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Friday, August 17, 2018

Natives of America

What goes up, in the traditional north-south orientation of the globe, must come down. We had two long days of driving back to Phoenix from St. Mary, East Glacier. We got started by 8:00 in the morning and our goal for the night was Salt Lake City.
North as up and south as down, like so many other things I grew up taking for granted, are assumptions, and assumptions aren’t always correct. For example, although I was taught that there were people in the Americas before Christopher Columbus came along, I assumed that Columbus had at least set foot on the North American continent. He never did. I don’t know if U.S. schoolchildren today are taught that, but it doesn’t seem to me that the Native peoples of America have a particularly high profile here. 

On our way in and out of Glacier we stopped at different establishments in Browning, Montana, and again I appeared to be the only non-Native person. At a glance, the Blackfeet Nation seems to be doing better than, say, the Lakota of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, whose counties in South Dakota are among the poorest in the U.S. Yet even in a Browning gas station, I saw a poster of a young woman who had gone missing from the reservation. The phenomenon of indigenous women and girls “disappearing” in the U.S. and Canada is a real outrage. It is disturbing to think that we still live in a world where a female life can be valued less than a male life, or a Native life than a white life.

Not that a life should be defined as female, or white. As an African-American friend said to me long ago: “The fact that I’m black has made a big difference in my life, but in a perfect world, it wouldn’t.” That perfect world must be what Glacier was reaching for… “Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park represents a vision of a world in which peoples set aside their differences to work collectively in the interest of all life, for all time.”

Just after we left the park, we were following the bendy road, watching out for the many cows that were wandering freely, and for the necessary shortcut across the reservation on Route 8. Suddenly, I saw a black moose silhouetted against the sky to my right. It was so big and sudden after all those cows that for a second, I thought it was a sign or sculpture, but then it moved. It was a great bull moose with a big set of antlers; it was glossy black and magnificent. A perfect farewell from the national parks.

“Easier to spot than a moose,” according to T., was my dad, whom she spied rooting in his fanny pack (=bum bag) in the parking lot of the lodge. We hadn’t intended to stop on our way out, but we swung by to say a quick Godspeed.
Digging in one's bag: the customary posture of a Knowles in the wild
I was quite melancholy at this point. Along with Tanzania and Western Australia (the isolation of Ningaloo Reef increasingly stands out as an unparalleled experience on earth), this national parks trip was my favorite part of all our travels. “There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them,” as Jim Croce used to sing. Imagine my delight, then, when we pulled over at the only rest stop (the only stop of any kind) between Browning and Choteau, a simple bathroom break. One other car pulled into the parking lot, and guess who it was? Mom and Dad hadn’t followed us there; they’d actually driven past, then thought better of it and come back to the rest area. We enjoyed another round of hugs before, some time farther down the road, Dad peeled away and we could no longer see their car. “I lost ya in Augusta!”

We had discovered that while one of us drove on this marathon trip back, the other could stretch out comfortably on the rear bench seat, while still wearing her safety belt. So it was that, with me driving, T. woke from a nap and said she was ready to stop for food. Like, now. I saw “food” marked on the sign for the next exit, which is by no means the case with all the exits around there; and so I pulled over in Basin, Montana.

Basin does not have any fast food establishments or signs you can see from the road. It barely has a main street. Whatever food there was must be down here, I thought; and so it proved. On one side of the street was the Leaning Tower of Pizza, and on the other, the Silver Saddle Cafe. Our choice of the latter was confirmed when a man in a cowboy hat crossed the road and went in to the saloon.

Inside, there were no shootouts going on as we might have imagined. It was a pleasant little cafe with checked tablecloths and endearingly classic food on the menu. T., for example, got an open-faced sandwich with gravy and the soup of the day—hamburger vegetable. You only get these types of recipes at home-cooking places, of which there are fewer than there used to be. Best of all, the sandwich was a reasonable size, something one could bite into comfortably and not have half of it left over. We were delighted with our lunch stop in Basin.

The Montana-Utah road has existed in various forms for many years, but it has always been a fairly empty one. As we got into Idaho, I saw more and more of those exit signs that indicated no food, gas, lodging, or anything else (except presumably homes for the people who lived there). My favorite sign was the one that said “FATIGUED DRIVERS STOP NEXT EXIT,” followed by the exit sign: “NO SERVICES.” Thanks, that’s very helpful.

I noticed that we were low on gas, so I thought I’d better stop at the next exit that did have services (exits around there are frequently ten miles apart). And so it was that our next stop was in Spencer, Idaho, which promised gas, though no diesel. I should have known this meant a single pump on the side of the road, like back in Queensland. It was the old kind of pump where you swing the lever by hand and the numbers roll around mechanically. Very expensive numbers.

Our trip that day, including stops, would take over twelve hours, and we had the same again to do the next day. So we didn’t have time to detour along the Sacajawea Historic Byway. We did stop and read some signs about it, though. Sacajawea, you may remember, was the Shoshone woman without whom Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would never have succeeded in their exploration of the west. Because Indian war parties were historically not accompanied by women, the presence of Sacajawea and her baby on the expedition was a signal that the explorers’ intentions were peaceful. Would that everyone’s were.

It was after 8:00 P.M. by the time we got to Salt Lake City. As soon as we were within the city limits, we found a Motel 6 and stopped for the night. We really blew the mind of the woman at reception. First, we assured her we really did want a double bed, even though two beds would have been the same price, and we had to walk up a flight of stairs. Then came the British driver’s licenses. The number on one of these is so long that she just gave up typing it in. Then she asked T. if her first name was “Miss,” because that’s what it says on her license. (British cards, plane tickets, etc. always have titles on them; it’s generally not optional as it would be on a North American form.)

We were beginning to think we’d never get to our room, but then T. asked if, as at a previous Motel 6, she was entitled to a discount on account of her age. This was where the receptionist redeemed herself. She said it hadn’t occurred to her to look at the birth date because she’d never have dreamed T. qualified. We had a nice night and well-earned rest in the motel!
From upstairs we could see the solar panel in our van's roof--that powered the fridge.
The next day’s drive was just as long, and as we were driving back via Kanab, we’d seen it all before. As we passed through the Navajo Nation (which completely surrounds Hopi lands, incidentally), I was struck by the contrast with the Blackfeet-run businesses we’d seen in Montana. We stopped at one store/rest area that appeared to sell a lot of quality-looking jewelry and other souvenirs, run by friendly local people. But there are also a lot of roadside stands that look pretty bleak. I’m not sure if it was the extreme heat or if they really are tatty, but either way, it’s a shame this was all we had time to see. There is so much history among the Indian nations, including modern history. I wish people stopping along this road could read about the Navajo code talkers, men who served the U.S. during World War II by using the Navajo language to flummox foreign enemies. And then there was Joseph Medicine Crow, who died not long ago aged 102.

Joe, as his friends called him, was another member of that Greatest Generation who served their country in World War II. But he did something special, even by the standards of American Indian warriors. During the war Joe Medicine Crow encountered a German enemy and disarmed him, then fought him hand to hand. He let the man go without killing him, and on another occasion led a successful war party, resulting in the theft of fifty horses owned by the Nazi SS. In performing these tasks, Joseph Medicine Crow fulfilled all the criteria to be a war chief of the Crow Nation. It seems improbable that anyone will ever live to be a Crow war chief again.
Little Colorado River near Cameron, Arizona
Finally, we returned to Phoenix, which has become our most-often visited place in the U.S.A. My sister welcomed us into her home, not for the usual week or two, but three—and we’d already been there before the camping trip! We’ve had many good American holidays in Phoenix, especially Thanksgiving, and it’s so nice to have Ben and Rachel’s families so close together.

All of which I say as disclaimer before this opinion: Nobody should live in Arizona. No one who cannot, at the very least, build an appropriate desert dwelling with his or her own hands. It’s unnatural. Phoenix, like other U.S. cities, became a different place in the late twentieth century with the arrival of air conditioning. Before that, people in eastern cities left their windows open and listened to the sounds of the city and sweated in the summer, or ran away to Provincetown if they could afford to. Before air conditioning, Southerners sat on porches and sweated and drank lemonade. Air conditioning made the growth of the South and the Southwest into what we know today possible. 

This sounds like a good thing, but instead of making Phoenix more comfortable, air conditioning has just made a place that should be uninhabitable weirdly inhabited. Weirdly, because you cannot go outdoors in the summer. For any length of time or distance. People sprint (or would if they could) from over-air-conditioned cars to over-air-conditioned buildings and back again. America is already largely a country of unwalkable places, without sidewalks let alone bike lanes; but in desert summer weather you can’t use them anyway. The strain of moving from too cool to too hot is bad for a human body, not to mention the greenhouse effect.

Of course, we knew all this. Nobody comes to southern Arizona in the summer, and we wouldn’t either unless, for instance, our niece was being born, as was the case five Augusts ago. We were here to see family, and use Ben’s pool and Rachel’s washing machine, and string a clothesline and watch the laundry at one end of the line dry by the time we got to the other. (Why not use that heat? Every bit of saved energy helps!) And, as five years ago, get to know new members of the family. While Maisie arrived in the traditional manner of birth, it would be more accurate to say that Claire and Kenzie came crashing into our lives. And what a happy collision it is!

Photos: Rachel Knowles
We also made the acquaintance of other members of Ashley’s family, including the newest: cousin Clementine.

It had been a while since we had a full range of kitchen facilities, and T. in particular made use of them. She cooked a lot, and Kenzie has a great appetite, so they had fun preparing food together. 
Claire was funny in that she would put pasta sauce in her mouth, say “Spicy!” and beam with pleasure. Evidently spicy was a good thing! Ashley had to remind Claire to eat some pasta with the sauce, too.

Not to be outdone, Maisie proved to be the only person at a Japanese restaurant the next night to like octopus sushi. We only ordered it because she wanted to try it, and Ben, Elizabeth, and I didn’t want to be shown up by a four-year-old, but none of us enjoyed our taste. Fortunately, there was a lot of other food. We and T. had been reliving our camping adventure by checking out the RV show. We climbed inside a lot of vehicles, ranging from cute little campers we could imagine driving (or towing) to the kind of hotel suite on wheels only a movie star would live in. How anyone maneuvers one of those things, I don’t know.

It was lovely to have more time to spend with Ben and Elizabeth, even though the vacation was technically over. The three of us had a great night out at a place called Janey’s Bodega in Cave Creek. We got there just as it started to pour down rain, and went next door for some Thai food. I’m afraid I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but it was as good as any Thai food I’ve ever eaten, including in Thailand. Then the rain stopped, leaving behind an evening of moderate temperature (for once!) so we could sit outside and enjoy the show. A friend of Ben and Elizabeth’s recently joined the band, The T Bone Bastards, and she seems like an excellent addition. They play there pretty regularly and cover all kinds of great rock songs—the kind of show where I pretty much recognize (and enjoy) everything. Catch a night out there if you can.

Photo: Rachel Knowles
One of Rachel’s favorite things to do is watch pro sports. She was over the moon that we would be in town long enough to overlap with three of them: the women’s basketball, baseball, and preseason (American) football. T. and I enjoyed our first ever WNBA game, although the Phoenix Mercury failed to prevail over the Seattle Storm. Their respective veteran stars, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, were teammates for the U.S.A. at the London Olympics, and we last saw them there winning the gold medal game.

Considering the Mercury’s failing defense, I think the biggest cheer of the night was when the “Kiss Cam” finally showed a female couple on the big screen. The WNBA without lesbian fans? Try to imagine it.

We were even luckier to be in town for Maisie’s fifth birthday—the first we’ve ever celebrated with her. You haven’t lived until you’ve hung out with twenty little girls, and one brave little boy, all playing at the “Little Gym.”

There was grownup fun later as Rachel, Ashley, Ben, and I joined friends old and new at the Grapevine in Old Town Scottsdale. The Grapevine has been doing karaoke every evening for years. It’s become something of a tradition although we rarely stay up late enough to indulge. We sat at a table with someone called Edgar, who saw my ring and asked if I was married. “Yes,” I said for simplicity’s sake, “but my partner hates karaoke.”

“My boyfriend hates karaoke!” he said delightedly. Then he and Rachel went off to sing a duet of “Summer Nights” from Grease. The house, as they say, was brought down.

School starts back ridiculously early out here. In my opinion, August is already the worst month of the year; to have to go back to school should really justify another American revolution, if you ask me. Still, it happened, and now Maisie is a kindergartener and Kenzie is in second grade! Rachel thought Kenzie’s first day of school would be a great time to take her to the baseball game with us.

We had lots of time to play with Maisie (and the dogs) too. Our Yellowstone adventure was clearly still on her mind; at one point she had us pretending to be buffalo (I was the dad), and later we were the three bears. Baby, mom, and stepmom. And we were eating buffalo cake with berries. Equal opportunity imagination!

The Arizona Diamondbacks game had been “a pitcher’s game,” in Rachel’s euphemism (“duller than dishwater,” per T.) Surely, the finale of our sports trifecta would prove an exciting victory. Rachel and Ashley were taking Kenzie and Claire to their first NFL game.
Photos: Rachel Knowles
Joining us for this one was our young cousin Andrew, who’d just gotten back into town in advance of his second year of college. That just blows my mind because only a few years ago, it seems, was his mom’s and my second year of college. Because we’d all bought tickets separately, we were sitting in various rows. A break in the action, though, had the fans doing karaoke to “Livin’ On A Prayer,” and Andrew and Rachel took to this with their customary enthusiasm. Would that other Americans could work this well across the aisle!

The kids made it into the third quarter before Rachel and Ashley had to take them home. I thought that was pretty good. Getting to spend all this time with my brother and sister’s families has given me a new appreciation for the many joys and challenges of parenthood. I don’t think I’ve used the word “poop” so much since I myself was a little kid. Aunthood, though, is the best. Once the girls had all gone home, guess who ended up together in their seats?
Photo courtesy of T.
Oh yes: the game came down to the last play. And the Cardinals won.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Glacier National Park (Montana, not British Columbia)

Ken Burns made a film about the U.S. national parks, subtitled “America’s best idea.” The quotation comes from writer Wallace Stegner in 1983: "National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

Nothing comes to mind immediately to rival the national parks as America’s best idea. Still, I think Stegner is not quite right. For no national park I have ever visited is more beautiful than Glacier, in Montana, and yet it is only part of an International Peace Park. The other part adjoining it is Waterton Lakes National Park, founded in 1895 and located in the province of Alberta, Canada.

Canada and the U.S.A. share the world’s longest undefended border and, present administration aside, the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park celebrates the longstanding peace and friendship between the two countries. (Present administration aside, it is also a Unesco World Heritage site.) The brochure we got at Glacier was binational in nature. “This landscape has always been sacred to the Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai peoples,” it reads. “Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park represents a vision of a world in which peoples set aside their differences to work collectively in the interest of all life, for all time.”
Flags of three nations
The park is contiguous on its eastern side with the Blackfeet Nation, which shares in its stewardship. We talked about visiting the Canadian part of the park, where evidently you can hike across the border and get a special passport stamp. But nobody else in our group had brought a passport. T. had another ambition, though: to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the eastern boundary of Glacier to the west, and back again. It is one of the world’s great drives and follows what the Native people called the backbone of the world.

We would do this on our last day, a glorious climax to the trip. But first we had to get there. It’s a day’s drive through Montana from Yellowstone and, as you will be tired of hearing by now, it was scenic.

If I had been driving the last thirty miles or so to St. Mary, I’d have done what Dad and Ben did and continue on U.S. 89. On a map, it’s the obvious route. But T. was driving and for some reason, the directions Ben/Google had provided were telling us to detour down a road called Starr School. Or at least, it was called that on the directions. I never saw a street sign at either end of the road, so we stopped to ask.

At the gas station in Browning, I could not help but notice that everyone but me appeared to be a member of the Blackfeet Nation. The guy confirmed that the road we were turning on was Starr School, although its only signs designated it Route 8. We continued down this quiet community road until it rejoined 89 and we could finish our approach to the park. Only later did we realize why the detour. Route 8 cut off a section of 89 which, according to Dad, was in such a poor state it resembled sub-Saharan Africa more than a U.S. highway. (Based on his description, it sounded much worse than some Tanzanian roads!)

We had seen several white-tailed deer, including spotted fawns, before even reaching Glacier, and I was optimistic about seeing more wildlife than ever. There was a water pump down a path behind our campsite, with a big berry bush right beside it. Surely it was only a matter of time before we saw the elusive bears! Though I didn’t particularly want one to wander right by our picnic table, which had the best views of anywhere we’ve ever camped. As for stars, I have never seen so many at night, whether in the southern or the northern sky.
View from our campsite
Unlike Yellowstone, where we frequently saw hitchhikers because there is no public transportation to or within the park, Glacier has a very helpful shuttle up and down the Going-to-the-Sun Road. We decided to spend our first day taking this from trailhead to lookout, avoiding the need to drive and find parking. St. Mary Falls Trail was the only hike on the trip that all seven of us did at the same time. A bystander was kind enough to take a group picture.

It was wonderful weather for hiking. We’d expected the nighttime temperatures in Glacier to be substantially cooler, in the 30s F, but I’m sure the coldest night was in Yellowstone. My down jacket and thermal bottoms remained tucked away. In the daytime, it was warm, but not too warm like back in Arizona!
St. Mary Falls
Virginia Falls
The trail continued to Virginia Falls, so we pushed on. Thanks to the shuttle bus driver, whom we saw so often we started calling her Susan, we did finally see a bear from the window of the bus. Of course there are no photographs of that! 

The eponymous glaciers, as distinct from snowfields, are fewer and smaller than they used to be. One of the best to view from the Going-to-the-Sun Road is Jackson Glacier.

In the afternoon Ben, Elizabeth, Maisie, and I went to cool off in the creek next to St. Mary Campground. We had a big evening ahead. Once or twice when she had the night off from little camping friends, Maisie would play the card game Uno with us. 

There was also a campfire, and more S’mores!

Ben’s family was planning to leave Friday in order to take their time getting back before the weekend was over. We had, it occurred to us, substantially farther to drive back to Phoenix from near the Canadian border than we’d driven to get to Wyoming. T. and I thought about leaving Friday, but then agreed to stay one more night as originally planned, and just split the long days of driving back. So Thursday was the last day all of us were in the park. Ben & co. wanted to get in some more kayaking, while the rest of us hiked at Sunrift Gorge (Baring Falls Trail).

We agreed to hike as far as Sun Point, although there was a slight misunderstanding about what this meant. Dad thought we meant the bus stop called Sun Point, while I meant the actual lookout. In any case, it was worth the extra 0.1 mile to Sun Point.

It’s certainly not that Dad was lacking for hiking energy, as he was eager to continue on the shuttle bus to Logan Pass. The Pass of the Mountain Goat, as it's also known, is the high point of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, in more senses than one. It also abounds in mountain goats.

There was a short hike to Hidden Lake Overlook that Dad was keen to do. Mom, not so much. She correctly judged that the mile and a half up would be relentless, so she hung out at the bottom and befriended another sensible woman who didn’t want to climb. 

There were trail signs warning that the boardwalk we started on would soon give way to snow. As in Grand Teton, the snow seemed out of place, because the weather was so warm.

I wore sandals for this?!
Photo courtesy of T.
Another sign warned that beyond the overlook, where we weren’t planning to hike anyway, the trail to Hidden Lake was closed because of bear danger. A mother grizzly and her cubs were living there, and it was better for everyone if they were left in peace. Maybe we would finally see a cub though?

Hidden Lake Trail was hard going, and at one point positively slippery. On a trip full of superlatives, though, it really was spectacular.

Just as we reached the trickiest curve of all, whom should we meet coming back down but Ben, Elizabeth, and Maisie!

Elizabeth explained that we had to go up this point on the side of the mountain one at a time, and use our hands. On the way up, they had just seen a young guy wipe out and go careening down the hill. Luckily, he seemed to be okay.

This was a popular hike, and among the many others walking with us were a number of families in plain dress—Mennonites, probably. At certain points, with the snowy mountain backdrop and with no one else in the frame, it looked like I was walking back in the nineteenth century (except smaller glaciers). But then one of the little girls pulled out her binoculars, just like Maisie would.

At last, we reached the lookout over Hidden Lake.

The picture below means more than may at first appear. T., as I’ve mentioned, was not very well at all for days during this trip. For his part, Dad has had more than three years of struggling with sometimes unmanageable pain. Things had greatly improved, but we (not least Dad himself) were still surprised to find him bounding ahead of us up the hill, “like a mountain goat” as T. said. Years ago, Dad was notorious for streaking ahead of everybody else on a trail, occasionally losing the trail in his enthusiasm. For these two weeks and beyond, I feel we had the old Jack back!

And at this triumphant juncture, we saw the bears! T. got her telescopic lens out and, with the help of that and some binoculars borrowed from a fellow hiker, we could see the mother grizzly and her cub, far below on the edge of the lake. It’s not the clearest picture, but we finally got one.
Photo courtesy of T.

Our last night all together started with another ranger talk, about wolves and coyotes. Maisie was so taken with this that she then gave us her own ranger talk. She showed us an (imaginary) coyote pelt, delicately stating that its owner had “passed away.” A young German couple back in Yellowstone had given us extra firewood, so we had that to burn.
End of day from our campsite

And so the next morning we went our separate ways. Ben, Elizabeth, and Maisie started driving south to Idaho. We put away the bed in our camper van, turning it back into a bench seat, and took Mom and Dad on one of the great scenic drives of the world. We were Going to the Sun.

T. had been knocking herself out almost the whole trip: cooking bacon and eggs, playing with Maisie, doing more than her share of driving. This was what she most wanted to do, limited parking be darned! As became clear, T. can park pretty effortlessly in a space that would deter others (e.g., me). And all four of us enjoyed being able to stop and take in whatever views we wanted to.

The curves and angles just west of Logan Pass were the most jaw-dropping, and I was very glad not to be the one driving. We took it slowly, only scratching the hubcap once (thanks, collision damage waiver!) Dad was especially taken with the many waterfalls. Perhaps the highest and most beautiful was Bird Woman Falls. It was named for a woman of the Blackfeet Nation, not, as I supposed, for Sacajawea of the Lewis and Clark expedition (they traveled some distance from here).

West of this area, the road gradually descended through woods and past another large lake, Lake McDonald. We made it to Apgar, at the west end of the park, in time for a picnic lunch. Then we returned by way of the Johns Lake Trail and had what T. called our most authentic nature hike of the trip. We walked on a bed of cedar needles, with hardly anyone else around. Just by Johns Lake, a doe stepped onto the path, stopping us for some minutes while she took her time grazing and looking at T.

Dad for scale
In retrospect, the doe was probably trying to tell us to turn around, as Johns Lake Trail is not a loop as we thought from the signs. We emerged on the road, but not where we’d parked the van, and by the time T. walked back to get it she’d probably doubled her hiking distance! But we weren’t in a hurry. We even had time for the accessible (paved) Trail of the Cedars, which was where T. impressed everyone by squeezing into a campground parking space when we thought there wasn’t one.

Photo courtesy of T.
By the time we got back to St. Mary it had been, as promised, a seven-hour day on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. But what a day! It being five o’clock by now, it was happy hour, and for Mom and Dad that meant ice cream. They treated us to the most enormous ice creams I’ve ever seen at their local, the Curly Bear Cafe.

We were all leaving early in the morning, so thought it best to say goodbye after supper at our campsite. It was weird to be there by ourselves. Also dangerous, because I get reflective when it’s quiet. Ben had mentioned that in two weeks, without phone or Internet service, we heard two items of news: about the World Cup (England didn’t make it to the final, alas) and that the Thai boys trapped in a cave had been improbably rescued through scuba diving. I did buy a Great Falls newspaper, once, to read the exceptionally fine Montana weather forecast and the latest on Vladimir Putin laughing at our country. Do you know what I ended up using that newspaper for? Shucking corn!

It was great, but what about being an informed citizen? I still believe in that, but over months of traveling the world I’ve become more convinced of this truth also: “think globally, act locally.” Change is made at an individual level, by what you and I can each do where we are. Do you doubt that this can make a difference? One rock does not a moraine make either.

I’ve quoted Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney before:
"Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land."