The activities at the Logan Pass Visitor Center died down after sunset. I noticed that I was now alone among a set of randomly placed cars in the parking lot. I wondered where their owners might be. The visitor center had closed hours before. Any day hiker on the trail would normally try to get back before the end of the day. Perhaps they belonged to people deeper in the park, backpackers equipped to spend their nights in truly remote regions.
I recalled that this is exactly what we had done years earlier while on a family backpack trip. A car had been left in this very lot, and we had gotten a ride to our starting trailhead. Five days later, physically sore but spirits restored by our time in the backcountry, the Highline Trail emptied us abruptly into the Logan Pass parking lot. Unshaven and dirty, but mostly eager to reach the point of civilization that would serve us some food that had not been rehydrated from pouches of powder, we were put to one final trial: waiting while my brother properly reorganized and repacked his car. He was the only one in our group qualified to do it, and suggestions to him for just tolerating the disorganization for now only compounded the test. Fortunately, Logan Pass has a beautiful and intriguing visitor center that presents the plant and wildlife found within its alpine setting. We patiently endured the detainment, checking the parking lot periodically to see if the task was yet done. Perhaps the delay enhanced even further our enjoyment of faux marmotburgers and huckleberry milkshakes when we finally arrived at the St. Mary Lodge, marking the end of that particular adventure.
The sky had dimmed as the first phase of twilight came to an end. I made some test exposures to see how film would record this intermediate state between day and night. I had an idea that if I could set the aperture correctly, I might be able to catch stars emerging from the twilight, white streaks against a blue sky. The prospects kept me busy while waiting for the sky to get dark.
I watched the moon set behind the western peaks. Just as when the sun gets low, the sky stays light even though the moon is eclipsed by the mountain. One must wait until it gets below the virtual horizon before the invisibly blue sky becomes truly dark. I set up my cameras for the long exposure star trails that I wanted to capture behind the distinctive silhouettes of Glacier’s mountains. There are no other such profiles. The native Blackfoot tribes considered this area to be holy. Ever since first seeing this park as a boy, I too have known that it is different than anywhere else; it has left its mysterial imprint on me.
After spending considerable time trying to frame and compose the mountains, struggling with obtaining just the right angle and balance, knowing that once the exposure started, I would be committed to that view for pretty much the rest of the night, I finally opened the shutters on my cameras. There; it was started. Good or bad, the film began its job accumulating light, building up its latent image. I could relax a little. I wouldn’t be needed for at least an hour, depending on how long I wanted the trails to be.
With nothing to fuss and worry about, my attention went back to my surroundings. It was dark, I was at the top of a mountain pass, alone on an island of asphalt in the wilderness. I started to wonder how wild this part of the wilderness was. On previous years there had been postings about the presence of grizzly bears. In fact the trail to Hidden Lake had been closed for many of my previous visits because grizzlies are given priority in this park, and humans must yield the use of trails until they are safely unused by bears. Do bears cross parking lots? Would I be able to see one if it did? Has anyone else ever successfully spent the night here at the top of the pass? I worried.
This is the problem of not having something to busy your hands and focus your mind. The danger was no higher than it had been ten minutes ago, but back then I was concentrating on my cameras, blissfully ignorant of any other concerns.
I thought of the first time I had seen one of those grizzly bear postings. It was with a girlfriend, who I was introducing to camping for the first time. She had instantly known this park to be different, to her it was a fairyland.
When we first encountered the bear warning poster, she was spooked, we were spooked. This was one of the few places in the U.S. where grizzly bears were found. She read everything about them, and we consulted the rangers to find out that the warnings were standard at the heads of all the trails, just to keep our awareness up. She eventually came to an acceptance of them, even on one occasion mugging a bear impression next to one of the signs for a snapshot. Then, as now, the distractions of camping chores and day-hike adventures kept us from becoming excessively concerned.
My plan worked, the camping experience became tightly bound with the effect the scenery made on her soul and in subsequent years she found that she had to make periodic pilgrimages to return to Glacier Park. I know, because I married her.
And today was the anniversary of having done so! I thought about the many returns to Glacier we had made over the years. I looked around. The sky was filled with starlight. The familiar mountain shapes surrounded me. The cool air contained the scent of the trees and carried the sound of water tumbling over rocky streambeds. We could not spend it together, but I could spend our anniversary in the spiritual homeplace that she had acquired. A place that always brings her to balance with life and nature, even as it strengthens the bond between the two of us. I was here, and so was she.
This was very comforting to me. Much better than how this line of thought had started, worrying about bears, and I continued to think about how our lives had been influenced by this park. I wondered how many times we had actually been at Logan Pass. How many times had we hiked down the Highline Trail? How many marmots had we seen along the boardwalk to Hidden Lake overlook? How many frames of film had we gone through shooting wildflowers and hanging valleys? When did we climb that impossibly steep goat trail to the top of the Garden Wall? These were the trivia that occupied me while waiting for my startrail exposures to complete that evening. It was a one-sided reminiscence of the highlights of my life, highlights made so by having shared them with another person, a person who had become my companion through this park and through my life, my wife of 24 years this day.
My reverie was interrupted by headlight beams cutting across the trees in front of me. I turned my head away, but too late, my vision had been pierced by blue afterimages. The car cruised through the parking lot. I hastened to close the shutters on my cameras to protect whatever weak images had trickled onto the film. The driver made his survey and seeing only an odd man cowering against the light next to some tripods, aimed for the exit and headed down the pass.
I advanced the film to the next frame and started again. One doesn’t succeed at enterprises like astrophotography or marriage without conviction.