MISSOULA, MONT. — Glacier National Park is melting, its sheets of ice predicted to vanish from the face of the earth by 2030. I’d known this for decades, and I did exactly nothing.
I’ve lived two hours south of the park for nearly 20 years. I’ve visited and camped there a number of times, and driven the fabled Going-to-the-Sun Road through some of the more spectacular mountain scenery on the planet. But I hadn’t in all that time managed the definitive Glacier experience, the one big item that loomed on my Montana bucket list: climb to and touch a remnant glacier, before such a thing is no longer possible.
The problem? Small children don’t exactly dovetail with high adventure. I wound up with two boys, one each from a pair of marriages, spaced five years apart. Which is another way of saying, no sooner did I get a set of hiking boots on Cole than Ethan outgrew the baby backpack, and the whole cycle of short-legged limiting factors began again.
But recently I realized I didn’t have that excuse anymore. Cole was somehow in high school, doing his own teenage thing, but 10-year-old Ethan had begged to go camping all season and I hadn’t made time once. I myself stared down the barrel of my mid-40s. I looked at Ethan, how tall he’d gotten, and saw in a flash that the glaciers in the hills weren’t getting any larger. So one day last month, the two of us gathered camping gear and headed north.
A day later we stood in the parking lot of Many Glacier Hotel, near the trailhead for Grinnell Glacier. We had six miles to go, with 1,600 feet of elevation gain. Though I doubted the kid had any relative sense of the climb ahead, he cinched the straps on his hydration pack like a pro and started walking.
I first came to Montana in part to escape family. I grew up the odd child out in a subculture of End Times-seeking evangelicals, the sort of caricatured souls who burned Beatles albums in the ’60s, who believe yet that the Earth is 6,000 years old. There are no halfway houses in that all-or-nothing world, no room for dissent or even idle curiosity.
But I was a reader, and privately a resister, from early on. A believer in the ice age and in the long arc of art that had its genesis there, a fan of nature and the Beatles both. Somewhere in my own youthful mythology, Big Sky Country came to seem like a personal frontier, a place where I might carve out a destiny free of the eternal disappointment of my kin.
I wished as well to be free of kids. I equated offspring with lumbering station wagons and church parking lots and Jell-O salads, and an otherwise parochial life. I wanted even then to run from all of it.
But the Earth turns the way it always has, and our intentions and fates and I guess our hearts just turn along with it. Two marriages. Two divorces. Two lanky, funny, fiery boys. I gave them leave to speak their minds a long time ago, a permission I never felt I had, and speak they do. If I’ve done anything right with my own kids, it’s probably that.
Ethan and I came out of the cool forest shade and started to climb, the long valley ahead of us ringed with striated walls, miles of pointed firs stretching into the distance. Impossibly blue lakes glimmered like mirrors down below. Fins of rock breached the sky above the tree line. Snow lingered in the high shade, but it was 85 in the sun. Perfect for an Indian summer hike, if probably indicative of why the glacier ahead lost nearly 80 percent of its acreage since 1850. We’d climbed to a point where we could see the runoff in Grinnell Falls, splashing and spilling in twin streams down hundreds of feet of vertical cliff. In the cirque behind the cliff’s rim, no longer visible from this vantage, lay the remains of the glacier. Ethan shed his thermal shirt, and I stopped often to turn and check on him as he hiked, uncomplaining, 30 or 50 yards behind me.
When my first wife left me I didn’t tell my parents for six full months, frozen in place by that old terror to disappoint, to bear bad tidings. Eventually they came to understand that it wasn’t my decision, and that I truly had tried everything within my power to keep things together.
A decade and more along, when I knew I couldn’t honestly or happily remain in my second marriage, I choked again on those same primordial fears. This time, I was the one who wanted to leave. I picked up the phone, and I forced my jaws to work, and I spilled it all.
My father listened, and he told me then that for years as an ordained minister he’d counseled struggling couples to stay in failing marriages, because that’s what was expected of him. “I’ve watched people stay in miserable situations for decades because of advice I gave them,” he said. “I don’t want that for you.”
A rift closed in that one conversation. I stepped off a cliff, and the world did not end.
Ethan and I stopped, just below the edge of the cirque. The breeze had cooled, and he put his shirt back on.
“Are you excited to see it?” I asked.
“Yes, Dad, for the 20th time … I’m excited to see the glacier.”
“Are you having fun?”
“Yes, Dad. I’m having fun.”
I knew he wouldn’t understand until he was older that we are here and gone, and the most painful losses we suffer are the days we don’t seize with the people we have no choice but to love.
We crested the rim and saw the milky blue pool of glacial melt, a long wedge of ice remaining at one end. We walked down, and touched the last of it.
Malcolm Brooks is the author of the novel “Painted Horses.”
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— Smelly Doofus, in response to "The War Over Airbnb Gets Personal"
— John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)