I said yesterday that this place, the small village outside the west entrance to Glacier National Park, “felt to me like the same West Glacier.” And it does. The essence of the locale is defined by its grand setting, and that’s forever.
But the character of the concessions that dominate the village has changed. There’s a reason for that.
When I worked here, the West Glacier Mercantile Company and much of the surrounding land were owned by the Lundgrens. Everett and Margaret bought it in 1946 and, for 68 years, the family worked hard to preserve the welcoming nature of the village.
Ev Lundgren died in 2012 and Margaret six years later, both at the age of 95. Their only son, Bob, for whom I worked directly in 1978, passed away in 2015 at 64 (the age I am now). The Merc and most of the Lundgrens’ real estate was sold in 2014 to a privately held tourism conglomerate known as “Pursuit Glacier Park Collection.”
Long-time locals and visitors who came to know West Glacier as a warm, abiding place are none too happy about how Pursuit has californicated it.
The concessions’ facades are, for the most part, just as I remember them. Behind the doors, however, it’s a different story — a turn-and-burn atmosphere that feels nothing like what the Lundgrens strove to create and maintain.
“Pandemic theater” is inescapable. (Keep in mind that this is outside the national park’s federal jurisdiction.) And the prices charged are obscene.
The RV park where we’re staying is one of the Pursuit holdings. It’s relatively new, carefully managed and chock-full of amenities (both on-site and affiliated), so functionally we have no complaints. The surroundings, of course, are spectacular. The rates, however, are outrageous, necessitating a much shorter stay than we’d like.
This campground also happens to be situated on land where, back in ’78, I enjoyed the kindness of another local family. My friends and I would saddle a few of their horses and take moonlight rides along the Middle Fork downstream from the village, right here where Ernie’s now parked.
Nothing stays the same. I know that. Some of the changes I’ve seen, including a few that Pursuit has engineered, are good ones. My perspective simply has me wishing for a little more of the Lundgrens’ personal touch.
When the sun cleared the mountains this morning, we didn’t exactly grab the day by the throat, at least not right away. We crept up on it slowly — enjoying the chill in the air, having another cup of coffee, taking showers, giving Scout and Dipstick some TLC before boarding the Jeep and driving into West Glacier to pick up a few supplies.
We were thrilled to see that there was no line at the entrance to Glacier National Park today. (They shut down entry yesterday shortly after noon.) Apparently most of the Labor Day crowd has left. We breezed right through and drove straight to Apgar Village at the foot of Lake McDonald.
The view from Apgar is one of the most picturesque imaginable, at least on a clear day. Today was anything but — wildfire smoke from the west almost completely blotted out the mountains at the north end of the lake. We didn’t mind, though, sitting in the glacial gravel on the southern shore and taking in the scene.
Apgar’s collection of small shops drew our attention next, quaint little merchants slightly less polished than their counterparts in West Glacier. We relaxed on the deck at well-known Eddie’s Café, sipping Bloody Marys before the clock struck noon.
On a whim, and having seen a road sign on our way into Apgar, we left via the Camas Road, a wonderful piece of highway that bends toward the park’s western boundary. Construction first delayed us and then had us following a “pilot truck” that guided us over a particularly torn-up stretch.
Once out of the park, we turned up the North Fork Road. This was one of my favorite passages when I worked here — almost all of it’s gravel and hard-packed dirt, twisting and climbing through wooded mountains just west of the Continental Divide before winding back down toward the Flathead River.
They water the road daily to keep the dust down, so if you’re keeping track, Mercy’s bath lasted exactly two days. Our bright-orange Jeep is now splattered with Montana mud.
Twenty-five miles after leaving Apgar Village, we reached our destination — the funky settlement of Polebridge, Montana, founded in 1914 and dedicated to “keeping it real.” There’s the Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery, the Northern Lights Saloon and that’s pretty much it. The place exists entirely off the grid, powered by solar, generators and hauled-in propane.
No cell service, practically speaking. One land line. No WiFi.
Polebridge is the sort of place you go intentionally. You don’t pass by this high-country hamlet on your way to somewhere else (unless you’re crossing into Canada, 22 miles to the north, at a backwoods border station). Historically it’s been home to hippies, mountain men, smoke jumpers, lumberjacks and misfits, people committed to living their life, their way.
The Polebridge Merc is famous for its food, especially its fresh-baked bread and pastries. Deb had a slice of pepperoni pizza. I had a massive ham-and-cheese sandwich on a roll stuffed full of peppers and onions and who-knows-what. We ate outdoors, savoring the meal, accommodating the free-ranging chicken that walked under our table, watching the handful of people that intentionally stopped by the odd community today.
The ride back to “civilization” was just as scenic and just as teeth-rattling as the drive up. We stopped by our campsite briefly, then drove west on US Route 2 to the town of Coram, where I meant to re-kindle another four-decade-old memory.
During the summer of 1978, after a day of pumping gas and slinging tires at the West Glacier Chevron, often I’d either walk across the street and have dinner at the West Glacier Café (where we ate last night), or I’d jump into my Ford Bronco and drive eight miles west to a friendly little bar called “Packer’s Roost.”
And it’s still there.
It’s a grimy little place, honestly, and pretty rough, but the beer’s cold and the food’s good and (in this part of the country) it’s affordable. For old times’ sake, Deb and I each had a half-pound burger and a pint of Dirt Church Hazy IPA produced by Bitter Root Brewing in Hamilton, Montana.
We came back to Ernie and watched a brilliant sunset. As darkness swept over the mountains, a gentle rain started falling.
Right now, as a bedtime snack, I’m eating the fresh huckleberry “bear claw” I bought at the Polebridge Mercantile. It might just be the best pastry I’ve ever had.
This was the kind of day we didn’t want to end — full of spontaneity and adventure and surprise after surprise — and yet we can hardly wait to see what tomorrow holds for us.
Take care of yourselves, Patriots. Stay calm. Stay sharp. Stay free.