The Longest Day
Throughout the ages, man has shown a penchant for tradition. I find it true in my own short history. A party is thrown, a significant event is celebrated, observance is made on a special day. Before long, a tradition is born.
Last week, my family kept a tradition which we’ve supported for nearly twenty years. On June 20th, we drive up into Glacier Park to have a picnic with a group of friends. The group varies from year to year. Some years it is a small gathering of veteran longest day celebrators. Other times newcomers fill the ranks. At this informal gathering, we celebrate summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Stretching from sunrise before 5am and lingering until nearly 11 pm, the day is certainly a long one.
Quite unintentionally, we started off with a long wait this year. Some of us arrived rather early, and waited a good while for other parties. This, however, gave ample time to wander around taking in the serenity of Avalanche creek, the old growth cedars, and a nap on a picnic table.
The next long part of our celebration was a sandwich. Because it’s the longest day of the year, we try to make everything – except faces – long.
Long sandwiches provided the centerpiece of longest day picnics for years. To achieve maximum length, we even baked bread diagonally in our oven. But a few celebrations back, my brother and I decided to outdo the sandwiches. Ninety or so marshmallows and a gallon of rice krispies will make a cookie eight feet long. For the smaller members of the party, these enormous cookies are always awe inspiring.
After eating, we take a drive. On good years, we turn left. On bad years, we turn right. When I was a little tyke, right turns were unheard of, but shifting seasons and road construction have changed that. The Going to the Sun Road, which crosses the Continental Divide and connects Glacier’s eastern and western halves, remains under snow from late October until late June or even early July. In recent years, heavy snow and late springs have prevented road clearing crews from opening the road by the longest day of the year. Those are the right turn years when we have to go home after the picnic. This year, however, the Going to the Sun Road opened on June 19th, free from the 80 foot snow drifts which had buried it for many months. We turned left.
Describing a trip up the road would be a story in itself. Literally blasted out of a mountainside, the road is a thin asphalt ribbon stretched tenuously across the northern rockies. Having lived with Glacier “in my back yard” all my life, I sometimes grow complacent about the grandeur of the nearby mountains. A drive over the Going to the sun road fixes that. You think those mountains look tall from the bottom? Try driving half way up. The slopes below are ridiculously steep, but the steep part is all above you. Furthermore, the lanes are narrow. With a tire on the double yellow centerline, the cliff on the uphill side of the road still threatens to shave your car’s mirror off. Stand on the knee-high rock wall bordering the downhill lane and you could practically spit into MacDonald creek, some two thousand feet below.
Drawing near Logan Pass, spring foliage gave way to snow. Sculpted by harsh sun, topped with a layer of pine needles and debris, red from algae growth in places, it looked tired and haggard. With each consecutive switchback and curve, the snow grew deeper. A large brown sign read “Logan Pass – Elevation 6647.” At the head of the parking lot, steep wood shingled roof angles of the visitor center poked out of snowpack, like a small child peeking its head from a deep layer of bubbles in a bathtub. Where the Hidden Lake overlook boardwalk should have been, stakes pounded into the snow marked a path.
Upon arrival at the pass, we demolished another three feet of the long cookie and took a walk up the snowfields. I dragged my skis up with me, and made a couple short runs down the rolling snowfields. Sunlight lingered, icy cirrus clouds decorated the sky above. After a great while, it began to feel like evening. Ah yes, it was after 10 pm. By eleven, most of the light had faded. Time to head home for the shortest night of the year.