WEST GLACIER — Two months ago, Rhonda Hendricks was undergoing treatment at Kalispell Regional Medical Center's infusion room when she let the nurses in on a little secret. Rhonda, 49, said that while she had been to Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road's opening day, she had always wanted to be the first one to the top.
Of course, accomplishing such a feat would be tough, even without Rhonda's challenges. The Kalispell woman was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003 and had been battling the disease for a decade when she found out earlier this year that a tumor had formed on her stomach. A specialist said it was unlikely she could beat the disease and she was put in hospice care.
It was uncertain if Rhonda would be healthy enough to go to Glacier on the Sun Road's opening day this year, much less lead the pack. But at 8:41 p.m. on July 2, she rode the first Red Bus of the season to Logan Pass.
In early May, soon after Rhonda told the infusion room nurses of her opening day wish, they contacted her husband, Doug Hendricks. Doug and the nurses, including Sandy Shaw, Amy Vanderpool and Karen South, secretly made some calls to see if they could organize the trip. Working with Xanterra Parks and Resorts and the National Park Service, Rhonda's friends and family were able to secure her a spot on the first Red Bus trip of the season.
On Wednesday afternoon, when Glacier National Park officials announced that the Sun Road would open sometime that night, Doug rushed home to get Rhonda. Three hours later, with Rhonda still wiping away tears from the news of her surprise trip, her close family and friends arrived at the Lake McDonald Lodge for their trip up the road.
For the Hendricks family, Glacier and the national parks have always been a special place. The family moved to the Flathead Valley from Missouri 14 years ago and since then they have spent as much time in the park as they could. When their two children, Nicholas and Vicki, were younger, the family would often take long road trips to hit as many of the western parks as they could. But Glacier has always been Rhonda's favorite.
"It's always been near and dear to my heart ever since we first got up here," Rhonda said. "Whenever I cross into Glacier, all of my cares just fade away. This is such a blessed place."
About 15 minutes after Rhonda's Red Bus departed the Lake McDonald Lodge, it arrived at Avalanche, where the gate blocking the final 16 miles to Logan Pass was unlocked just after 8 p.m. The Sun Road was open for the season. Nearby visitors cheered and one kid screamed, "The Sun Road is open! The Sun Road is open!"
As the Red Bus climbed its way up the road — around The Loop and along the Weeping Wall — a line of cars quickly began to follow the bus on its way to the Continental Divide.
As the sun inched closer to the horizon, Rhonda and her family traded stories about their favorite trips to the park.
"It doesn't matter how many times you come up here or what time of year it is, you'll always see something different," Doug said.
Vicki Sims, Rhonda's 29-year-old daughter, said the last decade has been tough for their family, but that they were thankful to be given an opportunity to let her mother achieve her dream.
"Not every day is good for her," Sims said. "But this is a good day."
An hour after leaving the Lake McDonald Lodge, the Red Bus pulled into the parking lot at Logan Pass. There the family watched the sunset and mountain goats walk along the high cliffs across the valley.
While at Logan Pass, Lauren Alley of the Glacier National Park Conservancy presented the Hendricks family with a certificate commemorating a memorial tree planted in the park in Rhonda's honor.
The Hendricks don't know what will happen next for their family, or how much more time they have with Rhonda. But they plan on spending as much time as they can this summer in her favorite place.
"I tease my friends that at my funeral I want people to know three things about me: that I loved God, my family and Glacier National Park," she said. "I just love it here."