Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Happy Birthday, America. The Other Side.

Posted on | July 17, 2016 | 3 Comments

We spent the night in Cut Bank, Montana, in the Glacier Gateway Inn and we felt the chill of changing elevation.  Oh, sure, we shivered a bit in the Windy City—the sidewalks of Michigan Ave can be heavily shaded by the towering buildings and serve as a perfect wind tunnel for lake breezes.  But this was the crisp cold and cutting wind that dropped temperatures in the 40’s at night.  In mid-June.  Brrrr.

Despite the chill, Cut Bank seemed familiar to us.  Like many of the small towns we had already passed through, it was just a few square blocks of businesses and homes, taking up only about a square mile.  Cut Bank had more people than we saw in some small towns, and a national chain grocery store, probably because it was the county seat.  At home, our downtown area consists of the post office, the feed mill, the Ruritan Club, and a neighborhood grocery that still uses price stickers.  Price stickers, people, not UPCs.  But on either side of our small town is a small town that is just a bit bigger.  And 15-20 miles on either side of those towns are big towns that have every national chain store imaginable.

In Cut Bank, Montana the closest small town isn’t any bigger and a big town is way more than 15-20 miles away.  Same with Arena, Wisconsin and Ansley, Nebraska and Buffalo, South Dakota and Bowman, North Dakota.  We actually missed the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site because after passing through Rochester and Springdale, Iowa, (which I only knew were towns because the speed limit dropped to 35 MPH) the GPS directed me to a dusty two lane road though a cornfield.  I stopped the car at the edge of the cornfield and said, “Nope.  That isn’t right.”  I stayed on the “highway”  (such as it was) and missed the town of West Branch and Herbert Hoover’s homeplace.  The kids lost a lot of sleep over that mistake, I can tell you.

If we arrived in a small town early enough, Pretty and I left the boys at the hotel while we headed out to search for a store with fresh fruit and salad greens for the cooler.  Many mornings I cruised the town at 6 am in search of laundromat or a cup of coffee while everyone still slept.  And the small towns were so much like ours.  Left behind by an industry—mining or textiles, dairy or farming— and barely hanging on with tourism or niche products or just sheer perseverance.  Some of them had redeveloped downtowns with cute storefronts or were surrounded by a sprinkling of expensive vacation homes; many had a railroad that rumbled behind smaller cottages and backstreets with dilapidated trailers.  The town slogans varied but Cut Bank’s tag line “Where the Rockies Meet the Plains” was right on the money:

Because one minute we were driving into the cool mist and admiring the green fields and wide open sky….

and then the fog cleared and there were the mountains.

On through the Blackfeet Nation, Browning, and Starr School the mountains rose to meet us….

until we finally got out at Glacier National Park, St Mary’s entrance and the visitor center.

As soon as we got out of the van we started piling on the layers I had so carefully packed for Glacier National Park.  All spring we had been monitoring the plowing progress of Going-to-the-Sun Rd and it only opened completely 3 days before we arrived.  To get an idea of the conditions before that, the NPS posted their epic plowing pictures of 2016.  I hadn’t planned on the wind being strong enough to almost blow Little away and no one except Big had packed a hat or gloves (I knew I should have done that myself!) but I still felt good when we strolled up to the ranger’s desk with my printout of the trails at Glacier.  I asked him if the visitor center had a bigger trail map and if he had any hike recommendations for a one day trip along Going-to-the-Sun Rd.  He smiled politely, pulled out a free trail guide, and started highlighting some sections.

“Well, I wouldn’t call these hikes as much as places you can get out and look around, but I think they would work for you.”

“Oh,” I said.  “We’re going to hit the trail at Logan Pass and hike to Hidden Lake for lunch.  I just wondered about any other ideas.”

At this point the ranger looked up from the map.  He took in my family with sweatshirts pulled on over our t-shirts.  And workout pants on over our shorts.  And 1 hat.  He smiled gently.

“Where are you from?” he asked.


“Um,…North Carolina.”

He nodded like that was exactly what he was thinking.

“There’s snow at Logan Pass,”  he said.  Not really suitable for….” he leaned over the desk and peered at our feet.  “….sneakers.”

I smiled back politely, thanked him for the map and we went on our way.  Because obviously he didn’t realize we weren’t those kind of North Carolinians.  We were prepared.  We had layers.  We were going hiking.  And we did just fine our first hike at Sunrift Gorge.

The trail goes along a beautiful stone path and tunnel….

and leads into the woods, following the river as it rushes through the gorge.

The water at Glacier was so clear that even in the rapids you could see the brightly colored stones underneath.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

As we progressed into the forest we reached a section of burned trees that still smelled of smoke and left black smudges on your hands if you brushed against the tree trunks.

But wildflowers reveled in the sunlight….

and a woodpecker drilled for what I can only guess were grilled insects.

There is something magical about wandering among wildflowers and birds so different than the ones at home.  As we traveled I saw mountain bluebirds, black-billed magpies, red winged blackbirds, and western meadowlarks in every other tree and bush but I couldn’t name a single one until I got back to the hotel and Google.  At Glacier, in the place of a nuthatch or downy woodpecker, there was a Three-toed Woodpecker, going about his business calmly despite our pointing and exclamations.  It’s a simple joy to see something so common to others yet so completely new to yourself.  To see Queen Anne’s lace and phlox replaced with fireweed and bear grass.  To step into an entirely new world that has always been there, just waiting for you to arrive.

On the other side of a log bridge….

we found Baring Falls….

and began the hike back to the car, the kids peeling off layers and complaining about how hot they were as we went along.  I shook my head as I thought about the ranger at the visitors center.  Can’t hike in sneakers.  From North Carolina.  Please.  We were just fine.  Exactly as I planned.

Until we reached Logan Pass.

The Continental Divide.

Elevation 6646 ft.

Oh, and about 6′ of snow on the ground.

On June 20th.

This was the trailhead to Hidden Lake.  Where other people were putting on skis and where we settled for snowball fight instead of a hike through 6′ of snow.  In sneakers.

We also admired the ground squirrels foraging on the defrosted ground around the visitors center.  Imagine squirrels that stay on the ground and not on your birdfeeder.  Nicely done, Glacier, nicely done.

We ate lunch at a pull out along the road and admired the view.

Of course I had to admire the view while sitting still.  Because once I was driving on the narrow curving road with only a 2′ high decorative barrier to prevent me from driving off a cliff, I had to concentrate.

There were lots of helpful waterfalls splashing all over the road to make it slippery and even more scary.

And we saw what was left of Jackson Glacier.  Although, the remaining snowcap made it hard to differentiate from its surroundings.

We made our way down the mountains to the Trail of the Cedars but the traffic was so heavy we weren’t able to park.  That turned out to be an excellent break for us.  Further down the road we turned off onto MacDonald Rd, right before the campgrounds, and discovered another trailhead leading to MacDonald Falls.  There we found our own amazing section of cedars and a trail carpeted with moss and pine boughs.

And we had it all to ourselves.

The trail led right along the ice blue river….

to the top of the falls.

With lots of easy access to slip and slide to your death over the falls if you, or your young children, chose to do so.

I’m surprised that Glacier National Park isn’t as much of a household name as Yellowstone or Yosemite.  The park is breathtaking and there are a million opportunities to get off the Going-to-the-Sun Rd and into the interior of the park.  I mean, as long as you have skis.  Or come in July.  End of July.

Either way, we had now crossed over both the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.  We were truly on the other side of our country.  And we celebrated by leaving the wilderness and heading for town.  We made a brief pit stop in Spokane to eat at Frank’s Diner.

And an even briefer stop at a gas station to fill up.  Because while The Other Half was pumping gas, a car pulled up beside us and a gentleman got out, pulled the tourniquet off his arm, yanked the needle out of his vein, and politely tossed all his “medical” debris into the trash receptacle before heading inside the store.  Yikes.  Welcome to the city.  But just a few hours further down the road was a place we’d all been talking about since we started planning our trip.

Hello, Seattle!

We hit the Space Needle first, of course, for views of the city and Mount Rainier….

and the Cascades off in the haze.

We wore our feet out hitting all the tourist spots.  We did a walking tour  of Pioneer Square.

Strolled through Post Alley.

We bypassed the line at the original Starbucks….

and headed for Pike Place Market.

The Other Half and I had our heart set on fresh fried fish for lunch from one of the many vendors.

But 2 of the kids swore they did not want fish and so we settled for a sit down restaurant that overlooked Victor Steinbrueck Park and had a variety of choices.  All of the children ordered salmon burgers.  You know, because they didn’t want fish for lunch.  This is why people travel without their children.

We made it through ChinaTown, past Union Station, and along the waterfront until we finally came to the Seattle Seahawks Stadium.  Which was Middle’s main reason for wanting to get to the west coast.  Mission accomplished.

By the time I finished walking us all over Seattle, everyone was wiped out.  But I had saved a special surprise for my tired tourists.  I had been saving for a ride on the Seattle Duck Boats–a gimmicky yet classic tour through town and into Lake Union.  At $35 each it was an extravagance but I thought they had earned the rest.  When we lined up for tickets, though, we discovered the boats went over exactly the same territory that we had just walked.  And when one of the tour boats went by with a tour guide enthusiastically blowing on a duck decoy into a microphone, the kids politely declined.  So we settled for some high priced coffee instead and left most of the family at the hotel before me, Pretty, and Little struck out for Redondo Beach.

It’s surprisingly far from Seattle to the Pacific Ocean.  There’s a lot of little bays and inlets in the way.  Redondo Beach sits on one of these inland waterways and is a cute little town with a pier….

a boardwalk and a beach.  An itty bitty beach, but a beach.  Kind of.

Regardless, it was a nice place to relax after a long day and admire all the waterfront homes built into the hillsides.  But the next day we were up for the real thing.  The place I had come 3,000 miles to see.

It took us 2 hours to reach the Westport Maritime Museum and the very busy fishing fleet at Westport Marina.  Unfortunately, there were no seals or sea lions sunbathing on the docks and the museum was closed, leaving us with only the outside exhibits to explore.

But that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for anyway.  A few miles away at Twin Harbors State Park was exactly what I was looking for:

The Pacific Ocean.

I never thought I’d see the Pacific Ocean.  I didn’t stay awake at night worrying about it, but standing with my toes in the west coast sand still seemed like something worthwhile.  After all, the Atlantic Ocean and I are pretty good friends, why not the Pacific?  And getting from one side of America all the way to the other is one hell of an accomplishment.  Especially when it’s with 6 people trapped in 1 vehicle.  Trust me, there were 6 of us.  One of us is just behind the camera.  And one of us was forced to be in the picture.  Guess which one.

On that particular day in June the Pacific Ocean was offering up its own free souvenirs.  Turns out we must have just missed a bad storm because the beach was littered with sand dollars.  Hundreds of them were washed ashore.

Along with scores of the by-the-wind sailors.  The little blue jellyfish stranded above the high tide line.

I’ve mentioned before that free souvenirs are a mixed bag.  It looked like an entire colony of sand dollars was lost, but that left us with an entire beach full of perfect sand dollars, their cilia dried and washed away, their endoskeletons bleached in the sun.

Pretty and I made our way to a large structure down the beach, gathering sand dollars and interesting pieces of driftwood as we went along.

Turned out to be a shelter built of driftwood, circling a fire pit with lots of interesting chairs and couches cobbled together.

I’m not gonna lie.  It felt good to sit in the sun with an ocean breeze in my hair, sand in my toes, and a sweatshirt full of sand dollars.  I knew me and the Pacific would make great friends.  And if this is how the other side lives then the livin’ is good, people.  The livin’ is good.


3 Responses to “Happy Birthday, America. The Other Side.”

  1. Andrew
    July 18th, 2016 @ 4:30 am

    How come no one ever believes us park rangers? No one listens. [sigh]

  2. Charade
    July 18th, 2016 @ 11:10 am

    Thanks so much for taking the time to document your family’s trek from one ocean to the other. I feel like I’ve taken an armchair vacation to revisit some of my favorite old memories, albeit in the opposite direction.

    I wish every American could experience Glacier National Park, whether entering from Cut Bank or Whitefish/Columbia Falls, MT. It is truly a jewel in our National Park system.

    Your children will never forget their trip, and they will be forever grateful to you for taking such care in documenting it for them!

  3. Nancy
    August 6th, 2016 @ 10:31 pm

    What a fantastic journey and creating this journal to retain memories. This section brought back memories from the summer of 1993. My HS teacher sister and I tent camped for 4 weeks at Grand Teton NP (with a front row campsite on Jackson Lake looking across to the Tetons, we camped here an extra week and took day trips into the southern section of Yellowstone NP). Then 2 weeks camped in the northern, less touristy section of Yellowstone NP. We finished with 3 weeks at Glacier NP, 2 of those weeks on the west side and 1 on the east side. We made the hike to Hidden Lake and a long day hike into the small national park in Canada that borders Glacier. Perhaps someday your children, inspired by your epic journey, will take a summer job at one of the places you visited. Thanks for sharing this!

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