A Few of My Favorite Things

People keep asking me “What was your favorite part of your journey?”  And I’m finding it such a difficult question to answer.  I can’t pinpoint a single experience or view or location as the favorite…but I can identify a few of my favorite things.  (Bear with me here; this is a long one…!)

Campground
Early on in my journey, I freaked out a little about the search for dispersed camping sites.  I didn’t have any experience at all just going into a forest and finding a spot…and the task right away proved much more nuanced and daunting that I ever imagined.  I’d made advanced reservations at a campground my first night in the Redwoods then figured I’d just wing it from there.  But “winging” it resulted in my first panicked break-down on the side of a road just 48 hours into my trip.  So, I made the decision to ease into dispersed camping and stay at some campgrounds along the way.  And all I can say about campgrounds in general is that they are hit or miss.  Seriously.  Some are quiet and quaint and forested and lovely; while others are everything but.  I found Mill Creek Resort on the Hipcamp website, and it was all the things good campgrounds are made of – great facilities, secluded sites, wooded surroundings, running water (faucets, toilets, creek, and laundry!), and fantastic people.  The owners are a young couple who live on-site and go above and beyond making the guest experience extraordinary.  And since the grounds are located in a tiny mountain community, locals wander in for breakfast and milkshakes and add to the uniqueness and character of the experience.  This is the first place I wanted to settle in for a bit..and someday, I’ll return.

Boondock experience
Once I settled into the “dispersed” camping routine, I feel like I nailed it, discovering some great spots!  My first foray into national forest camping was significant because it involved facing major fears (of potential animal encounters, of seclusion in a forested space, of physical vulnerability…), and I’ll always remember my site off a logging road in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, with a breathtaking view of Shasta’s snowy peak from one window and a reassuring view of Gma’s almost-moon from the other, glowing in on me most of the night.  This is where I first dug a hole for…you know.  And the next morning, I washed my face and brushed my teeth in a creek nearby, feeling like a true wild child for the first time on my journey.  It was liberating, and I felt a freedom having faced my fears and survived my first night boondocking in the wild west. 😉

National Park
My parents were less than thrilled about my trip, but for Christmas they gifted me a national parks book and an America the Beautiful annual parks pass, and this was the most lovely gift they could have given me.  I couldn’t wait to explore the parks!  I was most excited about Joshua Tree and Glacier, but Lassen Volcanic proved to be my favorite of all the parks I saw.  I’d never heard of it and honestly thought it was going to be a big pile of ashy after-volcano mess…but it turned out to be so much more extraordinary than that.  Hiking in some areas of the park felt like walking through a Pixar film.  It was so green and almost other-worldly.  It looked too pristine and felt too idyllic to be real and natural…but Mother Nature, I was reminded over and over again on my journey, is the greatest creator of all.

Hike
I did a lot of hiking on my trip, so it’s difficult to identify the one hike that moved me most, but when I look back, I can’t help but think of Mt. Shasta.  The drive up to the trailhead was an adventure in itself.  It was the first of many drives that gave my little Civic a real run for her money (and the first one to shake lose her ski plate, which would have to be zip tied or duct taped three times on my journey).  At one point in the climb, I was literally driving 1 MPH!  I hadn’t even known this was possible, but the climb was steep, and the rocks and ruts were big.  (A fellow hiker said to me “You climbed that hill in a Civic!?!”  Yes, yes I did – for better or worse!)  Unbeknownst to me, this particular trailhead is mostly used by backpackers climbing to the peak.  I may have been the only hiker on the trail without technical gear and skis for sliding back down the snowy patches near the peak.  And I was wearing hiking sandals…!  I had no intention of hiking to the top, but I laugh at myself looking back.  It was a challenging climb, and I lost my way coming back down and had to “Marco Polo” some hikers and tag along with them to relocate the trail I’d lost.  But I did it.  It was the first of many hills I would climb on my journey, literally and figuratively.

Town(s)
Of all the towns I visited, Victoria, British Columbia was my favorite.  A close second was Telluride, Colorado.  Then Jackson, Wyoming.  In each of these places, my experience was enriched because I was spending my time in the company of friends, new and old.

Leap outside my comfort zone
Shonda Rhimes wrote a book called Year of Yes, and it’s about her giving up resistance to living life to the fullest.  I bought it just before my journey and tried to incorporate her advice and life learning into my everyday, saying “yes” more than I said “no” to new experiences out on the road.  I remember one night in particular pushing the bounds of my comfort zone, and I smile looking back on it, even though I was close to miserable in some of its moments… I’d started talking to a guy at a bar over lunch in Telluride and wound up meeting up with him to let him introduce me to some local culture and experience later in the evening.  We went to a natural hot springs (my first time) where an old guy named Warren was sitting along the edge of the pool with a bathrobe covering nothing but his shoulders, doling out PB&J sandwiches and passing around his water bong to share with the group.  All the folks who eventually filled the relatively small tub were naked but me, and I got crowded out of my seat by a bunch of young hippies, one of whom didn’t even notice me and almost sat right on me with his bum in the buff.  I probably appeared a bit prudish in my swimsuit, but I’ll never forget the experience and staring up at the sea of stars in the dark skies above the pool of naked strangers.

Chance encounter
When I set out on my journey, I had no idea how many people I’d meet and get to know along the way.  I thought I’d spend most of my time in solitude, trying to figure out what the heck I’m gonna do with the rest of my life.  Perhaps I didn’t discover my “path” because I spent too much time accidentally meeting people…but I have no regrets about any of it.  I had fun with and learned something from everyone I met.  My most rewarding chance encounter happened in the Alabama Hills of California.  If I hadn’t met Dawid, I’d never have braved going to Death Valley on my own – and I wouldn’t get to say I visited the hottest place in America in the heat of summer and discovered a waterfall (and a friendly frog!) in a surprisingly lush area of the park.  I also wouldn’t have saved two lives, as Dawid tells the story.

Wildlife sighting
I didn’t see my first bear until 8 weeks into my trip.  Even then, it was from a very very long distance…and I could only sort of see it with binoculars (a cub, shaking berries loose from a huckleberry bush).  I actually began to think bears were imaginary creatures – and wonder why in the heck I’d spent $90 on aerosol sprays for warding them off!  I never once saw a rattlesnake, and that’s okay, but I do wonder why the most interesting (and admittedly intimidating) creatures seemed to evade me.  There must be some significance to that, right?  Thankfully, I did see buffalo – loads of them – and they absolutely amazed me.  They were my most favorite creature-encounter of the journey!  (The giant tarantula I spotted crossing a rocky road in front of me late at night outside Sedona was a close second.)

Nature moment
This one’s a toss-up between two very different experiences.  My initial favorite moment in nature was early on in my trip when I escaped the crowds of the Redwoods to curl up with John Muir (er, his writings) on the trunk of a fallen tree and watched the clouds pass slowly overhead.  There was simple, lovely, I’m-doing-this-thing-I thought-I couldn’t-do-and-this-is-the-stuff-it’s-made-of joy in this experience.  I felt at peace with the world in that time and place.  On the flip side, late in my journey, I explored a relatively out-of-the-way cave with Julie on a hike in the San Juan Islands.  It was pitch black inside, and she was terrified, but I felt alive, invigorated to have absolutely no idea whatsoever what might lie around the next turn, or even just beyond the few feet I could see in front of me by headlamp.  I felt brave.  I’ve chickened out of a lot of things in my life, quitting before making good on commitments, without following-through on this, that, or the other thing… But in the few minutes we were inside the cave, I felt almost altogether free of fear, and it was incredible.  In retrospect, this feels like a good blueprint for life, since we never know what’s to come but have the opportunity every day to forge ahead anyway.  I don’t always do this, but on that day, in that cave, I did, and it felt good.  Really good.

All-around experience
I met a lot of great people in my travels, and all of them made an impact on me and my journey, but my hosts at Lake Tahoe made an especially lasting impression (I’m certain I can’t put into words here all the reasons why).  I’d met and talked with the Liegingers for a mere twenty minutes when Betsy invited me to stay with them at their home.  When I showed up, I immediately asked “Does it seem weird that I’m virtually a complete stranger and I’ve come to stay with you?”  Her husband and brother answered unequivocally “Yes…but not to Betsy it doesn’t.”  She and I share the same name and birthday; we both collect heart-shaped rocks in nature; and we have the same dishes, for goodness sake.  I was meant to pick them up and give them a Lyft back in the spring, and we were meant to connect on my journey.  I’m not sure why, but I’m certain it’s so.  And I’m very grateful.  What lovely people they are, and what a lovely time we shared.

Spiritual awakening
It seems crazy to recall a single sunset and evening of stargazing, but I do.  It was outside Joshua Tree, California, and it was magical.  That night, I showered outdoors under a ginormous sky emblazoned with the colors of the setting sun.  Then I laid naked in the desert landscape under that same sky as it transitioned to night and filled with a million twinkling stars.  In those moments I was at once all alone and intimately connected to the entire cosmos.  I felt an incredible sense of calm and tranquility, at peace with my place in the world.  I don’t often feel like I really belong in this time and space (I feel like an interloper in a culture and society I don’t understand – and vice versa), but for one night, I belonged.  I felt like everything was going to be okay, and for someone like me that’s a really significant sensation (perhaps the intention of my journey).  I’m a perpetual over-thinker and a worrier.  As an empath, I often obsess about the feelings of others and try desperately (sometimes unconsciously) to align myself with their expectations, even though they don’t fit me.  But that night I got a reprieve!  Under that sky, in the middle of the desert, I seemed to sink into my truest self and accept all of her, to love her with my whole heart, and I got a sense for what it might feel like to live the life my soul intended.  It was incredible, and if I could jar up that feeling to sip on for all the days of my life, I most certainly would.  Until I figure out how to capture that essence of Universal alignment, contentment, and belonging once and for all, I will return to this experience over and over in my mind’s eye because to me it felt like coming home.

And those are a few of my favorite things. ❤
(It’s very interesting to me how many of these things happened in my first month on the road… Hmmm.)

Days 82 & 83: Sunshine, Poetry, & Tea

We loved the San Juan Islands and carried on adventuring in every way, despite the clouds and rain and overall gloomy skies.  As I told Julie, Welcome to the Pacific Northwest.  But it’s a little early in the year for all the bluster we experienced… The ferry rides back from the islands – first from Lopez to San Juan then on to Victoria – were foggy (what my mom would call “pea soup”).  But the fog cleared and blue skies came into view as we disembarked the ship to explore more of the city by foot.  Then sunshine colored our day grateful.

At risk of sounding like a true travel blogger, I’m going to skim through the high points of our last 27 hours in Victoria because they were nothing short of delightful.  The city is bursting with character.  Next to Telluride, Colorado, it’s by far the loveliest city I’ve experienced on my journey (the only one in which I could see myself living).  It’s quaint but not small, seaside but not fishy, and its British influence is painted all over its streets and sidewalks and eateries, giving it a true foreign feel without pretension.

But there was this… Folks said we had to do it, so we called to make reservations for royal (not high) tea (tuck that pinky finger, folks; raising it is actually rude and elitist!) at the famous Empress Hotel (the oldest in Canada…my friend Mindy’s family supplied the stone that built the place from their quarry).  That’ll be $78 each, they said.  What!?  We’re going to have to drink (er, I mean think) on this…!

In 1885, even before the 1910 opening of the Empress, the doors were opened to a bank at the corner of Government and Fort Streets in Victoria.  For 126 years the large stone structure housed one financial institution or another, and for some time one of them employed a man by the name of Robert Service, an Englishman, a wanderer, and a wordsmith.  Service seems to have laboured (see what I did there?) at the workplace just to afford himself the free time to explore his true passion – poetry.  For most of his life – in Europe and Canada – he penned and published verse, and he came to be known as the “Bard of the Yukon.  This storied “bard and banker” is said to haunt the building, and the public house now occupying the space is named in his memory – Bard & Banker.  The place looks just as I would imagine it to have looked at the turn of the 20th Century, with office space and teller windows replaced by booths and tables and a bar.  The drinks – Julie’s Gewurztraminer wine and the Old-Fashioned that the guy next to me at the bar let me sip – were delicious (my Coors Light was spot-on, of course), and the pub felt filled with a spirit of time passed (and perhaps Mr. Service himself).  We could have gone back again and again, especially to catch the live music featured nightly.

Julie wanted to visit the Craigdarroch Castle, a massive Victorian estate built by a coal baron in the late 1800s then converted to a military hospital in World War I.  It later served as a college and music conservatory before being partially restored to its original estate condition and designated an historic site.  I’m sure it was fascinating, and the pictures were lovely, but I decided to save $15 and check out the local library (because I love libraries).  I can’t say this one had any particular “wow factor,” but I’m so grateful for spaces that provide me with WiFi and a [relatively] quiet place to sit and read and write and don’t require me to purchase goods.  (I did learn the library offers a free app to members for reading magazines on-line.  I’ll definitely inquire about this back at my home library!)

Since most everything we owned was wet from the incessant rain of the previous few days, we treated ourselves to an Airbnb (with washer & dryer) our last night in town, renting a room in a large Victorian home a few minutes from downtown.  Owned by a Chinese family, the home was outfitted with Asian-style amenities – slippers provided at entry, a fancy bidet toilet, and peculiar but amusing color-shifting lights atop a canopy bed (which our kind and hospitable host suggested would be “more appropriate for lovers”).  With a faux fireplace and balcony overlooking the water, the room provided us the perfect resting spot (though who has time for resting when there’s so much to explore!?)

For our last dinner in town, we visited Clive’s Classic Lounge at the Chateau Victoria.  We were disappointed to find it attached to a hotel but reassured by its tasteful decor, ornate lighting, and swanky, comfortable seating.  (And the Greek place next door had a great menu, so we were not without options).  Clive’s won us over with a most delightful server, more amazing mixed drinks (for Julie), delicious tapas dishes (fried green beans – a first for me; beef sliders; ooey gooey grilled cheese “fingers”; and savory corn fritters) and an incredible white chocolate berry cheesecake for dessert.  It would seem Victoria is something of a foodie town, and we couldn’t get enough, wishing we could spend more time eating (and drinking!) our way through the city’s mouth-watering establishments.

To top it off (and send ourselves off with a treat), we decided to splurge on Royal Tea at the Empress – and we have absolutely no regrets.  What an experience!   I’m reading a book set in England in the early 1900s, and the characters have daily tea… This didn’t make much sense to me, but I deduced it was afternoon snacks with tea, probably something high-society.  Indeed, after some research, I learned that higher society English folks created tea as a “bridge” between lunch and dinner, which tended to be eaten later in the evening.  Technically, the menu of cakes and scones and breads is afternoon tea, while high tea includes a bit heavier fair – often vegetables and meat – and is typically eaten at a table (while afternoon tea is more likely enjoyed in low, comfortable chairs or on sofas).  As tea itself was expensive, high tea was dinner for lower-income (common) English folks, while afternoon tea remained more of a snack (and experience) for the higher classes.  In fact, the “pinkies up” image comes from the observation that higher classes tended to eat finger foods with their thumb, index and middle fingers, while lower classes ate the same foods with all five fingers (perhaps because they ate more for hunger than socializing!?).  I’ve since learned we broke a golden rule of tea by cutting our scones, which seemed dainty and polite of us… However, etiquette invites “breaking of bread” and spreading of jam on each bite.  How embarrassing for us.  Ha!  Guess we’ll have to go back again someday and correct our foibles.

Victoria was glorious, and how appropriate we experienced some of the same culture I’m reading about in my book.  Sometimes everything lines up just right.  I’m grateful for the time Julie and I shared on the islands and in BC, and I’ll definitely return again someday, lovely Victoria.  In the meantime, stay British.  It fits you so well.

Day 75-77: Banff, Driving, & Breathing

I was super excited to visit Banff National Park, but the time I spent there was almost all together disappointing (except for my hammock; there’s nothing disappointing about literally hanging out in nature.)

The weather was cold and rainy.  I spent most of my time in the car, driving around not seeing too much because of the clouds.  I went on only one hike, and it was miserable.  I’d reached out to someone on Instagram inquiring about where he’d seen a view he posted, and he refused to tell me since “people are destroying the natural environment because of Instagram.”  (Then why the heck are you contributing to it, dude!?)  Anyway, I found the place (no thanks to him) and, though the weather was blustery, the trail was indeed over-crowded and littered with trash, which I collected in the rain.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so far away from nature on a hike as I did on this one.  Too many people.  No serenity.  And sidewalks.  The park built a pathway with guardrails through a cavern.  (Mr. Instagram actually got me thinking about whether I and others are chasing a picture instead of an experience…and how nature might be affected by this – and also how national parks are catering to this trend.)

After that hike (and breakfast with a very grumpy server at a little spot in the park), I rushed back to my campsite to relax in the rain in my tent (and my hammock).  I read and watched Hulu and just chilled out.  It wasn’t what I’d hoped for in the very small window of time I had to spend at a place I’d heard and read so many incredible things about…but it gave me some time to think and reflect and plan and look forward.  I’d set my alarm to go off very early the next day so I could squeeze in another hike before making the ten hour trek to meet Julie in western British Columbia, but I turned it off.  Whose schedule was I accommodating?  No one’s but my own, I realized.  So why would I set myself up for losing sleep to squeeze another cold rainy hike into my “itinerary” before a long day of driving?  #nope

I left my campsite later in the morning relaxed (and well-rested) and looking forward to meeting my friend.  I took my time driving across lower British Columbia toward Vancouver (the views were incredible).  I stopped when I wanted to stop and just…took big gulps of the Canadian Rocky Mountain air.  I don’t love driving, but I settled into a groove early on in my journey (driving Lyft in the spring probably helped me prepare), and some of my best thinking (and listening to my intuition and the Universe) came to take place in the car.  And the driving proved to be great “down time” before my next adventure began.

(Someday, I look forward to coming back to Banff in nicer weather and taking my time, maybe taking pictures for Instagram and maybe not.)

Days 73 & 74: Oh…Canada!

As it turns out, Canada is a foreign country.

You might be laughing at me right now because of course Canada is a foreign country.  Obviously.  However, since it’s so close to home and requires no air travel to visit plus the few Canadians I’ve met in my life have seemed, well, pretty much just like me and all the Americans I know (maybe nicer, if I’m being honest), I didn’t think it was gonna be any big deal crossing the border.  Well, I was wrong.  Dead wrong.

A friend asked me a few days beforehand “Did you contact your cell phone provider to upgrade your plan?”  Um, no. Should I?  I naively asked another friend flat-out Is Canadian currency the same as American currency?  Um, no.  But surely they take American currency, right; like, I don’t have to exchange my money, do I?  Um, probably not and yes, you do.  Okay.  I had some work to do.  Firstly, I had to shed my apparent ethnocentrism.  As it turns out, I’m teeming with the notion that America is the center of North America.  (Eye roll.)

Calling Verizon was easy.  No problem.  30 minutes and I was set.

Talking with the border patrol agent coming into the country was not so easy.  In fact, it was downright terrifying.  I think I’m a pretty good person, and I’ve certainly not committed any serious crimes in my life…but I felt like I was barely passing a lie detector test as the dude in the customs booth grilled me about this, that, and the other thing, almost all of which seemed entirely irrelevant to my visit.  The more questions he asked, the more nervous I got…and I’m probably one of the most honest people you’ll ever meet (!), so I’m certain my what-felt-to-be visceral response to every question – even the most mundane – betrayed my terror.  And the more questions he asked, the more fearful I became of answering incorrectly and being detained.

He didn’t believe that I live in a tent on top my car, so I had to lie and give him my old address in Portland.  So, he essentially coerced me into committing perjury (or the border-crossing equivalent).  And he confiscated my pepper spray, curiously leaving me in possession of two giant cans of what I believe to be exactly the same substance labeled as bear deterrent.  And I didn’t even mention my expandable baton because I was certain he’d take that from me – and it wasn’t inexpensive.  So…another lie, this one of omission.  Oh. My. Gosh.

My first two hours in the country were the most shocking.  It probably didn’t help I crossed the border into a reservation because I feel a bit out of my element there regardless of country (apparently)…but when I needed gas and couldn’t find anything resembling a modern station (is a gas bar the equivalent?), I was baffled.  When I saw the speed limit switch to metric, I felt flummoxed.  And when I couldn’t locate a restaurant or bank for many miles (er, kilometers) – and feared I couldn’t pay for food or fuel even if I did – I began to panic.  Soon, it seemed like everyone was speaking French but me!

Within a couple of days, I found my groove…and I certainly learned some lessons along the way.  I still don’t know the difference between a loonie and a toonie, but the Canadians I’ve met have been kind and accommodating – and I’m grateful for their patience.  Hopefully I haven’t been too American in my foibles or stumbling to assimilate.

 

Days 69-72: Glaciers & Grizzlies

I didn’t meet anyone and spend considerable amounts of time with them at Glacier National Park (though my wandering Californian neighbors at camp were quite friendly and interesting), so my looking back on my time feels a little more…journalistic perhaps – investigative rather than emotional (Rory Gilmore-esque).  And – I’ve gotta say – I love the learning I’m getting to do out here, particularly the interest I’ve taken in topics I’d never known would appeal to me – glaciation and grizzly bears, for instance.  (I knew I was coming out here to learn about myself; I had no idea how much other knowledge I’d gain!)  Here’s some of what I learned and observed in my time at Glacier.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road runs east and west through the park.  Completed in 1933, the so called “Transmountain Highway” took two decades to plan and construct.  The challenges of building a road across the Continental Divide, through two sub-ranges of the Rocky Mountains, made the project an engineering feat, the finished product a marvel of the early 20th Century.  It also enabled ordinary people to visit the park, while previously only the moneyed could afford the train ride and chalet stays required to reach its backcountry spaces.

(Unfortunately, only 17 of the 50 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road were open during my visit.  The western side of the park was closed due to wildfires.)

The park got its name not from the current glaciers that dot its landscape (as I had thought, since people have said “Soon enough the namesake glaciers will all be melted…”) but from the glaciation that centuries ago created the geological variations that make the landscape extraordinary.  Glaciers are bodies of snow and ice big and heavy enough to move under their own weight and change the shape of the earth beneath them.  After the most recent glacial period – the Little Ice Age, which ended in 1850 – temperatures began rising and glaciers began to retreat.  When the park opened in 1910, it contained 150 glaciers.  Today, only 25 remain, and they are quickly retreating into icefields, large deposits of snow not massive enough to impact geography.  Experts predict that if temperatures continue to rise at current rates, the remaining glaciers will disappear within a decade.

The concern with the disappearance of the glaciers isn’t just the loss of the feature – from Glacier or from anywhere else on the planet – but the impact on the ecology of the surrounding areas.  In brief, 1. glaciers provide a source of water for streams and rivers.  They also help regulate the temperature of these waterways, and their disappearance may impact species who live in and rely on such.  And this isn’t just a concern for wildlife; glaciers also provide a source of drinking and irrigation water for human populations nearby.  Additionally, 2. glacial melt is causing the treeline to rise on mountains, changing not only the landscape but the ecosystem for animals living in higher elevations.  3. Warmer temperatures contributing to the glacial melt can be of benefit to invasive insect populations that threaten forest lands.  Also, 4. earlier snowpack melting can increase fire risk, with fires further impacting the landscape and contributing to higher temps.  (Most of this I learned in the park, from reading signs; I also referenced this USGS article.)

Three times during my visit I encountered trails closed because of “bear activity.”  When I met a ranger en route to one of the trails, I asked her how they determine a trail needs to be closed.  In this case, a sow (a mama bear) had killed some sort of wildlife nearby – a mountain goat or bighorn sheep –  and left the carcass to return to with her cubs.  Bears are typically only aggressive toward humans when they 1. are startled or taken by surprise, 2. feel protective of their cubs, or 3. sense a threat to their food source.  Officials closed this trail to prevent people from walking near the carcass, potentially prompting the bear to attack to defend her food supply.

I set out on a hike my last day in the park and met four wide-eyed fellow hikers within the first quarter mile, exiting the trail because they’d spotted a mama bear and her cubs.  They were certain they were grizzlies and advised me to turn around as well.  I decided to go ahead cautiously (and loudly) and learned from some less frantic hikers along the way that the bears were black not grizzly.  They’d decided to forgo their hike as well, but generally black bears are less dangerous than grizzlies, so I forged ahead, making lots of noise.  It wasn’t until I heard of another spotting in a 2-mile stretch that my stomach got uneasy and I turned around.  On my return, I did meet a couple of park rangers heading out with stun guns, so there was certainly a heightened awareness and diligence all around.

Grizzlies have long been and continue to be a topic for public discussion and debate.  At one point, they were hunted to near extinction.  In years since, conservation efforts have resulted in population re-growth, though various states have differing perspectives on and approaches to the bears.  The precipitating factor seems to be human encroachment on bear territory: are bears threats to people and/or livestock and how should they be approached accordingly?

It reminds me of an interaction I had early on in my journey.  I was hiking through a boggy grassland area and a couple ahead of me turned to ask “Did you walk through all those snakes?”  Not that I saw…but this is their habitat, you know; we are just visitors here.  Like snakes, I prefer to keep the bears at a distance…but the wild is their home.  Similarly, a discussion came about in my neighborhood back in Portland: what are we going to do about all these coyotes in the area?  I greatly appreciated the perspective of the most reasonable of many contributors: we’re going to leave them alone.  They were here first.  Perhaps we should consider them when we build our homes in their environment.  Really, who do we think we are? 

We’re an interesting lot, humans.  I’m more and more convinced every day there are way too many of us and we have much too great an impact on the planet we inhabit.  (By the way, I know that climate change isn’t entirely human-caused.  There are also long-time trends at work here.  We are a tiny speck on the timeline of earth’s history.  Still, it’s undeniable we are impacting the condition of the planet and the air with our presence and technologies, as well as our ceaseless extracting of resources from the land.  This is what concerns me.)

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.