Travel

Off to the Canadian Rockies -- for our 50th

... What costs so much? Where did we go? Are we having fun yet?

by Don Norris



INTRODUCTION: You get to celebrate your 50th anniversary only once in a lifetime. For us -- Lorry and me -- this was the year. She always wanted to see the Canadian Rockies, to visit Banff and Jasper, to see the Continental Divide. Me? I think I'd have chosen someplace else, but then, we've already been there, done that. So here's the tale of our 19 days of celebration, marking half a century together. We start off in Melrose, drive to Manchester Airport, have a layover in Las Vegas, then fly the last leg to Spokane in Washington. It's a good story, maybe a little too much detail, but lots of good photos.

Part 1 of 3:

Day one, August 24: An early rise at 4:30 to drive to Manchester Airport to catch a 7:20 flight on Southwest. We threw our luggage into the Buick and drove the 50 miles in good order, parking the car at the nearby Highlander Hotel lot -- at a rather extravagant fee of $7 a day. The advantage is that Highland provides protection for the car, and van service directly to the terminal, handling all luggage.

Not only did my friend, the pilot, permit me to check out the cockpit of his Boeing 737, but he also took my picture.

The weather was fine and the flight was smooth -- at something like 35,000 feet. The first leg took us to Las Vegas where we had a two-and-a-half hour layover; Being Las Vegas, the terminal was full of slot machines, but there is something onerous about throwing money away; instead, I got a good start on my new book, "The Bourne Supremacy".

I figure that the distance between Manchester and Las Vegas is about 3000 miles, and that the second leg, due north to Spokane, was another 1100 -- all of which made the ticket price of $129 (plus fees) reasonable. The view across Nevada was startling -- nothing but desert and the seemingly abandoned efforts of man to make industry or farming work in the dryness that is all Nevada. Startling were the circular, irrigated plots of farms, now dark brown, growing nothing and apparently abandoned.

The deserts of Nevada look more like a giant Pacman game -- in man's quest to make something from nothing.


A good word about Southwest Airlines: their fare for seniors is just that: fair. It is a flat fee of $129 to any destination, even if you have several legs. According the senior citizen who answered my midnight call to Southwest two months ago, seniors do not have to pay until they board the plane -- but "senior seats" are limited and it would be advantageous to get an obligated reservation by paying up front.

They also allow, without penalty, changes in scheduling, even cancellation. And while we paid in advance for our return flight, we could have changed that schedule any time before flight time. The total price, for two, round-trip, from Manchester to Spokane was $587, including taxes and fees.

We brought sandwiches because Southwest does not serve hot meals -- or any meals, for that matter. They did hand out snack boxes containing peanuts and crackers, and took orders for free soft drinks. I bought a beer for three bucks. And we ate our sandwiches for lunch in the Las Vegas terminal.

At Las Vegas, we pushed around a cart for three hours so we wouldn't have to carry our luggage -- there were no storage lockers because of security.

About a hundred miles short of Spokane, clouds appeared below. As soon as we started to descend, the rains hit and it kept raining on and off for the next week. On landing we picked up our gear and headed for the Budget Car Rental stand -- the lady had our reservation and the low rate for an economy car, supposedly a Dodge Neon. Instead, since she had no Neons, we were upgraded to an Oldsmobile Alero -- which was a really nice 4-cylinder car with many of the gadgets we have on our Buick. It had only 15,000 miles on it, and was peppy and easy to drive.The price was $530 for 19 days.


Lorry and Don, with the assistant manager at Spokane Comfort Inn.

Our Comfort Inn in Spokane was about five miles from the airport, right through downtown; traffic was horrendous, even at 3pm, in the rain. Our negotiated cost for a nice big room with two queen beds was $55, including senior discount (taxes extra). It was 6p.m. our time, so we stayed in for the rest of the day. The following morning we had the "free breakfast" at the Comfort Inn that included a broad selection including very good biscuits and gravy -- a southern favorite of mine.

Day 2: We left Spokane at 7:30 the next morning, in the pouring rain, headed north on Route 2. When we stopped at Sandpoint, Idaho, by 11, it was 52 degrees and still raining. At the Sandpoint Public Library we chatted with one of the library trustees (elected, not appointed) and took a photo in our Melrose Library T-shirts by their statue of Abe Lincoln. This was for a Melrose thing in which we hoped to provide the most photos at libraries across the nation.

By noon we had crossed into Montana, stopping in the village of Libby for lunch at the Antlers Restaurant. Great!

Here we were in a genuine cowboy town, in a restaurant made of logs, waitresses that looked like cowgirls, and placemats full of ranch brands. Much to our dismay , we shortly discovered that the Antlers was one of a small chain, and that Libby, Montana, was hardly a cowtown. Oh, well, maybe down the road, where the real mountains were ...

On our zigzag route to Kalispell, we began to see white metal crosses along the road, which were obviously the site of an accident and a death. By the time we got to Kalispell, we had counted 37 single- and multiple crosses, which averaged one fatal accident every four miles. The road was straight and fast, two lanes, and had a speed limit of 70.

Note: Montana has casinos and no sales tax.

Route 2 -- a rural road that begins back in Michigan and ends at the Pacific Ocean, is 70mph through Montana. I bring this up because Lorry and I had thought about driving backroads, right across the top of the United States. We eventually abandoned the idea -- mostly for safety's sake.

The temperature that morning was 51, rain was constant although a few spots of sunshine appeared on arriving in Kalispell. We had a reservation at the West Coast Outlaw Hotel on the south side of town, which was comfortable and spacious, but certainly not spic and span. The town was touristy with a western flair, with shops lining the main drag for some six blocks. First order of business was to buy a cowboy hat at the Corral West, and while we found the selection good, the felt hats were beyond our budget. Instead we bought a horsey birthday card for our son-in-law. No hat.



A hundred dollars for a cowboy hat!? At the right is a passing scene of northern Idaho. In the rain, of course.

Dinner was at a real western Pizza Hut, where the waitress told us she had moved from Salt Lake City, and she and her husband had bought a house with a well and 20 acres of land -- outside of town -- for the paltry sum of $120,000. Her opinion of the move to Kalispell was very positive -- no traffic jams, no crush of people, lots of open space. When I asked her if I could buy my beer glass with a Montana imprint, she said no, but why don't I just stick it in my pocket anyway. Nice lady.

Kalispell, we felt, had wide streets, easy traffic, a nice business district surrounded by what we in New England would call bungalow houses -- few basements, mostly one floor. It was a neat, well mannered town, tree-lined streets, lawns that were lush and well-maintained. Their library was large, and this small city appeared prosperous. We could see the hazy Rockies some 20 miles distant.



First close-up view of Rockies, over Lake McDonald. There must be another five or six thousand feet above those clouds ...

Day 3, Thursday, Aug.26: Breakfast was at the Wheat Montana Bakery and Deli, for more biscuits and gravy -- an order that was enough for three. For sale at the Wheat Bakery were huge sacks of Montana barley and other grains. We bought their $5 oversized coffee/soup mug, and also visited the ubiquitous Walmart before leaving town.

It was raining again.

At Hungry Horse we shopped for supplies, and also lingered briefly in the funky little towns of Columbia Falls, Martin City and Coram, on our way to West Glacier. At the Montana Fur Trading Post we bought not a cowboy hat, but a cap with the MFTP logo embroidered thereon, then priced dozens of other "Indian" trinkets such as bows, arrows, beads, headdresses, jewelry, Pakistani Indian knives, Australian cowboy hats, Mexican Indian blankets and Trenton (New Jersey) drums.

One such Pakistani-Indian sheath knife was fifty bucks, but came with a genuine Chinese cast metal bust of a grizzly bear. No sale here, but I liked the knife.

Along that road we counted five more white crosses. We had gone 300 miles from the Spokane airport, pausing many times to record our journey on film.



By golly, we made it to Glacier. And the Rockies begin at the east end of Lake McDonald.

At the gatehouse to Glacier, we flashed our well-worn Golden Age Passport, and were admitted without charge. Over the years, this little plastic card has saved us perhaps several hundred dollars in entrance fees to national parklands, from Grand Canyon to Acadia in Maine. It is free to seniors.

This is the beginning of the "Going To The Sun Road", which will lift us to some 6664 feet at Logan Pass and take us  55 miles across the Continental Divide. It is one of the scariest roads I have ever driven. Begun in 1923, it took 13 years -- and the lives of several workmen -- to complete.

It begins with a lovely byway along Lake McDonald, providing views of a recovering high forest that had been destroyed in last year's massive fires. Across the lake we could see where the forest went from deep green to dark brown, in huge swaths through the rolling, low mountains. We stopped long enough to cut a maple branch for a walking stick -- this is a habit I have nurtured for years, and now I have some 30 beautifully finished sticks in my collection. It was the last of the hardwoods we would see until we came down on the east side of the Glacier range.



Lorry, and what she was shooting.

The Going To The Sun road is a narrow two-laned byway with hardly a straightaway ever. As I remember, you are either going up or going down, but never level. There are switchbacks and hairpins, most without the benefit of any guardrail at all. If you miss your turn, it may be thousands of feet to the bottom. It is exciting in its views -- even in the rain, and it is exciting in the seemingless endless danger of falling off the mountain. Seldom did I take my eyes off a spot on the road immediately in front of our rented car. Lorry would tell me of a marvelous view of the crevass below, or of the clouds in the valley below.

I couldn't look. I was too scared.



Traffic jam at six thousand feet.

There were several places where construction crews were gluing the precipitous road together, perhaps from a washout, or a landslide. Here and there were impromptu traffic lights that, at one point, had us parked on the edge of a void that had no bottom -- we could see only clouds below us. At one point I pulled in behind a big GMC carryall to await a green light; when the light turned, we discovered the GMC had no driver, and I had to maneuver between it and the edge of our skinny road. The clearance was a matter of inches, but the fall was to eternity.

It took us two hours to climb the western side of Going To The Sun road, although other more sporting drivers were obviously competing to see how fast they could make the climb. And when we arrived at the lodge in Logan Pass, on the Continental Divide, we were socked in with clouds and fog. We could see the ghost of a nearby peak, maybe 500 yards away. In climbing the 100 steps between the parking lot and the visitors' center, we discovered that the thin air of 6700 feet depleats one's energy very quickly.



Millions of years ago, the earth particles that form these mountains were the bottom of a vast ocean. Hence the banding, the layering of different colors.

A week later, in Canada, we heard a news report that a tourist had driven his car over the edge of Going To The Sun Road. Miraculously no one was killed but it will be at least another month before workers will be able to remove the crumpled car.

And it was still raining.

The road down the east side of the Continental Divide was a piece of cake. On this side, the clouds were not as low, not as ominous as those on the west, and we were able to visually record the amazing sites below us. At one pull-off over a seemingly bottomless chasm, I cautiously edged up to the rock fence to take a photo -- scared almost to immobility. Just then some fellow arrived, jumped out of his car and hopped up on the wall, his toes in empty space. He turned and walked the top of the rockwall, taking in the amazing sights below.

I shut my eyes and held onto the car doorhandle.

At the bottom of the mountain, at St. Mary's Lake, was our lodge -- the Rising Sun Motor Inn. Or it was supposed to be our lodge. We had made a reservation for three days there, via email, sight unseen -- but then, this was within the Glacier Park, run by their hired people. For $94 a night we got a plain, bare room, a nice bed, heat (for it was cold in the mountains), an attached bathroom with shower -- just large enough to get into. We were disappointed, but had to pay not only the first night's lodging, but a $30 penalty fee for breaking a contract.

And while the accomodations were sparse, they were clean -- but totally uninspired for a hotel in such a majestic setting. I learned later that many young hikers thought staying at this same hotel was luxurious compared to what they had paid for leantos and "chalets" on the park trails. Visiting Glacier Park is expensive.

Five miles down the road in the town of St. Mary is a new modern, log-constructed lodge, the Resort at Glacier, -- large, roomy, fireplaced, with a lovely living room and huge stone fireplace -- and a bar that served excellent (but costly) martinis. Now this was living -- but it was beyond our budget, we felt. The lodge did have economy rooms in its bottom floor (really, the basement), with a single small window up near the ceiling, through which we could see the feet of people walking by. No thanks.

Instead we found a family-operated motel, Johnson's Red Eagle Motel, with an attached cafe. Now this was affordable, comfortable, with spectacular views of the mountains across the highway, and (surprise) a television set -- which had only one channel. The family was gracious, the place was clean, modernized, roomy, and this time, our second floor room with rustic balcony had those marvelous views.

And our hostess was an elderly Blackfoot Indian woman. She was delightful.

Not only did we have really neat views, but the food in their cafe was excellent -- basic, family-style dining in an old messhall, with cowboy stuff hanging all around. Dinner began with a thick, rich soup and a huge salad bowl; their special was a pork roast served family style in a gravy bowl. We came away stuffed, especially after eating a huge portion of huckleberry ice cream pie for dessert. Now there was a satisfying, unique experience. Three cheers for the Johnson's and their Red Eagle Motel and Cafe, in St. Mary's, Montana.

Of particular note was a 35-mile sidetrip south along the edge of the mountains, to the town of Browning, Montana, the home of the Blackfeet Indians. It also is the site of the Blackfeet Heritage Center and the Museum of the Plains Indians -- produced by the federal government. This was a nice take, but we came away feeling short-changed. There should have been more film, more voiced history, a better hall for viewing. More, although the collection of implements, clothing and tools was outstanding. There was no voice of history.

The town itself was a sprawling community, and we took the time to tour the neighborhoods, had a taco for breakfast in the local general store, and found the folks there friendly, business-like and accomodating. It was also the place that a drunk bumped into Lorry, almost knocking her down. He was apologetic, called on God to help him, then staggered down the aisle.

Count the trip to Browning as a plus, a good learning experience. However, we did see several more of the Montana white crosses along Route 89, including one post of five. Mass tragedy along one of the most beautiful roads I've ever driven. Endless mountains on the left, endless rolling plains on the right.

That night we went to a lecture at the Resort (across the street from Johnson's Cafe), to hear Curley Bear Wagner, who is a prominent Blackfeet Indian involved in his own version of public relations. He spoke of the misconceptions in dealing with American Indians, told us how one never hears of "one of us" being attacked by a bear "because we aren't foolish enough to go out hiking in the woods." His presentation was enlightening, informative and humorous.

In the next issue of the Mirror, Lorry and I cross into Canada and experience the mountains as our neighbors know them. So many, so spectacular. And the Icefields Highway and all those glaciers. Just amazing!


February 4, 2005


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