Camping Our Way Down the Columbia River Gorge

This week, my girlfriend Lisa was on spring break from grad school, so on Sunday we packed up tent, food, and cameras and drove out the Columbia River Gorge to spend a couple days exploring, hiking, and pretty much just seeing what there was to see. Leaving Seattle, we didn’t have any particular agenda, except that we wanted to drive through the Yakima River Canyon on the way down, and we wanted to visit the Goldendale Observatory on the first night.

When we reached the canyon, we found a little place called the Umtanum Recreation Area, where we pulled over for lunch. From the parking lot, there was a bridge over the Yakima River which led to a hiking trail, so after lunch we hiked across the bridge, over some railroad tracks, and into the canyon. There wasn’t much sign of Spring yet, sadly, except for a few flowers, a bumblebee, and some trees that were just beginning to bud.

As we made our way back along the trail, we wondered if the railroad tracks were active, given that they were so easy to access– a few minutes, a freight train rumbled down the line where I’d be standing a few minutes prior. It was an impressive sight, and trains would be a recurring part of our journey: the Columbia River Gorge is an incredibly active freight corridor, with BSNF trains rumbling past several times an hour. On our second night, camped at Beacon Rock State Park, the train tracks were maybe fifty feet away up a cliffside, and the rumbles and whistles of freight trains were a constant companion through the night.

We had planned on staying at Brooks Memorial State Park on the first night, based on some recommendations in Lisa’s guidebook, but upon arrival there we found that the whole park was still closed for winter. It was a bit of a letdown, given that it was 55 degrees and sunny (and also it wasn’t even actually winter any more). But it would be another recurring theme of our journeys– parks and scenic areas closed, mostly due to budget cuts that meant the parks could only afford to stay open during peak season.

So we pushed on, and found a campsite several miles down the road at Maryhill State Park. It was a nice place– our campsite was right on the Columbia River, and we spent a fair amount of time getting pictures of the river and the gorge. There was a truck stop right across the river, which spoiled the scenery a bit– although it did make for some nice night pictures. And in the morning, we were both grateful it was there, as we availed ourselves of the opportunity for a hot breakfast after spending a restless night on the hard, cold, almost gravelly ground of our tentsite.

On the second day, we made our way down the gorge, stopping for a little hike along the Deschutes River, then lunching at a roadside overlook near The Dalles, Washington after our first two choices (both nearby parks) were, once again, closed for the season. In the afternoon, we drove out of the gorge toward Mt. Adams, exploring the area a bit and getting some great views of the mountain.

At one point, in trying to get to the Big Lava Beds from Trout Lake, we found ourselves on a snowy forest road, and eventually had to turn back, leaving the lava beds for another time. We headed back down to the gorge and camped for the night at Beacon Rock State Park– this plan was almost thwarted when the main camping area there was also Closed For Winter, but luckily there was a year-round campsite right on the river that we were able to set up camp in.

We had originally planned on climbing Beacon Rock in the morning, but after two clear and sunny days, we woke up to the sound of rain on the tent. So rather than take a mile-long trail up a slick rock into a windy, misty, sky, we headed down the road a bit to the Bonneville Dam. We got a personal tour from the guide, saw the fish ladder (including the underwater viewing area, which was pretty awesome, although it was only sparsely populated by fish– we’re already making plans to go back during the peak season).

The rest of the day was mostly occupied by getting home, although we did stop briefly at the Mt. St. Helens Visitors Center to see what there was to see (answer: not much, given the weather). There was a neat little mile-long loop over boardwalks through the nearby wetlands, which we did before heading home.

It was a fun trip, although after two nights of hard ground (Lisa didn’t have a sleeping pad, and I’d forgotten mine) interspersed by nearby nighttime trains, we were both ready for a decent night’s sleep. I’m looking forward to going back in the summer, when hopefully more places are open, and we get to see the gorge in full summer foliage.

But we did get some pretty awesome Winter and Spring photos, if I do say so myself. Click Mt. Adams to check out the full set of pics on Flickr.

Olympic Peninsula Redux

Last June I spent a few days driving around the Olympic Peninsula. I made it up to Hurricane Ridge, to the Hoh Rainforest, and the beaches, and even though the weather wasn’t always great, I enjoyed it immensely.

Later, relaying the details of the trip to my Dad on the phone, I mentioned that it would be a good place for us to go exploring and hiking for a few days. Dad and I have made plenty of similar trips before– in 2003, we went hiking in Wales, and in 2008, we spent a week together in Europe, taking the train from London to Berlin and stopping in Normandy for a few days to pay our respects at the D-Day sites. Not to mention all the trips we took when I was growing up.

Dad and I don’t get to see each other much these days– we live in opposite corners of America, and Dad’s work and travel schedule have kept him busy. So last Friday, May 3, when we met up to go exploring the Olympic Peninsula, it was the first time we’d actually seen each other in over 2 years. Not due to avoidance or anything…. just due to life. (Side note: one really shouldn’t let life do that.)

Anyway, our trip consisted of lots of driving, lots of hiking through the woods (and in snow, and over sand), lots of eating in greasy spoons, lots of talking and catching up, and (perhaps most surprisingly for the Olympic Peninsula) lots of sunlight. There were snow-capped mountaintops, clear views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and deep into Canada, vibrant sunsets over the Pacific, and warm sunlit beaches bearing more resemblance to the South Pacific than Washington state– at least until you stuck your foot in the water.

I’m really pleased with the entire set of photos I got from the trip (the full set can be seen here on Flickr), but here’s a few of my favorites:

Looking from the Dungeness Spit across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Mt. Baker in the distance:

Seagulls nesting on a rocky stack off Cape Flattery, at the very Northwest corner of the United States:

A Coast Guard cutter crossing La Push Harbor at sunset:

The Visitor Center at Hurricane Ridge:

Deer along the road near Hurricane Ridge:

The stacks at Rialto Beach (with my Dad in the foreground for comparison), with the famous hole-in-the-wall in the distance:

A sea anemone surrounded by pink lichen:

Starfish in the intertidal zone:

Ferns (and a spider) in the Hoh Rainforest:

An oceanside waterfall, at Third Beach near La Push:

Looking south from Third Beach toward The Giants’ Graveyard:

Marymere Falls:

A bald eagle high up in a treetop, overlooking the beach:

Looking from Port Angeles toward the Olympic Mountains:

I’m sorry, did I say “a few?” I meant fourteen. It’s just that the number of environments and ecosystems we crossed was so huge– from the ocean (above and below the water), to the coastal forest, to the inland rainforest, to the snow-capped mountaintops and everything in between– that it’s difficult to capture the range of what we saw in just a few pictures. And we had perfect weather the whole way, which is pretty extraordinary, given that most of the Olympic Peninsula is absolutely inundated with rain (the Hoh rainforest gets 140 inches a year).

And to get to spend four days catching up with Dad in the midst of all this cool wildlife and weather and scenery? Made it just about the best trip ever.

Mountains and Forests and Beaches, Oh My

There were a lot of events going on in Seattle last Saturday: the presentation of the Locus Awards (congrats, winners!). The Seattle Solstice Parade (which I took part in last year). My bi-weekly writing group. Throw in other interesting-sounding events like the Seattle Iranian-American festival and there was simply going to be no way to do everything I wanted to do.

Sometimes, the only way to win is not to play.

So instead of picking between various events in Seattle, I went on a road trip. I hadn’t been a good road trip since September of last year, and besides, I had a long weekend coming thanks to my night-to-day shift change at work. So on Thursday I packed up clothes, hiking gear, and camera, and caught the ferry, heading to Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula.

The Olympic Peninsula, for those of you unfamiliar with Washington state geography, is the huge chunk of land between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. It’s surprisingly remote, despite its size and proximity to Seattle. The Olympic Mountains take up the vast majority of the interior, and pretty much prevent travel through the middle of the peninsula– except for forest service roads, all the roads circle the perimeter.

When I set out, I didn’t have a specific plan in mind. There were a couple famous spots I wanted to see, but other than that, my plan was how my travel plans usually go: get there, explore, and see what there is to see.

My plan paid off almost right away, when I happened upon Dungeness, home to a rather stunning spit of land that juts out five and a half miles from the coast, steep oceanside bluffs, and some spectacular ocean views:

I spent the night at a little motel in the town of Port Angeles, and then on Friday headed into the mountains. Deep in the Olympics, almost twenty miles away from the highway turnoff along a winding, uphill road, lies the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, at 5,242 feet. It’s high enough that my ears popped plenty of times on the way up from sea level, but still well below the tallest mountains, which top out near 8,000 feet and are covered in snow 12 months a year. Even at the Visitor Center, there was still plenty of snow around the parking lot.

Walking along a short path and cresting the ridge, you could look north, all the way across the Salish Sea to Victoria, Canada, and even further, to the San Juan Islands and the British Columbia coast range many miles beyond.

Here’s a panorama of the view south from the Visitors Center (click for much larger):

Afterward, I headed all the back down out of the mountains and continued my loop around the perimeter of the peninsula. The whole area is rainy, especially the west side, which gets 140+ inches of rain a year. But even the dry side of the peninsula is still wet and lush, and all around the base and valleys of the mountains is dense, green rainforest. At the Sol Duc River, I stopped and hiked about a mile in to see Sol Duc Falls.

Afterward, I headed back out of the rainforest and drove all the way out to Cape Flattery, which is the Northwestern tip of the continental United States. Once again, utterly spectacular, albeit in a totally different way.

There’s a lot of Native American history on the peninsula as well, and several reservations, including the Makah Reservation, which consists of about forty square miles around Cape Flattery. The major town on the reservation is Neah Bay, and there’s a really good cultural museum there, although it was too late in the day to pay a visit. But I wish I had. There’s a tremendous amount of history on the peninsula, but unfortunately it’s easily lost in the current day poverty. Neah Bay was one of the most impoverished places I’ve ever seen, and the signs placed every hundred feet along the road saying things like “Meth equals Death” and “Drugs are not the Makah way” suggested that there are a lot of modern-day struggles that threaten to destroy a proud and ancient culture. It did, indeed, make me sad, although it also made me want to come back and learn more.

Here’s a panorama of Cape Flattery, and the view from the far Northwestern corner of the continental U.S:

I spent the night in a little motel along the north shore road, and on Saturday woke to a dreary, misty day. My plan had to do some beach hiking on the Pacific Coast, but the dramatic sea stacks that line the coast were barely visible in the mist, and the wind was fierce. Plus, the water was too high to see any of the area’s famous tidal pools (starfish and other such critters are apparently a common sight, when the tides are right). Alas, because of the weather, I didn’t stay long.

Instead I drove through the town of Forks. The town’s biggest claim to fame these days it that it’s where the Twilight books/movies take place, and it’s exploited that to boost its tourism industry, although it’s really too isolated to take great advantage of it. It’s a five-hour drive from Seattle, and the fact that it’s gained fame through a book series doesn’t change the fact that it’s a rainy, dreary place.

Clearly not all the residents feel the Twilight love, as seen in the window of one particular trailer:

Stopping at Forks just long enough for lunch, I made my way further south to the Hoh Rainforest, which is probably the rainiest place in Washington state (that’s saying a lot) at almost 150 inches of rain a year. It’s in a valley on the western side of the mountains, where all the Pacific weather gets trapped, and the result is a lot of rain, and an incredibly dense forest. There’s not a square inch of ground that doesn’t have something growing on it, and the air is so rich with nutrients and moisture that certain mosses are able to subsist directly off the air. In the second picture below, there are Hemlock trees that have grown so dense that they’ve actually fused together.

After about an hour hiking through the rainforest, I headed back out to the beach to see how things looked at low tide, but still didn’t have much luck. Not surprisingly, the coast was as rainy and windy as ever.

I had been planning to stay on the peninsula one more night and head back, but it was early. Thanks to the poor conditions on the beach, I hadn’t stayed long, so I headed back to Seattle early. I definitely want to come back, though. There’s all sorts of cool day hikes and multi-day hikes out there, and I want to give the beaches another shot later in the summer.

For those interested, here’s the full photo set from the trip.

Now I’m back in Seattle, back at work (on the day shift now, yay!), and shifting gears to focus on the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Life goes on, but pictures remain… and, I hope, hint at more adventures to come.

Montana, Wyoming, and Everywhere In Between

On Sunday, I got back from a twelve day, eleven night driving, hiking, and backpacking trek through Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks. Over the course of the trip, we drove about 2,000 miles, backpacked 55 miles, spent ten straight nights in tents, and took maybe four showers. We ate enough granola bars and peanut butter to choke a grizzly bear, and in the course of our trek, we suffered a sprained ankle, a blister, sore shoulders, bruises, and the occasional bout of near-hypothermia. (Well, at least it felt that way.)

On previous trips, I’ve blogged and documented almost every single day, but given the vagaries of connections in the Montana wilderness, not to mention the difficulties of carrying a laptop into the backcountry, that just wasn’t possible this trip. So now I sit here, in the aftermath of it all– endless fascinating stories that don’t really connect unless I want to write something novel-length; several hundred pictures; a few amusing and/or weird videos that do not really belong on the planet Earth.

Heck, I’ll start with one of those. When people think of Yellowstone National Park, they think of bears, or crowds, or Old Faithful, or a volcano that will one day kill us all. But when you’re standing in or near the caldera, in one of the countless geyser basins that litter the area, the utter strangeness of the landscape makes it difficult to remember you’re still standing on our own planet. The stark muddy landscape, with orange and brown bacteria mats spreading as far as the eye can see, and bubbling hot springs that throw up a field of steam so dense it’s like you’re walking through sulfurous London fog… well, it’s not planet Earth. It’s the sort of place you’d expect to find Captain Kirk fighting a guy in a lizard suit, is all I’m saying.

While we were at Yellowstone, we walked around Shoshone Lake, which is believed to be the largest lake in the lower 48 states not accessible by road. Only hand-powered watercraft (canoes and kayaks) are allowed on it, and when you reach the top of a hill on the lake’s edge, you can essentially look out and see miles and miles of scenery– water, forests, and marshland– that looks no different than it would have to a fur trader in the area three hundred years ago.

On the southwest corner of Shoshone Lake is the Shoshone Geyser Basin, which is a prime example of one of those alien landscapes I mentioned. It has eighty geysers in a 1600×800 foot area, and, well, you’d best watch your step if you’re walking through it. It’s a landscape that smacks you in the head and says, “Why, yes, you ARE standing inside a 45-mile-wide volcano. Have a nice, non-terrifying day! Muwahahaha.”


Both Yellowstone and Glacier National Park are also famous for their wildlife. Before either park lets you camp in the backcountry, they subject you to a fifteen-minute video detailing how to avoid bears, and what to do in the event of a bear encounter (answer: not be an idiot). In fact, a large swath of Yellowstone was closed to hikers, thanks to a recent bear attack that resulted in a fatality. So we followed the advice in the video, but despite that (or perhaps because of it), we didn’t even see any bears at all. Darn it!

We did see plenty of bison, and chipmunks (see right), and one eighteen-inch long critter that looked sort of like a red fox, except that red foxes don’t climb trees.

There were plenty of elk, too, including a few lounging right in the middle of Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District, aka the biggest town in Yellowstone.


So Yellowstone was pretty awesome. Glacier National Park was pretty awesome, too– I’ll add a few pictures to the post, but otherwise I think my previously-posted poem about Glacier National Park speaks for itself. Yellowstone wins as far as weird scenery and wildlife, but Glacier wins when it comes to sheer, raw nature. (Until the day Yellowstone erupts and kills us all, that is.)

As for Grand Teton National Park, we only got to spend one night there, unfortunately, and didn’t get to hike in the mountains at all. But they were still darn impressive. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to spend more time there. They’re only… fifteen hours away… through some of the most monotonous scenery this side of Texas. (Montana and eastern Washington are cool and all, but the driving does get old after a while.)

If you’re interested, here’s the full set of photos from the trip.

And, for one last obligatory video, I leave you with Old Faithful erupting. (Skip to 1:50 if you can’t stand the wait.)


On the Road Again: Driving the Cascade Loop

Despite having lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost ten months, surrounded by the oceans and Puget Sound, I haven’t gotten out of Seattle much. I’ve only been on one day hike, and one camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula.

So since summer weather in this neck of the woods (by which I mean “sunny and higher than 70 degrees”) is fleeting, I decided to take advantage of it and actually see some of the outdoor scenery for which the Northwest is famous. And thus, with only about two days’ advance decision time, I threw my camping gear in the car and headed out on the 440-mile Cascade Loop Scenic Highway.

The simple need to enjoy summer wasn’t my only reason for going: I’ve felt overconnected, lately, and with two major sci-fi conventions coming up, I wanted to escape and recharge my batteries before so much travel and social chaos. And even though I’m only a few thousand words away from the end of my novel, I felt like a break would be good for the creative batteries as well.

For what was supposed to be a relaxing trip, it didn’t start out well. First, I made the mistake of rushing my departure in order to make it to a McDonald’s about ten minutes down the road before they stopped serving breakfast… hey, I have a weakness for their biscuits. I make no apologies. The problem was that in my haste, I forgot my wallet. So, I had to turn around and go back home– and of course, I didn’t get my biscuit.

After finally procuring food, I was on the road and starting to get into the “road trip groove” when the lid popped off my soda, spilling most of it between the driver’s seat and the center console. This necessitated spending about twenty minutes at a convienence store, helping myself liberally to the paper towels from the bathroom, and trying to clean it up. (Speaking of which… anyone have any tips on how to get soda out of a seatbelt mechanism? Sigh.)

Things started to improve once the Cascades came in sight. However, the weather wasn’t exactly cooperating. The day had started out overcast, and although it was gradually improving, the mountains were still shrouded in cloud:

But luckily, it didn’t last long. The weather cleared, and soon even the snow-covered peaks were visible.

I didn’t have a specific plan or itinerary; my plan was to drive, listen to music, and stop at whatever happened to look interesting along the way. My first stop ended up being at a place called Deception Falls State Park, where a half-mile loop trail followed a lovely creek past a series of picturesque, occasionally raging waterfalls, and through some absolutely beautiful pine forest.

There are a lot of little towns around the Cascades, most of which depend on tourism. During the summer there’s whitewater rafting, and hiking, and backpacking, and during the winter of course, there’s skiing. A few of the towns have come up with “themes” that, I suppose, make them even more enticing to tourists. For example, there’s the town of Leavenworth, which has modelled itself on a Bavarian village. Even the signs for the McDonald’s and the gas station were done up in ornate wooden Bavarian style.

In my opinion, it had all the authentic character and charm of Disneyworld– in other words, I was not a fan. But I know a lot of people like that sort of thing, and in fairness, I did have a huckleberry cheesecake ice cream cone there that was absolutely superb.

Another example of such a town was Winthrop, Washington– all done up in authentic Old Pioneer style, and perfectly charming, with friendly people, but it still felt fake to me.

I guess all in all, I’d rather feel the authentic character of a place. And if you have to model your town on an artificial theme, you’re pretty much saying that whatever character you originally had wasn’t that interesting on its own. It’s true, I suppose, and good on them for making the most of the situation, but when I need a reason to visit the area, I’ll stick with this:

The Cascade Loop also provides a fairly dramatic illustration of what a “rain shadow” is. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a rain shadow is when a mountain range blocks the passage of rain clouds and weather systems, so that the rain falls on the mountains and the area directly “behind” the mountains is very dry. For the Cascades, the weather systems generally travel west-to-east, so the area directly east of the mountains is in a rain shadow. And the landscape transforms from lush, verdant pine forests like this:

Into this:

The eastern half of the Cascades Loop is dominated by that sort of landscape; hardy scrub brush and dry grasses scattered across an almost desert-like environment. I suppose it pretty much is a desert, actually… it just seems odd. Who knew the wet-and-rainy Pacific Northwest had a desert in it?

The eastern side of the Cascades is also where summer hides from Seattle. The temperature went from low seventies to upper eighties, and the air conditioning in my car got way more of a workout than it has any time since I left North Carolina.

I camped overnight just outside of Winthrop. After the sun set, I sat at a picnic table, far from any power outlets, and as I watched bats flit overhead in the quickly-fading light of dusk, I took advantage of the campsite’s free wi-fi to check Twitter and Facebook. I considered doing some writing, but the bright screen amidst the darkness was starting to give me eye strain, and besides, I did feel marginally guilty for staying connected on a trip where I was ostensibly supposed to disconnect myself. So after a few minutes, I shut down the laptop and went to bed… but the novelty of wi-fi at a campsite was still worth it.

The next day, I made my way back over the Cascades, and saw some of the most spectacular scenery of the drive. The highway passed a lot of trailheads, but I didn’t have time to hike them, since I wanted to be back in Seattle by late afternoon. That’s okay, though– this was really just a scouting run of the Cascade Loop; soon I’ll go back and fill in more of the details.

But even sticking mostly to the road, there were still some impressive sights to be seen, like Diablo Lake. And no, the color of this picture isn’t wonky; that was the actual color of the water.

Eventually, the highway came down out of the Cascades and back toward the coast, and I continued outward to the islands of Puget Sound. The highway wound its way down Fidalgo Island and Whidbey Island, and in between them was one of the coolest things on the drive: Deception Pass. (Despite the similarity of the name, no relation to Deception Falls State Park.) And on the day I visited, the clouds were having a field day, coming and going every few minutes and creating some pretty cool effects.

After walking the length of the bridge twice, taking pictures and marveling at the view, it was time to finish the trip and head home. I traveled to the south end of Whidbey Island and caught a ferry across Puget Sound, back to the mainland, heading south just in time to get caught in Seattle rush-hour traffic.

Ah, well, you win some, you lose some. But all in all, I’ll chalk that trip up as a win. The full Flickr set is here. And I’m already looking forward to seeing the Cascades again. Anyone up for a hike?

Road Trip Day 11: Mapless Near Seattle

Early in the afternoon of Day 11, I finally arrived in Seattle. It was a gray, overcast day, the kind for which Seattle is famous– although it wasn’t actually raining. The final two hundred miles was uneventful, except for the part where I lost the directions I had written down (there were a few zigs and zags across various rural highways), and was unable to get a signal on my cell phone to recover said directions. So for about an hour I had to guess my way down the road, but it turned out all right. I didn’t even make any wrong turns.

The final stretch was through the pine forests of the Pacific Northwest, and up Highway 101 (the Pacific Coast Highway) for a large chunk of the time. It was beautiful, dense forest, dark green speckled with the occasional burst of autumn yellow. The forest here has a totally different feel than the forest on the east coast, and I’m already looking forward to hiking in it.

The last hour of so of the drive passed through a string of cities: Olympia, Tacoma, and then Seattle, with downtown and Puget Sound finally materializing in the distance. I’m staying in an extended-stay hotel (basically a month-to-month apartment) near the Space Needle; hopefully after a month I’ll have a permanent place, and in the meantime I can get a much better feel for the city and its neighborhoods.

So, I made it. It was one heck of a trip: eleven days, ten hotel rooms, countless cities, snow, rain, wind, and plenty of sun too. There was heat, cold, one and a half long audiobooks, plenty of caffeine, a herd of cows, a herd of bison, and a herd of… I’m not sure. It ranged from the top of the Sears Tower, to the Mississippi River, to the Yellowstone caldera.

Still, I have little doubt that the hard part lies ahead. Getting to a new city? Even moving across the country, that part is pretty easy, compared to making that city your home. But I’m optimistic. I’m posting this after having spent a few days in Seattle, and I’m already loving it. I’ve been to four coffee shops in four days (and I don’t even drink that much coffee!), and am slowly learning my way around the complicated-but-convienent bus and trolley system. I’ve been walking quite a bit, too. I love having so many things in walking distance (or a short bus ride) from where I live, and even the infamous Seattle rain has been little more than an occasional nuisance.

So in conclusion, here’s a picture of the Seattle waterfront that I took on Friday. From where I’m standing, I think I’m going to like it here– but I have a strong hunch that the real adventure is just beginning.

Road Trip Day 10: On the Eve of the End

In my last blog post before I embarked, I estimated my Seattle arrival date as October 27th. Turns out I was one day off: it’s now the 27th, but instead of being “home” in Seattle, I’m in a hotel room in Seaside, Oregon, about 200 miles south.

This is mostly on purpose. I have a place to stay in Seattle, but I can’t move in until the 28th. Sure, I could have gotten to Seattle early and stayed in a hotel there, but instead, I took the opportunity to dawdle in the city of Portland. First I spent a couple hours in Powell’s City of Books, which is the largest used and new bookstore in the world. It takes up an entire city block, and I could have easily spent the whole day there, but my checking account would not have survived.

After escaping Powell’s, I walked through Portland’s Chinatown to the Lan Su Chinese Garden. It’s designed to resemble as close as possible a real Chinese garden from the mid-1400’s, and if the guided tour is any indication, it’s doing a dang good job of it. It was designed and built with a huge amount of help from Portland’s sister city of Suzhou, China. Every plant and tree was carefully picked and placed, and everything from the floor tiles to the shingles on the roof is designed with a very specific purpose that adds to the overall meaning and symbolism of the garden. Classical Chinese poetry is also inscribed in places, and illustrated, both in actual drawings and in symbolism, throughout the garden. It’s a fascinating look into Chinese culture and Daoism that I couldn’t do justice to in a single blog entry, so I’m not going to try. But if you ever find yourself in Portland, definitely check it out.

They also had quite a few bonsai plants there, as well as its Chinese predecessor, penjing. I had fun taking photographs of these and trying to play with the scale.

The picture above, for example, is of the pot on the left:

As the day began to edge into late afternoon, I headed back to the car and drove to my next destination: The Pacific Ocean. Part of me had wanted to visit the Atlantic Ocean before I left North Carolina, so that I could say this trip was truly an Atlantic-to-Pacific trip, but I just didn’t have time. That’s okay. I think it’s been a pretty epic trip anyway.

Road Trip Day 8: Winter Views and Winter Roads

When I was originally planning this trip, one reason I wanted to leave by mid-October was so I could travel across the north of the country while it was still free of snow. In particular, I wanted to drive through Yellowstone National Park, and the roads in Yellowstone are very much seasonal: many are closed by early November, and those that remain usually require snow tires in order to safely traverse.

So it was with worry, a few days ago, that I noted the forecast for Yellowstone National Park was snow… snow… and more snow. I had originally wanted to approach Yellowstone from the south, so I could see the Grand Tetons, but the south was where the worst snow was due to hit, so I decided to cut through the north of the park instead.

Even so, as I prepared to embark from the little town of Cody, just to the east of Yellowstone, I wasn’t sure how far I would get. The National Weather Service had issued a Winter Weather Advisory urging against travel, and containing dire warnings of snow 10 to 20 inches deep in places. (For a North Carolinian, that much snow falls under the “apocalyptic” category.)

So in the morning, I stopped at the Cody Visitors Center on the way out of town to inquire about the actual conditions on the roads I wanted to traverse. If there really was a lot of snow on the roads, I could always bypass Yellowstone entirely. As disappointing as it would be, I had a hunch there was plenty of great scenery even outside the park to console myself with.

I hunched over the map with the lady at the information desk. There were two nearby entrances to Yellowstone: the east entrance, located just a few miles outside of Cody, and the northeast entrance, which would require a longer route that passed to the north, traversing a section of road called the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, before entering Yellowstone. The east entrance was closed, but the northeast route, she assured me, was still very much open and passable.

With my concerns assuaged, I headed out. Almost immediately upon leaving Cody, the mountains began to rise up around me, snow-tipped at the top, but no sign of snow either on or near the roads. Above, the sky was a beautiful Wyoming blue, and the brown grass of the prairie stretched out around me. Soon I came upon the turn-off for the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, and I took it.

The road began to rise up from the valley into the mountains, passing dramatic cliffs that loomed over the roadside. Around me, the mountains grew taller, dark green pine forests giving way to looming gray-and-white mountains which drew nearer with every curve of the road. Above the mountains, the blue sky was no longer quite so blue: snow clouds began to peek over their tops from the other side of the ridge.

Rising higher, the snow line began to drift closer, until finally the road was passing right through the snow-covered landscape. For a while, the road stayed clear of snow, but eventually it crept onto the road surface, and soon I was inching along carefully, keeping my tires within the same snow-free lines that previous cars had cleared. The snow had barely accumulated on the road (maybe half an inch, if that), but on the winding mountain roads I was particularly nervous. The snow got thicker as the road switchbacked around hairpin curves down into the valley, and I skidded briefly a few times. After each, I lifted silent prayers to the inventors of ABS and traction control.

Despite the snow, the scenic highway lived up to its name: the views were spectacular. There was wildlife along the way, too: I spotted a deer up the mountainside not far from the roadway, and I got the impression that it was feeling as put out by the snow as I was.

But the views, despite their grandeur, gave the promise of worse winter weather to come. The blue Wyoming sky was no longer anywhere to be seen.

Sure enough, as I approached the actual gate to Yellowstone, the roads got worse, and there were no longer so many pre-worn grooves in the snow left by previous cars. The snow was actually falling now, and getting harder, but I only had two ways to go, forward or backward, and I had no desire to go back up and over the Scenic Highway. The snow had been bad enough coming down; I did not want to try to go back up. Grimly, I pressed on toward the northeast Yellowstone Gate, wondering if it would even be open when I got there. If it wasn’t, what would I do? I had visions of ending up stranded in the wilds of Wyoming for several days, and I mentally inventoried my food and water. The situation was not pretty: the homemade cookies had given out back around Chicago.

I passed through two nearly-deserted towns: Cooke City and Silver Gate. A few places were open, but snow was starting accumulate quite a bit in the unplowed parking lots, and I didn’t stop, for fear I wouldn’t be able to get going again. There was nowhere to go but forward.

At last, I reached the gate to Yellowstone. I paid the entrance fee, eyed the road nervously, and asked the ranger if the roads got worse ahead. He reassured me that the roads were almost certainly better inside the park; the snow was lighter in the west. I remembered how reassuring the woman had been in the Cody Visitor Center, and was no longer quite so trusting of his word.

The first few miles did nothing to assuage my concerns. I was feeling more confident about my snow-driving abilities, though, and was no longer quite so worried about sliding off the road, especially since the road stayed mostly level and no longer tried to climb any high mountain passes.

As it turned out, the ranger had been right, and after several miles the snow began to lessen and the road began to clear. The cloud ceiling even rose a little, and I began to get some views of the classic Yellowstone landscape… not to mention classic Yellowstone wildlife, which unhurriedly crossed the road in front of me, seemingly quite aware that a puny little Hyundai was no match for a full-grown bison.

When I reached Mammoth Hot Springs, in the Northeast corner of Yellowstone, the roads were completely clear, and the snow was no longer falling. The conditions were good enough that I considered going south along the western edge of Yellowstone to see Old Faithful, but it was 51 miles out of the way. And at the Visitor Center, the stretch of road to Old Faithful was marked on the map with an ominous “Snow Tires Required.” The stretch I had successfully navigated earlier was merely marked “Snow Tires Advised.”

So I headed North out of the park, back toward the Interstate, and civilization, such as it is out here in the wilds of Montana. Tonight I’m staying in the town of Butte… I would have tried to push farther, but snowflakes were beginning to fall, and ominous clouds were looming to the west. Tomorrow is going to be a serious mileage day, but if all goes well, I’ll be in Washington state by the end of it.

The end is in sight.

Road Trip Day 7: From Plains to Prairie

After only about ten minutes of driving this morning, I crossed into the state of Wyoming. Whereas most of the road in South Dakota passed through flat, unchanging farmland, the scenery in Wyoming was much more interesting– Wyoming doesn’t have farmland, it has pasture, and the difference is significant. Farmland is flat and tame; pasture is rolling hills, and wild prairies, and rock formations jutting from the scrub brush landscape. Pasture also means that on occasion, your drive will be interrupted by cowboys and cowgirls (cowpersons?) driving herds of steer down the road:

Maybe it was just the novelty of the prairie, but I haven’t been this enthralled with a landscape since the first time I saw the Alps. Every single view was unique, with dozens of different things to draw the eye: a herd of cows appearing as brown or black specks in the distance; a dark green pine forest stretching over the distant hills; massive sandstone cliffs near the roadside; a winding river carving its way across the prairie; or even just the clouds, which seem so much more dramatic over wide-open grasslands than they do back home.

If that’s not enough, then occasionally Wyoming steps it up a notch. Exhibit A: Devils Tower.

Okay, so here’s the story: fifty million years ago, this landscape wasn’t on the surface of the Earth at all– it was over a mile underground. At some point, maybe as part of a volcano, or maybe as part of an upwelling that didn’t reach the surface, magma from the Earth’s mantle thrust upward and cooled, forming a massive lump of igneous rock. When the surrounding sedimentary rock eroded away over the course of millions of years, the harder igneous rock was left: Devils Tower. And it’s still being exposed: rain, wind, and the nearby Belle Fourche River are still doing their work on the surrounding rock. In another million years, it could be even more impressive.

Below, you can see Devils Tower in the distance, behind some of the softer sandstone cliffs that were/are being eroded away:

Later in the day, I drove through the Bighorn Mountains. At one pass, I reached 9966 feet elevation, which may be the highest elevation I’ve reached outside of an airplane in about twenty years. Even in the Alps, I didn’t climb any mountains higher than 8000 feet. On the way back down, we drove along the bottom of Bighorn Canyon, and eventually back out onto the prairie.

My destination for the night was Cody, Wyoming– tomorrow, if the roads are clear of snow, I’ll be driving through Yellowstone National Park. For dinner, I did the obvious, after seeing so many cows both along and on the road: I went to a local saloon and had a giant slab of authentic Wyoming steak.

The meal cost almost as much as my motel room. It was totally worth it.

Road Trip Day 6: The Road to Rushmore

Today was my longest-mileage day yet: I drove just over 400 miles. But it’s also the first day in which my starting and ending points were both in the same state. Such is the nature of the Great Plains states: large and flat.

My rate of travel was helped by the 75 mph speed limit, and the lack of any major cities to slow it back down. By and large, all I had to do was set the cruise control, listen to my audiobook (the South Dakota plains are no match for the long-windedness of Robert Jordan), and let the miles fly by.

I was in a hurry for another reason: I wanted to get to the Black Hills as early as possible, almost 300 miles down the road. The Black Hills are where the South Dakota landscape starts to get particularly interesting; they also hold Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

I gained some time by crossing from Central to Mountain Time in the middle of the state, and was in the Black Hills by early afternoon. The day was overcast and the dark gray clouds hung low over the landscape, but I drove on, hoping Mt. Rushmore wouldn’t be fogged in.

As I drove deeper into the Black Hills, I passed a seemingly never-ending string of colorful billboards, advertising all manner of resorts, casinos, hotels, and kitschy tourist attractions. The commercialization took me by surprise, although I suppose I should have expected it. It felt like what was otherwise a beautiful natural landscape had been invaded by some outcropping of Disney World. Certainly, the few towns I drove through were no more authentic than Main Street of the Magic Kingdom.

It was made worse by the fact that tourist season is over, which lent an air of bleak desperation to all the attractions. Many were closed for the season, although the overdone facades and garish billboards were still very much on display. I hated it.

Then again, I had to admit, I wasn’t exactly here to see nature, or authenticity: I was here to see sixty-foot faces of dead presidents carved into the cliffside. Would Mt. Rushmore itself be the ultimate kitschy tourist attraction?

To my relief, it didn’t feel that way. The monument itself had an air of gravity to it, the sort of gravity that can really only be attained by sixty-foot tall, stern-looking granite sculptures. When I first got there, the monument was socked in by fog, so I did a lap around the walking trail while waiting for the clouds to clear. Along the way, I happened upon a guided tour, where a park ranger was animatedly describing the history of each president on the monument. There’s little doubt that all four were great presidents, although Thomas Jefferson is probably my favorite of the group. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, after all, and it was a document powerful enough to change the world– I think any writer would love to write something even one-thousandth as powerful and enduring as he did.

After Rushmore, I headed a bit further south to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which I highly recommend you read about (link) because the story of it is fascinating… and its size absolutely dwarfs Mt. Rushmore. It should be quite impressive when it’s completed in forty years or so.

Tomorrow I have another empty, flat state, and once again, most of the interesting stuff is on the west side of the state. Will I make it to Yellowstone National Park tomorrow? We shall see.