Montana – Glacier’s Road to the Sun

Browsing through the travel brochures we picked up in Great Falls, Montana, I am reminded of our previous visit two years ago when we spent time in the CM Russell Museum and fell even more in love with that incredibly gifted artist.  The museum did an outstanding job of bringing Charlie Russell’s humanity, humility and humor to life.  We also enjoyed being introduced to other Western artists and to new, contemporary works, but on this trip Great Falls was just a sleepover on our race to get to Glacier. 

Montana has miles of roads but even more MILES of land. Our last route through the state looked like a ping pong tournament and this one was moderately better with us making only one circle.  Our plan was to get to Glacier before the snow began to fall then to circle back down to Great Falls again in order to visit a couple of towns along the route before we began our very northern trek across the top of the state, so we pointed the car north and headed for Shelby, Montana, and Interstate 2 that would take us to Glacier. 

The Great Northern Railroad made its way through Shelby and left a lasting lineage of track and trains.  Back then, the town was a thriving hub for railway workers, farmers, and cowboys fresh off the range.  I found it interesting to see the wind turbines on their street banners and contrast that with the pump jack in the background.  In 1922 oil was discovered in this area, and we saw some pumps still in operation.  Now I am wondering if wind turbines will still dot the hills a hundred years in the future. 

We cruised the quiet streets then turned west at the railroad tracks.  On our way out of town, I spotted a domed sod home that rose out of the landscape like an old Irish burial mound with stones marking its entrance.   The electric line, painted outbuildings and paddock behind, gave the impression that it was habitable for someone who didn’t want too much morning sunlight streaming in to start their days.  I also had to wonder how the local assessor would measure and classify this dwelling for the tax rolls.

In Cut Bank, Montana, (population 3,000) we counted casinos (eight and we know we didn’t see them all) and learned from a colorful penguin that we were in the “Coldest Spot in the Nation”…guess it was time to put on those heavy coats we had been carrying in the back end of the car all this way from Maine. 

Just out of town two warriors on horseback marked the eastern edge of the Blackfeet Reservation.  Their bodies were constructed from old car parts and whatever else was on hand.  The warriors’ hair and the horses’ manes and tails were long strands of barbwire, and on close inspection it was an interesting collection of the many styles of barbwire that probably were used in this area.  I had visions of an auto body aficionado spending a lot of time studying these works and trying to identify the make and model of the car parts that went into them. [Note: Don’t miss the little casino sign that floated into my picture and looks almost like a stirrup in this image.]

We drove on Route 89 toward Browning, crossing such flat, open land that the power lines and an approaching semi provided the only texture to the landscape.  On the horizon there was a mere smudge that would grow over the miles to become the Rocky Mountains. 

Just after we passed through Browning, the main community on the reservation, we ran into a HUGE road construction project…probably the biggest, or at least the longest, we have ever experienced.  Flagmen stopped traffic and collected caravans of cars, which were then led across miles of excavation and construction by specially marked pickups.  We moved slowly along, stopping and starting as enormous earth moving equipment crossed our path, and massive trucks lumbered past with their seemingly insatiable appetite for newly dug earth.  The rain-slicked “road” was treacherous for anything above our creeping speed, and the motorcyclists in front of us were challenged as their wheels kept sliding down the slick sides of the ruts. 

Stray cattle dotted the sides of the roads free to wander since their cattle gates were torn up during construction.  They grazed and sometimes seemed to look up and watch the passing parade for entertainment.  From the other direction came similar caravans of cars, trucks and RVs.  The good news was that we were navigating this morass in rain and not snow!

We call it Glacier National Park (founded 1910), but that doesn’t tell the whole story.  The older part of this international peace park lies in Canada.  It is Waterton Lakes National Park and was formed in 1895.  To access the Canadian portion, visitors must leave the park at the eastern gate and drive about ninety miles, cross the Canadian border, passport in hand, and reenter in the northern portion. [Note: For a shorter route, check to see if Chief Mountain Customs is open.]

Bundled up in our winter coats, we moved quickly from our car, leaning into the stiff wind and  happy to be greeted by the warmth of the St. Mary Visitor Center.  We got there just in time to see one of the National Parks Rangers swearing in three new junior rangers.  Obviously, with these new rangers on the force we were going to be in good hands during our visit.

Out of the visitor compound, we took Going-to-the-Sun Road, which was once was a Blackfoot trail over the pass.  As we rose in elevation we were still able to catch glimpses of Saint Mary Lake below and the mountains rising on its opposite shore. 

The road ran in stretches through tunnels that had been carved out of the mountains and we could not even begin to imagine how anyone had managed to design, engineer and execute such projects.  How had the workers managed to construct these stretches while hanging over sheer cliffs of stone? 

We climbed up to Jackson Glacier Overlook to enjoy the magnificent view.  It may have been the day or the weather, but we found Glacier to feel more intimate than many of the national parks we have visited.  We may not have been close to the sun that day, but we enjoyed feeling wrapped up in the clouds.

Now that we had reached our destination for this trip we turned back toward home…but we still had a lot of touring and adventures in store.

FOR MORE ADVENTURE: This is Part 8 of 12 in our drive from Maine to and from Glacier National Park.  If you would like to follow along with us, the first installment was Des Moines, Iowa, and the next stop is in Fort Benton, Montana.

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