(The following account was first written in 2002. I have edited it slightly, divided it into a series of parts, and added each part to my blog for all to enjoy. In 2011 my daughter, Willie, and I revisited the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. That blog post will follow at the conclusion of this series.)
It promised to be a lovely Labor Day. Susan invited us all up to the Park to take a “leisurely” hike along the Highline Trail. We’d get an early start, complete the hike, and get home to Kalispell by mid-afternoon so we’d all be able to get some things done around the house later during our day off from work.
Previously I had asked Phyllis (my mom) if the Highline Trail was the one that seems to continue forever along the side of a sheer rock face, known as the Garden Wall. But she assured me by saying, “Oh no! Susan said this trail is supposed to be really easy and it goes most of the way downhill. Besides, we’re only going as far as a scenic overlook, which is only about four miles, and then we’ll turn around.” Well, this seemed easy enough. I was able to talk my fourteen-year-old son, Austin, into joining us by reminding him that, along the way, he could scan for expensive sports cars, whose owners seem to travel from all over the country just so they can drive up the winding and harrowing Going-to-the-Sun Road.
We took two cars up and parked Phyllis’ car at the Loop parking lot; then all of us piled into Susan’s and drove on up to Logan Pass. Susan (my sister) directed Mom to keep her own car keys in her backpack so that, in the unlikely event we happened to hike the whole length of the trail, we’d be able to drive Mom’s car back up to the top to retrieve Susan’s. (This was shrewd thinking on Susan’s part, because Phyllis is well-known for locking her keys in her car.)
Upon our arrival at the Logan Pass parking lot, we all jumped out of the cozy car and into an icy near-hurricane-speed wind. (There’s a good reason it’s called Glacier National Park, folks. At 6,646 feet and straddling the Continental Divide, the Logan Pass summit rarely gets warmer than 68 degrees. And by Labor Day, we should have known it would be considerably cooler than that.) Austin immediately complained that I had made him wear shorts. Luckily, he and his cousin Wyatt (aged 15) had exhibited enough sense to bring their hooded sweatshirts, and they proceeded to cinch them up so tightly that only one eye peeked through. The rest of us quickly donned whatever sweatshirts or jackets we had wisely brought along.
Wyatt and Austin now began begging to hike up the boardwalk to Hidden Lake, a much shorter and familiar trail; but no one, except me and perhaps ten-year-old Jesse, seemed to be listening.
Susan wanted a group photo before we got started, and then we began to make our way north to the trail head. Sure enough. This was the trail I had pictured earlier–the one that stretches along the cliff face for miles. If you’re deathly afraid of heights like I am, you must constantly be on the lookout for panic situations. I tried to calm myself and pretend I was somewhere else. Like back at home in my warm bed.
The gang near the Highline Trail head with Reynolds Mountain in the distance. From left: Wyatt, Austin, Dallas, Jesse, Phyllis & Steve (Susan is not shown, as she is taking the photo.)
The trail started out for the first fifty feet or so in some small scrubby subalpine firs and spruce trees. However, our whole left side dropped off dramatically as we reached the rock cliffs. At this point, some rangers had previously strung a hose-wrapped cable handrail, which helped considerably. As long as I was able to keep my eyes glued to the trail and clutch the rail with one of my frozen hands, I seemed to be doing rather well. We edged along at a steady clip, with Mom and Susan exclaiming how gorgeous the view was and coaxing the rest of us to look at the cars on Going-to-the-Sun Road below. Though there was no way I was going to look down, I did venture a glance or two up Mount Piegan to our right occasionally. This was not especially easy either, since the wind was howling around our ears and threatening at any moment to whisk us off the ledge. No matter where we went, that blustery wind was sure to follow.
Jesse and Dallas (notice we were hugging the wall, trying to get as far from the edge as possible)
“Lightfoot” Susan was in the lead. Besides the fact that she seemed to be the fastest hiker, she was also the one in possession of the bear pepper spray, a handy accoutrement deemed necessary in the wilds of Montana. Steve did caution his wife to be sure not to spray the pepper into the wind, as it would come flying right back into her face. Susan, however, just laughed and informed us all that, should she actually come face to face with a bear, she would be too scared to spray any pepper anyway, so we were all on our own.
The pepper spray had its own handy little compartment in Susan’s high-tech pack, along with her and Steve’s water bottles, lunch and whatever else she had in there. The pack sat comfortably on her hips and didn’t pinch or pull on her shoulders at all, unlike Willie’s old school pack I was hauling or the 1920s model Mom wore. I had no idea that three bottles of water and a Gatorade could be so heavy. I knew that I should probably tell Austin to carry our pack but, since I’d already made the shorts blunder, I decided to tough it out for awhile longer.
It was about this time that the cable handrail disappeared. “Okay,” I told myself, “just block out that left side. You’re on somewhat level ground now, and it can’t be too much farther.” One of the boys whined, “Are we there yet?” To which Susan replied, “We’ve only gone a mile!”
Wildflowers & beargrass along the trail