Monday, November 12, 2007

We left for Eugene, Oregon Wednesday morning, driving through rain, fog, smoke, smog, and two-hours of standstill Portland traffic to get there. It just might have been worth it.

There is more vitality in downtown Eugene than in most Western cities of its size, supporting a variety of both quaint and urbane shops. Neighborhoods of classic houses are colorful yet well-maintained, interspersed with several parks--eight of them dog parks. The cost of living isn’t supposed to be too bad here either. Seems pretty ideal.

Yet, when considering Santa Fe’s cultural diversity and artistic plenty, all city’s we’ve seen to-date pale in comparison—even if they are more affordable. We may end up in Santa Fe after all.
The Monday morning ferry took us to Bainbridge Island, from which we departed into the Olympic National Park. The road through Port Angeles to Kalama Beach took us through lush forest and lakeside vistas. We arrived at our campground just after nightfall.

Olympic National Park contains our nation’s only rainforest, which receives 12 times more rain than New Mexico each year. It makes a difference. The air was perpetually cool and damp. Life is visible on everything, everywhere. Layer upon layer of life. Even in our developed campground, moss veiled undisturbed areas of pavement. In the forest, a green spectrum of mosses, ferns, salmonberry and blackberry bushes filled all space between the trees. The same green that carpeted every inch of the forest floor also cloaked 250-foot spruce and fir trees.

We stayed two nights in the park. One day it was clear, the next rainy; we managed to cook breakfast both mornings, as wave after wave crashed into the shore.
Its been said that once you’ve seen a part of the west, the rest looks just about the same. This is true. Most of the land is either mountain and pine, or grassy rolling hills dotted with shrubbery of some kind.

Upon closer inspection, however, we found the landscapes of each western state were subtly distinct. New Mexico, for instance, has less grass and more juniper and chamisa. West Texas grassland is dotted with prickly pear and mesquite. The grasses of South Dakota are generally uninterrupted, seamless. The gently rolling hills of Northeastern Wyoming are like this too, but clusters of deciduous trees also dot the landscape. We saw the same granite cliff faces shine from the sides of mountains that you’d expect to see in Colorado, but those of Wyoming were somehow unique. More colorful, more jagged, more or less made distinct by rivers of red and yellow trees. Western Montana’s waves of bald mountains were impressive, too.

Washington was unique as well. The hills rolled more gently; the grass, apparently, is not always golden but greens with summer. Some parts are very brushy. And after crossing the Columbia River, the land became increasingly more mountainous.

Eventually, we found ourselves staring upward at the snowy crests of the Cascades; then at the rushing water of Snoqualmie Falls. “How is it possible,” we wondered, “that Seattle is less than 60 miles from here?”

Seattle’s tree-lined streets were ablaze with autumn color, and its sky was clouded only some of the time. Yes, we actually saw Seattle with a blue sky! Meredith’s friend Charlie had invited us to stay with him in his downtown apartment. We gratefully accepted. Over the course of the weekend, he and his girlfriend, Ci Ci, led us on a walking tour of the city—to their favorite bar, a beer-tastic pub, to the shopping district, the REI flagship, and the nearby Pike’s Place Market. There, we ate pastries, shopped for fresh vegetables, and sipped hot coffee to warm us up in the cool of the day. Meredith also found almost-stylish and very comfortable walking shoes at the Nordstrom’s downtown. After all the walking we’ve done in city’s along the way, her feet were in dire need. Tyson is still on the lookout.
We chose to visit Missoula for the purpose of scoping out the University and getting a feel for the city. Meredith was considering attending graduate school here. We stayed at the swanky Bel Aire Motel on Broadway, near the drag of funky boutiques, bars and coffee shops. The days were grey and cold. Montana had certainly seen the arrival of autumn, and piles of leaves lined every sidewalk in town.

We celebrated Halloween here at the Iron Horse, a cozy bar downtown. College students flocked here by the dozens. Costumes galore. The guy dressed as a toilet was the most, in our opinion, should have won some kind of prize for Most Inventive Costume.

The city’s charming neighborhoods, tasty food, and stylish shops were impressive, as were the bald and rounded mountains that surrounded it. But Missoula lacked diversity. Diversity, we decided, is important.

After pastries and coffee at a local’s cafĂ©, errands were run. Meredith bought a new down sleeping bag. Tyson visited camera stores in search of sensor cleanser for his camera. And after buying these and other new items, we sent a big box back home full of things we may not of needed after all.

We left by noon, and headed west for Seattle.
We left the quaint town of Buffalo Monday afternoon, drove through Sheridan and turned west for Yellowstone. The route we chose required that we drive through the Big Horn Mountains.

This region appears as just one of many generic green spots on the map. In reality, these mountains are anything but generic. Rather, they are towering, imposing, ancient. They are crimson cliffs, foggy canyons, rushing waterfalls, undulating fields of gold, shades of purple, with passes that require second gear. They are part of the most inspiring drive yet.

We’ve been listening to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History since we left Austin. Upon finishing chapters on the history of the civil right’s movement, we happened to visit Central Little Rock High School, the first school to integrate. Very apropos.
We finished the entire reading upon our approach to Yellowstone, and were thus inspired to listen to Rage Against the Machine. Perhaps it wasn’t the romantic experience one might anticipate having as they approached the country’s first national park, but it seemed to be appropriate in its own way.

We arrived at night, just before the clouds, and set up our tent at one of the two campgrounds that were still open, Lewis Lake. It rained through the night, and snowed fluffy fat flakes through the next afternoon. We decided that at least Old Faithful should be visited, regardless of the weather, and went. Bundled up on the platform with hot chocolate in hand, we watched as sheets of water shot into the white sky. Impressed and inspired, we spent the remainder of the day driving around the park to visit other geyser attractions. Artist Paint Pots. Mud Volcano. Waterfalls. Ours were the first footprints in the snow.
We knew it must have gotten cold that night, because our waterbottles, our rainfly, the cloth pulls of our tent zippers were all frozen stiff. The temperature sunk to a low of 6 degrees that night. We ate breakfast in the car, packed up camp, and drove through the magnificent Tetons. The words to describe their beauty are difficult to find. Huge. Glacial. Vast. Humbling.

We enjoyed breakfast in Jackson, WY. Next stop: Missoula, MT.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

In essence, our road trip begins here. The Badlands. A truly lunar place of cracked and eroding jaggedness, in layers of red and ochre, where golden grasslands flow between formations like a great sea. As we winded our way to the Sage Creek campsite, some distance from the visitor center, we encountered miles-large towns of wagging prairie dog tails and excited barks. Bison grazed beside the road.

Maps can be deceiving. Pick a place, whether a city or a campsite, and instantly you develop some picture in your mind of what to expect. So far, we’ve found that this image and reality rarely correspond (except in Iowa and Nebraska, that is, because they were just as flat and corn-filled as we had anticipated). The drive to our campsite was much longer than we thought and was nowhere close to the formations for which the Badlands are known. It was instead deep in the prairie grassland, heavily-worn so also very dusty, primitive and secluded.

Although the site, in some ways, was missing some of our desired features, that it was primitive and secluded suited us perfectly. Tyson took a few photos before we settled down for the night, and Meredith assisted in holding down some photo equipment in the breeze.

The breeze was cool; the night was cold. It was dark by 8 o’clock, and we buried ourselves inside our sleeping bags soon after. Tyson proposed that we sleep out, and it was the first time Meredith had done so since Girl Scout camp in fourth grade. It was wonderful.

The stars appeared fainter in the sky than we expected, only because moon was so brilliantly full. Shadows lingered through the night, and coyote howls woke both us in the middle of it.

The sun hadn’t yet risen when we awoke for the day. Just gradations of blue to orange to yellow touched the horizon.

After breakfast, we packed up the car and began a meandering drive out of the park. A herd of bison here, white-tailed deer and bighorn sheep there, a Swainson’s hawk floating overhead. We pulled over several times for photo shoots and short hikes into the land.

We left that evening for the Black Hills, bypassing the well-advertised Wall Drug.


Oh, my. What can we say about the Black Hills. The granite spires of the pine-covered mountains were stunning. The relentless billboards for kitsch roadside attractions were not.

We arrived there at dusk and, after a quick bite to eat at a Custer pub, slept out in the moonlight.

One thing we had discovered the night before at the Badlands, is that there is a difference between Tyson’s 600-fill down bag and Meredith’s six-year-old synthetic one. Tyson wakes up cozy, warm and hooded, and Meredith wake’s up with crazy hair and a cold face. Yes, it is no longer the bag it used to be. It will be laid to rest later this week in Missoula after our visit to REI.

Again the bags were tested, and we warmed ourselves with piping hot pancakes and fresh-boiled coffee the next morning. Had it been up to Meredith, we would have eaten cereal, but Tyson brought enthusiasm to the table and we cooked in the cold. It was worth it.

We devoted the day to viewing our nation’s monuments, and Crazy Horse was our first stop. Although the $20 entrance fee seemed steep, we didn’t ask any questions. Certainly, we thought, the money was funding something of great worth.

Or, maybe not.

The view of Crazy Horse’s face from the road is much better than the one you see inside this sad roadside attraction that desperately poses as a serious monument. However, if you expect to see paintings of Native Americans on velvet canvases, you wont be disappointed. With Crazy Horse in our rearview mirror, we turned to our Lonely Planet guidebook for insight into the monument. After all, maybe we had missed something. There it was described by Ian Frasier as “a ruin only in reverse.” Hmmm…

An hour and $20 poorer, we were somewhat disenchanted which led us to a drive-by viewing of Mount Rushmore. Hell no, we weren’t going to spend $6 to park and more for who knows what. Absolutely no standing, stopping, or parking were allowed, but by the grace of God we got a red light in front the park, and Tyson whipped out his camera and snapped a few through the car window. We felt didn’t miss much; even from the road we had a premiere—albeit distant—view of our nations’ fathers. Thank the Japanese for the Canon zoom lens!

We pulled over a few miles past Mount Rushmore to stretch our legs. It was still cold. Really, really cold. Rather than brave the elements for sites of unknown promise, we decided to drive onward to Buffalo, Wyoming.

We detoured to witness Devil’s Tower, driving along the rolling landscape, into the forests, and finally up around the tower itself. It looked like the stump of a giant tree. According to Indian legend, seven sisters walking in the forest encountered a vicious bear.
They sought refuge. As the bear approached, the land on which they stood shot up into the sky. The bear clawed at the rising land, giving shape to the tower we know today. It is known to native cultures as The Bear Den. It seemed to be as good an explanation as any; we stood before it in awe.

We drove into the night to Buffalo.


We were delighted to find two of our three expected packages waiting for us at Buffalo’s Comfort Inn. The third would arrive Monday. This meant we would have to spend three nights in the small town of Buffalo while we were eager to drive onward into Yellowstone and the Tetons. We frowned with the feeling of slight disappointment.

This would be, however, a fortunate turn of events. Northeastern Wyoming is as rich in natural beauty as it is in charm, and we’ve spent the last few days exploring it.

Les, a hotel clerk and WWII navy man, recommended Saturday breakfast at Pistol Pete’s. We found it epitomized the American West, thoughtfully adorned with elk and deer trophies, plaque-mounted pistols, plastic eagle statues, and a dinosaur head. It was a fried-eggs-brisket-and-toast kind of place with smoking in the front and none in back. The food was delicious. Service was efficient and honest—though friendly might not be the first adjective that comes to mind. Tyson came close to buying a Pistol Pete’s T-shirt, but they didn’t have it in the color he wanted.

We drove to Sheridan that afternoon for the purpose of visiting an outfitter. Socks, gloves, hats, long underwear, and perhaps a new sleeping bag are all needed for the cold weather up north.

Again, maps can be deceiving. Sheridan was not the “po-dunk town” we might have imagined it to be. It is a beautifully historic one with a charming downtown area. No over-the-top tourist boutiques or small-town junk shops here, but an authentic medley of cool shops you’d expect to find in downtown Austin but with a small town flare.

Our visit to Mountain Works outfitter was a notable one. Not only did they have an impressive selection of gear, but the owner was bomb ass—and a woman! What she didn’t have in the store she found for us in newly-arrived boxes. She stayed open half an hour later and even threw in a few pairs of SmartWool socks. She recommended a great place for dinner—Oliver’s—which added to our awesome Sheridan, Wyoming experience.