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National Parks: Glacier

Rule #1 when planning a hike through this iconic park: Let your ambition match the scenery.

A few hours after starting from Many Glacier, we pass through valleys draped with low, wispy-bottom clouds that hang down like the tentacles of a jellyfish. The morning sun paints the distant horizon orange as it climbs over the silhouetted Wynn and Allen Mountains to the southeast, but we’re still too low for the rays to reach us. The cloud curtain and dim light create an oddly complete quiet. Even the sound of 40-foot-tall, wrist-thick waterfalls plunging down all around us seems hushed.

Mike and I stop briefly along a small creek. He’s schooling me on the difference between the bipolar disorder most people know—the one characterized by listless lows and paint-your-whole-house-red highs—and his condition. He gets the highs more than the lows, and he doesn’t slip into psychosis, hallucinations, or paranoia.

“And there’s no God complex. You don’t think you’re Jesus,” he tells me. “But you do think you’re God’s gift to hiking or biking or running—or sex!” And he blasts forth that laugh again. The echo fills the space between Ptarmigan Wall and Crowfeet Mountain like a cackle of hyenas. Mike looks pleased. “When my mood’s elevated, I feel like I’m right about everything, like I can go and go and go and never need to stop!”

And then, intentionally or not, he illustrates the symptom perfectly. We’re approaching 7,300-foot Ptarmigan Wall, where the misty clouds are thin enough to see through but thick enough to obscure distances. It’s like viewing the world through a veil, so it takes a few minutes to realize that the small brown dots in the distance are a half-dozen bighorn ewes. I realize that, anyway. Mike sees their stubby little horns and won’t be persuaded they’re not goats. I point out the “white pajamas” the sheep appear to wear when you see them from behind. I point out that mountain goats are white and shapeless with black horns. I point out that I work at a magazine that deals in this type of thing all the time. Mike will have none of it. He zooms off in pursuit of the “goats” while I continue up the trail. After snapping photos of ewes that he’ll inevitably tell friends are goats, Mike rejoins me and we stand at the southern mouth of Ptarmigan Tunnel, looking north through its gun-barrel corridor to an area beyond the reach of dayhikers. Interior Glacier. Wild Glacier.

Walking through that tunnel is like passing through the door to Oz and realizing, for the first time, that the world you’ve been living in pales in comparison to the dazzling realm you’re about to enter. We see the tips of 100 mountains we couldn’t see before. This type of discovery is one of the tremendous pleasures of Glacier National Park: Every pass offers a slow reveal of endless mountains, each group seemingly taller, more jagged, and more delicately snow-dusted than the last.

We stop for lunch on the shoreline of Elizabeth Lake. The shoreline beneath our feet is made of smooth, round rocks in shades of gray and red. “This one’s beautiful!” Mike says, palming a purple one and holding it up to eye level. “This one’s even more beautiful! This one’s even better! Whoa! This one’s the best.” His pile is getting large. I point this out. “They’re all great,” he says, stuffing 50 or so into a plastic bag. “I’m gonna pack them all. Besides, I could use the weight.” Is he serious? I can’t tell, but his rock hoarding puts me on edge. I know he won’t really pack them out, so I skip the LNT lecture, but diagnosis be damned, I don’t want to play the role of Mike’s minder out here.

Fortunately, the grace and violence of waterfalls have a way of soothing jangled nerves, and as we pass thundering 50-foot Dawn Mist Falls, I can feel my frustration melt. We’ll be in camp at Cosley Lake soon. But first we have to cross its 70-foot-wide outlet. It’s a potentially dangerous ford, but there’s a fixed line strung bank to bank for safety. Mike spies it in the dusk and curses. “There’s a wire?!”

“You don’t have to use it,” I shoot back. “Here, I’ll film you.” He unclips his hipbelt, hikes up his shorts, and wades in. The water reaches midway up his thighs and his balance looks precarious. Wait a minute, I think, I’m the one who’s supposed to be exercising common sense. Egging on a person who believes he can’t fail? Not smart. Fortunately, the water level recedes before Mike topples, and he triumphantly scales the far bank.

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