It was well past three in the afternoon and the tour guide’s voice droned on like a lullaby extolling the wonders of Glacier National Park.
The forty seven passengers were barely awake ... the men anyway. They stared drowsily out the windows of the air-conditioned bus at the passing Kodachrome wonders of the west – each of them more colorful than the one before – yet curiously all the same.
The travelers had been up since six-thirty this morning, eaten heavily at breakfast and lunch, (courtesy of Boomerang Tours) and most of them hadn’t had a bowel movement since they landed in Denver Colorado three days ago.
More vigilant than the others, Jacki Bundy sat in a window seat, alert as a bird on a bough. She stared attentively through the blue tinted window listening to the tour guide’s every word. She held her brochure open to the page describing the vehicular tunnel through the Going to the Sun Highway, while her husband, Gordon, sat next to her trying vainly to digest the extra large cheeseburger and two dark lagers he had wolfed down two hours ago. He glanced at his wife, shook his head slowly and closed his eyes.
The tour guide decided to take a nap. He realized very few tourists, other than Mrs. Bundy, were interested in his interpretation of the scenery this afternoon. One mountain was much the same as another, and it was far better to turn on the tape recorder which explained the view outside far more enthusiastically than he could.
Jacki Bundy was diligent however, regardless of who was doing the talking – she had fallen in love with Glacier National Park and she wasn’t going to miss a thing. “Where are we?” Gordon mumbled.
“What do you mean, where are we? We’re in Glacier National Park. Gordon, Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
“It’s a picture, that’s for sure.”
“Can you imagine what it must have been like for the pilgrims .... “
“Yes, them too, I mean when there were no roads to guide them and Indians around every bend.”
“Imagine what it must have been like for the Indians.”
Jacki chewed on that for a while, then she nodded her head as though she had dutifully considered the effect of the pioneers on the Indians.
“Jerry was talking about that this morning, just as we were going through Logan Pass.”
“Our guide, Jerry. Jerry Ward. He was talking about Indians – the Sioux I think. There was this chief, Spotted Tail, and how the government did all it could to get him out of this part of the country after gold was discovered.”
“I must have missed that – asleep I guess.” They rode in silence over the immaculately paved roads that wound through the passes, cutbacks and brightly lit tunnels blasted through solid rock. Most of the men were dozing, but some of the women kept watch at the windows and occasionally a feminine voice could be heard exclaiming, “Oh look! There’s a bear.” or “I see a buffalo.” Every time Gordon raised his head to see, it would turn out to be a tree stump or some peculiar alignment of shrubbery that in some gullible minds might be mistaken for a bear or a buffalo.
Suddenly they burst out of the tunnel into glaring sunlight, and even though Gordon’s eyes were closed the glare of the sky at that altitude blinded him. He was about to shift in his seat when the driver called out, “Watch it! Hang on!” There was a crash up front and the windshield shattered into a network of brilliant white, web-like lines. Jacki screamed and it seemed all the other women screamed in harmony with her.
The bus veered to the left, crossed the road and bounced to a rough stop in a small grassy area. Jerry Ward, the guide had been riding in a jump seat behind the driver and was lying unconscious in the aisle. The driver’s eyes were wide with shock as he turned to see if the passengers were all right, and in a thin tremulous voice said, “Sorry folks, I think we killed a mountain goat ... everybody okay?”
Jacki Bundy, thinking that possibly the accident was part of the tour, expected an explanation immediately. Her husband was wedged in a fetal position on the floor between his seat and the back of the one in front of him. When he extricated himself he looked out the window and couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Jesus,” he said. “We’re at the edge of a cliff!” The sight made him dizzy. It wasn’t quite a cliff, but in truth it was a precarious position at the edge of a steep declivity. The ground sloped down from the bus abruptly. He turned to Jacki and said, “We’ve got to get the hell off this bus!”
“My bag, the cameras ...” Jacki rummaged in the overhead but everything in the overhead had skidded up to the front of the bus. Gordon was suddenly pushing her up the aisle ... “Get out. Keep moving ... we’ve got to get out of this damn bus!”
The driver finally realized the bus was at a precarious tilt, and he, too, began shouting for people to get off the bus. Gordon was one of the first off and he noticed the step was nearly four feet off the ground. He and another man began catching people as they jumped.
The last man off was the driver, still bug-eyed with confusion and fear. The bus, now lighter by forty-nine people began to slide down the hill. Everyone watched it in amazement, until it stopped – held in check by a massive boulder.
“Maybe it’ll stay there,” the driver said.
As if to prove him wrong, the bus rolled over the boulder with a grinding sound of bending metal and the crash of breaking glass. It began to roll over and over with increasing speed. The noise faded until it could no longer be heard; Gordon estimated it was a good 200 yards down the mountainside.
“Did everyone get out?” Gordon shouted. The tour guide stared at him dumbly. It was obvious to Gordon that he must have a concussion ... he seemed more helpless than the passengers.
The bus driver was alert but shaken, he had wrapped both arms around himself and was looking back at the animal lying dead in the road.
“We can’t just stand here,” Gordon shouted loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Has anyone got their cell phone with them?” He turned to Jacki ... she shook her head ... “Ours is on the bus,” she mumbled. No one had a cell phone, all the phones were in the bus at the bottom of the ravine.
“Look at that sky!“ One of the men pointed to the west, black clouds were piling up on each other and assuming the shape of a huge anvil. Below the clouds, closer to the ground, other dark and ominous clouds were rapidly approaching. Gordon walked over to the guide.
“What do we do now? We’re standing out here in the road with a dead goat and there’s a hell of storm brewing.”
The tour guide was in no shape to make decisions. His two months study course at Glacier National Park was focussed on its beauties and natural history, he never received instruction on how to handle a bus accident on a deserted road in the mountains. Come to think of it, he couldn't remember anyone ever telling him that it rained here in July either. Besides his head hurt and he couldn't really concentrate on the turn of events.
Gordon gave up on the guide and walked over to the side of the road and looked down the steep wall of the ravine. The bus could barely be seen in the upper fringe of the treeline. It would take ropes and winches – maybe a crane to get it back on the road. His Nikon F3 was on that bus, so were his shoes. He just noticed that he was standing at the side of the road in his socks.
The bus could wait. What was more troubling was the approaching storm. The guide had drifted off to sleep – Gordon was sure it was a concussion, and the driver didn't seem to know much about the countryside.
Gordon walked over to the driver, who was trying to revive the guide. "Do you know much about thunderstorms up here," he asked?
"This is my first time on the Glacier route. Don't know much about thunderstorms in the mountains – haven't seen one. I hear they can be pretty bad."
They stood together for a moment. "I can get in a lot of trouble for this," the driver said nervously. "Should'a stayed with Empire."
"It's a truckin' company. 18 wheelers from San Diego to the mid-west. Six lane highways all the way. You'd never catch a rig goin' through these God-forsaken mountains."
"You mean we're stranded?"
"Till the next bus comes along – three hours at least. They may quit if they see a storm brewin' – could be God knows how long."
Gordon walked away, leaving the driver standing at the edge of the road and looking down the slope. The bus had worked its way into the trees and could no longer be seen. Jacki was sitting on a rock talking to one of the passengers, a woman traveling alone. They both looked up at him. "Any news," Jacki asked him.
Gordon was about to answer but a dull subterranean rumble, more felt than heard suddenly became audible.
Jacki looked at him nervously; "What was that?"
"I think it's thunder. It echoes around the mountains. Once it starts it doesn't stop."
To the east, beyond the ridge of Logan Pass a hundred miles from them, maybe more, lightning was striking the eastern slopes of the Rockies – they couldn't see it, but they could feel the deep subterranean rumble of it.
"I don't see the lightning," she said.
"You will, Look at those clouds building up in the west – look at the color!"
"I've never seen clouds that color." They were a greenish black. Jet black at the bottom and turning to green at the top. They were moving fast in their direction. "I can see the lightning now," she said.
With the lightning came the thunder – closer this time. Along with the thunder came black clouds blotting out the sun. A cold wind picked up and heavy beads of hail pelted the bedraggled passengers. There was nowhere to hide, no cover – Gordon covered Jacki's head with his arms and bent to absorb the pelting hail. It bounced and shattered like glass on the road. He caught a glimpse of her frightened face and realized she was trying to say something, but her voice could not be heard above the roar of the storm. He tried to keep her flat on the ground, thinking they would be less of a target for the lightning.
When it seemed to Gordon the storm would never end, the rain and hail stopped abruptly. While the flashes of lightning were still blindingly bright, the thunder was less intense and seemed to be moving away. He raised his head and looked about him for the others. They lay in huddled heaps, like bags of wet wash in the road. He looked down at Jacki and smiled nervously, "I think – maybe – just maybe we've weathered it, old girl."
"I'm freezing. What was that anyway?"
"I think we were inside a thunderstorm; we're lucky to be alive I guess."
Jacki raised her head and looked around her. "Look," she said. "There's sunlight down in the valley." She turned her head and looked at the passengers huddled in the road. Some were stirring. Some were not. "Hold me, Gordon ... I'm freezing."
"Get up, Jacki. Stand up. Get moving ... get the circulation going." He helped her to her feet. "Let's see how the others are."
They were in poor shape, and as Gordon and Jacki passed among them, the bedraggled passengers stared up at them with blank shell-shocked eyes as though they had been through an artillery barrage. Worst off were the single women, huddled alone in their fear with no one to comfort them.
“Will we get through this?” Jacki asked.
“We’ll make it, love. They must be expecting us up ahead.” He looked down at her and saw the terror in her face. “If it’s any consolation I think we’re too high up for mountain lions.”
There was nothing to do but wait. One by one the passengers gathered together in a circle, their bodies touching, trying to protect each other from the cold. They sat with their arms around each other, touching each other for warmth. They spoke with affection of the towns they came from and how comfortable life had been back home. They spoke of their children and their children’s children. They did not speak of the mountain or the storm or the cold – and now that night was fast approaching them, they did not speak of the hunting sounds of animals – the sounds of cat and coyote. They did not listen.
But they heard them.
They heard them all night, until 4:00 am the following morning, when suddenly the ululation of the wolves was quieted by the distant grinding of gears. Something big, a truck, a bus perhaps – something huge was approaching. As it grew louder, the voices of the wilderness broke off. It was as if God was coming and taking charge of things again.