Thursday, July 17, 2008

Day 4-Glacier National Park (Montana) to (as it turns out) Minot, North Dakota

It’s official – we have a new second favorite place on earth. Glacier National Park is beautiful beyond words. Beyond cameras, too – its scale is too vast and deep to be captured two-dimensionally. Even Ansel Adams’ superb and evocative photos look flat when your remarkable human eyes are taking in the even more remarkable real thing.

But I’m going to give words and pix a try anyway.

Glacier-carved peaks. The craggiest of craggy escarpments. Lakes of a blue so deep it’s almost navy. Luxurious forests. Hanging glaciers with the consistency of rock and the appearance of snow. Waterfalls that seem to appear out of nowhere, but follow them upward with your eyes and you see first the streams, then the rivulets, then the mounds of snow from which they pour. Steep shale abutments and buttes. Pure, fresh, cool air redolent of pine and sun and snow.

And the most incredible mountain road we’ve ever seen. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is about 50 miles long. As it winds through the Park, it climbs up the steep slopes of the Continental Divide, which it crosses at Logan Pass, 6646 glorious feet above sea level. The road was designed by a landscape engineer named Thomas Vind and built between 1921 and 1937. Considering that it takes two months every spring to clear the snow off it and make it once again passable, the construction must have been quite a production.

The Sun Road is considered an engineering marvel. Mr. Vind’s design eschewed the construction norms of the time and called for carving the road directly into the so-called Garden Wall, a three-mile section of nearly vertical cliffs near the summit of Logan Pass. According to our guidebook, this design “replaced 15 switchbacks and hairpin turns with flatter grades, less environmental impact, better panoramic views, more sun exposure for faster spring snowmelt, and only one switchback.” The goal was to harmonize the improvement with the landscape as a first priority. Done and done.

We entered the park from the west last night, and so this morning we took the Sun Road west-to-east. I can’t wait to go back and try it east-to-west, both because it will be differently spectacular and because that way we’ll be hugging the mountainside instead of teetering in the outside lane on the edge of zillions of cubic feet of nothing but air (and gravity). Driving it our way was dazzling, to be sure, but I experienced a giddy anxiety I could have done without. In the spot or two where we got to hug the mountainside, I discovered that the interpolation of an extra lane between our car and the abyss completely erased the heart palpitations and sweaty palms. (Interestingly, I had no problem STANDING on the edge of the crevasse, just driving or being a passenger on it. Also interestingly, I have not had this problem with mountain roads before this trip. I wonder if it, like my lost love for roller coasters, Ferris wheels and the like, is the result of having deep-sixed my left vestibular nerve.)

For the rest of today’s trip, there was no point in taking pictures. Not because it wasn’t magnificent scenery, but because it was the kind of magnificence that doesn’t photograph. Huge landscapes across glacially created plains – the reason for the Big Sky Country name. The sky is indeed enormous; you feel like you’re seeing hundreds of miles in every direction, to the ends of the earth even. Some trick of perspective makes it seem as if you’re actually looking at the roundness of the planet. The sky appears to be tucked under the edges of the land at each horizon, high fluffy clouds and all. It’s like being on a beautiful green plate with sloping edges, inside and a small distance above the lip of a vast inverted blue and white bowl. Extraordinary.

We take US 2 east across the top of the state. There are very few towns along the way, but occasionally there’s a town big enough to have an intersection and wherever there’s an intersection, there’s an amusing sign with the word “Canada” followed by an arrow pointing to the left. Most of the towns we pass aren’t even one-horse towns; they offer no evidence whatsoever of equine, human or any other activity. Occasionally, there’s a bigger town and it always has a casino.

The miles go fast today. For over an hour (and about 75 miles), we don’t see a single other car going either direction. Just beauty and solitude and nature, as far as the eye can see. Around Wolf Point, MT, the landscape starts to look Midwestern instead of Western, probably because of the foliage. With the huge peach globe of the rising moon coloring an out-of-nowhere last gasp of rolling hills and buttes, Montana ends.

North Dakota is instantly less interesting because it’s so familiar – we could be in the plains and farmlands of Illinois now. Our guidebooks tell us the best that can be said of driving across North Dakota is that the roads are nice and flat and fast. We figure we won’t miss anything in the dark and so, our eyes still full of the glories of Montana, we keep going. If we can get to Minot, we’ll be about halfway across.

We do get to Minot, where we’re lucky to get a motel room because the state fair starts tomorrow (news to us), and so comes to an end one of the best traveling days of our lives.

(I have some spectacular additional photos, but I'm having technical difficulties getting them uploaded to my computer. Here are a few pix; I'll post the rest when I figure out how to solve the problem. Update: Here are the additional pix.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i made the sun hitting the river photo my background at work :)
much nicer than the weird windows moonscape i used to have.

these are great - can't wait for the next one!