appetite and saw the neat statue of Jeanette Rankin sitting in a crescent moon at the corner of Tracy and Babcock. Back on the main drag, there was a 12-year old kid playing guitar and singing along with his dad or friend or who knows. He delighted us with Sweet Child of Mine followed by Sweet Home Alabama. Jenni had found a $5 bill on the street in Portland and decided his tip jar was the home she had been seeking for this nickel.
Artsy utility boxes on the street
Jenni and Jeanette
On the way home we stopped into the downtown Co-op which makes sandwiches etc. I got a salted caramel brownie and Jenni a lemon rosemary buttermilk cookie.
September 7, 2013 (Saturday) – We got a fairly early start for the long day ahead of exploring more of Yellowstone and getting down to our desired campground in Grand Teton National Park.
Bozeman is a nice town and I see the appeal. There is a main street with several blocks of shops and bars and restaurants. We did not see the college campus but I imagine there is more to do there. Outdoor activities abound in the surrounding valleys and mountains. The vibe is laid back cowboy white water rafting guide bonhomie. There are some serious hats and belt buckles, but perhaps even more Oakleys and sandals. A gentleman was playing the upside down buckets on a street corner across from Plonk.
Getting out of Big Sky was tough, not going to lie. We partied a little hardy at the wedding I guess. There was definitely talk of finding a motel to crash at rather than face the 6 hour drive and ensuing tent set-up in weather that threatened wetness. But somehow, miraculously, we made it. And so glad we did. But here’s a tip: NEVER, and I mean NEVER eat at a Taco John’s, even if it’s the only place that appears to sell food in a random Montana town when you are 5 ½ hours into a drive to middle of nowhere, hungover, starving, and about to set up camp in a raining, thunderstorming glacial lake area. I took a couple of bites of my quesadilla and threw that thing in the bear proof trash can where it belonged. Have you ever seen that Jim Gaffigan skit about hot pockets? Where he says the instructions should read, “open container, insert directly into toilet”? Yeah, I’m pretty sure the wrappers on the tacos at Taco John say that explicitly. [To be fair, Alan ate his and his digestive tract did not appear to implode. But really, why run the risk for a high calorie cheese whiz infused heart attack of a meal?]. I had never seen a Taco John’s before, but it’s apparently a big chain out in these parts. Every time we drove by one afterwards I held my fingers up in a big X and averted my gaze. Aside from the Taco John’s though, the drive heading into Glacier is quite beautiful, with the Rockies painting the horizon.
Oh, also, because I forgot to mention it in my Big Sky post, here’s another free tip: use Doritos as a fire starter! It totally works. I personally believe Nacho Cheese work better than Cool Ranch, but in a pinch it’ll do. (And Alan thinks I’m wasting my time on Pinterest! Pshhh, I learn cool camping tricks that impress all the men struggling to light a Duraflame-less fire).
OK, OK, back to Glacier. It’s a glacial wonderland! We arrived too late to snag a campsite at Many Glacier (known as the day-hiker’s mecca of Glacier), but fortuitously settled instead with Two Medicine. The campsite we chose was not incredibly private, but the view was superb. We had a direct view of Rising Wolf Mountain and a little creek in which we watched beavers swim each night. And, we woke one morning to a pair of long-horned sheep hanging out just a few yards away at the water’s edge. Lovely spot, indeed.
Our first morning we had had plans to hike near our campsite, up a steep trail with supposedly stellar views at the top. Instead, due to a forecast calling for rain and thunderstorms we opted to head up to Many Glacier for a 10ish mile hike with more tree cover and slightly less risk of death by electrocution. Don’t worry, the death by bear factor was in full force, so we still got our danger fix in. Which brings me to the bears. We spent a lot of time in bear country on this trip, and I’ll just go ahead and give you the spoiler alert even though I’ve not posted yet about Wyoming… we only saw one bear. Kind of a bummer, considering the stories we’d heard about other hikers’ bear encounters, BUT I think we were lucky because the bear sighting we had was a great one. We spent hours with our eyes peeled, staring out of car windows and through binoculars trying to sight a grizzly or black bear, to absolutely no avail. But driving from Two Medicine up to Many Glacier – while we were OUTSIDE of the national park – an incredible thing happened. A bear literally crossed our path. It jumped out of the trees on the right and scampered across the road to the left. I may or may not have screamed some expletives as Alan slammed on the brakes and my mind wrapped itself around the fact we nearly ran over a bear. He was quick, and I was in awe, so the picture proof of this is less than incredible, but if you look closely through the bug smeared windshield photo you can see a little black blur that is a black bear crossing the road. It was pretty neat.
::always be prepared::
::see that little black spot?? that’s a bear!::
Seeing a bear before our first proper hike in bear country of course instilled in me a consequent childlike excitement for bear sightings to come, as well as a healthy does of absolute fear. Thanks to the multitude of bear awareness signs and pamphlets, I’d by now deduced that the worst way to greet a grizzly is by surprise, and so when the national park service recommended I make noise while hiking to avoid death by surprised grizzly thrashing, you can bet I made noise. It’s not always easy to yell out when you’re hiking up hill, plus Alan and I now spend 24-7 together and occasionally, just occasionally, run out of interesting to things to talk about, so we got a little creative. Sure, we used some classics, like “Bear Aware!” and “Hey bear!” These were often interspersed with a simple, “Human!” or “Noises! Loud Noises!” My personal favorite was calling out, “I am a human, do not be alarmed!” This is especially fun when you round a corner into other hikers. (Who, by the way, were not very bear aware!! Nobody else made noise for safety, at least within our earshot. I’d much rather run the risk of being slightly annoying to fellow hikers or mildly embarrassed than to try and play dead while an 800 pound beast with four inch claws bats at me like an antenna topper.) My human chants ignited Alan’s creative side and he re-mixed his own version of the Killers’ Are We Human, singing every so often, “Are we human, or are we bear-ser?” We of course also carried our bear spray with us EVERYWHERE. But thankfully, our bear awareness was rewarded and we were not forced to employ the oversized pepper spray. Nor were we regaled with the opportunity to snap shots of a grizzly and her cubs, but such is mother nature and the way of those ever so private bears.
We had a few other cool wildlife sightings. On the way up our Many Glacier hike we saw the cutest little creatures in the path and then, up close, swinging around and playfully jumping between the trees. We weren’t sure what these little guys were, but they sure moved like monkeys. Upon showing our photo to a park ranger later in the day we discovered they were Pine Martens, a type of weasel that is rarely sighted and even more rarely photographed. We also saw plenty of pika (which, for the avoidance of doubt, are neither paper nor chalk eaters. Those are people with Pica. Pika do, however, make really funky noises, hence dubbed ‘whistling hares’ (so says Wikipedia)), a few mountain goats in the far distance, and these strange fat little birds that did not appear to fly.
::long horned sheep, at our campsite!::
The scenery impressed even more than the wildlife. The pictures do not do it justice (and are rather disappointing given the poor lighting we had. Rain, rain go away), but after hiking about 5 miles into the mountains, you arrive at a hidden glacial lake that is a perfect turquoise and full of floating icebergs. All this is perched in a little pocket of the continental divide. Not bad.
Feeling unmotivated to head back and cook in the rain, we opted for dinner at a little restaurant in the Many Glacier village area. It was nothing fancy, but the menu did offer huckleberry ice tea and huckleberry lemonade which sounded quite nice (as well as huckleberry ice cream, of course. We quickly learned that this is a Montana/Wyoming staple). The drive back afforded some lovely views as the sun set. Much like India, you must use caution to avoid hitting the cows in the roads.
On our second full day in Glacier we again hoped to check out the scenic hike but learned that the forecast for the following day promised rain, thunderstorms and hail. This sounded less than ideal for our anticipated cruise down the scenic and legendary Going to the Sun road, a long windy path through the park which we’d planned to drive before camping a night over by Flathead Lake and Whitefish. For those of you who have not had much camping experience I’ll go ahead and let you know that camping in the rain is nowhere near as cool as camping in no rain. I’ve illustrated this with a little venn diagram for your learning pleasure.
So we altered our plans again, deciding to check out all of these spots on a day that offered sunny skies and no large objects thrust from the heavens, and skip a night camping at Whitefish to head out to drier land the next day. While bummed to miss out on a full day at the lake, we couldn’t have picked better weather for Going to the Sun Road. We cruised along with Sven’s top down, enjoying the spectacular views and ever on the hunt for more wildlife.
Flathead Lake was nice, though we were unable to find a tour company that was both open, available and offered at a time that worked for us, so we missed out on the opportunity to see those spectacularly clear waters from a vantage point where it allegedly looks shallow even at depths of several hundred feet. We stopped briefly in Whitefish, but mostly to use wifi in order to find some shelter to get us through the upcoming storm. On the way out we saw a lovely beach with a view of the ski mountain where people were paddleboarding and swimming. Not a bad spot. We could imagine worse things than a cabin in Whitefish.
We’ve been opining much on this trip about how much the weather impacts one’s opinion on a place. I suppose it bodes well for Glacier that we found it so stunning even despite a number of weather scares. It is a spectacular park, that is for sure. I think I had expected more of what I saw in the wintry photos of Glacier, and for that and the continually threatening thunderstorms I’d say I was just ever so slightly disappointed with the area. That, and that fact that we saw less wildlife in the park than we did on the roads in Big Sky. But all in all, it is an excellent little chunk of America (and also makes me want to check out what Canada has to offer just a few miles north)!
September 2, 2013 (Monday, cont’d) – After a Herculean effort to overcome last night’s bender, we arrived at Two Medicine Campground in East Glacier Park around 6 pm. It costs $25 for a 7-day pass valid only at the same park, or $80 for an annual pass valid at all national parks and recreation areas etc. We chose the $25 option but two days later paid the extra $55 to upgrade. For all you old folks out there, $10 buys lifetime access for anyone 62 or older plus up to three accompanying adults! When your social security runs out, you can still enjoy our finest natural wonders.
Glacier N.P. is quite large and it can take a long time to get between places. We intended to camp in Many Glacier because it is known to have the best access to day hikes. However, the park’s online campground status site informed us that it was fully occupied. I think this was for the best because Two Medicine is relatively isolated and quite stunning which means (a) it is more like serene wilderness and (b) we probably would never have seen it had we not camped here. At Two Medicine, we chose site number three from the many available options. This site is close to the entrance and right across a little stream that connects two lakes. Rising Wolf Mountain affords a magnificent backdrop. It costs $20/night and there are flush toilets and potable water. Here, too, one may store food in the car.
Sven effortlessly made the quarter-mile drive down to the general store by Two Medicine Lake after camp was set up. This is a fairly well-stocked country bodega open 8 am – 8 pm with beer, wine, eggs, chips, assorted outdoors gear, some guidebooks, etc. We picked up wood plus a neat, natural fire-starter made of wax and other materials costing a buck. This sure beats $5+ for a Duraflame. A beaver swimming in the lake near our site bade us goodnight.
September 3, 2013 (Tuesday) – Big horn sheep across the stream greeted us this morning.
View from Two Medicine campsite
Bighorn sheep across the stream
The weather forecast was spotty so we passed up Scenic Point and lit out at 11 am for a less exposed hike in Many Glacier. This is bear country. Already smarting from a failure to see said furry beasts in Yellowstone or Big Sky, desperation was setting in. As luck would have it, on Route 49 just a bit before the junction with Route 89 a black bear ran across the road perhaps 50 feet in front of Sven! Shout out to my Cal Berkeley peeps: my inner monologue was on repeat with “You know it, you tell the story, you tell the whole damn world this is bear territory!”
In Babb we took a left onto Many Glacier Road. The road slows but the aptly named parallel Swiftcurrent River and scenery offer solace. We parked at 12:30 pm at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (with bathrooms and water) but one could go past here and park right at the Iceberg Ptarmigan trailhead. I am always happy to see Jenni, and there was a can of bear spray in my pocket. There are endless warnings about grizzly bears and the need to carry bear spray and make lots of noise. Shockingly few heed the latter instruction. We were the vocal minority, periodically clapping and shouting things like “noise!” I did my best Killers impression belting out “are we human, or are we bear sir?!”
The trail to Iceberg Lake is in great condition as this is a very popular hike. It is just under 10 miles roundtrip with a stated elevation gain of 1,200 feet, though I believe this is simply the difference between starting and ending levels and does not account for the ups and downs of the trail. Perhaps a quarter of the way up we saw some white mountain goats on cliffs across the valley. Ptarmigan Falls is roughly halfway and would make a pleasant picnic spot. Around the corner is a trail junction and just beyond that we saw some pine martens playing in the trees. These are funky creatures, they look like a cross between a bear cub and a monkey and apparently are the most arboreal of the weasel family.
Pine marten, a rare find
Around three-quarters of the way up we saw some big horn sheep on a hill in the distance. After crossing a mountain stream on a short wooden bridge, we came to a lovely lake with a dearth of icebergs. Panic set in, until we realized that global warming is just a liberal hoax and a few hundred yards further there was a veritable iceberg silent disco rave in a deep blue lake set in an amphitheater of 3,000 foot cliffs (including part of the continental divide). It had been raining for a while and I imagine sunlight makes this place glorious, but it was still quite special. The sound of glaciers calving enhanced the experience.
Lake just below Iceberg
Bird on the trail
We “summited” at 3 pm and spent about 20 minutes there, returning to the car at 5 pm. Early dinner at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn was a family pizza with two toppings for $18 and caprese salad with shrimp for $6.95. The menu is mainly Italian and fairly tasty and reasonable given its remote location. There is a good beer selection and several bottles of wine under $30. Décor is medium colored wood with green or white fence squares on the walls, gingham curtains and green vinyl tablecloths. A slightly nicer version of my old Maine summer camp dining hall. Late summer in this region means huckleberry food and beverage items are pervasive. Here we could have chosen iced tea, lemonade or cream soda, all huckleberry flavored.
On our way home, the Cattle Baron Supper Club in Babb was busy, as was Two Sisters Café a few miles south. We refueled at a pricey Exxon in St. Mary, which has the area’s most substantial grocery store, a few other shops, and the St. Mary Lodge. There are cows all over the roadside and one must exercise caution, especially at dusk. The views and sunset were beautiful.
View to west on drive home
Two Medicine lake
There was a man from Choteau conversing by the stream who cracked me up. He had this accent and spoke in a nasally voice and generally reminded me of Dan Akroyd in Caddyshack 2. “I don’t read” became one of our favorite quotes of the trip.
September 4, 2013 (Wednesday) – Today’s forecast was good but tomorrow’s was even worse than yesterday, so again we bagged plans to hike Scenic Point and instead drove the famous Going to the Sun Road which bisects the park east to west. Our thinking was that Going to the Sun is the most popular activity due to its views and driving it in a hailstorm might be sub-optimal.
We ate Ezekiel bread and almond butter for breakfast and stopped for coffee at the St. Mary Lodge, which sits at the eastern entrance to Going to the Sun Road. The scenery is spectacular and there are various trailheads. At a construction stop, we caught nice views of a glacier, which are fewer and farther between than 10-20 years ago.
The Logan Pass visitor center is at the apex of the road and even after Labor Day the parking lot was a mob scene. I dropped Jenni off to take a quick look while I circled for a spot to no avail. Sadly we missed the short hike to Hidden Lake as I think this may be the best location for seeing mountain goats. I remember visiting Glacier in the early 90’s and at one place seeing these goats all over and up close. I think that was at Logan Pass.
Beyond here, the road is a narrow, cliff-hugging affair that is a tad hair-raising. Large pick up trucks must fold in their side mirrors. I was happy to be here on a 70’s and sunny day with the top down. Traversing the park took about 2.5 hours without a lot of stopping. Now on the west side of the park, we drove to Bigfork to visit Flathead Lake. Bigfork is a nice lake town with activity concentrated on Electric Avenue. We had hoped to take a scenic cruise or rent kayaks, but most of the boat rental companies had already closed for the season or needed more advance notice. We stopped a few minutest at Flathead Lake State Park for a closer view of the water. It is said to be remarkably clear, but this was hard to judge in the shallow area we could see. It does seem like a nice area for summertime recreation.
From here we drove north through Kalispell, which looked fine and has everything you might need…Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Starbucks, Five Guys, etc. I had heard great things about Whitefish so we parked on Central Avenue to see the charming town center. Most of our time was spent doing research over coffee drinks at Red Caboose. Next we cruised over to the city beach. I found this an idyllic locale. It was calm, there were people paddle boarding and the lake is surrounded by mountains with a great view of the Whitefish ski slopes. I do not mean jagged, dramatic peaks but more like Vermont mountains with a higher-starting elevation.
To return home, we took Route 2 which is definitely not as scenic as Going to the Sun Road but it does not close at night, offers nice scenery parallel to the train tracks and one may drive 60-70 mph. Grilled cheese sandwiches cooked on foil on the campfire grill grate were good enough; the stars better than that.
Observations on Glacier N.P.: The scenery is up-close and jaw-dropping. Our experience was a tad disappointing because it was gray much of the time, and we did not see as much wildlife as expected. There are a lot of options for accommodation. Choose wisely or you might find yourself with a 2-3 hour drive to get from your bed to a point of interest. The backcountry lodges of Granite Park Chalet and Sperry Chalet probably make excellent options for those so inclined. The west side of the park is more developed, accessible and has more recreational opportunities and more mountains outside the park. The east side is less developed, harder to reach and I would say far more spectacular, plus it offers the contrast of jagged peaks and plains.
Observations on Montana: Distrust in the federal government is palpable. Ted Kaczynski took to the extreme and committed atrocities in the name of feelings that are probably shared on a much softer level by many. I read that Montana has the third highest gun ownership percentage in the country, behind only Wyoming and Alaska and just ahead of South Dakota. This is one of the only places I have been where I might choose to drive below the speed limit. Drivers do not speed much, perhaps because the limits are set so high. At gas stations one does not need to input his zip code. Cows are abundant. I was stunned by how many female workers I saw at road construction sites. I love the large parking spaces because here nobody pretends that everyone drives a compact car. Montana is beautiful and uncrowded, and it seems these folks want to keep it that way: http://www.montana-sucks.com/. I found locals quite friendly.
September 5, 2013 (Thursday) – We woke and packed up early fearing rain and hail. Tracing our route back to Bozeman, we again passed through Browning, which seems to be the home of the Blackfeet Nation. At our campsite we had heard talk of recent peaceful protests. I think there is ongoing tension here between the tribe and government. There are several roadside stops with large dinosaur figures, apparently this area was fertile ground for fossils.
Beyond several miles of construction, we ate lunch at Chubby’s Diner in Augusta. What a classic spot. There were hilarious signs and notes, like the permanent advertisement of free food all day tomorrow (jest) and the poster for an upcoming lawnmower race (real). Jenni’s eggs and toast came with enough hash browns for four people. I ordered the Super BOB (breakfast on a bun) with eggs, cheese, two large spicy sausage patties and raw onion with hot sauce on a sesame burger bun. Strong. This is the kind of place where when you ask if they can do iced coffee, they simply say “no,” even though we all are sure they have ample supply of the two key ingredients. If you need a place to crash for the night, check out the Bunkhouse Inn.
Store in Augusta
We made it to Bozeman a little before 2 pm and Sven sheltered us from a torrential downpour while we awaited a response from an airbnb inquiry. This never came so we checked in to the Western Heritage Inn.
I interrupt my regularly scheduled posts to share with you the most memorable and hilarious moment of our time in Montana, and possibly my life so far. I’m sure all in attendance at Dave & Barb’s wedding heard of this, I’m guessing word has spread as far as Butte, and now for your viewing pleasure… here is Seth losing his pants after he fell in the water on our rafting trip. (more detail to come in the Montana posts)
First, apologies for such a long delay between blog posts. I could blame it on sorting out health insurance, car troubles and planning our trip to Asia etc., but such a hiatus is simply an unacceptable way to treat my beloved readers!
In an attempt to return myself to your good graces, I have some breaking news to share: Montana is really big. And it is sparsely populated. If you find yourself lamenting that the world has become too crowded, spend a little time in these parts.
August 29, 2013 (Thursday) – We packed up camp and set out from Idaho for a luxurious wedding weekend in Big Sky, Montana. Route 3 put us on I-90 a bit east of Coeur d’Alene and we avoided driving the same road as yesterday. At an elevation above 4700’, we crossed Lookout Pass into Montana. There is an eponymous ski resort located here, though I would not imagine it merits more than an hour or two of travel.
Interstate 90 passes most of the state’s largest cities and we broke for lunch in Missoula. Only burgers are on offer at the Missoula Club, perhaps the executive chef sought the no-creativity crown from the name-giver. We sat at the bar with a close-up view of the flat-top where the chef prepared some very tasty burgers. Two singles with American cheese, mine with bacon, and a root beer to split. The Mo Club also serves shakes and malts. It is reminiscent of a double-deep, alcohol-serving, Montana style version of White Hut (credit to Jenni).
In addition to solid grub and ambiance, I had a wonderful “technology is everywhere” experience here. The walls are covered with old black and white photographs of University of Montana and local high school athletic teams. An older fellow saw me admiring the display and approached to tell me that he was on the 1953 state championship football team (and that his son owns nearby Red’s bar, I think). He then pulled out his iPhone to show me pictures of a recent team reunion and told me he posted them on Facebook, after which he heard from classmates he had not communicated with in 50 years.
I grabbed a coffee at La Bella Vita, which is the first combo belle epoque furnishings / barista establishment I have visited. We continued east on I-90 and spotted a billboard for the Testicle Festival. How bizarre that Dave and Barbra did not choose their wedding weekend to coincide with this romantic event? The drive was fairly scenic, much of it along a river. Especially so on Route 191 which I believe runs through the Gallatin Valley from Bozeman south to Big Sky. Apart from the usual summer construction delays, the trip was smooth.
Seth and Jill had already checked in so we went straight to the Mountain Home we had booked at Moonlight Basin. Our foursome headed back down the hill towards 191 where we saw a big moose right on the side of the road! We grabbed drinks, snacks and breakfast supplies at the aptly named Hungry Moose Market & Deli in the Big Sky Town Center before heading to Dave’s rented home where Dana cooked up some terrific chicken wings and ribeye steaks. It was so nice to catch up with Dave’s family and meet Barbra’s. The stars were outstanding.
August 30, 2013 (Friday) – Today we went to Yellowstone, but I am going to cover that in a separate post. Many more wedding guests arrived today so in the evening we had dinner with close friends at Buck’s T-4 Lodge down on Route 191. The menu was more extensive and upscale than I had anticipated, and we all shared an excellent pheasant quesadilla plus Jenni and I split pan seared red deer loin with truffle risotto and Montana natural lamb. It is a nice place and the meal was tasty, though not superb. Some of us hung out for a while back at our house.
Lone Mountain Trail runs about 10 miles from Route 191 up to Moonlight Basin. There are a few different commercial areas, it appeared that the Big Sky Town Center is the most robust. The scenery is great and the wildlife most impressive. Lone Peak is a commanding pyramid that stands guard at 11,116 feet of elevation. The meadow area closer to 191 sits around 6,000 feet and Moonlight Basin around 8,000 feet. In addition to the moose mentioned above, we saw many deer, some bighorn sheep on the roadside, others saw a bear near the lodge on wedding day and Jenni promises she saw a wolf in the early morning on our drive to Yellowstone! A few of us may also have seen a wolf. Our hearts tell us so, though statistics might suggest it was a coyote. But it sure did look like a wolf.
Aside from the dining options I tried, some recommended spots include Blue Moon Bakery, Choppers Grub and Pub, Lotus Pad, Broken Spoke, Olive B’s, Rainbow Ranch, The Corral Bar and Steakhouse and The Cabin Bar and Grill.
August 31, 2013 (Saturday) – Today was a great day. We saw Seth’s ass and didn’t even have to use the A.K. Plus, Bugaboo Cafe cooked the Montana Size breakfast sandwiches with much hog. We grabbed these before rehearsing at the chapel and then heading to white water rafting the Gallatin River. Montana Whitewater Rafting Company guided us through mostly class 1 and 2 rapids. In my raft were Jenni, Phil, Seth and Jill. The weather was perfect. Seth was cajoled into joining after declining via email because he was only interested in class 4+. After all, it was not long ago that he had run a West Virginia dam release with class 5 and 6 rapids. Shortly after we set out, the raft hit a little bump in a mild rapid and out popped Seth. We all laughed hard. Phil immediately reached for him and ended up pulling down his shorts. But we believe he re-secured his under garments before being pulled out of the water. At which point his shorts caught on the rope on the side of the raft, and he was left flopped over the side, half in and half out, limp as a dead fish, big white ass facing the world with his shorts at his ankles. This was one of the funniest experiences of my life. A raft with the same company (but visitors outside our crew) was in perfect position just upstream and the guide got some amazing shots.
At this point in the season the river was pretty mild, but whitewater rafting is always supremely enjoyable. Nobody did the zip line also offered onsite. After some relaxing jacuzzi time on our home’s deck, we boarded the 4:30 pm school bus shuttle to the rehearsal dinner. The ride up to the mountain top pig roast catered through Cache Creek Outfitters was on a narrow dirt road that we shared with some cows. With a little vino in hand, we took a horse-wagon loop ride and enjoyed the views and late afternoon light. The pig was wonderfully tasty (I went just with the Carolina-style vinegar sauce though there was also a sweet sauce), there were heartfelt toasts, a s’mores station and a local bluegrass type band. Another highlight was the welcome/warning from the proprietor informing us that there was a grizzly in the area so think twice before wandering off.
Wagon ride at Cache Creek
Groom and fellas
Did I mention I dig on swine?
The after party, of course, was at our house. We put a large dent in the Glenlivet 12 that Koz had given me, and Jenni wowed the crowd with her backcountry knowledge that Dorito’s make an excellent fire-starter. I guess if Duraflame tasted as good then I might shrug off all those chemicals, too.
September 1, 2013 (Sunday) – I cooked some bacon, eggs and cheese then relaxed a bit before donning my tuxedo and visiting Dave and Barbra’s new cottage and then the lodge for some wedding party pictures. Newly endowed with stylish blue-striped socks, a fine silk bow-tie and a Tiffany money clip, I was ready to celebrate the marriage of one of my dearest friends in the world. We had a fabulous night of dancing to an awesome Montana band, followed by an after party in the penthouse suite at the lodge and then the after after party back at our house. We hit the pillow around 4:30 am, best I recollect.
Beautiful bride and the Tufts crew
September 2, 2013 (Monday) – We beat the odds and made it to the brunch at Dave’s original mountain house. I was pretty crushed and placed low odds on completing the six-hour drive to Glacier National Park. A large iced latte from the coffee stand (these are ubiquitous in this region) in the Conoco lot at the intersection of Lone Mountain Trail and Route 191 helped us get started. After passing through Helena we stopped for gas in the tiny town of Augusta. It would have been cheaper in Choteau but this is not territory flush with civilization. The drive becomes especially scenic around Dupuyer where the Rockies loom to the west juxtaposed against the plains to the east. Dinner was a sordid affair consumed between the Taco John’s drive through in seemingly dejected Browning and our campsite at Two Medicine on the east side of Glacier. TJ’s makes Taco Bell feel like organic kale and quinoa.
Please note that I cannot insert a hyperlink to Two Medicine campground at the moment because lunatics have hijacked the Republican party and shut down the federal government. But hey, when you can print the world’s reserve currency and after trillions it remains so, why not shove your middle finger in the rest of the world’s face and hope for the best?
Montana with its great skies. Big Sky lives up to the name, that’s for sure. It seems like you cross the border into the state and all of a sudden there’s more fresh air and the horizon has doubled. And once the sun falls and you look out at those millions of stars? Big Sky, for sure. I am very glad that Dave and Barbra decided to get married in Montana. They planned an incredible intro to Montana weekend and it was great to see the state for the first time amongst good friends, kind new faces and a host of superfun activities.
We stopped first in Missoula to see (albeit briefly and from afar) Barb’s alma mater, and to eat some delicious hamburgers at a college bar. The Missoula Club, for all its kitchen glory (essentially a two by two flat top grill, plus a blender for milkshakes), makes a mean lunch. And by lunch I mean cheeseburgers. And shakes (though we forewent these on account of our waistlines). Nothin’else. It was here we got our first taste of the endearing Montana culture: the older gentlemen seated next to Alan saw him looking at some old black and whites on the wall and stood up to point out the 1953 High School State Championship Team and his smiling face among them. He then proceeded to whip out his iPhone and share pictures of his reunion that he posted on Facebook. Love it. This man was at least 75.
::entering Big Sky Country::
::where the magic happens at Missoula Club::
::site of good burgers and kind old men::
The drive into Big Sky was beautiful and full of wildlife already. In fact, just a few hours into our time at Big Sky we saw our second moose of the trip just chilling by the side of the road. After a low key night eating some mean wings and steak the groom’s brother cooked up, it was up early the next day to head out to Yellowstone (including my first foray into Wyoming!). While difficult to peel ourselves out of bed before 6am, it was worth it, because before we even arrived in Yellowstone, nay before we even got off the road that the Big Sky resort is on, I had an epic wildlife sighting. It saddens me to have no pictures to prove this, but friends, I saw a wolf! He was perched up on the top of a hill overlooking the road, and man was he majestic. He looked like Mufasa, peering out over his kingdom before the day’s hustle and bustle had begun. A beautiful, silvery beast he was. Bummer, he was the last wolf we sighted. No such luck in the national parks this week. But in Yellowstone, we did see elk and bison aplenty. (I’m tempted to call bison only Tatonka from now, though I’ve yet to see Dances with Wolves so I feel like I lack the street cred to do so.) Dave & Barb organized a lovely tour which was pretty much family and the bride and groom and ourselves. We had about 15 people on a little bus, and one of the best tour guides I can ever remember listening to. And trust me, that’s appreciated on an 8 hour tour. He took us around for a full day, covering Madison Junction and Lower then Upper Falls, Uncle Tom’s Trail (which included a staircase that engaged my fear of heights not insubstantially – worth it for the rainbows you see in the falls), Old Faithful, and lots of other Geysers, including one that visitors rarely see erupting. We also got on board with the western huckleberry craze by trying some huckleberry ice cream at Old Faithful. Delicioso! We closed out the solid day with a dinner at Buck’s T-4. The food was decent – I very much enjoyed the New Zealand venison, but everything else I tried paled in comparison – and the company was superb, as it was a great chance to catch up with friends from LA and elsewhere. Always a good time with Alan’s Tufts friends.
::moose on the loose::
::bison jam in Yellowstone::
::huckleberry ice cream with the groom::
::looks photoshopped right? I promise it’s not::
::i want a hot tub built exactly like this in my yard one day::
::aren’t those colors stunning? too bad you’d basically dissolve if you jumped in there::
Saturday was a good day. This is the day of the Mooning Rafter. You may have seen the photo I posted earlier (it was too good to wait), and I’m here to give you some more color, which will add to the enjoyment of that doozy of a snapshot. We set out to hit the Gallatin River white waters for a little rafting trip. I was mixed emotions on this whole process, as it sounded scenic and entertaining, but mostly like a terrifyingly unpleasant way to die. I am afraid of many (most?) things as you will come to see if you continue reading this blog, and white water rapids are chief among said things. Getting a prep lesson in which you are warned that your participation may result in your demise and given tips on how to avoid death by rock impailment makes me uneasy, and I thought of bailing on numerous occasions. In the end, comforted by a raft full of good friends who mostly did not make fun of my terrified faces and mild panic attacks at each rapid above Class 1, I hesitantly partook (in other words, where rapid class > 2, I essentially ditched my paddle to hang on for dear life (I tried, I really did)). Seth, however, was the opposite. He almost bailed because these puny rapids were too small-fry for his Class 5 Dam Release West Virginian rafting experience. And this was made clear to all on our little raft. Yet shortly into our float, after a small pass which to any other rafter that day appeared unassuming, Seth went flying off the raft and into the water. After a brief moment of shock and horror on my part, everyone burst into laughter seeing our fearless Class 5 Dam Release West Virginian rafting aficionado flailing about trying to get back into the raft. When our friends and guide began trying to pull him back in, his shorts caught on the rope and we all got to know Seth on a more intimate level. (In case you missed it, here it is one more time) His wife valiantly threw herself to his side of the raft and tried to help him pull up his pants, but the damage was done. And the raft behind us? I think one of the women put it best when she said “I was really afraid we were going to get balls.” Here’s a little video to give you more of the live experience (full credit to Seth for being a total sport and laughing with everyone throughout this ordeal and then putting together this epic little movie).
Word of Seth’s ass spread quickly, and it made for good fodder at the rehearsal dinner, which was a true Montana experience. Set atop a mountain, complete with horse drawn wagon rides, a roasted pig, s’mores station, and bluegrass band, it was a rehearsal dinner unlike any other I’ve attended. The wedding, too, was a spectacular Montana affair. We danced to the tunes of a local band, ate fantastic bison short ribs smothered in a huckleberry sauce, and stayed up late laughing and drinking Montanan beers. Wonderful weekend. Congrats again Dave and Barb!!!
::sigh, Montana you are lovely::
::horse drawn wagon ride::
::me and the hubs, huckleberry drinks in hand::
::I adored the little details at this wedding, including the personalized menu!::