Traveling, Warts and All: Glacier National Park

Traveling, Warts and All: Glacier National Park

by Larissa Breedlove

Visiting a national park had never appealed to me the way big city travel often does: I tend to prefer a good coffee shop over a mountain view (unless, of course, that view is visible from said coffee shop). The allure of Glacier National Park, however, a five-hour drive from my mother-in-law’s home in North Idaho, was growing. Glacier’s website revealed pictures of turquoise rivers framed by sweeping mountains. The images were so majestic they looked almost photoshopped.

But it wasn’t until my husband shared the story of a friend’s transcendent experience hiking that sold me. Give me a reason to be transformed or inspired and I’m hooked. Part of that, perhaps, is because I’ve always wanted a quick fix to cure my lifelong struggle with panic attacks. None exist, of course, but the idea of exploring a vista capable of literally taking my breath away felt like a good start.

Getting to Glacier

A key element of managing anxiety well is having a firm understanding of what to expect: how long a trip might take or the distance between destinations. When we chose to stay in touristy Whitefish, Montana, located 30 miles outside the park, I didn’t know it would take a full 40 minutes to reach Glacier’s entrance. From there, it would take 30 minutes to get to Going-to-the-Sun Road: a magnificent 50-mile drive straight through Glacier. Literally carved out of a cliff, Going-to-the-Sun Road reaches an altitude of 7,000 feet at Logan Pass, a visitor center situated in the middle of the park.

Going-to-the-Sun Road takes about two hours to cross—without stopping. But guests often pause to take pictures of the stunning scenery. Those two hours, then, can turn into four.

When we arrived at Glacier in late June, Going-to-the-Sun Road was still closed because of snow being cleared in higher elevations. Fortunately, we were able to return the next day, when the road opened for the season. Be sure to check Glacier’s daily updates on road conditions in advance.

The Ascent

While planning our trip back in April, I considered ways to stay calm in case the road’s narrowness triggered a panic reaction. Though not afraid of heights, I hate the feeling of being trapped, with no opportunity to leave, or rather, escape. Driving on highways without large shoulders or frequent exits, for example, can cause full-blown anxiety attacks. My goal was to stay relaxed to best appreciate the beauty, not be daunted by the unforgiving terrain.

The morning of our trip was cool and overcast, with only intermittent sun. I cut my usual two-cup coffee routine in half. Next, I focused on deep breathing techniques to counteract anxious thoughts or physical fight-or-flight symptoms. If the situation became even more intense, I would employ a meditation method, focusing all my attention on one object—a cup holder in the car, for instance—to counteract the discomfort. 

No amount of planning, however, could prepare us for the immense fog that enveloped our car the higher up we went. At some points, the fog was so dense we could barely make out the taillights of the vehicle in front of us. As we ascended, temperatures dropped into the low 40s. Because of the lack of visibility and the road’s constrictions, there was no room to turn around. We had to push on. Normally spectacular sights were obscured. Though tense, I was able to get through the moment by employing periodic deep breaths and focusing on the driver—my husband—to ensure he was doing okay. (He was.)

            After Logan Pass, the fog began to vanish. Bears frolicked in the distance. Though my husband and mother-in-law got out of the car to take pictures, I didn’t move. To say the dreary weather had affected my mood was an understatement: I was miserable. Clad in shorts, I was also freezing. My expectation of soul-stirring hikes had been crushed by the reality of the rugged wilderness.

A Fresh Start

After crossing Going-to-the-Sun Road, we contemplated making the long trek back to Idaho. Instead, we discovered St. Mary Village Lodge, an all-encompassing restaurant, gift shop, and hotel composed of a quaint collection of cabins (most with TVs and WiFi). We booked an extra night.

After spending the afternoon relaxing in our cabins, we enjoyed a sumptuous dinner at the lodge’s restaurant, the Snowgoose Grill. My husband’s quesadilla—a simple dish—was extraordinary. Made with bison and perfectly seasoned, the mainstream staple met haute cuisine standards. He finished his meal with a thick slice of huckleberry pie. I enjoyed a cup of lobster bisque, also well prepared. My mother-in-law loved her fresh Waldorf salad.

Though the weather cleared the next morning, our drive home required crossing Going-to-the-Sun Road once more to return to the highway. The fog was still thick at higher elevations, limiting views. We had driven close to 18 hours in less than three days.

Exhausted and irritable, the memory of the previous night’s dinner regrettably faint, I struggled with the disappointment of having an experience far below my expectations. After we got back to Idaho, I spent a few days reflecting on the experience. Glacier might not have changed me in the way I had hoped, but it did offer a reminder to take trips as they come—curveballs and all. And while I might not be able to tell you my favorite places to hike in Glacier, I now have a go-to spot for one hell of a quesadilla.

Larissa Breedlove is a writer and mental health advocate. She has written openly about her experience with mental health issues, including a panic disorder. She currently lives in New York City with her husband and their cat. She has spoken publicly about managing mental health issues in the workplace and enjoys travel and the arts. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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