Going To The Sun

I stood ankle-deep in the mountain lake, icy inch-high ripples raced over my naked, chicken skin legs.

On the pebbled shore, a fat man in a swimsuit leaned on a pair of crutches, pulling his jumpy German Shepherd on a leash and critiquing my painfully slow descent into the water.

“Just jump in, dude!” he shouted at me, as if he knew me.

This is something I’ve begun to notice in national parks—the sudden familiarity among strangers, all of us humans hanging out in nature, some more obnoxious than others.

The fat man kept yelling at me, “What are you waiting for? JUMP in!”

I tried not to get annoyed.

“I’m waiting for the sun!” I shouted back to shore, shivering in the wind. When the sun is up and the sky is clear, Glacier National Park can soar up into the eighties—it can get so warm that all you want to do is jump into a clear and frigid glacier lake.

But now the sun was clenched behind a thick set of blinding clouds, darkening the mountainside with premature night. The wind ripped across the lake and suddenly, I wanted a parka over my bathing suit.

Before noon, I had seen a bunch of kids splashing in the water—they seemed so happy and the water seemed so clear, I vowed to come back and swim—after my hike.

But my hike took six hours—three miles takes longer when you’re climbing three thousand feet up. The whole time I was huffing it uphill, I wasn’t sure if the trail led to some scenic point or if the highest point was actually known as “Scenic Point” (it is).

I’ve always wondered who decides these things—how does something become generally-accepted as “scenic” by the broader public? On maps, one road will be outlined in green, with a legend informing me that this part of the world has been deemed “scenic”, but does that automatically render the blank white parts of the map as non-scenic?

Everything is scenic, if you think about it—because merely looking at something transforms it into a scene. At Glacier National Park, some scenes involve floating mountains and glassy lakes, while others involve long lines at the gift shop, a lot of nonplussed mule deer and the occasional grizzly bear.

I never saw any bears but I did see all the signs telling me that they were there. Climbing Scenic Point, the sign read something like, “If you’re not carrying bear spray than it’s really stupid because you could get eaten like some people have.”

I had remembered sun block and bug spray and a reserve camera battery and a hat and sunglasses and water and a waterproof layer—but I had forgotten my bear spray.

Thus I found myself alone in the woods with bears and no bear spray, which has never really bothered me before, but that sign—that sign with big red letters—turned my scene from just a guy hiking to a hiker being hunted with scary music building in the background.

“This scene does not end well,” I thought, and so I waited on the path until a pair of chatty hikers turned the corner.

“Do you have any bear spray?” I asked, without even introducing myself.

“Yeah,” they shrugged, as if it was obvious.

“Do you mind if I tag along behind you?” I inquired, crashing their couple’s getaway for the afternoon.

They said they didn’t mind, so I followed behind until they branched off onto a lesser trail, leaving me to the upper trail and any lurking bears. For the rest of the afternoon, I hopped from one group of hikers to the next, like a frog among lily pads, figuring that as long as I was with others and chatting lots, the bears would stay away.

And stay away they did—although I saw their prints in the dirt—big claw prints in the soft grey sand. At the top of Scenic Point, I searched for the big brown beasts, but only saw a pair of big horn sheep, clinging to the cliffs a thousand feet above Two Medicine Lake.

An hour and a half later, I was standing on the shores of Two Medicine Lake, vacillating like a chipmunk on the road—to jump in or to get out?

Two Medicine is sacred to the Blackfeet Indians native to Glacier National Park. According to the common lore that gets passed around national parks, Two Medicine was a spot where the Blackfeet underwent their individual vision quests—a time of contemplation, solitude and spiritual searching to discover one’s purpose and destiny in life.

Perhaps this is the real meaning of “scenic”—a place where the nature is so powerful, you start seeing and feeling beyond your senses—transcendental. But my final plunge into Two Medicine Lake was not as transcendental as I had hoped. It was merely cold. And brief.

For five minutes, I was alone in the cold water, surrounded by magic mountains and a sky that was closing in on me, so I left—dried off and drove on to St. Mary where the next day I met other tourists like me, all of us happy and overwhelmed by the gargantuan topography, all of us out in nature, on our own respective vision quests.

In a café I met an older couple, married 53 years, who had met as college students working summers at Glacier National Park. I met a waitress with purple hair from Missoula, and a Chinese family with sprightly young kids who spoke no English beyond “Mountain! Big!”, and an elementary school music teacher on summer vacation, who rode his motorcycle from Boston to Montana in just five days.

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I followed behind his motorcycle on the must-see, can’t-miss-it, iconic, memorable, Going-To-The-Sun Road. This is the Old Faithful of Glacier National Park—a parade of obedient vehicles that moves slowly upwards until the road goes up no more. This is the scenic route, and if such things can ever be compared, one might even suggest that it is the most scenic road of all—in the park, in Montana, in the world? This is a beautiful and scenic drive, and thousands of people know it, which is why when I drove it, it felt more like a scenic traffic jam.

Right the top of the Going-To-The-Sun Road is a scenic parking lot and when I finally arrived, it was full of cars, like a Saturday morning at Target. I cruised up and down the lot, losing three spots to inconsiderate drivers before finally sliding into a vacant spot three seconds after a truck had pulled out.

“Yesterday, I broke up two fights,” one park ranger told me, when I asked him if visitors ever got antsy up here. The two of us were standing at the edge of the parking lot, gazing out across the immense glacial valley, with a single sunbeam poking through the clouds and lighting up the side of Going-To-The-Sun Mountain.

“Fistfights?” I asked, and he nodded yes. People punching people over a parking spot in the most scenic parking lot on Earth—imagine!

“I’m sorry I missed that,” I told him, guessing which lens and shutter speed I would need to capture a face plant on the Continental Divide in overcast conditions.

Instead I was shooting the whole of nature with my camera—my widest-angle lens aimed at the widest span of natural grandeur. Big, Rocky Mountain clouds cast shadows across the valley, and I simply stood there and watched—for an hour.

For an hour, my world stood still, as the clouds moved and the rest of the world swarmed around me, all of them coming and going on their vision quest, some shorter than others. Teenagers complained to their parents about the cold, biker gangs revved their engines, and another ranger asked if she could borrow a pen to write a few parking tickets.

“Come back the first week of September,” said the first ranger. “It’s still summer and all these people are gone—you’ll have the whole valley to yourself.”

I’m sure he’s right, and that standing alone on Logan Pass is some kind of magnificent, but I didn’t mind all the people because I was one of those people, too. I was a stranger from far away who had traveled to Montana on a vision quest of my own. I was one of those cars that I now watched moving up the scenic base of the mountain like a parade of prostrate pilgrims, creeping higher and higher, into the clouds, onwards and upwards, all of us, going . . . to the sun.

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