The fifth and final week of my cross-country road trip consisted of several quick stops. I first headed north from Grand Canyon National Park and made the two and a half hour drive to Zion National Park in Utah. The weather was chilly when I arrived in the park and periods of intermittent rain became more and more frequent. The desert terrain consisted of mountains and cliffs of red rock and sand. Tunnels that had been blasted through the rock allowed the roadway to weave through the park, adding to the excitement of the drive. There seemed to be more vegetation in this area compared to some of the desert regions of Nevada and Arizona I had previously driven through. Many trees and shrubs sprung up in the valleys and along the mountainsides displaying much richer greens than the drier outskirts had on display. As I drove through the park I noticed many small creeks rolling down the rock faces, slowly carving paths into the landscape. I stopped along the roadside in between the sporadic fits of rain and admired my surroundings. While the park did not have the same wow factor I had become accustomed to after just leaving the Grand Canyon, it was noticeably more lush and had a certain beauty all its own.
After leaving Zion National Park I continued north through Utah and made a few quick stops in Provo, Salt Lake City, and Ogden. The mountains directly butt up against these towns and the access to the outdoors is at your fingertips. I explored downtown Provo for a short time before stopping by the campus of Brigham Young University. As I continued to drive north towards Salt Lake City I made a stop at Canyon Bicycle Store in Draper and picked up a replacement wheel and saddle to repair the damage inflicted on my bike the week prior. Once I got into Salt Lake City I stopped at a Planet Fitness for a quick shower before making my way downtown. I walked around the shopping district for a while before crossing the street to Temple Square. Temple Square is a 35 acre compound in downtown Salt Lake City and is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There are several large ornate buildings and temples standing among well landscaped walkways lined with flowers. The church’s world headquarters are located here and the giant office building along with the temple are the only two buildings not open to the public. I examined the interior of the buildings without having too much difficulty fending off the friendly advancements of the many Mormons stationed throughout the property who offered a quick tour or just some pleasant conversation. Ogden was similar to the other towns and my visit encompassed an uneventful tour through downtown. Utah left me with the same dried out feeling I had living in Denver, Colorado but these towns had a smaller feel to them. Another noticeable difference is the pronounced presence and hold the Mormons have on the region. Listening to and watching people around town gave me the impression there is a distinct division between the Mormons and non-Mormons of the area.
With Utah in my rearview mirror I drove through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Illinois on my way to Grosse Pointe, Michigan. I stopped a couple of times only to sleep because I had driven through these states before and knew there was nothing I cared to stop for in them. After a couple of days I made it to my Aunt and Uncle’s house in Grosse Point. Grosse Pointe is an oasis on the outskirts of Detroit. The city sits along Lake St. Clair and I would describe it as the Mayberry of Michigan. A very pronounced line separates Grosse Pointe from the surrounding city of Detroit. Crossing over this town line leads you down tree lined streets, past well landscaped yards, along the shoreline dotted with beautiful homes, and through quant pockets of shops and restaurants. Growing up I spent many summers here and the comfortable, familiar surroundings created a much needed reprieve from the long drive. My Aunt and Uncle were gracious as always, dropping what they were doing in their very busy lives to make time to spend with me. We crammed a lot in over the course of a couple days. From wonderful breakfasts, bike rides around town, Starbucks runs, eating lunch in downtown Detroit, to dinner at the Detroit Athletic Club; it was difficult to return to the road and continue my drive.
I spent the next day and a half driving towards the White Mountains in New Hampshire. My wife and I rented a home there for six weeks while she completed her last clinical rotation for school. I arrived just in time to meet her for dinner at the Saalt Pub in Gorham, New Hampshire. We ordered the calamari, a Caesar salad, and a chicken dish of some kind and all of the food was absolutely spectacular. I spent the remainder of the weekend in the White Mountains before building up enough stamina to make the last hour and a half drive to my home in Portland, Maine. It felt good to finally make it home and a part of me longed for some down time to recuperate from the long journey, yet another part of me pulled and tugged wondering where I would head to next.
A month had come and gone since I had left Portland, Maine to travel out west. The last four weeks were a blur of overstimulation. The daily sensory overload was starting to take its toll and I began to think about how I would need a vacation after this vacation. I was glad to be taking this trip alone because I am convinced the pace I was moving at would have killed anyone accompanying me. This was not a relaxing trip, it was a mission to see everything worthwhile on the western half of the United States in the least amount of time possible. I would drive to a location and bike or hike to everything I deemed worth seeing before getting in the car to do it all over again. I had nothing other than the next destination planned, only figuring out where I would sleep when I became too exhausted to continue. There is a certain sensory overload you get when exploring a new place. Your senses are at their sharpest, taking in each little detail and working overtime to piece together every new thing you are seeing in order to create an overall picture of an area. Physically being somewhere is the only way to accurately piece together this puzzle and no amount of pictures can replace what the senses create in the moment. This sensory overload quickly diminishes over a day or two until you are not working nearly as hard to process what you are seeing and you begin to have a comfort and understanding of your surroundings. It is at this point, right before my brain could relax in a moment of familiarity, that I would hit the road for my next destination.
I left Las Vegas, Nevada behind and drove the four and a half hours to Grand Canyon National Park. As I entered the park I noticed it looked oddly unassuming. I had spent the last month travelling in and out of the mountains with constant fluctuations in elevation and I must have become accustomed to this. The flat pine forests appeared unremarkable and I found myself surprised by this. I drove along the south entrance road until reaching the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center was nestled along the Rim Trail, a long trail system bordering the canyon. I parked the car and made my way to an overlook at Mather Point. I was immediately taken back by the grandeur of it all. I guess I had not given much thought to the topography of the Grand Canyon before I arrived. The uninspiring drive into the park lowered my expectations and then I was shocked by the massive void in the earth I had found. It was as though I was staring at the exact opposite of a tall mountain range, both being equally impressive. The big difference between a mountain range and the Grand Canyon, aside from the obvious, is you see a mountain range coming from a long way away. You know it is coming and it slowly builds in size as you approach it. In contrast, the Grand Canyon is surrounded by nothing particularly spectacular and you are hit with the canyon’s brilliance all at once as you suddenly arrive at the earth’s edge. Without having given this much prior thought, it took me by surprise.
The red rock juts downward abruptly adding to the vertigo inducing view. Several miles stand between either side of the canyon, making any journey across a very long one. The canyon’s width is only dwarfed by its length as it snakes through the desert for hundreds of miles. Smaller peaks and valleys lie below and shoot up and down throughout the canyon until reaching the Colorado River at the base of it all.
Being time constrained, I forewent the multi-day hikes and rafting excursions and decided to hit the easy highlights. I headed west along the Rim Trail to Hopi Point. While all the vantage points I passed along the way were good, this one is a well-publicized favorite. After leaving Hopi Point I headed back east to Yaki Point and Grandview Point. Each stop was a unique, breathtaking view of different sections of the Grand Canyon. I continued east to the Tusayan Museum and Ruins where the remains of an Ancestral Puebloan settlement said to date back to 1185 A.D. sits preserved. With the remains of Native American settlements dating back hundreds of years and only a small percentage of the canyon surveyed, there is a lot of artifacts and history left undiscovered. Many tribes including the Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, and Paiute once called this area home.
My last stop in the park was the Desert View Watchtower. This perfectly executed re-creation of an Indian watchtower was envisioned by architect Mary Colter. Colter was so demanding in the building of this watchtower that any sign of a modern tool mark on the outside of the stone structure was inexcusable. The tower sits seventy feet high on a cliff side overlooking the canyon and the Colorado River. The circular interior spirals up leading to several different floors. Murals painted by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie cover the walls and add to the authentic feel.
I finished off the day by finding a campsite right outside the park entrance and taking some time to relax. I followed a dirt road up into the forest until I decided on a secluded site deep in the woods. A stone fire ring had been placed in the clearing where I parked and it sat begging to be used. I took what daylight I had left and walked around collecting firewood. I fashioned the wood in a teepee-like structure utilizing various layers of both kindling and larger pieces of wood. My preparation paid off as night fell and I brought the glowing beast to life. I could feel the heat radiating off the fire as I sat in the back of my SUV eating dinner. I stared at the mesmerizing flames until I got tired and shut my eyes for the night, leaving the fire to eventually burn itself out.
With just a few stops left to make, my trip across the country was starting to come to an end. As I planned my drive from Yosemite National Park to Grand Canyon National Park I noticed Las Vegas, Nevada sitting directly in my path. I have never had a strong desire to go to Las Vegas but the fact it was conveniently located along my route caused me to etch it into my schedule.
A significant portion of the drive was through the Mojave Desert. I have not spent much time in the desert and I was surprised at how interesting I found it to be. Although it is as one would expect- brown, sandy, treeless and full of small brittle shrubs; the desert also delivered something more. The uniform landscape stretched across the plains and over the mountain ranges creating an unexpected attractive quality that I can only describe as a blank canvass. This canvass appeared to extend indefinitely in every direction and the recreational possibilities seemed as equally endless. One’s imagination is the only restriction here; space is not a constraint.
As I arrived in Las Vegas it became apparent someone else recognized the potential for this blank canvass and had a vision for a grand urban mosaic. Buildings quickly sprung up and I was suddenly transported into the center of a concentrated city. I began to think of what I wanted to see while I was in Vegas and two things immediately came to mind: the pawn shop from the television show Pawn Stars and the Vegas strip.
On the way to the pawn shop I noticed a mechanic off the road advertising a special on brake pads. I had my oil changed and tires rotated when I was in Seattle and the mechanic there mentioned the brake pads were very worn and highly recommended I change them. I usually do any car maintenance myself because I am capable of doing it and it saves me a lot of money, so I declined the offer and planned to do it when I returned home from my road trip. A couple states later they began to squeak and I knew with the amount of driving I was doing I really needed to change them before they wore down enough to destroy the rotors and cost me even more money. I parked in front of the shop and walked in to ask about getting the pads replaced. I confirmed with the mechanic he could get started on the job immediately and I handed over my car keys as he requested. A minute or two passed before I started to think about my bike sitting on the top of my car and whether I would need to take it down or not for it to fit in the bay. I eyed the bay on the way in and the opening looked pretty high. I thought to myself he would surely come and get me if the bike didn’t look like it would clear. Immediately after I finished this thought I heard a loud crashing sound and knew I put too much faith in the mechanic’s judgment. I walked out to find my bike seat in pieces on the ground and my bike wedged under the sliding bay door. The bike was still upright on the roof rack and aside from the seat, overall unharmed. Given that I had just accidentally ran over and left the front wheel of my bike back in Yosemite National Park the day before, I couldn’t bring myself to be too upset with the mechanic. I collected the pieces, took the bike down off the rack, and chocked it up to a couple of bad luck days for the bike.
When I left the mechanic I headed over to Gold and Silver Pawn Shop from the show Pawn Stars. I made my way through the crowds inside this relatively small store and looked around for one of the workers from the television show. Not seeing anybody I recognized and not being too interested with anything behind the counters, I headed out the door. This was not the most interesting stop but it was worth popping in just to see the shop in person after watching it on television.
My next stop was the Vegas strip. I drove around for a while trying to find parking that was not in a parking garage because I wanted to avoid any more low ceilings that could potentially destroy my bike any further. I eventually found something near a shopping mall and I walked over to the main strip. There were not very many surprises here. It pretty much looked like what I had pictured in my head from seeing photographs of Vegas and seeing it portrayed in movies. There were a lot of buildings lining the street which were full of hotels with casinos, restaurants, shopping, and more casinos. Large billboards advertising various shows littered the skyline. Seeing a show in Vegas seemed like something I had to do so I picked up a ticket for the original Cirque du Soleil show, Mystere, playing later that evening. I walked around and took in the sights. I was surprised how clean, literally speaking, the city was. Even with so many people condensed into one area the streets and surroundings were not dirty or full of trash. Figuratively speaking; however, the city could very well be described as dirty. After all, Vegas did get the nickname sin city for nothing. Although I have heard it has become much more family friendly over the years, I am not sure I would bring my children here. You would really have to put blinders on to avoid witnessing the drunkenness, gambling, prostitution, and overall debauchery taking place all around you.
Before I went to the Cirque du Soleil show that evening I stopped at BurGR, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. I noticed he had two different restaurants nearby, one being a more expensive and upscale steakhouse and the other being a less expensive burger joint. I decided to go with the latter and was doubtful whether the food could live up to Gordon Ramsay’s persona from his television show Hell’s Kitchen. I ordered the hell’s kitchen burger, as the waiter suggested, and was pleased to discover it greatly exceeded my expectations. I am not a huge hamburger fan but this was hands down the best burger I have ever had. I topped it off with a strawberry shake layered with coconut pudding, a thin chocolate cookie, and a dollop of thick whip cream. This little treat was as equally incredible as the burger I had prior to it. I can’t say with certainty if Gordon Ramsay’s other restaurants are as good as BurGR, as I have not been to them all, but I assume they would be. If you happen to be in Las Vegas, go out of your way to find one of these restaurants, you will not be disappointed!
My journey pushed me on to Yosemite National Park. I made the three and a half hour drive from San Francisco to the park and planned to use the remainder of the day to look around, get a feel for what is there, and plan out how to best tackle the park the following day. After spending the previous two days battling crowds in San Francisco, I was looking forward to a little forest solitude. What I ended up with; however, was something completely different.
As luck would have it I arrived in Yosemite at quite possibly the worse day of the year. Not only was it a weekend, it was a National Park Week and Earth Day weekend. This tragic trifecta managed to bring in unimaginable hordes of people. The fact it was a weekend brought in the usual weekend warriors, Earth Day brought in the nostalgic conservationists, while National Park Week, with its free admission, managed to bring in everybody else who are too cheap to pay for admission any other time of year.
Once I passed the entrance to the park I headed towards Yosemite Valley. It was not long before this two lane road became a parking lot full of brake lights as far as the eye could see. The slowly creeping traffic lasted for hours as I made my way to the heart of the park. I took this opportunity to enjoy the scenery and the slow pace gave me ample time to thoroughly examine everything off the roadway. I passed by raging rivers as the road weaved through the forest. Granite cliffs began to suddenly appear on every side and towered high into the sky. It was difficult to grasp the size of the massive rock faces staring down at me until I noticed the numerous waterfalls shooting narrowly down the vertical surfaces, providing a sense of scale. Yosemite has an undeniable beauty, one that somehow feels slightly more patriotic than the other national parks. I thought to myself, if there was one park used to visually represent America and its perceived greatness, this would be it.
I finally made it into Yosemite Valley, an area surrounded by granite cliffs and the location of the visitor’s center, a small grocery store, a museum, and other similar resources. After an extensive battle to find parking I slid into a spot beside a large grassy field not far from the visitor’s center. I could see from across the field a line of cars in bumper to bumper traffic with no sign of letting up anytime soon. Having officially reached my destination, I became increasingly aware of the exhaustion I was feeling from the day of driving and I began to get a slight headache. I looked across the field again at the line of stagnant cars and decided I would stay put, take a nap, and wait for the sun to set to clear out the excess traffic.
When I woke up I noticed the sun was falling behind the mountains and a large herd of deer were grazing in the field outside my window. The line of cars on the opposite side of the field were moving steadily out of the park now and I knew it would only be time before the darkness would finish clearing everyone out. I made myself a sandwich, watched the deer meander by, and waited for the sun to finish falling.
It seemed like only minutes before the daylight disappeared and the last of the headlights leaving the park vanished through the trees. I was able to get a signal on my phone here if I pressed it up against the car window, so I took this time to search for a place to stay for the night. My trusty freecampsites.net website came back with several options surrounding the park. There was no camping allowed inside the park so all of the options required a bit of a drive. I chose a campsite that appeared to be the closest to me, plugged in the coordinates, and headed out of the park. Although I did not have any traffic to contend with at this time of night, the drive still took the better side of thirty minutes, maybe longer. I eventually passed by the park entrance and merged to the right at the first fork in the road. I followed this winding road for several miles until the GPS spat me out at the entrance to a campsite with a large sign stating: NO ENTRY-CAMPGROUND FULL. It was late and the only place I knew of with cell service to search for another campsite was back in the valley were I just came from. Judging by the amount of traffic I witnessed earlier on in the day I had my doubts I would find anything available within any reasonable distance, so I drove past the sign and hoped for the best. The campsite was laid out in a big circle with the entrance and the exit meeting each other at a single point. I began the drive around the one-way loop and noticed tents, lanterns, and campfires blanketing the area. It appeared that each section of five campsites had a designated group of parking spaces to share. I circled around to a sign indicating parking for campsites six through ten and I wedged in between a car on the end of the row and a tree. I was glad I wasn’t toting around a camper or anything else large and conspicuous, otherwise I would not have been able to sneak into a spot for the night undetected.
I woke up early the next morning and immediately had flashbacks of the traffic I dealt with the day before. I quickly got dressed and hit the road, hoping to beat any onslaught of visitors to the park. The drive into the valley was much more pleasant than the day before. I found parking without a problem and I stopped by the visitor’s center for a map along with some advice on what to see. I started off my tour by driving up the road to the Mirror Lake trailhead. I took my mountain bike off the roof of my car and reattached the front wheel which was stored behind the front passenger seat. After packing up some water and snacks I hit the trail. I covered a lot of ground quickly on the bike as I sped along the rocky path feeling the rush of wind on my face as I leaned hard around the sharp corners of the trail. I had my doubts about whether or not I was actually allowed to be biking along this particular trail but I reasoned with myself that it was early, I had beat the crowds, I had a lot of park to cover in a short amount of time, and I was simply having too much fun. The path followed the course of a river, passing by a couple of small falls before arriving at an area which opened up into a motionless lake covered with what appeared to be a sheet of glass. The still waters gave off a flawless reflection of the tall mountains and trees surrounding it.
I made my way back to the car and after arriving I loosened the quick release of my front bike wheel in order to remove it. I leaned the wheel up against the rear bumper of my car as I hoisted the bike back onto its rack. My mind drifted to where I needed to go next as I secured the bike down. I jumped down off the running boards and hopped behind the driver’s seat, eager to get to the next stop. As I slowly turned the steering wheel while backing out of the parking space, I heard a slight clunking noise somewhere in the general area between me and the engine compartment. Given the fact I had been essentially torture testing my vehicle over the last month, I just thought it was finally starting to complain a little bit and I hoped the noise would be an isolated incident.
My next stop was Yosemite Falls. I parked at the trailhead and hiked to the base of these enormous cascading wonders. The upper falls shot off a high hanging cliff above and landed on a level area halfway up the mountain before falling from a second cliff, creating the lower falls. The upper falls were roughly twice the length of the very impressive lower falls and the combination was quite a sight to behold.
Before leaving the park I made my way to a trail promising great views of the famous El Capitan rock formation. Once considered an impossible climb, it is now a worldwide standard for elite rock climbers. The smooth granite face slopes inward halfway up before gradually sloping back out, daring even the most competent climber to ascend it. I graciously bowed out and made my way back to the trailhead from whence I came.
With Glacier Point being closed and having seen the major sights in the park, I made my way out of Yosemite and started the six hour drive to Las Vegas, Nevada. Three hours into the drive I noticed the slab of Maple I picked up at a woodshop in Southern Oregon and the air pump for my bike, both sitting behind the front passenger seat, were shifting wildly back and forth whenever I applied the brakes. Coming to the realization this was an annoyance I did not have before, I reached behind the seat to examine what had changed. It took me a second and then I realized what was missing; my front bike wheel. I thought back to the suspicious clunking noise I heard when backing out of the parking space at Yosemite and it became clear this was the crunching sound of a lightweight alloy bike wheel being smashed, not complaints coming from the engine compartment. I briefly ran through my options in my head and decided not to turn around. Even if the wheel had not been destroyed, the additional six hours of driving was not worth the effort to retrieve it.
The drive from Redwood National Park in Northern California to San Francisco was beautiful. It started off along the coast with the ocean and mountains funneling me along. The landscape slowly changed as the roadway diverged inland and vineyards began to fill the green rolling hills. I got lost in the drive, opening the sunroof and rolling down the windows, realizing why people suggest a convertible for a drive through California. The pleasant landscape continued as I arrived in San Francisco. Large hills butted up against waterways, rocky coastlines seamlessly blended with residential developments, and grand bridges linked one otherwise inaccessible piece of land to another. It became glaringly apparent why so many people love California. The area appeared to be nothing short of a paradise. Temperate weather, stunning landscapes, hills, ocean, lush vegetation; a combination that is hard to beat.
The somewhat darker reality hit me the first evening I was in town. I followed my GPS to a Holiday Inn somewhere in the outskirts of San Francisco in an attempt to find a place to park my car for the night. I stopped at an intersection at one point and had that feeling you get when someone outside your field of vision is looking at you. I turned my head to find two Hispanic males in a lowered pickup truck inspecting me and my vehicle. After spending several years as a cop I feel as though I have a pretty good sense to know when something is off, and something here felt off. I continued to the Holiday Inn several miles down the road, pulled into the parking lot, looked around, and drove right back out. It was one of those areas that looked just rough enough for me to know immediately I was not comfortable staying there. I plugged in the next closest Holiday Inn which showed to be located in the middle of downtown San Francisco. I choose to use Holiday Inns for a couple of reasons. First, Holiday Inns are generally the most common hotel and are usually grouped within close proximity to several other decent hotel choices. Second, Holiday Inns typically fall in that sweet spot of nice enough to where you feel safe in the area but not too nice to where someone will notice if you park there for the night. I forewent my usual checking of the freecampsites.net website at this point, automatically assuming there would be no good options within reasonable driving distance from such a large city. As I arrived downtown at the next hotel I found there were electronic gates blocking anyone without proper access from entering the parking lot in order to keep unwanted guests from taking advantage of the prime location. Before completely admitting defeat I checked one other hotel nearby hoping to find a different outcome in the same location. Not surprisingly, they all had a similar parking barrier. Defeated and tired I decided to check the freecampsites.net website on the off chance there was an option somewhere within driving distance. I was surprised to find one location, rated well, that was right at the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. I plugged the coordinates into my GPS, headed away from downtown, drove over the bridge, and immediately turned off into a large viewing area with ample parking. I looped around the long semicircle drive and pulled into a spot between two RVs that appeared to be staked out for the night. I proceeded to settle in for the night and before covering the large rear window of the SUV I took a minute to admire the illuminated Golden Gate Bridge that was literally steps away from where I was parked. I was thankful as I thought to myself how it would be difficult to find a better view anywhere in San Francisco for any amount of money, and this was not costing me a dime.
The next morning I awoke with a sense of purpose, knowing I had a lot of city to cover. I had a general itinerary planned out from suggestions I had previously received and articles I had read online. I drove into the city and parked along the waterfront around Pier 33. Having already spent some time driving around the city, I had an uneasy feeling about leaving my car and bike unattended for a prolonged period of time. This unsettling feeling of the city having more than its share of crime was more pronounced than anywhere else I had previously stopped during this particular trip around the country. I paid a relatively large amount of money for all day parking in an open lot across the street from the pier. After parking my car, I walked across the street to the ferry that would bring me to my first stop, Alcatraz Island.
I took the short boat ride across the bay to the notoriously inescapable prison that had housed such infamous criminals as Al Capone, “Machine-Gun” Kelley, “Whitey” Bulger, “Creepy” Karpis, “The Birdman” Stroud, and several other convicts with less interesting nicknames. After picking up a handset for a self guided tour, I walked around the prison for a couple of hours as the recorded voices of previous inmates and guards spoke to me through the padded headphones. The voices recounted stories of life at the prison, how riots happened in certain rooms, and murders took place in certain cells. The colorful history was fascinating as I heard the stories and could touch the very walls of where it all happened. On the lighter side of the island’s history, it was interesting to learn that the American Indians confiscated the island for nineteen months as a way of protesting unfair treatment. This happened right around 1970, several years after the prison had been officially shut down due to repairs being too costly to keep up. Many politically charged statements written by these American Indians can still be seen today around the prison walls.
After I returned from Alcatraz I made my way back to my car to make sure my bike had not been forcefully removed from the locked roof rack it sat on. I was glad to find all my belongings intact but was not surprised when I noticed the car next to mine had a smashed out rear driver’s side window, and from my experience, I would guess a missing bag. Thieves typically use a small piece of ceramic taken off a spark plug which they throw at a car window to shatter it. This takes only seconds and allows them to quickly reach in your car and grab the bag you left sitting on your back seat. Most car alarms don’t sound if the door itself is not opened and it allows for a quick and easy payday for the thief. My car was likely left alone because the locked bike was too bulky and attention grabbing to mess with out in the open and I had such a confusing array of belongings strewn about the car, it would be too time consuming to figure out what was worth grabbing. The single bag out in the open, empty or not, is the usual target for these sorts of smash and grabs. I contemplated whether or not I should move my car and I ended up deciding to stay. It was highly unlikely anymore cars would be burglarized at this exact location again on the same day it had already been hit. In reality, parking next to the car that was just broken into is probably the safest bet because the police will be showing up at some point once it is reported and the thieves know this. I took my bike down and covered all the windows on the off chance that any other prying eyes might pass bye. Considering I had paid for all day parking, I decided to leave my car here and cover the city by bike.
Lunch time was rolling around so I biked over to the Ferry Building in search of a particular restaurant I had read about in Time Magazine. The writer strongly suggested The Slanted Door for a great meal and highly praised the shaking beef in particular. Being known for its great food, I was excited to taste what San Francisco had to offer, as the battle for the most restaurants per capita is a close one with my own Portland, Maine. I had barely glanced over the menu before the waiter came over to introduce himself. I asked him about the shaking beef and he enthusiastically explained that it was one of their most popular dishes. “Sold,” I said before considering anything else. While I waited for my meal I soaked in the atmosphere. It was nice, without being stuffy. I was rather casually dressed but did not feel completely out of place, at least during the lunch rush. I felt a little awkward about leaving my hat on inside, as I generally consider this rude, but I was afraid the unkept mess lying underneath would be somehow less acceptable. Once the food came out I immediately noticed the well thought out presentation and I hoped it tasted as good as it looked. The struggle with a pricey meal is you want it to meet the lofty expectations the price tag creates, and more often then not it doesn’t. This meal, for me, for the price, just barely missed the mark. While it was very good, I have had other meals, oftentimes for less money, that have been better. The filet mignon was accompanied by spinach, red onions, and some sort of lime sauce. There was no significant complexity of flavors building off each other, just a slightly overbearing zest from the lime sauce.
After eating lunch, the torture began. I spent the day covering San Fransisco by bike. Although much more efficient than walking, the effort climbing all the steep roadways became excruciating after several hours. I biked from AT&T Park on the east side of San Francisco all the way to the Great Highway on the west coast. I stopped at many of the notable neighborhoods dotting this area and explored the surprisingly beautiful Golden Gate Park. I would consider the thought of not going to Golden Gate Park while in San Francisco as being equally absurd as not going to Central Park while in New York City.
I eventually made my way north along the water passing long stretches of sandy beaches and eventually coming back around to the Golden Gate Bridge. I continued around the bay until I was stopped in my tracks by the sight and smell of a large gathering of food trucks. The day was disappearing along with my dinner plans and I had many miles left to bike to get back to my car. I followed the sound of live music as I road up to the entrance of this intentionally laid out circle of food truck deliciousness. Off the Grid organizes food trucks in various parts of the city, using a variety of great food to bring the community together. With all of the choices, I had to limit myself to only going to the trucks with the longest lines and what I theorized would be the best food. I started off with a tent called Happy Dumplings and decided to try the pork belly along with the spinach and chicken dumplings. Both were fantastic, but the pork belly took the win. I migrated over to Bombzies BBQ looking for a main course and the Korean BBQ with kimchi and green onion over a bowl of jasmine rice was suggested. The flavors were outstanding and the dish did not disappoint in any way. Before I could escape this circle of temptation, the Johnny Doughnuts truck reeled me in and the cashier could not give me a definitive answer as to whether the cinnamon sugar doughnut filled with pastry cream or the cinnamon roll was a better choice; so I went with both. Living around what I would argue are the best bakeries in the country, my expectations are high. These sugar filled balls of goodness were tasty, but not nearly as exceptional as the food I had experienced right before them. Of course this pastry mediocrity did not stop me from finishing them off though.
Having a full belly and a long rest, my legs were shocked when I returned to the bike and began tackling more hills. Apparently they thought I was done for the day and had began their post workout tightening and aching. I made it around the north end and entered the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Pier 39 was nearby where I could hear the sea lions barking at each other as they all tried to squeeze on top of the small floating docks in the bay. I road along the remainder of the waterfront and finally made it back to the car. The sun had just about completely set, my legs were screaming, and my car windows were still intact. It was a good day.
There is something magical about the sea crashing up against the mountains. These two remarkable wonders of the world are so rarely found coexisting together in one place that it creates something truly awe-inspiring. I found such magic when I arrived in the Redwood Forest. But let me start from the beginning.
I was making my way through southern Oregon, heading to California, when I looked over and caught a glimpse of a woodworking shop with a colorful sign displaying “It’s a Burl Gallery” on its face. I hit the brakes after merging to the side of the road and I made a quick u-turn to return to this intriguing place. I’m not sure what exactly caught my eye initially. It could have been the life size wooden unicorn on the front porch, the brightly painted classic car alongside the road, several expertly crafted tree houses, or maybe it was all the intricately detailed wood sculptures scattered throughout the property. Whatever it was, it looked fascinating! I parked my car in a space between some trees and I got out to inspect what they had. There were several different buildings on the premises including two different buildings for working on the wood, two separate buildings that served as an eccentric indoor gallery for various finished pieces, several sheds that contained sectioned wood of all shapes and sizes from an array of different types of trees, and finally the main house which appeared as though it was also crafted out of wood by the same artisan; having a wrap around porch littered with more completed works of wooden art.
I walked around the grounds for at least an hour trying to envision what I could build with the beautiful pieces of rough cut wood. I started off with an interesting slab that I considered transforming into a coffee table. I looked at it several times from every angle before setting it aside and looking for something I could use as a base for the table. I inspected every piece of wood, trying to visualize how I could make the pieces work together. After spending an embarrassing amount of time doing this, I ended up negotiating a price for a small slab of maple that I intend to turn into a side table once I do a little work on the wood and either find or make just the right base for it. I use the term “negotiated” loosely, as my initial offer was twenty-five dollars and my new friend, Lynn, smiled at me and said he would take twenty.
I entered into the Redwood Forest soon after crossing into California. I passed by the heads of several trails where the giant trees dwarfed the cars parked nearby. I did not do any hiking initially because I wanted to drive through the area and get my bearings. I hit U.S. 101 and the network of side roads attached to it and toured the coastline. The lush forested mountains on one side of my car met up with the ocean on the other side. The roads took me high up on cliffs overlooking dramatic drop offs and gave me unparalleled views of the rocky coastline filled with sea lions playing in the gentle breaks that seemed to go on for miles.
Around four thirty in the afternoon I found myself high atop one of the many magnificent cliffs and I pulled into a clearing off the roadway. I backed up to the edge in order to create the best panoramic view of the ocean as possible. I decided to set up camp for the day because I had been traveling at a pretty good pace and I needed a little down time. The cliff side was thick with bright flowers and a variety of green plants. Tall trees growing at an extreme angle to keep upright bordered my vision on either side. The drop off ended abruptly at the rocky start of the ocean waters. A pointed rock formation almost qualifying as a mountain in size jutted out of the water at the base of my view. I could see for miles across the vast ocean and would occasionally see something large breach the water in the distance which had to be the whales who were still migrating this time of year. The sound of sea lions barking at each other as they played in the waves below soothed me as I took it all in. As if the moment could not get any better, a bald eagle flew overhead on two separate occasions before the sun began to set, creating an orange glow over the horizon.
The next morning I made my way to the visitor center in order to pick up a map and plan out the route I would take. I spoke with a young man behind the counter and asked him where he suggested I hike for the day. He took out a large map, unfolded it across the table, and began rattling off information about areas located in every which direction. I had to stop him at one point to regain focus as I explained once more that I was not familiar with the area and was looking for a route to see the best sights in the park. We finally decided on a large loop that promised to take the majority of the day and cover several different trails. The young man then asked me to excuse him so he could grab a marker in the back room in order to mark the map. When he returned he was holding a green highlighter and proceeded to give me more directions. The more he talked the more apparent the volunteer patch affixed to his chest became. He went on saying that I should start at such and such a trail, follow it to the right and then make two lefts, cross by the tree with a notch in it, come to a creek which you make a right turn directly before and not after reaching it, followed by a creek you make a left turn directly after and not before it, reaching a fork in the road named such and such that once had a sign marking it but no longer does, until this trail turns into that trail and that trail turns into this trail. I stared at him with a blank look for what seemed like all morning and watched as he used the green highlighter all over a map of a national forest, which just so happened to be tinted the same shade of green. I am convinced this individual is either color blind or a significant amount of inbreeding is taking place here.
After leaving the visitor center slightly more confused then when I arrived, I found a trailhead nearby and began my hike. The forest surrounded me with enormous redwood trees growing well over three hundred feet tall. These giants appear as if they have been growing for hundreds of years, having weathered the unforgiving forces of both time and elements, they stand tall as patriarchs of the forest. The mind simply cannot process the sheer size of these trees when first coming into contact with them. You have to walk up to them, touch them, and sit starring at them before you can start to comprehend just how big they are. After spending hours walking among them, you adjust. These trees become the new norm and it starts to feel as if all trees should be this big.
Flying insects constantly made their presence known by buzzing around me. Sweat dripped from my forehead as the backpack I was carrying became increasingly heavy. It suddenly dawned on me why the price of backpacking gear sharply increases as the weight minimally decreases. When you are in the wilderness, dollars don’t mean anything, ounces do.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir
Once I completed the long loop I made it back to my car and headed towards Fern Canyon. The poorly maintained dirt road leading to the trail hugged the coast and had several areas where rising water levels had created deep creeks across the roadway. Between crossing over water, trying to miss large potholes, and avoiding elk crossing the roadway, I wasn’t sure if my vehicle was going to get me where I wanted to go. The SUV begrudgingly chugged along and I made it to the entrance of the trail. I followed a swiftly flowing creek back into the forest where it opened up into fifty foot canyon walls on either side. Water trickled down from the top feeding thousands of green ferns and mosses which blanketed the walls. Branches and stones were scattered in the cold clear water to provide a crude pathway through the valley. Large trees had fallen into the canyon, over the creek, adding obstacles to the hike. The area was absolutely beautiful and the challenging drive in was well worth the effort.
I returned to the cliffside I had camped at the night before and settled in for one more breathtaking sunset. After another good nights sleep on what felt like the top of the world, I made my way back down through the forest to U.S. 101 and headed south for San Francisco. About an hour in to this extremely pleasant drive along the coast I saw signs for Avenue of the Giants and I swerved over the empty highway to make the exit, as it sounded like somewhere I needed to be. I checked my GPS and confirmed that this road headed south, parallel with U.S. 101. The drive was spectacular with the giant timbers lining the narrow two lane asphalt. It was not long into the detour that I suddenly saw basketball sized boulders rolling across the road in front of me. I looked out my passenger window and watched in disbelief as a rock slide was coming down the bare cliff face beside me. This was something I had heard of and seen pictures of but never thought that I would find myself in the middle of such an unlikely timed event. Without having enough time to stop before reaching the falling rocks, I swerved around the reasonably spaced balls of rolling destruction and came out the other end surprisingly unscathed. It was one of those rare special moments that gets you firing on all cylinders and delicately teeters on incredible and incredibly bad.
I departed Portland, Oregon in the morning and had all intentions of going straight to Crater Lake National Park. I drove for an hour or two before I found myself staring at a map of Bend which was just a couple hours to the east of me. I had been wanting to visit Bend but was not sure I wanted to drive hours out of the way to do so. Once I reached the fork in the highway were I had to make a decision, I decided to go for it.
The two and a half hour drive to Bend gave me good insight into how the landscape changes the further east into Oregon you go. The area became very dry and red sand replaced much of the plant life. The bushes and grasses left on the ground were mostly brown. The green pine trees were still present but became more spread out and seemed to lose some of their vibrance. Mountains loomed in the distance reminding me why this town had become such an outdoor mecca.
I parked downtown and walked around. The town had a nice small, local feel to it. Restaurants and shops lined the main street. I stopped into Planker Sandwiches and had a turkey sandwich that was out of this world! I then made my way to a nearby park that had a lake in the center and was surrounded by well landscaped trees. A dirt bike path along with a paved walking path serpentined through the park. Residents were out walking, biking, and laying under the shade trees. After leaving the park, I drove a couple miles down the road to an area called the Old Mill. I was met with more shopping, mostly big chain stores, and more restaurants. Apartment buildings surrounded this shopping district and a river flowed through the center with kayakers and paddle boarders passing by. The area mostly reminded me of a smaller, less pretentious Boulder, Colorado.
I had such very high expectations for Portland, Oregon that I guess down was the only way it could go. And down it went! I live in Portland, Maine and I wanted so much to fall in love with the city that shares a name with the one I now call home.
I noticed immediately on the drive in how much larger of a city Portland, Oregon is compared to Portland, Maine. There was a lot of urban sprawl and suburbs surrounding the heart of the city. I made my way downtown and found a spot offering all day parking. I decided to bike rather than walk in order to cover the city more efficiently. I immediately gravitated towards an area where I saw a line of food trucks. After carefully reviewing the many offerings, I pulled the trigger on a lamb gyro from a Greek food truck. It was absolutely fantastic and easily landed in the list of top three gyros I have ever had.
I pedaled along the tree lined streets, often making more headway than the cars alongside me. The sidewalks were filled with pedestrians and vehicles shared the roadways with trolleys. To my surprise, I found the majority of the people in the area to be very guarded and unfriendly, which is the opposite of what I had heard about the city. There was a palpable sense that people were almost forcing the weird, hipster-like atmosphere; unlike Seattle where it felt original. The city has a certain dirty feel to it and there is a homeless epidemic of mass proportions, unlike anything I have seen anywhere else. The smell of marijuana would constantly find me as I traveled through town and many of the homeless people looked like they were barely hanging on by a thread, making it apparent that homelessness is not the only epidemic here. I made my way to the famous Voodoo Doughnuts and eagerly waited in the long line in order to compare this famous establishment to the iconic doughnut shop in the other Portland, Holy Donut. Once again, in Portland, Oregon fashion, I was disappointed. I tried the Oreo, peanut butter, chocolate frosted doughnut suggested to me by the cashier. Like all the other doughnuts there, it was a concoction of ill conceived madness. I bit into the doughnut and had an overwhelming rush of sugar overtake my mouth. Flavors were almost indistinguishable from the unbearable sweetness. Holy Donut in comparison has simple, well thought out choices with a flavor profile you can easily distinguish from the well balanced sweetness.
As I drove out of the city I noticed there were some very nice suburbs, while others appeared just okay. Character and charm could be found if one looked hard enough, but the remainder was a bit cookie cutter and commercialized. The surroundings were green and gave the sense of an outdoorsy town but somehow at the same time seemed a little bland and boring. The view of the skyline did not provide much of note except for one lonely, snow covered mountain off in the distance. This mountain towered above the surrounding landscape and provided a mesmerizing view of something greater just beyond the city.
I made the three hour drive from Olympic National Park in Washington to Astoria, Oregon at eight o’clock in the evening. I drove along the Columbia River which separates the two states until I came upon a remarkable pale green, two lane bridge that was as tall as it was skinny. A welcome to Oregon sign greeted me as I crossed over the middle of the bridge. When I arrived on the other side I was pleased to have been transported into the middle of Astoria.
After a good nights sleep, I read some reviews of good breakfast joints in the area and I landed on the Blue Scorcher Bakery & Cafe. There menu was limited, which is usually a good sign of them making a few things well, and I ended up opting for the special of the day, french toast. Saying this is the best breakfast I have had so far traveling across the country is not exactly fair, as I have been eating mostly cereal and bananas in my car in the mornings as I drive to various places. This french toast was done right though. They used what appeared to be long angled pieces of some type of homemade baguette. The french toast was seared and crunchy on the outside but delightfully soft on the inside. The plate had a blackberry compote along the sides and the dish was topped with homemade whipped cream and a mint leaf sprinkled with just the smallest amount of powdered sugar. A cup of real maple syrup accompanied the plate and complimented the maple latte I requested from the barista. The staff was friendly and assured me they would make a maple latte for themselves later on to try it out.
I looked online at the “must see” attractions in Astoria and found there wasn’t much. The Goonies was filmed in town and the house they used on screen was still standing. I made the short drive to see it and was met with a “no trespassing” sign on the dead end street. Apparently I was not the only one to have this idea. I traveled out of the neighborhood and back onto the main road along the Columbia River. With the windows down in my car I could hear the loud barking of what I knew to be the sound of sea lions. I followed the sound to a large boat dock and found hundreds of these adorable creatures barking at each other while soaking up the sun. I stayed there for awhile watching them play in the water until I convinced myself I would see more of them down the coast.
I passed through Seaside, a bustling little tourist trap filled with hotels and souvenir shops, on my way to Cannon Beach. I drove through the center of town, not seeing anything worth stopping for, before continuing on. Cannon Beach was a pleasant little town with an apparent flare for tourism as well. Shops and restaurants lined the street along the ocean while hotels and rental condos dotted the sandy beaches. Cottages covered the streets to the east creating a slightly less transient appearance in these areas. I made my way to the beach to see the giant rock formations the area is so well known for. While the stone formations were astonishing, the hordes of people visiting the beach along with the many rental condos in front of it made for an unauthentic experience overall. If you want to experience these magnificent rock formations, I suggest skipping Cannon Beach and making your way to the much more impressive and authentic feeling beaches of Olympic National Park in nearby Washington.
If your undecided on where you want to travel or what you want to see, Olympic National Park may just be the spot for you. This diverse park covers a large area and includes mountain drives leading from green forests up into thick blankets of snow, coastal beaches, waterfalls, lakes, and even rain forests.
My journey this morning had me departing from Seattle, Washington and driving west to Olympic National Park. I entered in the name of the park on my trusty GPS and off I went. Aside from looking down at my screen to see where the next turn off is, I rarely ever check to see what route I’m taking or what I may be coming up on. After driving out of Seattle I found myself at a booth with an attendant asking for payment in order to drive my car on the next ferry that would soon be arriving. I was a little concerned that my GPS had finally misguided me because I did not start the morning off thinking I was going to be driving onto a ferry in order to get to my destination. I politely explained to the woman in the booth that I was blindly following my GPS and I was not sure if this was were I needed to be to get to Olympic National Park. She assured me this was the best route to take, so I went along with it.
After completing the thirty minute ferry ride, I drove off the boat and traveled another hour or so into Port Angeles. I was expecting a cool little pacific northwest town that I would enjoy exploring, but all I found was a somewhat depressing area that was arguably rundown. I was getting hungry for lunch at this point, and due to a little run in with a certain field mouse in Seattle, I no longer had any food on me. I checked the local Yelp reviews for a highly rated lunch spot and came across New Day Eatery. To make a long story short, the salad I ordered off the menu stated it was topped with salmon and it arrived topped with canned salmon, which doesn’t quite qualify as salmon to me. It was a very disappointing meal and I didn’t bother mentioning anything to the unfriendly waitress because I realized this may just be the best Port Angeles has to offer. It wasn’t until the next day when I was at a nearby river that a gentleman came walking up and asked if the salmon were jumping today. He went on to explain further that he was at this very spot the day before and large groups of salmon were making their trip up the falls, landing on the rocks, and flopping around until they landed back in the water. My mind brought me back to what I was doing the day before- choking down a painful meal of canned salmon. I could have literally drove down the road, picked up a salmon flopping around on the rocks, went back to the restaurant and delivered my very own locally caught salmon to the chef. Get it together New Day Eatery! I’m sure I’ll get over this disappointment with time.
After I ate lunch I walked over to the nearby bike store to look around and continue convincing myself that I need a new mountain bike. I talked bikes with the clerk for a few minutes and confirmed with him that there was in fact nothing of significance in town I was missing out on and I should continue on into nearby Olympic National Park. I left there and drove over to the park’s visitor center to pick up a map and plan out my day.
I decided to drive up to Hurricane Ridge which promised an abundance of snow; a stark contrast to the lush green forest I was surrounded by. The two lane road twisted and turned up the mountain and provided constantly changing scenery. The trees started off extremely green with mosses delicately draped over their branches. It seemed like in the blink of an eye a thick fog appeared and hovered over the tree line. As I continued to climb in altitude the fog dropped below me and deep snow covered the ground.
I returned back down the mountain and drove thirty minutes to Madison Falls. The road leading to the trail head ran parallel to a stream flowing with turquoise water. I unloaded my bike and began the ride to the waterfall. It was only a short distance up before I ran into the falls. What these falls lacked in size they more than made up for in brilliant colors and features. The water shot off the cliff above in a narrow stream, bordered by vibrant lime green moss growing off the rock face on either side. The clear water thundered as it landed harshly in the rocky pool at the base of the falls. Tall trees surrounded this little piece of paradise, creating a moment I never wanted to leave.
It was getting late and I decided to stay the night at a campground inside the park. After getting a restful nights sleep I woke up with purpose, knowing I had a lot of ground left to cover. I started off by locating the trail heads of Marymere Falls and Sol Duc Falls and hiking through the forest to see them. Each of the falls had their own unique beauty and the trek to find them was certainly worth it.
After seeing the falls, I drove west through the park towards the coast. My first stop was Second Beach, not to be confused with First Beach and Third Beach. This was officially my first time being on the actual pacific coast, and it was spectacular. I hiked through a rain forest-like area, past two hundred foot tall trees lining the sandy beaches before getting a glimpse of the ocean and the craggily peaks shooting out of the water. My expectations were immediately exceeded and I spent a couple hours exploring the coastline. The sun bleached remains of the fallen timber that once created a barrier between forest and surf lay mangled at the entrance to the sand. The huge tree trunks created a series of obstacles that only those answering the call of the crashing waves would cross. The huge cliffs rising out of the water provided a glimpse of the marvels hidden below. I continued my drive down the coast to Ruby Beach which provided even more of this dramatic landscape.
After I left the ocean behind, I made my way inland and visited the Hoh Rain Forest and the Quinault Rain Forest. Both areas provided a unique landscape I had never experienced before. The areas were lush with mosses, ferns, flowers, and trees growing on every square inch of the forest floor. Creeks slowly flowed by, feeding this delicate network with water so clear you could only tell from the reflection of the sun that it was even there. Greens of every shade overwhelmed the senses. Elk foraged nearby, disregarding me as I walked past them. There was so much life all around me that it suddenly became clear I am a very small member of a much larger, complex system.