Day 68: Netflix & Chill

I left my new friends with the intention of making it to the Glacier area by evening – and I did.  Only when I found my spot in the Flathead National Forest just south of the park, the rain was coming down and the temperature was steadily dropping… I’ll save you the gory details but “nature called” on multiple lines as a I hunkered down under a towel in the forest, and I thought to myself “I think I’ll drive to the next town, find an Airbnb, and take care of this in a warm, dry pace.  So I did.  And boy was I grateful when the wind picked up and the rain poured all night long and into the next day.

I didn’t exactly sleep soundly, what with something banging on the metal roof all night, but I was grateful for Netflix and the company of my favorite Gilmore Girls from Stars Hollow…and when my hostess contacted me in the morning to ask if I’d heard the same noise overnight as my neighbors, I filled her in on the specifics and she offered me an additional night free.  Rain, wind, and cold temps (even snow!) were forecasted for the next 24 hours, so I took her up on the offer and spent what would have been a miserable day outside inside eating pizza and reading and Netflixing and chilling, not in the way I might have done in my tent, but in a warm, snuggly, dry, and comfortable way.  It was lovely.  And perfect.  And I was grateful to those noisy branches (and the kind man who came and removed them, leaving me to sleep in peace the next night).

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Days 66 & 67: Libby

Yesterday I put on my big girl panties to brave a solo hike despite the gruesome stories I’ve heard about grizzly attacks.  Fred in Ovando says the bears are eating huckleberries right now and aren’t too very interested in humans, and I’m taking his word for it.  (I considered investing in a bike helmet so that even if my body gets mauled by a bear, I’ll still have my face and my scalp, unlike the unfortunate guy I saw pictured on a bear spray display at a mountaineering store the other day…)

At the suggestion of the handsome owner of a coffee shop I drove out of my way to visit in Columbia Falls, I headed south to visit the Jewel Basin.  I was excited the road to my chosen hike was well-maintained…but, boy did my 4-cylinder struggle making its way up the hill!!  Wowza.  At any rate, I made it and was in this case grateful there were several other cars at the trailhead (cuz…noise scares bears).  I was also grateful to the kind lady who shared her toilet paper at the outhouse…then strategic in following her and her family up the trail, figuring their conversation and noise-making would be my first line of defense against grizzlies.  (Smart, eh?)

Soon enough, we were taking pictures of each other at a viewpoint and then I was hiking with them (three cans of bear spray and five voices are way better than one!).  Turns out, the couple, in their 50s, had just retired to move to their family vacation home near Big Fork from, of all places, Illinois (Evanston)!  Their daughter and her boyfriend were in town visiting from Nashville, where they write music and he tours with up-and-coming country artists.  We hit it off right away, and next thing I knew, they invited me to spend the night at their house.  I love the way this talking to strangers thing works for me!

When I found out there was a town in northwestern Montana called Libby, I knew I had to visit, and the night of the full moon was perfect timing.  My grandma’s name was Carrie Elizabeth, but she hated the name Carrie (none of us quite understand why…), so she chose to go by her middle name and shortened it to Libby.  A few family members have called me “Lib” over the years, but no one outside the family ever really has – until Jim in Jackson learned of the family nickname…and he’s called me Libby every since.  Gma always called me her Libby 2 (Libby “two-two-two,” actually).  And when I told the Supellsas (Candus, Mark, and Ava from Evanston, and b.f. Jeremy from Texas by way of Nashville) the story of Gma and her moon and my plans to visit Libby for it, they called me by her name the rest of our time together, and my heart swelled every time.

As I drove two hours out of my way to the little town of Libby, population ~2,000, after an afternoon of strenuous hiking up the side of a mountain, I wondered if it was really worth the drive, if I’d feel Gma there or even see her moon at all, given my driving into more and more smoke all the way…but I couldn’t have been happier I took the time to make the journey.  The drive gave me all the evening to think of and remember her, and without a doubt I felt her presence with me in that little town.  I found a lovely local restaurant with delicious pizza, a delightful waitress, and friendly locals at the bar, and I took my time soaking in the feel and the flavor of the place before driving back to Big Fork…then sure enough as I drove a ways from Libby, I saw that most beautiful Gma moon shining down on me from behind the clouds, and all I felt was love (not coincidentally, one of the only words Gma muttered in her final days with us).

Candus and Marc were delightful, and I’m so thankful again to get to spend my time with really good people doing things that I love.  The climb up Mt. Aneus (not Mt. Anus, as I initially thought…) was so much more enjoyable with company, and we went all the way to the peak, which I might not have done on my own.  Plus, we didn’t get eaten by bears!  This morning, we shared breakfast, stories, conversation, and goodness, and I left Echo Lake with my love cup filled to brimming.

Days 64 & 65: Wildfires

Wyoming was smoky.  Montana is smoky.

Last night, Gma’s almost-full moon glowed orange-red as it reflected fires burning in and around Glacier National Park.  Half the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed, and all the sites on the west side of the park are inaccessible due to fire-suppression efforts.

Folks (locals and experts alike) are talking about this being a new “August normal.”

All of it is pretty new to me.  Back home, farmers burned fencerows, and the fires sometimes got out of control due to shifting winds, but I had no knowledge of forests catching on fire.  In retrospect, the Smokey the Bear fire prevention campaigns were kind of lost on me.  Forest fires didn’t hit close to home, figuratively or literally.  And I certainly couldn’t imagine anyone willfully starting a fire – or even being negligent enough to start one inadvertently.

When I moved to Portland, my understanding started to shift.  I saw evidence of previous burns on forested hikes and even heard of some hikers’ near-escape from a fire that shifted with the direction of the wind.  When a teenager threw a firecracker into the woods and sparked a giant fire in the Columbia Gorge last summer, Portland filled with smoke (Washington-area fires contributed as well, as smoke wafted into the valley from the north).  Finally Smokey’s message resonated with me.  The reality hung heavy in the air, bringing warnings of unsafe air quality and cancelling outdoor plans.  I can remember a period of time when my head ached from the haze in the air.  It was inescapable, permeating homes and businesses and just hanging heavy in the sky.

This summer, wildfires (megafires) are all over the news.  And I’m personally seeing them, hearing about them, smelling them, and experiencing them more directly and differently than ever before.

I listened to a program the other day in which various fire experts were interviewed, and this is how I would sum up what I learned:

  1. Many wildfires occur naturally, sparked by lightning.
  2. When humans suppress these fires, they disrupt natural cycles.*
  3. Fires are bigger today than ever before in known-history.
  4. More Americans than ever before live in areas prone to fires.*
  5. Humans cause fires too.  And climate change exacerbates them.

I starred the information that was new to me.  I was especially interested in the bit about our “encroaching” on natural wild areas.  We desire to live in beautiful, wooded places (and there are so many of us).  These areas are obviously at greater risk of wildfire, and we’re naturally more concerned with wildfires that threaten homes and other structures, so areas in the WUI (“wooey” – or wildland urban interface – where wild spaces meet human development) are of particular concern, in a way that is relatively new and modern.

It all comes full circle for me.  Wildfires weren’t a reality (or personal concern) for me before I moved to a more “wooey” place.  There are forests in Illinois, of course, but it’s alllllll the trees of Portland and the surrounding areas that called me move there – and the wild places that called me on my journey.  So, naturally, the realities of such places resonate with me in new ways when I occupy them daily.  And I’m newly fascinated by wildfire research, sparked by an employee of the Forest Service I met hiking up Mt. Shasta.  I don’t even know how we started talking about it, but he said “People are so opposed to deforestation, and they’re not giving thought to the effects that has on fire danger.”  Hmmm.  Fodder for thought indeed.

Day 63: Sleeping in the Street with Bikers

Today was shitty.  But tonight was unexpectedly lovely.

A friend in Wyoming told me he’s nervous about my hiking alone in Big Sky Country because of the grizzly bears…but I can’t just manifest hiking companions (though I’m definitely on the lookout!), and hiking is what I DO out here.  Still, he’s gotten in my head, and I’m feeling more nervous about grizzly bears than I did about rattlesnakes… So, the last few days have been mostly driving days (blech).  I’m heading to Glacier National Park, and I WILL find fellow-hikers there (update since initial writing: THREE hiking companions found and SCHEDULED!)!

On top of that, some people are just mean, and that messed up my day.

So I decided to cut my road time short and look for a spot in the national forest by afternoon…but when the only spot I found in my first 7 miles of searching had what looked to be a coyote jaw in it, alongside a bunch of mangled fur, I thought I better take my chances finding another spot up the way (cuz…grizzly bears!?).  Then, of course, I realized I was nearly out of gas…so I hurried to find the closest gas station and wound up in the tiny town of Ovando, Montana.  Google Ovando, and you’ll find it had a population of 71 people at the time of the 2000 Census.  I’m afraid the count-takers may have missed the place in 2010…and I almost missed it myself, but I needed gas, so I followed the signs and found myself at Blackfoot Commercial Company.

When I asked the gal at the check-out (Christine) for camping recommendations, she pointed me in the direction of the owner, Fred, and he said “How about that spot of grass over there?”  I laughed…but he was completely serious, so I “set up” camp in what was essentially the town square.  Nearby my “site” I saw some folks Fred told me were cycling the Great Divide Trail and introduced myself.  They invited me for drinks up the way at Trixi’s, the local “watering hole,” and I turned them down to go to bed early and read like a hermit…then reneged on that and walked with them up the way to the very country, very Montana, very small town spot.

The bartender didn’t have much use for us travelers, very evidently favoring the locals…but I felt very privileged to get to be in the company of fellow wanderers – Harry from England, Adam from Canada, Gloria and Craig/Greg from Spain and New Zealand respectively, by way of Australia.  I’m a talker, but when I find myself in the company of strangers from all walks of life and corners of the world, I ask lots of questions and soak up their knowledge and experience and cultural variety.  That’s what I did at Trixi’s – over a bottle of Big Sky Brewing’s Summer Honey, against a backdrop of mounted big game heads and locals wearing cowboy hats and sticking close to their own.

Then I slept restfully in the town square with bicyclists from all over the globe.

 

Days 61 & 62: Montana

Jim and I stayed up late into the night my last evening in Jackson planning the next leg of my journey.  Well, I planned; he chatted.  (Ha!)  Finally I said “You’re not very good at this planning stuff are you?”  (That was indirect for “Talk less; map more!”)  Of course, he was a good sport in the face of my razzing.

“Get ‘er done” was the theme of my Monday morning: groceries (check), laundry (check), fresh sheets (check), oil change and car wash (check, check), caffeine for the drive (check)…so I hit the road fresh and ready to go, grateful for my extended time in Jackson and with Jim.

I was eagerly apprehensive to head to Montana.  The grizzlies run wild here (unlike in Idaho and Wyoming, outside of Yellowstone), and the spaces are vast and scantily-peopled.  They’re wild in a way I haven’t really experienced alone on my journey.  And Canada will be even wilder, I expect… I’m a long ways from California; that’s for sure!

I drove through Yellowstone one more time on my way out of Wyoming (it’s the most direct route) and came into the state curious about the cloudy skies.  Was it smoke or ominous weather brewing?  Something told me to pull into a campground instead of venturing into the national forest at dusk…and I was right to listen to that voice because the rain started just as I popped up my tent – and my first night in Montana marked my first night camping in a thunderstorm.  It was scary for a bit…but the storm passed in less than an hour and I slept cold but soundly to the tapping of raindrops on my “roof.”  I can’t help but think rain is a very good thing up here right now, what with all the fires.  Thunder and lightning not so much, of course…

I wanted to catch-up on writing, so I made it as far as Bozeman this morning and settled in at a coffee shop.  I complimented a woman’s shirt (it reminded me of something my mom would wear), and before I knew it, Marj was sitting at my table and we were talking about all the things – travel and family, her rocky marriage and my journey – then next thing I knew we were planning to meet for dinner.  She treated me to BBQ at a local place – Copper (one of Montana’s nicknames is “Treasure State” because of its rich mineral deposits and extensive mining history) – and we spent the evening soaking in each other’s company, both knowing we’d probably never see one another again.  She actually thanked me for helping her make sense of some things…and we agreed we were meant to connect in that coffee shop.

Came “home” from dinner to the most beautiful sunset behind the mountains above my campsite.  It got me thinking about the enormity of the Universe and the tininess of me.  That same sun has risen and set over those mountains day after day after day for more time than I can even begin to fathom.  Regardless of me, regardless of you, regardless of any of us, it is constant.  It’s at once the same and different every day, and tonight, it really struck me.

These are the experiences that come from slowing down.

Days 55-60: Jackson Hole

Jackson is a town in Wyoming (there is also a Jackson in Mississippi, of course; I accidentally reserved a campsite there and never got a refund; grrr).  Jackson Hole is a valley that encompasses several towns and outdoor spaces between the Teton and Gros Ventre mountain ranges, Jackson being one of them, at the south end of the valley.

After my visitors went back to Portland, I decided to settle in to the area for a few days.  I’ve found myself most at ease when I’ve gotten to know and explore a space for more than just a couple of days.  That’s when I’ve really learned about the culture and people (and gotten to know one or some of them too).  And, I crave that settled feeling in general in life, out here maybe even more than back home.

So I went to the library; I went to the movies.  I went to lunches and dinners with my new friend Jim.  I even watched some TV!  I hiked and camped and sat and read.  I explored…and did LOTS of people-watching.

I came to Wyoming with some stereotypes about the place and the people (newsflash: we all have them).  I also began my journey saying “If I decide to move away from Oregon, I bet it’s because I fall in love with the wide open spaces and big skies of Wyoming or Montana…” so those stereotypes were a mixed bag, certainly not all negative.  I did sort of expect I’d be walking into Trump Country, so to speak, and I’m not sure I didn’t, but it didn’t feel like I thought it would feel.

There was a definite small town, rural, country feel to most everywhere I went (not surprising, given the ranches and farms that dot the area).  I wish I could have plucked all the tourists out of Jackson and just observed the locals…but they were certainly easy to tell apart!  The locals looked like, well, home to me.  They wore plaid and flannel and belt buckles and work boots (not like the ones folks wear to country concerts to look the part but the kind that are steel-toed and well-worn; in other words, ones that are actually functional and worked-in) There were also a lot of cowboy hats.  Those were harder to tell fashionable from functional, I must admit…

I felt like I was surrounded (minus travelers) by hard work and common sense.  Parking in Jackson was free.  The rules of the road seemed…sensible.  I made a U-turn once and knew I’d never get a ticket for it.  It was safe and functional, and these people seem to appreciate function over form.  It was refreshing to not be surrounded by wanna-be-hipsters who mock me for drinking Coors Light (whilst riding skateboards with cats perched on their shoulders).  These folks get me (and I get them), even if we vote much differently…and I’m coming to appreciate that – commonality that goes above and beyond politics.  (Don’t get me wrong; I love Portland, but I also value common sense and pragmatism, some of which seems to be missing there…)

I could go on and on about the thoughts I had and observations I made and thinking the area and people and learning there made me do…but I won’t.  I’ll just say there’s good stuff and there are good people in every place I go.  That’s a beautiful momento for me to take away.

(The picture here features one of the four elk antler arches surrounding the town square in Jackson.  Jenna – the vegan – asked me “Do they kill elk for their antlers?”  I responded as best I knew how: “No, I’m sure they kill them for other things – meat, etc. – and the arches are a byproduct.”  I was wrong though.  Upon further reading I learned that elk in large refuge area near Jackson shed their antlers each year…and local boy scouts collect them to be featured in the arches, which have become a fixture of Jackson’s identity.)

Day 54: Taking Time

My friend Jenna and I were sitting at a stoplight in Jackson when an older guy in a Subaru pulled up beside us and started asking questions about my rooftop tent through the open window.  Next thing I knew, we were pulled over, and I was popping the thing up to show him. We learned his name was Jim and he’s lived in the area for 30 years…and soon enough, we were having coffee with him and talking about nature and geology and life and politics.  After two hours, when I could practically hear Jenna’s stomach growling, I said to him “I wonder if you might like to have dinner with me tomorrow night” then added “Just to be clear, I’m not coming on to you.”  He accepted enthusiastically, and we agreed to meet the next day at one of his favorite local spots.

What I’m realizing “out here” is that I make friends with strangers pretty easily (I’ve been told I smile more and make more eye contact than other people in the west, and folks credit this to my Midwest roots)…but I don’t do much of this in my “real” life (or, former life).  I’m always busy (or rushing anyway) and distracted and probably generally avoid unscheduled human interaction because small talk annoys and exhausts me.  But on this journey, I’ve slowed down and opened myself up to the possibility of connecting with random people.  It started with the two little boys who wandered into my campsite my first week in California…and I learned something from them: good people make places even more beautiful than they were to begin with.  I’ve been reminded of this time and again – by Betsy and Kent at Lake Tahoe, by Dawid in the Alabama Hills, by Jon in San Diego, Carlos in Sedona, Jim in Telluride, and now Jim in Jackson.

I can’t help but think there might be something to this, that part of what I’m supposed to be learning out here is about people and my interactions as an outgoing approachable introvert in a social world.