In June, the management of Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park figures out a way to pose the entire staff in front of a photographer for the summer picture. I no longer remember how many takes it took to make the photographer happy. And, though I thought I would always remember the names, home towns, and colleges of all the students in this picture, the details have long since become hazy.
We came from all around the country during the last week in May and spent the summer in the fantasy land of the Swiftcurrent Valley working as cooks, waiters, desk clerks and bellmen until mid-September. A lot of us came back the following summer, and some the summer after that, as has been the custom with the concessionaire’s summer help since the days when the Great Northern Railway (now, BNSF) owned and managed the facility.
For a Florida boy who had always wanted to see the mountains, Glacier Park’s horn-shaped mountains, stair-step valleys, cool summer nights, and old Swiss-style hotels were a fantasy land in spite of the hard work. We carried luggage, cleared dining room tables, mopped the floors, made the beds, and told guests yarns about the mountains.
Our summer included bridge games, long hikes, fresh fish, romances, twisted ankles, mountain climbing, boating, broken hearts and a lot of pictures more personal than this old black and white that doesn’t quite fit on my scanner.
I studied writing in high school and college and the craft I learned there was well worth the time. While I spent less time in the park, my total of seven months there over the span of several summers shaped my life and work more than any college course. Perhaps I was more impressionable than most or perhaps it is a writer’s natural focus on experience that has made this place loom larger than life.
For a writer, time neither steals away old joys nor heals old wounds, and I came away from the park with my fair share of both. For better or worse, they have sustained me and defined my outlook, while becoming the setting for my magical realism (Mountain Song) novel and two contemporary fantasies (The Sun Singer and Sarabande).
Virginia Woolf once wrote that all of a writer’s secrets loom large in his work. I think that might be true because this setting impacted me just as much as Hogwarts impacted Harry Potter and “The Land” impacted Thomas Covenant. So it is that this faraway place flows out onto the page in my storytelling as a true love of mountains, wildflowers, bears and all the events that did happen or might have happened in the shining mountains.