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On June 24th 2010 I landed in LAX early morning after flying over oceans, islands, mountains, cities… a tiring 12 hour flight. I’m one of those who really can’t sleep during situations like that; trains, buses, etc. And I’m not going to deny it… I do get a teensy bit anxious flying. It’s not the flight itself but more the stages in between; actually catching connecting flights, figuring out which terminal you are supposed to be at, finding your way around, not losing luggage etc. I was grateful that for this first little leg of the journey I wasn’t alone – my mum had come over as well to celebrate her birthday in Montana with family! Unfortunately for her I’m pretty sure I tried to sleep on her shoulder the whole flight. Sorry Mum.

After LAX we caught a flight up to Washington State. Of course the flight over was just gorgeous, and coming up to Mount Rainier was spectacular. Where I live it never snows and I’ve only been up a snow-covered mountain a couple of times when I was pretty much too young to really remember the experience at all, so I was stunned. And there was so much more of it to come!

After a night in Seattle we caught a train across to Montana – Big Sky Country. In hindsight the train trip was so much fun – but at the time, again, I was exhausted from jet-lag and the journey from New Zealand so I spent a lot of the time trying to lean on Mum and sleep. The scenery, though, was beautiful. When visiting Texas a few years ago I had realised that the US is just huge, and the hours of train travel to Montana reinforced this again but also showed me that each state is so utterly different to the next. The land is just so diverse – we journeyed past docks, through cities, under massive tunnels burrowing through expansive forests; what a difference to Texas!

I especially loved the occasional stops we made in the dead of night. Every time the train would pass through an inhabited place the horn would sound alerting the current town of its presence. The few times we stopped for staff swapovers and disembarking passengers I’d step outside, smell unfamiliar desert air, see lights of towns I didn’t recognise – it was an exciting feeling to be absolutely lost in the world, but safe.

We reached Montana the next morning a little later than was planned. The dawn spread out over pine trees in mist, deer were feeding and watching the train pass with wide-awake eyes. My sense of adventure ignited once more. Big Sky Country indeed; it was everywhere you looked, with no obstruction. It may sound ridiculous but I felt like I’d literally never seen so much sky. No tall buildings to block its view, just pure open country.

After an amazing family welcome at the train station, Mum and I made ourselves acquainted with the place. We learnt how to drive on the opposite side of the road (scary!!!), familiarised ourselves with the town of Whitefish and its surroundings, were taken on fabulous day trips with the family to see things like the local ski lodge and visit various townships, enjoyed a fantastic night of 4th of July celebrations and threw Mum a bonfire birthday where we were taught how to make S’mores. I learnt the hard way never ever to wave your marshmallow around on it’s stick to cool it off, oops.

The nearest national park to Whitefish is Glacier National Park. I absolutely fell in love with it. On my first visit there I had no idea what to expect and I was utterly blown away. It was perfect timing; the snow had just melted enough to allow the roads to be cleared and the main park reopened to travelers. A cruisy drive over to the park would lead you through the main gate, and up first is the gorgeous Lake McDonald. What a perfect sight; the first time I saw it the water was like glass with the frame of mountains and early morning light finishing the picture. Utterly indescribable. The hiking tracks were beautiful too; I felt such an appreciation for the forest and those who strive to keep it safe and in tact.

I was not prepared for the views from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Absolutely spectacular, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is aptly named; a long, winding road stretching higher and higher up to the sky. From the bottom you feel so small, but as you climb higher the world transforms around you: ginormous land formations become eye level and you can trace the paths of past water bodies, see the expanse of mountains with their forests and waterfalls and snow from the top of the world. Highlights of the park for me were seeing a black bear cub foraging for bugs, the Saint Mary Lake encircling her Wild Goose Island, the Jackson Glacier, the breathtaking Running Eagle Falls and of course SNOW!! I certainly never wanted to return to suburbia after that.

There are several seasonal tours available at Glacier Nation Park, and it is obvious that the guides are highly passionate and extremely knowledgeable. I loved learning about the history of the region, the stories it held and about the local flora and fauna. Of course there is a huge difference between native New Zealand fauna and the animals at Glacier, but also the vegetation species are vastly different. While New Zealand has forests, lakes and rivers as well, different species turn the different areas into ecosystems with entirely unique interactions between inhabitants – for example, you would never see a bear turning rocks over to find bugs in the New Zealand wilderness! Also, the Pine Bark Beetle is an insect that is native to Montana – these beetles reproduce inside the inner bark of trees and end up killing them. It is quite an issue for local forests, and I was interested to learn that park rangers do not control forest fires in Glacier; they see it as a natural process and it actually helps destroy the pine bark beetles as well. I was impressed with this; I see it as real natural conservation.
A story I heard at Glacier National Park that became my favourite was the tale of how Wild Goose Island got its name:

Legend says that many moons ago two native tribes lived on opposite sides of a lake (now known as Saint Mary Lake). The tribes did not interact. Of course, one day, a warrior of one of the tribes saw a beautiful woman from the other tribe swimming out to the small island in the middle of the lake. Taken by her beauty he could not help but swim to the island to meet her. While they knew what they did was wrong, they talked for hours and at the end of the day became betrothed to one another. They promised to meet again the next day, and swam back to their respective tribes.

Their kinsmen, however, were not pleased with the arrangement and each tribe forbade such a betrothal. Distraught, the maiden and the warrior returned to the island in the middle of the lake in the earliest hours of morning to meet and flee in the darkness to find happiness together. However, their tribes were not easily fooled and as soon as they were noticed missing each group sent warriors to pursue the young lovers to bring them back by whatever means necessary. It was only a matter of time before they would be found.

But, the warrior and maiden were being watched by the Great Spirit.

It wasn’t long before the warriors from each tribe arrived at the little island. But, upon it they did not find their fellow tribesmen. Instead they found a pair of geese, with necks lovingly entwined. At the sight of the warriors the geese took flight, never to return. The lovers had been transformed into birds who mate for life, and thus had been given their wish of never being apart. Such became Wild Goose Island.

Another favourite park I was fortunate enough to visit was the National Bison Range. The range is  a 18,500 acre refuge of plains, forest and fresh flowing water. Established in 1908, its mission is to help preserve the American bison – and of course the other species found living in the park. The range has a couple of different paths you can take your own vehicle through, as long as you abide by the animal-safe speed limits and the rule to obviously not get out of your car. To do so isn’t necessary, anyway, as sighting wildlife from the road is pretty much guaranteed.

I wasn’t so sure about that for the first few minutes of driving. We followed a track that took us around a beautiful plain full of wildflowers, but no large mammals were in sight. That was, until the tell-tale signs of a set of Pronghorn antlers began to stick up out of the long grass. A Pronghorn! These are the only surviving members of the Antilocapridae family, and are often mistaken for a species of antelope.

Shortly after that, the appearance of bison became more and more common, until we finally came across a rather large herd taking over the road. These creatures are so sturdy but majestic in a way, and their calves seem so delicate compared to the adults. As our vehicle approached them it was obvious the adult bison were wary, and would move closer to their offspring. Still, they seemed rather placid – a ranger eventually had to come and move them off the road.

To top off this wonderful little exploration, the drive ended with a group of six young Pronghorns coming over to the vehicle we were traveling in. It was absolutely adorable, and I felt so lucky to get so close to these inquisitive little critters.

The thought of leaving Montana was difficult. I had enjoyed experiencing things with the comfort of having my family around me. I have never been the most outgoing girl, and traveling alone to work in a completely unfamiliar place for ten weeks was a fairly daunting thought. But in those first several days I had been given the opportunity to have a generous taste of the sorts of things I would be able to discover on my own, and I knew (anxiety aside) that it was the right thing to do. Besides, the wolves were so very, very close.