Montana and Idaho

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We had to go to our farthest stop from home to find it, but we found it.

I remember standing on a beach on a crystal clear, frigid lake. There were plenty of clouds, but some blue sky, too, above the towering snowy mountains. Jess thought she saw something out on the water and asked if it was a loon. Longtime blog readers will remember that we had looked all over Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan for a loon last summer with no luck.

But moments later, the bird on the water made it absolutely clear with a long, sad, primeval and ultimately wild cry followed by a yodel.

It was an unexpectedly big moment.

In so many documentaries and other films, that unearthly call of a loon is used to represent wilderness to the viewers. And 2,400 miles from Chattanooga, we’d finally found it.

But before we get to Glacier, it’s only fair that you have to go through Eastern Montana. It’s only fair since we had to.

Eastern Montana

Leaving Medora, North Dakota, we headed directly west on I-94 then split off to the north to take US 2 (also called “The Hi Line) across Montana. We saw mostly wheat, with a few notable exceptions.

Camping in Glasgow, Montana, we were told two somewhat alarming things. First, the clerk said that if we walked our dogs across the street we didn’t have to clean up after them. We made sure not to go over there.

Secondly, she told us the bathrooms were locked at 11 p.m. to keep the street people out. This was not a very comforting thought. She also parked us next to the check in building to give us a wind break because she said the storm coming was probably going to damage some of the campers. It didn’t even rain, but this woman was a real ray of sunshine.

In Havre, Montana we stopped for me to meet with some folks at the local telephone company for work. Near their office, we checked out a well-publicized buffalo kill site where prehistoric hunters used to team up to lead a stampede of buffalo over a cliff. Apparently, it takes a few dozen buffalos falling to their deaths for the herd to realize it should have turned left or right. Those few dozen buffalo smashed on the rocks below made for good eating and researchers have found all kinds of tools, spear points and other artifacts at the bottom of the cliff.

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We also bought some bear spray at a sporting good store store in Havre. We had been told that when you are hiking in grizzly bear country, you need bear spray, which is an extra-concentrated mace or pepper spray. We assumed that bear spray would be cheaper a few hundred miles east of Glacier National Park than it would be in the park and bought a canister for $24.99 that was $44.99 in the park. Curiously, Montana doesn’t do sales tax so a $24.99 purchase cost you $24.99. Also curiously, the clerk at the sporting goods store waited until after we checked out to inform us that all the spray did was provide some good seasoning for the bear so we’d taste better if it ate us. 

IMG_9973Finally, as we moved farther west, we passed through Cutbank, Montana which has earned a distinction as the coldest place in the lower 48 states. In case you don’t know, they have a giant penguin statue that says so.

On this trip Braden has been given one chore. Feeding the dogs. It’s been a challenge to let him continue with this chore. It would be a lot quicker and easier for us to just feed them ourselves, yet despite the growing puddle of Wrigley’s drool as she watches him get out the bowls, scoop the kibble, we wait patiently for the bowls to be filled. We’ve tried timing him with a stopwatch to encourage speediness and attention to the task, but that was short-lived. It’s good for him. It will get better. Right?

Also in Montana, we saw a billboard advising that second hand smoke is bad for your cat. I can follow the logic there, I guess.

Finally, somewhere in Eastern Montana we passed another vehicle on the road for the 33rd time on the trip.

Glacier National Park

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Throughout our trip, people have asked about the prettiest place we’ve seen or our favorite place. I always hem and haw and give an answer about how everywhere has it’s own unique charms and places like the Badlands, Yellowstone, the Outer Banks, the Tetons, Death Valley, Southwest Virginia, Custer National Park, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Saguaro National Park are all so great it’s tough to say what’s best.

Then we went to Glacier National Park. I don’t have that problem any more.

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Hands down, Glacier is the prettiest, most picturesque, most naturally beautiful spot that we’ve ever seen.

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The lakes are all clear all the way to the colorful rocky bottoms. The mountains are as massive and breathtaking as the Tetons, but as close and intimate as the Smokeys. The trees smell so good and rollicking rivers are just perfect and Caribbean blue. It’s the kind of place that can make a grown man use the word “rollicking.” Everywhere we looked there were gorgeous, snow-covered mountains looming over us. I’d never seen blue ice before, but one section the hiking trail had a wall of it somewhere between Chicago Cubs and North Carolina blue.

IMG_0040Being there in April, much of the park was still closed due to snow. In fact, with more than 20 feet of snow on some of the roads, the rangers expected it would be late June or July before the famous “Going to the Sun Road” was plowed and open. We drove up to where the road was closed to cars and then biked another several miles almost to a spot on the map called Avalanche. We decided that was a good place to turn back, but we had a good hike amongst the melting snow first.

When we checked in at our campground, we were warned that a pair of wolves frequently came into the campground to hunt the ground squirrels that lived between two sections of campers. We did not see any wolves, but we did see the ground squirrels and elk in the campground.

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Inside the park we also had good luck with wildlife. Minutes after seeing and hearing the loon, we drove by a bear cub at the tree line on the side of the road. We also went to a place called Goat Lick where mountain goats travel several miles down from the mountains, braving the wolves to lick some salty rocks. We were just about to leave when a snow-white goat rambled down out of the brush.

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A goat walking that far just for a taste of something seems silly, but we basically did the same thing as the goat while at Glacier. We drive miles and miles up a road that was sometimes just dirt to reach the Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery. The huckleberry bear claw was excellent and the thick, cakey chocolate chip cookies are some of the best we’ve ever had. A few days later we drove 30 miles on paved roads to get haircuts and eat Chick-Fil-A in Kalispell. I can empathize with the goat.

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Huckleberries are a big deal in Western Montana and we picked up some satisfying huckleberry jelly while up there.

On our last rainy day at Glacier, we drove west to the Hungry Horse Dam and were treated to another nice view of the mountains and a waterfall.

Missoula, MT

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We’d heard a lot about Missoula for a long time. By all accounts, it’s kind of where the Pacific Northwest starts, with all the quirky weirdness associated with the region. While in Missoula we took a ride at one of the fastest merry-go-rounds in the U.S., watched surfers on the river and visited an insectarium. Clearly it lived up to the billing. We’d seen the river surfing in a film at the Lookout Wild Film Festival in January, so it was kind of cool to see it in person.

IMG_8013The merry-go-round was next door to a very cool, huge wooden playground and just down the street from a fantastic barbecue place called The Notorious P.I.G. “Fantastic barbecue in Montana?” you ask? Yes. Some of the best ribs around (the owners are from St. Louis).

Unfortunately, Missoula was home to the largest number of homeless people we had seen since L.A., which was surprising for what a relatively small city.

It was an excellent visit and U.S. 93 from Missoula down into Idaho was one of our prettiest drives on the whole trip.

Idaho

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Our original trip itinerary had us headed to Banff, Canada after Glacier, but we decided to head south to Idaho after looking at the weather reports. It’s been cold since we left Utah. We have definitely required to wear socks more than the first half of our trip. And yet despite the cold there are still folks camping in tents, some how. The weather forecast for legendary Banff National Park was 18-22 degrees (Fahrenheit) with snow and ice. We turned to warmer weather in Idaho, which isn’t something you hear people say very often.

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We trekked down US 93 along the Salmon River before arriving at our campground. It advertised a hot pool and we weren’t sure what that meant, but we thought we’d give it a try.

IMG_8100The pool was awesome! It was the size of a large swimming pool with the tile and chairs around the edge, just like you would expect of a pool. Inside however, the water was 100 degrees and the 5-foot-deep pool had smooth river rocks on the bottom. Contrasted against the chilly wind, we loved it!

Unfortunately, I took my glasses off and set them on the side of the pool. Now, in all of our gear, there are few things as irreplaceably important as my glasses which I need to see for things like driving. They are small and frameless, which makes them impossible to see if they are dropped into a 5-foot deep pool with a river rock bottom. I know this because the wind apparently blew my glasses into the water at some point and for a long while, they were lost in the pool. Even after I borrowed Braden’s Spiderman goggles and squeezed them onto my face, I still couldn’t find them. After about 20 minutes of searching, with the help of several other people in the pool, a fellow guest found them. Because of him, we narrowly avoided a significant setback.

Craters of the Moon National Monument

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One of our destinations in Idaho was Craters of the Moon National Monument. It’s the site of a relatively recent (2,000 years) volcanic eruptions and the terrain around the area is absolutely gnarly. While the craters are made from volcanic activities and not meteors like on the actual moon, we learned that the park’s land was unusual enough that the Apollo astronauts trained their before their moon missions.

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Coal black cones stretch steeply up for several minutes of walking. Blurpy, sinewy gobs of hardened lava snaked around looking like they might have just cooled yesterday. Crumbling cinder cones — one of which had a hiking trail right into the car-sized center — let you know exactly where the action was during the eruptions.

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Of course, Braden’s favorite part was throwing snowballs from the lingering snow drifts and chasing a chipmunk.

IMG_0723We also enjoyed the names of the lava formations, which have come over from native Hawaiians, who are understandably the experts on naming lava-related things. Our favorite was called “Ah’Ah,” which was the Hawaiian name for the ground where lava has dried all sharp and jagged. I’m guessing the original namer was probably walking around barefoot.

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To add to the otherworldly, space age feel of the place, we stayed in Arco, Idaho, which has the distinction of being the first town in the U.S. to be power by nuclear energy. Sadly, the nuclear power museum wasn’t open yet for the season so we turned east and headed for West Yellowstone.

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