When we last left our hikers, they were descending from Fifty Mountain into a thick cloud of fog on their last day hiking the Continental Divide Trail, Canada-bound. We lose the morning sunshine, disappear into whiteness, barely making out channels of river cut below, damp and lush.
The trail is fogged in for miles, and we wonder whether we will be able to see anything at the border. We reach the southern shore of Waterton Lake – which is still in the United States – and a customs office. I open the door to see if we need to check in. Oops – I open it right into the leg of a grumpy customs agent. There’s no public area or counter, just him in his chair, glowering. The agent takes himself and his leg very seriously. Fortunately, I do a good innocent ditz, backing out with bubbly salutations, and we stride out of there quickly. These are the Last Miles. Knowing they’re the Last Miles makes it hard to just hike and be. They feel monotonous, slow and fast at once, and before we know it, we’re looking back at a sign that greets people headed the other way. “Welcome to the United States,” it proclaims, followed by an admonishment to visit Mr Grumpy at the customs office four miles south. Which means that ahead of us… is Canada! We are here!
The obelisks. The border. A tiny pier. And the Cut: on the 49th parallel, from Washington to Maine, there’s a gap of about twelve feet. There must be a huge number of workers spending their days weed-eating and pruning for thousands of miles, including over mountains and many places nobody else will likely ever see. (In some ways, this denuding is the opposite of a border wall. But equally as poor a use of resources, IMHO. Although I’m not sure who pays for it, the US or Canada…) It’s a strange sight.
But it’s a sight! Did I mention that we can now see more than thirty feet ahead of our toes? The fog finally melted under strong rays of sun, which beam over Waterton Lake.
(We considered bundling up in all our clothes, pretending to shiver, and posting a prank photo to make people think it’s already winter here, but the sunshine is such that nobody would believe us.)
A British Omahan (perhaps the British Omahan; how many can there be?) is kind enough to take our photo, and hangs out to chat as J. smokes his celebratory cigar.
You may also notice he is wearing a Burger King crown. This is thru-hiker tradition, representing the Triple Crown of hiking: completing the AT, the PCT, and the CDT. He asked me to pick one up back in Butte. It’s strange to go into a BK and ask for a crown when you don’t have a kid. But I did it, glued trail insignia on each cardboard jewel, rolled it around the cigar, enclosed both in double Ziploc bags, and brought it all this way.
J. tries out the phrase, “I’m a Triple Crowner,” as we amble our way past the finish line a few more miles into Waterton Townsite, where we’re camping tonight and will meet our kind friends Jane and Garon to enjoy a little of Canada before we head home and re-enter “normal” life…
It’s time to ice the cake. Jane, Garon, J and I wake up and gather our day packs for a social jaunt to Carthew Summit, one of their favorite spots in Waterton. We catch a free shuttle bus to the trailhead and begin.
It’s a relaxing change to take the ascent slowly, at a tourist pace, purpling our tongues and fingertips with fat huckleberries.
Our packs are full of luxurious town foods from the little general store: bagels and strawberry cream cheese, juicy snap peas, wasabi almonds, gouda!
I run to the top of the ridge, gratefully aware that my ankle doesn’t hurt. All summer it was giving me grief, and I feared I wouldn’t be able to make this trip with J. comfortably, or at all. On top of the rock outcropping is a worldview I can support 100%: Canada, the United States, who cares, indistinguishable, all mountains and trees and blue glacial lakes, cerulean sky and fresh air that we are lucky to breathe for this short while. After I run back, J. says that he finds a woman with strong legs, running up a mountain, a very sexy sight. Hubba hubba.
Jane and Garon take the same route down, to catch the shuttle back to town, but J. and I decide to walk all the way back on another trail, past several gorgeous lakes. It’s a bit longer than J. wanted to hike today, but gentle… and this way, we won’t have to sit and wait for the bus. (Waiting is one of our least favorite activities.)
At the end, we snack on a park bench by the last waterfall, as tourists swarm and take selfies. We realize, looking at a map, that we have just done one of the three legs of a feat called the Waterton Triple Crown… so J. has unwittingly started another Triple Crown less than 24 hours after finishing the last one! Haha, we will have to come back again and finish it someday. (Travel hint: always leave something undone, so there’s a reason to return.)
Back at camp, we revel in unlimited, private, clean, hot showers in the campground’s heated restrooms. Canada, you know how to treat hikers! Then we head to town to visit the Prince of Wales Hotel, which is the thing on all the postcards so of course we must see it, and see if they’re serving dinner.
The main restaurant is hoity-toity, pricey, and booked for hours… but we can eat in the informal cocktail lounge off the lunch menu. It occurs to me that despite suggestions that I’m a pinchpenny, what I prize isn’t cheapness per se, but finding a level that feels right: not wanton, not wan, just nice.
The lounge is Goldilocks’ bowl of perfect porridge in this regard. We order hearty, simple pub food, chat and laugh with our friends, and gaze out the big glass picture windows facing south over Waterton Lake, back toward the USA.
Then the floor show begins… the sun slants pink on the mountains, and as we dine, two big thunderstorms slowly pass across the vista, with rain, lightning, dramatic clouds, breezes, and gaps of sunset as intermissions.
We are glad not to be in our little tents, but instead watching from above, cozy and full. We all feel very rich in the things that matter.
On our way out, the hotel is luminous, lit at every window like a magic palace, and unsettled clouds glow in the last castings of daylight.
And our gear is dry in the tents. I don’t know how it works, that tiny little pyramid of synthetic fiber with barely a lip over the groundcloth, but we sleep tight and warm.
These past few weeks, hiking from the full moon to the new moon, this would sometimes occur to me: “I could leave all that.” That being my job in Missoula, my sign painting business, the little life we have carved out. It is always possible to be reborn, to have a different life. There are so many lives out there. We get so specific. We forget. It’s good to be reminded, and a long hike does that.
But although we could leave, and survive, and thrive, we don’t. Our little life is good. We’ll hike again. But for now, look forward to gathering in the picnic shelter in the chilly morning, heating oats and bananas and huckleberries and Jane’s homemade granola, and coffee and tea, on the little camp stove. To staring out the window of the backseat as our friends drive us away from Waterton, out of Canada, toward Chief Mountain, the plains stretching out to the east. To a belated anniversary kiss on the shore of Lake McDonald. To our way home.