Havre, Mont., Thursday, Aug. 15
Time, as always, taunts me like the elusive devil it is. Halfway through August and we’re still more than 2,000 miles from home.
I sit here in the McDonald’s trying to write so I can go out and meet some new people so we can get to Pennsylvania before Labor Day. It’s not working out well at all. Something has to give.
I hope we make it home in one piece. The Behemoth seems to be falling apart. Oh, the running parts should be fine, but decay is attacking at the flanks. A latch here, a bed frame there. A lost gas cap, a door that refuses to shut.
And then yesterday. We were loitering in front of the general store in Babb, which lies outside the Many Glacier entrance on the east side of Glacier National Park. I looked over at the Behemoth with no real purpose and noticed something odd and discomfiting.
Our spare tire is gone.
The spare is affixed to the undercarriage with some Byzantine apparatus of chains and bolts. It had hung there since mid-October of 2011, when we bought a set of six tires for $1,100 after experiencing a midnight blowout on the fringes of Kingman, Arizona.
It had been our second blowout since leaving Pierce County at the end of August. The spare was purchased in San Francisco. When we got the new tires in Kingman, they put the San Francisco tire under the Behemoth.
And now it is gone. What the hell? Likely it happened at one of the several places we visited to check out the Behemoth’s brakes (There will be more on that odyssey later). Perhaps someone took it off and forgot to put it back on. Or it could have happened during the oddball oil-change stop in Casper, Wyoming.
Those periodic auto-maintenance fiascos have provided some of the most entertaining moments of this journey.
Nonetheless, we have no spare tire. Don’t have any idea how long that’s been the case. And we’re not buying one now. We still have a full complement of five AAA calls to use up, each with 200 miles of free towing. If we lose another tire, we’ll just get towed to a tire store somewhere.
And so we’re in Havre, home of the one and only Ryan Divish, my former colleague at The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash. Ryan’s a social media deity and a budding sports-talk radio star in Seattle.
At this writing, he has 11,339 Twitter followers. That’s 11,314 more than I have. Though I take heart in the knowledge that I am a member of the Group of 558, the people whom Twitter God Divish follows on Twitter.
Havre owes its existence, like most everything else out here, to the Great Northern Railway. Once upon a time they called it Bullhook Bottoms.
That, indisputably, is a great name. Why they ever changed it is a sorrowful tale buried in the historical archives.
That we are in Havre means we survived our trip to Glacier National Park without incident. We weren’t attacked by Grizzlies, stampeded by moose or struck by lightning.
Though we had cause to worry about all three.
Max not only got another junior ranger badge, he also became a junior ranger night explorer for the first time. And he received a Michelle Obama-sanctioned sticker for hiking.
The best part? I did not yell at Max. I did not swear at Max. I did not pass, punt or kick his junior-ranger booklet in any way, shape or form.
We arrived at West Glacier on Monday afternoon. Soon we learned the heartbreaking news that our camper was indeed too great a Behemoth to travel on fabled Going to the Sun Road, which cuts through the heart of the park from West Glacier to St. Mary.
And so we made the long, long drive around the bottom of the park from West Glacier to East Glacier and then up to St. Mary.
We attended a ranger talk by by Siobhan Kenney. Then we cooked dinner, linguine in a red cream sauce. We were eating when a pickup sidled alongside us. It was Ranger Steve Jamruszka, here to set up for the night-sky astronomy program.
He couldn’t have been nicer. Said we didn’t have to move. We did anyway, but hung around for the show, led by a ranger tandem featuring Jamruszka and Ray Stinson.
Ray Stinson lives in Fircrest, an affluent, golf-and-pinot grigio enclave surrounded on all sides by the mean streets of Tacoma.
Now I say that despite knowing that I’ve never met a Fircrestian I didn’t like. Before running into Ray the other night, Arn and Jen Lytle represented the sum total of all the Fircrest folks I’d ever known. Don’t get much better folks than the Lytles, their fetish for the links notwithstanding.
Guess the only thing I have against people from Fircrest is they’re all so much more accomplished than me. Jealous bastard, I am.
Take Ray Stinson. For 15 years he traveled the country from end to end working as a national troubleshooter for GE Medical. A physicist by training, Ray was GE’s point man for MRI and CAT machines.
I tried to break the ice with Ray by asking if he ever got a speeding ticket in Fircrest. Locally, Fircrest is notorious for its strict adherence to the letter of the law, which in this case means a 25 mph speed limit along 19th Street.
“When I first moved there, a friend told me to drive 25, because if you drive 26, you’ll get a ticket,” Ray said. “So I always drive 25.”
Ray Stinson grew up in Littleton, N.H., on the northern fringe of the White Mountains.
Taken collectively, his family is a portfolio of extreme achievement. He has two daughters and a son, and they’re all enviable professionals. They’re all musical, too. This became apparent as we chatted after the program. When he learned Max had celebrated his 6th birthday only the day before, he led us in a rendition of Happy Birthday. At least one of us made it through without falling out of tune.
The telescope he used this night belongs to his granddaughter Sage. She is the alpha star of his familial constellation. He gave her the telescope for her fifth birthday, back in 2005.
Sage’s 13 now, a 4.0 student at Truman Middle School and the youngest Astronomy VIP (Volunteer in Park) in the park service. He started the program here at Glacier.
She began assisting him when she was 5.
When Ray Stinson swung his laser pointer around the cloudy sky above Glacier and identified stars and constellations with total recall, he did so with the understated flair of a gifted storyteller. He regaled us with the myth of Cassiopeia, how her vanity provoked the wrath of the gods and nearly spelled doom for Andromeda, her beautiful daughter. This is why the constellation bearing her name hangs upside down in the northern sky for half the year.
The more he talked, the more I imagined I was listening to Vin Scully, the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster, describe the night sky. He was that good.
Ray said his wife died in 2007, and the pain and loss is etched in his eyes. It is audible at the edges of his words.
If he wanders the sky with ease by night, he navigates the lonesome days with a bit more of an effort.
He’s worked in a lot of national parks, but Glacier stands out from the rest.
“There are a lot of good people here,” he said. They’re all very well educated, which probably has something to do with it.”
I asked him how long he’d been a stargazer, and he surprised me by saying it’s only been in the past decade.
He said it took him three months to memorize the night sky. He touted his “fuzzy-graphic memory.”
“When I was traveling around the country, I didn’t want to have to take all those books with me, so I memorized the manuals,” he said.
I didn’t get as much time to talk with Steve Jamruszka, but he struck me as an eminently affable, gentle soul. He retrieved a step-up ladder from his truck so Max could see Vega and Antares and Arcturus. He put an arm around Max to make sure he wouldn’t slip. It was really quite sweet.
Steve hails from Havre, where he retired as dean of students at Montana State University-Northern. He even knows Ryan Divish.
Despite the omnipresent clouds and the frustration they caused for our ranger hosts, the night-sky program extended beyond midnight. Becky had high hopes we might escape notice and sleep in the parking lot here. Her hopes were dashed when a ranger named Chris interrupted our conversation with Ray Stinson to ask if that was our rig and where the hell did we intend to camp?
I said we planned to camp outside the park, and Chris was noticeably relieved. I got the feeling he didn’t care what became of us so long as we didn’t violate NPS policy by camping outside an official campground.
Ray was worried about us, but without cause. We said goodnight to our hosts and found our way north to Babb and then onto the Many Glacier Road, where we pulled off at a turnout outside the park and slept without incident.
We got up in the morning, made breakfast and were thrilled by a visit from not one, not two, not three but four friendly dogs. Not sure who they belong to, but they were gregarious to a fault.
We drove into Glacier, got out to violate all the dictates of park etiquette by joining the throng of bear-gawkers to get a shot or two of the young grizzly munching in a field below the road.
We parked at the Swiftcurrent Lake trailhead, walked in to the motor lodge and hiked the easy two miles to Redrock Falls.
This post is blundering on far too long.
As for the rest of our day at Glacier: We walked back, took a side trip to the lake and many photographs of moose. Max was sworn in as a Glacier junior ranger by Adam Tait, a young ranger who issues backcountry permits out of the Many Glacier ranger station. He’s from Chicago, a refugee from warehouse work. He worked three seasons at Yosemite before landing the job here.
He said there are differences in parks.
“I haven’t packed one diaper out of the backcountry at Glacier yet,” he said.
He said we should really meet Bob Schuster, who is in his 47th season at Many Glacier.
Ranger Adam also recommended we take the five-mile hike around Lake Josephine. We got onto the trail, maybe too late for comfort. As the skies grew dark and thunder began to rumble ominously, we worried about bears. I had asked Adam for his philosophy on bear spray, and he said he looks at it like a seat belt.
Well, we never really considered investing $50 in a can of bear spray.
We did, however, read all the recommended literature on bear safety.
This is one sentence that came back to haunt us:
Bears spend a lot of time eating, so avoid hiking in obvious feeding areas like berry patches, cow parsnip thickets, or fields of glacier lilies.
We were not even halfway around Lake Josephine when we found ourselves walking through long and winding and seemingly interminable thickets of cow parsnip. I couldn’t help but notice the abundant supply of berries, too.
At least there were no glacier lillies.
Nonetheless, it struck me that we were hiking through something of a bear cafeteria.
They say the most important thing you can do is make noise to avoid surprising bears and thus putting them on the defensive.
We hiked five or six miles from the Swiftcurrent Lake trailhead, around Lake Josephine and to the Many Glacier Lodge. We sang, caterwauled and shouted just about every step of the way. We belted out every song we could think of, mostly every song Becky could think of, in every key imaginable. We cut loose without regard of our collective tunelessness. We weren’t playing for a human audience.
We sang everything from the “Rhoda” theme to “Tough Puppy” to “Huckle.” We shouted our way through “Wagon Wheel,” “Union Maid” and “Ants on the Melon.” That’s only a start of our set list.
When we ran out of ideas, I implored Becky to break into her inexhaustible repertoire of TV theme songs. She favored us with arcane favorites like “The Patty Duke Show” and “Car 54 Where are You?” Earlier, she’d led us through “WKRP in Cincinnati,” then “Those Were the Days” from “All in the Family,” which natural led her to “The Jeffersons.” And then there’s “Maude.”
She’s an amazing woman, that Becky girl.
We survived the parsnip thickets and made the boardwalk at the north end of Lake Josephine. Our relief was short-lived.
When you come around the head of the lake from west to east, you enter a gentle rise in the trail. Up ahead, around a blind corner, I was distressed to see was a bush shaking with unnatural vigor. It was breezy, but when I compared the shaking bush to the gently waving leaves and branches elsewhere, I was not comforted.
Something, or somebody, was up there. We stopped in our tracks. We considered our options. We could turn around and go back. That would only take us back through the expansive pastures of cow parsnips and deeper into the darkness.
Then there was the impending storm to consider.
And so we shouted and sang and begged and did everything but break into a chorus of unearthly weeping. In a minute or two, which seemed more like an hour or two, the shaking stopped. We waited and shouted for another minute.
Then we took a collective breath of immeasurable trepidation and sauntered forth.
You may find our concern humorous and even a trifle cowardly. I wouldn’t argue the point. But at every half mile along the trail we’d been greeted by a sign warning we were in grizzly country. They warn that bears are unpredictable. I think the money line was “they will attack without warning and for no apparent reason.”
Well, we made it up the hill and past the bush that shook our very souls. It was only then that I noticed the absence of saliva in my mouth.
Yeah, we were scared. I don’t mind admitting it.
Instead of heading back to the place we started from, we branched off toward Many Glacier Lodge, intent on attending an evening talk led by the aforementioned Bob Schuster. I had hopes of setting up an interview with him.
As we got within a half-mile of the lodge, the bear terror began to dissipate. Our ease was disturbed by a frightful thunder clap. If you’re not worried about bears, you worry about lightning.
We came around one of the last corners when we surprised a rabbit. It jumped a good four feet into the air. We jumped only as high as we could manage.
We made it to the lodge a half-hour early for Bob’s talk. When we repaired to the Luzerne Room for the program, Max fell apart. Having hiked nearly 10 miles in one day, albeit 10 very forgiving miles, he was done. Done except for the fidgeting, whining and complaining.
Alas, Bob Schuster said he would be unavailable Wednesday. He was going to be busy leading an all-day hike. We considered coming back Thursday, but I feared we wouldn’t make it.
We said goodnight. On our way back up the road to the Behemoth, we became wrought with consternation one more time. Suddenly, in the growing darkness I became disoriented and worried we were headed in the wrong direction.
We retraced our steps to the road leading to the lodge, had a brief spat on whether we should knock on the door of a cabin marked “Private Residence” and then walked up to said door and knocked.
Helen Roberts answered the door. Turns out we were headed the right way all along. She asked if we had a flashlight. Of course we didn’t.
Helen, well on her way to becoming our angel du jour, said she’d see what she could find. A minute later she appeared at the door, coat on and keys in hand.
She insisted on driving us. I wasn’t surprised at all. This has been standard fare on our American odyssey.
Helen Roberts is in her seventh season managing the Many Glacier Lodge. She used to live in Vancouver, Wash., but said she couldn’t take the rain any longer. Becky was empathetic.
I hope she keeps her job next year when Xanterra, which just that day signed a 16-year contract to run concessions at Glacier, takes over. Xanterra falls under Philip Anschutz’s disagreeable umbrella of companies. I have been suspicious of Xanterra since we first encountered it at Crater Lake in the summer of 2011.
Then today, Becky quoted me this line:
“On Aug. 13, 2013, the National Park Service announced that a 16-year contract would be issued to Xanterra despite the fact that the energy division had been fracking on lands adjacent to the eastern boundary of the park. Members of the Blackfeet Nation had been protesting the destruction of tribal lands for years.”
This isn’t the first time we encountered Anschutz’s brand of creative corporate dissonance on this journey.
Anyway, having thanked Helen Roberts profusely for her generosity of spirit, we returned to our favored spot outside the park along the road to Many Glacier. We slept to the sounds of Swiftcurrent Creek, which roared and tumbled below us. We awoke yesterday, made the short drive to Babb and discovered the missing spare tire. The hanging apparatus was still in place, though.
I was torn. I really wanted to talk with Bob Schuster, but time, well you know about time. We made the short drive to the St. Mary visitors center, where Meredith Elgart swore in Max as a night explorer.
It was then we gave up on Bob Schuster, at least for now, and headed for Browning, about 30 miles south and east. I’ve had Browning on my mind since our stay in Philipsburg. Christina, our friendly bartender at the club, had warned me to avoid Browning at all costs.
Now I like Christina. A lot. She’s fascinating, smart and witty. Christina and her husband Beau are building a house above Philipsburg. In part, they’re building it from straw bales. Right now they’re living in a tent and bathing in an outdoor tub.
But I took her Browning admonition as a challenge.
And I’m glad I did.
We drove into Browning from the west. The snowy peaks of Glacier still loomed majestic in our rearview mirror.
The culture clash is one of staggering proportions. Every reservation cliche is visible on Central Street in flat, steaming Browning. Dogs run free everywhere. Kids, too. The scene is cluttered with boarded-up buildings and freely strewn garbage.
The clothing bank run by the Browning United Methodist Church, at the intersection of Second Street and First Avenue, collects hand-me-downs every Wednesday afternoon from 1-4. We were in tune with the universe. It was Wednesday afternoon, somewhere between 1 and 4.
That’s where we met Mary, who sat in the walkway with her back propped against the wall of the church annex. We dropped off a handful of clothes. I asked the woman inside if she had any good ideas for interview subjects. She said she didn’t.
She thanked us for the clothes anyway. We left and crossed Mary’s path once more. It seemed to require a Herculean effort for her to raise her head and ask for money. We shrugged sheepishly and said we had no money in our pockets.
We parked the Behemoth in the lot at Teeple’s IGA and walked a block west to the Blackfeet heritage center on Central Avenue. We walked in and were greeted by Ernie Heavy Runner.
He asked where we were from. I gave the usual “somewhere between Washington and Pennsylvania” reply.
His eyes brightened. He said his dad attended Carlisle Indian School with Jim Thorpe.
I was stunned. The math seems improbable. Then he said his dad, Joseph Heavy Runner, was born around Cut Bank in 1894.
That put it right into the realm of the probable.
I sat down in the chair across the corner desk from Ernie Heavy Runner and let him talk. He’s good at talking. He works part time giving evening campfire programs at Glacier. He’s also a musician, something of a Blackfeet bluesman. Lists Robert Johnson as a primary guitar influence.
When he was younger, he traveled the country, working oil rigs, ranches and other hands-on jobs till he returned to Browning to work as a Blackfeet cultural liaison in the school system.
He traces his lineage to the celebrated Blackfeet Chief Heavy Runner, who was killed by U.S. forces in an 1870 massacre. The original Heavy Runner has a mountain in his name in Glacier National Park.
I talked with Ernie for an hour or more. Told him I’d like to buy a CD, and he went to his truck and fished out an older one. He had said it would be $16. While he was gone, I searched among the mass of receipts and cards in my pockets and discovered I had exactly $16.
He sold it to me for $15.
I took a couple pictures of Ernie Heavy Runner, thanked him for his time and bid him goodbye. I returned to the Teeple’s IGA, where Becky had Max were waiting.
We prepared to leave Browning and head east. I wondered if I should seek out someone like Mary for a brief foray into Browning’s omnipresent underbelly.
We went into Teeple’s one more time to buy a $2 resealable bag of sharp cheddar. On the way out, there was Mary. She wanted $5 this time. For food.
We were in awkward territory. It is treacherous territory, navigating the tricky intersection which is interviewing the down and out and trying to allow them a residual shred of dignity.
I asked Mary how she got down so low. She mumbled something about waking up covered in snow. I asked if it was drugs, alcohol or both. No drugs, she said.
Next thing I knew, she was stepping up into the Behemoth.
Becky poured her a glass of water, then laid out a spread of cheddar slices, Triscuits and an off-brand Nutella sandwich. Mary ate greedily.
I placed the digital recorder on top of the sink a foot away from Mary. All you can hear on the tape is Max playing his Phineas and Ferb video game and then clattering about looking for one toy or another.
At 47 seconds, I ask Mary her name. She says Mary Big Mouth. I wasn’t sure I had that right. I asked for clarification. She complied, prompting Max to slip into his Ralph Kramden routine, bellowing “I have a BII-IIII-IIIG MOUTH!”
Oh well. We did the best we could. She said she’s been down since she was 8.
At one point she asked if we were “with the Lord or something?”
Nah, we’re just exploiters of your unfathomable misery.
I’ll round our Browning story sometime after we return to Pennsylvania. Right now, we have to get out into Havre.