Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Day 29 – Glacier to Great Falls

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!

If you’re beginning to wonder if Jim and I are for real, I don’t blame you. We sure sound happy, don’t we? I’ve called him a saint. It’s obvious we like each other and we still have fun together, even though by this point in the trip we’d spent nearly every moment – together. And not just together. TOGETHER. With the exception of our time in Spokane when we had family distractions, it had been 28 days of just the two of us. Jim and me. Noooobody else. All day. All night. Four weeks. And for much of that, we were together in a metal box with nowhere to go.

Did we fight? No. Yes. Sort of.

There were moments, especially in the beginning of the trip, when we’d get on each other’s nerves. We were already stressed because we’d packed up our lives; what we didn’t put into storage we took with us. Money was a factor. As entrepreneurs, we had the freedom to get up and go, but we couldn’t actively pursue revenue, and we had to watch every expense. That’s why we camped so frequently, ate trail mix and nut butter wraps for lunch, took advantage of $6.99 pizza nights, and sometimes stayed in crappy motels. Fortunately, we had no rent or mortgage, but that also meant we had no home and we didn’t know how long it would take to find one.

Frankly, I’m amazed by us. We survived by knowing when to shut up, by choosing our battles wisely, and by reminding ourselves (frequently) what an incredible opportunity this was. For the most part, all was quiet on our western front. And then, on the 29th day…

We pulled into the parking lot for Apgar Visitor Center and suddenly we were sniping at each other and I was slamming Jeannie the Jeep’s door and stomping off and sitting on a bench and glaring at all the happy people enjoying their day in this incredible place. Jim was off doing something else, most likely also glaring and silently fuming. But at some point, both of us realized that we could not do this. We would not do this. How often would we get to experience Glacier National Park? Neither one of us wanted to taint that memory with bitterness and anger, so we found each other and apologized.

Sometimes, it’s that simple.

Tiff over, we resumed our journey with a little less tension. Before our mini-blow-up we didn’t even realize we had been tense, but afterwards, we felt lighter. I’m not advising that anyone argue just to argue, but when you’ve been on your absolute best behavior for nearly a month, sometimes a slammed door and a “Well, yeah? You did THIS!” can help let off some steam. It did for us, anyway, and we got back on the Going-to-the-Sun Road with a renewed sense of calm. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that we were in an International Peace Park.

Glacier National Park shares a border with Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. Like state borders, nature doesn’t follow international divisions, so in 1931, members of Rotary International from Alberta and Montana proposed that the parks be united. The service-based club was fairly new, originating in Chicago in 1905, and 26 years later had spread to multiple chapters around the world. In 1932, the Rotarians’ efforts succeeded and the two national parks joined to become Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Well, technically they’re joined, but they’re also still individual national parks and you need a passport to go from one to the other.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

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View from Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park
Going-to-the-Sun Road
St. Mary's Lake in Glacier National Park
St. Mary's Lake in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park

We didn’t make it far enough north to meet our neighbor park. Our destination that night was Great Falls, Montana, so we drove straight through Glacier. “Straight” isn’t accurate in the slightest. Although there’s only one switchback, Going-to-the-Sun follows the curves and slopes of the Rocky Mountains as the road cuts from west to east. Like Needles, Beartooth, and Columbia River Highways, this was another phenomenal feat of engineering from the early 20th century. When we looked across the valleys and tried to pick out the narrow two-lane it practically blended into the scenery. Construction of the road took twenty years and three million dollars, and its completion in 1933 was heralded with speeches, music, and a performance of the Star Spangled Banner by the Blackfeet Tribal Band. We marveled at the road’s excellent condition, especially considering the extreme weather it endures, as well as the number of vehicles that travel its length during a short time span each year.

The road served as a counterpoint to the riotous beauty that surrounded us. We stopped multiple times. When we crossed Logan Pass we noticed a bizarre cloud formation. It was smooth and flat: dark blue tinged with purple in the distance, a line of white like a toothpick had been dragged through it in the middle, and the colors faded to white and feathered into the blue above us. It looked ominous and freaky, especially with the sharp black mountains and the deep green forest.

And we were driving towards it.

We kept going and the sun held. We saw what remained of Jackson Glacier, the teal of St. Mary’s Lake, and the peaks of St. Mary Visitor Center before driving onto the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and under the clouds.

Those clouds might have looked like harbingers of doom, but once we were under them they made for just another gray day. It didn’t even rain.

Four hours after leaving Glacier we pulled into the O’Haire Motor Inn. This motel was our sole reason for visiting Great Falls. Why?

Mermaids.

The O’Haire Motor Inn has a bar, and that bar is called the Sip-nDip Lounge, and it’s called the Sip-n-Dip because you can see into the motel pool while you’re sitting at the bar. The lounge opened in 1962 during the height of the tiki bar craze, and while most of those bars sank, the Sip-n-Dip stayed afloat. Why? Who knows? It could have been the appeal of bamboo decor and tropical drinks in a place known for thunderstorms and long, cold winters. It might be because of Piano Pat, a legend who’s been crooning in her distinctive, ahem, style, at the lounge since 1963.

Since the mid-90s, it might be because of the mermaids. Up until that time, bar patrons might be treated to the sight of motel guests doing laps or swimming in their floaties. But then bar manager Sandra Johnson-Thares included a mermaid in one year’s New Year’s Eve festivities; once you’ve had mermaids in Montana, there’s no going back.

Mermaid at Sip-n-Dip bar at O'Haire Motor Inn

It’s kitschy, sure, but it works. I mean, we went to Great Falls, Montana, and I booked a room at the O’Haire Motor Inn just so we could sit at the bar and wave to mermaids.

I always did like dive bars.

(You just groaned, didn’t you?)

At first one lady bobbed behind the glass. She’d wave at the people lined up at the bar sipping beers and fish bowls, and used hand signs to chat with a man who brought a mermaid puppet. After a bit she was joined by another woman in a fin, and the two tossed plastic fish, blew bubbles, and did other mermaid-type things.

The bar was packed when we arrived, but a couple of spots opened and we moved to the front row.  We ended up next to Cody, a man who visited Great Falls frequently for business. The three of us chatted while Piano Pat played Margaritaville and delivered “searching for my lost shaker of salt…salt…salt…” like a gravely spoken word poem. It was performance art defined. Cody told us about an Irish bar that offered its entire list of whiskeys and scotches for half-price on Wednesdays, and lo and behold, guess what day it was!

We sauntered a few blocks to the pub, sipped a pair of Balvenie 12-year Doublewood for $13 total. After overhearing someone say, “And they don’t allow goat traffic” (we had no idea what that meant, either), we decided to sashay back to the motel.

Would you like to read Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2 without ads? It’s available on Kindle and Paperback. (Paperback books purchased through the link below will be autographed.)

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