6:00 a.m.— I’m alive. It’s the start of Day Eight and I’ve become so used to sleeping outside that my internal clock has me rising with the sun.
That’s a good thing, because even in the places I’m staying—mostly national parks and monuments—roads and trails can get crowded. Usually, that happens when people staying in the nearby towns and hotels swarm in after breakfast. And that’s fine: the more people who enjoy our parks, the more attention they get and (theoretically) the more funding and protection they have. But when you rise early in the parks, you get a special treat.
Few people are up at this hour. Here at Glacier’s Bowman Lake campground, it’s me, the fog and two guys trying to put together folding kayaks…emphasis on trying.
The lake looks different than it did last night. I can’t see across to the peaks in the distance. Actually, because of the fog, I can barely see 30 feet ahead.
One of the most common questions you hear around the campfire is, “What’s your favorite park? Which one is the best?” I’ve heard it at least three times on this trip, and I’ve barely talked to a soul. But the answer can be tricky. It’s hard for me to rank “the best.” But what’s not difficult is picking a feeling. How does a park feel?
They’re all different. They all tell you different things.
Yellowstone is restless.
The Grand Tetons are energetic.
Yosemite is holy.
Glacier is welcoming.
This park welcomes you and beckons you to explore. It wants you to love it; it wants someone to love it. Yes, the usual “popular park” crowds clog up the main roads, but even the most bustling sections of this land don’t feel too crowded. Besides, in Glacier, it’s easy to escape them. There are so many rocky trails and dusty backroads, leading to so many backcountry campgrounds that you can virtually disappear within 10 minutes of passing through the gate.
For most of the morning, I had the northern reaches of the park to myself. In three hours of driving and wandering, I saw a handful of people and a ptarmigan. That’s it.
A three-legged dog nudged me through the door. Inside, the smell of hot coffee and huckleberry bear claws (hucklebear claws?) filled the air. A few miles past the ptarmigan, around a bend in the old stone road, I found it—the Last Best Place.
Secluded in the northern reaches of the northern reaches. It’s an outpost of 10 mailboxes called Polebridge; here dust is a four letter word. “Slow down,” the signs note. “Entering Polebridge.”
The signs are necessary; without them, you’d never know that the Last Best Place is an actual town. But it is. As far as I can tell, several people do actually live among the handful of worn-in businesses that rest on Glacier’s high border. A cafe, outhouse, library and volleyball court encircle the town’s most famous feature: the Merc.
Officially, the Polebridge Mercantile & Bakery, the two-story building towers over the surrounding village, its red paint a siren to the weary wanderers and hikers who’ve somehow found their way to this place.
But what a special place it is. I grab a coffee and a hucklebear claw, then wander a few yards from the Merc’s door to soak it all in.
10:00 a.m.—I’m still alive, even more so than before. It’s places like Polebridge that make the long hours on the road, cold Spaghetti-O dinners and parking-lots-turned offices worth it.
You can’t measure a park by its photos or its crowds or its name. You must measure a park by its feel. And at the The Last Best Place, Glacier feels like home.
Editor’s n0te: Today is a very special day. It’s the start of Day Nine, and I’ve just received word that the goal for the SouledOutside Gas Fund has been broken! So far, you guys have contributed over $350 to the fuel tank, and I take that seriously. It’s because of you that I keep pushing farther when I probably shouldn’t—like, when I got lost on the dirt roads of the Montana wilderness at twilight yesterday. I ended up climbing 40 miles of rocky, timberland road with a constant eye on the fuel gauge. I escaped with fumes, and I’ll be able to fill up again today thanks to help from all of my friends.
Because of you, even when the phone says “no service” and the light is getting low and I know that wolves frequent the area and it all feels a bit haunted, I know I’m not alone. And it’s because of you that I can capture views like this.