Total Miles: 2521.6
Six weeks ago, as part of a talk titled In the Land of Dust and Fire: Hiking the American West, I mentioned this quote by John Muir which he gave when asked what he thought of hiking:
“I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
You have to love that kind of honesty. I’d like to think that if he’d been here today, he would’ve approved of our sauntering. With just over 14 miles to the next stop on our permit, there was no rush to do just about anything, so saunter we did. Breaks stretched, time seemed to dilate in a way that even Einstein had not predicted, and when a waterfall suddenly appeared at a creek crossing it felt completely natural to stop everything and sit down to enjoy it more fully.
Precious little of long distance hiking is truly like that, where the challenge of covering great distances over many weeks or months compels a certain sort of adherence to the clock. With so many sights to see over so many miles, there isn’t time to stop and admire all of them in the way you might otherwise. And so they fly past, often with nothing more than a photo to acknowledge the moment, taken either with the camera in your hand or the one behind your eyes. Everything feels fleeting.
But the gift of these past few days and the constraints of our backcountry permit has been the gift of time, allowing us to linger in places we otherwise would not.
The sun illuminated the eastern faces of rocky peaks from the top down until it had spilled into the valley we’d been walking through. Over a small hill and down a gentle slope crowded with thimbleberry bushes that have thrived in the wake of forest fire, we reached the shore of a lake that has been on my mind for a very long time.
Hanging on the wall in my childhood bedroom is a print, framed in black. In between the confines of the frame is a lake, surrounded by soaring walls of rock that swoop down to the shore of the lake, as if suspending it. Bathed in the bright oranges, yellows, and reds of sunset, it’s a scene that you don’t forget. I know I didn’t when I first saw it in the flesh, on a visit to this very place more than 20 years ago. It was the last great wilderness trip I took with my Dad.
Growing up in the East, visiting Glacier was the first time I’d seen mountains west of the Mississippi and their impression is perhaps the most lasting mountain memory that I have, even all these years later. And despite the magnitude of that impression, I brought that print home—of Saint Mary Lake and the mountains that adorn its flanks—protecting it like a baby the entire way.
Seeing it on my wall kept it alive in my memory and reminded me that it hadn’t, in fact, been a dream. Scenery filled with that high drama was out there in the world, real and waiting to be seen. If one snapshot has been a catalyst for all of the adventures that have since followed, it would be that one. The same view I was now seeing again with my own eyes.
You always wonder whether revisiting a place with that kind of importance will inevitably be a letdown, the memory having grown to exceed the reality. But nothing could be farther from the truth here. I mumbled things under my breath in lieu of any more profound words to capture what I was seeing. We all did. That’s the magic of Glacier.