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If you get out and about and live in the American west for long enough, odds are you’ve collected a few categories of favorite places. There are the most spectacular and most memorable places, and the places worth an annual visit because they make such pleasing routes. There can be remarkably little overlap between these two. There is also a list of life places, of hypothetical home sites, places you’d buy first if the government ever fire-saled off public land and/or you and a group of trusted kindred were looking for a satisfying place to ride out the apocalypse.

For me, the Belly River makes all three lists, and is very near the top of the last one.

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The first time I went in the normal way, down from the highway and along the river to the meadow and the ranger station, it was winter and the wind and snow and rain howled for 72 hours. With the whole length of the meadow for acceleration, precip forced its way into every crack of the cabin, and we stuffed the door gaps with folded paper to seal out drafts. I left wondering why the hell the early 20th century pioneers, who were usually pretty damn clever, had built the fucking thing in the windiest spot available.

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With a bit more experience across the seasons, including full summer and one fully calm winter day, I can now see that aesthetics weren’t the only factor, just the largest one. There’s also Gable Creek, hammering along right behind the station, supplying beautiful music and, thanks to a clever pipe, gravity-fed indoor plumbing.

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There were and are more practical places to put the station, some very close to the one chosen over a century ago, but none, perhaps none in the whole of Glacier, quite so fine.  Water music and an unfiltered view of Mount Cleveland on the rare occasions when the clouds give up completely are worth big winter drifts.

I do maintain that whomever built the two auxiliary cabins with doors facing west was an idiot.  The main station, and the original cabin which is now a workshop, have doors which face north and east.

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All of which is to say that it was nice to visit on two consecutive weekends, and doubly nice to have my parents along this most recent trip.  We hiked in through drizzle, and over some pretty spectacularly sticky mud.  No photos that day.  We had a good fire courtesy of the old shingles, still available for kindling upon request.  The next day, we had great weather, a drier hike out, and uninterrupted views, along with a few fish caught and a close beer encounter.  (M and Dick, above, were lounging after lunch when a black bear wandered within 10 feet before they saw it.)

It was one of those times.