The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.
My office is configured in such a way that I’m blind to coworkers who appear at my door. Each day I sit like a parked car in a cul-de-sac, my backside positioned toward visitors, a situation that forces me to discriminate between the surprisingly varied sounds they make. Thus, I’ve come to recognize knockers by their knocks, foot-draggers by the scuff of their feet, and in one case, a person by a quick intake of breath, followed by a long pause, as with a case of apnea.
My office has a window and a door that closes. The former occupant was a social activist who stayed after hours writing for journals with names like The Other Paper. She was a profoundly unkempt woman. Years later, despite painting the office myself, I still find traces of the life she lived there, be it an ancient file or a compromised panel in the ceiling, the victim of one of her many hanging plants. It was while contemplating an unexplained depression in the wall that I heard a non-knocker announce herself with a warm hello.
With her light tread and ticklish voice, she happens to be one of my favorite people at work. She and her husband, both egregiously fit, had recently honeymooned in Glacier National Park, an enormous preserve of steeply eroded mountains in western Montana. While I tend to return from vacation in need of another, immediate vacation, she struck me as an altogether more relaxed version of the woman who, just a few weeks earlier, was a bride-to-be doubling as her own wedding planner.
When Ansel Adams wrote of Yosemite Valley as a “great earth-gesture,” he could easily have been referring to Glacier National Park. In both places, you feel surrounded by the immense intimacy left behind by glaciation. As an experience, Glacier is perhaps more expressive than parks of similar size, for in addition to the sudden grandeur of its mountains, it contains two magisterial qualities in abundance: glacial ice and bears. The ice requires some wayfaring, but Glacier initiates say it’s not a question of whether you’ll see a bear, but when, and how many, and under what circumstances.
My coworker brimmed with a bear story, a timid, binocular-dependent tale about a grizzly and cubs above Cosley Lake. Even so, the bear envy stirred within me. I once spent two weeks in Juneau, Alaska, only to see not a single bear—a misfortune similar to visiting Jamaica and never finding the beach. Like some trekking Jimmy Olsen, always at the periphery of a story, I habitually meet hikers just after they’ve seen a bear, the sighted bears “just up ahead” or “over that hill.”
Before leaving, her tone a little trampled, my coworker remarked that the glaciers will be gone by her tenth anniversary. Glacier will be empty, is how she put it. But what sounded unnecessarily dramatic was later confirmed by the US Geological Survey website: the park contained twenty-five glaciers at last counting, down from one hundred and fifty. Current estimates predict an ice-free Glacier by as early as 2020.
While climate change is controversial again, glacial retreat is a relatively unimpeachable phenomenon. So overwhelming is the photographic evidence that it inspires indifference and resignation, a dissonant reaction based upon the sense that glaciers are beyond saving. We see them as reaching, or having reached, a tipping point. While other habitats, like coral reefs and sand dunes, enjoy the protection of conservationist groups, glaciers tend to be seen in isolation from their environment, as artifacts we can live without. If glaciers were the source of, say, cocktail ice, one can imagine an entirely different response.
As it turns out, there is a product that anticipates the loss of cocktail ice. Recently, I was persuaded to eschew ice for whiskey stones, a set of reusable soapstone cubes you keep in your freezer. Bourbon-with-ice is a handheld model for glacial loss: When I apply bourbon to ice cubes, the ice melts according to how much bourbon I apply, and bourbon, as anyone can tell you, is warm and gold like the sun. If you happen to prefer bourbon with a slight chill in it, particularly in warmer weather, the prospect of no ice is unthinkable. Neither is the prospect of too much meltwater in the glass. In this spirit, I found myself trying whiskey stones, which were a gift of my girlfriend, whom I’ll call Hannah.
Hannah, who prefers the clean lines of modern design, liked the tiny white box. Printed on the package were the incantations, “Ice melts. Whiskey rocks,” and my favorite, “Don’t dilute the dram of your dreams.” Plink-plink went the whiskey stones, followed by the bourbon. Other than the satisfying sounds of rocks against glass, we found the soapstones aggressively neutral, unable to moderate, like ice, the strength and flavor of the drink. Ice, it turns out, helps bring the bourbon into balance.
It stands to reason that soon, Glacier will be absent the glaciers it was named for. It’s in our nature to disconnect objects from their subjects, like letter openers or penny arcades, a tendency to which the natural world isn’t immune. Glacier, which has contributed so much to the fossil record, will likely become a kind of fossil itself. What will it mean when the ice is gone? Can you build a memorial to a place that was a memorial to begin with? Before Glacier lost its main attractions, I decided to experience the greatest concentration of glaciers in my country. At the very least, my bear jinx would finally be undone.
That the coming weekend was Labor Day was not a small inconvenience, what with the end-of-summer scatter of school kids and families for one final go at the sun. In the valleys, it was still perspiration hot, even late into the night. Hannah already had panoramic, women-only plans to climb Broken Top, a gnarled, craggy fist in the Cascades range of central Oregon. I had no plans whatsoever. Feeling disenfranchised, I knew only that I wanted to be outdoors and, if possible, devote some time to thinking about my relationship with Hannah. Specifically, about whether Hannah and I ought to break up.
I don’t mean to imply that my approach was cavalier. We already were in talks, as the lawyers say, regarding a possible breakup. Hannah and I had been dating for six months, a fleeting interval if you imagine a long life together, an eternity if you’re trying to start a fire and can’t. We were well tuned, our every taste and preference aligned, be it music or movies or food, and for a time I mistook similarity for compatibility, and perhaps a precursor to love. But as the months advanced, my inkling grew that something more intimate was beyond us. She was a girl I loved to talk to, loved to watch eat, but didn’t love. I began to feel seditious and ugly, confronted daily by the question of What’s the matter with me? which caused Hannah to second-guess her own feelings, her heart quartered and drawn.
I booked my train ticket on a Tuesday. That Thursday, as Hannah and I descended my porch, the neighborhood bungalows neatly arrayed in the low sun, she abruptly called things off, citing my uncertainty as grounds for ending the relationship. We were on our way to meet friends and, stumbling towards some kind of dignity, I continued on without her. My first thought was to cancel my Glacier trip. Recalling my purpose—and the non-refundable train tickets—those thoughts were swiftly dismissed. I simply had more to think about on my trip than I expected. Or less, as the case might be. I felt knocked outside of my own story, a step behind whatever events I’d been projecting before me.
I spent the evening at the minor league ballpark, commiserating dryly with friends, unemotional in my countenance as required by my ego, but overall, very much stunned. From my first-base bleacher seat I could see, high in the third-base rafters, Hannah’s friends gathered defiantly around her.
Glacier National Park is a place of abrupt transition and juxtaposition. Topographically, if the mountain west is a rumpled carpet, Glacier is the fringe’s fringe, the easternmost front where the Rocky Mountains descend dramatically to undisturbed plains. In geologic terms, the Lewis Overthrust heaved up and headed east millions of years ago, the very old rock ascending very new, the prairie literally dragging itself into the maritime north-west. So much rock moved so quickly that ancient seafloor beds, their ripple marks still visible, can be found atop mountain peaks in Glacier.
By any measure, Glacier is a pristine place, an abundant source, by virtue of its position, far out of proportion to its size. From Triple Divide Peak, a modest, wedge-shaped mountain, a raindrop can reach one of three oceans—the Pacific, Atlantic, or Arctic—making Glacier, hydro-logically speaking, the axis of the continent. Four distinct ecosystems intersect in Glacier, a controlled collision of flora and fauna that supports even exceedingly rare species, like wolverines. Every carnivore historically supported in Glacier is still there, along with nearly every native plant. Designated a World Heritage site in 1995, Glacier exists basically as the first settlers found it. That is, other than the glaciers.
To be considered a glacier, an ice field must comprise twenty-five acres. While the park has been dispossessing itself of ice since the Little Ice Age, recently a scientist described a glacier’s margins as shrinking during the same site visit. Of the glaciers that remain, only the splattered milk-shaped Jackson glacier can still be viewed from Going-to-the-Sun Road.
George Bird Grinnell, a naturalist and early proponent of the park, called Glacier the “Crown of the Continent.” Grinnell’s fervor was re-warded with a namesake glacier that today has dwindled and divided, creating a second glacier, Salamander, to which it now sits adjacent. Grinnell and glaciers like it created the steep-sided, Alps-like grandeur of the park, ripping and sawing down the Rocky Mountains until they resembled giant teeth. Upwards of 700 lakes can be found in the recesses left by glaciation, only a fraction of which have names.
At the East Glacier train station I was greeted by Bill, a Blackfeet Indian wearing aviator glasses and a tight-fitting denim jacket. His face was a plowed field. In his brown VW microbus, we drove in silence to the Mountain Pine Motel, the only hotel with an available room on short notice.
The town of East Glacier has vibrations from another era. It is bisected by the narrow, curving Highway 2, and the town ends before the curve does. People cross the highway without even looking. East Glacier gave no indication of the Labor Day holiday, as if holidays weren’t in ac-cord with the kind of time they observed there. From the motel to the rental car place to the deli, the town was overrun with pale European-looking brunettes, who spoke thickly in an accent I eventually learned was Lithuanian. The weather was sunny but noticeably cool, a change in season not yet evident in western Oregon.
My first day, I would drive from Saint Mary Lake to Lake McDonald along Going-to-the-Sun Road, taking in the park’s largest lakes from east to west with a short hike to Avalanche Lake in between. On my second day, at the urging of a friend, I would hike the thirteen-mile roundtrip to Oldman Lake. I would be walking into the wind for much of the hike, but the cirque in which the lake formed was as steep-sided as a volcano, pro-viding a place to eat lunch—an overstuffed deli sandwich, courtesy of the Lithuanians—without equal.
My car rented, I set out along The Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the great engineering marvels in this country. The only highway which completely bisects the park, the road enables you to see in three to four hours what our forebears once viewed in three to four days. Known locally as the Sun Road, it is notable in summer for the petite red buses, or Reds, which transmit tourists throughout the park, their elongated, throwback shape belying their modern propane engines. During the winter, the Sun Road is among the toughest on the continent to snowplow; the accumulation of snow, which can exceed one hundred feet, carries the nickname the Big Drift.
I couldn’t find a parking place at the Logan Pass visitor center, not even an illegal, shoulder-of-the-road spot in between outrageously parked RVs. Deflated, I continued to Avalanche Creek, which resembled a shopping mall the weekend before Christmas. Walking the short path to the Trail of Cedars turnoff, I assured myself that the crowd engulfing me would en masse take the left turn towards the shorter loop; alas, I passed the loop and entered the main trail accompanied by malnourished chainsmokers, obese grandmothers, and hordes of crying children. It was the outdoors equivalent of a County Fair. I was in a funk, a state of pristine self-loathing, until another hiker mentioned the bear up at the Lake.
Vigorously, then aggressively, I passed the glut of slow-moving tourists. At times, I found myself in a run-jog state, reeling in the meters of gradually rising trail until hard clay began to feel tacky, then mucky, then wet. Through a break in the trees was a lake with the steepest sides I’d ever seen. Nearly vertical on three sides, it might have been created by a giant scoop. I skirted the lake, following the trail to the right. Multiple water-falls, like thin, meandering creeks, fell silently into the water. The lake was quiet with the possibility of bear.
A family approached. Careful not to seem anxious, I asked about the bear. The boy pointed back over his head—the direction I was walking—while a man I assume was his father said wearily, “You’re too late.”
It was by now late in the day. Leaving Avalanche Lake, I identified, and not for the first time, with the boy in James Joyce’s Araby, who, in pursuit of a girl’s heart, shows up at a bazaar in search of a trinket only to find it engulfed in darkness. “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned…” It is a wretched feeling, being too late. One feels exhausted and hopeless, as if bound in sticky twine, and not at all suited to the demands of the larger world. It goes beyond second-guessing your commitment to an outcome: it requires a thorough evaluation of all you did before it.
I slowed my pace. I had nowhere I needed to be, but now and then I would overtake a larger, slower group. As I walked alongside several adults at one point, an assertive man held aside the woman in front of him. It was an insistent gesture he narrated by saying, “Wait for his companion,” to which a woman behind him said flatly, “Don’t bother. He’s alone.”
Back at the hotel, my proprietor, a rheumy but gracious man named Terry, instinctively sensed my fatigue. “Our overnight train guests need a night’s rest,” he said. Before we parted, he reviewed the path to Oldman Lake, as good a place as any to see a bear, he said. Even someone in a hurry, which I assumed meant me.
That night, I called Hannah, but hung up as it began to ring.
To enter Glacier is to accept the mixed message of its material. At the gate, you are handed a brochure describing the bears as “thriving” and visible “almost anywhere” in the park. The tone is paternal, even upbeat, and one gets the sense of being a stakeholder: “Your behavior has great consequences for the bears. Their future is in your hands.” Once inside the park, the message shifts dramatically. At the trailhead, a series of warnings await you: “You are entering a wilderness and must accept certain dangers. There is no guarantee of your safety.” In other words, Prepare to die.
Bears are the rare mammal you might encounter on vacation that, if met under the wrong circumstances, will kill you. I’d seen a bear only once, a black flash across a hiking trail, and I swear the scent of fear was in the air, but in my outdoor life I’d always been near a bear. For a bear to reveal itself one had to be ready for it. It was a gift, and I was ready to receive it.
In anticipation of that gift, I had been persuaded to carry bear mace. Bear spray isn’t cheap, but given the constant reminders at Glacier trail-heads that hiking alone is not recommended, I felt reasonably confident my money had been well spent. If I secretly hoped to return the can for a refund, which I did, that impulse hadn’t kept me from packing it. But it would be accurate to describe the mace as an afterthought as I ascended the trail above Two Medicine Lake. My bear sighting had come and gone the day before, I told myself.
That morning I had awakened to a herd of chestnut horses being wrangled down the gravel alley behind the motel. The riderless horses, glistening and enormous, reminded me of why I travel, which is to experience something that home can’t provide. Fumbling for my camera, I managed one picture, not of the horses or their ranch hand, but of the dog trailing the convoy. In the picture, he’s looking right at me, as if to say, You’re just getting up?
As I packed my belongings into my bags and my bags into the trunk of the car, I was beset by the sense that I’d been wrong about Hannah. Had I waited too long to realize she’d been a good fit? Had I avoided something good to avoid trying altogether—stymied by the prospect of eventually failing? I sat in the car for several moments, letting the moment of panic pass through me. Within the pinwheeling doubt was a still center, persistent but almost imperceptible, not filled with answers but with silence, which itself was a kind of certainty.
The morning was cool and windy. The trees provided a dense wind-break along the trail, creating an immense stillness and quiet. After a short climb, I descended switchback-style through the forest to the rocky banks of Dry Fork, then followed the dry riverbed until the trail reached a narrow bridge. I clapped a few times, announcing my presence. Gradually and then suddenly, I entered a heightened state, a sense of awareness reflecting the views around me: Having left the narrow gauntlet of forest trail for the open valley floor, I now had sightlines in all directions. I sensed movement behind every tree. I heard footfalls in every swaying leaf. It was a place that might serve as the background for footage of Bigfoot, his beleaguered steps captured on grainy film stock.
The trail entered a thin forest without a canopy, the tall summer grasses beside the trail almost to my thigh. Within the grasses were high spiky flowers, long since bloomed and dried to a crisp brown.
Moments later, from a rise above a narrow gully, I saw a snout poking out from behind a tree. The tree was directly adjacent to the trail, perhaps thirty feet ahead and to my right. As the bear edged out into the open grass of the slope, I crept back down the hill and out of sight.
I dropped to my knees and elbows. In the gully, the bear gently nuzzled the grass. A midsized, lumbering black bear. It was the best of sightings and the worst of sightings: The best, because I’d seen her before she could see me; because while it clearly was an adult, no cubs were present; and because the wind, having died down a moment before, was suddenly gusting in my direction, preventing the bear a reliable read on my scent. It was the worst sighting because she was directly in my path. I still had more than ten miles to go, and to continue, I would have to show myself.
I set down my backpack, rummaging wildly through the compartment. I was so well-prepared I was ill-prepared. I had the bag cinched every which way, so when rummaging didn’t work, I dumped the contents in the trail. My lunch. A sweaty shirt. My water bladder. Every thirty seconds I would climb the rise again and, peering over, find the bear still foraging in the dry grass. Finally, at the very bottom of my bag, I glimpsed the sleek red canister. The nozzle and pin were still sheathed in blister plastic, the kind used to encase battery packs and peripherals at the electronics store.
It was like trying to open a pickle jar with my tongue. I found a stick, but it snapped immediately, as did another, drawing blood from my hand. The bear was now out in the open, slowly feeding on the hill opposite. I tried using rocks, first as hammers, then as levers to pry the plastic open. The third rock split the protective wrap, taking part of my fingernail with it.
Standing as tall as I knew how, I stepped carefully to the top of the rise, fully expecting the bear to have vanished. She hadn’t. She turned sideways, showing me her flank. I was starting to panic. I’d never used mace before. What if I managed to incapacitate myself? Removing the yellow safety pin, I aimed the canister to my left, firing the mace in a single short burst. The can released a dry jet of what looked like paprika, the sideways wind instantly flushing it away. Shortly after, the bear climbed the hillside opposite, looking back every few paces before it lumbered into the trees.
I stepped slowly down the trail. At the lowest point, just before the trail re-entered the trees, was a series of large scat piles, each perhaps minutes old.
The mace shot, which vanished like movie-set fog, could not have caused the bear to flee. It was me; I had ended the encounter by ascending the ridge. Instead of lamenting the reflexive and probably premature re-lease of mace, I felt secure in the sequence of events as they’d happened. I felt calm and clearheaded, even a little giddy. Not like the rush a bully feels, whose fears drive him to expose the fear in others, but the peace that comes with having done so much by doing very little. At this rate, I felt as if ten more bear sightings awaited me.
After walking awhile, I stepped off the trail above Twin Falls, the water clear and wide far below, the can’s trigger still wrapped around my index finger. The nozzle fit my finger as comfortably as any ring I’ve ever worn; I would not remove it again, other than to eat lunch, until I reached my car four hours later. Having felt so feeble the day before, I now felt exuberant. My body glowed.
Since I was aiming it around like a pistol, making a series of Dirty Harry poses as I did, the bear mace had my attention as a girl and her male friend came up behind me. I cleared my throat and clutched the mace to my chest. It was as if they’d seen me naked. They stood beside me, the girl whispering “hello” in English, then continued slowly up the trail.
For awhile, I assumed they’d left the trail, taking a route unknown to me. After a time, I forgot about them. Then, turning a corner in the trail, I came upon them sitting together on a rock. I offered them water, but she shook her head. She was trying to get him to say “chipmunk.” Once, twice, three times he failed. It was the most gentle language lesson I’ve ever witnessed. After several tries, in an accent I didn’t recognize, he said it.
This essay appeared in Indiana Review 33.1, Summer 2011.
Jackson Blair has published fiction, essays and journalism in the Indiana Review, The Rumpus, Open Spaces, Lake Effect and Oregon Humanities, among others. Until 2005, he was a fiction editor with the Northwest Review, the literary magazine at the University of Oregon. He was the film critic for the Eugene Weekly (www.eugeneweekly.com) from 2005 until 2011, where he won a handful of Society of Professional Journalism awards for criticism. He and his family live in Eugene, Or.