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Going to the sun -- in grand style

If you look way down into the valley on your right, you might see a red spot on the rocks -- that's the bus I was driving yesterday."

The deadpan delivery of driver Jay Wilcox didn't slow down, even as his 1930s touring bus had to, as it negotiated the hairpin turns along the narrow Going-to-the-Sun Road of Glacier National Park, in Montana.

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He follows a proud tradition of nearly seven decades, transporting and informing and entertaining passengers who travel in the vintage open-top Red Buses along what many consider the most breathtaking road of the National Parks system.

The 32 renovated and restored 16-passenger buses are a national treasure, as surely a symbol of majestic Glacier as the mountain goat and the grizzly bear. And Wilcox is a "jammer," shortened over the years from "gear-jammer," drivers with strong arms who had to frequently double-clutch to coax their vehicles over the steep ups and downs of the park's mountainous roads.

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Despite the fact that most people drive their own cars through Glacier today, the red jammer buses (which have over time acquired the nickname of their drivers) remain as popular with tourists as they were in the first half of the last century, when many visitors arrived here in northern Montana by train.

Tourists can spend a few hours, or as long as a day, leisurely riding on one of the Red Bus tours that traverse the park, most of them crossing the Continental Divide at windswept Logan Pass.

"Most people [on the tours] have already driven their cars over some portion of the road," said Wilcox. "But you don't get to see as much when you always have to keep an eye on the road, and there's no way to look up to see the scenery like you can in the buses."

The entire fleet of Reds is completing its first full season after being pulled from the road in 1999 over safety concerns about stress fractures and corrosion of the chassis. There was worry then that the historic buses would be retired and, even worse, sold off to private collectors.

But an imaginative public-private arrangement resulted in Ford Motor Co. spending millions of dollars to rebuild the distinctive vehicles, replacing unseen parts with modern upgrades while maintaining the revered original interior and exterior appearance.

The vehicles now belong to Glacier National Park, operated for tours by the private Glacier Park Inc. Ford undertook the project as a Proud Partner in America's National Parks, a new program for major corporate contributors. The automaker also welcomed the challenge to its engineering skills in seamlessly melding the old and new. (White Motor Co. and Bender, the original body maker, went out of business years ago.)

Standard for touring

In the 1930s, the National Park Service decided to develop a standardized tour bus for Western parks. Traffic congestion and unreliable private autos were starting to cause problems for visitors.

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Four manufacturing companies entered the competition, and the White Motor Co. Model 706, with a powerful six-cylinder engine, was selected, covered with a wide-grille Bender body. Over the years, some 500 of these custom, spacious sightseeing vehicles were produced for use in Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Glacier.

Parks chose the color of their new tour buses -- Yellowstone, yellow; Yosemite, white; and Glacier, red.

Howard Hays, who operated the tour bus fleet in Glacier, picked a pail of ripe red mountain ash berries and asked the vendor to match the color. In 1936, the distinctive Red Buses, with smart black trim, went into service.

The White Motor buses in other parks were phased out by the 1960s, too difficult and costly to repair. But the Glacier Reds had established themselves as an irreplaceable part of the park's culture. The open-top vehicles were ideally suited to expose the overhead splendors of the mountain park to passengers being carried over the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which opened in 1933. Tourists and park officials refused to let them fade away.

The Glacier buses saw continuous service, except for three years during World War II, until they were taken off the road in 1999. A decade earlier, the fleet had been upgraded with automatic transmissions, power steering, modern brakes and tubular axles. The axles, some experts believe, weakened the front frames and led to chassis cracks.

The decision to remove the historic Reds was a difficult one, because full repair was impossible, given the lack of parts. "They're a wonderful icon, but even an icon isn't worth someone's safety," remarked Dale Scott, then-president of Glacier Park Inc., in 1999. Building a new generation of replicas didn't appeal to traditionalists and would have cost too much.

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Replacing the chassis and restoring the body and interior was the final choice of Ford, which funded the two-year project. Plywood floors were replaced with composite aluminum, fiberglass was blended with sheet metal, hand-cut safety glass was substituted for the original windows, fire-retardant materials were used for seats.

The retrofitting allowed installation of bi-fuel engines. Clean-burning propane is now used by the Glacier Reds, as by growing numbers of tour and shuttle buses in other national parks concerned about the ravages of air pollution from gasoline-powered vehicles. Propane fueling stations were built at each end of the park, for use by the Reds and other vehicles.

A classic symbol

"The reasons that [buses] were introduced not only still exist today, but they are even more important," Michael Bento, of the National Park Foundation, said last year. "The problem in national parks isn't too many people, it's too many cars."

The return of the full fleet of Red jammers for this year's season was warmly greeted by the public. (One bus was kept in its original condition as a museum piece at the park.) More than 20,000 visitors rode the antique Reds (still called "Whites" by old-timers for their maker, not their color) last season.

The forest fires that blazed through parts of Glacier this summer curtailed some tours for a week or so, but the Reds were never threatened and kept operating most routes. They continue to carry eager visitors on tours from Lake McDonald Lodge in the south to Canada's Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes Park in the north, (Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, as the adjoining lands are called, is the world's first such international park.)

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The change in the Red Buses' running gear and the change in times have created a different corps of drivers. Women and seniors have joined young men in navigating the antique Reds over the mountains. Automatic transmissions don't need the strong muscles of yesterday's jammer and a wireless speaker system now lets every rider hear the commentary without the driver having to shout over a noisy engine.

Heaters were also installed for today's driver comfort; passengers, however, still rely on the vehicle's heavy blue blankets to cover up on chilly days, even in mid-July.

For drivers, a vast knowledge of park lore, geology and botany, Indian history and corny jokes is still a prerequisite.

"When they were thinking about new transmissions for the buses, they just looked at us jammers, and it came to them: shiftless," recounted one driver.

The 25-foot, oak frame buses still exceed the 21-foot safety limit for other vehicles on Glacier's main road, and retain the exemption. The safety records of the buses has been exemplary. There have been accidents, but few with notable injuries. Even the tour bus that lost an axle in 1999, alerting officials to the fractures, was going too slow to cause passenger harm.

Like most other jobs at Glacier, driving the Reds is a seasonal occupation, ending just before the glacial mountain blizzards sweep in to close Going-to-the-Sun Road and resuming after the massive spring road clearing. But the buses and drivers face a brighter future with the renewed commitment to preserving this motoring heritage.

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"There is no more representative symbol of Glacier National Park than these classic Red Buses," said Jim Maddy, president of the National Park Foundation. "To see them again rolling across the Continental Divide on the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road is a dream come true."

When you go

Getting there: Glacier National Park is in northwest Montana. Most folks drive there, approaching the park on Route 2 or Route 89. Yellowstone National Park and adjoining Grand Teton National Park are a half-day's drive away, and many travelers from the East choose to combine the three for a longer vacation.

* The best bet is to fly to a major Western airport and rent a car. Northwest and Continental airlines offer connecting service between BWI and Kalispell, Mont., the closest airport. The airport has a limited shuttle service to park lodges. Amtrak (800-872-7245; www.amtrak.com) operates a Chicago-Seattle train (Empire Builder) that stops year-round at West Glacier and seasonally at East Glacier.

Glacier National Park, West Glacier, MT 59936

406-888-7800

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www.nps.gov / glac

* Open year-round, with a single-car admission of $10 good for a week. But heavy -- hundreds of inches -- snowfall annually closes most of Going-to-the-Sun Road from fall to spring. Lodges and visitor centers mostly operate from late May into October. Openings and closings vary each year, and for various road segments.

* Red Buses: When the lodges are open, interpretive scenic tours leave daily (a few, several times daily) from the major hostelries -- Glacier Park Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Rising Sun Motor Inn, Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada. A 3.5-hour round-trip ride from Lake McDonald to Logan Pass is $25 (2003 prices). An 8.5-hour circle tour from Glacier Park Lodge through the park is $65, and includes lunch; the same cost applies to a round-trip tour from the lodge to Waterton's Prince of Wales. Children under 12 pay half-price on all tours. (Drivers appreciate tips, though it's not necessary.) Reservations are required and can be made at any park lodge or by calling 406-892-2525.

Lodging and dining: Glacier has a variety of lodgings, from hotels to campgrounds and two back-country chalets. Glacier Park Inc. operates most of the hotels and motels. For more information: 406-756-2444; www.glacierparkinc.com. An alternative is Apgar Village Lodge (406-888-5484; www.westglacier.com). National Park Service campground sites are mostly first-come, first-served.

Lodge dining rooms and informal lounges are the primary food options in the park. There are more choices at East Glacier and West Glacier, towns just outside the park boundaries.


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