Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap
For a girl like the girl I was, a child of the deep South, born into a world of steel mills and tidy neighborhoods of bungalows on oak and maple and pecan tree-lined streets; for a child steeped in the heady Southern perfumes of feathery mimosa trees and delicate gardenia blossoms and the unlikely grape bubblegum scent of Kudzu vine in bloom, driving into Glacier National Park, under an endless sky and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, was like suddenly discovering I had wings. That my feet were no longer tied by gravity.
The world around me never again looked the same.
I was fresh out of third-grade. My family packed up the station wagon, towing a tent trailer, and set out to see America. We set out for Glacier National Park.
As we drove across Montana and through the park, I rode with my head at the open window, curls blowing in the wind, my fingers curled over the top of the car door, my chin resting on the back of my hands, trying to take it all in.
I remember the feeling of being too small for the landscape, like an ant crossing the sidewalk. I listened to the cool, singing sound of clear mountain water rushing over beautiful green, red and lavender stones scattered like cabochon jewels on the river bed. I let the sandy soil of boulders, ground into dust by a millennium of massive glaciers, fall between my fingers. I held my breath as we made our way up a spectacular, winding, climbing, breathtaking road called “Going-to-the-Sun.”
The place left its mark on me. By the time we got home, I wasn’t the same girl I’d been when we left. I never forgot what I had seen.
Years later, when the chance to move my own family out west presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Leaving behind everything familiar, I knew I was going home.
This was all running through my head on on May 11, when I made another trip to the park. This time on the occasion of its centennial. A celebration of 100 years. Exactly 100 years ago to the day, President William Howard Taft signed a bill that established Glacier as the 10th national park.
I sat in a folding chair in a big white tent and listened to Park Superintendent, Chas Cartwright welcome the crowd. On the dais, in addition to representatives of local legislators and governmental entities, Native American leaders, in full headdress, were there to signify the complex and collaborative relationship between the National Park Service and first nation peoples.
I studied the faces in the crowd wondering what, exactly, besides the opportunity to be a part of history, had drawn them. Common wisdom states that there is something within each of us that seeks a companion. A mate. A missing piece to complete the human puzzle. I wonder if the drive to find our place, our geographic perfect-match, is just as strong. Some of us give into the siren call and get behind the wheel, or board an airplane or train. We chase the dot on the map. Others of us settle for romance from the armchair. Some, like a little girl gazing up at tall mountains with wide eyes, just know it when we see it.
After the centennial ceremony, I joined a tour of the park facilities. At each stop someone - a retired superintendent, a craftsman, a landscape specialist, an archivist - deepened our understanding of the history and structure of the park. I was proud to be a part of the unique history of the moment.
At the end of the day, carrying my souvenirs - the commemorative centennial coin, lapel button and program - I boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder, the train that would take me back home to Spokane. As we rolled out of Whitefish, Montana, I could see tall peaks in the distance.Chin-in-hand, I gazed out the window until the light faded.
The important thing to remember is that we are all as small as ants in the million-acre landscape of Glacier National Park. And it will stand long after we’re all gone. It will be there for others to discover, to fall in love with and to celebrate. Glacier National Park has, for 100 years, awed us and inspired us. I hope my children’s children will make the same pilgrimage to celebrate 100 more.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org