Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
Even though we were heading towards one of our most anticipated destinations, leaving Missoula was difficult. Jim hadn’t been back to his home town in quite some time, and I knew he wanted to see much more. But, we already had to make up time from our extended stay in Spokane. After a morning catching up on email and other work items, and a visit to the grocery store to pick up food for the next couple of days, we finally got on the road shortly after noon.
Sometimes when you’re traveling you come across a place exactly when you need it. That was our next stop, although it wasn’t immediately apparent.
Since we’d been on the road we’d seen little of the world except for what was right in front of us. Occasionally, like our waiting time at the Spokane Valley Firestone, we’d catch glimpses of atrocities. The rare times we checked social media we were inundated with people’s anger. Camping and the isolation it provided was peaceful; motels and their wifi meant we could check in, which made me immediately want to check out.
People are good. I believe this. Being on the road and consistently encountering kindness and smiles reinforces that belief. But after checking in that morning and witnessing intolerance spewed like bison’s offal, I needed some Zen.
North of Missoula is a place called Garden of 1000 Buddhas. It surprised Jim, not just because it didn’t exist when he lived in Montana, but also because it’s located near Arlee on the Flathead Indian Reservation. On most reservations, the land belongs to the sovereign nation. Flathead is different. The land belonged to the tribes after the 1855 Treaty of Hellgate, but in 1904, the U.S. Congress decided that whatever acreage wasn’t specifically allotted to tribal members could be divvied up among homesteaders. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai, the tribal residents of Flathead, were given first choice of 80- and 160-acre plots and the rest was opened up to non-natives.
That’s how a Buddhist monk came to purchase a sixty-acre sheep ranch in the middle of sacred lands. It could have been fodder for another clash of cultures, but the natives’ new neighbor was a Buddhist, and his goal for the new development was to spread world peace. Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama who envisioned the garden, made it clear to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that he knew he was their guest. Since the beginning, the tribes have participated in the garden’s annual peace festival in addition to other ceremonies.
We entered the International Peace Garden through a grand gate that had been erected the year before. As I was crossing to the sidewalk from the parking area, a dusty gold Subaru sped so close to me I jumped, and it kicked up gravel as it raced towards the handicap spot. The car didn’t have disabled plates, and as the woman exited and walked quickly towards the garden, I had to remind myself where we were.
Deep breaths, I told myself. “That lady obviously needs this place more than I do,” I grumbled.
The Garden of 1000 Buddhas is peace in a valley. Whether you’re Buddhist or not, all are welcome. A row of large charcoal gray monuments topped with spires, called stupas, paralleled the gravel road. We noticed there were gold carvings inside cavities in the sculptures.
Smaller white stupas topped a wall that encircled a large figure atop a pedestal. The statue was of Yum Chenmo, who represents Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom. She’s depicted as a woman because that wisdom is the mother of all Buddhas. Eight spokes of white radiated from the center, and each spoke was topped with 125 Buddhas, fulfilling the garden’s name.
We walked around the dharma wheel, as it’s called, and read quotes etched into boulders. We passed more sculptures and stopped at a pond decorated with tall grasses and colorful flowers. In the distance, prayer flags flapped atop a hill.
As we left, we encountered a woman with two young girls, one of whom strutted her style with an outfit of cowboy boots, a long skirt, and a sequined top. All three smiled and moved off the path to make sure they weren’t blocking our photos. We smiled back and thanked them, and then walked back to Jeannie the Jeep.
Anger on the way in; kindness on the way out. Gee, Garden, could you get any more obvious?
At some point we’d get to Glacier National Park, but first we had to stop at the National Bison Range. As we neared the refuge, the distant snow-covered peaks disappeared behind mounds that looked like the sandhills of Nebraska. Right before we turned into the range, a lone bison stood atop one of those hills like a sentinel. We entered the park and could see the cragged mountains again. We were so close! But, when there’s a National Bison Range on the way, and bison have dogged most of your trip, you go.
We drove slowly around the grasslands. The thing about wildlife refuges is that you’re never guaranteed to actually see any wild animals. The whole idea is to give them room to roam. This range is home to a herd of between 325 and 350 bison, and we saw two or three and a couple of deer. That’s OK, though. Those animals weren’t there for our entertainment. Teddy Roosevelt set up the National Bison Range in 1908 to protect his beloved mammal, and more than a century later, it still does.
Glacier, here we come! It was nearly six o’clock when we drove through the gates, but I wasn’t worried about securing a campsite. I’d been keeping an eye on the park’s website, when I had access, and could see that Apgar Campground hadn’t been filling up. Besides, it was a Monday, and for Glacier it was still fairly early in the season. In fact, we found out the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the major thoroughfare through the park, had only opened that past Saturday. Once again, our timing and luck held.
We picked out our site and while Jim set up our tent I rode my bike to the payment station. When I got back we drove to Apgar Village for some firewood and frosty treats. They’d sold out of huckleberry, but that was OK. Ice cream was ice cream in Montana. We strolled to the south shore of Lake McDonald and I licked my mint chocolate chip and said, “I feel like I’m home.”
Frosty treats, clean mountain air, pine tree-cloaked slopes, a red boat bobbing in the clear blue water and sharp black peaks in the distance. What more could a gal want?
Back at the site, Jim started a fire and I made dinner. We ate around nine, the sun set at ten and soon, we slept.