I discovered why the season in Glacier National Park doesn't start for another month. Rain, rain, rain. I hid from the rain at breakfast, sitting next to an extended Western family.
"It is kind of funny how incompetent all of our sons are at math," said a mother.
"Well, I guess it doesn't matter. It's a shame they need to get through trigonometry to get into a four-year college," a relative replied and everyone nodded agreement. Apparently four years of government by the "Education President" (George Bush) wasn't enough.
I hid from the rain at midday, hunkering down in a lodge with a biography of John von Neumann, developer of modern computer architecture, game theory, and important portions of atomic bomb theory and practice. The book had been thrown together by Norman Macrae, former editor of The Economist, and the writing was ponderous, but the vitality of turn-of-the-century Budapest intrigued me. To hear Macrae tell it, nearly all of America's cultural and scientific achievements post-1930 may be attributed to Hungarian Jews fleeing from Germany's expanding shadow.
Macrae's book also shattered one of my misconceptions about Einstein and the Manhattan Project, which I'd thought he'd instigated. It turns out that Einstein's letter to Roosevelt in 1939 was delegated to a do-nothing committee. It wasn't until Vannevar Bush, who made his reputation as an MIT professor, went to Roosevelt in late 1941 that Roosevelt authorized the project.
When the rain slowed to a drizzle, I ventured out into The Cedars, a
forest carpeted with impossibly green glistening ferns. The truly
dedicated photographer wasn't discouraged by this weather, but I used
my scuba diving camera. Lassitude overtook me after an hour, and I
returned to the lodge to read, eat, and sulk before retiring to my wet
tent. I hadn't found anyone to talk to, and this was one of the lowest
days of the trip.
I drove over the Logan Pass on Going to the Sun Road, named after one of the tallest nearby peaks. The "Going to the Sun" name dated back to Indian times but in view of the heavy cloud cover I felt that the name had been chosen as a personal torment for me. Heavy snow had kept the road closed until just a few days before, when it was opened by dynamiting a 60' snowdrift (so don't complain the next time you have to shovel the driveway).
Glacier is remarkable for the skinniness of its mountains. A tall ridge here was scraped out on both sides by thick glaciers during the ice age, thus leaving the mountains fit and trim with near-vertical walls. It is a testament to human arrogance that someone decided to build a road right up the side of one of these vertical walls.
I rolled into the East Glacier youth hostel and was quickly swept up into a social whirl. Joe, a combination mountain man and 1960s throwback, appeared with his two angelic sons and invited us all to his campsite on Two Medicine Lake for a bonfire. It was amazing that someone so bearded and unkempt could have such neat children, but the kids mostly live with their mother and we never got a look at her. Joe was probably most interested in the company of Ali and Michelle, two Australian 22-year-olds, but he graciously included me, Sky, a divorced Christian drifter, and Ronen, recently released from the Israel Defense Forces.
Ali and Michelle cooked me dinner, and we headed out to the bonfire together, where Ronen charmed everyone with his engaging smile, remarkably good English, and vast repertoire of Beatles and Paul Simon songs. We all sang while Ronen strummed his guitar and Joe accompanied on fiddle. The atmosphere of conviviality seemed surreal after the loneliness and despair of the day before.
Ali and Michelle crystallized a few thoughts I'd had about Australia. A bartender in Cairns told me that Australians together in his bar talk cooperatively but that Americans together all try to talk "on top of each other." Ali and Michelle certainly exemplified the openness and lack of snobbery that is refreshing in Australians, but they also illustrated some of what repels me about the culture.
First, Ali and Michelle put absolutely no stock in education. They'd just as soon be with someone ignorant as learned. When I compare them to women I've met who are insistent on finding Harvard-educated husbands, I find the lack of credentialism salutary. However, I can't shake my conviction that people are obliged to develop their minds.
Second, I had the car radio tuned to a classical station, and Ali just blurted out, "I don't like classical music." Most Americans would hesitate to admit that or would express a desire to learn more about a taste that is allegedly refined. I gave Ali credit for candor, but her lack of striving went against an American tradition of self-improvement that goes back at least as far as Ben Franklin. Shouldn't people always strive for better educations for their kids and even for their adult selves?
Thursday, June 17
Ronen and I hit the road under a brilliant blue sky. We had plenty to talk about while traversing Going to the Sun Road under a perfect blue sky. Ronen had just separated from Laura, a beautiful non-Jewish American girl he'd met in the San Francisco youth hostel. They'd been instantly attracted to one another and had a great time together for some weeks. Nonetheless, she thought she couldn't live in Israel based on what she'd heard; he thought he couldn't live in the States.
"I think I could succeed here and probably make a lot more money than in Israel. But I'd miss my friends, Israeli humor, and my extended family. Also, I think Americans are shallow and insincere."
Just because "I'd love to, when I have some time" means "Maybe when Hell freezes over"?
"No. It is deeper than that. I love Laura, but I've seen her kiss hello to women and later tell me how much she hated them. Anyway, international romance is tough."
I contributed my theory that international romance is easier than intranational romance in some respects. Two Americans might be compatible in deep ways but won't date each other unless they are sure they match up in dozens of extraneous categories. For example, a Cambridge liberal might categorically refuse to date anyone who hadn't voted for Bill Clinton, an Ivy Leaguer might look only at other Ivy Leaguers, or a Connecticut WASP might restrict himself to Daughters of the American Revolution. A foreigner, however, isn't going to care for whom an American voted, might not be sure what schools are in the Ivy League, and probably wouldn't understand our cultural subtleties enough to distinguish "the right sort of people."
Under a perfect blue sky, Going to the Sun Road took one's breath away. There is a drama to this landscape that is comparable to that of Yosemite Valley. After a hike to a high mountain lake, we drove back to the Logan Pass (top of Going to the Sun), and I hopped on my bike to ride down 3000' in 12 miles, averaging 25 mph without pedaling. Ronen drove the van down to the bottom, and I greeted him with a grin that took hours to fade.
"How can you go back to Israel after seeing this?" I demanded.
"Now you sound like the million Russians who've come to Israel in the last two years. They don't want to serve in the army, claiming to be 'immigrants' who will move to America as soon as they can somehow manage rather than 'olim' who have chosen Israel for spiritual reasons."
"Maybe they miss the `big country' feeling. Russia may be an untenable place to live, but it can point to a lot of achievements in science, literature, art, and architecture," I offered.
"That's possible, but we give them $7000 per person the minute they arrive. A family of four would get about half the price of a nice condominium. Instead of being grateful, they just complain about how nasty and difficult everything in Israel is."
Ronen hitched a ride back to the youth hostel, and I went back over
Going to the Sun once more. Sunset's reddish glow and shadows lent
some poetry to what had been stunning but inhumanly stark. With
company from a gentle mountain goat, I took some photographs before
heading down to my campsite.
A crisp clear morning. Kirk, a divorced father, and his 12-year-old daughter Amy were sitting down to breakfast at the next campsite and immediately invited me over for some delicious pancakes. It was distressing to see the pain of a broken marriage and a kid being batted back and forth between two houses. Kirk and Amy live in Indiana, where Kirk is a machinist for the Navy. Kirk reinforced my belief that Americans aren't content to let themselves go intellectually and live the easy life: "I don't have a television because it is too addictive and would keep me from doing other things."
Once back at Logan Pass, I hiked through a blinding white landscape on a slippery packed snow trail to Hidden Lake. I shared the view of the frozen lake (this was mid-June!) with mountain goats and two Berliners, Wolfgang and Angela. They'd rented a motorhome in Los Angeles, stopped in a supermarket, and the cashier was the last American they'd talked to at any length. Though university-educated, their knowledge of American history and culture had a few gaps.
"One thing I've been wondering for weeks," asked Angela, "why do Indians need reservations? Would they be killed if they left them? What about white people, are they ever allowed on reservations?"
I moved over to the Many Glacier region of the park for the night. It
is indeed possible to see many glaciers in this area. When the park was
created, there were 100 glaciers, but 50 have subsequently melted away.
It turns out that there was a mini ice age about 3000 years ago and that
all the glaciers of Glacier National Park will likely be gone in another
Saturday, June 19
While taking the tourist cruise boat around Josephine Lake, I spotted a large tan form moving among the green trees. It was headed up a hiking trail after a couple and their two young children. I tapped our captain on the shoulder and asked him what it might be.
"There's a bear behind you. There is a bear behind you," our captain hollered at the oblivious hikers. They turned their heads back for a moment and then started to move along at a brisker pace. The 400 lb. black bear just loped along the trail and then up the mountainside a bit to eat berries or whatever. It was my first time spotting a bear in the wild, although Kleanthes, a friend back at MIT, had predicted the scene almost perfectly weeks before my trip:
"Daddy, shouldn't we be carrying a gun in case of bear attack?" asks a worried child.
"Oh no, son. The wilderness is our friend. Bears are shy and gentle," explains the father, a nice liberal Sierra Club member.
"Yeah, right," growls the bear as it devours both child and father.
I drove back to East Glacier and dropped into a counter seat at PJ's Diner. I shared the counter with Joseph, a leather-faced Blackfoot Indian wearing a Stetson hat. He was proud of his tribe's aggressive heritage, noting that most of the tribe was of mixed blood because they kept stealing other tribes' women. In fact, I recalled that Sacajawea, the 16-year-old Shoshone who accompanied Lewis and Clark, had been previously separated from her tribe by the Blackfoot.
Joseph was pretty well versed in Massachusetts politics, and we swapped Ted Kennedy jokes:
Woman interviews for a job with Kennedy.
Kennedy: "You realize that you'll have to travel a lot."
Woman: "That's OK."
Kennedy: "And that to save money we'll have to share a hotel room."
Kennedy: "And on some nights we will be having sex."
Woman: "That's all right."
Kennedy: "Do you have any questions?"
Woman: "Well, if we are having sex, I might get pregnant and I wonder what arrangements you've made for obstetrics insurance, maternity leave, etc."
Kennedy: "Don't worry; we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Heather, the waitress, was another young woman whose face appeared to have nothing written on it. Yet her unscarred face belied another horrific story. One of four whites in a high school of 400, she married an Indian at age 19 and was now 21 and getting a divorce.
"I didn't realize it, but my husband had a violent temper. Spouse abuse is quite common in the tribe, both by men against women and even vice versa. I'm going back to college now. My father gave me a taste for reading, and I was a star in high school before marriage derailed everything."
As I left, I noticed a sign by the counter: "Expecting the world to
treat you fairly because you are good is like expecting the bull not to
charge because you are a vegetarian."
And the story of my life. (contributed by luky malik)