The Red Busses of Glacier National Park. Have you heard of them? I hadn’t but it turns out they are the way to take in a massive amount of the park in a few hours. The Red Bus is an iconic fixture of Glacier National Park, and have been since 1936 when they were first introduced. Of course we had to ride on one, so we bought tickets and joined about 25 of our new best friends to take a tour. At the appointed time, up rolled a large red bus with black fenders and running boards and a canvas roll-back top. The buses are each 25 feet long and were originally built of oak with a metal and aluminum skin. They were in service until 2002 when the Ford Motor Company refurbished the buses, which now have dual fuel engines that burn either gas or propane. Ford also replaced the manual transmissions with automatic transmissions.
A diminutive woman dressed sort of like a character from the musical Newsies addressed our group. “My name is Marrrrrrgaret,” she said, drawing the word out the way you do when your full name has only ever been used when you’re in trouble. She corrected herself. “Of course, I don’t expect you to pronounce it that way when you’re talking to me. You should call me Jammer Margaret.” That was our introduction to Margaret, the Jammer (driver) for our Red Bus tour. We were to ride Bus 93 up the Going-to-the-Sun road to Logan Pass at the Continental Divide.
The people who drive these buses are called “Jammers.” The job hearkens back to the days when the buses had manual transmissions. If you’ve ever driven a manual transmission vehicle in difficult terrain you know what it’s like to down shift in a crucial moment. It can be, how should I say, gratingly loud, especially if you’re driving a large vehicle with a big flywheel on an ascent or descent on a mountain with 5.7% grade. I know a lot of you reading this have never heard anyone grinding their clutch, but trust me when I tell you that everyone within 20 yards of you would know you were trying to force the car to do something it wasn’t prepared to do. Drivers were labeled “Gear Jammers,” which over the years was shortened to Jammers.
Jammer Margaret got us all settled into our seats. She covered some housekeeping things like we weren’t to open or close the doors ourselves (the door mechanisms are fragile) and we could only stand up to look through the open roof when the bus was stopped. We took off. It’s a 3,300 foot climb from the Visitor Center at Apgar to Logan Pass at 6,646 feet. That’s a lot of up. There were times as we climbed that a mere three feet of space was between my door and a few thousand feet straight down. The National Park Service does not block scenery with guard rails.
I’ll be honest; I was afraid the whole thing would be way too hokey to enjoy. Happily I was wrong. Jammer Margaret turned out to be very knowledgable and a hoot. We stopped at Lake McDonald Lodge for a quick walk through. As she pulled up to the front door, she said “This lodge is a great example of “Parkitecture” at it’s best!” We were in and out of the bus multiple times to check things out. She pointed out and explained avalanche chutes, showed us how to make our own
glacial “flour,” rock dust that is responsible for the remarkable color of the water. The secret is to rub two of the soft rocks together; the resulting powder is the glacial flour. Margaret was also given to cornball jokes. I won’t torture you with all of them, but here’s a sample. “Did you notice the trees in this area that have their bark stripped off,” she asked. We nodded, expecting wisdom. “They’re called ‘silent dogs’….because they’re barkless!” When we drove through tunnels, she honked the horn and made us all whoop and holler. In an eerie moment of foreshadowing, she pointed out an area of forest that was ripe for a fire due to its age and the amount of canopy
cover. A few days later that area would become a part of the Howe Ridge Fire. Speaking of fire, there was a lot of it surrounding the park, and the mountains were overcast with smoke. A few of the regular tour stops were closed as well, so our ride had been shortened. We arrived at Logan Pass and the Continental Divide. As we began the return to the lower visitor center, Margaret announced that we’d be taking a detour to one of her favorite spots since we had extra time. She flew down the road and pulled into a closed pull-out, ignoring the signs and steering the wide bus between traffic cones. We piled out of the bus to see the Sacred Dancing Cascade, a beautiful set of falls along McDonald creek. She pointed out a natural rock platform where Blackfeet, Salish and Kootenai people held religious ceremonies for many hundreds of years. They still do to this day.
Over the course of the trip, we had a chance to talk some to Jammer Margaret. She fell in love with Montana years ago on a vacation, and returned as often as she could. She is a professional chauffeur in Chicago, so becoming a Jammer was a no-brainer for her and a way to get her out to her beloved Montana every year. As these things go, her love for Montana wasn’t generally shared, so she has found herself on her own but still working toward her goal of moving to Montana. Her son has joined her and they spend the season working for the National Park Service. She aced the Jammer training, and she’s proud to drive Bus #93. She told us the bus was haunted; that there are times when the horn honks on its own or gauges act funny. She also told a great story about Jammer Robby; that’s Robert Lucke she’s talking about. Jammer Robby also drove Bus #93. Robby drove a Red Bus for years. He was a teacher and an accomplished writer and storyteller who wrote a training manual for the Jammers. Robby was one of the people who inspired Margaret. He passed earlier this year, but not before personally dictating his obituary for the local paper. He was working on a book about his experiences driving Bus 93: It’s called “93 and Me.” Margaret told us that the book would come out sometime this year, so keep your eyes out for it. Fortunately someone saw fit to make a video interview with him in 2008. I watched him talk about the Red Busses, and it was easy to see how he influenced the Jammer culture, and Margaret. She spoke of Robby with great affection, and fiercely loves the haunted Bus she inherited from him.
We pulled into the lot and dutifully waited for Margaret to let us out. Some of us forgot the rule about not opening/closing the doors earlier in the day, but by the time we arrived we knew our place. We all got our photos and Ben asked to have a picture with her if for no other reason than to document the difference in their height. We exchanged cards. If we ever need a chauffeur in Chicago, we’ll know exactly who to call. If Margaret ends up reading this blog, I hope she knows she made our day. Robby would be proud of her.