I spent the night in Great Falls, at a relatively expensive Motel 6 but a relatively cheap Best Western. The Motel 6 there has an agreement with the Best Western next door, whereby your Motel 6 room key will get you into the gym, pool, or any of the other nicer facilities on the other side of the parking lot. Plus, this Motel 6 had wireless internet, which is usually lacking at that chain. So, that’s useful to know if you are traveling through the city.
I asked the motel attendant where the waterfall was, assuming that they would not have named the town “Great Falls” simply because the autumn season tends to be pleasant or because it has been the scene of some great bloopers featured on America’s Funniest Home Videos. She directed me in the appropriate direction, and I checked out the great falls before leaving town. They didn’t really amount to much.
The drive from Great Falls to the east side of Glacier National Park provided views of an even bigger sky, and a correspondingly bigger wind. The wind did obey the posted speed limit, which was 75 mph on most 2-lane roads.
Looking at the grand horizon around me, I somehow decided that I needed to take a panoramic shot of the vast space around me. I could make a 360° panorama, I realized, by taking a bunch of photos in all directions and later stitching them together into one. All I needed for such a project was a high point from which I would have an unobstructed view in all directions.
I kept an eye out for just such a point. There were plenty of long, ridge-like hills in the area, but I was really looking for something that would take me up above the ridges, so I would have a clear bird’s-eye view in every direction.
Such a high spot was hard to find. I saw several candidates from the road, but none of them came anywhere near the highway; the highway naturally avoided high places. And there were very, very few side roads that could take me away from the highway and perhaps closer to a high point.
I finally saw one hill approaching that would be ideal: a cone-shaped point perched atop a high ridge. I searched eagerly for a road that might take me near it, so I would not have to walk a mile or two across someone’s pasture. But, the hill dropped out of sight before any such road was found, as the highway made a wide curve around the end of the ridge.
I was already scanning the horizon for another tall hill when I finally, too late, spotted a gravel road that did shoot off from that side of the highway. It crossed over a cattle guard into open pasture, but the state traffic signs and the presence of a road name indicated that it was a public road. I managed to get a glimpse of the road name as I zipped by: Molly’s Nipple Rd.
I chuckled a bit as the sign rapidly faded in the rear view. Molly’s Nipple Road? Who came up with that one? Why would they name the road after it? And what does Molly have to say about it?
But then I thought back to that small hill. The way the highway had curved, that road might have been pointing back towards that high point. Oh, surely not, I thought. That would just be too goofy. But…
I made a 3-point turn in the middle of the highway, drove back to the oddly-named gravel road, and followed it up to the hill that I now assumed was known locally as “Molly’s Nipple”.
The road passed right by the edge of the hill—it was too steep to bother building a road over the top—so I parked my pickup and made the short climb. The wind did its best to prevent me from reaching the top. It was strong enough at this point to blow you over, if you didn’t lean into the wind, and it was turning an unseasonably warm 50-degree day into a wind-chill nightmare.
Still, I made it to the top and got my photos. It only crashed my old computer once to try turning ten 3-MB photographs into one long panorama shot, but I was finally able to (sort of) make it work. If anyone has a talent for doing such things and thinks they could do a better job, I’d be happy to let you try.
The last real town before Glacier National Park was Browning, MT. I briefly stopped there to check out motel prices, just in case I didn’t find anything closer to the park.
There were two motels in town, and I stopped at the one that had not been recently gutted by fire. It wasn’t all that nice a place, and the man who finally showed up at the front desk matched its appearance.
“Ninety-four dollars,” he replied, when I asked him how much it would cost for one person to stay the night. “Plus tax.”
I thanked him, and explained that I was just checking prices, and would have to also look at other options first. “Good luck,” he said, with a mischievous grin that told me exactly how many places I would find open around Glacier Park at this time of year.
Didn’t matter. I would sleep in a parking lot before I would pay that man to spend the night. I’m not accusing him of arson, but it is awful handy for him that his only competitor, with the sign advertising recently remodeled rooms, had burned to the ground.
I continued on toward St. Mary, at the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park. I knew that the road through the park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, would be closed for the winter, but I wanted to see whatever there was to see, anyway. I had been told that Glacier was one of the most beautiful national parks.
St. Mary consisted mostly of a couple of gas stations, which were both closed for the season. The entrance to the park, though, was open. No rangers were manning the gate at this side of the park, and a sign instructed visitors to use self-pay envelopes. Since my annual pass meant I did not have to pay, I just drove on inside.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road was open and clear for the first several miles, before being gated and snow-covered just past the Rising Sun lodge. Every building was closed, and the park seemed abandoned on this side of the continental divide—but a campground not far from the entrance was clearly and purposefully left open. No one was there, but the continuously repeating voice on the park’s AM radio information channel reassured that camping was allowed at that particular site, and asked campers to use the self-pay station inside the campground. I found the self-pay station, but it neglected to state how much they wanted you to pay. I tried to pull a brochure out of the thick stack provided, thinking it might hold the answer, but all of the brochures were frozen solidly together inside their box. The same applied to the self-pay envelopes that I was being asked to put an unspecified amount of money into.
Regardless, it was starting to get dark, and this looked like my best option for someplace to stay. If a ranger ventured to this side of the park and wanted me to pay for camping there, I would gladly comply. Otherwise, I was not going to drop random amounts of cash into a box, if they didn’t care enough about it to at least tell you how much to pay.
First, though, I needed to get food. It would probably be cold that night, and not the time to skimp on calories. I had some snack-type stuff that would work for breakfast, but not a full meal.
I headed back out to the town of St. Mary, and followed a sign up a hill to a restaurant and hotel. The hotel was closed, and so was the restaurant. But, two men stood nearby, fueling a fleet-type pickup from a large above-ground tank. I stopped to ask them where one might be able to find some food in this area.
“The closest thing that would be open,” the first man replied, “would be 8 miles north of here, at Babb. It’s actually outside of town—turn right at the Duck Lake road before you get to town, and it will be up on top of the hill there.”
I followed his directions and found Mary’s Leaning Tree Café, a cozy oasis in the cold and black nothingness of the Montana evening. The standard café fare seemed a little bit pricey to me, but I couldn’t really blame them, considering how far it was to the nearest anything that was open. And the food was pretty good.
I ordered hot tea, since iced tea was not an option, and was handed an empty cup, a teabag, and a small, funny-shaped, oriental-looking vase of hot water. Luckily, my friends in DC and Michigan had introduced me to hot tea, so I had a faint idea of what to do with it, and tried to at least look like I knew what I was doing. There is a good reason why people in the north prefer hot tea: it is very good and comforting whenever it is cold and dark outside.
The other people in the café were clearly locals, and I was clearly not. They didn’t seem interested in talking to this stranger, but hung out in their own groups and occasionally played with the cards and chess-type games that resided on a couple of the tables.
I wondered what life was like up here, 10 miles from Canada and 40 miles from anywhere, in the winter. When every store but one is closed down, the tourists who fuel the economy don’t come, and it stays dark for upwards of 16 hours a day. It would seem to be a lonely existence; except, not a single other person at the café was alone.
I didn’t mind being alone for a short period, I told myself, and headed back out for a quiet night at a deserted mountain campground.