Library of Congress
Under rehabilitation: Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Leading east/west through the middle of Glacier National Park, the road is an amazing creation, a project of the WPA, dedicated in 1933. Park displays include photographs of workers hanging from hemp ropes next to sheer rock faces, building the arches of Three Arches Bridge. When I drove the road, and admired the bridge, I thought, “This is the sort of project that will never happen again.” I was glad to see the road being maintained, because the budgets for most of our national parks have been whittled away during the last eight years. The deterioration is heartbreaking.
Photo courtesy Carolyn McIntyre
Glacier’s scenery is the most spectacular and dramatic I’ve ever encountered, surpassing the Grand Canyon, Kiger Gorge, Whakarewarewa, Monument Valley, and Hurricane Ridge (though Hurricane Ridge wins on sheer beauty).
Although there are glaciers in Glacier National Park, it was named for the means of its creation: the glacial advance and retreat of the last ice age. Glacial valleys are deep, wide U-shapes. When a glacier ploughs across a valley created by another glacier, the result is a hanging valley, often spilling a waterfall from its termination high above floor of the deeper valley that cut it off.
The valleys hold glacial lakes of a spectacular green. At least one lake no longer carries that color, because the glaciers feeding it no longer exist. Glacier National Park contains a fraction of the number of glaciers that existed twenty years ago; those that remain mill the rock flour that colors glacial run-off. A few glaciers are still accessible to hikers, but the hiker who can reach those remote spots is far past my pay grade.
Above the valleys, alps rise — geometric peaks ground to three- or four-sided pyramids by ice flowing past. Arrêtes cut the sky like serrated knives, ridges ground to translucent edges at their peaks by glaciers scouring away the stone from both sides. In places, the rock is so thin that holes pierce it.
Driving along Going-to-the-Sun Road terrified and entranced me. I was headed west to east, so the drop-off was usually just off my right bumper, separated from the roadway by medium-sized boulders every ten feet.
I was always glad when the roadwork stopped traffic. It meant I could stop and look, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Appreciating the surroundings while driving on Going to the Sun Road is not so easy. The most spectacular stopping-point was opposite Bird Woman Falls, a waterfall spilling from a hanging valley, near a several-layered vaulted bridge.
When you go to Glacier, the best thing to do is to park your car at the entrance and take the free shuttle back and forth. The shuttles stop frequently; you can get off, explore, hike, see the view, and catch another shuttle. That way someone else drives and you can keep your gaze on the scenery instead of on the road. I did both — drove across and then shuttled to the summit and back to the hotel. The shuttle was much to be preferred for the sites with smaller parking lots. At one trailhead, I found my car trapped in a tiny lot crammed full of creeping cars, their drivers searching with increasing hysteria for an open spot. Turning around and escaping was quite a test of my spatial abilities. I took the hike the next day, arriving by shuttle.
When you don’t have to concentrate entirely on your driving, you can concentrate on the scenery, the geology, the story the landscape tells you. The layers of rock, their convolutions, their sculpting, tell our continent’s geological history. The glaciers, steadily melting, tell some of the history of waves of inhabitants.
And the transient snow and non-glacial ice fields, forming and melting each year on the peaks? What do those patterns tell me?
I watched the slopes as if they were slow clouds, trying to read the iceoglyphs, imagining: a lost arrowhead, a snake slithering happily down the hillside, a shadow horse poised to run. And, finally, hovering, a bird: a condor, an eagle, a thunderbird in snow plumage, watching from the heights.