Seeking the Sublime…
Part One – Romance and Tragedy in Glacier National Park...
The scene where the story begins is high on an ocean cliff within the dungeon-like confines of a fine Newport, Rhode Island estate. An opulent wedding is taking place and we are catering it. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to read chapter one if you care to…
I was overjoyed, free, living out of my truck on the road. My destination was Glacier National Park.
Chapter One: Sunlight
“Swanbeck, get me the Caesar dressing. C’mon, let’s go, right now.” Chef Mark barked the order over the noise of busy kitchen. It was a frantic day and I ran across the polished stone floors, passed the flights of copper pans above the gleaming range, and into the walk-in cooler. Moments passed as I stood there in my chef whites scanning the shelf full of gourmet sauces and dressings. No leftover Caesar, time to use the fresh batch. I took a breath. The cool of the fridge felt liberating from the August kitchen.
It was wedding day in Newport just like every other summer day. Outside, the sprawling lawn of the cliff walk estate was adorned with the traditional setup. The gazebo was draped in elegant silks. The vases were filled with white roses and stargazer lilies. The string quartet bowed a melodious vibrato beside the ice sculptures and the sailboat regatta drifted in the view offshore. Today I was tasked with keeping the raw bar stocked full with shucked oysters, but I also had to help plate-up dinner for the three hundred person wedding. It was an extravagant affair, (the down payment alone was $100,000). Two tennis playing celebrities were being wed. These high society types love to get married, and each wedding must be bigger and more glamorous to compete with the last.
I hate it here. They tell me this is a good job, though the pay is low. They can say it through a straight face even as I feel it sucking out my soul. This was my second wedding for the day on top of working lunch and my shift was dragging into its eleventh hour as the sun fell low on the horizon. I saw people out through the dining room windows pulling kayaks to the beach. How I would’ve loved to be outside playing in the spray or rolling on the waves. This cliff top mansion had been trampling me for a year and a half and I needed to get out.
I had made the batch of Caesar dressing earlier in the day and left it on the top shelf in a two gallon, square, plastic container. It was slightly greasy from a residue of garlic oil. When I reached up high to grab it, it slipped smoothly through my grip. The red lid popped off as it passed my fingers and the container landed miraculously right-side-up on the floor. However, I was not saved. The force of the great fall was enough to propel the Caesar dressing upward from its vessel, catapulting it to paint the ceiling, myself, and all the food on the shelves creamy white. I smeared the dressing out of my bloodshot eyes onto my already greasy face. I wiped myself with my rag.
Quickly now, I scraped and gathered what was left of the dressing down the sides of the container with my hands, grabbed the jars of mayonnaise and crème fraiche, and threw in a few handfuls to make more dressing on the fly. I whipped it all up, and wiped the container down as best as possible to present to Chef Mark. Hopefully he doesn’t notice or at least pretends not to. I left the incredible mess, hoping no one in charge walks in here until I return and slyly clean it up. With any luck I might get away with it.
I sat outside and snuck a cigarette as I watched the moon rise over the rippling ocean. I still had work to do, and was feeling gloomy. I looked out over the sea trapped behind the wrought iron bars of the estate. I had realized for a while that this career was not agreeing with me, to become a gourmet chef like miserable Chef Mark. I felt the call of the mountains, and I yearned for the wilderness. At some point during my time living in Rhode Island, I started planning my escape from the city by the sea.
* * *
I woke up in the back of my truck to bright sunlight. The first thought to enter my mind was a startling, “Where am I?!” This phenomenon occurs occasionally when you’re travelling constantly to new places. Quickly memories of yesterday return. I laid peacefully in my comfy bed inside the truck cap. Living on the road these days and I have no worries. I woke up happy to see the sun. I realized, I’m in my bed but my bed’s in a different spot each night. What a grand adventure this is! I had been driving across the continent everyday further from New England for two weeks and by now had covered a lot of distance.
The cars were roaring past me on the shoulder of highway 93 through Montana but I didn’t care. The sun was out. I was planning a kayak expedition this morning to Wildhorse Island, a couple miles offshore in Flathead Lake. I had driven eight hours north the previous day, leaving a rainy week in Yellowstone behind to finally arrive here. I was in northern Montana, my destination.
I turned the ignition and headed out. Looks like I slept on the edge of someone’s lawn. The spot was not well chosen but it didn’t matter now. I already had gotten away with it. I went to find a good place to launch my boat.
On the island I was completely at peace. I wandered around for hours as if in a trance. Slowly, lazily, I hiked, enjoying the simple pleasure of being alive. The country was spacious and green, humid and lush. Today was the first of June and the vibrantly colorful wildflowers rustled through the sloping prairies with the wind. The island was made up of rolling hills, the largest one jutting up to a lofty apex at the eastern end. I can’t help but to usually walk uphill, climbing has always been in my nature.
At the island’s summit I sat in thought for a long time. Before me, across the lake, lay the wild and jagged teeth of the continental divide. Distorted by the distance, they held a blue aura around them. The mountains were crystals glowing blue of springtime ice in contrast to the green countryside. Known to the natives as the Backbone of the World, this was Glacier National Park. This was the first time I saw it and I could see it was an awesome place. I had found a job on the internet working as a cook at the Many Glacier Hotel. I would live on the property and cook for four months.
For the past year and a half I had been living with my father on his sailboat docked in a quiet marsh. We were happy sharing the thirty four foot space of it, and since we worked opposite shifts I was often alone. Dad’s an ocean man, committed completely to his life on the water, but I was leaving him and the coast for a while to explore the land.
First step was to leave Rhode Island. I bought myself a truck, put a cap on the back, built a bed in it, and drove west. Living in a society which felt so out of touch with nature was not agreeing with me. I decided I’d rather go off to join the forest creatures than continue my life in the city, so I left. I found my escape out in the great wilderness of Western America. During the two weeks on the westbound road I saw vast and untamed places. The dry, vacant, brutal land. The spacious places where you squint your eyes to see some critter you’re hunting after as you trek through unforgiving plains. Places where you live by your wits, outdoors, battling the unforgiving elements. Places where you are free.
I found the job at Glacier Park so I could save money before travelling further to parts unknown. I would also have a home waiting for me in the wilderness, and after two weeks on the road I felt like I could really use a shower. It rained in Yellowstone for five days until everything in the back of the truck was completely soaked (it leaks) and I was reduced to crying myself to sleep one morning sitting in the driver’s seat. The traveler’s life can be rough sometimes, but once the sun finally showed itself at the end of the rainy week my spirit came back strong.
I strapped my 17 foot long red kayak onto the top of my truck with a tangled web of straps holding it secure. I developed the system in wind ravaged Kansas where the unwieldy boat constantly threatened to blow off my truck and onto the highway. I headed out and drove through the town of Kalispell. Highway 2 took me along the Flathead River, over Marias Pass and to the east side of the Continental Divide. These mountains are known as the Lewis Range. The Many Glacier hotel was a remote place, still a three hour drive into the mountains from Kalispell which was the nearest large town. Today, my destination would be the small town of East Glacier.
There was a noticeable change in the countryside on the eastern slopes of the range. Out here was wilderness, a vacant landscape. On the western side there had been farms, small towns and rolling foothills. Here, untrailed forests patched the slopes meeting bare grass where the mountains dropped to the endless plains. This empty grassland was to be my front yard, and these wild, snowcapped, mountains my backyard. The plains looked lonely, desolate, and the mountains, cold, wet and clean. It was the middle of nowhere, or possibly it was the center of everything.
I was amazed after driving so long to finally be in the ramshackle town of East Glacier. The town wasn’t much more than one road with a couple breakfast places and a train station. A small strip, the style of the west, but a winding road left the main highway and snaked off into the forest heading towards Glacier National Park. Set back behind the town was the historic East Glacier Hotel. This is the hotel where I would attend a job orientation in a couple days, but not the hotel where I would be working.
I wandered around the grand old place and played the piano. I was just exploring though, not planning to stay there for the night. My truck was my hotel on wheels. I met a bubbly girl named Angela who would become my co-worker at the Many Glacier hotel. She was full of life and excited to be there.
“I’m from Cincinnati but not anymore! Screw Cincinnati, I’m from here now!” she had a loud happy voice and talked like she was cheerleading.
“Yeah, well I suppose I am too. This place looks pretty amazing. I’ve actually been on the road for thirteen days to get here, driving all through the Rockies and I think this area is my favorite part so far,” I said awkwardly. I was shy talking to a pretty girl after being alone for so long, and I knew I didn’t smell very good. I had to say goodbye, hoping we would meet again.
My road trip was coming to an end and I didn’t know what the next phase of my life would be like. I knew I was going to meet a lot of people and was excited about it. I enjoyed being alone while living on the sailboat, but a part of me here in Montana was yearning for social contact. The human resource guy who hired me over the phone had said, “This is going to be the best summer of your life.”
“I’m from here now” I thought while driving down the road. I passed a good looking bakery and public showers, noting these important landmarks. Not far from those, I came upon a four wheel dirt track leading down a hill, through a puddle, around a corner, and stopping a short ways into the woods. This spot was right beside the Two Medicine River, flowing swift and strong. It was cloudy turquoise with sediment called ‘glacial flour,’ telling of the river’s glacial source. There was a fire pit and not one ‘no camping’ sign to stop me. There was also a bag of garbage.
Except for the garbage, which seemed like it could attract bears, this was the perfect spot. It was close to town, close to the park, private and with a water source. My home put there before me for the next three days and four nights until the job started. I was grateful. Living in my truck, down by the Two Medicine River, I couldn’t have been happier. I laid in bed after a glorious sunset on the clouds, reading my book and writing in my journal about this beautiful day.