Crossings, part two

I awake early in the morning to the sight of endless trees passing me by. Choked with sudden anxiety, I consult my phone: did I miss Glacier National Park? No, Google assures me, we are not in Glacier yet — this forest has no name. And yet the fear already has a hold on me, the fear of missing out. What vistas have I slept through? How many spiritual awakenings have I missed, communes with nature, somber reflections? How long have the others been admiring these marvels as I lay senseless?

My fears are allayed by my neighbor’s cosseted form. I am reminded that not all travelers on the road of life stop to smell the roses; their loss, my gain. Such is the nature of our uncaring, zero-sum universe. A sense of detached superiority blooms in my breast as I settle into following the scrolling trees and mountain backs, neck snapping back and forth like a spectator at a tennis game. Be still, my beating heart.

At a clearing I spot the first signs of dawn in the East. Today the sun has nominated his pale second to reign above the skies of Montana, himself preferring tropical climates. Or else our life-giver has caught a cold and been told to stay behind clouds, doctor’s orders. Certainly this modest clearing prefers the air of mystery afforded by its white down robe. From the colic sun to the sleeping grass, all is hidden.

These trees carry their snowy burdens with a stoic pride that reminds me of the grunt and sweat of a college weight room. A thousand branches each testing its limit, from the one-pound pussy weights to the barbell drifts that would snap a lesser twig in two. Could it be that winter is the season when trees talk trash, is this the height of boreal macho glory? Do you even lift, one tree asks another. I do, it replies, count these rings. I dare you.

Two trees stand watch over us in the middle distance like elderly parents at their kid’s soccer game, jaded but erect. Though they do not share in the fanfare and excitement of their younger-skewing milieu, they respect the concept and play their part. If these trees do lift, they do so in the modest confines of a basement, not for display. After the game they will take junior to the Lexus and drive away without lingering in the parking lot. They will not stop until they are home.

At Whitefish I disembark to pay my respects at the altar of the Great Iron Goat, my talisman. A dim benediction glimmers in its old, sad eyes. I feel like a lone cultist making an outdated gesture, but I can sense that underneath the rust of ages this spirit is still greedy for offerings of passengers, cargo, blood. Even as I turn away I am uncertain if I faced a modern day Baphomet seeking vengeance on its usurpers’ pantheon, or simply a scapegoat condemned to endless exodus beside this ribbon of iron.

Before I can safely board the train I am arrested by yet another wonder. It is the “Bruck,” a term deserving quotes if there ever was one. Bus in the front, party in the back (actually, mail in the back), this “Bruck” spearheaded the Great Northern’s predictable foray into monopolizing the post-war highway system. Alas, the dream died in 1972, but the legend of the “Bruck” will live on forever.

We rumble away from Whitefish accompanied by the squawk of pink-faced Hoosiers. These new arrivals eagerly compare which towns they grew up in, hometowns of distant relatives, towns containing their schools, their wildest dreams, their deepest sorrows. One laments her cruel banishment to some other point on the great indifferent plains far from home. I half expect an earnest discussion of which mall in Indiana has the best Foot Locker. Reflecting on their pitiful condition I am startled by the looming reality of the mountains dividing our continent’s cultures and waterways. Leaving Whitefish is leaving behind the final bastion of “us” and crossing over into the land of “them.” These patient freight cars do not betray any sense of unease. May they be an example to us all.

I am charmed by this farmstead on the outer edge of Whitefish. It seems like a worthwhile final destination, but I have a feeling that it goes hardly noticed by my fellow travelers. I find myself wanting this to be real, I want the truth to validate my paying attention. Let there be horses and cows in the barn, or at the very least sheep. Let it be locally owned and organic. Please tell me the rancher goes to sleep in flannel and that his wife makes the best gravy in the world.

One of my final glimpses of the west is a nondescript industrial facility at the foot of the Lewis Range. I later learn that this aluminum smelter was operated by the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company until being declared a Superfund site and closed permanently many years ago. At the time I passed it by I imagined myself coming in to work every morning and doing something concrete, something useful for the world. In another time, another life, I could have left quite a legacy here.

We begin our ascent up the tortuous gully of the Middle Flathead River. The churning, ice-cold rapid is a startling blue color, probably owing to a combination of minerals at its source. This river flows west into the Columbia basin where it empties into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon. The water and I hardly acknowledge each others’ presence. Just two ships passing in the night.

As we ascend higher I realize that my long awaited reckoning with the continental divide will not be the decisive moment I wished for. Instead it is a fuzzy anticlimax. The dawning of the feeling that either I have already missed the relevant signage or that the I will miss it sometime soon. This is a picture of what I reckoned to be my personal divide, in what I now know to be the western half of the park. My camera was turned off and stowed way when our conductor announced the moment of our continental crossing.

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