In the middle of north-western Montana’s remote wilderness, along an unpaved stretch of highway known as “The North Fork Road”, an electric car pulls up next to a mud-splattered truck in front of a red building. Tall white letters on the 106-year-old storefront spell out “Polebridge Mercantile”. Behind it, the towering teeth of Glacier National Park’s snow-capped mountains disappear into a cloud-draped sky, and a blue-green river carves through an unbroken expanse of forest so vast that it feels prehistoric.
50 Reasons to Love the World – 2021
Why do you love the world?
“Because I saw grizzly bears in the wild as a child, it made me realise that we have to share this landscape not just with each other, but with all of the animals, too.” – Will Hammerquist, Mercantile owner
The Mercantile’s owner, Will Hammerquist, bounds out of the car and up the wooden porch of the general store, wavy hair corralled in a ponytail. His two horses and a bevy of Icelandic sheep call to him from their pen behind the store, ready for dinner. A bell jingles as he opens the Mercantile’s creaky door. Freshly baked pastries fill counters along one wall, while the other displays goods ranging from Montana-made beaded earrings to essentials like propane, motor oil and crackers. A taxidermy elk head is mounted on the wall above the register, with a hand-written sign below that invites customers to ask about the discount for those who hiked or biked to “the Merc”. In the back, a couple of mismatched tables hold a crockpot of homemade soup and carafes of coffee.
Hammerquist greets the lone customer, a man in work boots buying a pack of lighters, then checks in with his wife, Katerina Vlckova Hammerquist. She’s baking the store’s signature huckleberry “bear claw” pastries, white-blonde hair over one shoulder, singing in her native Czech.
“I’m gonna run up the road to borrow a ladder,” Hammerquist tells her, tossing a log into the wood-fired stove. It’s late October, and the temperature is below freezing outside. “I’ll feed the sheep when I get back.”
Polebridge is one of the most remote towns in the US’ lower 48 states. To get here, you have to drive 35 miles “up the North Fork” – referring to both the bumpy road and the broad North Fork Flathead River it parallels – from Columbia Falls, Montana, towards the north-western entrance of Glacier National Park. In good weather, it’s an hour’s drive to reach the nearest petrol station, mobile phone service or doctor’s office. And during the six months each year that the road is covered in snow or ice, that drive might take half a day. Twenty miles north of Polebridge, the road dead ends at the Canadian border, disappearing into an impenetrable wall of fir, pine and larch trees.
Polebridge is one of the most remote towns in the US’ lower 48 states
From May through October, when the Merc and the town’s tiny bar and hostel are open, the population of Polebridge hovers just under 100, which is roughly one-sixth of the surrounding grizzly bear population. None of the residents have garbage pickup or electrical service. Some still haul water from outdoor wells or creeks, and many of them are visited by grizzlies, elk and wolves more often than humans.
“We have two services here in Polebridge: postal and ploughing,” said Hammerquist, sipping a Montana-made beer near the fire after fetching a neighbour’s ladder.
The Merc is the main attraction in Polebridge, although the town extends south along a few short dirt roads named Beaver, Rainbow, Skyline and River. No stop signs are needed, as the only traffic hazard is bear poo. Come winter, both the population and the temperature in Polebridge plummet into the single digits.
Hammerquist believes that this community of disparate people is drawn together by both the raw beauty and the boundless freedom of the vast, wild landscape.
“This place isn’t about convenience,” he said. “You gotta take it on its own terms. It’s about feeling on the edge of civilisation, which is when you feel most alive.”
This innately American promise of freedom and independence lured Polebridge’s original settlers here in the 1890s, including entrepreneur William Adair. In 1907, Adair ran a store in what is now Glacier National Park, but after the establishment of the federal park in 1910, he took advantage of the US Homestead Act and acquired a 160-acre plot of land just outside the park. Adair built a cabin for himself and his wife; he fished, farmed and lived off the land; and in 1914, he constructed a general store from logs that he hand-hewed with a broadaxe: the Polebridge Mercantile.
“Adair basically created the Amazon.com of the day for homesteaders, bringing in whatever they needed by stagecoach. [Until 2001], it was the region’s only post office, so people naturally gathered here,” Hammerquist said.
Throughout its 107-year history, the Merc has served as more than just a general store – it’s been a central meeting place for the homesteaders scattered up and down North Fork Road. Along with the Northern Lights Saloon next door, which was the Adairs’ original cabin, Polebridge was where folks came to catch up on news, eat and gossip. One of the reasons Adair built the Merc in Polebridge is because a creek flows here year-round, allowing customers to water their livestock while they shopped.
The Adairs ran the Merc until World War Two, and eight subsequent owners operated it before Hammerquist bought the store in 2014 on its 100th birthday. Ever since, Hammerquist has focused on upgrading the Merc’s aging infrastructure. He installed a 25,000-watt solar energy system and built a detached fully plumbed bathroom and shower facility to serve customers as well as the four rustic rental cabins behind the Merc.
“I’ve had to modernise to make sure the old buildings aren’t going to fall over. But I’ve tried to do it in a way that respects the past,” he said.
One of the Merc’s previous owners, Dan Kaufman, introduced the store’s signature baked goods in the 1990s. Today, Katerina still uses Kaufman’s sweet-dough recipe. And now the Merc’s baked goods, along with the mystique of Adair’s century-old buildings listed on the National Register of Historical Places, attract people from all over Montana – and the world.
True North Fork locals are a tight-knit, self-reliant group connected by a common spirit of rugged individualism
“I have people who come in from 400 miles away asking if they can have the locals’ discount because they feel a sense of ownership and have their own history with the Merc,” Hammerquist said.
Yet, the true North Fork locals are a tight-knit, self-reliant group connected by a common spirit of rugged individualism. Women and men alike run their own snowploughs, split their own firewood for heat, hunt deer and elk for meat and learn how to repair whatever breaks.
If they’re missing a tool, though, they call on a neighbour. Residents share batteries, bolts, books, meals and rides to town. Despite having differing politics and perspectives, these Montanans rely on each other for basic survival and emotional well-being.
“People here come from all walks of life, and we all get along for the most part. We have our own opinions on religion and politics, but if you need something from your neighbour, they respond,” said Jim Rogers, who stopped into the Merc to pick up some milk.
Drawn by the scenic Rocky Mountain landscape that Rogers calls “the backbone of America”, he and his wife bought a cabin on a creek two miles south of Polebridge in 2002. Rogers explained that he always buys three bottles of motor oil instead of one and stores the extras for neighbours in need.
“We disagree without being disagreeable,” said Larry Wilson, who is sometimes referred to as the North Fork’s “unofficial mayor” as he’s been involved in the community for nearly seven decades. When Wilson suffered a heart attack in his home last summer, he called his best friend Lynn Ogel on his landline. Ogel drove him 70 miles from Polebridge to the nearest hospital where he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery.
Wilson explained that even if you don’t see eye-to-eye on certain issues, people are still courteous when they see each other at a summer picnic, because you never know who might be the one to pull you out of a snowbank in January when your car slides off the road. Or drive you to the hospital during an emergency.
In the 1950s when Wilson bought his first chunk of land here at 14 years old, the price was $1 per half-hectare. These days it’s around $20,000 per half-hectare. That’s partly because there’s not much undeveloped private property left. More than 95% of the US portion of the North Fork of the Flathead – a half-million-hectare watershed that straddles Canada and the US – is federally protected land.
We have to figure out how to share this valley in a way that respects the landscape and each other
According to Hammerquist, Wilson and Ogel, the environment is often at the centre of the most heated Polebridge community debates, such as where to cut down trees, how to deal with wildfires or whether you should be allowed to keep fish caught in the river. For instance, Ogel says he believes in “logging and road maintenance and generally maintaining the country rather than closing it off to everything”, while Hammerquist tends to be in favour of preserving wilderness areas where logging and motorised vehicles are prohibited.
“We have to figure out how to share this valley in a way that respects the landscape and each other,” said Hammerquist.
A native Montanan, Hammerquist is no stranger to defending the region’s vast wilderness. He grew up in Kalispell, a small city 50 miles to the south, and explored the rivers and forests near Polebridge with his father, who was a logger and a builder. He’s worked for local environmental conservation organisations, and, these days, he, Katerina and his nine-year-old daughter, Kaia, spend their free time riding horses, hiking and rafting throughout the North Fork’s sculpted peaks and glacier-carved rivers.
I feel blessed that here, near Glacier National Park, it’s still their home more than ours
“I like to remember that we share this planet with other large animals. I feel blessed that here, near Glacier National Park, it’s still their home more than ours,” said Hammerquist.
Through Hammerquist’s role as an organiser with the non-profit group National Parks Conservation Association, he worked to prevent mountaintop coal mining from blasting away the pristine habitat of the Flathead River’s headwaters. The Merc and Northern Lights Saloon take up most of his time now, but he still supports local groups that keep Montana wild and beautiful.
“I’ve left Montana enough to know there’s no other place I’d rather be,” he said. “I think these public lands are an important part of our story as Americans. I’m trying to carry on that story and help maintain the identity of this place.”
One key part of that identify is the North Fork Road itself. One thing almost everyone agrees on is that they don’t want to see the road paved. Navigating its potholes, dust and ice is a rite of passage for intrepid visitors, and the rough gravel road helps define the modern-day pioneers who are tough enough to live here.
But in recent years the unpaved road has been reeling from increased use. The Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park reported 85,000 visitors in 2019. When you factor in the thousands of additional vehicles that drive up to boat, camp, hunt and fish along the North Fork Flathead River, it adds up to an overwhelming amount of traffic for a road with no emergency services.
“Tourism has always been a part of the North Fork, but now we have thousands of visitors each year whereas we used to have hundreds,” said Wilson.
During summer, people crowd the Merc’s two tiny aisles, chattering in half a dozen different languages as they take selfies in front of the red storefront. On the Fourth of July, when Polebridge hosts a parade, tourists flock here in the thousands, parking cars haphazardly, camping on the grass around the Merc and the nearby hostel, and waiting in long lines for drinks at the tiny Northern Lights Saloon.
The old North Fork has been disappearing
While that’s good for business at the Merc, most locals have started avoiding the store during the busy season. And some residents, including Hammerquist, worry that as Polebridge turns into more of a tourist destination, the wilderness that has long lured people will suffer.
“If you love a place, you have to be concerned about it being loved to death,” he said. “We’re at the point where we need to bring everyone together and talk about how to manage the problem.”
Oliver Meister, who owns the North Fork Hostel & Square Peg Ranch two blocks south of the Merc, has lived in Polebridge for the past three decades and has witnessed the changes first-hand. Originally from Germany, Meister first stopped at the hostel in 1991 to spend the night during a cross-country road trip. One night turned into a whole summer, then a full-time job managing the two-storey building and campground.
“The old North Fork has been disappearing,” said Meister.
He bought the hostel when the original owner retired in 2008, and hasn’t changed it much. While the hostel now has plumbing for a shower and kitchen sink, Meister doesn’t want to put in an indoor toilet. “I cherish my trips to the loo at night to see the stars. It keeps me honest,” he said.
Unlike many of his neighbours – including Will and Katerina – who relocate to Columbia Falls or further south come November, Meister prefers the winters when the tourists are gone and he can listen to elk bugle by the river and watch wolves lope through the woods from his front porch.
Flannery Coats prefers Polebridge during the cold, quiet season, too. She owned the Merc before Hammerquist, and lives in a one-room cabin nearby. After Coats sold the Merc to Hammerquist in 2014, she and her partner moved to a town in south-west Montana, but they moved back to Polebridge after just a few years.
“We got bored of living with light switches and flushing toilets. We like having constant chores and being able to ski off our back porch,” she said, sipping hand-ground coffee that took her half an hour to make without running water or electricity.
Life is simpler up here
Coats’ teenage neighbour, Logan Reed, and his family also live year-round in Polebridge. Reed and his two older sisters work at the Merc. He’s home schooled, since there are no schools up the North Fork, and he’s happy not to be cooped up in a classroom.
“Life is simpler up here,” Reed said.
On the last Sunday in October before the Merc shut down for the season, the larch trees were tipped in gold and the ground had a dusting of snow. Inside the Merc, Reed addressed a steady stream of customers with a polite “ma’am” or “sir” as he rang up their purchases. In the back, Katerina whipped up a fresh batch of breakfast sandwiches with the kitchen’s mix of antique and modern appliances.
Hammerquist and Kaia were playing a board game with two friends at one of the Merc’s old, scuffed tables, laughing between bites of chilli and cornbread. He greeted each person who wandered over to fill a coffee cup, many of them by name.
Here in Polebridge, whether you blew in from up the North Fork or from 400 miles away, everyone’s treated like a neighbour.
BBC Travel celebrates 50 Reasons to Love the World in 2021, through the inspiration of well-known voices as well as unsung heroes in local communities around the globe.
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www.bbc.com 2021-02-16 20:58:57