Westbound: The Last Leg

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.

road
Cliffsides in Zion National Park
tunnel
Tunnels in Zion NP
curve
Winding roads in Zion NP
creek
One of many creeks in Zion NP
selfie entrance
Entrance to Zion National Park

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.

exit
Leaving Zion National Park
temple
Salt Lake Temple
flowers2
Temple Square
church
Assembly Hall
flowers
Flower lined walkways

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.

snow
Snow storm in Wyoming
bike ride
Biking in Grosse Pointe

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.

trip
Done!
light
Back home

 

It’s your life. Demand adventure.

– Jon

Westbound: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

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.

entrance
Grand Canyon National Park entrance

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.

Mather Point
Mather Point

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.

Mather Point2
One of the many overlooks

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.

Hopi POint
Hopi Point
selfie
A token “selfie”
Museum
Tusayan Museum

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.

tower
Desert View Watchtower
inside tower
Interior of Desert View Watchtower
tree trunk
A fighter

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.

fire
Successful campfire

 

It’s your life. Demand adventure.

– Jon

 

 

Westbound: Yosemite National Park, CA

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.

Entrance sign
Yosemite National Park entrance

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.

valley overlook
Yosemite

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.

traffic
Battling traffic
waterfall
One of many waterfalls
rock face
Granite cliffs

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.

window-deer
Herd of deer

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.

visitor center- bear trap
Yosemite visitor center
mirror lake
Mirror Lake

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.

both falls
Yosemite Falls
lower falls 2
Lower Yosemite Falls
lower falls
Lower Yosemite Falls

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.

el capitan
El Capitan

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.

 

It’s your life. Demand adventure.

-Jon