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Icons and Innovators

Red Jammers: The resilient relics of Glacier

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Once again, snow is softly falling in Glacier National Park, bedecking its peaks in shrouds of white, forcing the closure of the steep and winding Going-to-the-Sun road. Come spring, the laborious task of plowing the passes will start.

Here and there, the bright red berries of a mountain ash brighten the landscape. It's an iconic colour, a favourite of migrating birds, and the hue of the paint found on the US national park's 33 historic buses, now at rest for the season.

Each 11-passenger, canvas-topped bus is in considerably good health for a near-octogenarian with an average odometer reading of 600,000 miles of hard service. Built by the White Bus company in the mid-’30s, these tourers are the oldest continuously operating fleet in the world. They very nearly weren't.

In 1999, a bus left the Lake McDonald Lodge after dropping off a load of tourists, and the wheels literally came off the carriage. Rot and stress had caused serious cracks in the frame and, rather alarmingly, the front axle parted from the body. Thankfully, the incident happened at low speed, and not further along the steep and unforgiving road.

Inspection of the fleet showed nearly all the other buses to be similarly afflicted. They were instantly pulled from the roads, and a herd of modern white vans took up the task of shuttling tour groups through the Montana wilds while heads were scratched and the feasibility costs of a full-fleet restoration were calculated. The prognosis was not good.

Even so, the pressure to find a way to keep the buses on the road was immense. The Red Jammers, as they are known, are as much a feature of Glacier National Park as the mountains themselves.

The nickname for both the buses and their drivers comes from the sound made by grinding gears and straining transmissions as Jammers toil up the park's inclines. As far back as 1914, buses tackled rough and muddy conditions, most often with carefree young men at the wheel who perhaps did not always double-clutch with the necessary smoothness.

Early buses wore out with alarming regularity, but the White buses built between 1935 and 1938 were immensely strong. In fact, had not 1989 seen an ill-advised refitting project replace the noisy-but-sturdy manual transmissions with automatics, including a power-steering system which put added stress on the chassis, the frame issues of 1999 might never have arisen.

For those who drove these buses in the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, life was the proverbial bowl of cherries. Nattily outfitted in a uniform of leather boots, riding pants and sharp-looking navy blazer, the mostly college-age drivers were infamous for sweeping female tourists off their feet. They also were not shy about chatting up a comely maid or two, something that made the male hotel staff incandescent with rage. The annual softball tournament between the Jammers and the Lodge staff was something of a bloodbath.

As big-band swing turned into rock'n'roll, the Red Jammer buses plied their way up and down Going-to-the-Sun. Both a National Historic and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, the road bisects the park, winding up and over the Continental Divide. It was built in 1932, and avalanches, rockfalls and poor weather often leave its surface rutted and cracked.

In the morning, a Jammer driver would crank-start his mount and head out into the crisp mountain air, shattering the stillness with a grinding of gears and perhaps a blast on the air-horn. If the weather was good, the removable canvas top was removed, affording panoramic views. Armed with corny jokes and a required knowledge of the area's geological and human histories, a successful Jammer could often find his pockets stuffed with tips at the end of a day.

Ford stepped in to save the buses in 1999, with a $6.5m restoration that involved separating the sound wooden bodies from the cracked and ruined frames. It took three full years and over 200 workers, but the reborn Jammers emerged with  sturdy 5.4-litre power plants capable of running on either gasoline or propane. Underneath the ‘30s shape is a lengthened chassis from a heavy-duty Ford F-450 truck. Wiring and sound insulation was also improved and updated.

Even though the heart and skeleton of these beasts has been updated, their original essence remains. Door handles are still chromed levers of the sort you can see on a 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe. The canvas top still comes off when the sun shines. Many of the drivers are former Jammers who drove here in their youth, and make the seasonal return in their retirement to wow the crowds – and perhaps wink at the women passengers.

Still others are young part-timers who couldn't imagine a summer not lived behind the wheel of a historic vehicle, driving one of the most challenging and beautiful roads in America. The days are long and time off is rare, but the camaraderie and the beauty of the high mountain passes makes the work worthwhile.

In January 2013, the US National Park Service issued a statement clarifying its intent to keep the Jammers in service while moving towards ensuring that the fleet would be both safe and efficient. If such commitments are kept, the buses could well outlast the park's glaciers, projected to disappear within the next two decades.

For now, the Jammers rest up for the 2014 season, sheltered from the winter snows. Another year is on the horizon, another year of service, another year of carrying people forward across the landscape and backwards in time.