It looks as out of place as a typewriter in a computer emporium. A vivid red, 1936-vintage touring bus sits parked at the jetport curb. I slide my camera bag onboard and climb in. This classic piece of the past will be my transportation for a six-day tour around the Great Lodges of Glacier.
Located in the Montana Rockies, Glacier National Park and neighboring Waterton Lakes in Canada offer a realm of angular peaks, shimmering lakes and lush valleys. This scalloped topography was the handiwork of massive glaciers, which carved through the landscape like a dipper scooping through ice cream.
Glacier's push for park status came from two principal sources – Forest and Stream editor George Grinnell who saw beauty to be saved in the "Crown of the Continent," and Great Northern Railroad president Louis Hill who saw money to be made transporting visitors to "America's Switzerland." In 1910, Glacier became the country's 10th national park, making this its centennial year.
The Great Northern wasted no time constructing accommodations for train-toted tourists. The first was Glacier Park Lodge, built near the tracks outside the park's southeastern boundary. Its first guests arrived in 1913.
Dark-painted wood flanked by log columns highlight the exterior. Inside, 40-foot-tall Douglas fir trunks flank the lobby atrium. The local Blackfeet Indians nicknamed the place "Big Tree Lodge."
While the lobby looks luscious, nobody's going to mistake its 161 comfortable but unpretentious rooms as coming from the Four Seasons. Beds are full and twin, not king or queen. The floor creaks, the walls lack soundproofing and the shower makes Motel 6 stalls seem spacious. There's no elevator, no air conditioning, no Internet and no TV.
"That's by design," admits tour guide, Rod Schobert. "The attempt is to step back into another era."
Instead of staying cooped in their quarters, guests congregate in the lobby or sit outside on patios, verandas and balconies. I see folks reading, strolling, conversing and ogling the scenery. Families deal cards, assemble jigsaw puzzles and play board games. I suspect similar things happened a century ago.
We get an early start the next morning. Twenty-two of us share a pair of the red buses. Each offers a quartet of four-passenger bench seats. Overhead, the canvas top opens like a sardine can. Today it's closed because of rain.
Our first stop is Two Medicine Lake. Here, like the tourists of yore, we cruise its length in the wooden, 1926-vintage Sinopah. I look through rain-splattered windows at a steep green landscape where veils of water cascade down from cloud-cloaked summits.
After the cruise, a hike and lunch with an Indian artist, we motor up the highway toward Canada and Waterton Lakes National Park.
Symbolizing the friendship between the United States and Canada, the combined national parks are known as Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park. We stay at the Prince of Wales Hotel, built on a bluff overlooking mountain-hemmed Upper Waterton Lake.
During the parched years of American prohibition, the Great Northern wanted to offer guests a place where they could legally drink. The hotel opened in 1927, shortly before the Great Depression began drying up visitors' booze budgets.
Today, the Prince of Wales offers 86 rooms on seven floors. A British feel permeates the place. Kilt-wearing doormen deliver bags, and a bagpipe soundtrack whispers in the background. The lobby feels refined yet friendly with its maroon-carpet and finished wood beams. Wall-to-wall windows look out onto the lake. They provide a scenic backdrop for our afternoon tea the following day, served by kilt-clad lasses. Then we're off to the buses for the return trip south.
The White Company made over 500 vehicles similar to ours, and Glacier bought 35 of them, each painted the color of ripe mountain ash berries. The originals had non-synchromesh manual transmissions, which challenged drivers. Crunching metal earned drivers the nickname "gear jammers." Even though they now sport automatics, they're still called jammer buses.
One of those jammer buses was lost in a 1977 traffic accident. The remainder stayed in service until 1999 when they were deemed unsafe. The Ford Motor Company offered to refurbish the classic craft. Returning to service in 2002-2003, they now sport new frames and suspension, propane-burning engines, four-wheel disk brakes and safety glass windows. The bodies remain classic but the mechanicals are strictly modern.
Outside the park boundary, we open the top for the first time. Bathing its passengers in sunlight, the red bus plies the final dozen miles to Swiftcurrent Lake and the Many Glacier Hotel.
This 1915-vintage hotel displays a rugged Alpine look with its bellmen clad in lederhosen. Largest of the lodges, it features 214 rooms on five floors. Near one end of its tree-columned atrium stands a circular fireplace with freestanding chimney. Lakeside, an elevated deck stretches the length of the main building. From there, people gaze at a thesaurus-challenging array of ice-sculpted mountains, points, peaks, precipices, cliffs, crags, faces, walls, arêtes and couloirs. It's easy to understand why naturalist John Muir declared Glacier to proffer "the best care-killing scenery on the continent."
The room may be simple, but it does come with a spacious, lake-view balcony. Sitting out at sunset, I watch a bull moose jump into the water, splashing through the shallows like a boy in a bathtub. Birds glide silently over the lake. Soon, the sun dips below silhouetted rock, leaving Venus glowing in a darkening sky. Care-killing scenery, indeed.
The next day I duplicate what visitors might have done back in the days when the hotel was fresh and the buses new. I take a boat cruise to the head of Swiftcurrent Lake. A quarter-mile hike leads to Lake Josephine where a similar 1920s-era vessel churns to that lake's end. From there, boat employee Zak Cedarholm leads a one mile walk to Grinnell Lake. He warns us to beware of bruins.
"There have been 10 bear deaths in Glacier National Park since it opened 100 years ago," he says, pointing to the opposite shore. "The most recent was up on those cliffs."
The toothy omnivores, he assures us, have never attacked groups of four or more. If we keep together, we should be safe. He also carries bear spray in case we encounter a bear who didn't read the script.
On our final full day, we hit the trip's highpoint, both figuratively and literally. We traverse the 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road across the spine of the park.
A century ago when Glacier was new and cars were few, horses delivered visitors into the park's interior. By the '20s, autos were becoming commonplace, and work on a mountain-crossing road began. It opened in 1933. Offering the dichotomy of drop-dead scenery and dead-if-you-drop falloffs, Going-to-the-Sun is not a route for the squeamish.
"If you get scared, don't be ashamed to close your eyes," advises driver Howard Carpenter. "That's what I do."
The route climbs skyward up the valley. Peaks tower overhead, cliffs border the roadbed and slopes plunge toward valleys thousands of feet below. Water tumbles down in veils of white, frequently spraying mist into the open bus. Wet "WOWs!" follow.
We stop at Logan pass on the Continental Divide, the road's 6,646-foot summit. Then it's down the west side, which proves to be equally spectacular. Ahead lies the Sperry Glacier, one of six we've seen in the park. A century ago, Glacier held around 150 examples of its icy namesake. Only 25 remain today.
"By the year 2030, they'll probably all be gone," Howard laments. "They won't totally disappear, but they won't be classified as glaciers. "To be a glacier, the ice field has to be a minimum of 100 feet thick, it has to cover at least 25 acres and it must be moving. Anything less and it's decommissioned."
Reaching the far valley, the steep descent ends and acrophobic passengers resume breathing again. Lake McDonald Lodge lies beyond, ten miles from the park's southwestern entrance.
The 100-room complex sits on the banks of the park's largest body of nonfrozen water. The main building and its adjoining cabins were built in 1914 by John Lewis, a baseball pro turned entrepreneur. The Great Northern bought the property in 1930.
Situated beside Snyder Creek, the three-story lodge today resembles a Hemingway-era hunting retreat. Towering trunks ring an open atrium, a rug covers the stone floor, a log-burning fireplace dominates one wall and wildlife trophy heads hang everywhere. This is not a place for PETA people.
Not everyone enjoys the rustic atmosphere of Glacier's great lodges. At one property, two women suggested the structure be bulldozed and replaced with something far ritzier – like maybe a Ritz-Carlton. I guess they would prefer this park in the West to resemble Central Park West.
I head for bed. Below, a fire blazes in the lobby fireplace and the scarcely insulated walls allow me to hear the crackling flames from my room. The sound blends with the harmony of the creek cascading outside. Sorry ladies, but I don't remember ever dozing off to such a natural lullaby at any five-star property.