Where the convicts and the buffalo roam

My family decided to hold its every-few-years-or-so reunion this summer in Montana. Ours is a sizable gang, ranging from ages 61 to 5 (and that’s not even counting the grandparents) and hailing from both coasts without much in between. We met in Montana because one of my aunts has a summer home in Whitefish that can almost accommodate the six siblings, six spouses, and a gaggle of grandkids (many of whom slept on couches and the floor).

Whitefish also had the added draw of Glacier National Park, more than a million acres of picturesque mountains, lakes, wildflowers and grizzly bears located a convenient 30 miles away from my aunt’s house. My dad and many of his siblings are game for any trip that involves a 1000-foot change in elevation, so it was settled.

Phoenix to Salt Lake, Salt Lake to Kalispell, Montana on a plane with 12 rows of seats, one flight attendant and one tiny lavatory way in the back. We rented a car, small and blue, from the Dollar Rent-a-Car and drove up an unmarked road — apparently Highway 93 — until we rolled into an outdoor laser tag arena where my now-fifteen-year old cousin was having her birthday party.

We were greeted enthusiastically by Dad’s youngest sister, a vegetarian graphic designer from Berkeley, who came running towards our car while gesticulating wildly with her plastic rifle. She was G.I. Joe meets Marvin the Martian: decked out head-to-toe in camouflage and sporting a red headband with three flashing orbs. My other aunts, the rabbi from upstate New York, the architect from San Francisco, and the psychiatrist from Los Angeles, soon followed, each balancing her gun expertly on her hip as she reached over with her free arm to offer hugs.

My insistence that I couldn’t run through the underbrush in flip-flops was quickly disregarded, and I was handed a gun and headband of my own. My code name, flashing on the screen on the side of my rifle, was “Razor.”

24 hours, fifteen mosquito bites and a spin around the nearby lake on a jet ski later, we packed into a rented Suburban and headed towards Glacier. My sister and I were the only members of our generation to come on the trip. We were eleven in total: my mom and dad, my dad’s four sisters, my dad’s four brothers-in-law, my sister and me.

A seven-mile hike brought us to our lodgings for the trip: The Granite Park Chalet — although the locals pronounce it “sh-lay” — built in 1914. No electricity, no running water. We brushed our teeth using boiled water (no giardia, plz) pushed out of a thermos. The main dining area was lit by kerosene lamps, our bunk room, by flashlight.

That night, it poured.

The next morning, the big news at the sh-lay was that seven bighorn sheep had been killed when struck by a bolt of lightening.

We finally made it out of the park by the next afternoon — but just barely. It wasn’t the hike or the lightening or even a family of grizzly bears that almost did us in. It was the escaped convict and his girlfriend — all the way from my home state of Arizona — who were armed and roaming around the park the day we left.

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