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Driving the Continental Divide

Boutiques along Galena Street, in Aspen, Colorado, at dusk.

Photo: Kevin Cooley

Side by side, we steadily made our way up the mountain pass. Our path traced the narrow edge of two cliffs of stone—one above us, one below—that defined sheer, as if one section had cleaved from the other and then, never losing a degree of verticality, had plummeted a thousand feet. While I hugged the rock face on our left, my old friend and excellent traveling companion Lynn kept a very steady eye on the lip of what we knew to be the other falling away out of sight. Already, on the first day of a drive that would take us from just shy of the Canadian border 2,000 miles to southern New Mexico, we were encountering an extreme version of a condition that would be our constant companion: the contest between the route before us and the glory all around us, between close concentration and overpowering distraction.

What I wanted to experience on this trip was the sweep of the nation in an against-the-grain orientation, driving along America’s spine from north to south. The iconic American cross-country road trip has always been east to west. Such was the manner by which our nation unfolded until it bridged the oceans. The west is where the sun sets; for Americans, it is our magnetic cardinal point. Spin us around and we will come to rest with our arrow pointed west. Westward ho, westward expansion, go west, true west—the pull is lodged in our national psyche.

To trace the Continental Divide, the mighty invisible line that runs along the top of the Rocky Mountains and determines whether water flows west to the Pacific or east to the Atlantic, I assembled a route that followed it as closely as pavement would permit, allowing for minor detours. On other trips I had given the national parks their due. This time, they would be dioramas rolling along with two urban dwellers (a New Yorker and an Angeleno) who were happy to cruise unimpeded by stoplights and traffic.

Only a few hours off the plane in Kalispell, Montana, we were already making our way up one of the most celebrated highways in America. Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, in spite of its solar aspirations, would not be the highest road we would travel, but it would turn out to be the most spectacular and not merely for the panoramas it afforded. To build a road in the 1930’s, mostly by hand, blast, and grit, that would take visitors up and over the Divide into the heart of Glacier National Park was an early triumph of not just engineering but sensitivity as well. Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, saw to it that the highway lay—like all early government-contructed roads—“lightly on the land.”

We got out at Logan Pass long enough to admire the flowers standing up, though not very tall, to the bully that nature can be in these subalpine climes. And there at the crown of the continent we confronted some new math: Triple Divide Peak, from whose flanks water traveled in not two but three directions, adding the Arctic to the Atlantic and Pacific. The tiny droplets, as if propelled by a thirst for salt, join increasingly more-intimidating flows until they reach one of the three bodies of water. Sadly, we also learned that if global warming continues on its present path, Glacier National Park could run out of its eponymous ice masses as soon as 2020.

Between the gray stony peaks of Glacier’s Livingston Range and the Tetons in Wyoming, Montana was all green and gold—a honeypot of forest, open space, fertile land—and copper. Evidence of the wealth and population that mining brought to the West lies in Brigadoon-like settlements throughout the Rockies. Some are true ghost towns, others just have that air, so quiet are their streets. Philipsburg, where we bunked for the night at the Broadway Hotel, was a silver-mining town turned Western charmer.

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