Although we could have done the hike to Avalanche Lake in a quick 3.5-hour round trip, that sort of defeated the purpose.
After all, this was Glacier National Park, one of the most remote and majestic places in the United States, in northern Montana along the Canadian border. It was my first visit and the first time hiking here for Clint, my friend and traveling companion for the day, and we were not likely to return anytime soon. Plus, after months of COVID-19 lockdown, being out in nature felt like a luxury to savor slowly, even on this gray June morning.
So we followed the Going-to-the-Sun Road and took our sweet time hiking, stopping to marvel at gushing ice-blue waterfalls; appreciate the dense forest of western hemlock, red cedar and mammoth, gnarled, overturned roots; and quietly commune from a distance with a family of mule deer.
After about 2.5 hours, we arrived at Avalanche Lake, and it was everything we had hoped for. During our hike, the clouds had lifted and a warming sky reflected in the lake’s mirror-clear waters, encircled by steep peaks. On the farthest face: snowcaps of the Continental Divide, feeding three elegant ribbons of waterfalls that in turn fed the lake.
On the lakeshore, we came across painters from a local art club, simultaneously engrossed and at ease as they created their lakescapes. Nearby, families oohed, ahhed and splashed.
Even in this remote place, during the time of coronavirus we sought to distance ourselves from others. That, and the lake’s magnetic beauty, propelled us to forge along a muddy side path.
Eventually we spotted a cluster of boulders just offshore, and we carefully crossed on stepping stones each to reach a boulder of our own.
Then, completely unplanned, and without knowing exactly why, I turned to Clint and said “I’d like a moment. Can we take about 15 minutes here?” He said sure and settled in on his rock.
My rock was rose pink with a bump to sit on and space to rest my legs below. The angle felt not unlike cushions in a Kyoto Zen temple.
At first I faced the waterfalls, but they seemed almost too grand, too obvious for the moment. Scanning the lake, my eyes settled on a mountain on the other side, with striations but no other pattern I could name. Compared to the waterfalls it was unremarkable, yet somehow its humility spoke to me.
Although I had not meditated in years, that became my mission in this moment. I took in the mountain’s craggy, rocky face and wondered how its trees could possibly balance on little more than ledges on cliffs, let alone survive Montana’s impossibly harsh winters. I pondered how the very water droplets surrounding me would end up 1,000 miles away in the Pacific. I observed that the lake was so pure that I could view fallen tree trunks in it as clearly as those we’d just seen in the forest.
My peripheral vision narrowed, and I began to focus on a single point on the mountainside. I couldn’t identify the point to you now, or even seconds after the fact, but as I sat and stared, I could feel my mind slowly, ineffably, go blank, and the rock, the air, the trees, the water, the sun, the mountains, the clouds, time and my brain and body and soul and the universe felt like they all became one.
I don’t know how long that sensation lasted – it might have been a mere split second. But as I left the rose-pink rock and Clint and I made our way back to the trail, I couldn’t help feeling that even if this was all I accomplished on my month-long trip around America, that split second, when time stopped and I slipped the bounds of everyday reality, was worth it.
This is the first in an occasional series of meditations on places I’ve visited across the United States. Click here to read the next one. I hope you’ll come back.