The winter keeper had been adamant in his emails: Mountain bikes would be best to get a photographer and me seven miles from the end of the plowed blacktop to the hotel buried in a remote part of Glacier National Park. The wind, he said, scoured most of the road clean of snow, we’d just have to hike the occasional drift with our packs full of the oranges and bottled beer he requested.
After far more postholing than bike riding, the grand 99-year-old hotel came into view. In the summer months, it’s a Sound of Music scene, with wildflowers leading practically right into the lobby bar. In midwinter sunlight, though, The Shining suddenly feels like a documentary film.
A baby blue 1980s Honda sat in the “driveway” of the caretaker’s cabin, shoveled out and swept clean, completely at odds with the 15-foot deep walls of snow that surrounded it. We dodged the bighorn sheep droppings and descended the dozen or so carefully cut steps to the cabin door.
The keeper ushered us in and, as he cracked into our precious cargo, burst with stories, rapid-firing us with tales of life at the end of this road. There’d been no one to tell since the last of his colleagues waved goodbye months before.
He lived in the cabin but worked in the hotel, commuting 300 yards across the snow to remodel a few bathrooms, shovel snow from rooms where it drifted through century-old windows, and generally make sure the old building didn’t succumb to the relentless wind and cold.
Once during his regular rounds of the empty halls, he’d turned a corner to see the bar’s wine cabinet doors flung open. The wind, he figured. It was always working through the walls, swirling the tarps draped over fireplaces and stirring up spindrifts. But in the far annex of the hotel a lone wine bottle was laid across the hallway, its slot the only one left vacant in the rack.
The keeper didn’t set foot in the hotel again for three weeks.
He usually drives in sometime in November with all the supplies he’ll get until the road is plowed five months later or he skis out to the lonely Blackfoot Reservation highway to try his luck hitching a ride to town.
After our dinner from his carefully planned pasta stores, he swigs his beer and jumps up.
“Hey, do you guys want some of my homemade hashish?”
“Does it get you high?” asked the photographer.
“No,” he said, smile never leaving his face.
We passed on the stovetop hash and got a tour of the rest of the cabin. Satellite TV to start off the day with “Today” and broadband internet for corresponding with the seasonally employed Eastern European blonde the keeper swore he’d nearly convinced to winter with him. It wasn’t exactly ultimate solitude, with the keeper documenting his lonely existence in real time on MySpace.
But over the next couple of days we’d get a taste for just how little of the emptiness here social media and Al Roker could fill. The mountains were immense, we were alone, and the relentless wind was a constant reminder of the exposure that awaited us outside. And the hotel, my god, it was terrifying.
The keeper gave us each time inside alone so we could get a feel for his life there. Huge, old growth timbers sucked up the light, turning midday to dusk and chilling the interior with their frozen columns. A long corridor punctuated by snow drifting from room to room raised neck hairs like the possibility of a grizzly around a blind corner in the trail.
After beer and oranges our first night there, the keeper helped us roll out sleeping bags in the den. Here’s the light, he said. The lantern in case the power goes out. Wood for the stove. More blankets.
He ran down his checklist for battening down the cabin and the precautions in case the power went out and we found ourselves in the Montana cold with only the supplies on hand. It seemed like he’d covered everything.
Then he leaned in close and pointed to a shelf half-shielded by the big screen TV. It brimmed with adult films.
“Just in case you need it,” he said.
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