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The Last Best Place - Day 6

Got Flip Flops?

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. –John Muir


What do you do when you wake up and find that you are almost unable to walk, that there is absolutely NO WAY you can pull shoes on, and you are about 8 miles from the nearest road….your path there a rugged and uneven trail littered with rocks and roots?

Matt had been watching me quietly as I tried to stand. Overnight, my heels had scabbed over and they were so tight that standing upright was difficult and painful. Each step was awkward as I tottered across the floor, unable to fully set my heel on the floor, and finding that I had to basically walk on my tiptoes. I could tell by his silence that he finally realized how bad my feet were.


"Why did you keep hiking?" he asked me quietly. "You should have told me. We didn't have to do this hike."

I really didn't have to explain to him. He knew why.

Because being in Glacier brings me a peace that nothing else can. Because the joy that hiking those trails fills me with far outweighed the pain that those blisters caused me. And because I wasn’t willing to miss a moment of it.

I could tell he was angry that I hadn't let him know how bad they were. His face looked sick. I knew he was worried. But I also knew that he understood how much I wanted to be there. And so, he just sat quietly while I carefully taped my feet up again. As I taped, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he was quietly removing nearly everything from my pack and putting it in his own.

I guess he figured he could carry my stuff….or he could carry me.

We had 8 miles to hike. The first mile would be up a steep pass. Then we would hike several steep miles down the other side, ending with about 4 miles through a valley until we reached the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, where our friends would pick us up.


I actually tried to pull my boots on. Can you believe it? I don't know what I was thinking. It simply wasn’t possible. What was I going to do? The rugged terrain of the trails necessitates a sturdy boot. Even light hiking shoes are ill advised.

All I had were flip flops.

So I did the best I could. I wrapped my feet up, put on socks, and taped my flip flops to my feet.


Don’t ever accuse me of being a sissy.

We made our breakfast in the kitchen and enjoyed toasted PB&J waffles with maple syrup before hitting the trail….not even knowing if my crazy flip flop scheme was going to work.


It worked. I had to be careful not to roll my ankles, since I had no ankle support, but other than that, it wasn’t too bad. Other than every hiker we passed that day looking at me like I was a madwoman, it wasn’t so bad.




As we reached the pass, we noticed that passing hikers had built two large cairns at the top of the pass. Originally used to indicate trail direction when the path is not clear, many hiking cairns today are simply and expression of accomplishment, a way of belonging to the unique group of individuals who have passed through a place before you. Some hikers don’t like cairns. They see them as a violation of the “Leave No Trace” philosophy, but I find an appeal in them.

And so Matt and I added our stones. My stone said, “I have been in this place, on this mountain. I existed. I passed through. I am now a part of this place like those before me and those who will come after me. I was here.”


The trip down the other side of the pass was tricky in flip flops. I slid, I rolled on gravel, I turned my feet on rocks. It was a challenge.
But I was easily distracted by the distant view of the valley and the lakes, by the mountain goats that perched themselves so easily on the side of the mountain and watched us pass, by the young bull moose that we saw walking below us.










This is why I was here. This was worth everything.


We decided to have lunch at a small lake once we reached the end of our decent into the valley. In that moment, it was the most perfect spot in all the universe.





We thought we were alone.

But we weren’t.

Do you ever get that weird feeling that you are being watched?


He came scrambling over and sat a few inches away. I know you aren’t supposed to feed the animals. I also know you are supposed to break in your boots before wearing them. If you haven’t figured out by now, I don’t always adhere to what you are “supposed to do.”




Our little ground squirrel kept us entertained through lunch as we lay back and enjoyed the solitude of a mountain lake in the early hours of the day. Life doesn’t get much more perfect than that.


The last few miles of the hike were uneventful, taking us through the beautiful landscape and past Red Rock Falls.




We found ourselves at the Swiftcurrent Inn before we knew it. We grabbed some huckleberry soft serve ice cream and sat on a bench to wait.

And wait….and wait……and wait.


After 2 hours, we figured out that our friends were….detained. We were able to hitch a free ride on a shuttle to the Many Glacier Hotel.

When we checked into our room, I thought I would die from happiness when I walked into our room and saw that we had a large, old clawfoot tub. Only a few rooms have a tub, and a long hot soak was exactly what I wanted. I was able to soak the dirt out of my skin and the bandages off my feet.

When it was time to dress for dinner, I wasn’t even thinking as I pulled on a pair of skinny jeans.

When our friends finally made it back from their own hike, we all headed for a celebratory meal at the Cattle Baron Supper Club. This place looks like a total dive from the outside…complete with neon beer signs and a parking lot full of pick-up trucks.


Inside, it’s an entirely different experience. It’s truly one-of-a-kind.


The steaks are huge and the food is good.


I think our friend John ordered his steak from the Fred Flintstone menu.


Remember the skinny jeans?

Well, they were fine until I got back to the hotel room. Matt was with our friends going over plans for the next day so I was in the room alone.

I could not get my pants off.

There was no way to pull those jeans over my now raw, scabbed, aching heels. I had hiked with those blisters for 4 days and hadn’t broken once. I had been tough, determined, and I had powered through, never showing a moment of weakness.

But after days of endurance…I finally broke.

I can only imagine what it looked like to Matt when he walked in the room to see me sitting on the bed crying like there was no tomorrow. I just looked up at him tearfully and whispered, “I can’t get my pants off.”

Then I started sobbing again.

It was rather pathetic. I am not proud. But a person can only take so much. I could handle the cold, the bears, the miles of walking with a heavy pack on my back. I could handle the blisters, the pain, the hours of walking on feet rubbed raw. I could handle drinking water from a stream, eating food cooked on a 3 inch stove, and sleeping on the ground.

What I could not handle, however, were the skinny jeans.

We finally managed to carefully wriggle the narrow opening over my ragged heels and stuffed my poor feet inside some newly purchased fluffy house shoes and, once again, everything was right with the world.


Posted by vicki_h 08:18 Archived in USA Tagged hiking west camping backpacking outdoors montana glacier_national_park Comments (2)

The Last Best Place - Day 3

Triple Divide Pass and Double Blisters.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” –John Muir

Another reason I love the Village Inn – your room comes with complimentary Montana Coffee Traders coffee, quite possibly the best coffee on the planet. I drank my coffee watching the changing colors of the early morning sky over Lake McDonald.


It was time to ready my pack.

Oh dear.

I am not a minimalist. I consider items like hair glossing cream and at least 3 shirts per day (so that I have choices, people…) a necessity on vacation. My typical vacation toiletry kit will include: toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, glossing serum, hair spray, brush, comb, elastic bands, hair clips, deodorant, body lotion, nail polish, nail file, face wash, face toner, nighttime face lotion, daytime face lotion, tinted moisturizer, lip balm, foundation, blush, powder, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara – both regular and waterproof, multiple lip glosses, perfume, and anything else in a mini size that I have come across and can stuff into my already overstuffed cosmetic case.

Faced with the knowledge that I had to carry everything I needed for the next 2 days on my back for 26 miles, and that my camera gear alone weighed 7 lbs, my toiletry kit was reduced to this:


That's enough to make someone like me start having heart palpitations.

All said and done, my packed weighed a little over 25 lbs. Given that I have comparable muscle mass and bone density of your average 93 year old woman, I was fairly certain that my spine would snap in half before the end of the day.


To reach our trailhead, we drove the length of the Going to the Sun Road from the west end of the park to the east end, exited the park and drove south to the Cutbank Ranger Station, re-entering the park and driving another 5 miles down a gravel road. We made lots of stops to enjoy the scenery on the way, because the GTTS Road is one of the most spectacular drives known to man. It took several hours and it was about 10:00 a.m. before we reached the starting point of our hike.


“Are you sure you want to wear those boots?” Matt asked me one more time as our friends dropped us off at the trailhead. “You’ve got your old boots in the car. You could wear those.”

I have a pair of old, worn out boots that I love, but my beloved boots let me down on our last trip. They are not waterproof and I spent 2 days hiking in wet boots because of it. The low point of that hike was when I was forced to pull on wet boots that had literally frozen overnight while having plastic food baggies wrapped around my socks to try to keep my feet dry. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I had bright, shiny new boots. Yes, I know you have to break in hiking boots, I’m no dummy. I broke them in……well…….sort of.

Okay, the truth is that I knew then and there that I had not broken in the boots. I had worn them around the house a few times. BUT I WANTED TO WEAR THOSE BOOTS. When a woman gets it in her head that she is going to wear something, nothing short of an act of God will change her mind.

If you don’t believe me, look around the next time you are out and pay attention to the 4 year old girl that you’ll no doubt see walking down the sidewalk in a pair of cowboy boots, polka dot stockings, and a purple jumper with a bright pink tutu pulled over it….and it ain’t because her mama put her in that outfit.

“Yes, I want to wear these boots. They are F-I-N-E,” I said one more time.

You have no idea how I would regret those words later, especially since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, no threat of rain for the entire week, and my good old trusty boots sat forlornly in the back of the car just waiting for me to grab them up.

We all know what they say about hindsight.

Matt and I set out on the Pitamakin Pass trail. Our plan was to hike 4 miles back to the Atlantic Creek campground, set up camp, and dump our heavy packs. We would then hike 3.5 steep miles up to Triple Divide Pass, enjoy the views, and hike 3.5 miles back to camp. We would overnight it and on the following day, we’d do a grueling 15 mile hike that would take us past Morningstar Lake, up a steep climb over Pitamakin Pass, down a steep descent, and eventually lead us into Two Medicine where our friends would meet us.



The day was glorious and the 4 mile hike back to the campground was easy. The views were spectacular, taking us through valleys with sweeping mountain views in the distance and through dense forest, where the dappled sunlight peeked through the tall trees.






This is why I hike. It is all worth it when you are surrounded by such beauty.

We made it to camp in time for lunch. Adhering strictly to Mr. Backcountry Video Man’s instructions, Matt suggested he set up the tent while I took the food over to the food area and hung it. No problem.


I set off for the food area. Backcountry campsites have a food hanging cable and a food prep area set well away from the tent sites. This prevents bears from being attracted to where you sleep. That sounded like a very good idea to me.

When I got there, the cable was impossibly high. I tossed the rope, with my weak, pathetic breadstick of an arm, not sure what I thought I was going to accomplish. The rope fluttered limply about 10 feet and thumped back down on the dusty ground.

Dang that was weak. I looked around to make sure no one had seen that. There was no one around with the exception of a fat ground squirrel that had stopped to eye me warily.

I looked around. Aha! I found a big stick, tied my rope to it and chugged it over the cable. Yes! I had done it! I looked around hoping someone had seen that. I wanted trumpets to sound and a grand round of applause to erupt from the woods.

I saw nothing but that dumb, fat ground squirrel staring at me.

Feeling powerful and mighty, like I had just invented fire or discovered that the earth was round, I tied my bag and pulled. It went up about 3 feet and stopped moving. No matter how hard I pulled…nothing. That was it.

Okay, all this was going to do was give the bears something to play tether ball with.

I lifted the bag with one hand and pulled with the other until I was on my tip toes. Now the bag was about 6 feet in the air, but it still wouldn’t go any higher.

Stupid little weak arms. Stupid heavy bag. Stupid rope. This.Was.Just.Great.

I wriggled and tugged, grunted and pulled, jerked and danced that bag all the way up to that cable. I have never worked so hard for anything in my life. Ugh. I was sweating and I had blisters on my hands, but it was up there. Mr. Backcountry Video Man would be proud.

It was about that time that I realized I hadn’t gotten our lunch out before I hoisted the bag.

Damn it.


Eventually, Matt had our tent set up and I had our lunch ready. We had smoked trout with cream cheese and capers on flatbread and homemade oatmeal raisin bars. I told you that I am not a minimalist. Don’t expect me to eat anything while camping that I wouldn’t eat on any other day. I don’t do freeze dried.


After lunch, we changed into shorts because it had gotten hot. We headed up the pass. It’s a steep 3.5 mile climb up to Triple Divide Pass. The day was warm and there was no shade on this hike, as we were hiking on the exposed side of a mountain.


It was about 30 minutes into our hike when I felt the hotspots.

For those of you who don’t know what a hotspot is, it’s where you can feel your boots rubbing a spot that will later become a blister if you don’t put some moleskin or a gel pad on it.

I had forgotten the moleskin. It was still in my pack back at camp. I could tell Matt we needed to go back and we could lose an hour and a half, or I could ignore it and convince myself that I wasn’t going to get blisters.

I don’t even have to tell you what I did. You know exactly what I did, don’t you? Stubborn as a one-eyed mule, I tell you. I just don’t know when to admit I am wrong.


Although it was a little hot for my liking, and despite the fact that I had two blisters working their way onto my heels, it was a great hike.
A very high-strung, typical type A overachieving, never resting, always on the go personality, hiking is the closest I get to peace. Nothing exists but the trail and the mountains. The conversations that Matt and I share during those hours are the best talks we ever have and sometimes, we just listen to the sound of our feet crunching along on the gravel and think about nothing at all.

It is truly a place to revive your spirit.







Matt tends to hike in front of me (I think that is so that he can see/hear the bear first, in order to more effectively knock me down before I know what is going on), but we always take the passes together. The pass is the highest point you can hike to unless you want to climb the peaks (which I most certainly do not), and you work hard for it. It’s an accomplishment. It’s the climax of the hike, and we like to do it together.



Please, people, clean up your thoughts.

Matt waited for me and took my hand as we took the final steps to the pass. I forgot about the way my boots were eating my heels as we slowly moved around in a circle, taking in the 360 degree views that seemed to go forever.


Triple Divide Pass earns its name from the fact that its peak is a hydrological apex and water falling could flow into either the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Hudson Bay.


Then it was time to make the long hike back down.


We hiked back to camp, and by the time we reached our tent, I had two large blisters on my heels. Matt could tell I had blisters, but I didn’t let him see them. I didn’t want him to know how bad they were. Each was over an inch high and stretched the entire width of my small foot. I quickly bandaged them up so he wouldn’t see them.


“It’s not that bad,” I lied.

We headed down to the creek to collect some water and I did an extremely cold “creek bath.” The creeks and lakes in Glacier are an extreme tease on a hot day. They are clear and beautiful, but the temperature in these waters rarely gets over 50 degrees. So, I perched myself on a rock, careful not to submerge anything, and wiped down the best I could with a wet washrag. It would have to do. I didn’t have room to pack my lavender body wipes, after all.


Cooking dinner on our camp stove is a challenge. This is what we cook on:


You have one tiny pot and have to choose carefully so that you can get everything cooked quickly and efficiently with very little clean up, but still be edible. After hiking 11 miles, I want something good to eat.

I had packets of Knorr pasta sides. While our pasta boiled, I made two small salads and topped them with packets of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We ate those while we cooked pasta. When the pasta was ready, I dumped one of those foil packets of cubed chicken breast that you can find in the tuna aisle. The hot pasta heated the chicken up nicely. We had two rosemary cheddar biscuits that we had gotten at the Polebridge Merc. Dessert were homemade brownies and a small bottle of red wine that Matt had generously toted in his pack. Hey, nothing says “classy” like a plastic cup of wine! Mmmm mmmm good!





Compared to the other campers who were eating what they described as “cheesecake flavored gray gruel” out of a plastic bag, our meal was practically gourmet.

Matt pretty much crashed as soon as his head hit the pillow in the tent. I played Angry Birds until the sun finally set and I was able to drift off to sleep, wondering how I was going to hike 15 miles the next day with my heels already badly blistered.


Posted by vicki_h 12:51 Archived in USA Tagged hiking west camping backpacking outdoors montana glacier_national_park Comments (1)

The Last Best Place - Day 2

Slow Down, People are Breathing.

"Keep close to nature's heart....and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." -John Muir


We left Sioux Falls early in the a.m. and, after a brief fuel stop in Glendive, MT, we found ourselves in Kalispell, MT before noon.


We made the quick drive to West Glacier and headed to Apgar Village. Apgar Village sits just inside the west entrance. It makes a great place to begin the trip because it keeps the drive from Kalispell short on your first day, but gets you inside the park. Apgar Village also has several small shops, so it’s a chance to pick up anything you might have forgotten.

Our first order of business was to get our backcountry permit, which we would need the following night.


Before getting the permit, we had to watch the mandatory backcountry video. It spends about 14 minutes telling you how to stay safe in the backcountry from perils such as hypothermia and bears. Some people start their vacation with a glass of champagne. I start mine with tips on how not to die in the next 5 days.

When I heard the narrator say, "Avoid surprising bears, but if you do, have a plan for how to react," I immediately thought of one of our past trips to Glacier when Matt thought he heard a bear coming around a blind corner, a fact of which I was not made aware until about 5 minutes later….after he knocked me down and ran, leaving me on the ground trying to figure out what was up.

There was, in fact, a large animal coming down the trail, but I don’t think that horse intended Matt any harm.

So, when I heard the narrator, I knew exactly how I would react if I surprised a bear. Given that my husband’s gut reaction is to render me helpless and flee, my plan would be to knock Matt down first this time.

After becoming backcountry experts, learning valuable skills like peeing on rocks rather than dirt, spraying our toothpaste rather than spitting, stripping naked as soon as we cooked dinner lest we unwittingly invite the scent of freeze dried peas into our tent, and tying our stinky boots inside our tent so that a mule deer didn’t carry them off or a cold chipmunk didn’t make them into a toasty bed, we quickly checked into the Village Inn.


Accommodations inside the park are "rustic." Rustic in this case means that you get a small room with a hard bed the size of the one you used to sleep on when you were 7 and went to your grandmother's house where she would pile 4 of you up in the attic room on a full bed with a polyester coverlet, and, just like Grandma's, there is no t.v., no phone, and no air conditioning.

Despite this, we love the lodging inside the park and would never consider anything else. What they lack in room amenities, the lodges make up for in history, in keeping an authentic experience, and in views that no 5 star can match.

The Village Inn sits on the west end of Lake McDonald and is our favorite place to spend the first night. The views alone are reason enough to stay, but the bonus is that the Village Inn is close enough that you can run to Polebridge for dinner.

The outpost of Polebridge requires a long, slow drive down a gravel road. I know that doesn’t sound appealing, but sometimes, a long, bumpy drive is just what you are craving. The North Fork Road is the most perfect long, bumpy drive because every mile takes you farther back in time. It's a place that feels unplugged and hidden, and when you are there you feel like you are in on the world's most wonderful secret. It's a place where happiness comes in the form of a huckleberry bear claw that has just been pulled out of the mercantile oven, where a cocktail consists of a cool amber ale in a canning jar, and where a big weekend night probably involves a game of fetch with a 3-legged dog.


Polebridge is a wide spot in the road with a saloon, a random collection of mismatched dogs, and a 100 year old Mercantile that offers a little bit of everything and has some of the best baked goods you will ever find. There is no electricity, no traffic lights, and the biggest issue of the day is whether or not some fool tourist will stir up too much dust as he drives toward Kintla Lake.




Apparently, you can also buy painted rocks there. And they are a great deal.


We passed on the rocks, feeling we were pretty well set for rocks at this stage in our life, but stopped in at the Merc and grabbed a bag full of baked goodness and headed up the road to Kintla Lake. It’s a bit of a haul, taking about another 45 minutes from Polebridge, but we had an afternoon to kill so we made the drive.


Kintla Lake is the starting point to a multi-day backpack trip that ends in Waterton Village in Canada, on the opposite side of the park. We had nothing that ambitious planned, however, and did no more than take an easy stroll around the lake. It was beautiful, but we couldn't help but notice the thick haze that was the result of some nearby wildfires.




We had seen trout on the menu at the saloon and couldn’t wait to get back to Polebridge for dinner.


The Northern Lights Saloon resides in the “mother cabin” that belonged to the family that originally built the Mercantile. It has changed hands many times since our original visit, but I believe the new owners have finally brought it back to its original glory.


It had the warm glow that I remembered and was filled with laughter and the smell of baking pie. Draft beers were passed around in old jars and the menu was handwritten on a chalkboard that hung on the log walls. We all had the trout. I don’t regularly eat fish, so when I say that trout is good, you know I mean it. It had that fresh clean taste that only trout has. It was served with a chipotle sauce and a thick slice of the Merc's homemade bread.


We had to follow dinner with a slice of their homemade pie. The saloon makes some of the best pies in the area.


If you don’t believe me, just ask the dog.


We made it back to the Village Inn in time to sit outside our room and watch the fading colors of the day decorate the sky above Lake McDonald.

We had to turn in early, though. Tomorrow was a big day. We would do the first of our 2 day backcountry hikes and would need to get an early start.

I went to sleep remembering our first backcountry hike from the previous trip. I lay in this very inn not knowing that the next day, it would snow several inches and that I would be hiking with wet feet, lying awake all night shivering in a summer weight sleeping bag while the temperature dipped to 28 degrees, and praying I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to pee, not sure whether I would freeze to death first or whether the bear would get me, knowing I had a cherry flavored chapstick in my pocket.

Hopefully, our hiking and camping experience over the next two days would be better than last time….but only time would tell.


Posted by vicki_h 11:52 Archived in USA Tagged hiking west camping backpacking outdoors montana glacier_national_park Comments (3)

The Last Best Place - Intro

A return to Montana and Glacier National Park

I saw a quote once that said, “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “WOW, What a Ride!”

I think this quote perfectly captures the essence of our trips to Montana.

Glacier National Park is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth and one of the most technologically unreachable. While there, you are more likely to see a mountain goat, a double rainbow and snow in August all in one day than you are to spot one bar on your iPhone or find a television in your room. It’s not a vacation that is about relaxation or luxury. It isn’t about fine cuisine, wine, or top hotel suites. It isn’t about shows or shopping malls. A trip to Montana is hard. Our bodies get tired and abused. We sleep on the ground or in bunk beds inside a modest turn of the century lodge with no telephone, television, or air conditioning. We eat beef jerky and string cheese and drink water collected from mountain streams. We push ourselves to our physical limits and reach at least one point every day that we are certain we can’t go any farther.


Why do we do it?

It’s about reconnecting with nature, with one another, and with our creator. It’s about unplugging from everything we know and immersing ourselves in the outdoors with nothing but our own conversation and the sound of the trail under our feet. It’s a time to simplify and strip down, to challenge our bodies and to remember that there is more out there than the view from our office.

There is no gourmet food that tastes better than a hot cup of soup after you have hiked 15 miles up and down a mountain pass with a 25 lb. pack on your back. There is no luxury hotel room that is finer than a sleeping bag beside a stream underneath a blanket of stars in a dark that is uninterrupted by street lights. There is no amount of entertainment that is better than the conversations Matt and I have when we spend 8 hours just walking together.

We never feel more alive than when we are in Montana.

That’s why we continue to dust off the hiking boots every couple of years, pull out the packs, and Febreeze the tent. It’s time to head out west.

As John Muir so eloquently stated, “The mountains are calling, and I must go….”


Posted by vicki_h 13:10 Archived in USA Tagged hiking west camping backpacking outdoors montana glacier_national_park Comments (2)

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