We came tumbling into Polebridge, Montana, on a road that was meant to keep us out, a kick-ass road, gravel and scabby pavement, flung down on the knees of the Apgar Mountains. Potholes and washboards — you can see it — the car sluing and shuddering. Nobody says, are we sure about this? But there it is.
We keep getting glimpses, through piling clouds, of the big boys to our east, the Livingston Range, all glaciers and late-June snowfall. Ah, a mailbox! Civilization! But what the hell . . . llamas in the road? One comes right up to the car and looks in. “Tourists,” it thinks, and the boys in the back get acquainted with a llama’s ridiculous dignity.
More mailboxes, glimpses of cabins hunkering down next to free-falling streams, and then we clear the trees to find Polebridge itself, the nethermost suburb of Heaven, if you can believe it, and do, because in Polebridge, Montana, archangels bake the rhubarb pie, the air is clean enough to be bottled and sold to the tortured souls in Atlanta and Dallas, and the North Fork of the Flathead will lead you past the pearly gates into the Genuine Uttermost.
Okay, let’s hurry past the dusty wood floors and shadowy corners of the two-story Polebridge Mercantile, the larger of the two commercial buildings in town, where you can get (among much else) maybe the best bread you’ve ever eaten for the price of a kind word, and let’s come back later to the squat building next door. We head northwest out of town into the Park, idle past the ranger at the entrance, who is thinking probably, “Should I go ahead and send somebody out for them now?”
We’re creeping over a track that makes the road into Polebridge look like virgin interstate. Bowman Creek to our right, we drive through a recent burn, but not so recent that we aren’t surrounded by the reds, yellows, and whites of Glacier’s first summer flowers. We’re looking for wildlife and seeing it right and left: a mule deer grazes the ridge rising along the river, and what’s that bird? Is that a bear or an old tree stump? Out of the burn now into forest, deeper still, Bowman Lake somewhere ahead.
Here! We stand with our toes lined up along the western end. The lake spreads out before us a ways, gets pinched by Numa Ridge on the north, Cerulean on the south, then opens again and runs flat out for the really high country. The snowy mountains at the far end — Rainbow, Carter, Thunderbird, Boulder, Peabody — come to meet it like grandparents to their favorite grandchild, holding out their arms.
Rain falls. In this gray and silent world, our world seems to fall away like some flimsy backdrop in a play you hate, and you almost have a vision of … the past? The future maybe? It’s a half-glimpse of the Primeval, of a continent massive with tree, rock, and water.
Rain falls on the lake. Settle down under a spruce. You want the silent rain, if only for a minute or two, or for as long as it will have you. As the silence draws in the evening around you, you feel rather than hear the bass-note hum of the mountains. It comes up from the ground and rides your spine into the stem of your brain, where it stirs dead memories of a world made fresh.
Rain falls on the lake, water to water, and other visions come, of your own past, of — such is the power of the place — people once loved and now gone. Will they never see this, or do they always? You reach out with your hand and grasp of course nothing, or better, everything, everything mysteriously there in a few drops of rain somehow sanctified.
We walk along Numa Ridge, hear the thunder of a snowstorm scouring Agassiz Glacier five thousand feet above us, and now we must leave, though it pains us. Down along the creek again, back through the meadow into the light, the rays of a westerly sun finding their way under the hindmost clouds of the storm behind us.
Polebridge is still there, the red walls of the Mercantile glowing crimson in the amber light that fills the valley. Next to the Mercantile we find the Northern Lights Saloon. Picture a modest cabin, windows opening onto a comfortable porch and flanking a doorway set off by the moose carved in the lower part of the screen door.
Go in. You see a half dozen tables and the expected bar, but more important, sniffing the air you detect . . . shrimp scampi over angel hair pasta? Aged beef seared to perfection, served with a salad of field greens and a side of pasta tossed with tomatoes and fresh herbs! Strawberry-and-rhubarb pie, chocolate cake!
Dinner ordered, you settle in with a pint of Wheatfish, bemused by the way the beer captures perfectly the hue of the Montana sky, by the coming and going of the boys (each wham! of the screen door presaging “Can I pet the horse outside?” or “He says we can come over to his swing set”), by the muscles in your neck and back as they slowly unknot.
Another pint deepens your reverie, and in it you have your final vision, a view not of the past or future, but of what might have been, that other life that waited and waited for you but finally moved on.
On the road back, you stop the car and stride out into the nearby field. Before you, above you, mountain and cloud, tree and wind.