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.
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.
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.
I made the short thirty-five mile drive to Glacier National Park from Whitefish, where I stayed the night before. The area takes a turn from stunning to breathtaking as you enter the park. The small two lane road hugs crystal clear lakes as you weave through the forest. Mountains proudly reflect off the surface of the waters they stand watch over. There are various types of trees and mosses covering the landscape, all with various shades of vibrant greens, full of life. The road tucked in and out of the thick foliage, giving me views of flowing creeks working on fulfilling their mission of feeding the lakes below.
The road eventually came to a point where traffic was no longer permitted to pass and iron gates blocked the path. I parked my car and decided to bike the remainder of the way. As I biked up the middle of the deserted road my mind wandered back to what my cousin asked me with a grin several times the night before,”Do you have bear spray to take with you?” I got to know her well enough to realize she was not kidding and I think she got to know me well enough to realize not having it wasn’t going to deter me from going.
The road opened up into views of a raging river below. There were several opportunities to take paths down to admire the clear glacial water up close. I dipped my hand in, as I always do when I reach a body of water, to get a sense of whether going for a swim is worth the shock the cold river promised to deliver. It didn’t surprise me that I opted to stay dry for the moment.
The clouds began to roll in and it started to sprinkle, but I continued to bike up the mountain pass thinking any significant precipitation would surely become snow were I was going. While I was right about the heavy precipitation coming, I was very wrong about it being cold enough to snow where I was. The rains came down and turned my once fluffy, warm down jacket into a saggy, wet barrier between me and the constant rain. I continued up the mountain for a couple more miles figuring I couldn’t get any wetter. Once the scenery became more consistent and the hope of seeing something completely new around the next corner had faded, I began the ride back to my car. I was upset with myself as I road back down and felt the raindrops hit me and soak into my jacket. I had just bought a great packable Patagonia Alpine Houdini waterproof shell days before in Missoula, MT for these very circumstances. A good down jacket is hard to beat nine times out of ten because it is super light weight, very warm, keeps you comfortable over a wide range of temperatures, and packs into the size of a grapefruit. The down; however, meets its match when it gets wet because it loses its loft, and thus its warmth. The ideal pairing is a good packable rain jacket which creates an impenetrable fortress of dryness and warmth. This covers all your bases no matter what you find yourself in. Given that my rain jacket is so thin, weighing virtually nothing, there was simply no excuse not to have it. After making it back to the car, I dried off and got changed into a fresh set of clothes. I made the journey back out of the park, enjoying the scenery as much as I did on the way in, and promising myself I would return again in the future.
Ever since I read a couple years ago about river surfing becoming popular in Missoula, I have been dying to check out the area. I woke up early and made the three and a half hour drive from Bozeman to Missoula. I noticed immediately there was much more urban sprawl than Bozeman had. Missoula appeared significantly larger in size, more comparable to a medium size city. Traffic was not a challenge and tended to be much more spread out than its tiny counterpart. Like Bozeman, the mountains surrounded you and stared down at the city.
As I neared the downtown area I pulled over and walked into a Starbucks for a latte and some local advice. I like asking for travel tips from Starbucks employees because they feel compelled to give you a thorough rundown of the city due to the fact they just swindled you out of three times the amount of money you should be paying for that cup of caffeine. Aside from the usual skiing and fishing advice I had become accustomed to in Montana, they mentioned going downtown to the river where people surf the rapids.
I drove through downtown and headed straight for the river. I kept an eye out for a shop to rent a board and wetsuit so I could experience the river myself, but I didn’t see one. The main street ended at a parking lot along the water. I noticed a couple older guys getting surfboards out of a beat up van so I knew I was in the right place. I walked over to the river and immediately had a sensory overload. I was seeing way to many right things happening in one spot. The mountains were in the distance creating a backdrop for the city, the river was alive with large rapids creating a playground for surfers and kayakers, and a paved path ran along both sides of the river leading to bike trails in the mountains. I sat there and watched the surfers for some time, studying their technique just in case I returned to join in on the fun.
After admiring the river, I got my mountain bike down from the roof of the car and headed back through downtown. I stopped off in several stores to do a little light shopping along the way. As I covered more of the city, I noticed it had its own very distinct vibe. There was a very strong hippie, surfer, skater, and homeless person flavor going on. This atmosphere lent itself to a regularly changing mix of grungy areas as well as nicer areas. In contrast to Bozeman, there was a much more authentic, local feel to the city. I eventually met back up with the river trail and biked over to the University of Montana. I admired this beautiful campus before returning to the bike trail and heading towards the mountains. I passed along the river, seeing additional parts of the city before the buildings began to disappear. The trail became more rugged and I enjoyed some quick switchbacks before eventually returning to the car.