There are two different types of campgrounds. The first type is the campground that exists for the purpose of camping. You stay there with friends or family, maybe in someone’s RV. You make campfires and roast marshmallows. During the day, you swim in the lake. You tell your friends about the time you went camping.
Then there’s the type of campground that exists for the purpose of living.
People out west have figured out how to live. The scenery they have is so epic that to not be able to sleep out under the views would be criminal. These campgrounds are embodied by the primitive backcountry setups dotted all over Glacier, or even the developed but still rather remote Sprague Creek Campground Elizabeth and I had been at just two nights prior. You don’t go there to tell a story about camping; you camp there so that you can tell your story about living.
By all accounts, the St. Mary Campground in Glacier should belong to the first group. It has 3 loops and little shade or privacy out in the scraggly, tree-less underbrush area between the last of the mountains and the St. Mary Ridge to the east. It has plenty of campsites and plenty of little piggies. I could see the camp hosts and park rangers struggle to enforce the rules on proper food storage (a pressing issue, since a black bear was known to frequent our loop plenty during the summer of 2022).
But it didn’t matter. Maybe it was because the showers weren’t working, and maybe it was the beautiful, beautiful sunsets. But while we were here I felt like I was living.
But more about those showers. It was the evening of July 16; our last showers had come back in West Glacier on July 13. Since then: hikinh Foys Lake, riding the alpine slides in Whitefish, camping out at Sprague Creek, hiking Piegan Pass, hiking St Mary Falls, camping another night at St. Mary, driving to Canada, hiking the Bear’s Hump, taking a boat tour. That’s a lot of accumulated sweat, grime, and ash from cooking fires. Elizabeth was right to feel like she desperately needed a shower. Since St. Mary was out, she prevailed on me to head up Going-to-the-Sun Road at least as far as Rising Sun to try and cop a shower at the motor inn there. I had no problem with that; we drove our rental car a ways up the road and pulled off at the little village area. It took a couple of confused minutes to figure out who to ask about shower access; Elizabeth disappeared into a building to do so. When she came back, her slumped shoulders said it all. Another location with their showers out of service. What did the people working or living on the east side of the park do to stay clean?
Elizabeth pulled some undeniable girl logic on me now. Since we were supposed to get dinner at The Prince of Wales, and since she hadn’t gotten a shower, that meant we should eat the restaurant on site. I was a little surprised – there was actually a real restaurant and not just a general store or a cafe? But no, this thing was legit – people were waiting to be seated at a table and everything. One of the funniest things to look back on from that timeframe for me is how straight-up broke I was – I would go down to less than $10 in my bank account when we were in Rehoboth Beach a week or so later before my final grad school paycheck arrived. So with that context, there was a part of me that was leery about spending money on dinner when we had stuff we were planning on making for dinner back at the campsite. But girl logic is irrefutable. Soon we were in line at the Two Dog Flats Grill up in the motor inn. I had just enough time to purchase a book about bear attacks from the gift store for some light reading in the tent when our names were called and it was time to eat.
The view at our table overlooking St Mary Lake was divine. The food itself was… pretty good. The usual “everything tastes better when camping” rule has to apply, but I was able to get a pulled pork sandwich that was made with huckleberry BBQ sauce, Elizabeth was able to get a Philly cheesesteak, and I got to eat both of our pickles. So everything can be summed up as – hey, not too bad!
Exhaustion was always an issue for us on this trip. Writing this now at 5:00 am on a midnight shift at the job I started after this trip, it seems quaint to have been so tired by having to get up early. But to be honest, fatigue was always looming as a factor in our trip – and in fact, would probably play a part in the rocky last 48 hours of the trip. And we were not going to do ourselves any favors tonight. The St. Mary Visitor’s Center has an observatory with one of those really fancy computer-powered telescopes that you can zoom in on stuff with. At least in 2022, they did stargazing shows up at the Visitor’s Center at least weekly during the summer, and it just so happened that this was the night. Despite being up super early, now we were going to stay up super late.
I want to shout Elizabeth out for doing the thing a smart person would do. When we got back to the campsite, she laid down on her sleeping pad and started to nap. I’m sure that if we went back to Glacier now, Shiftworker Nolan would be right there with her – I’ve never appreciated the value of a nap more than I now do. But at the time, I just smiled and lay down next to her in the tent began reading my bear attack book. Real amateur hour from me.
After a little while, I also couldn’t ignore the grimy feeling. Unlike Elizabeth, I had a plan to deal with it. Just on the other side of our loop (we were at site A40):
There was a narrow little path that led down to a footbridge over the St. Mary River. And the St. Mary River, flowing swiftly as it does between the two lakes, sounded like it would make for a perfect bath. Elizabeth would kill me to know I was doing this, but Elizabeth was asleep, so I quietly walked down the path until I was standing on the muddy riverbank. After taking a few moments to figure out exactly how I was going to get down into the water without eating shit, I gently eased out into the current.
Holy cow. Swift water has a heck of a lot of power. I wasn’t even out in the middle of the channel where the water was deepest and fastest-moving. If I was, then maybe I’d be swept downstream. As it was, it was plenty just to keep standing amid the frigid water. I dunked myself underwater, but didn’t stay too long. The whole thing was pleasant if and only if you were willing to detach yourself from the temperature. I mean, I was bathing in a freaking mountain river with a sweeping view of Glacier National Park at sunset. People have hard far worse fates in life.
Sure, if I must.
The duck-walk back to the riverbank was a bit of an adventure, as was actually getting out of the water. But once I did, and once I’d toweled off, it was a no-brainer “worth it” decision.
Elizabeth had a slightly different view of things. Rather than be impressed at my ingenuity, she was just relieved that she slept through another Dumb Nolan Decision. At least when I was sitting at the campsite, waiting for the sun to go all the way down so we could check out the star show, then she could keep an eye on me. Speaking of:
Alpenglow and I were on the same page all week in Glacier.
Finally, 10:00 approached. The sky was still a pale blue, but it was (very slowly) getting darker out. We drove to the St. Mary Visitor’s Center and dragged our lawn chairs out in front of the observatory just in time to hear an NPS ranger give a fascinating talk about the local geology. Finally, all of those colorful rocks made some sense. The ranger continued to filibuster through the building dusk. It was a perfect evening – no wind, a bit cool, not a cloud in the sky. That big yellow moon we’d seen near here on our very first night in Montana would be rising in a couple of hours. Before then, the rangers informed us, we’d be able to see just about everything your heart desired, including but not limited to The Milky Way. That is, if I was able to stay awake that long.
The geology-obsessed ranger gave way to one more knowledgable about the inner workings of the sky, who began to paint a tale of the surrounding galaxy – and beyond. I wish I could relate more of his show-and-tell since it was fascinating, but by the time the telescope was focused all the way out on a galaxy that was 9.5 million light years away (one of the oldest extraterrestrial bodies known to man!) I was starting to fall asleep in my chair. Sometimes I take it for granted that Elizabeth and I go as hard as we humanly can inside a national park, but it really can be wearing if you aren’t prepared to see every little thing you can. I definitely didn’t want to leave early – Elizabeth was having the time of her life next to me. So I half-watched, half-dozed until almost 1:00 a.m. when the presentation concluded. Then I wearily gathered my stiff bones and folded up my lawn chair, and we shambled on over to the RAV4 to drive back to the campsite. How early did we need to be up for our hike in the morning to Iceberg Lake? How early could we get up? I left those questions to Morning Nolan and immediately fell into a deep tented sleep.