Whitefish lay straight ahead. The RAV-4 which had been so meticulously packed two days ago was already showing signs of repeated rummaging for cameras or yellow Gatorades or swimsuits. It cruised along the built-up section of the Flathead Valley, past the lodges and motels and hotels of Kalispell. I was practically vibrating with excitement over the surprise activity I’d planned for Elizabeth, but first we needed to get ourselves some grub for lunch. US-93 took us straight from Kalispell to its tourism neighbor. Whitefish lays at the base of a range of mountains known unsurprisingly as the Whitefish Range, and is the base of a well-known ski resort. Elizabeth didn’t know that part, though. All she knew was that we were hunting for parking inside a charming small town with right alongside the train depot.
This let us realize where all of the missing tourists from Glacier Park where – apparently they were had coped with the closure of GTSR by clogging up all of these little towns. There were people all over the Jersey Boys Pizzeria. It took a minor miracle and the iron resolve of Elizabeth Leslie to secure ourselves an outside table after ordering a 14-inch pepperoni/sausage/mushroom pizza at the window. We had a moment to just enjoy being outside in a cute little downtown, and then the pizza arrived and the conversation tapered off as quickly as the numbers of slices remaining. I always forget just how damn hungry you get while camping, especially when faced with real food and not the Pop-Tarts and freeze-dried meals you normally subsist on. In no time, a 14-inch pie was reduced to nothing more than a marinara memory.
We would get the chance to come back to Whitefish in a couple of hours – and good thing! – but at the moment we had time-sensitive business outside of town. Elizabeth drove so that I could preserve the secret a little longer by giving directions as discreetly as possible. This worked beautifully for the first 10 minutes or so. You could practically see Elizabeth building toward an anxiety attack. She’s not someone who takes being out of control well (the amusement over her reaction prompted me to plan an entire surprise for her 24th birthday – see the West Virginia blog series). However, it got a little harder to stay mum once we took the road that went up, up, up Whitefish Mountain. Now Elizabeth kept peppering me with questions and guesses about what we would be doing at an off-season ski resort. Her verdict: it better not be mountain biking. That, at least, I could accomodate.
We got to the parking lot in front of the main Whitefish Resort lodge and walked up to the building. I could feel the anticipation building as we got into line to pick up our tickets. Finally, we were next. No further delay. With a smirk, I spoke to the ticket agent: “Hi, we have a reservation to ride the alpine slide…” Elizabeth’s eyebrows raised.
A couple of minutes later, our tickets were validated and we were on our way to the chairlift. Elizabeth bubbled with excitement. “I guessed that!” When I confirmed that she had not, in fact, guessed it, she pivoted: “I said mountain coaster. Same thing!”
Guess what, Elizabeth: I have been vindicated. You did not guess it. In a relationship where our three favorite words are “You were right”, this victory will be nice.
I didn’t contest the point at the time, though. Not while we were slowly ascending on the chairlift that passed directly over the slide on the grassy slope below. For one, it would be tacky to argue with her in the middle of her own surprise activity. For another, I had never ridden a chairlift before, and the concept of sitting on this thing 30 feet off the ground with nothing but a flimsy metal bar between me and tumbling was kind of wild. I knew a certain sense of relief when we reached the upper chairlift station and got our feet back on solid ground.
Whitefish does very, very solid business during the offseason. July 14 was a Thursday, but the mountainside crawled with tourists anyway. Some of them were on the dreaded mountain bikes, or preparing for the high-ropes course, or hiking the ski runs that went even higher from this locale. Many of them, like us, stood in a snaking line under an awning at the beginning of the alpine slide run. The line was long enough that it was clear we’d have to wait our turn for a while. And so we did – about half an hour before each of our two runs apiece.
This is probably a good time for me to explain what the hell an alpine slide even is. As the screenshot above suggests, it’s basically a waterslide without the water. You plop down on a hybrid between a sled and one of those scooters that you got during elementary school gym. On this sled there’s a lever that sticks up between your legs. When that lever is pressed forward, the front of the sled pops up off the ground, leaving it connected to the slide by just the two rear wheels. Then you go faster. If you want to slow down, you bring the throttle back toward you. The ride attendants were very clear to say that you don’t want to lean over to bank into turns, or your sled may just fall off.
I went down first. At first, when the sled moved I got nervous and immediately throttled it back. But I rattled around a curve and nothing bad happened. Alright, this was pretty cool! I added a little more speed, and then a little more, and then a little more beyond that. Whitefish Mountain blurred by me. I went screaming past the high ropes course and under a bridge associated to it, conscientiously remaining upright so I didn’t tip over. The course emerged into a large clearing, past a photographer who was ready to get an action shot, and then finally it reached the end. I came clattering in and braked quickly so I could see the spectacle of Elizabeth riding.
I waited. And waited. And waited.
It felt way slower than that, somehow. It was pretty comical, although I’m trying to get away from making fun of Elizabeth so much.
After a very appropriate amount of mocking my fiancee for the very understandable discomfort she felt, we got back on the chairlift to repeat the process again. That gave each of us the chance to set a new set of goals. Elizabeth was going to try to take this run faster so she could get a video of me arriving. And I was going to throw the throttle all the way forward and see what happened.
Elizabeth disappeared. To her credit, she looked to be running faster this time. I turned to the ride attendant and casually asked, “How do I milk as much speed from this thing as possible?” He suggested leaning forward, but not during a curve. Then he gave me a nod to let me know that it was go time.
In 2021, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian made waves by declaring that his tenure would be “All gas, no brakes”. Whether his teams have agreed with that mantra, there can be no doubt that I was following it to a tee. The sled started rattling. It was exhilarating. At this speed, I couldn’t help but lean into a curve. Fortunately, the sled stayed on the track past a gaggle of cheering high-ropes-goers. I headed into that final clearing at terminal velocity, amazed that I hadn’t already found Elizabeth ahead of me. I came around that same final bend that she did in the video above at full speed, then hit the brake pads and threw the brakes on in one fell motion. Elizabeth was standing there, having just gotten off of her sled. I had succeeded in getting down so fast that she couldn’t get it on video.
I had a little bit of time to reflect on the alpine slide as Elizabeth and I traipsed through the lodge, looking for the station where we could get our pictures. Slides and other thrill rides are so fun, but so short-lived. In this case, we’d committed basically an entire afternoon to two 90-second rides apiece. Is that a worthwhile trade? I honestly can’t say. I don’t think I’d go out of my way to ride an alpine slide on vacation again, but that doesn’t mean I regretted doing so once. It was a pretty cool and unique activity.
It was also an activity that left you with a dry mouth, especially on what had turned out to be a pretty warm day in northern Montana. Before heading out, Elizabeth and I shared a red Gatorade on the lodge’s patio, which I remember as one of the most refreshing Gatorades of my life. Then we got back in the car and took the big, sweeping downhill back toward the valley town far below.
If anything, Whitefish had become even more of a crowded madhouse. I don’t often say that crowds ruin things for me, because I genuinely don’t mind them. But I remember finding parking was a bit of a nightmare, and the gift shops that we trolled around in down in town were literally wall-to-wall with patrons. Who am I to judge other people for doing the exact same thing as me? All the same, it seemed to be more full than I would have liked.
That did have its advantages. Because Whitefish was so full, Elizabeth and I had to pull all the way into a lot near the railroad depot. When we got out, I realized something – they had relics of the glorious past of the Great Northern Railway just openly on display here.
Now, you couldn’t quite give yourself a self-guided tour of the locomotive. That’s just asking a little too much of life. But you could get up on the platform at the back of the locomotive and peer in. For someone who’s “train phase” was just starting to approach its zenith, this was heaven for me. And Elizabeth was phenomenally patient with me while I geeked out.
I guess I repaid the patience back to Elizabeth, because the next thing we did was go into town for some gift shopping. I’m a very direct gift shopper, especially when I only have a couple hundred bucks left to my name. Get me to the store that has a pin that says “Whitefish”, let me buy the nicest-looking pin that says “Whitefish”, and then I’m done. I actually struggled with those very basic precepts here because stores didn’t offer any pins. But that wasn’t a patch on Elizabeth, who was in her bag shopping for gifts. To this day, I can still be reminded of her searching through multiple stores across the town to find what she wanted – all I have to do is look at her water bottle with the “Huck Yeah” sticker on it.
Somehow, this day was slipping by much faster than the previous, much-busier day had. It was already getting close to dinnertime. We had about an hour backtrack back into the national park, where for the first of five nights in a row we’d be tent camping at Sprague Creek Campground. Originally, I had hoped to do some huckleberry picking while we were in town, but with the late snows it turned out that huckleberry season hadn’t opened yet. So my day of planning turned out to be a bit light of actual activities, for which I’m sorry Elizabeth.
Before heading back, our RAV4 needed to guzzle some gas at the Cenex. Gas prices were already ridiculous in the summer of 2022 – mid-July was only a couple of weeks after a June peak where in Norman I’d suffered through multiple $4.50+ fill-ups. This one, in a mountain town, wasn’t as bad as I feared – St. Mary had been like $6 a gallon, but Whitefish was at least comparable to Norman. So that was a way to make paying $60 for gas feel a little more palatable, if you thought of it in the right frame of reference.
We drove back the opposite way, uphill through the Flathead Valley and then into the narrow canyon where the Flathead emerges from the mountains. After a while, the road got to West Glacier, and we pulled back into the national park. After flashing our entrance pass and reservation, we got onto Going-to-the-Sun Road. It wasn’t quite as exciting as the day before – this time, our final destination was Sprague Creek Campground.