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Glacier and me: Amid a stunning landscape, an ailing science journalist weighs his own uncertain life span

Science journalist Brian Vastag and his wife, Beth, enjoy the majestic scenery of Glacier National Park. The couple, both with serious health problems, visited the wilderness region to improve their mental health and well-being. (Brian Vastag/For The Washington Post)

The stream burbled and sputtered, the cold of the glacial melt a refreshing bubble in the summer heat. Here, just steps from the afternoon tourist traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park spoke to my soul. I was surrounded by a geologic miracle.

Across the stream, which pooled where that summer’s woodfall had formed a small dam, the uplifted peaks stood as they have since around the time the dinosaurs arose. The mountains’ strata — each layer the compressed sediment of an ancient seabed — shot upward, the dark boundaries of each sheet highlighted by the August sun. The whole mountain was canted like a huge table missing legs on one side. The moment lengthened. I tried to weigh a lifetime.

My wife, Beth, and I had come here to soak ourselves in a world wonder. We both have serious health problems, and study after study shows that spending time outdoors improves mental health and well-being. While such “forest bathing,” as the Japanese call it, is not a cure for anything, we were hoping the mountain bathing we anticipated would at least give us a boost.

Minutes earlier, as we had backtracked across the park’s famous road, we had stopped at an overlook we had missed that morning. The view spread across the valley, Heaven’s Peak spiking in the distance. As cars pulled into the overlook, I spied a photographer working with two legs of his wooden tripod perched on the low stone retaining wall that was laid with the road in 1927. Dark-haired and hale, almost burly, he was peering at a large-format film camera. On the wall sat a worn black book of Ansel Adams photographs.

I asked his name. “Frank Ruggles,” he said. He was working to re-create a series of photographs Adams had made in 1941. It was called the Mural Project. Adams had been hired to photograph the national parks of the West to majestically adorn the walls of the relatively new Interior Department building in Washington. World War II interceded, and Adams never finished.

But the legendary landscape photographer made many arresting images in the parks that year. Now Ruggles is reshooting them for an upcoming TV special and a coffee-table book.

“Those are crepuscular rays,” Ruggles said as sun streaks broke through a puffy cloud, spotlighting a small glacier. “And they are as rare as hens’ teeth.” He pulled a modern camera with a long lens from his Jeep and began clicking.

As he did, Ruggles explained further: In 2020, it will have been 79 years since Adams made his images. The average American life span is now 79 years. So Ruggles is recreating 150 of the 226 known mural photographs to showcase the changes in famous landscapes over an American lifetime. It’s called the 79 Years Project.

Adams left a wealth of notes to follow: Dates of images, times, type of film shot and f-stop used. But Adams did not record where, precisely, he placed his cameras. So Ruggles, worn book of the mural photographs in hand, has to sleuth out each locale by sight.

Today, he had found where Adams shot Heaven’s Peak. It was right here, where our paths intersected.

So Frank and I shared a moment, at about 4:45 p.m., Aug. 6, 2019. We chatted for a few more minutes, Ruggles telling me about hauling his even bigger large format camera — each negative spanning 8 inches by 10 — up from Logan Pass to Hidden Lake the day before. “That was special,” he said of toting the 65-pound rig on a three-mile hike at high altitude.

I told him I used to work as a journalist, and we talked about a few people we both know. I marveled at the meeting, this commonality, right here, now, at this microscopic intersection in space and time, amid a landscape that the world began building so long ago that nothing had yet wriggled, swum or walked on this Earth. Platters of algae fossils were all these rocks had to say about life nearly 2 billion years ago.

Beth and I drove off, and next we stopped at the stream.

We had spent all day in the car, with breaks to gawk, but we are both too ill to venture on any of the Montana park’s well-known hikes. The walk to the stream, however, was about as far as a squirrel can scurry in a minute, so we climbed down a few steps under the road’s bridge, and just yards from the traffic we had what felt like a universe of peaks and valleys to ourselves.

I found a shelf of rock to sit on — hard against my bony bottom — and listened. My father will be 79 next year; he was born the same year as the Adams project. Earlier that day, I had heard that a former science editor at the New York Times, David Corcoran, had died of leukemia at age 72. I am a week away from 48.

That mountain peak was uplifted 200 million years ago. The flowers that speckled the pathway pushed up just weeks ago. A forest fire tore through this area four years prior. The two dozen glaciers remaining in the park will be gone in a decade because of climate change.

These numbers jumbled in my mind, but the number weighing on me most was unknowable: How many years did I have left to drink in the wonders of this Earth? That’s a number nobody knows of themselves, of course, but my complex medical situation leaves me with a chronically uncomfortable feeling of racing toward an early end.

Last year, after years of disabling illness, I learned that I have a muscle disorder. But it’s an incomplete diagnosis; the muscle tissue on the microscope slides looked terrible, a multiple-car wreck of necrotic tissue and atrophy, but not terrible in a specific enough way to finish the diagnosis.

“We’re wondering about rare forms of ALS,” a researcher at the National Institutes of Health told me. I had been wondering about that, too, for seven years, ever since 30 pounds of good weight — muscle — had melted off my body in a storm of twitches and fevers deep in the winter of 2012-2013. Later, the researcher decided to call my condition “atypical myositis,” myositis being a family of inflammatory muscle disorders. But that term is more description than diagnosis. I don’t know if 79 years are attainable; no doctor can tell me that.

Then again, no one younger than that knows whether he or she will hit that mark.

Beth embraced me and walked up the trail. I stayed and drank in the scene; a rain shadow veiled the top of a peak. As the first tears fell, so did a few fat drops of rain. My salt water mixed with the fresh from the sky, and both spattered the rock.

Soon the specks would wash into the stream, join the glacial melt and run to the ocean.

Brian Vastag is a former Washington Post science reporter. He now lives in Hawaii.