I’m in Portland now, the new Portland, not the Portland I visited in May. Many people don’t know this: Portland was named after Portland. It makes sense, right? Because Portland doesn’t even have a port, but Portland does. Portland isn’t even on the ocean—it’s an hour away—but Portland is, of course, and they catch lobsters there all the time. Here’s why we have both Portland and Portland. Two guys came to Portland to found Portland; one of them was from Boston, and the other was from Portland. When they realized the city they were founding needed a name, they decided to name it after one of their hometowns. So they flipped a coin, and the guy from Portland won. And thus was Portland named Portland, after Portland.
But of course, because of the rules, I’m not writing anything about Portland until I’ve finished and left and gone to Eugene. Instead I’ve got to catch up on places I’ve been: Glacier National Park, Missoula, Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Seattle. Actually, I think I’m only going to do one of those in this post.
I went to Glacier in the middle of August almost on a whim. I was coming from Calgary and on my way to Missoula, so it was just right there on the way, and why not? In fact the road through the middle of the park seemed to be the most direct way to get to the highway to Missoula. So I hitched a ride from the border with a guy who happened to be going just that way with his niece, right through the park. He said he’d probably driven this road, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, over a thousand times. “This is my commute. Not bad, huh?” Not bad. All I could do was stare slack-jawed. Sharp, rugged, jagged mountains; diamond water; patches of glacier up in the altitudes. I don’t know if I’d seen a glacier before. The guy told me about everything as we went by; he was the best tour guide I could ask for. He took me all the way to the opposite side of the park so I could stock up on food and plan a hike.
Everything was closed by then, but I found a map at least, and used it to devise a rollicking old hike, untroubled by questions of feasibility because my map didn’t show how long the trails were. Using the free shuttle system that the park has put in place (there’s not exactly a lot of parking in the park, owing to how much of it is vertical), I dropped off my backpack where I’d be finishing up for the night, then continued up to the Gunsight Pass trailhead. On the way I’d been examining a somewhat more detailed map of the park, and discovered that my trail wasn’t going to be the fifteen-mile stroll I’d thought; it measured in at 21.2 miles. But I’m not one to back down from an audacious, even foolhardy, plan, so off I went.
The very first thing I noticed were the berries. They look just like raspberries, but the plants are completely different. They have a sweet but also musky taste that I loved at first berry. And there were hundreds, thousands of them, growing right next to the trail! It was probably unwise of me to eat so many of a berry whose name I didn’t actually know, one after the other, but they tasted way too good to be poisonous, and anyway I’m pretty sure there’s nothing poisonous that even sort of resembles a raspberry. Later I found out they were thimbleberries. They may be my new favorite fruit.
After a few sprightly, light-on-my-feet miles, walking along a creek, the trail started ascending, and got out of the trees so I could see the mountains around me. At the bottom they’re shaped like normal mountains. Their top halves are basically straight vertical walls until the top. The layers of rock make occasional narrow shelves, just wide enough for one row of pines to crowd onto, astoundingly. The heights I was walking started out modest, then steadily got delirious. I was heading up Mount Gunsight. I started climbing the mountain proper when I rounded Gunsight Lake, which has untouched waters of a deep, pristine blue. It’s fed by water crashing in from the glaciers in braided, waterfalling streams more vertical than horizontal. Occasionally my path crossed over one of those, and I just had to rockhop or ford it, or get wet.
Near the top, the trail finally came to one of the glaciers, an unnamed miniglacier, or perhaps the fractured late-summer piece of a normally coherent full-fledged glacier. In fact, it crossed it. So not only could I reach down and touch it—yes, snow in August, it’s real—I had to, I had to walk slipping across it, able to see down fifty feet to the bottom of it, where I would definitely slide and probably die if I lost my footing. It was a rush, let me tell you.
After a neverending series of switchbacks, I got to Gunsight Pass itself. (No summiting today; I was fine with that.) At the top was a little cabin, but I preferred to eat my lunch-dinner of trail mix in the teeth of the wind coming in from the other side of the Continental Divide. I sat there just steps away from where water splits to go either to the Gulf of Mexico or to the Pacific Ocean. The wind tried to steal my sunflower seeds.
And then I started the second half, on schedule to get back by about 10:00. Except I hadn’t realized there was more uphill, not just a slow descent to the gold. But I wasn’t too worried about that as I walked by Lake Ellen Wilson and flushed prairie dogs and heard them raise their peeping alarm calls. I saw mountain goats. Two of them, an adult and a kid, twenty feet above the trail, grazing and climbing nonchalantly away from me. And half an hour later, rounding the far edge of Mount Gunsight, I came to a hairpin and heard something aggressively yanking on the grass. Just a few feet from me—a mountain goat. I lost my breath. Its friend popped into sight too. I could see the expressions in their eyes—bemused, maybe, chewing and wondering what I was doing there. If I’d had the brass, I could’ve reached out and touched one, but their forbidding horns kept me away. They were in my way, but they moved, disregarding the looseness of the rock and the vertical pitch of the slope, as if walking up walls were just no thing. And I saluted them and walked on. I should’ve started this hike at about seven in the morning, sure, but since I was so late, I was the only hiker out, and all the wildlife was coming out. I decided that if I got to greet mountain goats personally, I was all for seeing the wilderness after-hours.
I crested a notch and finally started my long descent; I went by the Sperry Châlet and saw all the foppish folke gadding about, and used their bathroom; then it started getting dark. Thank goodness for that bright moon. And for all the songs I know the lyrics to, which put my mind a little at ease, since I’d heard that being boisterous is how to avoid sneaking up on a bear. Even in the dark I came across a little more wildlife—a toad on the path, big and dusty. I managed not to lose the trail, and at 10:50 I finally made it back to the Lodge to retrieve my backpack. I got it, and some advice on where to stealth camp (I was happy to learn that along the beach would be a fine place), and I found sandwiches in the trash, which were perfectly placed and really satisfying. And that night I slept a long time..