The Great Indoors
"We have people who come year after year," says Michael Buck, a volunteer tour guide from St. Paul, Minn., who has been spending summers at Glacier since 1960. "They treat it like it's their home."
Buck is a trim retiree in a white dress shirt and a Glacier Park ball cap. His main job is driving lodge guests around in a "jammer," one of the park's vintage red sightseeing buses with roll-back canvas tops. Much of the old fleet, long beloved for open-top drives on the spectacular and nail-biting Going-to-the-Sun Road, was recently restored and returned to service. Similarly, several of the 1920s-era touring boats are still at work on Glacier's mountain-rimmed lakes. This is a park with a keen fondness for its old days.
Buck describes the experience of early-20th-century visitors, mostly middle-class tourists who could have been expected to spend their holidays in Europe. But after Louis Hill, the ambitious president of the Great Northern Railway, built this lodge, he successfully filled his trains with Glacier-bound passengers by beseeching them to "See America First." When they arrived, they were greeted at the station by traditionally dressed Indians from the adjacent Blackfeet reservations and driven in wagons the short distance to the lodge.
"He wants the place to really impress them," Buck says. "They've been on the train for at least two days, crossing nothing but grasslands at a speed of 45 miles an hour. Then they pull up to this." He gestures at the looming facade, rising like a mountain ridge off the plain. "The Blackfeet were the waiters and the entertainment, and some nights the drumming ceremonies would go on all night right here in front of the hotel."
Years later, the red jammer buses replaced the wagons and more lodges and chalets were built around the park. But with Buck leaning against his red bus in front of the original lodge, it's easy to see here a postcard view from a hand-tinted age.
"The idea that they've been able to preserve this building in this kind of condition is just dramatic," Buck says. "The only thing really new about it is the sprinkler system."
Well, there are credit card machines in the gift shop and Sweet 'N Low in the dining room and a few other nods to modernity. But that sprinkler system is undoubtedly the most important update in a hotel that is essentially a stack of one-match kindling sitting in a wildfire zone.
Fire! It's hard to imagine a more prestigious and loved group of buildings that are more chronically imperiled than the great wooden lodges. As firestorms return to the West each year like wilderness hurricane seasons, these stolid buildings begin to seem more like sand castles than stockades. It's an ephemeral quality that forms part of their appeal -- at the end of some future summer, it's entirely possible that one of these lodges will not be standing.
Glacier has had its close calls. During last summer's fires, 136,000 acres of the park burned. And one of the park's other post-and-beam wedding cakes, the exquisite Lake McDonald Lodge, was evacuated and remained swathed in threatening smoke for weeks. Lake McDonald, on the park's west side, is a smaller resort, a lakefront hotel with alpine trim that opened in 1914. Its lobby, surrounding a grand walk-in fireplace, is lined with log rail balconies and crowded with watchful moose, elk, mountain goats and other wildlife trophies. It's a special room, and its loss would break every tourist's heart that ever beat within its walls.
But within recent memory, it was Yellowstone's venerable Old Faithful Inn that came nearest to a bonfire finale. The voracious flames of the 1988 fires that blackened more than a third of Yellowstone managed to lick at the lodge's very eaves. This eminent American icon was spared only by a new external sprinkler system, a tiny providential shift of the wind and the heroics of firefighters and bellmen chasing embers off the roof -- steeply pitched against a blizzard but helpless against a spark. Had one of those embers taken hold, only the giant stone chimneys would have remained, sad tombstones over the ashes of an incomparable log building, said to be the largest in the world.
It may be the height of human arrogance to say it, but the dining room and lobby of the Old Faithful Inn -- with its lodgepole pine pillars, burled log railings, split trunk staircases, lava rock chimneys and wrought-iron fixtures -- are nearly the rival of the splendors outside its doors. Mercifully, the inn remains to celebrate its 100th birthday this year.
But fire is just part of the natural scheme, and more than anything we ask our lodges to be part of nature. A modern concrete lodge could easily endure a blaze, but we need lodges to be portals to an earlier wilderness, a frontier that is still unbent before our national will, a landscape that is still as ferocious as it is beautiful.
Our summer visits to national park lodges are pilgrimages to a younger, wilder America, and we want them not just in the wilderness, but of it. The Grand Canyon's long and low El Tovar lines the southern lip of the canyon like another strata of geology. In Yosemite, the blocky granite face of the Ahwahnee tucks into the base of the high gray cliffs like an outcropping, not an add-on. Oregon's Crater Lake Lodge, opened in 1915 and recently completely restored, fits snugly into the rim of rock that forms the walls of the deep, dramatic lake.
It's not that these great lodges are camouflaged. In fact, they brim with personality and, once seeing them, none of them wears a face you're ever likely to forget. But still, each manages in its own way to be of a piece -- and at peace -- with its feral landscape.
And, like a chapel in the wild, that's what a national park lodge offers us: a small place in a vast space where we might find peace, with nature.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company