I will fly 400 miles…

… and I will fly 400 more.

When I visited Salt Lake City during the summer of 2016, I was invited to return the following winter to see what the fuss was about regarding Utah snow. By invited, I mean “you will be coming, figure it out.” OK then. Plans didn’t really come together until January, but in mid February, I found myself driving to Lewiston one Friday morning to start my weekend.

Two days on snow, one powder, one packed down groomers. One hill, both days very enjoyable. Wait, no. They were terrible. There were wolves. Don’t go to Snowbasin, I’m told, I really should just go to Snowbird instead.

Or at least, that is the story to be told. Despite the price tag, the accommodations, and the connections to Sun Valley, Snowbasin is a local hill and the locals like to pretend they can keep it that way. That isn’t to say the place isn’t friendly; I was welcomed and spent two days happily bombing along on genuine Costello skies, caring only about what the next run would bring.

I am very privileged to have the ability to run off for a weekend of skiing like this, and fortunate to be able to ignore most of the world, even for a little while. Reality could wait a day or two, this was a vacation. I have good friends, a good job, and a good life. For that, I am grateful.

Never under-appreciate the value of a comfortable life—most people don’t get one.

Broken Peace

I have been spending the last couple months writing down my memories of the big road trip I took last summer, as well as the shorter ski trip I took last winter. The journal starts with this undated entry, which I believe was written last August, somewhere near Lewis River.

I arrived to a full campground at around 7. I set up my tent in a gravel parking area.

After a quiet meal, I enjoyed an In-tents Lager, in my tent. Then I slept.

I slept well, waking with the sun. I wasn’t ready to start the day, but I wasn’t exhausted either. I read a little. Had a small breakfast. Read a little more. I just enjoyed the solitude, really.

The sun rises further and to the south of me, signs of life begin. A dog barks. A toddler cries. No worries.

It wasn’t until the generator started that I started hating other people again.

Post Park Travels

I had to leave Yellowstone on the last day relatively early; I had a phone interview later that day and wanted to be sure my cell phone would work when they called me. Once the play time was over, I dried myself off, got in the trusty Mazda, and headed north as rapidly as Montana highways allowed (quite rapidly indeed). At I-90, I refueled and headed west. Destination: Bozeman.

This is not Buzz.

I last saw Buzz at Bloomsday, and before that when he left Pullman after finishing his degree here. Like Scott, Buzz is one of those people that am very sad to see gone, but also happy that he’s close enough I can make excuses to visit. Unlike Scott, Buzz moved to Montana, where the taps can carry the good stuff.

The beer in Bozeman is lovely. The mountains are too. I was only here for a few days, so everything blurred together, but I remember good food, great beer, another 10 miles of amazing biking (even if Buzz called it the “easy” trail). Fortunately, he was tapering for a race the very next day, so I was able to keep up with him.

Then it was down to Big Sky, where more beer, more mountains, and more friends awaited—Scott was also running, and we had a grand reunion of sorts. Long time, no see!

Sunday morning, we go back down to America’s largest ski area; it’s race day. I have no desire to run this kind of race, but Buzz and Scott seem to enjoy it. I’m ok with that, their desire to run great distances over formidable terrain took me to Scotland.  Twice. The weather was foul—visibility was poor enough to eliminate the run to the top and snow was falling in the village. In August. Annie and I slept inside while Buzz and Scott suffered.

Post race, we settled for pizza, beer, and company, before retiring back to Bozeman for the last night.

The next morning, I woke to a weather report of snow and 34° weather over the continental divide near Butte. My Miata, with her summer tires had to travel west over that pass to get home. I waited. An hour later, the temperatures had dropped to 33. Now or never, I thought, so I got in the car before anybody else was awake (or at least before anybody was moving outside their own room), quietly backed out, and onward.

I only had 400 miles to go and I’d be home.

Leaving Bozeman, the conditions were not too bad. The temperatures were warm and it was raining lightly. But as I moved west and gained elevation, the weather turned on me. By the time I was climbing homestake pass, I was following semi trucks, just to ensure I’d have clear road. The temperature gauge in the Miata had long ago flashed ‘ICE’ and now just shows the temperature. 33 degrees. I drove a bit slower.

And then it was over. I reach the top and drop down. By the time I reach Butte, it’s raining again. Several hours later, I’m in Missoula and it’s almost sunny for a moment, before it rains again. This wasn’t my dream crossing of Lolo Pass, but again, you take the road you have, not the road you want.

Let the twisties begin!

In the end, this trip took 24 days. I travelled close to 3500 miles, visited 7 states, 2 national parks, 1 national volcanic monument, and rode just over 100 miles of trail. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Park

Growing up, visits to the National Parks were not a regular event. I don’t remember more than few visits; almost all of them were within Washington.

I know Mount Rainier was a core part of my young life, including a stuffed bear that I still have today. But I’ve never been to Yellowstone before this trip.

Concerned I would crash during the long August days, I gave myself a day to arrive, three to visit, and another half day beyond that before I had any commitments. I used every moment of that time.

In a perfect world, I would have felt confident camping in the park and spent the nights where I had spent the days. I live in a world with bears, so instead I shied just outside the park, staying inside and crossing state lines twice a day.

Initially, I had planned to spend half a day in Grand Teton, but summer fires closed the road and the southern entrance, so I changed plans and drove directly  to West Yellowstone instead. The town is about what I expected—expensive and touristy. However, I was now in Montana, not Utah. The beer was good and contained enough ethanol to be satisfying. The local playhouse was active and tickets were cheap, so I watched “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” The grocery store was well stocked and accessible. But once the sun set, the nights were quiet, and my bed, while firm, was comfortable.

After a long day of traveling from Salt Lake City, a quiet night in a comfortable bed was perfect.

The following morning, I woke early and headed east. “Aren’t you cold?” asked the Ranger as I handed over my pass that first morning, just after dawn. It was about 40 degrees, and I was dressed in layers, but even with the heat running, driving my car without a roof will evoke skepticism. “Nah,” I replied, “I’m layered. I’ve got a hat!”

“… OK . Have a nice day!”

“Thanks, ” I replied before putting the car into gear and driving on.

It is hard to write of new and grand experiences. It is not just “I saw this. I saw that. Then I saw this other thing too!” But I did see this, and that, and also this other thing. Forest Fires burning down to the road as you slip past, bison blocking the boardwalks you walk along, waterfalls, steam, geysers, colors. These are the anchors of experience.

Yellowstone was a nearly three day adventure, but the memories—myriad wildlife, sulfer, riding a bike down an abandoned road and running into a herd of Elk, soaking in the edge of the Boiling River, the many hours of solitude, they are difficult to express. The Worlds’ first National Park is a wonder, and attempting to describe it just seems to come up wanting.

 

Consider just my last day: I woke up at dawn just outside Gardiner, drove south and quickly gained elevation as I moved back into Wyoming. I continued past Mammoth and found a place to park along the Grand Loop, near the upper tier of the Mammoth geysers. Then it was time to ride. All good trails require a little bit of work for the reward, and my work was ahead of me now. I climbed from Mammoth to the top of the Silver Gate before I finally reached the trailhead I had found the day before in the map.  Mountain Biking! In The Park! Sure, it was a smooth old jeep trail and not double track, but this is an opportunity I didn’t realize I would have, so I had to take it. Along the way up, I passed Elk grazing along the side of the road—elk that had no problems with cars, but quickly ran away when they saw me huffing along on a bike. On the way down, I would discovery that my noisemaking was inadequate, as I rode directly into a herd of about 20 Elk in the woods. At least I didn’t spook a bear.

I had just enough time after I finished to take a soak in a hot river (another unexpected surprise—I got to sit in a thermal feature in Yellowstone), and my park visit ended.

Half-way pause

I spent four days in Salt Lake City, and only one of them involved me doing something on my own. After multiple days of solitude, doing things with other people was a welcomed change.

On a hazy Thursday morning, I sat down in the drivers’ seat and headed north to Antelope Island. I saw no antelope, but I saw plenty of bison. I also saw plenty of sand. Under the high summer sun, my grand plans to ride twenty or so miles shrunk to just eight. It still counts, so the ride counter for the trip can be incremented to 5.

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The day wasn’t over though. After fighting SLC traffic home and nearly being run over as I did, I rested a bit before Scott came home and we headed out on a short trail near the edge of the city.

75 minutes after starting, winded, gasping for air, we stood on Grandeur Peak looking down on the city and took in the setting sun. It was worth every step. The run back down took 30 minutes less time, but we still lost the race to the setting sun and returned home in the twilight.

The next day, Scott got the morning off and we travelled to the nearby Heber Valley, so we could travel on of Scott’s favorite trails. The coyote loop winds around a local prominence near the Jordanelle Reservoir, providing 20 miles of mildly rocky, twisting trail with spectacular views of the Wasatch mountains to the west. Riding with Scott reminded me of former times when we would go out on Moscow Mountain; like then, Scott beats me up the hill. Another ride in the book.

With just two days left before it was time to move on, we focused the weekend on  other important things in our life. It may be August, but at Snowbird, Oktoberfest starts early and the timing was right. It was a Beer Chasers Reunion—John, Darcie, Quinn, Avery, Scott, Annie, Alex, and I gathered at a table and celebrated friendship with beer. It was here that I was told that I would be returning in the winter. Together, we drank our low alcohol beer and caught up. I will happily admit Utah’s ridiculous beer laws make for good Oktoberfest beers—you can drink all afternoon and still be walking at the end of the day.

I slept well that night.

Snowbird tops out at 11000 feet. For most people, visiting the top of the mountain is as simple as standing up as the tram hauls you from the base. Sunday morning, we walked. We were rewarded with a few scrambles up knife-like ridges, a bit of vertigo, and a stunning high elevation view once we arrived. Then we walked back down and drove home.

Thus ended four days in Salt Lake City. Monday morning, it was time to pack up, turn the car north, and drive. Next destination: The Park.

Some times you take the road you want, some times you take the road you have

On this trip, I’ve avoided the freeways and kept to the two-lane back roads whenever I could. Roads with corners were my preference, of course. From Winnemucca to Salt Lake City, this wasn’t going to happen. There’s really only one way to get there from here, so a day on I-80 it is.

Nevada’s speed limit is 75. At the Utah state line, the limit crept up slightly to 80. In both cases, I set the cruise control to 78 and moved along; any faster and the bike hanging off the back of the car would start to oscillate in the wind.

I stopped for lunch at Bonneville and briefly considered making a run into the famed speedway salt flats, but then though about how Miatas love to rust. I don’t want to encourage that behavior, so I kept to the wide and straight road east. I made two other stops for fuel as I travelled. At the last one, near SLC international, the roof returned to its natural stowed position. A few more miles of frantic traffic and I’m there.

For the next five days, Scott, Annie, and Olliver’s home would also be mine.

The wild stretch

Monday Morning, after two days in Bend, it was time to move on.  On Thursday, I’ll be in Salt Lake City. Before I get there, it’s time to visit the first National Park of the trip.

I’ve been to Crater Lake before, on my previous epic road trip. This time, rather than visit on my way home, I’m visiting on my way “there.” Somewhere between Bend and the park, my trip odometer rolls over for the first time—1000 miles down. The car and I get along well. Like a pair of shoes that are just broken in. The weather is a bit cooler now, so rather than suffering the heat, the sun comfortably warms the face.

The lake is still stunningly blue under bright sunny skies. As I make my way along the rim, I see the high point of the park. Mt. Scott towers over me. I climb. At the top, I’m winded, a bit woozy, but triumphant. I blame the altitude; it won’t be the last time I make that particular excuse on this road trip. Eventually, I find myself a bit chilled and make my way back down to the rim road. My clockwise tour continues, until it is time to leave. At a state park with lower elevation, I set up my tent and sleep. It comes easily that night.

The next morning, I turn east. I’m well south of home, and before I stop for the day, I’ll be further south still—my destination is in Nevada today, and my friends are just two days from here.

Southern Oregon is very different than what I am used to seeing in the North. It is more isolated, more rugged, and more forgiving. The passes are higher, but so too are the “lowlands.” Everything here seems to be formed to deceive me. For 200 miles, the only humans I see are cowboys. At one point, I had to duck in behind their truck to ford a sea of cattle; the road was impassible to my Miata without them. Otherwise, I just drove miles of empty, but well maintained roads.

At some point, I followed a fast right turn and was met with a sign: “Welcome to Nevada.” The state changed, but nothing else did. Even the highway number stayed constant.

After so many days in the sun, I finally had to give up. It was in a lonely section of northeastern Nevada that I finally raised the roof on the little car. I had fought the sun for long enough, but it finally won. In solace, I turned up the air conditioning and drove the last 100 miles to Winnemucca in the shade.

Striking out

The last “big” road trip I took was in 2007, a long drive down the coast highway to Petaluma and the return. That trip was 7 days of driving, 4 days of visiting, and around 3000 miles. This one will prove to be just as grand.

Somewhere between Washtucna and Pasco, one of many two lane roads I drove on this trip.

One week after leaving Pullman, the real adventure begins. I’m now about 400 miles into my trip, sitting in Olympia just as the sun rises. My brother and family are still sleeping in the quiet hours. I wait a little longer to give them the chance to wake before I say goodbye, but eventually the appointed hour comes and the house remains quiet. It is time.

Rather than head home, I turn the car south on I-5 and start for Portland. The forecast called for a bit of heat and by 10, it’s clear that the forecast was accurate. I may be suffering, but the little green Miata is just fine—admittedly the air conditioning doesn’t do much while I’m driving at speed on the two lane roads of central Oregon.

I arrive in Bend just before noon, sweltering in 100°F weather. It’s a perfect time for lunch. Bend takes beer very seriously. I’ve only got two days here, so I need to take it seriously as well. Between the breweries, the mountain biking, and Shakespeare in the park, I filled the weekend with “things to do” quite effectively.

Well travelled beginnings

The trip started when I left home, but the vacation started at Washtucna where I talked with some old wheat farmers about harvest. An hour later, a winding road along a ridgetop was my path forward. A few miles of freeway avoided. At the Columbia, I would stay on the north side of the river and avoid another hundred.

The wind is in my hair and the sun warms my face, with one of the grand rivers of the West to my left. Bliss, at 60 miles per hour. At The Dalles, I cross the river, hit I-84 for a short time, before exiting along the old US-30 route to avoid another few miles of freeway. It’s all familiar routine. The years change, but this story doesn’t.

Lunch in Hood River. Beer. Turn north, enter the National Forest, and disconnect from our connected world—a few days later, reconnect on a different path, head north, and focus on the memories, new and old.

This is not a new story, it is the story of my annual trip to Mt St Helens, and describes each year that I go. The details may change, but the core story remains true.

The follow up

22389-P6043576I wrote yesterday about how I finally sold my MG, and how conflicted it made me inside.

Here’s the other side of the story.

I have now owned a Miata for about two months and have driven it just over 1200 miles during that time. I have no regrets.

I loved driving my MG. It was (and is) a brilliant little sports car. It handles itself well, looks good, and has loads and loads of character. Despite the reputation that follows cars made in England, it has been pretty good to me. Sure, you have to be hyper-aware of everything in the car, or you’ll regret not proactively fixing that thing that started making a tiny little noise or smell, but once you learned what the car was saying to you, there is an understanding.

The Miata may talk to me too, but in 1200 miles I haven’t yet felt the need to listen in the same way. The joy of driving is similar in this car, but more simple. I need only enjoy the drive; I don’t need to concern myself with all the smells, sounds, and feelings that the car gives off as I drive. With the Mazda, I listen to the note of the exhaust for the pleasure of it, it’s not conveying any deeper meaning. I feel the vibrations of the road to enhance the experience of driving alone. The smells are of the surrounding fields, there’s no feedback from the slightly rich smell of unburned hydrocarbons, hot oil, or coolant.

15 years of habits are hard to break. I am still listening for new noises, sniffing for new smells, and sussing out where those vibrations originated. Once you learn how an old car talks, I’m not sure you ever really stop listening. But the newer car just isn’t saying anything. There’s nothing to report.

The MG and the Miata do not provide the same experience behind the wheel. But they are remarkably similar. Both cars are best driven using momentum conservation techniques. They don’t have the power to rapidly accelerate, so it’s better to maintain speed in the corners. They both reward you for doing that, and they both induce grins on demand.

I can’t say the Miata handles better (or worse) than the old girl that until yesterday shared a garage. I can say that the Miata is more comfortable on the same road. There’s a suppleness to her ride that makes a long drive a little less tiring. The silly extra features like cruise control and air conditioning aren’t so silly once I started using them (ok, air conditioning is still pretty silly). I appreciate how the car comes to life at the turn of the key, without fiddling with the choke. I love the extra power that that eager little motor provides. 140hp isn’t a lot in the era of the 180hp Toyota Camry, but it’s a lot more than the 75 the MG (optimistically) provided. The power is well packaged too—the little Mazda just loves to rev. Where the MG started to lose her breath around 4000 RPM, the Miata is just getting starting.

And when you finish thrashing her after a nice drive and it’s time to put more dead dinosaurs into the tank, I discover that I’m getting an average of 27.5 mpg. Again, I can’t claim that is some wonderfully great mileage, but considering that I’m hooning the hell out of this car, it’s pretty damned good.

When I first saw a Miata in a stable of British cars at the Bishop’s orchard in Garfield, Washington, I asked what they thought of it. The response was simple. “It’s what a British roadster would be, if the British had continued to build them.” I thought I understood what they meant at the time.

Now, I really do.