Wyoming Mirage

I am moving slowly these days. Such is the summertime.

Here is the picture I wanted to attach to my post about driving the West. Heat shimmering off the highway makes the pavement bleed into the sky, but an approaching semi truck affirms the road's substantiveness.


Viva la Reunion!

My family reunion is the best that ever there was. So much for humility.

It started in 1951. My grandma was one of three sisters who married three best friends, and deciding that they did not want to lose touch with each other, they picked a central location to meet once every other summer - the Colorado Rockies. We have met without fail ever since, and it is a grand old time.

There is a certain sort of tradition to these two weeks. The poster boards come out, with each day listed along with information like who is cooking, who is cleaning, what the meal is, and what sorts of funness is occurring. Other traditions follow: the plastic cups we all write our names on, the multi-colored place mats made out of... some kind of mystery polymer.

The days begin with a leisurely breakfast, or if it is a hiking day, with all of the hikers bumping shoulders in the kitchen packing lunches and trying to squeeze in a bite of breakfast. Hiking is our main event, and every two or three days we trek anywhere from 3 miles to a lake to 12 miles to the top of a mountain, sometimes old hikes and sometimes new, and always with the brown sack lunch in the late morning and the hasty retreat as the afternoon thunderstorms roll in.

In the afternoons we usually go downtown, a tourist paradise filled with chocolate shops and souvenir shops, lolling around with a caramel apple in hand or retreating into a park by the river. The town of Estes Park is gradually becoming gentrified, but there are still all the bits of classic western kitsch - rubber tomahawks, leather cowboy jackets, feather headdresses, rabbit furs. Cowboy Brad singing his John Denver songs in the park around a campfire. The summers are crowded here and the shops are always full of people, but there are quiet places along the river walk where you can sit and sip bubble tea or coffee and watch the world go by.

After dinner it's time for the games. Tonight it was frisbee golf on a course we made across the front and back yards. (We played a Scramble. I was terrible, but I blame it on the fact that I was holding the dog also.) Another favorite is our version of volleyball, which used to be deadly back when the dads were young men, but the addition of the children of my generation permanently slowed down the violence level. We might pile into the cars and go to our favorite miniature golf place, Tiny Town, "A Nice Place for Nice People." Or, like last night, go-kart racing, so fiercely competitive that it is the only time in the reunion when grown men can crush children against the rails and laugh manically about it.

And then comes the late night games, the card games, which mostly revolve around Skip-bo, Hearts, Apples to Apples, and the best game on the face of the planet, Rook. Huzzah! For anyone who knows Rook, I have to brag that I took the bid the other night in choose-your-partner, called no trump, and made it exactly on the nose. (If you do not follow Rook, this is a happy accomplishment.) All new inductees into the family must jump through that hoop that is learning Rook, simultaneously learning 30 new names and dealing with the effects of altitude at 8,000 feet. New family members have it rough.

One of my great uncles used to make pancakes for the entire clan once a reunion, but now that he's gone we haven't had pancakes for a while, so I decided to put myself through the grinder and take on the role with my faithful friend Kneady Bubbles the First at my side. Kneady Bubbles performed valiantly, making perfectly nice and fluffy sourdough pancakes. I made a x8 batch the first time and a x10 batch the second. I could so work in Roadside. (For non-GF people, I could so work in a crazy busy breakfast restaurant.)

This reunion has been the Gathering of the Babies. We had, at our peak, one 6yr old, two 3 yr olds, two 18 month olds, one 9 month old, one 3 month old, and one yet unborn! Yowzah. When I first arrived after my 21-hr drive push from Oregon, I staggered in just at dinner time and was met with the whole crowd gathered to pray. But there were still a few minutes to go, so at once I had what seemed like a dozen babies shoved at me. (Okay, maybe two.) Luckily my better senses told me not to hold my 9 month old niece in my teetering state (Drop the Baby!) although I did have plenty of time after sleep to cuddle, and cuddle, and cuddle... My niece is a very bouncy little girl. However, despite all the babiness of the hour, I remain convinced that being an aunt is definitely the way to go. Even heaps of babies could not stir the mommy gene deep within.

What else to say? My father and brother-in-law finally succeeded in building a zip line that doesn't kill anyone, and all the lil' childrens have been having fun going down it. I took one of the greatest hikes of my life a few days ago. (The post is forthcoming.) The wildlife viewing has been prime, especially a very gregarious marmot that made friends with my backpack while on top of the Twin Sisters. And, best of all, I have managed to gross out a nice percentage of my family with pictures of the Dawson City "Sour-toe." So life is good.

Is It Wyoming Yet?

Ah, the glorious experience of waking up in the backseat of my car at 5 in the morning, when the first blue haunt of sunlight is beginning to lighten the broad flatlands of Idaho's southwest. I crawl up into the driver's seat and pop open a bottle of Starbucks frappuccino, roll out of the dark and sleeping streets of the town which I came to, also in the darkness, and drive back to the freeway on-ramp. Now the horizon has turned pale, and... was that a sign for I-84 East I just passed? Is this... is this road going up and over the interstate? Is this road siphoning me onto I-84 West???

Getting onto the freeway in the wrong direction at 5 in the morning, when the next exit is 15 miles and 15 minutes away? That's a very special feeling.

But I finally got turned back towards the east and got to watch the sun rise over the most boring stretch between Oregon and Colorado (apologies to the competing boring stretches of Utah and Wyoming): the road between Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho. Bleh.

Day one of my two day drive is Oregon, all Oregon, with just a little piece of Idaho thrown in at the end for fun. If you look at the map, you can easily see that Oregon is not geographically as large as Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming put together, but the road is 55 mph all the way. It starts in the wet coastal forest, goes up and over the coastal range into the fertile Willamette Valley, and then climbs up again into the Cascades, where the forests are dry and peopled (treed?) by lodgepole pines. After dropping down the other side of the mountains, trees disappear and are replaced by sagebrush, and it is the sagebrush that continues to dominate the scenery until Colorado.

I used to think of Utah as being the most desolate place in the country, but I have changed my opinion substantially. It has mountains, at least, and although they are mostly the tough and jagged kind, all rock and no majesty, they fit in well to the rest of the stark landscape. The word for northern Utah is "salt." White salt flats stretching off in the distance, shimmering in the sun, the Great Salt Lake putting out fingers of bitter water towards the freeway, salt marshes prickling with sharp grass. The rocks are reds and browns and coppers - the plant life, too - and crop up in fantastic formations such as the Devil's Slide, a steep narrow chute that dives from a mountain to the road. (The exit for it always sneaks up on me around a sharp bend in the freeway, but it was closed this time for construction, so I did not have to veer to catch it.)

But by the Devil's Slide I feel like I've been driving...well...far longer than I should have been driving. Where the heck is Wyoming? Wyoming is the home stretch, welcomed this time of year but grueling in the winter, when black ice covers the road and powder snow is blown across it in a sideways blizzard so dense that you cannot tell the difference between the pavement and the sagebrush. Wyoming is beautiful in its own way. Fawn colors, khaki, beige, every shade of tan man ever thought up a name for, rolls away from the road, and the road itself turns into a sky-colored mirage. The freeway is marked by giant red gates every 100 miles or so that say "Road Closed - Return to..." fill in the blank to be the nearest town of any great size. This is so that when snow drifts close off the freeway in the wintertime, they can divert traffic before we go plowing into oblivion.

Wyoming is also the land of Little America. If you do not know what Little America is, you will by the time you get there. There are signs - "Little America, 200 miles. 50 cent Cones!" and "Little America, 175 miles. Kids stay for free!" and "Little America, 150 miles, Are We There Yet?" etcetera to the point where you, the driver, with nothing else to occupy your attention except the occasional fireworks stand, start to wonder, "What is this mysteriously wonderful Little America?!" (Answer: a tricked-up gas station.)

Wyoming at last breaks its hold just a little south of Laramie, where a big old timey wooden sign proclaims, "Welcome to Colorful Colorado!" and immediately stands of green bushy ponderosa pines spring up, and the deer frolic, and grand snow-capped peaks burst out of the ground. And there you are. The Rockies.

(Finally! And now maybe I can part ways with Bosco for longer than a day? Sorry Bosco!)

Like Balls on a Roulette Wheel We Are Flung

Surfacing for air: a decompression.

Twenty one hours alone on the road is a long time to decompress. The first three hours are pure excitement. The next three become something akin to work, as in "I should be getting paid to do this." After that, the miles begin to creep backwards. Every minute I glance down at the odometer, but the number stays the same. There are still 1100 miles to go. It is a fierce and solid number, and there is nothing I can do about it. I pull off to the side of the road to take a break, but the miles are still there. The CD in my player has run out and everything my radio finds seems jarring on the ears - I spend two minutes listening to static on the AM thinking that it is the sound of applause about to die out - and then I turn off the radio and howl at the road like a wild woman (something you can only do when you're alone), but the miles are still there to drive.

After that there is nothing but time to think about things, and I have a very noisy mind. Big questions become small and manageable; little ones well up to take their place. Sometimes I sing my thoughts out loud, and sometimes I talk them, and sometimes I talk to God... but I don't talk to God too often, because when I talk to him, when I really talk to him, I get tears in my eyes. I think it is that the conversation is too honest, that it cuts down through the masks to the heart of me and who I am, what I am trying to be, real and raw. Often painful.

But you can't cry while you're driving. So no... I don't talk to God too often.

Sometimes, sometimes... when my thoughts are on repeat play and the fault lines on the pavement are hammering away a steady beat, then I finally find the rhythm of the road. The car stops moving. Instead, the land moves around me. If I am on a winding two lane highway, the ribbon of pavement seems to whip beneath me like a high pressure water hose. But if I am on the freeway, it becomes more like a video game. There are cars to pass and cars passing me. I weave and dodge with the cruise control on, focusing on the two possibilities - Are they gaining on me or am I gaining on them? Never tap the foot on the brake, that is the goal of this game. Every vehicle I encounter takes on its own personality by its shape, its color, and the way it moves. Is it timid? Does it reek with machismo? Polite, clever, lawbreaking? And yet I never see the faces on the other side of the glass.

The radio catches a moment of European electronic techno, and suddenly I picture myself in a different place entirely, under the water, laying back on the sand watching the fish swim above me. Scuba divers hardly ever stay put in one place. Generally you don't want to touch anything around you, lest you kill it or it kills you, or sometimes the only thing beneath you is a deep swallowing darkness, a silent enemy. But when there is sand - try this if you get the chance - you can lay back and look up at the fish, their silhouettes black against the bending light of the surface. Watch them pause and circle, flick their tails and be gone, one after another. Watch as the bubbles rise up from your regulator, flat on the bottom and round on the top, big and small, wavering up in a delicate dance to the surface, when the only sound around you is the hiss and blurb of your breath and the constant snapping of the shrimp hidden beneath the rocks. I don't know why techno made me think of this.

But I am back on the road, drinking milk out of a quart carton. The scenery is blearily monotonous, and in my boredom I notice even the slightest things. There is a dead creature on the side of the road lying on its back, all reddish fur with four paws sticking straight in the air like a cartoon. It looks wombat-ish, but I'm pretty sure eastern Oregon doesn't have wombats. Miles later I pass a dead cow lying on the other side of a barb wire fence like a fallen fiberglass statue, its legs sticking out from its side. The heat makes the dead things bloat. And then up on the hill, a large metal horse in mid-lunge, and beyond it a corral for the wild horses caught by the BLM, and I think about the times I have seen horses running in the wild. Not this time, though. Not this drive. Only hawks and pronghorn antelope to keep me company, and the rolling sagebrush looking the same for every mile, and Cheerios in odd places in the car, and now an empty quart of milk.

Twenty one hours alone on the road is a long time to decompress.

The Car That Ate An Antelope

The sunlight is coming in shafts through the trees, the peacocks down in the valley are wailing plaintively, and as I stand beside Bosco considering my life's next chapter of plunging into the great unknown I am faced with an old familiar question: Should I take The Antelope?

Well of course I should. Why the heck do I drive a small SUV if not to throw my bike into the back of it whenever I please? But the process of putting The Antelope in single-handed is daunting, especially since the first time when Bosco was still shiny and new and I managed to get a nice big grease smudge all over the upholstery. But I like to bike. And....I like my Antelope.

(Mind, "The Antelope" isn't its model but its name, like Fred, or Joe Jackson, or Fluffy. It is a good name.)

So it's fiddle off the front wheel, grope around for a nonexistent "good grip" as the handlebars swivel around to smack my knees as the whole bike slips back on the remaining tire. A regrip, and now I've forgotten to avoid pressing the greasy chain against my clothing (but I'm wearing dark colors - whew!), and now the sharp bits of metal where my front tire used to be are threatening to gouge plastic and break windows, and now I finally have it hoisted up halfway into the car (I see for the first time "Made in China" written on the side. My bike was made in China??? Did China even make anything back then? Aaah, my bike is Chinese!!), and now the petals are punching down into whatever it is underneath the sheet I've spread across the rest of the packed stuff, but has it done damage? I like to keep it a mystery. And now I am spending two coils of rope lashing The Antelope to every tie-point my car has to offer, because I picture it flailing around in there and doing mighty, terrible things if I don't.

That's how Bosco and The Antelope get along. One of these days I should probably invest in a bike rack.

The entire time I was wrestling to get the bike inside, between mild expletives, I found myself asking questions. So many questions. Why do people travel? What's in it? Why don't more people do it? Is it a way of life or a break from life? Can it be a constant? And why do I travel? What do I hope to find, and what have I found already? If I forget everything from my past travels, have I really ever travelled at all?

The answers could come in cliched bits like, "Americans have always been on the move!" (Like some 1950's "Ride the Train" poster), or maybe something about the struggle of man vs. nature, I don't know. I didn't want to go down that route. There's something far more satisfying in the asking of the question, and I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. The questions come easier than the answers. Maybe I should be a philosopher, heh? Or a police interrogator.

But I have at least one question answered for today. The Antelope is strapped down and ain't going anywhere but Colorado. So that's a "yes."

And Then the Road Ran Out

Is it over? It happened so fast. The mileage on the dash says 7502, so I must have gone somewhere. And yet here I am back with familiar sights and familiar sounds, and all that’s left of the trip is a car full of stuff and a head full of music, a camera full of pictures. A bracing, grinding halt.

Today I’ve been facing a curious teetering between two states, exhaustion and complete boredom. I’m lugging my body around the house like one of the undead while my mind is still racing for things to do and places to go. But it’s a fatigue deeper than coffee can go, despite the millions of things I have to do between now and Friday, when I hope to start the two day drive to Colorado. Today I feel like one of those skits in a comedy show where one person hides behind another and puts their arms out in front to do simple things like brushing teeth (and shoving the toothbrush in their eye) or eating a sandwich (and spilling it all down their shirt.) That is an accurate depiction of my efficiency rating at present.

Despite that, I’m starting to tick off a few minor chores. I've been washing my sleeping bag in the bath tub, not an easy task. It takes some muscle, sort of like washing a dead Saint Bernard. It turned the water into a lovely deep brown “sleeping bag tea.” Which is funny, because I wasn’t expecting it to be that dirty, but I guess the last time I can definitively remember cleaning it was back in 1999. I’m also slowly extracting items from the inner rubble of Bosco, an explosion which resulted from quickly sundering all of TSO’s belongings from the rest of the stuff in a rush to make his ferry, a bit akin to yanking a tablecloth out from under a full setting of china, but with fewer pointy shards. Before this we had to leave Bosco parked unattended in Tacoma for 24 hours, so I left it a little chaotic as a theft deterrant. But I have to admit, my side of the car has more or less been in a state of explosion since the Yukon, so right now it is really just more exploded. When the option is to spend time organizing or make a “that’ll-do” and hit the road, I hit the road.

The 7502 miles is from my driveway to my driveway, but it isn’t a perfectly accurate measure of our trip because it includes a lot of backtracking (like zigzagging around Washington State this last week) and noodling around in the cities. We logged 35 miles in Ketchikan, for example, and I don’t think Ketchikan even has 35 miles of road. So the actual distance may have been closer to 6000 miles, seven weeks travelling, six weeks solid tent camping, access to one oven, two instances of watching television (not counting the ones inside interpretive centers), seven cans of propane, six crossings through international customs, five ferries, zero flat tires, and four boxes of Jujubees. Plus we got eaten by a bear.

So I’ve missed blogging about pretty much everything between Juneau and the civilized world, but I will get around to catching up, I promise. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and after my family’s reunion, which is going to be two weeks worth of my clawing up the hiking trails behind everybody else gasping some excuse about how I’ve been locked in a car the past seven weeks and have no muscle mass left.

Ah… Alaska, the Yukon, the north. When will I go back?