Leaving the World Behind in Polebridge, Montana

“So there’s no indoor plumbing and no electricity where we are staying?” my husband questioned while we jostled and bumped down the 32 mile scabrous dirt road.

“Basically….and we’ll have to pee in an outhouse or the woods,” I replied nonchalantly.  I am a dreadful liar, but maybe if I made it sound like no big deal he would see it that way too.  Maybe, but not likely.

The truth was I was imploring him to have an open mind about our unconventional lodging situation during our stay in the North Fork region of Glacier National Park.  A 100 year old homesteading log cabin was going to be our humble home for the next three nights while we hunkered down in the remote, tiny town of Polebridge, Montana. With a population of 132 people services were, shall we say, limited.  My Moon Guidebook described it as, “Not rustic as in cute, comfortable rustic, but real rustic as in you nearly have to fend for yourself.”  When I read this all I could think was how much it sounded like perfection.  I already knew Todd would chalk this up to another one of my crazy ideas, but in the event it ended up being awful there was a considerable amount of crow I would have to eat as a consequence.  Plus I would lose all the hard earned lodging cred I had earned over the years, and believe me, I had earned that shit trustworthiness.  I was hopeful that my plan of family solitude in the desolate wilderness would not only be a moment of intimacy and closeness as a family, but that the creation of cherished memories would offset the alarmingly rustic situation we had willingly put ourselves in.  We needed this time together.  The year before we had unexpectedly lost our brother-in-law.  That experience had taken a toll on our entire family.  The loss was a dark and heavy weight that had taken up residency in our hearts.  Coming together with a focus solely on us and our tribe would be good for the soul.  I wanted life to slow down, if just for a moment.  

Managing to get to Polebridge for some soul searching was no easy task.  North Fork had intentionally left it that way. If you want solitude and time to slow down then quite frankly you had to earn it, starting with an hour long drive on the choppy, pothole laden, washboard, and unpaved Camas Road.  Our patience and perseverance was rewarded when we pulled up to the entrance of Polebridge.  Turning into town a sign told us to “slow down, people breathing”.  Left behind were everyday amenities that we had all taken for granted (the indoor plumbing, showers, electricity, and cell service), but we would receive a return on our investment of sacrifice, and that would we gain in spades.

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Polebridge proudly cherishes rustic simplicity.  The town is low on frills and there are no five star resorts in this neck of the woods.  A toilet with running water and garbage service is considered a frill out here.  We had to learn to embrace the outhouse and garbage was to be taken with us after our stay.  For many, that alone is a turn off, but if you, like us, want to escape the confines of modern life this is a beckoning escape.  Ditching the digital devices was also a huge draw.  We said a definitive and gleeful “buh-bye!” to the beeping and pinging of our cells phones the moment that last bar disappeared.  During this short period of time our lives would no longer be interrupted.

With considerable camping experience under our belts I convinced us all we could survive an austere four days in this desolate region without plumbing or electricity.  Not only did we successfully survive this experience, but we also learned what was important to us. For me it was indoor plumbing.  Definitely the plumbing!  I can survive with propane lights, but oh how I missed a real toilet.  Maddie and I had finally mastered the art of peeing in the woods.  The boys always made it look so easy, they’re such show offs that way.  For everything else there was the vault toilet (ie. outhouse).  Not our favorite way to go, but for the four of us it was worth the trade off for the surroundings. The overhead propane lights had to be manually lit and barely provided adequate light to read.  But I was fine with that because our sleep cycles began to mirror that of nature, with our eyes getting heavy as the sun went down. It was our bodies’ way of welcoming our return to our natural cycles.

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It was during this time that I came to realize how much technology had become such a key part of our lives in less than a decade.  It wasn’t that long ago people traveled without access to cell phones or the internet.  During all those years we did not feel as if we were vulnerable to the world.  But when they were taken away, it was initially a cause for concern. Not in the sense of receiving text messages or phone calls, but what if there was an emergency? What if a family member needed to reach us? What if we were bored?  What if we needed to Google something?  That hovering feeling of vulnerability being without a cell phone creates slowly began to dissipate as we became more confident in our ability to survive this experience.  As we adjusted to life without our devices their appeal rapidly began to wane while the outdoors and time together shifted into focus. The daytime was about exploring our surroundings with hikes, sightseeing, lounging at The Mercantile as we watched the kids play, and reading. Evening fires in the fireplace demanded the roasting of  marshmallows and s’mores building.  So many of these bucolic moments became available to us when we opened our eyes and expanded our expectations.

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Many of these moments took place outside of the The Mercantile (“The Merc”) and Northern Lights Saloon, the town’s central hub.  Both have had this distinct honorary title in Polebridge for decades.  The Adairs family built The Merc and the saloon in 1914, with the saloon being their homestead and the other a store for locals and visitors.  To this day The Merc continues to sell supplies and offer freshly prepared foods in addition to books and Polebridge merchandise. These days, in an effort to go green, they draw the majority of their power from solar panels while supplementing with the use of a diesel generator.  Behind the shop is the confluence of modernization and the primitive: solar panels vs. outhouses. One of the unique juxtapositions that can only be found in places with character.

Character is not the only thing The Merc is known for.  Its mouth watering pastries are what put it on the map. To say they are legendary would be an understatement.  For proof look no further than their Facebook page which is filled with raves of these divine treats.  My morning bear claw, piping hot and fresh out of the oven, proved that yes, there is a heaven.   The windows at the front of the shop were weighed down with local updates and information verifying the reputation that the two buildings were the heart and soul of town.  The eclectic memos ranged from backcountry hikers’ notes about the trails, to local help needed, to a weekly summer reading group held by our homestead’s neighbor, a former Cal Berkeley professor, discussing Shakespeare.  Connecting the two businesses was the park, which seemed to be the town gathering place for hikers fresh off the trail resting their weary feet and sharing their stories, visitors relaxing as the day trippers trickled in from West Glacier for a taste of those regaled bear claws, children flocking to the play structure, anxious to test it out in hopes that these swings would help them touch the sky, and local dogs meandering about looking for crumbs unknowingly left behind.  

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As we entered the Northern Lights Saloon our late afternoon pit stop turned into a full fledged dinner when we were embraced by the owner like an old family friend.  Her geniality and willingness to share local information left us eager to stay.  The kids, with a sense of freedom they don’t typically have at home, contentedly played outside and made new friends with other frolicking children.  This isolated setting encouraged them to dig into their imaginations through and explore our surroundings.  Polebridge is good for kids in that way. The freedom it provides is an increasing novelty in today’s world between our fears of something happening to our children and their overly-structured and scheduled lives.  This relaxed and delectable atmosphere left us feeling as if we were at home and made us never want to leave, and the food just intensified our emotional reaction. All the baked goods were made from scratch that morning from the flaky potato buns, to the crispy fries, and the sweet huckleberry pie. Our burgers were piled high with the thickest cut of bacon we had ever seen. “Don’t…ever…let…this…moment…end…” I thought as I savored that first bite of burger.

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We had earned this meal after our adventurous trip to Bowman Lake.  The road to Bowman was not for the faint of heart and we now understood why visitors should review road conditions with park rangers before heading down Inside Road.  It made Camas Road seem downright hospitable in comparison to the gravel quarry road that leads to this half mile wide, pristine, glacial lake.  But like the rest of the region, our perseverance was exceedingly rewarded.  During this visit our desire to buy a kayak was ignited because the only thing that was better than standing along the shore, was floating on the water under that giant blue sky surrounded by trees and mountains while listening to the rhythmic paddles as they sliced through the water.  I wanted so badly to be drifting on the lake as Numa and Rainbow Peaks gazed down upon us, proud and vigilant the way only ancient mountaintops can be. There was a small number of visitors along its shoreline and all were there with the same goal as us: to appreciate the surrounding remote beauty, gaze at the crystal blue water, and breathe in the fresh mountain air.  Really, that is all you could ever ask for in such an untouched and untainted landscape.

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While Bowman Lake offered mountains and water, our hike to McGee Meadows provided us views of tall grasses glittering as they rippled in the breeze, a pond with regally gliding swans, 50 species of flora, and endless blue skies filled with cottony clouds.  Looking back on that scene it is hard to imagine that our hike into the woods began with the epic meltdown of our son.  The silver lining in that tirade was my doubt that any grizzlies remained within a fifty mile radius after his outburst. We would now be safe from any run ins while on the trail.  I may have gotten used to the idea of no cell phones or medical facilities nearby, but the thought of turning a corner to find a hulking grizzly, well, that fear would never go away. Once Lucas was bribed with a piggyback ride on our return trip decided to enjoy the hike we were all in a good mindset to enjoy this final day in our rustic paradise.

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That last evening brought about a surreal quality that only dreams can deliver.  As illogical as it may sound, that evening was a spellbinding. A part of me has always wondered if it was gift sent from above.  But as the gloomy clouds began their descent on North Fork it did not begin with this dreamlike quality.  Mountains are mysterious like that, all sunshine one moment and dark ominous clouds the next.  They also create that heavy kind of rain where one drop is more akin to a splash than a trickle. That deep, penetrating rain that soaks your clothes and hair after a mere seconds.  And then, as quickly as those storms arrive, they depart, leaving the world a little cleaner and shinier than before.  It was the after that presented a divine scene, and if you pardon my imagination to run wild for a moment, a gift from our beloved brother in law. As the rain tapered my husband peered outside. “You have got to come see this!” he hollered to me from the doorway.  I followed his gaze upward as not one, but two vivid rainbows graced the sky above us while the evening sun turned the landscape golden.  The puffy clouds, dark in the distance, were a flagrant contrast to the warmth of the sun.  All four of us ran outside to stand under that bountiful sky.  The kids and I ran and laughed, with Lucas determined to find the pot of gold left at the end by some sneaky leprechaun.  In all our travels we have never had a final evening like this.  A lot of people may choose not to share my sentiment about its origins, and that’s fine because that is the magic of nature.  We all have the ability to see a different beauty in it.

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As I finish these thoughts on Polebridge I am inherently torn about adding any publicity to this peaceful paradise.  It is truly a unique place and honestly people are either going to love or hate it.  We loved it, and it will forever be one of our top destinations for so many reasons, many of which I have detailed here.  We fall in love with most places we visit, but it is hard for them to actually carve out and claim a part of our hearts. Polebridge succeeded.  The selfish part of me wants to keep it secret, keep it special, and have no part of this town ever change.  I believe most locals and visitors who adore it feel the same.  But the reality is, this was an experience that changed us and the town isn’t for everyone.  The difficulty in getting here, the rustic nature, and the lack of amenities will keep those away who are not willing to accept these hardships.  That is why I chose to share our experience.  My hope is others may embrace some of the lessons we learned, like family time, finding a love of nature, learning to live without some conveniences, and taking an escape from technology and then applying it to some form of travel in their life.  It doesn’t have to be Polebridge and it doesn’t have be after a tragic heartbreak.  These themes can be embraced anywhere at any time.  But delight in the simplicity we used to have in our lives and take some time to savor it because this is where growth happens.

Helpful Links:

Polebridge
The Merc
Northern Lights Saloon 

Square Peg Ranch and Hostel
Glacier National Park