Wild Places

The wind shapes us. Those words echoed through my head as I stood braced against the gusts of cold air that whipped my hair into a frenzy. I had driven up Looking Glass (Highway 49) to revisit the lay of the land.
It had been almost two years since I called this small Montana town home. 

To the west, I could see mountain peaks rising up out of Glacier National Park and the crystal expanse of Lower Two Medicine Lake glowing from the evening sunset. To the east lay the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the town of Browning, population just over 1,000. Straddling those two boundaries to the south, slightly hidden between the foothills, lay the small town of East Glacier.

With a population hovering around 400, it’s a town easily forgotten on most maps. Locked between the Two Medicine entrance of Glacier and a mile into the reservation boundary, there’s something distinctly Montanan about it. The town boasts a gas-station, diner, small grocery store, hostel, post office, bar, three restaurants, a national park lodge, and a stop on the Amtrak line that cuts through the middle of town. During summer months, the town swells with families of tourists, seasonal workers, wildland firefighters, and backpackers. 

Like most small towns near national parks, East Glacier’s income relies heavily on the tourism industry. In July 2017, Glacier reported a record-breaking one million tourists passed through their gates in the span of a month. With four park entrances, it’s doubtful East Glacier saw such a high number of tourists but there’s no denying the effects increased tourism have had on the town. 

The residents thrive on this opportunity. But the town draws an exhale of relief when summer comes to a close and the days shorten. During late fall and into spring, the town quiets. The gas station, diner, grocery store, and post office are the only open businesses. Even the Amtrak bypasses the East Glacier station in favor of a stop in Browning until spring returns. For many residents, the closing of Serrano’s Mexican Grill at the end of September, marks the true close of summer. This is the residents’ time now.

As brilliant as the summers in East Glacier are, the falls and winters are most memorable to me. 

When I asked DeeAnna Brady-Leader, a long-time resident and advisor with International Traditional Games, what set East Glacier apart, she answered with a story... Years past, a white-out made the 14 miles to Browning all but impassable. DeeAnna and her husband loaded up and followed a line of cars attempting to make the drive out. After almost 20 cars became stuck in the freezing, driving snow, an East Glacier resident drove his 4x4 and spent the next few hours rescuing those stranded. Elders first, of course.

As we stood beside the house built by her late husband, we listened to the wind through the golden aspens. With a small smile, she said, “The wind shapes us.”

Was it the landscape and weather alone that drew me back here? Was that the magic?

The unpredictability of the weather is something Joe Matt and his family have experienced for generations. They’ve worked cattle and leased land to ranchers in the area for generations. 

On one snowy October afternoon, they worked through driving wind and snow to move a herd from their summer high pasture down to a lower winter grazing area. I watched as cattle and calf were funneled off the ridgeline into a small valley with precision and care. With small dogs nipping at their heels, man and beast worked together. 

Noting the less-than-ideal conditions, I asked Joe why work today? “It was sunny and warm a week ago. It always seems to be crazy weather when we do this. A little wind and snow won’t stop what needs to be done though.”

Unable to withstand the biting wind any longer, I hopped in my car and headed back down Looking Glass pass. As I descended out of the mountains and into town, I rolled my windows down. The evening wind picked up loose snow, making invisible forces visible to the naked eye. The wind buffeted the conglomeration of old houses and trailers, skirting along the dirt streets, and howling through the Amtrak tunnel. The wind shapes us

The wind does leave a visible mark on the land. There’s no denying the harsh winters that make life here hard. Or the summer wildfires whipped into a frenzy by the winds off the mountain peaks. East Glacier holds the same pitfalls of any small mountain town, added to the history and tensions between the park service and the reservation.

But as I watch the warm glow filter out of Two Medicine Grill,
 I know what DeeAnna left unsaid.

It’s the people that shape this town, this land. The magic quality I sense was a strong sense of community. That’s what drove people out into the night to rescue neighbors and strangers. That’s what led ranchers to face harsh weather to care for cattle entrusted to them. 

As the wind whipped the snow into stinging points, drowning out the calls of the cattle herding around us, I had asked Joe why he considered this town special. Leaning against the holding pen, he looked out beyond the snow, the wind, and the men and women on horseback. He shrugged. “This land, it’s home.”