Saturday, March 13, 2004

My apologies in advance for this travel diary...commentary essays return after this flowery entry...

(Continued from 3/13/04)

Our flight from Atlanta landed at Kalispell International Airport around 10:00 pm Mountain Time. We were immediately approached by a young girl and asked if we were Scott and Thomas. With travelweary eyes we replied that we were, indeed. She was our host, our ride into town, and informed to look out for two guys with shaved heads. Supporting details: one had a goatee, the other had red hair. Eureka. We were off.

The trip was doable by the fact that we opted out of staying at a hotel. While this freed up money, it also meant we were staying a little under an hour away from Big Mt., where we would ski and snowboard. Our lodging was a dog-filled cabin by Lake Flathead, and my bed was a worn shag carpet and camping pillow the size of a book. It was heaven, though, as any energy I could have put into kvetching about my conditions was spent on the days of skiing we enjoyed.

Big Mountain is gorgeous, the ideal location to lock yourself onto two pieces of wood and let the absence of friction determine your outcome. If the world were a table, Big Mt. would sit at the head.

From atop the summit you gaze at Whitefish, a small eclectic town that is undergoing the puberty of ski villages. An influx of celebrities (Demi Moore! Carol Burnett!? Jim Nabors???) and snow enthusiasts has made it a more popular destination, one that is recommended by editors in travel glossies and travelers in airport lounges. The town is growing, as evident in (what appears to be smart) business development and condo/hotel/home construction. You find the wayward post graduate soul working at the eateries and lifts, and the awe-inspired vacationer ambling around town. You find the cliche out West ski town that defies cliches.

Our first two days were spent skiing, although two members of our tight-knit party snowboarded. It was surprisingly easy to find my ski legs again, as I fell down only five times the first day. From my perspective (which is the only one that matters when you are careening down a hill), I did quite well. We all did. I wasn't the tight legged alpine dynamo with an aerodynamic cup on my crotch, but I was able to keep up and lead. Thursday was a much different story.

Since lift tickets are the real kicker in the cost of skiing (boots and skis rent for $15 a day), we decided to enjoy nearby Glacier National Park and hike to Lake Schneider by way of snow shoes.

Glacier was a sight to behold, and if you refer to last night's sappy entry, you'll get all the adjective-heavy imagery. National Parks, while natural, are undoubtedly designed by the route deciders to drop jaws. The road that brought us into the park weaved us down a broad river and next to a lake that reflected the sky and clouds and mountains it calls neighbors. We were to hike a distance of nine miles to an elevation 2,000 feet higher than where we were. Parked next to a lodge closed for the season, we walked to the start of the trail that would take us to our destination, a frozen lake that sits at the joint of two mountain ridges.

Snow shoes are crafty inventions. You strap your toes into two long pieces of plastic and coast over loose snow, the wide surface area keeping you upright and elevated. The plastic never really seems to come off the ground, as your heel is not strapped in and remains free.

They were comfortable, but my boots were not. Blisters developed on both heel within 45 minutes. My body became exhausted around the same time, which I took in stride knowing that I would soon catch my second wind, the relief that comes after your mind and body agree to a suitable amount of exertion. The hike, which was entirely up hill, ground the skin on my heels to the bone, as I could feel liquid flood the loose skin and shift with each step. The short downhill areas of our walk were not a welcome sign for me; I knew that every down meant an even steeper up, and that was where the pain was.

Four and a half miles in we arrived at Lake Schneider, which was covered in ice and snow. In winter, it looked like an unused landing area for rescue helicopters, a clearing in the trees. Totally flat and serene, I was awash in silence and blue, confused by frozen waterfalls and curiously paranoid about the tracks on the other side of the lake. We sat and ate, and at 4:30 pm, began the hike back with daylight burning before us. Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of my blisters (the one treated midhike with mole skin no less) had popped.

Either it was the fact we were going downhill or that I had simply grown accustomed to the pain, but I felt nothing on the way back. My eyes were not focused on our surroundings or on the end of the trail, but the trail itself. The beaten path before me, the path that I focus on only when my next step requires it. The unrelenting moment of now and not next, of here and not there.

It reminds me that looking at now and not next can attack time and its challenges better than any plan is able to.

Northwest Montana is a beautiful and epic landscape that has not changed my life, but enriched it. It did not make me want to toss pizza dough to pay for lift tickets or drop my as yet undecided plans to live in a tree for six months. It did make me want to awe and inspire and choke life by its thick neck.

No more travel entries until I travel once more.

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