Montana: Going-to-the-Sun on the Cusp of Winter

Montana: Going-to-the-Sun on the Cusp of Winter
The fuel tank of my Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited is topped off, my thermal liner is zipped in, I have on two pairs of socks, and the heated grips are cranked up all the way. I’m idling at the east entrance of the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTS) near St. Mary in Montana, and I can hear my mother’s voice in my head.

Mom knows this road well, and in a phone call last week she asked me to avoid it. She explained that it would probably be closed for the winter this time of year in late September, and even if it’s open, strong winds can kick up. And if the winds don’t get me, patches of snow and ice might, she worried.

I reassured her I will not ride the GTTS, but here I am bundled up like the kid in A Christmas Story on a sunny 80-degree day, prepared for the worst, about to break that promise. I twist the throttle, which is scalding hot at this point, and roll up to the entrance gate. The ranger in the booth explains that the road is undergoing repairs, but I can still go 18 miles in to Logan Pass before I will have to turn around. And it is September 24, National Public Lands Day, and the ranger informs me the U.S. National Park Service is waiving the usual entrance fee. I take it as a good omen and shrug off my mother’s concerns, unwilling to pass up my chance to see even a portion of this engineering feat that crosses the interior of the pristine wilderness of Glacier National Park (GNP). I enter the GTTS.

Blackfeet sculptor Jay Laber crafted these metal warriors from "rez wrecks," abandoned cars on the reservation.

My first stop is at Wild Goose Island lookout, and I lean over a brick wall to peer deeper into the valley and across the turquoise blue St. Mary Lake. The sun seems brighter here, and the autumn air smells delicious, something like apple pie and sage.

Back in the saddle, I come around a bend and the road starts climbing; postcard-perfect scene after scene unfolds. The road hugs the side of the mountain, and I see trickles of water spidering down through cracks in the rusty brown rock wall on my right. Five more miles and I am at Jackson Glacier Overlook. This glacier in the distance, along with the other couple dozen in the park, is melting, and it is predicted they will be gone completely in 20 years. I am grateful I can still see one today.

Motorcycle & Gear

2011 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited

Helmet: Shoei Multitec
Jacket: Harley-Davidson Women’s FXRG, leather
Pants: Tour Master Textile Overpant
Boots: Alpinestars Stella Torre WP
Gloves: Tour Master Gel Cruiser

I hop off the bike at every scenic overlook along the way, riding slowly and soaking in the views. I pass through a tunnel and reach Logan Pass, which sits on the Continental Divide and is the highest portion of the road at 6,640 feet. I try to imagine what it was like for the survey crews crawling along narrow ledges in the 1920s, or for the laborers excavating the tunnels out of the side of the mountain, and how awesome it must have been for the first driver to navigate all 51 miles of the finished road in the fall of 1932 before the road was opened to the public in 1933.

I retrace my route back to St. Mary, where I started, and consider taking another pass on the GTTS. But daylight is burning. I follow U.S. 89 south to East Glacier, and head west on the scenic U.S. 2. After some time, I see a red train caboose nestled in trees on a sharp left uphill. Tucked up top of the steep drive is the small town of Essex, where there is an Amtrak station and plenty more train cars to see, including a blue caboose that has been parked in a patch of grass and transformed into a miniature inn.

New growth slowly replenishes a burned forest along Camas Road.

But I don’t get to sleep in a caboose tonight, so I exit the steep drive and backtrack my way to East Glacier Park Village to find my room at Glacier Park Lodge. The lodge is a massive structure cut from old cedar and fir trees, built more than a century ago by the Great Northern Railway Company. There are no TVs or Wi-Fi hotspots, and the stairs creak in this regal old place, but the rooms are comfortable, with views out the windows better than anything on TV.

The hotel is in Blackfeet territory, and the community is holding its annual Harvest Moon Ball fundraiser this evening. Many of the women are wearing traditional Blackfeet garb of beaded dresses, and the men have feathers in their long hair. Looking at the crowd, it occurs to me that Lewis and Clark’s “discovery expedition” of this area is merely a breadcrumb in the history of this rich land, which was nurtured by the Flathead and Blackfeet Nations long before the troop of explorers arrived in this place. Evidence of man from 10,000 years ago has been found here.

I chat with a Blackfeet chief at the dinner party, and he tells me Glacier National Park got its name not for the glaciers that are here, but rather because it was carved by creeping glaciers and flowing meltwater that poured through the area at estimated speeds of 60 miles per hour.