Day 21: Helena, MT to West Glacier, MT

Saturday, September 19

On many of the days I was alone I listened to chapters from Le Grand Meaulnes, a coming-of-age novel much beloved in France, that Andy had recorded for me. He’d started reading it to me during his leg of the trip, and I found it so charming that I asked him to keep going.

The book’s most enchanting scene comes when Augustin Meaulnes, a magnetic, strong-willed teenager, leaves school on an errand, gets lost, and discovers an old manor house full of children preparing for an engagement party. He sneaks into the house. Everyone assumes he is a guest at the fête and welcomes him with kindness. “There was no one there with whom Meaulnes did not feel safe and at ease.” The party spreads over many rooms; Meaulnes, dazzled, opens doors to dancing and magic-lantern shows and masqueraders, finally finding himself in a quiet room with a beautiful girl playing the piano. The scene is dreamlike and magical, written with a gentle power that makes me believe it lives in my own memory.

Stay with me. I’d received an email a few days back that encouraged me to arrive early at my home for the weekend, a historic hotel called Belton Chalet (Tagline: “The way it was still is”—say no more, Belton, I’m all yours), because the driveway would be closing at 3 p.m. for a wedding that evening. With Le Grand Meaulnes and my imagined version of what a place called Belton Chalet would be like in mind, I had packed a silk dress in my weekender, because one never knows. I conjured a vivid picture of the chalet on the night of the wedding: rustic exterior glowing in twilight, air tinted with burning leaves, low-ceilinged rooms with stone walls lit dimly with lanterns, attractive and mysterious people having attractive and mysterious conversations, sounds of music and glass, everything expectant. Maybe there would be a room with a piano.

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There would be one in the lobby, anyway (Photo: Belton Chalet)

First, though, I had to get there. It would be another long drive, and I worried that somehow closing the driveway at 3 p.m. actually meant closing it at 2:30, so I planned to leave Helena as early as possible.

Arriving in the bright, enclosed porch for breakfast at my B&B I met a couple in their sixties enjoying their meal. It’s more than clear to you by now, I’m sure, that I was not in any way “roughing it” on this trip. On Beth’s Bourgeois Adventure nearly all rough going was exclusively internal. I might revisit this topic later in an effort to soften some shame, but for now, my point is that I often found myself among people my parents’ age. If there was anyone else of my generation doing a similar journey at a similar time, I figured they were doing it some other, cooler way, part of a private club of young(ish) people who know how to travel solo. There’s probably an app for it and it’s probably just on iOS.

The man asked me about myself. He and his wife were plump and pleasant and seemed like happy people. Two more couples in their sixties arrived to breakfast, and I talked more about the trip and where I’d been. I perceived that they all looked on me as the interesting young lady doing an interesting thing, an unusual sensation. I’m generally the one being interested in others; it isn’t natural for me to have a room’s attention. And while, when things like this happened, I always found myself surprisingly comfortable in the moment, I usually came away feeling like I’d sounded arrogant and full of myself, that I’d been abrasively confident and ultimately off-putting.

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Food-wise, this was hands down the best breakfast of the trip. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten dinner the night before, but I think it was mostly that the food was just very, very good. The eggs in particular were excellent; they were creamy and buttery and peppery and I would like to learn how to make eggs that way. (Yeah, I know, maybe with cream and butter and pepper. And love.)

Soon enough the conversation turned away from me and toward the others. I joined in for a bit, but with my meal finished, I itched to get on the road. Just as I was about to make a graceful exit, Catherine, the owner of the B&B, walked in and sat down at my table. Catherine was fiftysomething, with very straight, bleached blonde hair and expensive yoga clothes. She was affable but looked at people intensely, almost coldly, as though she wanted something no one would be able to give her. That sounds sexual but I don’t mean it that way. She just seemed complex. She asked everyone where they were from and discovered that the nice plump man was born in the same small Montana town as her father, speculating that the same doctor might have delivered both of them. She talked about her obsession with antique stores and brought in a beautiful chair she’d found for ten dollars to show off. One of the women joked that she’d buy it for twenty, and a cute and annoying fake argument ensued, a joke that wouldn’t end. I noticed I was the only person not laughing, though I’m not sure that everyone else actually found it funny.

When Catherine found out that I was traveling up to Glacier National Park, she made me tell her my route to make sure I wasn’t taking back roads because it had recently snowed in the mountains. She told me to be careful.

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From a rest stop off of I-90

The drive was dull at first, but once I entered the Flathead Reservation, Montana came through with its beauty again. I drove along the length of Flathead Lake, water glittering to my left and trees foresting to my right. A yellow Jeep was ahead of me, sticking rigidly to the 50 mile-per-hour speed limit. I began to feel self righteous on behalf of the Jeep when cars started piling up behind me. “Look, guys, he’s going the speed limit, it’s good for all of us. It’s a twisty road!” At one point a Mercedes carrying two good-looking youngsters zoomed recklessly past us and narrowly escaped a head-on collision. So it goes on two-lane mountain roads.

I haven’t yet mentioned my health because it’s not at the fore of my memory of the day. But I was not well. At breakfast I drank too much coffee in an effort to appease my sore throat. When I took the lame motel photo above I felt particularly lousy, a bit feverish, wishing I could go back to bed. But driving was a nice distraction. I filled up with Advil and sat in my car and thought thoughts, mostly about immediate things—other cars, roads, mountains, cozy chalets—and time passed quickly.

At exactly 2:30 I drove up Belton Chalet’s steep and still-open driveway, taking the last spot in the lot. My heart surged at the sight of the building—it was as romantically rustic as I’d hoped. And the air did smell like burning leaves.

But when I checked in I immediately realized I would not be having a Meaulnes moment. Large, loud women in spaghetti-strapped babydoll dresses and cowboy boots leaned inelegantly on the porch railing, wandered into the lobby and out again, all of them buzzed on pre-game cans of Bud Light. I could tell they were guests of the wedding because they acted like they owned the place. I smiled at how un-French—how gauche—a scene it was.

When you have nothing at stake it can be delightful to learn how colossally inaccurate your premonitions turn out to be.

My room was perfect, though, and I’ll tell you more about it in the next post. I napped lightly, rousing when I heard the wedding getting started, then walked down to the tap room for dinner.

The bartender was chatty. He complained about the wedding guests coming in to get drunk and not tipping. We talked about Glacier National Park and about Montana in general. I told him I kept noticing white crosses on the side of the road and mentioned how odd and grim it seemed. Later I read about the Fatality Marker Safety Program, which posts the crosses to mark spots where someone died in a motor vehicle accident, in an effort to discourage drunk driving. Sometimes I would see a cross off to the side of an innocuous-seeming straightaway and think, “How could that one have possibly happened?” There were just so many of them. They’ve been adding up since 1952.

The bartender’s friend led hiking tours in the summer and worked as a chef in the winter. He answered my questions but didn’t seem particularly in the mood to talk, at least to me. As he was leaving he told me I should walk over to another hotel bar because it was their last night of the season and the scene was sure to be wild. But I’d had three beers and was coughing incessantly and knew I’d just want to get out of there as soon as I got in.

So I retired, no weddings or hotel parties crashed. I felt like I was in exactly the right place. I felt content.

Hotel Art of the Day

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Reeling the Nets
Robert Von Neumann
Wood engraving, 6″ x 5″
Belton Chalet, West Glacier, MT

Hotel Art Score

9/10. I’m way into this. Robert von Neumann was born in 1888 in Rostock, Germany, a city close to where my sister-in-law Antje is from. He emigrated to Milwaukee in 1926 and spent his life teaching and making art in Wisconsin. More information about him here, more of his work here.

Art Art Score

8/10.

5 Comments

  • Brian

    As usual, I was really engrossed in your description of your day and particularly like your descriptions of the things you say to yourself, e.g. “Look, guys, he’s going the speed limit, it’s good for all of us. It’s a twisty road!” I’m always a little sad when you end a post, but then realize I have the next day’s blog and pics to look forward to. Thanks!

  • Laura

    There is something more magical about these posts being written long after the days were lived. It’s better this way. On the one hand, you’ve had more time to reflect, and in theory, you have more time to write (daily posting is inherently time-limited). And I love the addition of narrative lines such as: “And so began The Cough, a cough that has still not entirely disappeared fifty-four days later.” It’s actually kind of a lovely storytelling device. The foreshadow!

    • Beth

      Thanks, Laura! You’re right — it’s nice to have some distance and to be able to take as long as I want to write. Which might just mean that I’m still doing this in March. But who cares!

  • Maisie

    Beth, this is my first time commenting on your blogs. I always look forward to reading your posts because they make me smile. Thanks for sharing your experiences. You are the best!

    • Beth

      Thanks for commenting, Maisie! I didn’t know you were reading the blog. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying it!

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