April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Teaneck to Montana: Highway 49 and the Vision Quest

Part III of III

“Don’t worry, guys, the meat was probably frozen all this time and was okay to eat. At least I hope so.”

Another restless night followed for our travelers. Except this time Jack was sleeping above the cab by himself, exiled in punishment for leading his tribe to tainted food.

“Was this any different from what must have occurred more than a century earlier to every wagon master who brought greenhorn settlers from back East over the Oregon Trail?” Jack thought to himself. “Even Moshe in the desert had to deal with rebellious followers!”

The next morning broke to reveal Jack trying to figure out how to rebuild confidence in his leadership. At breakfast he revealed his plan for the Rocky Mountains’ aftermath:

“How would you all like to go to Southern California after we finish our mountain exploring next week? We can go to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and all the sites.”

The response was unanimous: “Let’s go now!”

“Of course,” Jack pointed out, “it would be crazy to leave Montana now, just before we’re going to explore Glacier Park. This is like the highlight of the trip. We’re going to cross Logan Pass that is located alongside the Continental Divide. It’s the highest point on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.”

“What’s the Going-to-the Sun Road?”

“Well, that’s a road that winds 53 miles across the width of Glacier Park; it’s an impressive road that is usually open only from June to September each year because of avalanche hazards in the winter time; it’s impossible to keep the road open when you consider the amount of snow that falls on this road. In a normal spring time, it can take 10 weeks to clear away the snow drifts; they reach a depth of 80 feet sometimes.”

“Also, because of the narrowness, we can’t take our RV onto the road; there are special ‘jammer’ buses we need to take the tour.”

After parking the RV, the family boarded the red bus waiting at the tour assembly point and soon began the ascent of the scenic road. Twenty minutes later, they arrived at the visitor center where they enjoyed the view that was as spectacular as advertised. Jack began to feel ill rather suddenly and explained to Beverly that he didn’t feel up to continuing the scheduled round-trip tour. Instead, he wanted to take a bus directly down the road to East Glacier, a town further away at the southeast corner of the park. From East Glacier he could rent a car to bring him back to St. Mary’s and the family. On the following day they could return the rental on the family’s way west out of Glacier Park.

Reluctantly, Beverly agreed to Jack’s proposal, but she sure wasn’t pleased.

“Where’s Daddy?” the kids asked.

“He’s not feeling well, so he’s going to meet us later at the RV,” she responded.

About two hours later, Jack rolled out of the car rental parking lot, steering a late model Chevy Cavalier onto Montana State Highway 2. He had consulted the map he carried with him and, feeling better, he decided to look for a shortcut that he could take to rejoin his family. He didn’t want to now descend all the way down from the mountains to the prairie before traveling north, only to reenter the mountains once more to reach his family and the RV.

“There has to be a shortcut through the mountains,” he insisted to himself. His fingers traced the outlines of a road that led from East Glacier to Highway 49. This road in turn rejoined the main road needed at a town called Kiowa. It would be a short jog from Kiowa to St. Mary’s, the RV, and his family.

Jack eased his car into the traffic heading east. A road sign pointing north indicated Kiowa Junction was 12 miles away via highway 49. Jack turned left and began the ride of his life. As a rule Jack could have managed so long as he had advance warning of the approaching, life-threatening danger. However, Jack was blissfully unaware of the dangers of seeking shortcuts in life in general, but in particular in the Rocky Mountains. What Jack did not know was that Highway 49 was a road even more precarious than the Going-to-the-Sun Road he had just traveled on. Unbeknownst to him, Jack was ascending to the Blackfeet Indians’ most revered and sacred part of the mountains, the place known as Two Medicine Ridge visited by the locals since ancient times on their vision quests. That quest was the initiation rite or rite of passage all members of the tribe would undertake, seeking spiritual insight, guidance, and purpose. A person would spend 1–4 days secluded in nature in order to achieve deeper understanding of one’s life purposes. Jack, concerned about getting to his family quickly, was taking an unscheduled side trip into his personal, Jewish vision quest.

Highway 49 started innocently enough with forested mountains on either side of the road. Soon the road veered to the east and began to ascend rapidly. After an abrupt switchback, Jack saw stretched before him miles of the steepest, narrowest, and most winding road he had ever seen. He immediately thought he had seen this scene before and just as suddenly recalled that it reminded him of the children’s book illustration of the yellow brick road stretching to infinity on the way to the distant Emerald City in the land of Oz. The present road had no guardrails, and from the distance, Jack saw that the road was prone to landslides. The straight drop from the road to the valley and lake below as it clung to the side of Two Medicine Ridge had to be at least 1000 feet (it was in fact 1,288 feet). Jack was frankly terrified as he realized there was no turning his car around. He couldn’t turn back and the road ahead was frightening. He was angry with himself for getting into this predicament, but that emotion was of no help. He had to keep his nerve up, proceed slowly, carefully, braking at every turn. The road at this point became even wilder as he was ascending one foot for every 50 feet he was driving. The section he was now entering was called Looking Glass Hill Road and it was a stretch unmaintained by the State and impassable in the winter. Jack was driving ever closer to the Ridge wall, barely missing scraping the Cavalier’s right fenders against the exposed granite. Jack at this point was looking straight ahead and not daring to look at the abyss below and the oblivion a wrong move promised. Would his rental car survive the ordeal of a lifetime?

The minutes passed so slowly, but Jack still felt out of breath. Here he was, traveling on a perilous road that few people on the planet had ever traversed. Here was a discovery, a place he hadn’t known about where God tested people, inspired people, if only after they survived, a “shortcut” that would end forever a person’s search for shortcuts in life and maybe lead one to deeper deliberation on life’s meaning: a western Mt. Moriah for those seeking to find evidence of a supreme being if they needed such evidence. Clearly, this was more than Jack had bargained for as he sat peacefully planning the trip back home in Teaneck. He was being sorely tested and, as his ancestors, he was given no advance warning. Finally, mercifully, after several more minutes, the road ahead leveled off, even descended a little as the terrain evened out somewhat. A sign ahead heralded Kiowa Junction: “One Mile Ahead.” Jack had survived Two Medicine Ridge.

A half an hour later Jack arrived at the St. Mary’s parking area where he quickly spied his children playing near the RV. It was 4 p.m. and Jack was in no mood to talk. When he saw Beverly in the RV, Jack paused and told her:

“I’ve just been someplace I can hardly describe; crazy as it may seem I felt and saw the presence of Hashem on this treacherous mountain road.”

“Why didn’t you come back with us,” she interrupted. “After all it was your idea to take this silly tour. And the cost of the rental car, was it really worth it?”

“I’ll let others be the judge,” Jack quietly said. “You had to be there, I guess, to appreciate the experience.”


The family trip west continued the next morning, and over the next week, Jack led his people to British Columbia, the Canadian Rockies, and back to Calgary where the Rocky Mountain expedition began. The family happily boarded their flight to Los Angeles as Jack had promised and soon checked into their hotel on Pico. It is rumored that unlike the rest of his family Jack remained locked in his bedroom for the next three days refusing to come down from the mountain he had ascended in Montana and dilute his experience through exposure to “civilization.” Vision quests—even Jewish ones—can be funny that way.

By Joe Rotenberg

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