Bidding goodbye to Bozeman, we made moves toward Missoula, the biggest town closest to Greenough. We stopped in Butte to get gas and eat lunch, and we learned some fun facts about the place. First, there’s a massive statue of Our Lady of the Rockies looking down over the town from a ridgeline, supposedly the 4th largest statue in the U.S. Butte is also home to the oldest running Chinese restaurant in the U.S., established in 1911. It has the one of our country’s largest national historic districts, due to all the mining sites it has preserved — it used to supply over 25% of the world’s copper.
Despite these incredible fun facts, we didn’t stick around for too long. We found a park right off the highway to fix sandwiches, then walked around a bit to digest. This park had a loop including exercise equipment, so we did some reps. Back on the highway, we saw a couple great exit signs: “Rocker” and “Anaconda Opportunity.” Another sign informed us that “Jesus is Lord in this valley.”
With Landon having to work late, we decided to cut our losses and book an Airbnb in Missoula, so we could shower for the first time in a week and do some laundry. When we arrived, I promptly went to shower while Ryan unpacked the car. As I stepped out of the shower, I could hear Ryan talking to someone, and turns out, he had become fast friends with the Airbnb host, Mike. Mike was a tall, sturdy guy (played lacrosse in school), originally from Chicago but had gone to college in Missouri, then worked in Denver and Billings. He was Ryan’s age, 28, and already dreaming of making Airbnb hosting a full-time job. We were staying in one of 4 rooms that he rents out, and he does pretty well. I also have toyed with Airbnb, so I picked his brain a little about it.
Mike was super jazzed on his local volleyball league, and was hoping we would stop by and play with him and his friends. I am a terrible volleyball player, but I’d normally go for the social aspect. The trouble was, it was 7 p.m., 100 degrees, and we hadn’t eaten dinner. Mike understood, and gave us a handful of restaurant recommendations. The only recommendation I really wanted was an ice cream one, and he gladly offered that, too.
Downtown Missoula was mellow. You can tell it’s a proper little city, but there’s no hustle and bustle. A Thursday night, restaurants were busy, but the streets weren’t. We chose to go to Zoo Thai, Mike’s first recommendation. It was a 30-minute wait, but well worth it. We got egg rolls and a sweet and sour stir fry that really hit the spot.
I was so full, but ice cream was still on our brains. We took a little stroll around the main streets before getting in the car and heading to Mike’s favorite, The Big Dipper. I was abnormally decisive about my mocha chip sugar cone. Ryan got a huckleberry milkshake and proclaimed it the best shake he’s ever had.
The next morning, Landon met us in Missoula to carpool to a climbing crag. [I will not go too in-depth about our time with Landon, as I am hoping Ryan will “guest write” about it!] Landon was in great spirits, despite working 6 days a week, usually at least 12-hour days, as a fire fighter. As we drove out to Rattler Gulch, Ryan peppered him with lots of questions about his work life — co-workers, downtime, job duties, etc. It’s always heartwarming to watch a couple friends reconnect. Comically, Landon lamented the utter lack of fires under his crew’s purview. It’s boring to patrol as much as they have been — they want some action!
We arrived at Rattler Gulch to tackle some routes on a crag called “Style Wall.” The approach to the routes was nice and short, and it didn’t take us too long to orient ourselves with the bolt lines. To begin, Ryan put up a 5.10c/d called “Fashion Disaster,” a long route with great back-and-forth movement and rails. Landon was up next, with the top rope set for him. He was throwing out all sorts of disclaimers about how long it had been since he’d last climbed, how his grip strength was gone, and so on. Ryan was having none of it. Coaching him from top to bottom, Ryan encouraged Landon up the wall. Despite burning forearms and torn up hands, Landon persevered to the finish — wanting to quit several times in the process. He was ultimately glad he stuck it out, though it was quite challenging.
Once Landon was down, I headed up to clean the route. Since I had the advantage of watching both Ryan and Landon do the moves, the route came a little easier and faster for me, but still held my attention. As I touched back down, I determined I wanted to go back up on the 5.11a next door.
Though the 11 appeared well-bolted, I realized as soon as I got on that the bolts were actually pretty spread out. Not quite run-outs, but certainly remarkable falls between them. We had read that this crag had recently been re-bolted, a big plus for safety and an indication that it’s a fairly popular, well-trafficked area. If that were the case, you’d expect to see a lot of chalk on the walls. This wasn’t the case. Nearly every bolt required me to really search around for the right foot and hand holds to use, my heart rate elevated and my adrenaline rising. I wanted to sit on the rope several times, even come down and have Ryan give it a try, throughout. Climbing is such a mental challenge, and I felt it especially on this route. With enough calming breaths and reminding myself that Ryan would keep me safe as my belayer, I slowly but surely completed the route, clean. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this sort of accomplishment climbing — feeling afraid but continuing in spite of the fear — and I felt proud of myself for not giving in.
Some light rain was moving in, so Ryan scampered up the route after me on top-rope and Landon elected to not climb it, his forearms absolute toast. We left the crag cheerfully, happy to have gotten on two high-quality routes and catch up while each person climbed.
On the way back to Missoula, we stopped by Landon’s home for the last few months. He showed us the bunkhouse and introduced us to one of his coworkers. It felt remote in a delightful way. It’s hard to be upset or concerned about things when you’re living a simple life: working long hours each day, crashing in a cabin in the woods at night.
Back in Missoula, we got some much needed food and drink and walked around the waterfront. Tamarack Brewing had a margarita radler that was, as Nacho would say, “especially delicious.”
We picked up Ryan’s car and followed Landon back out to Greenough, so the three of us could camp near his work. We built a nice fire and sat around chatting and looking at the stars.
The next morning, we all got up at around 7:30, as Landon had to head to work at 8:00. It was a bittersweet goodbye, but we were so grateful for the time with a friendly face and are hopeful to see Landon again in a few months.
With no agenda, Ryan and I stayed put for an hour, drinking coffee and reading at camp. Once we felt satisfied, we hit the road to Kalispell. The drive was beautiful, but as we got closer to town, the skies became increasingly smoky. By the time we reached Kalispell, the AQI level had reached an unhealthy level. We paused in a bakery and deli to get a huckleberry bear claw and contemplate.
A side note on huckleberries:
I vaguely remembered huckleberries being “a thing” when I was last in Yellowstone four years ago. When I encountered them in the Tetons a few weeks ago, I wondered if I should invest in some products, worried they’d disappear as we headed north. Not the case. Huckleberries abound from the Tetons to Canada. There are huckleberry beers, seltzers, ice cream, smoothies, pastries, and more wherever you go. Now that we’re nearing Canada, I fear that I’ve squandered my opportunity to ingest as much huckleberry as possible. This week is going to be a blitzkrieg — specifically because I learned that you can pick up to a quart of huckleberries a day in Glacier National Park. More on that later.
The smoke was formidable — I could feel my chest getting a little tight and my head dizzy. We decided we’d spend some time exploring Kalispell and the surrounding towns, rather then head to Glacier and huff and puff along hikes that we couldn’t even really see.
Kalispell had a strange energy, perhaps owing to the haziness surrounding us. We checked out a few places before making moves toward Columbia Falls, the town closest to West Glacier. But not without paying a visit to Franz.
When I was in Oregon last year, my family came across this brand of boxed donuts, similar to Little Debbie’s. Franz donuts were better, though, in that they were fruit-filled but still ring-shaped — so instead of a pocket of jelly in the center, it was a thin ring of jelly throughout. We got several boxes of Franz and picked away at them, slicing them into halves and quarters to justify trying different flavors and eat more of them. At some point or another, my uncle Chris declared that I was “addicted to Franz!” This quote has been a running joke in the family, particularly because as addicted to donuts as I may be, I wasn’t eating nearly as many of the donuts as Uncle Chris was.
I was planning to look out for Franz when we reached the PNW, but I spotted a Franz truck in Bozeman, and I wondered if his reach extended further. Turns out, Franz has a “Bakery Outlet” in Kalispell, and I simply had to see it.
The outlet looked like a dated deli you’d find on the east coast, with rows of highly unhealthy bread products. Franz makes a lot more than donuts — cookies, sliced bread, hamburger rolls, fruit pies. I chose to go for the 2/$5 cookies. Ryan and I picked oatmeal raisin and raspberry filled. We have yet to try the latter, but the former have been quite good with coffee.
Onward to Columbia Falls, the energy only got stranger. I dare someone to fill more than two hours’ time in this town. There was almost nothing to see or do. We were in a weird stupor once again. I looked to see if there was any climbing in the area, and gratefully, there was a well-structured bouldering area just minutes away.
Right off the road, we quickly found all the problems and tackled them one by one. The ratings ranged from just V2-V4, but the problems on the upper end had genuine challenge and movement to them. We spent around two hours working them, sending them all and hopeful to return.
Now it was 5:00 and we still hadn’t eaten a real meal. We drove to a little park in Kalispell and had our usual picnic, then headed to a nearby bar so that Ryan could watch the MMA fights. The fights ended up lasting way longer than anticipated, and we didn’t end up leaving until around 11:30. Our first intended campsite had unfortunately high fire warnings, so we had to audible to another. It was late and we were exhausted, but we found an open spot closer to Glacier, quickly popped up the tent, and went to sleep.
The next morning, we woke up at 10:00. We clearly needed the rest. We packed up and headed to West Glacier, planning on hitting a long hike such as Grinnell Glacier. When we arrived, we discovered that the park had implemented vehicle registrations, meaning you had to reserve the right to drive in the park between the hours of 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. The registration is only $2, but you have to book online, and typically, in advance. The West Glacier registrations had been sold out, and we’d need to go to East Glacier to hike — if we got a registration for that side.
Unperturbed, we decided we’d check out Two Medicine on the east, which the Canadian couple in the Tetons had told us about. It was an hour and 15 minutes away, but the drive was so beautiful that it didn’t bother us. Once over there, we showed the park ranger our registration and parks pass and cruised to the trailhead.
The trail to Upper Medicine Lake was incredibly chill. There were very few hills, and we had such a pleasant time meandering through the trees. The colors were phenomenal — so many types of rock in hues of pink, purple, and turquoise. Peaks towered above us on either side. We crossed a cable bridge and several streams. We also stumbled on the famed huckleberry bushes! A few hikers pointed them out to us, and we proceeded to “channel our inner cubs” and pick them off and snack. Soon we reached Twin Falls and took a moment to take them in.
In addition to seeing a hoary marmot in the rocks by lower Medicine Lake (he was none too pleased to see us), we had what I would call a “spiritual” encounter with some white-tailed ptarmigans. Ryan spotted the birds ahead of us on the trail and followed them to see if he could get a photo or video. One of the birds climbed onto a rock and started making some calls. After a minute or so, I realized that the bird was a mom, and she was calling to her chicks. I was standing between her and one of the chicks on the trail, so I quickly moved past her and sat by the rock on which she was perched. Ryan and I watched in amazement as she continued her calls until one by one, her chicks congregated and they could start moving along. The mom and chicks walked right by us, just one or two feet away. It was mesmerizing.
Not long after, we made it to the upper lake and soaked in the astounding views. We walked in the shallow portion of the lake along the red rocks. The water was much warmer than expected. We lingered for a solid 30 minutes, acknowledging we wouldn’t be able to do a hike of this length the rest of the week.
The journey down was equally relaxed, and we were back in a couple hours, having walked around 12 miles. We were ready to eat, so we drove back toward West Glacier and found a campsite. Making calls to family and fixing dinner, we got an intense sunset to cap off the day.
We’ll spend the rest of the week in Glacier before hopefully heading to Canada, pending fire. We got poured on last night and this morning, which makes for far less smoky conditions now!