LAKE MCDONALD – Under the morning sun, Sherri Camperchioli climbed into bus No. 108, turned the key and awakened seven decades of Glacier National Park history. The engine roared to life as the last passengers climbed aboard the iconic Red Bus for a tour of the Lake McDonald Valley and the North Fork.
As early as June 21, the Red Buses – affectionately called the “rubies on the crown” by drivers and mechanics – will once again be crossing Logan Pass and the Crown of the Continent. Owned by the National Park Service, but operated by Glacier Park, Inc., the “Reds” have been plying the roads of Glacier since the 1930s. Built by the White Motor Company between 1936 and 1939, the Model 706 touring bus was once common in National Parks across the West, but today only the Glacier fleet survives. It is the oldest, intact fleet of passenger vehicles in the United States and each one is valued at $250,000. Camperchioli, who began driving the buses last summer, still can’t get over the price tag.
“I can’t believe I get to do this,” she said, driving along Lake McDonald, heading for the Apgar Transit Center. “The fact that they entrust this historic bus to me is amazing.”
Camperchioli, 51, is a native of Las Vegas and was living in Ohio three years ago when she quit her job, sold her house and hit the road with a trailer and her dog. With her two kids out of the house, Camperchioli had an opportunity to take her life in a new direction. In the spring of 2010, she started working as the front desk manager at Glacier Park Lodge, but a few months later she went home to take care of her mother who was diagnosed with cancer. When Camperchioli came back to Glacier the following year, she didn’t want to be stuck indoors any longer.
So Camperchioli took the best demotion of her life and became a Red Bus driver, otherwise known as a “Jammer.” The nickname “Jammer” comes from the days when the buses had a double clutch transmission system and the drivers could be heard for miles around jamming the gears up and down the mountain.
Glacier was the first park in the United States to offer driving tours in 1914. In the early days, young men studying to become doctors and lawyers were recruited to drive the buses during the summer. Camperchioli said they were a “dapper” young bunch and, at one point in the 1920s, the National Park Service sent a memo to GPI, asking that young women not be seated in the front next to the drivers because the “Jammers” were too flirtatious. According to local legend, the drivers often joked that they had a girlfriend at every lodge and hotel.
Back then, “Jammers” were required to wear a white shirt, black tie, khaki pants and riding boots. They were also issued a driving hat that read “Jammer” on the back. A century later, the drivers dress in similar fashion, although the demographics have changed.
“Now the makeup of Red Bus drivers is a little different,” Camperchioli told her passengers. “It’s mostly retired men and college students who can get the summer off – and one middle-aged woman.”
Like her predecessors, Camperchioli still wears the white shirt and tie, but she’s traded in the pants for a khaki skirt. She also sports a pair of fiery red sunglasses that match both the bus and her personality.
Camperchioli and the more than 50 other Red Bus drivers who work in Glacier spend two weeks every spring learning the ins and outs of the park. Dave Eglsaer, transportation manager for GPI, says drivers are trained in three areas: safety, entertainment and information. Also, before drivers begin their first season on the job, Eglsaer and the veteran drivers take the rookies to Logan Pass the day before the Going-to-the-Sun Road opens and has each new driver take a bus down the road.
“I thought I was going to be terrified, but it was surprisingly comfortable,” Camperchioli said of her first trip down the mountain.
On this day, Camperchioli and her passengers were on a three-and-a-half hour tour through the North Fork. Along the way, Camperchioli tells passengers about the history of the area and answers questions. All the while, she keeps a keen eye out for wildlife.
“Bear! Bear! Bear!,” a passenger yelled from the back of the bus, as everyone on board strained their neck to take a look and fingers pointed to the spot where the bruin turned and ran back into the woods along Camas Road.
“Good eyes, guys,” Camperchioli said.
Today, the passengers on bus No. 108 would only see a bear and a deer. Last summer, Camperchioli said she wanted to keep track of how many bears she spotted, but after a few weeks she gave up – there were too many to count. In her short time as a driver, Camperchioli has acquired many stories. Just last July, she was driving a bus to Logan Pass when an inch and a half of rain fell in just 30 minutes, causing more than a dozen rockslides on the alpine section of the road. Nearly 150 vehicles were trapped and two people suffered minor injuries.
Camperchioli said her bus was just 50 yards from the largest slide at Big Bend.
As the odometer rolled over to 115,217 miles, the distance traveled since the bus’ last rebuild, Camperchioli parked No. 108 at the Lake McDonald Lodge. She would spend a few minutes polishing the bus before calling it a day. With the Sun Road’s impending opening, Camperchioli’s days are about to get much busier as she leads three, eight and nine-hour tours around the park. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
During the winter, Camperchioli works as a tour guide in Las Vegas. She said she hopes to work at numerous parks around the West in the coming summers, but for now she’s content in Glacier.
“It’s not the most lucrative lifestyle, but it’s the most enjoyable,” she said. “I’m always just giddy about. I can’t believe it’s my job (to drive this bus). I’d volunteer if I could.”
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