Aaaand done.

With the goal of meeting our new landlady by 1:00 pm, Kim and I packed up and left Spokane at 6:30. Eastern Washington did not consist of lush apple orchards and pine forests commonly associated with the state. Instead, the land east of the Cascade mountain range sported a rocky, arid, and flat landscape reminiscent of Wyoming’s high plains.

I was in a terrible mood after only two hours driving. The back of my neck was decided it couldn’t take another minute of being strained back to watch the road. The worst part about the Penske was the cab space for the driver. I had to choose between having the chair back straight up against the rear of the cab, or sliding the seat forward and losing all leg room. As the pain intensified, I became more irritable and eventually had to call it quits.

Kim took over for the next few hours as we drove south, across the Columbia River and into Oregon. We then hopped on Route 84 West along the river, both desperate for the final four hours of the trip to end. It’s funny how quickly a road trip can reach the tipping point where it stops being an adventure and starts being a chore. Fortunately, the scenery improved as we drove by sunny vineyards and cherry orchards in eastern Oregon, then saw Mount Hood standing in solitude directly west of us. This massive snowy peak became our shining beacon, our North Star.

As Mount Hood grew in our windshield, the surrounding horizon began to climb skyward. We had entered Columbia Gorge. Pine trees returned, as did the steep mountain ascents. I was praying that the Penske could tough it out. Every few miles we noticed signs marking the route of Lewis & Clark, and we couldn’t help but feel like pioneers in our own right.

We finally passed through the gorgeous Multnomah Falls, were streams leapt from the steep cliffs of the Cascade mountains and plunged downward toward the Columbia, just out our driver’s side window. Once on the other side of the Falls, we were in outer Portland. I was back in the driver’s seat for the home stretch, and I was once again feeling anxious about driving this behemoth vehicle in city traffic. Kim solidified her reputation as an expert navigator with turn-by-turn directions. When we finally reach Nob Hill, our new neighborhood, I started to lose my cool. We passed by our apartment, then drove down endless crowded blocks looking for parking. We would later learn that our neighborhood is a popular lunch spot, so arriving in the early afternoon led to a parking nightmare. I was desperate to park the the truck. Anywhere.

Our new city

We finally found a spot, grabbed some lunch, and walked a few block to our place to meet our landlady. We were stressed and exhausted, but we had reached our new home. Kim and I shared a brief moment of joy and accomplishment before retrieving the Penske and unloading. After a long night of unpacking, acclimating,  and searching for furniture on Craigslist, we fell fast asleep.

Our familiar pictures are now hanging on the wall, and our belongings are strewn about the apartment, but from my perspective, it still feels like I’m traveling. I’m worried I’ll be crestfallen after a few days, when it sinks in that we’re moved for good. On the other hand, if traveling is defined as the act of discovering new places, food, activities, and company, then I suppose Kim and I won’t really stop traveling any time soon. This road trip has simply been an unforgettable start to our new journey together.

Here’s to new endeavors, whether they be travels across the country or across town, a weekend vacation or a permanent relocation, the beginning of a new friendship or the cultivation of an old one. For anyone with a love for discovery in their heart is a pioneer.

Cheers, and happy trails,

-Jay

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Spokane you dig it?

UPDATE: We’re here! Kim and I have moved in, for the most part, and have been bumming Wifi from a nearby cafe.  In a day or two I intend to write a wrap up post on the road trip, so please stay tuned. As a side note, this humble little blog received a record 170 views today! Thank you all, especially Aunt Renee and Mom, for your loyal readership. You’ve made this experience so much more fun for us!

Day 10: Bozeman, MT to Spokane, WA

I noticed that our posts have become a little long-winded, so this post come as somewhat of a relief to some of you. I wish we had some wonderful stories to share about our travels to eastern Washington, the trip was uneventful, especially compared to our three days in America’s greatest national parks.

Kim and I rolled out of Bozeman at 9:00 am into the cool overcast Montana morning. We drove west through beautiful mountain passes under the state’s claim to fame, it’s expansive sky. The trip made me wonder what peculiar pioneer first tramped through the Montana wilderness and dolled out such curious names as Butte, Amsterdam, Manhattan, Belgrade, and Anaconda.  Apparently, the vast Montana landscape conjured thoughts of  Europe, New York, and the Amazon.

We stopped for some some some high-end fast food (if there is such a thing) at Five Guys in Missoula, home of the University of Montana Grizzlies. Some post-indulgence indigestion and the increasingly dreary weather left us feeling underwhelmed and overtired on this, our tenth day of travel. Our experience was more a result of cumulative stress and sleep deprivation, so our perspective probably isn’t fair to western Montana. That’s just how we felt. I still think it’s a beautiful state.

After crossing over the Continental Divide in a formidable mountain pass, we crossed into the northern panhandle of Idaho, my only new state of the road trip. The weather turned exceptionally damp and cold, with clouds hovering low into the pines of the mountain valleys. It wasn’t the most cheerful atmosphere, but I supposed it helped prepare Kim and I for fall and winter in Portland this year.

hooray for new states!

We passed by the beautiful lake town of Coeur D Alane, which Kim pointed out, even sounds pretty, then across the border to Washington State. Before long we were at the affordable Apple Tree Inn in the commercial (read, ugly and overdeveloped) district of Spokane. We wanted to tour the Gonzaga campus and improve our impression of Spokane, but we were too tired to do anything other than hit up a hokey gold-mine themed restaurant called “Prospectors”. at dinner, Kim and I talked briefly about the startling nature in which this amazing road trip was about to end. Tomorrow we would be in Portland; not as tourists, but as resident Oregonians. It really hadn’t sunk in for either of us that we would not soon return to our familiar DC apartment, neighborhoods, or friends. the mood in the hotel just before we went to sleep was simultaneously one of palpable apprehension and excitement. Tomorrow would be an interesting day.

-J

Big Park, Big Sky

Day 9: Yellowstone National Park to Bozeman, MT

The clamoring of tourists outside our first floor hotel window woke us early Sunday morning. We packed our things and hit up a surprisingly robust continental breakfast before heading back into Yellowstone from the North Entrance.

The morning started with a boardwalk tour of the Mammoth Hot Springs. I couldn’t help but notice the Park Service’s scare tactic of showing an illustration of an innocent little boy stepping off the clearly marked path and onto the fragile ground of the hot spring. He looked down in horror at his foot, which had broken through the thin ground into some sort of deadly steam chamber. “Dozens of people have been scalded to death at the Yellowstone hot springs,” read the sign.  It seemed a tad extreme to me, but effective. I wasn’t about to even tap my toe outside of the designated walkway.

The springs were remarkable to behold. White calcite from the mineral-laden spring water formed scale-shaped, overlapping pools. Within the pools, rare cyanobacteria (microscopic plant algae), capable of withstanding high sulfur content and extreme temperatures turned the water shades of blue and orange. The stumps of less resilient pine trees stood dead and barren, marooned amidst the springs.  I looked on horrified as an elderly German tourist nearby dipped his finger in the spring water to gauge the temperature himself. I was half-surprised when the ground didn’t open up and engulf him in steam.

Once back in the Penske, we headed along the uppermost park road for Tower-Roosevelt. At a lookout for Undine Falls (one of Yellowstone’s 300+ waterfalls), we came across one of the uglier habits of Yellowstone tourist mobs. Moments after on passer by spotted the massive velvety antler of a slumbering bull elk. Dozens of onlookers shuffled off the road and up the hill toward the animal, cameras and cell phones in hand. Before long grandpa and grandmas were posing for portraits with the grandkids with the wild sleeping animal only 10 feet behind them. Kim expressed the desire to leave before we witnessed an old lady getting bucked 30 feet in the air by the grumpy beast. Sure enough, someone took one greedy step too many and the bull leapt to its feet, sending the masses scrambling back down the hill. Fortunately, the twelve-pointer just headed off for a more secluded resting place.

Further down the road, Kim spotted two coyotes bounding through a meadow. We pulled over and watched as one pounced on some sort of rodent and bolted it down. Both of us were secretly hoping for wolves, but the coyotes were fun to watch, and they looked much healthier than the east coast scavengers we were more familiar with. Only a few minutes later we observed a black bear rummaging around a log on a forest hillside. Kim and I were so focused on the bear that we almost missed a fox heading straight for us with a squirrel in its mouth, it veered up an embankment only a few feet from us. Even by Yellowstone’s standards, we were having a good day of nature viewing.

After spying another couple black bears and peering down into one of Park’s trademark yellow canyons, we decided to stop stressing the Penske on the winding roads and head back north toward Montana. Back by the North Entrance in Mammoth, we witnessed one of Yellowstone’s many erratic weather events when a flash hailstorm hit. The precipitation fell in gumball-sized slushballs that burst with thuds on the metal roof of the Penske.  After a quick lunch we left the park again, but not before spotting a small group of bighorn sheep camouflaged in the craggy white cliffs above us. We both thought it a little sad to see so much biodiversity, as it highlighted just few animals still exist in healthy numbers outside of area protected from over-hunting, habitat loss, pollution, and suburban sprawl.  I wish there were more places left in America where one can spot more moose in a day than Caribou Coffee shops.

Check out more pictures from Yellowstone National Park.

One other note on Yellowstone: A good deal of my sightseeing reminded me of my trip to Montana as a young teenager (I’d say ‘tween’ but I think that’s a stupid word).  The trip included horseback riding along Yellowstone’s canyons, a fishing trip down the Yellowstone River, and all of the major geological attractions. As an adult with a relative understanding of travel costs, scheduling, and other vacation planning responsibilities, I have a better appreciation for my Dad’s efforts in organizing that trip. I feel like I took all of these activities for granted at the time, and I just wanted to say thanks Dad.  I love you and Happy Father’s Day.

I drove us up to Bozeman (a beautiful, river and mountain-lined route) with enough spare time to tour Main Street and stop off at a coffee shop. We checked in to let our moms know that we hadn’t been scalded, lost, or mauled. I also hopped on ESPN.com to get my sports fix.  We then headed to my Dad’s cousin Barbara’s house, our resting place for the night. Barbara and her husband, Tom Greason, welcomed us with open arms and treated us to some delicious lasagna and great conversation. Barbara explained how my mom and dad came to meet, and how Tom and my Dad drove out to Montana, and prompted Tom’s move out West. Tom talked with us about his career as a Park Ranger for the state of Montana.  We talked about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park.  The story is a great example of nature’s wondrous complexity.

Wolves, long vilified by fairy tales, and werewolf legends were killed off in the Yellowstone region long ago. While ranchers who occasionally lost livestock to wolf packs were pleased, the absence of a major predator disrupted the food chain, resulting in a number of unintended consequences.  In a controversial move, wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995. Years later, there has been a resurgence of native aspen trees. Without wolves, the elk population in the park was unchecked, to the point that elk herds blocked roadways and invaded the green grass lawns of Mammoth.  These massive herds also gorged on aspen seedlings, devastating. With wolves once again preying on elk, their numbers finally receded and restored order to the local ecology of the Yellowstone Basin. Wolves also ousted coyotes, which had previously roamed the park without fear, and were decimating the smaller mammal populations. It’s amazing how interdependent the health of an ecosystem can be. To ignore that we’re part of this same web of life, is not only foolish, it’s incredibly dangerous.

The night came to an end with a viewing of some Kosa family videos that had been captured on 8-millimeter film, then transferred to DVD. Barbara narrated the silent footage of my grandparents as young adults in the 1940s, and my father as a small boy in the 50s. It was a fitting and moving end to Father’s Day and it reminded me just how much of who we are is derived from past generations. Kim and I marveled how my dad’s expressions mirrored those of my nephew, Lucas. No matter how wild and unexpected I think my actions and dreams are, I can usually trace them back to the actions and dreams of my parents. I’m not sure why, but I take comfort in that.

-J

Blame it on the Tetons

Day 8: Grand Teton National Park to Yellowstone National Park

I won’t lie- grizzly bears scare the crap out of me. Aside from people, they are the only thing that makes me nervous about camping or hiking. Anything else in nature that has the least inclination to root through your tent or car is manageable, but in my mind coming across a grizzly pretty much equals death or serious pain. So that was heavy on my mind going to sleep in Grand Teton, especially since we had just seen a good-sized adult about half a mile away on our way to the campsite. That night the bear mace I used to keep on hand for DC crazies was clutched under my sleeping bag, prepared to serve its actual purpose.

I feel asleep rather quickly, rationalizing that we had obsessively stored anything appealing in the locked storage of the truck, and that nothing in the tent (other than us) could be misconstrued as food. I told myself how unlikely it was that a bear would even come through, and if it did, that it would choose to actually tear open our new Big Agnes and carry me off. With this mantra in mind I was out like a light around 10pm.

Unfortunately, however, the worst thing for my psyche occurred later that night; for no apparent reason I snapped awake around 2:30am. I had managed to do this same thing almost every night during our “Buckwild” camping orientation for Bucknell, and it pretty much guarantees you’ll be awake and terrified for a solid hour or two. Convinced that something nefarious had woken me up with such a start, I laid stock-still in my bag staring into the blackness and straining to hear every sound outside the tent. Anyone who spends any time camping knows that’s a lot of creepy noises with no discernable source at that time of night. I sat there for a good hour literally so freaked out by every scrape and thump that my pulse was thundering in my ears. It didn’t help that someone nearby was snoring in such a loud and violent way that sounded just like a grizzly’s snuffling and growling. This is why you should NOT watch endless animal attack accounts on Animal Planet before camping.

The site of my night terrors.

Luckily, through a few breathing and pressure-point exercises, I fell asleep before too long and didn’t wake up again until 6:30am to a pattering of morning rain and the gang of robins that lived around our campsite. I was surprisingly well-rested and comfy in my Lafuma, and was of course thrilled to have survived the night. Jay and I bundled up and stuck our boots on to begin cooking breakfast and breaking camp. While Jay broke down the tent we fired up the camp stove and heated up some oatmeal and hot cocoa. After eating and getting all our gear we headed out for a hike in Grand Teton before leaving for the day. To our pleasure it was still only about 7:30am by the time we headed out.

After some indecision we settled on a 4-mile hike down to Phelps Lake in the southern part of the park, which included an overlook view and a descent to the isolated lake beach. Unfortunately we reached a point in the road where the park prohibited large vehicles (such as a moving truck), so we took out our bikes, packed some backpacks and cycled out to the trailhead. Although scenic, the road out did have a hill that kicked my butt despite how small it was. This should have been the first indication of how out of shape I was, but I chalked this up to the fact that I’ve never been good at biking hills.

After stowing our bikes away behind some pines we set off into the woods. Our hike started off pretty easily with a gradual incline up to the lake overlook, which was gorgeous in a way that only a lake in the middle of a park could be. Phelps was long and oval, the water a teal color attributable only to healthy and mineral-rich bodies of water. Surrounded by thick evergreens and aspens, the lake was also overshadowed by Death Canyon, a large convergence of two mountains with a thin waterfall in between. Perfect!

We began the long switchback route down to the lake, which took some time as we kept stopping to take pictures of the mountains, the lake, a fat marmot on a rock, etc. The path wound down through open rocks and scrub brush, then a stand of aspens, and finally a thick grove of evergreens as we approached the lake. Phelps had a beautiful little beach line around one edge where we paused for a snack and some more pictures. Jay spotted a huge rock on the shoreline a few hundred yards away, and realized it was the jumping rock Danni had advised us to look out for. During her stint in Yellowstone as an “expert” kayak instructor, she had come down to Grand Teton and raved about this 20-foot rock jump at this exact lake. How convenient that we had come across it!

Death Canyon

We set off around the water’s edge and scrambled up this mammoth outcrop, and sure enough the water below it seemed very deep indeed. Without hesitation Jay whipped out a bathing suit he had packed (apparently he had known the rock would be here), changed, took one look over the edge and leaped off. We found out later that lake waters in the park are considered a hypothermia risk, however Jay found this plunge truly invigorating and decided to go again. I felt a little resentful that I was not filled in on the jumping rock plan and so did not bring a suit, meaning I would have to hike 2 miles uphill in wet underwear… not happening. As a result, I did not jump the rock (despite the flack I will get from Danni after posting this). I’d like to think I would have done it if I had a suit to change out of, but I can’t make a secret of my slight fear or heights when it comes to jumping off/over things. So… bears and heights. Sue me.

After Jay got over his disappointment at my lameness we decided to head back and try to beat a thick, charcoal cloud that had floated over the peaks towards us. As we trudged uphill a good shower came down, which more than anything was refreshing considering the heat. I also found myself incredibly winded shortly into our uphill climb back to the overlook. This feeling intensified as we went, to the point where I was panting like a sprinter behind Jay as he ambled at a relaxed walk. I felt pretty perturbed by how poor I felt, barely able to keep up at a normal walking pace—wheezing, pouring sweat, and feeling like I might keel over at any moment. I usually pride myself on being able to take hills on foot, so I didn’t understand why I was near fainting while Jay walked slowly ahead and looked back with growing concern. I barely made it back to the overlook and needed a serious water break. I still have no idea what caused this total exhaustion—whether it was the altitude, or not exercising for the last week, being sick a few days before, or all of the above. But I really did not enjoy that part of the hike and felt pretty discouraged.

Walking back downhill to the trailhead I immediately felt like a million bucks— go figure. We enjoyed the mountain vistas, little brooks and ground squirrels darting around as we descended again, happy to have gotten a good sweat after a week in the car. A couple passing us on the way up informed us that a moose was on the trail not too far ahead, so we proceeded with caution. A few yards ahead we spotted her—a massive, bulbous-nosed creature about ten feet off the trail, just munching contentedly away. Although Jay and I tried to be vigilant about distance, we were remarkably close and she barely acknowledged our existence. We took a few pictures and headed out again, letting other hikers know as we passed.

We got another wildlife photo-op after picking our bikes back up and heading down the road to the truck. As we rolled by we realized a grizzly cub—several months old, judging by its size and gold-tipped coat- was snacking away on something about 30 feet off the roadside. I was immediately on alert: where was mom? I had watched enough “When Animals Attack” to know that this exact scenario usually led to something grim. As Jay prepared to take pictures I urged him to hurry up so we could take off down the road. He laughed at my sense of urgency, but I kept imagining momma bear coming out of the woods behind us and finding Jay and I between her and the little guy. No thanks. I could see Jay did agree to some extent as he took a few quick shots and mounted his bike again so we could flee down the road. He didn’t get a great picture, but at least he still has his face.


Check out our pictures from  Grand Teton National Park

It was now well into the afternoon so we packed the truck up and made some sandwiches out of our camping supplies. We had decided to drive straight to Yellowstone that afternoon and find a camping spot for the night, and as more weather systems drifted overhead we hurried out to reach the next park before twilight. Our journey back up through Grand Teton was punctuated by several stops to view wildlife by the side of the road, and by the time we actually left the park it was beginning to get dark and spitting rain. I also felt my legs stiffening in a grotesque way and was quickly becoming sleepy, hungry, and grizzly-like.

It was at this point that we started flipping through our printed pages on Yellowstone campsites and reservations. Apparently we could have (and should have) called the park around 8am to reserve a site, or at least arrived in the park at 11 or so to claim one. As we entered, we realized most of the camping areas would be totally full by now. A stop at the closest visitor’s center confirmed that every site was completely full other than Lewis Lake, the southernmost stop in Yellowstone that we had passed because Danni warned us off of it pretty strongly. The rangers urged us to get there ASAP or risk missing out on that too.

Now, you can make fun of us, but at this point the sky had turned a pretty dire shade of gray and the winds were a-blowing. We were exhausted, famished, and not excited at the prospect of driving back down south to a site known for its mosquitoes—if we got in at all. So after one night in the woods we broke down and called Travelodge. Lame? Yes. But I was SO happy at the prospect of a leisurely drive through the rest of Yellowstone and not worrying about a tent or bugs.

With our newfound time we made a visit to Old Faithful and its surrounding pits of boiling water and rotten-egg fumes. We stopped frequently to check out the animals everyone had pulled over for, and did not exit the park until well after dark. At this point we had been running since 6am, were tired, stiff, and starving. I had never been so excited to sleep in a cheap motel. After a steep and windy descent out of the park (and Wyoming), we rolled into the first town outside of the park—Gardiner, Montana. Gardiner sits right outside the famed Roosevelt arch and it’s very clear most of its economy depends on Yellowstone. The main road is lined with bar/restaurants, gas stations, and every motel chain imaginable. We finally rolled in to Travelodge around 10pm.

I felt bedraggled, was limping pathetically and wanted nothing more than a hot shower and hot food. Feeling even more hungry than we were tired, Jay and I putted back out into town with a slim chance of finding anything open so late in the middle of Montana. Desperate, we pulled over at a nearby fried food stand—Helen’s Corral Drive-In. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more thankful for drive-through food. The three young people running Helen’s had stayed open past their 8pm close time due to demand, and were clearly itching to go out and enjoy their Saturday night. Greedily we put in our orders for chicken strips and fries right before their cutoff, and I was in the throes of euphoria to receive what felt like a five pound Styrofoam box of chicken tenders and crinkle-cut fries to take back to our motel. Maybe it was my extreme exhaustion, but I felt Helen’s should have ended up on TV with Brew Burger. After our delightfully hot and filling meal I took a 20-minute shower, got in bed, and slept quite literally like a log until 9am the next morning. It was glorious.

And yes, it was the longest day ever.

-K

Jay’s Take on Death Canyon

Having missed out on hike in Boulder’s Flatirons, Kim was excited to get out in the wilderness for some fun and exercise. This must have been why she seemed amenable to the trail with such a sinister name. Death Canyon was the rated the most strenuous day hike in Grand Teton NP that didn’t include the disclaimer, “An ice axe may be necessary until August.”

We drove from Colter Bay down to the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, the newest and southernmost section of the park. I recalled an e-mail from our friend Danni in which she suggested a trail in this area that featured a great jumping rock. She had spent last summer as a kayaking instructor on Yellowstone Lake, so she knew all the best spots. The problem was, I couldn’t recall exactly which trail she said to take.

The trail was teaming with wildlife, including ground squirrels, warblers, orioles, finches, marmots, small snakes, and even a pika. The air was thin, dry, and warm, and the scent of pine was invigorating. We hiked down to the shore of Phelp’s Lake and sat on the shore for a snack break. I scanned the lake’s perimeter, miffed that the sandy shoreline offered no opportunity for cliff jumping. I surmised that I had picked the wrong lake when my eyes caught sight of a shining gray monolith on the eastern shore. It jutted 30 feet from the water. My hope was restored.

When we reached the rock, I immediately chanced into my bathing suit, then raced atop the massive platform and peered over the edge. The lake was somehow about twenty feet deep just below the jump-off point, despite being shallow just about everywhere else. I single trout meandered past the rock, just below the surface. For the first time, I turned my attention back to the direction of our hike and was awestruck by the view. Kim and I could see directly into Death Canyon, displayed prominently between mountain peaks.

Childhood experiences with jumping rocks at summer camp and with rope swings, taught me that stalling only fed my feelings of panic and doubt. For a moment I was a boy again. My heart pumping, muscles tense, I thought of how much peer pressure from other boys helped in these situations. Now a 25-year-old man, I felt slightly silly for feeling compelled to jump. I didn’t need to prove my manliness to anyone, especially since Kim was giving the distinct impression she would not be jumping. I thought of when I swam nonchalantly in 50-degree water in Maine on a boyhood summer vacation, then thought of how I was much less tolerant of the cold as an adult. Enough, I thought, back in the present. I clapped my hands together and leapt.

I felt suspended in air for longer than 30 feet, then plunged into the glacial lake water. My wide-splayed arms burned, but I began swimming for shore as soon as I surfaced. A second jump was in order.

Danni, if you’re reading, thanks for the suggestion. It made my day.

-J

Stones, S’mores, and a Bear

Boulder, CO to Grand Teton National Park, WY

UPDATE: We’re Alive! We’re safe and sound in Bozeman, MT tonight. We still don’t have a great internet connection, but when we do, we’ll post about the past two days. We’ll also post some pictures online
–J&K.

Our host Chad left Boulder to catch a red eye to Connecticut Thursday night, so Kim and I left without ceremony early Friday morning. Fortunately, Kim was feeling better. We rode out under the hot Colorado sun, coasting through quaint towns like Lamont and Fort Collins. Before long, we crossed into eastern Wyoming’s high plains. Dusty brown grasses and cow fields dominated the landscape as we traveled northwest toward the Rockies.  Farmhouses (or any other buildings for that matter) were few and far between in this, country’s least populated state. We stopped for yet another Subway lunch in Rawlins, which as far as we could tell, boasted a Sinclair Oil Refinery and a combination KFC/Taco Bell as its main attractions.

Rawlins: I’m trying to find the words to describe this town without being disrespectful.

Despite only traveling through two states, this was our longest scheduled day of travel at just under nine hours. On the East Coast, where you can breeze through four states in 3 hours, it’s easy to forget how massive the western states are. We spent only about 15 minutes in Rawlins, knowing that we needed to make it to Grand Teton National Park with enough daylight to locate our campground, hopefully reserve a site, and pitch our tent. Gradually, the hills lining our route grew jagged and more colorful, with red and yellow bands lining exposed rock faces. In the distance the snowcaps of the Rockies returned to the horizon. As we increased our elevation, the road began to wind sharply back and forth and challenged the steering capabilities of our trusty Penske truck. Over time, we noticed that passenger cars disappeared leaving only RVs, motorcycles, and heavy-duty pickups as our companions.

In mid afternoon, a heavy “THWACK” sound jolted me from the monotony of endless sweeping turns. A passing truck had kicked up a stone, which put a quarter-sized crack in the driver’s side of the windshield. It also woke Kim up. We both figured this was nearly inevitable over the course of a 3,400 mille trip and were glad we opted for damage insurance. The intrepid Penske now had a battle scar. I actually felt happy that it wouldn’t look brand new once it reached Portland. That’d be like having a clean white jersey after a football game; it means you didn’t get to play.

At the foot of the Rockies, we stopped off for more gas in a nifty little town called DuBois.  At the gas station a crew of teenaged girls in tie-dyed shirts had just pushed their parent’s borrowed Land Rover to the gas pump, only to realize that their tank was located on the opposite of the vehicle. Fully fueled, we forged on into the mountains. The ascent up the first pass, the gateway to Grand Teton National Park, was formidable. It was not only steep, but the winter’s snow and spring’s thaw had left vast sections in disrepair. For the first time on the trip, I started to worry that the truck was too big, slow, and heavy to handle the rigors of these massive mountains. Patches of not-yet-melted snow started to appear along the roadside, and I alternated my attention from the sharp turns of the road before me to the breathtaking black and white peaks above me.

The Penske pulled through, and we started a descent into a valley, pumping the brakes the entire way. We had made guesses as to which mountaintops comprised the actual Tetons, but we recognized the genuine articles the moment they appeared on the horizon. Ansel Adams’s legendary black-and-white photograph of the Snake River winding forth from the Tetons had engraved their visage in my mind. They look like the teeth of a saw, or even the bottom jaw of shark. Compared to the Appalachians, the Rockies are a very young mountain chain, with relatively little time for weather to sand down the points and edges, and nowhere is this more apparent than the Tetons. I had to resist the urge to take a picture of them at every turnout and open road shoulder on the way to the park entrance.

Ansel...so hot right now.

We drove along the main park roads to Colter Bay marina and campground at the north end of Jackson Lake. Before we arrived, we encounter our first “animal jam”. Fellow tourists had spotted some wildlife from the road and pulled over, and thus signaling throngs of passers by to do the same. We rolled slowly through this jam as park rangers huddled together on the roadside, devising a strategy for keeping traffic moving. To our right we could see the main attraction rooting around in a riverside field, the golden late-day sun reflecting off its wet fur.  A mature Grizzly bear was going about his business, ignoring the camera-clad onlookers.

The brown dot in the field is a grizzly bear. A telephoto lense would be nice.

At Colter Bay, Kim and I reserved a campsite that featured a cooking area, a gravel floorspace for our tent, and a fire ring. With dusk approaching, I set up our brand new two-person tent while Kim went to buy some matches and bug spray from the general store. By the time she got back I had mosquito bites on my legs, arms, back, and face, was in a foul mood.  The tent was up though. We then tried to make a fire with soggy downed branches we found nearby, but the had little success until a kind older woman from the Czech Republic observed our struggles and came to our assistance. She had long blonde braids draped over he shoulders and was staying in the next campsite over in a massive a massive red Hummer. I imagined her name was Helga, or Olga, but I don’t think I ever learned her real name. She showed Kim how dry, dead pine boughs would burn best, and kindly donated some of her spare firewood.

After that ordeal, we warmed ourselves for a moment, at some S’mores, then promptly rolled out our sleeping bags, and locked away all of our food.  Seeing a Grizzly only a few miles from our site only hours before, we weren’t about to take any chances. We fell asleep as soon as our faces hit the jackets we were using for pillows.

Kim likes our new digs.

Kim likes our new digs.

Tomorrow: a Hike in the park, cliff jumping, a Yellowstone debacle, and more!

-Jay

Time Outside the Truck

Day 6

Kim and I woke up early Thursday morning relieved to know that we wouldn’t have to drive a mile in the Penske truck. We started things off with some java from Flatiron Coffee, and then used the downtime in Chad’s apartment to take care of some errands.

A little after noon, we strapped on our hiking boots, loaded my backpack and headed out to explore the UC Boulder campus and go for a light hike in the foothills of the Flatirons (to clarify, the Flatirons are the five iconic rock formations jutting from the mountains lining the western edge of Boulder. They were named by pioneer women who thought the rocks resembled their clothing irons). Unfortunately, we got about halfway through campus when Kim started feeling ill. Truth be told, I wasn’t feeling hot either. It felt as if too little water, too much caffeine, hot weather, and the altitude were throwing us out of whack. We got some lunch, sat and watched the water tumbling down Boulder Creek, but Kim still felt sick. When we got back to Chad’s place, she told me that while she felt too ill to hike, she’d feel even worse if I stuck around with her rather than exploring the mountains. I felt bad, but decided to listen to Kim.

Hike Profile: Flatiron 1&2 Trail

I changed from boots to sneakers and started out for Chautauqua Park, the base for a web of mountain trails. It took me a long time to reach the park and I started to wonder if I’d have the time, energy, or sense of direction to complete a decent hike.

I stumbled upon this odd colony of rock sculptures. They reminded me of the African animals congregating at Pride Rock in the Lion King

I forged on though, encouraged by the dozens of fellow hikers (many with their dogs) leading the way up well-marked trails. In no time, the grassy foothills gave way to shady pine forests. I started off with conservative, flat trails, but the flatirons, basking in the late afternoon sun, beckoned.

The Flatirons

The Flatirons

Once I found the trailhead for the Flatiron 1&2 Trail, I started upward. The trail quickly changed into craggy switchbacks and stepping-stones across screes. After a brief section of hand-over-foot incline, reached the base of the massive flatiron rock formation. The view of the UC campus and the rest of Boulder was amazing. For a moment, I felt satisfied, but then noticed a couple hikers heading further up another series of switchbacks. I was sweating and breathing heavily, and my ankles were starting to miss my hiking boots, but I was too close to the trail summit not to finish. I trudged up past the gorgeous outcrop of Flatiron 3, and stopped to snag this picture. A few minutes later, I reached the summit and grabbed a seat. Gazing west toward the setting sun and a sea of snow-capped mountains filled me with a conqueror’s peace. I thought back to the Southern Alps of New Zealand, the last place I stood eye-to-eye snowy mountains.  I also thought of my buddy Kyle, who once called me from this summit to tell me how beautiful it was.  It felt like he was there with me.  My thoughts then turned to Kim and how I wished she could have taken in this view with me.  While I was grateful for the exercise and for some time alone with my thoughts (outside a truck cab), I felt as if having a hiking partner would have made the experience even more rewarding.

Flatiron 3

Looking West to the Rockies

With daylight fading, I shuffled back down the switchbacks, my knees creaking all the way. I hustled home to go out to dinner with Kim and watch the stupid Lakers win another title.  Most importantly, Kim was feeling a little better. Hopefully, she’ll be right as rain tomorrow.

-Jay

NOTE: Tomorrow, Kim and I are heading to Grand Teton National Park, then Yellowstone National Park. We won’t have Internet access for a couple of days, so there won’t be any new posts. However, I’m sure we’ll have some great pictures and good stories once we’re in Bozeman, so be sure to check back!

Colorful Colorado

So we rolled in to Boulder, CO around 7pm last night. In all my life I have never fallen in love with a place before I even reached it, but the area surrounding Boulder certainly had this effect. As we approached we had the Flatiron mountains to the west and rolling, grassy hills stretching off to the east. Compounded by a fragrant breeze and a beautiful sunset, we were pretty much sold on this town from the beginning.

The CU-Boulder campus sprang up immediately upon entering Boulder—scattered academic buildings of sandy-colored brick and red clay roofs. Jay and I have both kicked around the idea of attending CU for grad school, so seeing this gorgeous campus in person, studded with trees and sitting peacefully in the shadow of the craggy Flatirons, got me pretty excited about my higher education.

After a few wrong turns we finally located the home of our host for the night: Chad King, another Sig Ep brother getting a Master’s in Engineering here at CU. I couldn’t help but be instantaneously jealous of his apartment building, which resembled a two-story ski lodge. Chad is yet another gracious and gregarious Bucknell alum, who immediately herded us into his car and took us for a tour of campus. After a day of rolling through the bland monotony of Nebraska, Jay and I were thrilled to passively sit back and check out the leafy town of Boulder, crawling with students, hippies, bikes and dogs. Our first stop was Half Fast Subs (per Joe’s recommendation), which offered three full chalkboards of sandwich options. After stuffing ourselves and enjoying a tall draft of Fat Tire, we were reinvigorated and even more in love with Boulder. I don’t think Subway will suffice after this!

Mmmm, Half Fast Subs

Our next stop on the tour was a stroll down the renowned Pearl Street, a stretch of brick walkway crowded with stores, street performers, and amblers from all walks of life. Droves of locals and visitors alike were out to enjoy the balmy evening, eating ice cream and pausing to appreciate a live bluegrass group playing on a small bandstand. We took in the length of Pearl and headed home for a much-needed rest. Ready to wake up early for World Cup action and a hike in the Flatirons, we were soon all dead asleep.

Pearl Street in Boulder

Hopefully that’s the last of the corn.

Today our trip across Nebraska was pretty grim. Obviously we expected this (since Jay had the misfortune was cycling across nearby Kansas a few years ago) but it is just a really, really long state. And nothing changes. Maybe Jay can expand on this entry and offer some points of interest, but the landscape was basically incredibly flat, windy, and boring.  It probably doesn’t help that we had driven all day yesterday and were getting pretty stir-crazy.

Some notable sightings:

The archway monument over I-80 that Jay’s sister-in-law’s father helped create. In Kearney, NE, there is a massive arch (more like a solid metal bridge) that crosses the highway. On either end there are welded steel sculptures of a Pegasus with these huge arcing wings. Price van der Swaagh welded these pieces for the arch, so it was pretty cool to pull over and see them up close (and get another Subway sandwich- this time I got a different kind of cheese!)


I saw my first CAFO. Up until now, we have of course seen a whole lot of cows—mostly big, angular momma cows with calves that seem totally at peace in their breezy, rolling meadows and lounging in shade. I thought to myself, “Well, these guys look so happy. This must be that period of time the calves are allowed to eat real plants outdoors and get big.” Today, we got to see where they go once they’re a few months old—a nearby CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). We smelled it before we saw it. But seeing it was pretty sad—a huge stretch of black mud filled with wallowing, miserable cows. The stench was completely overwhelming, even as we zoomed by at 70mph with the windows rolled up. The thought of anyone works in its vicinity without a heavy-duty mask is nauseating. At the center of the mud pit stood a giant silver silo with their feed for the next few months of their life: corn, corn, and more corn! They really aren’t evolved to eat this in any way, but it makes them good and obese and uses up a chunk of the government-subsidized crop. Yay! Thanks for taking one for the team. Sorry you have to stand in your own refuse for months at a time until we eat you…?

We saw Travis McCoy. Neither of us knows who Travis McCoy is, but apparently he and his “entourage” were in the combo Subway/gas station at the same time as us, and decided to announce (without prompting) his MTV stardom to the woman at the register. After he left the woman asked us if we’d ever heard of him (she hadn’t either) so we had a good laugh at his expense. We had the good luck of seeing him AGAIN at another gas station down the road (there aren’t many) and got a good look at him—short, skinny, with a lot of tats and a fro, not to mentioned a very serious “don’t ask for autographs” scowl. We wondered if maybe he was one of the idiots on Real World DC this year…. in which case, you’re following us, buddy, not the other way around.

UPDATE: “Travie” McCoy is the lead singer of Gym Class Heroes. I actually kind of like his music, and in retrospect, think it’s kind of cool that we saw him today. I’m also surprised he didn’t splurge for a foot-long at Subway, or eat somewhere much nicer. – Jay

Yup, those were the three big high points. Hopefully Nebraska will end up being the real doldrums of our drive—it is certainly the flattest, longest stretch and the one we looked forward to the least. I’m ready to see some bison and elk blocking the road, or something.

We soon crossed into Colorado, which wasn’t quite celebrated with an immediate change of landscape that I’d hoped for. Things got a bit hillier, although it still feels like the purplish clouds out there in the distances could roll in over us in a matter of seconds. We were still surrounded by fields of corn and beans, and finally saw the propped-up irrigation pipes in action, spraying water over the crops in a long line. Anything uncultivated sure got a bit browner and drier as we transition into the more desert-like environment of eastern Colorado. After a while the open prairies became less green-red and more gold, dotted with short scrub growth and fewer trees. We then switched to 76 South down to Denver, and the first sign that we were technically “out west” appeared in the form of a tumbleweed rolling right across the highway. We have also officially rolled into the Mountain Time Zone, where we’ll be setting our clocks from now on.

UPDATE: We’re in Boulder, CO safe and sound. Check in tomorrow for our impressions of the town. Hint: It’s awesome. Here’s a shot of our first glimpse of the Rockies  – Jay

Somewhere in the Middle of America

After a very solid night’s sleep at Jeff’s place in Chicago, we began our first of two 8-9 hour driving days. Before arriving in Omaha for the night we would have to cross Illinois and Iowa, which I knew would be a long day of farms, farms, and more farms. Luckily the landscape was a bit more stimulating than that, with some gorgeous corn and soybean fields hedged with long wild grasses or planted in terraces and tiers on the rolling hillsides. So while the view from our truck was pretty consistent for the day, it at least included a lot of undulating meadows, green hilltops and dappled sunlight.

One thing we noticed during the trip through Illinois and Iowa was the prevalence of red-wing blackbirds—basically to the exclusion of any other bird. Jay and I noticed them throughout the city of Chicago, flitting around Millennium Park and even perching on traffic lights to look for good nesting places. Since he and I seldom see red-wings (except for in the cattails of the cabin or in Cape Cod marshes), I thought it was a treat to see them all over Chicago. Driving in the countryside, they were everywhere—alighting on every fence post, phone wire, and the branches of the rapidly thinning trees. I hoped people here appreciate them, after living among DC’s exploding starling population for 3 years.

Another notable point in our trip was coming across a massive wind farm in Iowa, with clusters of these huge, alien turbines surrounding both sides of I-80. It was pretty cool to see all the open space and wind put to good use, and I’d hope the planting of them here earns a lot of farmers some serious energy royalties. They also serve to make the landscape pretty impressive—land of the giants!

Wind Power!

In case you’ve ever wondered how they’re put together, we can now tell you that each turbine blade has to be carried on its own flatbed down the highway, as we saw at least a dozen on the road in the last few days. Even though the turbines look behemoth from the ground you can really get a better perspective when you drive by just one blade—they look like beached beluga whales on a truck bed.

Transporting a windmill blade

Overall the day was long and uneventful but pleasant. We stopped somewhere in Iowa for another Subway sandwich and carried on. With Jay finishing up the day’s driving rotation we pulled into our posh Super 8 motel in Omaha at about 8pm, overdue for a rest. The room was subterranean and so a bit musty, but at least clean (and so cheap I can hardly complain). After we dropped off our gear Jay suggested we go seek out a burger place that had been featured on “Drive-Ins, Diners, and Dives,” a show hosted by that obnoxious chef with bleach blonde hair who does the T.G.I.Friday’s commercials. Apparently they sought out this tiny spot in outer Omaha, and happily it was about a ten minute drive away. I thought I’d do a little side piece on this place, since it was pretty great… and really the only meal we’ve had out thus far.

FOODIE SPOTLIGHT: Brew Burger

Brew Burger, at first glance, definitely falls into the “Dive” category of the show. While our charming Super 8 was located on the outskirts of town, right off the highway, this burger joint was found in an equally isolated side route more commonly used for tire shopping and renting U-Hauls. It was hardly noticeable—shoved next to a towering Comfort Inn and relatively dark from the outside—but the two frothing beer mugs backlit on the sign announced it loudly enough.

If by chance you roll through Omaha in the near future (and aren’t looking for the finest of mid-American steaks), Brew Burger is definitely worth finding on the map. The bar is clearly a no-frills place, and very much a sports bar—the staff wear uniforms of referee jerseys, large HD flat-screen TVs line the walls, and Golden Tee and Big Buck Hunter stand on one end of the room. As per usual, a long bar takes up one wall and the restaurant is mostly a scattering of booths and tabletops with what look like brown, faux-leather computer chairs on wheels. The ambiance would be pretty hokey if not for the intense degree of dedication to sports; in addition to the standard sports paraphernalia, the entire ceiling was literally a checkerboard of sports logos ranging between pro and college and between every sport imaginable (Jay had me trying to identify them all—I think I got about five right). Any spot on the wall without a TV was occupied by Huskers, Lancers, Creighton Blue Jays jerseys, and even the floor mats paid homage to local Nebraska teams.

The menu, however, was what really made this place unique for me. Clearly the burger was king in this place, with an entire page dedicated to over-the-top combinations of meats and toppings and another half page to a selection of gourmet options for fries. But what surprised me was a level of sophistication in the options, which also included things like Ahi tuna burger with ginger sesame sauce and turkey burgers with cranberry aioli. Each item was also paired with a suggested micro-brewed beer, mostly from the Midwest or Colorado. I chose a veggie burger including a sautéed Portobello and some rice on the side, knowing that I’d probably get what was coming to me for, ordering such a thing at a burger place. Jay ordered the specialty touted on the “Drive-Ins” show, a brisket sandwich on rye that had been a recipe in the owner’s family for decades.

The Old Fashioned Sandwich

Service was incredibly quick. Unsurprisingly, the brisket was absolutely delicious—after five days in brine and spices, it’d be hard for it not to be. Again, the meal was still no frills, just a small pile of meat on plain rye bread with some mustard and cole slaw on the side. After tasting it, it’s clear this gem requires no garnish or special sauce of any kind—while very light and thin-sliced, it was incredibly tender, smoky, complex, salty, and overall very fulfilling. I was shocked that my mushroom “burger” was also excellent, topped with things like onions, zucchini and squash and sautéed in something amazing. Even the rice pilaf was above par with some chopped vegetables and spices. Complimented by our hoppy microbrews, the meal was exactly what we needed to recoup from a long day of the trucker’s lifestyle.

From across the room, we could hear the bartender loudly asking each of the three male patrons whether they came because of the show, which apparently had re-aired the night before. All three replied that they had, and, like us, were driving cross-country and decided to stop in. The episode, combined with the nearby college baseball World Series, has apparently generated an upswing in business since taping. I was glad to hear Brew Burger was getting some much-deserved credit for their fare, although it did of course make me feel pretty lame for re-reporting on a “little-known” restaurant that the creepy T.G.I.Friday’s chef has already reported on.

-Kim

Note from Jay:  I’d like to thank Sakofs for suggesting I scour some Food Network/Travel Channel sites for restaurants to hit up along our route.

Chicago

Kim and I awoke Monday morning to find a package of road trip rations on the Cubbon’s kitchen counter. Thanks again Cubbon Family! We loaded up the gracious selection of fruits, snacks, and leftover Smirnoff Ices, and set out for Chicago.

We plodded through northern Ohio and Indiana, then decided to take the Mr. Cubbon’s advice and stop at Notre Dame’s campus in South Bend for lunch. The uniform brick buildings and impeccable landscaping recalled Bucknell’s campus, but the football stadium, complimented by the legendary “Touchdown Jesus” mural, were truly special. I’m not a college football aficionado, but I could sense the lore and mystique of one America’s proudest sports institutions. I snapped shots of statues depicting Knute Rockne, Lou Holtz, and even “Rudy”.

Touchdown Jesus

Wary of cutting too far into our afternoon in Chicago, Kim and I hopped back on I-80. I couldn’t help but notice condition of the bridges and overpasses on our way into the Chicago metropolitan area.  I could see the concrete crumbling apart and the iron rusting away around us. Without getting overly political, I can’t help but feel like we’re playing dangerous waiting game by putting off major infrastructure repairs.

Aside from the traffic, that’s probably the only bad thing I have to say about Chicago. After locating my friend and Sig Ep brother’s house in Lake View (North Side), we took the EL downtown. Kim and I were blown away by Millenium Park. I’ve never seen a city has managed to so seamlessly integrate a big city architecture with immaculate artwork, and pristine greenspace, all adjacent to a picturesque shoreline. My New York friends might ask, “how is that different from here?” For starters, it’s all incredibly clean. Chicago’s feel is just different. I was only there for an evening, but I felt right at home in a place with the buzz and activity of DC and the laid-back congeniality of the Midwest.

We met up with Jeff back in Lake view later in the evening and headed to a local sports bar to catch up over burgers, fries, and some Goose Island IPAs. Afterward we walked off the meal with a tour of “Wrigleytown” and the legendary Wrigley Field, home of baseballs most lovable losers, the Cubbies. Wrigleytown featured signature sports bars (all sporting Blackhawks Stanley Cup banners) and some landmark improv venues. Jeff confirmed my impressions of Chicago, saying he moved there after school, somewhat by chance, but loves it. Kim and I agreed that while we were still excited to get further West, it was great to get a feel for Chicago, should future opportunities ever present themselves there. So, Windy City, land of Barry Obama, Jordan, Sears, Ditka, and Deep Dish, you get an ‘A’ in our book.

Wrigley Field

Wasn’t there supposed to be environmental commentary?

Chicago gives me a good setting to discuss a few of my observations on the state of America’s future as a truly green nation. First off, let’s address the 2,000 lb. elephant in the room: the 2,000 lb. truck we’re driving. Yes, it is hypocritical to write about America’s green future by driving a giant symbol of the traditional dirty fuel system; the system that’s led to America’s current dependence on foreign oil, and the Gulf Coast oil spill, the worst environmental catastrophe in our nation’s history. It’s indefensible, and all I can offer are excuses. Since I’m currently unemployed, we’re somewhat constrained by our budget. We worked hard to lighten our load considerably by selling and donating a large amount of clothing, furniture, and other “stuff”, but with our bed, my drafting table, and some other large items in tow, we couldn’t get away with renting a car.

The only solace I can take from pumping CO2 into the atmosphere all the way across the country is knowing that for three years in DC, Kim and I have lived a small carbon footprint lifestyle. We didn’t owned a car, took the metro or a bicycle to work, lived in an apartment building, worked in LEED-certified green buildings, recycled, and ate locally (though not as much as we should have). It’s sad to think that we’re undoing the carbon savings of all those lifestyle choices, but we’ll do our best to atone for out dirty fuel deeds once we’re out in Portland.

But enough about us. I’ve noticed a few interesting indicators of America’s environmental compass on our drive so far:

  1. Billboards of “clean coal” in PA and OH. One billboard read, “The Sun Sets. Wind Dies. We Need Reliable Clean Energy Now.” I agree with this sentiment, but not with the implication that coal is the clean energy solution. Yes, coal is now being burned in a manner the scrubs some harsh compounds, and yes, there have been interesting developments in carbon sequestration (pumping CO2 emissions underground rather than into the atmosphere.) However, we’re still talking about a limited resource, a fossil fuel that is rapidly contributing to climate change. Let’s not call this clean energy.  The cleaner coal is the, better, but we can’t favor coal over investments in alternative energy and energy efficiency. We need government support and innovative minds to work on improving ways to store and transport energy generated by solar arrays and wind turbines. Better yet, we need to innovate entirely new sources of renewable energy. Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas are not, and will never be “clean” or “renewable”.
  2. Chicago’s Urban Planning. I want to applaud Chicago’s investment in creating urban greenspaces (performing arts venues, running and biking trails, and open space) that encourage urban living by offering the perks of the suburbs to dowtown. The eventual result is less traffic, shorter commutes, reduced GHG emissions, and a sense of community that can even lower crime rates.

    State of the art Art Museum in Chi-town

  3. Western Illinois (I’ll post more on our trip to Omaha tomorrow, but I wanted to mention this ahead of time). In additions to a farm with a green roof and a wind farm, Kim and I also stopped at a brand new Oasis (rest stop) with a host of green features. The restrooms sported educational posters with tips on reducing GHG emissions while driving, saving energy through simple steps around the house, and even a sign explaining why paper towels (and the emissions associated with their production, transportation, and disposals) were replaced with air dryers. The rest stop also offered an online travel kiosk rather than a rack of maps, and had recycling bins located throughout the building. Nice work, De Kalb, IL!

    De Kalb Oasis