By 7:00 a.m. on July 12, 2022, Elizabeth and I had already survived a last-minute tortuous debate on how best to get our two suitcases under a combined 100 pounds. We had gone through the checklists to make sure nothing got left behind. And most importantly, I had a plan to get both food and caffeine into Elizabeth. It was time to head to Glacier. With the sun beginning to peek over the trees on the east side of our street, I pulled her car out of the driveway and on the route to Will Rogers Airport. Along the way, we made what I would call an “Elizabeth wellness stop” at Whataburger along I-35. Early mornings, I’ve been told, are a lot more bearable with honey butter chicken biscuits.
I was relieved to learn that our bags were indeed both under 50 pounds at the United counter. That made the rest of the travel much easier – all we had were some overstuffed carry-ons and a personal bag each brimming with stuff. There was no line at security, which meant we got a double whammy of “Elizabeth wellness” at the Starbucks just past the checkpoint. I even got a frappucino of my own – not something I do every day. Like the pros we are, Elizabeth and I immediately gate-checked our carry-ons at the United gate.
Our plane was *tiny*. This surprised me, given that it wasn’t the flight to Great Falls – it was between OKC and Denver! I know Elizabeth hates those small planes, but she held it together admirably on the flight. It was a hazy day over the Southern Plains in the middle of one of the area’s worst heat waves – it would be 95 in Norman on July 12 and that was easily the coolest day we missed out on at home. I passed the time by watching the landmarks on the flat Plains below me while Elizabeth watched a movie. Before too long, I could see mountains rising in the distance, and we began descending into Denver.
I was super amused when we landed at the airport to discover that the tiny little United aircraft had put in at one of the gates in Denver that are used to service ski towns. In other words, there was no jetbridge. We let out directly onto the tarmac. This was my first experience doing so, and I enjoyed the novelty of someone grabbing all the gate-checked bags and stuffing them onto a rack on the tarmac. I enjoyed the novelty of having to walk upstairs from the ski town gates to the regular terminal a lot less, especially with my suitcase. Fortunately, the gate to Great Falls was only a short walk away.
Elizabeth and I spent our brief layover discussing the best plan for meals over the coming week. Without a stove and without a cast iron, we’d be limited somewhat in our planning. Fortunately, we had the chance to figure it out, since we were doing all of our grocery shopping in Great Falls before heading to Glacier. We put together the list on Elizabeth’s iPad before scarfing down airport salads (mine was weirdly delicious, and I got literally a whole chicken thigh in my salad) as the early groups got the chance to board our flight to Great Falls. This time, the plane was much bigger. I found that somewhat ironic. Surely Elizabeth found that somewhat of a relief.
Whereas the flight from OKC to Denver was defined by haze and drought-stricken Plains views, this flight was defined by jaw-dropping views of mountains. The urban hellscape of Denver gave way to the Laramie and Snowy Ranges of southern Wyoming, and then the wide, wide deserts of the central part of the state. Then there were the snow-capped Wind Rivers and the Tetons in the distance while Elizabeth and I watched enthralled out my window. I had a podcast lined up to listen to (CBS Cover 3 Pac-12 North win totals – top-tier content, I know), but I barely even wanted to listen with the incredible scenes unfolding around us.
The plane started to descend toward Great Falls. Once again, I have to say it – that town is in beautiful country. Off to the west was the unbroken chain of the Rocky Mountain Front. To the south and east, “island” volcanic mountains rose from the rolling plains. And two rivers flowed into town from the west below us, meeting in an intersection of separate-colored waters just upstream of a waterfall – the Missouri and Sun Rivers, joining just above the Great Falls of the Missouri. Yes, I was geaked about the geography. Who wouldn’t be? Outside of a day in Gardner, this was my first trip into Montana. I was going to get to explore deep into the interior of this state today and see some of the High Plains that I’d never gotten to see before. That always puts me in a good mood.
The plane banked several times and then landed outside of an obviously small airport. I was amused to note that no, Great Falls International didn’t have one gate, it appeared to have three (I think there’s 4 or 5 in reality). None of the others looked busy, though. The airport was clean, welcoming, and rustic – varnished wood everywhere, and animal elements to let you know you were in the West. Hell, there was a stuffed grizzly bear in the front lobby just outside of security.
The baggage claim area was literally just a couple of steps from the Hertz counter where our rental car awaited. The charms of an airport the size of Great Falls – Elizabeth could grab our bags while I waited in “line” – there was one person at the counter, and nobody in line once the person in front of me walked away. The whole process to get our bags and rental car, which I’d expected to take an hour or more, took 10 minutes. Even better, we earned ourselves a free upgrade to a RAV4. More space, more rugged driving ability, more perks – everything was coming up us!
Elizabeth and I lugged our bags out to the rental car lot and started carefully arranging our bags in the trunk of the car. The RAV4 was absolutely sweet. I almost felt a pang of guilt at how much I knew we were going to trash it in a national park for a week, but RAV4s aren’t made to be clean. I eased the car out of the lot, bound for the grocery stores of bustling Great Falls. One stage of travel down, one to go.