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Stalking the gaps at Glacier

July 21, 2009

“It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright … The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock — more than a maple — a universe. This is how you spend the afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”
– Annie Dillard

On our last day in Glacier National Park, I was focusing my macro lens deep within the sun-struck inner curve of a wildflower when I heard a throaty grunting noise that sounded like it was coming from the meadow just above the trail.

I froze and looked at my husband, Chris.

“Did you hear that?”

He nodded just as we heard it again. I looked up to the left hoping to see what made the noise, but all that was visible through the shaft of sunlight was the upward slope of blooming beargrass.

When we heard it a third time, I felt a chill. I’m no expert but the only animal I could imagine making a sound like that was a bear.

Chris and I decided in that instant that it was time to go. Quickly.

Wildflowers forgotten, we hurried down the trail, leaving whatever belonged to that guttural sound behind.

And on that note, our journey into Glacier came to an end.

We’d started making our plans for the five-day trip a couple of months earlier when Chris realized that we had enough reward miles to earn us two free plane tickets on United. Excited, we decided that a getaway was in order.

But, where to go …? Though Chris and I are typically hike-through-the-desert types who are addicted to slick rock, arcing hot skies and expansive views, we’d both been feeling a desire to settle into a boat and paddle across an alpine lake somewhere quiet and cool. Devoid of outside demands.

The life we’re currently living has been inordinately stressful, filled with breathless obligation. Chris’s job takes him out of state a few times every month, leaving him shredded and me a single mom of four during the most demanding days of the week.

The kids are great, of course, and now that they’re all out of diapers and past the putting-everything-in-their-mouths-and-throwing-fits-in-public-places phase, they’re easier to deal with on the whole.

Still, we’re grappling with the new challenges that come with raising teen- and tween-agers, and 5 year-old Graysen is certainly a pro at making sure that things are never boring.

So though I adore my kids, and love spending time with them, I know that I can be a better parent when I find within the space of my life a space for myself. A space in which I might catch a glimpse of those gaps where the winds pour down.

Chris and I searched online, for that place we envisioned. We considered Mono Lake and Yellowstone. But when we saw photos of Glacier, we were sold. We bought a raft, dug out the camping gear that had been in storage since 2003, sorted out the kids’ schedules with their grandparents and made arrangements for the pets (including our newest addition: Squishy Fernando Sanchez, the fire-bellied toad).

When it was time to leave, I felt guilty as I waved goodbye to the kids — they had apparently started to miss us the day before our departure. As I drove away, and the distance between us increased, however, my guilt fell away bit by bit until all that was left was a sense of wonder. Chris and I were headed into territory uncharted by us personally, and the idea was thrilling.

Following a smooth, but no less stressful, set of flights to Missoula … past the mishap with our GPS after midnight that lead us not to our motel but into a residential neighborhood … beyond our close encounter with an argument in the Sporting Goods section of Wal-Mart, and our dispute over how much water to buy (or not) in the produce section … we finally arrived in Glacier, and  followed an old dirt road to our first campsite at Kintla Lake.

Described in the guide book as a place to go “only on purpose,” we knew it had to be our first stop. Ultimately, it wasn’t quite as secluded as we had hoped (the 13-space campground was half full) but it was beautful. Quiet. The lake, perfect. The next morning, when we pushed off the rocky shore in our modest little raft, we were very quickly alone in the world.

As we paddled, a loon called out in the distance. Fish jumped in a faraway inlet and the clouds poured down over the northern peaks, carving their reflections across the glassy surface of the lake.

And time, the beast that had for so long held us in a stranglehold, let go entirely. In the gentle silence, I saw that mysterious gap open before me.

I saw it again, three days later, when I heard that grunting sound on the wildflower-studded trail. The hair rose on the back of my neck and everything in my life narrowed into a primal instinct to flee. It was a rush touched by the fear-filled realization that as we were stalking the gaps, we were possibly being stalked by something else.

As expected, worldly expectations crashed down on us again when we stepped out of the wilderness. We had to repack our gear and race to make our plane. But we did leave Montana with the knowledge that we had interrupted our own dance on the edge of rage.

At least for a few afternoons.

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