Glacier: The Road Trip Begins

I don’t quite remember when I acquired the ambition of seeing Glacier National Park, but it certainly was years ago. There were plenty of reasons to go. It was reputed to be a vast and astonishingly beautiful wilderness. It was far away–in Montana, bordering Canada–yet still within range of a road trip in the van. We would be able to camp out of the van there. The hiking and photography were likely to be exceptional. But most of all, for me, it was about the glaciers themselves. I had never seen a glacier other than from a distance of miles or in a photograph, and here, I would be able to touch them. And these glaciers are special.

In 1850, Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers; today it has but 35. They are melting away, and not gradually. Climate modeling suggests that they will all be gone by 2020–just nine years from now. When they are gone, the entire local ecosystem will change, becoming more arid. This damnable fact hangs over Glacier like tragic inevitability. Glacier’s fate is sealed; it is doomed. I couldn’t do anything about it, but at least Heather and I could see how it is now, before it is gone forever.

A taste of the beauty to come. (Click to enlarge.)

So I was motivated to get out there sooner rather than later. As it turned out, this year was good timing. From what I’d been reading, it looked like early September would be the ideal time to make the trip; after the teeming hordes left, but before it got too cold. Heather and I sometimes make a pilgrimage out to Burning Man in that very timeframe, but we’d just been there last year. I was happy to do this instead.

We began to make serious preparations in late August. I’d resigned from Semantic, which jarred all of our future plans, but despite that, we decided to stick to this one. I’m applying to the UCSD Cognitive Science Ph.D. program, and taking the trip meant splitting my GRE preparations awkwardly in half, but I preferred that to waiting another year. Anyway I was stressed out about the test, so getting a break from it would be good.

San Diego to Glacier: 1416 miles, border to border.

We planned a two-week trip, nominally taking three days to drive there, three days back and spending the rest of the time in the park proper. The route I planned essentially followed the 15 from end to end, taking us through six states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Montana. To that we would later add a brief day trip to the Canadian province of Alberta.

September 5th. The van was loaded; we pulled out and were off by mid-morning. This was later than I’d originally hoped, and now reaching Salt Lake by the end of the day looked unrealistic. But I’d make up as much time as possible.

As we took the 15 across Southern California, we hit the odd little rainstorm now and again. We also saw a lot of cops, presumably on the prowl for ebullient LA partiers heading to Vegas for Labor Day weekend. The timing was such that we’d just miss seeing playa-dust covered vehicles going the other way, returning from the playa. Heather noticed a cool teardrop trailer on a truck we passed, and that got us daydreaming about getting one to go with the van. They’re pretty neat. As we neared Primm, I got my first encounter with $5 gas. Not so neat.

Passing through Las Vegas was uneventful, we didn’t even stop. I actually didn’t notice passing through the tiny chunk of Arizona sliced by the 15. Soon enough we were in Utah. As we intersected a rainstorm and sunset, a double rainbow emerged, only the second I’ve seen.

I made very good time, driving 11 hours and ranging between 80-90mph much of the way. The van is seemingly invisible to the highway patrol. We made it to Provo, making up a lot of time we lost on the late departure. We crashed at a Spring Hill Suites, a Standard-like hotel–quite a thing to find in Provo, but Heather is resourceful.

ADDITIONAL. For your convenience, here are links to the rest of the seven-part Glacier National Park travel journal:

  • Sept. 6-7th: Provo to the Park, West Entrance.
  • Sept. 8th: Avalanche Lake, Lake McDonald Lodge.
  • Sept. 9th: A Day on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
  • Sept. 10th: The Hike to Grinnell Glacier, Many Glacier Hotel.
  • Sept. 11th: Waterton Lakes National Park in the Red Jammer.
  • Sept. 12-16th: Departure, Bigfork, Salt Lake and the Return Home.

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