GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Sometimes the happiest trails are the ones you never planned to follow.
Our recent camping trip to Glacier took more than a few detours, thanks to a broken-down car, a morning monsoon and the realization that a hotel bed might just be better than two nights in a soggy campground.
Along the way we made a few new friends: the young Polish family at the Ptarmigan Tunnel, the kid from Wisconsin who delighted in throwing snowballs, and even the fat marmot who snatched my sandwich on the way down.
More importantly, our old friends stayed that way despite the chaos of a trip that didn’t go quite as planned.
The saga began on the morning of Aug. 5, when our two-car caravan departed Spokane for Glacier. We’d planned on two nights of camping between hotel stays on the first and last nights.
Plans went quickly astray. We picked up our backcountry permits at the Apgar ranger station and drove toward the Many Glacier Hotel, but less than half an hour later, our friends’ vehicle sputtered to a crawl.
We downed some cold beers at the Isaak Walton Inn near Essex while waiting for the tow truck. We considered our future. In the short term, that meant stuffing four people and their overpacked gear into our Mazda CX-9.
After a pleasant stay at Many Glacier, we awoke on Aug. 6 to nothing but uncertainty. Our friends’ car was in Kalispell, where the shop didn’t know whether the repairs would cost a few dollars – or a few thousand.
“Compression problems,” the garage said. Those words, in turn, compressed our trip, since it didn’t seem like a good idea to go off the grid while not knowing what the repairs would cost.
Meanwhile, the the rain swept in waves off the mountains and thunderclaps rolled around us. Would-be campers had one eye on the skies and the other on their cellphones, contemplating their Plan B. My wife thought she heard lightning, then admitted she might have heard it second-hand.
“I’m scared,” she said.
So was I – scared of missing out on our biggest camping trip of the year. “What a bunch of wimps,” I said to myself. My thoughts were as dark as the clouds: these folks really don’t want to rough it; they’re just looking for an excuse to stay inside.
So were dozens of others, who had one eye on the sky and the other on their cellphones, where many were calling to make hotel reservations. Fortunately, we beat them to it.
Outvoted, I pouted while the others formulated our own Plan B: a 6-mile hike in the less-rainy Two Medicine Lake area, a 12-mile trek to Ptarmigan Tunnel and back Friday and some light hiking on Saturday.
And comfy beds for everyone.
“Fine,” I grumped and grabbed the wheel of a car that was still so stuffed, it took us half an hour to sort our gear at Two Medicine Lake.
The rest of the day was high adventure along a windswept granite trail that carried us to some of the best scenery in Glacier. The gusts also threatened to send me over a cliff – once I had to throw myself against the mountainside to avoid being blown away.
I looked to my wife. Like me, Dannette was sprawled on the same path, clinging to the side of the mountain.
We smiled at each other. OK, I thought: maybe we really are roughing it, in a good way.
After a night at the Glacier Park Lodge, we returned to Many Glacier for the Ptarmigan Tunnel Hike. Halfway up, it was obvious that dozens of others delayed their trip to avoid the rain. We rubbed elbows with them on the way up and down.
In between, we gloried in the view on the other side of Ptarmigan Tunnel, including a crystal-blue Elizabeth Lake. We soaked in the view, and I made a snow angel on the 20-square foot patch of white on the side of the mountain.
Better yet, the rain led to the reopening of Going-to-the-Sun Highway, which had been closed for several weeks because of fire. We drove its entire length on the way home, pausing at crystal-cold lakes along the way.
Happy trails, indeed.
And twice as comfy.
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