When people talk about the highlight of an outdoor adventure, it almost always involves reaching the top of a mountain or a carefree leap into an alpine lake. It could easily include spying a moose (always just a little too close for comfort) or fording a treacherous river to reach the best campsite. The highlight of an outdoor adventure is never something so sorry and mundane as a group of grown-ups eating chips and salsa in the rain while three grubby toddlers crawl around in the grass underfoot. At least that’s what I used to think.
Our trip to Schnaus Cabin, a Forest Service rental near the North Fork of the Flathead River at the edge of Glacier National Park, was meant to be a vacation, though we all knew that didn’t mean we’d be able to relax. We were three couples, each with a toddler under the age of 2, all of us adjusting to the new and sometimes alarming identity of “parent.” As late 30- and early 40-somethings who spent the last few decades playing in the outdoors—snowboarding, hiking, camping—we had grown accustomed to our free time. Sure, we had partners to compromise with and jobs to show up to, but in our pre-kid days we could still do basically whatever the hell we wanted. And bugging out to a Forest Service cabin for the weekend was always the very definition of leisure. Once there, we could toss our sparse gear through the cabin door, whip up a campfire and crack open our beers without a care. Time was ours to while away: late to bed, late to rise. Now, with kids, the concept of leisure time has been relegated to cobwebbed memory.
Schnaus Cabin is hidden in the woods 42 miles north of Columbia Falls on the North Fork Road. The drive’s final 45 minutes are mostly on dirt road, which makes the destination feel even more secluded. We arrived on a warm Friday evening. I unpacked the car while my husband kept an eye on our 1-year-old daughter as she stumbled toward the rickety porch stairs. Our backpacks of clothing were dwarfed by the baby’s bag, full of too many onesies and a year’s worth of diapers and wipes, just in case. I pulled out a sippy cup, Pack ’n Play, three blankets, a stuffed sheep and a laundry basket full of toys. I was simultaneously panicked that I’d forgotten something and disgusted with myself for bringing so much.
In my distraction I almost didn’t notice the view, but then there it was: Glacier’s Livingston Range, spread out as far as the eye could see, 10,106-foot Kintla Peak piercing the thin swirls of cloud. We all stood breathless for a long moment, forgetting everything else. Here was a panorama that seemed almost unreal, an exaggeration of a Montana landscape. “What a show-off,” someone said. We laughed. We had been so focused on planning, packing and then driving the four hours from Missoula with as few en route tantrums as possible that it registered as relief to actually arrive in one piece. The mountains looked like a reward.