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A night not to forget

by Chris Ashby
| July 12, 2023 2:00 AM

What a beautiful day I said and it was: Clear and cold and not a breath of wind … Jan. 27, 1968. It was pretty normal winter weather in East Glacier, but windless in January was pretty unusual.

The east side of Glacier National Park is a pretty windy place, even on a calm day. It was also my 24th birthday and I wanted to get out of the trailer before heading back to my teaching job in Browning job on Monday.

So I said let’s go for a drive out towards Two Medicine, a short 12 miles from East Glacier. Of course I knew we could not get all the way to the lake as the Park road was closed for the winter…as it came to pass that was about all I knew about attempting even a short drive in a Montana winter.

We didn’t even bundle up, but just grabbed jackets and took off in our brand new 1967 Volkswagen.

We purchased the VW for two reasons; we could afford it and it was supposed to have good traction on ice and snow.

The first reason was right on the money and the second was not. The car also only had a forced air heater, which meant no go, no blow.

The reality was that in order to get heat the car had to be moving and even so in the winter the windows would still frost up at 60 or 70 miles an hour…but what the heck we weren’t going far, only out towards Two Med.

We figured we would only be gone an hour or so. Any Montanan reading this story can figure out where it might be going and would be right on in their assumptions. Much to my regret I could not.

I use “we” in telling this tale, but the reality is that it was all on “me.” My young bride was a truly innocent bystander and just along for the ride. After this trip she became much more aware of whom she got in the car with…especially if it was with a young seasonal ranger who had never spent a winter driving in Montana.

So off we went … no heavy coats, no blankets, no water, and to top it off we told nobody where we were going. The road going out was snow packed and a little icy, but not bad by Montana standards.

The road out of East Glacier is Montana 49 and it eventually ties in to US 89 at Kiowa Junction. It is closed in the winter about four miles from town where it forks left to head into the Two Med areas of Glacier.

Due to the winter closure I could only go to the left, which I did. So far so good. As any Montanan knows the winter roads are not snow packed all the time, but clear and thaw with the weather. The road was mostly bare. However, the east side winds can cover the roads with big drifts in about two minutes.

Two miles down the road we hit the drifts. The first drift was not that big and I cruised right over it. I did not know that freezing and thawing can create a situation where the top is a solid crust and mush underneath.

To make a long story short I hit the second drift, broke through, and got stuck. In addition to not having winter gear in the car we had no shovel …the car was like a turtle on its back. We were six miles from town, it was late afternoon with the sun starting to go down, and it was cold.

I found out later that it had been projected to go to minus 20, which it did. We were not in a good situation and were quickly heading towards becoming a Montana winter statistic.

For several minutes I tried to get the car unstuck by rocking it back and forth, but soon realized it was futile to even try. We decided to see if we could make it back to the abandoned flood home we passed coming out.

So off we went back the way we came on foot. We came upon the house and it was indeed empty. We broke a window on the door, opened the knob and went in…it was just as cold inside as out.

The house was a mess with clothes and furniture thrown all over the place. There was an old wood stove and luckily we found a couple of book matches.

We managed to get a fire going by tearing apart an old wooden baby crib.

We settled in to spent the night and hopefully survive the ordeal, and ordeal it was.

The stove was old and the chimney pipe was partially clogged and badly leaking smoke. So we spent the night alternating between freezing cold and choking smoke. Yet we survived the night.

The next morning we put on all of the clothes we could find in the house and started off for town. Luckily for us the day was just like the day before: Clear, cold, but no wind.

If it had been typically windy, or even snowy I doubt that we would have made it…but after a couple of hours we trudged into East Glacier. I am sure that we were a ragged sight to see.

Except for a few frost bitten patches on our cheeks we were basically safe and sound…I say relatively sound because nobody in sound mind would do what I had just done … take off on a lark unprepared for a Montana winter drive without telling anybody where you were going.

I learned my lesson and never went unprepared again, plus my wife didn’t divorce me. Nuff said. Chris Ashby is a writer from East Glacier and frequent contributor.

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