We are camped on the side of a cliff again. This time at the edge of the plains and the Badlands. The wind is whipping and the snow is pelting the camper. The view, before the light dimmed down, was of time scarred earth dusted with snow fading into atmosphere. It’s cozy inside with cat and dog and husband. Bonus we have great cell service tonight. The plan was to drive into North Dakota avoiding the storm. Funny about those plans…
Kurt and I left Wyoming passing a mildly disturbing mining sign:
Blasting in progress. Orange cloud possible. Avoid contact.
I rolled my window up against the warm spring day and pondered the meaning of those dire words. And I was so happy to see the mining operation had restored an area of landscape they were done stripping.
I soon forgot about the orange cloud of doom, lost by mesmerizing cascading grassland hills. Soon we approached the Black Hills. If you imagined some, you know, black hills like I did I’ll stop you now. It’s forested evergreen covered mountains. Mountains. There’s some nearly black rock outcropping sometimes. Through Deadwood and Sturgis we passed taking one detour to see the Crazy Horse Monument, a face and arm being revealed from the mountain, before continuing on past Mount Rushmore, the dead stone heads staring over the traffic, the trees, the land, in judgement of the society they shaped.
Just as the weather caught us we entered the Badlands National Park. In the off season we had the park just about to ourselves… and the Bison. The older animals stood like woolly statues against the cold. The younger ones bounced away from the grumbling truck at approach▪️
And then water became the most important thing to obtain. Drinking water, of course, was no issue. Our land is abundant with stores stocked with jugs of water. No. It was water for everything else. The taps for filling up campers and jugs were off in this area for winter. Starting in Idaho the hunt for water was on… only my communication defiant husband hadn’t let me in on the issue until we were scraping the bottom of the tank. The towns and cities of Idaho offered dump stations, but they were closed for the season. In the meantime we passed through Idaho potato land (dump trucks full of potatoes) into the Grand Tetons of Wyoming where Moose and Elk lazed in the fields waiting for the thaw to take in the mountains.
We stopped at every rest stop. Side-eyed gas stations. Rubber necked at the sight of a campground. Nothing. After a night by a Wyoming lake we tried again at two Wyoming Campgrounds and the visitor center on the Boyson Reservoir.
Water, water everywhere….
but nothing we can attach a hose to.
Wyoming is a spectacular state. Filled with surprising landscapes. After the Reservoir we followed the highway through a river-railroad-canyon pass, going through a series of tunnels carved out of rock. Along the roadside the rock formations are are dated and labeled to to the time period they were formed. Once leaving the canyon we were treated to a land that could’ve been straight from Arizona. Earth in shades of red, green, violet, and tan.
On the side of the road in Ten Sleep, Wyoming we spotted a tidy little town park. And easily accessible from the road was a water spicket under an old cottonwood budding out for spring. And it worked▪️
Somewhere along the road in the last weeks the heaviness of depression slipped off my shoulders and I began trying to live (again)(mental health is a lifetime fight). I had tried on good days to go through the motions… but I don’t know. I guess those who do will know what I’m trying to describe. You try in starts and stops. Where did this latest latest depression come crawling out of the shadows from? I call this one the Pandemic depression. It slipped on like a comfortable shirt during a stressful time. Then my beloved cat died. Then my new kitten was murdered by my dog. Then I rescued a sick cat and stressed over if he’d live. So I wore my comfortable worn flannel of depression wrapped around my shoulders while I tried to wade through the days at a moderate level of numbness. Then I told Kurt to lie to me in Montana.
The notions crept up my subconscious and bubbled to the surface. I was tired.I was tired of being tired. I missed being strong. I was disappointed when Kurt took off, leaving me in the camper while he adventured. He said I wouldn’t of liked the last one, all snow and ice. I told Kurt to lie to me. I might hate it but I’ll be happy in the end. In the morning Kurt lied to me very well. Told me it was an “easy” trail. Only 500ft of elevation, just 1.4 miles to the end. The whole way back would be downhill. Yes.
(I’m an idiot)
At least this time I pulled out my winter boots. Donned my wonderful joyously clean socks. And was decked out in pants (see previous thigh chaffing, rock scrambling post in a skirt). We even remembered my walking stick. I felt like this was going to feel good. I was even thinking I was inspired enough to do a sun salutation at the top (I read Every Body Yoga the night before and spoiler this didn’t happen).
Fresh Montana mountain air. Buttercups on the sunny side. Birds. Deer. Chippies. Life. Breath.
Then we started hitting snowy patches on the trail. Kurt hit a patch on a slope and assumed a ski jumpers squat, only facing the wrong way, and slid slowly backwards until I gently reached out and stopped him with my hand. The snow patches switched to pure snow covered trail hell-scape. Honestly, by my eyeballs it did not look that hard! And we blazed onward. Engaging desperate thigh muscles trying to maintain balance on the slick surface. It was nearly seventy degrees, all iced surfaces now had a snot layer.
According to Kurt’s map we had a football field to go when I decided I had to take a break. I sat on an ancient downed log. Relaxed into it, then slipped off onto the trail on my bottom. I sat there for a moment, tired, long enough for science (heat and friction) to happen underneath me. I started sliding off the narrow trail and down the (now I noticed, steep) side of the mountain, Kurt catching me by the hand just as I thought THIS IS IT. With jello legs and a sense of self preservation I tried to continue on. I had to bail. I realized I was out of my depth. I needed solid ground under my feet. I didn’t feel as bad when Kurt also had to quit shortly after. We got back on the road heading south. Slipped quietly back into Idaho, barely noticing the difference. The road followed the frisky green-blue Salmon River through mountains and canyons. We stopped at a campground for one night alongside it. Waking to the sound of cows and sandhill cranes. Baby moos freshly born. We began south again, until we were distracted by the Craters of the Moon National Monument. Never heard of it before. Another landscape created by the fierce power of the earth. Flowing lava fields, spatter volcanos (you can look down inside), and tree molds.
What is a two mile hike on pre-exhausted newborn calf legs a mile above sea level? Actually it was fine. I was making it big in my mind because that’s what anxious people do and that’s why I want Kurt to lie to me. Unfortunately near the end the trail was snow covered and I was unable to see the tree molds made in the lava, but you can because Kurt took photos.
Before I end the writing on this particular entry I wanted to add a few random bits of thoughts that are incongruous with the rest of the text. On sharing my mental health status. I didn’t want to. I’ve been thinking about it back and forth. I still think it’s important to be open about these things, though, it is just sometimes scary especially when it’s happening in real time. In other news I saw some things in Montana I didn’t fit into my narrative. And they’re random. I saw a wildlife bridge. I loved it. I want to see more. I want them everywhere. Grassy knolls rolling over highway bridges. There was an area that had normal names for rivers and stuff and what I’m guessing was the Native American name from the local tribe for the same features. Was it a reservation? I don’t know? I think the duality of naming was a wonderful way to respect the First Nations. We drove through the homeland (birthplace) of Sacajawea: Salmon, Idaho. Just another random experience from being on the road▪️
Kurt and I began executing the drive home aimlessly, and that’s sometimes an interesting travel strategy, but not this time. It only led to dead-end would-be adventures. We took a northern route across the Olympic Peninsula then saddled the west side of Puget Sound heading south, never once seeing a glimpse of Seattle through the deep green hemlocks or across the open water. So much for playing grunge music to set the mood. On a whim we drove towards Mt Rainier, because it was a destination we could see. Just to watch it get eaten by storm clouds. Kurt found a spot in a National Forest to park for the night. We were now facing seven inches of snow starting late the next morning and the pass through the mountains from that road, 410, was closed. So we backtracked to take US 90 over the mountains, early, before the snow started. Silver lining here: the US 90 rest stop had a dump station and water. These things are wonderful when you carry your plumbing self contained. (Shower anyone?)
The last night we slept in Washington was between the Caraboo Trail and the Dry Falls by Blue Lake. We stopped early that night to hunker down for a wind storm and a bit of rain. The Caraboo Trail was historically a Native Trail and later used by cattlemen. The Dry Falls are the geological remnant of what was once a Niagara Falls like feature from the end of the last ice age, but is now… dry.
The next morning we started again. Taking a turn north to avoid winter weather conditions in the mountain passes through the Rockies. I’m sorry I have nothing to show for passing through Idaho. Not one photograph. We crossed the Idaho Panhandle: Coniferous trees, mountains, rivers…
Montana looked the same. Kurt pulled over at a little roadside stop. Kurt said it wasn’t a long hike. Kurt wanted to see a suspension bridge made for people that crossed the Kootenay River. Let’s go over this. I was wearing tennis shoes with no socks (for days), a skirt and not dressed for the weather because we really needed to do laundry (probably a week ago, but who’s keeping track). Sure. Let’s go hiking near dusk, under dressed in 40 degree weather. This won’t be uncomfortable at all. It was not a long hike, but it was down, down, down to the river. Scrambling over rocks. Wondering if those plants my ankles brushed were poison oak. Trying not to fall into mud (or river) in the last clean-ish clothes I had. But the river was deep blue-green. And the sunlight caught gently on the deep green mountainside as it slipped away for the day. And I got to practice my photography skills with waterfalls.▪️
We slept one night at Cape Lookout, Oregon before driving into Washington state. I was excited to explore the beach. I forgot that sand dollars existed in the world until I came across the quartered and halved pieces scattered on the beach. I had whole ones in my childhood possession. Along with the calcareous starfish bones and empty seashells. The road took us inland past estuaries and farms. Once again our resolve to “not be part of the problem” waned a little (but didn’t crumble) when we drove past the Tillamook Creamery. Kurt and I are fans of the Tillamook Dairy Farm Cooperative (their swiss cheese anyone?). Outside the creamery lines of people clustered disappointingly close together. Since we hit the road it’s been like this with the safety protocols, a smorgasbord of behaviors.
Our last destination, before trekking across the better part of North America to get home, Olympic National Park. It is not like the other National Parks we’ve been to. There are no apparent roads to the interior of the park. There are many places on the Olympic Peninsula where a road would be desired, but there are none. We explored the periphery, landing at Kalaloch Beach for the duration (there’s a nifty tree). The evening we arrived the landscape was grey scale. I was still geeked out about exploring. I wasn’t complaining. The camera loves atmosphere.
That next morning we explored north. Headed ultimately for views of the Salish Sea, but first a Big Tree then Forks. Down a short path, skirted by a small fence was the biggest cedar I’d ever seen with a tree growing off it. Massive. Imposing. Spectacular. Dripping with moisture. Tree. Saved from logging because it did not grow straight and true.
Forks. Just another small town rotting under the weight of time. A line of tires businesses fronting the main road. This downtown was built later than the typical turn-of-the-century Italianate brick fronts we usually see, this downtown build is from the form-follows-function era. There a totem pole erected at an intersection. There a shrine to logging. And then shiny edifices to Twilight in windows. I had to look that up. Yes that Forks. The things one stumbles upon while wandering.
Onward. A glacial lake drinking in every shade of blue from the sky. Tree stumps growing trees. Mountains kissing the clouds. More ocean sunsets. More forested drives. Nights falling asleep to the white roaring noise of waves. Mornings filled with the talk of crows. Crows laughing at campers leaving camp. Crows breaking into food supplies. Beaches with smooth black stones. Beaches with long stretches of gently slopes sand catching fragments of tidewater. Cold, cold, cold streams dissecting beaches. Trees tossed onto shores, old giants roots and all. Eagles soaring. Trees dripping moss. Olympic Peninsula▪️
All the greens. Every shade. The Pacific Coast smells of green and rain. It rains, even if the forecast doesn’t call for it. The weather is a wicked stubborn child doing exactly the opposite of the predictions. The desert weather could be clocked like a train. Clouds came on time, rain started punctually. Not here. Clouds and wet come meandering in and out faithlessly. We left the ocean for a minute camping in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. We followed the dirt road out the long way the next day. Wind up and down a mountain. Once on pavement we headed out towards the coast again camping in Siuslaw National Forest that night.
Things I noticed:
Gold claims along the river. Some just official signage, others clever names. At one a man was there at his claim panning in the river bank.
The gradient of the trees dissolving into the low hanging clouds before the sun burned them off.
Small waterfalls everywhere. Water dashing downhill being hugged by moss covered rocks and fallen trees.
I kept thinking there must surely be something (big and bright) flowering? The only striking wild flowers were yellow and growing on a coastal evergreen bush (as far as I’ve made out). Otherwise the flowering trees and bushes have been cultivated in yards.
Green life growing everywhere. Green things growing on top of green things on top of green things.
The old bridges. There are these amazing old Gothic/Art Deco river bridges. Some concrete, some a combination of concrete and painted moss green steel.
So far the southwest coast of Oregon is very small town. The towns all feel comfortable to visit.
The word Oregon tastes like air in the mouth. We made it to exactly the the same spot as last year before the world started shutting down, just across the California border. This feels like a milestone. We are here and the states aren’t shutting their doors and windows in our faces. So we stopped to rest. To breath. To relax.
Things about Oregon so far:
$6,250 is the fine for littering
You aren’t allowed to pump your own gas
Lincoln City, on the coast, squirrel away glass floats on the beaches for a game of finders/keepers.
When they say marijuana is legal… there are shops.
Blue skies north, south, east and west. I woke up ready to go. I was packing up the camper before coffee was started. Hours later we were still in Bishop finishing up the chores. How I despise the drudgery of the mundane. It is a good thing my husband is here to balance out my nature. It didn’t matter. We didn’t make over the Sierras. Every route across was closed, pushing us north and east. We crossed into Nevada twice. The first time skimming the desert. Watching for promised bulls, donkeys and wild horses. Only seeing donkeys. The second, giving up on the day, and setting up camp next to the burbling of Desert Creek, between snow frosted peaks and sage plains. It looks like we will be driving up to Reno then taking the big road across. I-80, the one one that sweeps right past the historic cannibal marked passage through the Sierras, Donner Pass. How exciting. There will be a window of time we can cross before the next spring snow storm dumps.
It’s one of those days that can’t be the same day from start to finish. Somehow I blinked and missed the beginning of a new day. We achieved that early start. Saw some of the Mule Deer on their spring migration on our way out (there was warning signage along the roads about this migration).
Our lucky break of the day was finding that Route 88 was open and we could cut out driving north to Reno. And a spectacular drive it was. Coniferous forests and snowy peaks. The weather held.
Kurt picked out a camping location alongside a river. And it could’ve been great. (It wasn’t great). It was the place everyone came to beat on their 4×4’s and burn couches. Kurt looked for another place, a solid 98 miles further. And…. it was closed for the season. That’s when Kurt chose to drive us into the Mendocino National Forest. I swore I said it was toast earlier in the day. I thought maybe he knew something I didn’t. It was burned out. We drove in just at dusk. It was drizzling. An atmospheric fog was rising from the ground. The air was charged with an essence of the underworld. There were guardrails tormented by the fires. Cracks in the land burned clean of vegetation where it looked ready to give. I wanted to stay even shorter here than the last place. Sleep and go. No coffee or breakfast in the morning, just go. This landscape was unsettling and I didn’t trust it. Kurt said we’ve done sketchier things. I don’t know about that.
Another long day. We got out of the burned Mendocino forest and toodled through winding roads roads around the green hills of cow county. I swear the cows here smile at you. New calf’s wagging their tails and playing along the fence lines. Half the horses were lounging on their sides in the emerald grasses. Ups and downs. All day. Up into winter snow mountains tops, down into spring valleys until we finally hit the coastal redwoods. Then back up again to camp for the night.
Stuck in a holding pattern. We could’ve gone east on US Route 6, but that road had high wind advisories for towing campers. We could’ve backtracked south, but that would’ve meant going over territory our eyes were well adjusted to and the location we would camp was also getting hit by the winter storm. North or west, I know where I wanted us to go and that required going over the Sierra Nevadas. And they were getting some winter precipitation.
We stayed where we were. Let it pass, with the early days of March.
March 8 A day of nothing. A blissful nap. Then Kurt changed the oil in the truck and fiddled with things. It’s really something how fast a day can fall away to dusk with nothing tangible to show for it.
March 9 A day to explore. Kurt and I went back up the mountain to explore more of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It was much colder. The temperature dropped to a sharp 19 degrees F from the breezy 50’s in the valley floor. I mistook the crisp air as familiar home turf and tried to walk a bit brisker than I should’ve. That peppy feeling plunged away fast as I was faced with oxygen hungry lungs for walking just a hundred feet. The only other time I felt like that was in the throes of bronchitis. Somewhere I read that the Forest was just as interesting down the road from the visitor center. So… we went. And it was fine. Until the road turned down a slope that didn’t get as much sun and then it became a tense mountain ride, downhill on icy snow ruts along a cliff edge. Me, begging Kurt to put on the tire chains while imagining us sliding right off the side, Kurt refusing. The road got better. On this side of the peak the skies, dark, were filled with snow clouds hugging the mountain valley. We arrived in time for snow, minute hard pellets made from cold skies.
Alone in the valley was a black horse gathering a saddle of snow on his back. I was hesitant to assume he was wild or feral but I can’t find evidence of anyone living up there and according to the internet there is a White Mountain Wild Horse Herd. For now he’s a mystery. And there where the horse grazed is also where we couldn’t go any farther. The road was snowed in yet with no tracks breaking the way. On our way out I marveled at how quickly the weather changed just miles down the road. The clouds completely broken up, blue sunny skies.
If the mountains looked like they were getting precipitation yesterday, they looked absolutely violent today. We were planning to leave tomorrow, but have decided in our best interests to stay another day. Give the Sierras one more to rage it out. In the afternoon we took another drive to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It was even colder with a sharp, biting wind. This time there were no rude photographers to shoot around at the old snag on Discovery Trail. Just my husband and I huffing and puffing our way up the trail in thin, cold air.
This snag is often mislabeled on Instagram as the Methuselah Tree, counted once oldest known living tree, but that’s wrong. I can’t find a proper name for it. I’ve found where many say it died about 300 years ago and was about 3500 years old. What is it about this snag? It is photogenic. It’s fairly easy to find, hanging over the trail. The snag can be isolated in the frame. It’s a primordial memento mori. The opposite of the tree of life in its way. It’s also an exploration of wabi sabi philosophy. The communal celebration of the slow undoing of an ancient the life force. Beauty in it’s decline.
Cold. Snow. It appears we are adding yet another day to sitting here waiting out the Sierra storms. They. Were. Supposed. To. Be. Done. Yesterday. Couldn’t see either mountain range this morning and this evening the cloud cover over the valley is low, dark and oppressive.
Reader, that weather yesterday sent me scampering for the cozy happiness of the bed. It felt like Christmas morning in the north. A warm nest to crawl into with a book and nowhere else to go while the earth gets her blanket of snow. Never mind that it’s spring and missing was the smell of a fresh pine, covered in dancing lights, hovering over sparkling presents with tender bows. The skies were heavy with clouds. We best be leaving tomorrow.
For today though, we checked out some petroglyph sites in the Volcanic Tablelands believed to be created by the Paiute people. Some of them were incredibly visible, others faded, one location dense with symbolic markings. Some locations were visibly marred by modern hands. A name here. A date there. I wanted to find out more about the symbols and read the area was raided a few years ago. People cut some of the petroglyphs out of the rocks and damaged others in the process. This is always and everywhere. Friends of the Death Valley have put on a social media campaign to raise funds to help them fix the scars left on the playas by people driving on them. We see rocks defaced. Trees and saguaros carved. Fallen sequoias in Sequoias National Park covered in names. The oldest Bristlecone Pines are kept secret because people cannot be trusted.
People are people no matter where you go. The good, the bad, the entitled, the desperate. Kurt and I were just talking about people. Last year we went to Sequoia National Park to stand among the giants. The thing that stood out immediately for me was the fencing around each of the old towers. I imagined hugging, touching, smelling, communing with one of the old giants. That’s exactly what I shouldn’t do. They have hardly any root structure for their size and no taproot. In an attempt to preserve the trees from the trampling feet of millions of visitors they erected low fences and dismissible signage. Kurt and I sat there on a bench marveling at the impossibility of such life, when the French kids showed up. I always thought it was Americans who behaved entitled everywhere they went. That’s the trope at least. I was pained watching them clamber around the base of the tree for inane selfies. Heartbreaking for the tree, how many years of this stress could it ultimately take before going down? That’s when another (I’m assuming middle-eastern by accent) gentleman chastised the French kids. Tonight we were visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. At between 9,500 – 10,500 ft in elevation I really took it easy on the trail. I’m neither fit or at all used to high altitudes. It went ok. I had a brief, mild headache and started feeling dizzy for a little while. I took a lot of breaks and happy dance I didn’t die. Bonus I walked among trees that could pre-date Caesar. Older than the fall of Rome. Older than Shakespeare. Some of the dead ones (they don’t rot very well) could go as far back as 10,000 years. Before pyramids. Before the rise and fall of the Greek City States. Some of the trees seen today could outlive us by hundreds of years, thousands.
They varied from twisted gnarled forms to shooting straight for the sky. Many of the Pines were missing all or part of their bark, yet remained alive. Their needles surprisingly soft. The bark-less wood solid and ungiving. It seemed we had the place to ourselves, then stumbled upon a couple men set up off trail to photograph one of the more famous trees. There was signage all around asking people to stay on trail. Protect the trees that are thousands of years old, from us. The men, middle-aged, dark in complexion and speaking another language than English, were unfazed by my husband’s emotional outburst while pointing to the signage. They continued to speak to each other in their language. Kurt walked off, while I stayed to try to get some photos. It slowly dawned on me these men were as awful as my husband believed. I wanted to say they were trying for the best angle, but afterwards I realized it wasn’t. There were many, many amazing angles to explore with the camera without going off trail.
Then no matter what I was trying they made no effort to move out of the frame. No offer to move unused gear. They continued to chat. Then one sentence of English looking at the sky “it’s too dark.” That was for my benefit out there photographing without a tripod (I find them stifling and unnecessary). Usually the people we meet are interesting. Nice. In this case not so much. Often it’s at more popular locations with Instagrammers we’ve seen the worst behavior from people. Garbage strewn sites like Cadillac Ranch. People wrecking delicate ecology in the deserts. Carving their names into saguaros and sequoias. Me? I went up there to taste a piece of time for myself. Worship at a cathedral of ancients. Possess the essence of the forest through its textures and details, not just capture the most photographed tree. That was icing.