Thursday, August 13, 2009

How to eat the same turkey sandwich for 88 days - Road Trip Recap

It is rather trite to start off my recap of the past three amazing months on the road by talking about what I ate for lunch every day. Food however is one detail I have managed to leave out of almost every previous blog; one detail I spent little time even thinking about. That brings me to my first point on how to eat the same turkey sandwich for 88 days.

1. Don’t think about it.

Never think too much about the turkey sandwich, especially when consuming it. Above all never think about how many previous turkey sandwiches you’ve consumed when trying to swallow that last bite. I don’t think I need to go into further detail here, but let me just say that those last bites are crucial to the hope of any future turkey sandwich consumption.

2. Check for freshness.

If you’ve eaten slimy turkey or moldy bread then you’ve just eaten your last turkey sandwich. If ever in doubt of the freshness inspect the bread for green spots and give the turkey a quick sniff before piling it on. In the case of moldy spots determine if the bread can be salvaged; often times it can – just be extra careful not to focus on this cost-saving move when eating the sandwich (refer to #1.)

I kept a cooler in the front passenger seat of my car and never went more than three days without replenishing the ice. I also kept two reusable grocery bags full of non-perishables, minus the bread and fruit. Surprisingly the bread lasted for weeks, even in the hot desert sun. As I observed this I thought back to all those one-hour long bread interviews I conducted with consumers and I cringed a little (if you didn’t know me during the course of conducting those interviews just know that I developed a strong and life-long aversion to talking about bread.)

3. Make it gourmet.

One way to disguise the fact that you are eating yet another turkey sandwich is to masque it with toppings. Remember that you may need a knife, a cutting surface and extra cooler space for fruit and vegetable toppings.

My default toppings were spinach, avocado, tomato, mayo and of course, cheese. Whether I used all or some of these ingredients depended on what I had on hand and what space I had for making the sandwich. One time I made the sandwich while still in the driver’s seat (parked) and was covered in tomato guts and globs of avocado. After that I made it a point to be standing up and cutting on a flat surface which was usually a picnic table or my cooler. I used a plastic cutting board that came with my mess kit and my pocket knife that I believe still has the hint of avocado lodged in its hinges.

4. Set the mood.

When eating your sandwich be sure to position yourself among pleasing scenery, away from adverse smells, loud noises, animals and unattractive people. If you satisfy your other senses while consuming the turkey sandwich, than your sense of taste isn’t the only one working and is less likely to reject the repetitious flavors.

I may be alone on this one, but setting is very important to me. For example I was walking around a street fair in Portland, OR with my friend Zack while eating a mediocre burrito. We stopped to look at hanging mobiles that dangled animal skulls and strips of animal skins. I quickly moved on past this booth and past a live llama until I was among relatively normal homemade crafts; only then could I enjoy my burrito again. My turkey sandwich was best enjoyed in nature, in solitude away from pit toilets, screaming children, highways and slobs.

5. Avoid windy beaches.

Although the beach setting may be a desirable place to consume a turkey sandwich, beware of wind and sand. A little sand in your mouth quickly kills the sandwich.

I made this mistake once while catching lunch on a beach just off of the coastal highway in California. The wind moved sheets of sand into my face and onto my sandwich. That was the one and only time I could not finish the whole thing.

6. Remember that you’re saving money.

As unappealing as it is, eating the same sandwich day-in and day-out saves money. A weekly grocery bill for the aforementioned ingredients (see #3) roughly amounts to $18, which is approximately $3 per day. This sure beats a $5 sandwich from a deli or a $10 meal from a restaurant; a cumulative savings of $176 or $616, respectively.

7. Be realistic.

Go out to lunch with others when you get an opportunity and be sure to sample the local flavor; taking a break from the turkey sandwich will help in the long run.

Truth be told I didn’t actually eat a turkey sandwich on all 88 days of my road trip, but I’m willing to bet I ate at least 60. It would have been rather awkward to whip out my own a sandwich while out at lunch with someone (okay, so I did this once at a café at Mt Rushmore, but it was cafeteria-style seating, so somehow it felt less awkward.)

Some of my favorite lunches were in Austin when I had a big traditional Texan BBQ with a fellow couchsurfer, in San Francisco when I had my first tamale with Jamie, in San Diego when I had sushi with Elaina, in Virginia when Katy, Ryan and I had a block of smoked gouda to enjoy with our red wine on the back porch of a winery (I think that was lunch) and in North Carolina when Katy and I drove two hours out of our way to have lunch with my mom.

I had some other memorable meals too: The breakfast in Big Bend NP with the “road warriors” who taught me all about MREs and propane stoves; the brunch in Gretel's backyard Brooklyn cafe where we enjoyed tasty baked goods and played scrabble for 4 hours; the BBQ lunch in the zombie compound in Tacoma when the company I was with talked for nearly a half-an-hour about how to defend against a zombie attack; the dinner in Albuquerque with the couchsurfer who poured honey in the salsa; the dinner in Medicine Bow NF with Mike when I pieced together a tasty meal of rice, balsamic dressing, a poly-o mozzarella cheese stick and spinach; the dinner at Mesa Grill in Las Vegas before the Aerosmith concert when I ordered the most delicious and most expensive tuna steak; the desert of homemade blueberry pie and whiskey in Mt Rainier NP with bubbly campground neighbors and their park ranger friends; and the dinner in San Diego with Elaina and her friend and friend’s boyfriend when Elaina questioned the boyfriend’s painstakingly obvious big finger. In some cases the food was memorable but in most cases the company and conversation was unforgettable.

The people I crossed paths with are responsible for so much of the joy I experienced during my three months on the road. Over the course of the road trip I visited 15 friends, traveled with 3 friends, randomly ran into 4 acquaintances, met approximately 30 new (facebook) friends and chatted with a countless number of other travelers and locals. Whether it was catching up with an old friend or instantly bonding with a total stranger, my time spent with others was enormously satisfying. That’s not to say that I did not enjoy alone time or that everyone I met added to my joy. Some people I ran into could not be trusted. Instinctually I spent a great deal of time reading people and making cursory judgments about them. I aired on the side of caution in all my judgments and as a result ran into the woods to escape a pack of thugs in Kings Canyon NP and slept in my car to avoid being kidnapped by a couple of hicks outside of Canyonlands NP. I am surprised, relieved and delighted that these were my only real scares with people. The scare of Mother Nature is a whole different story.

I’ve never had a tolerance for bugs, a keen sense of direction or any common sense when it comes to outdoor survival skills, so when this road trip began I seriously doubted my ability to actually hike or camp alone. Katy brought me on my first camping adventure in the backwoods of Shenandoah NP during the middle of a severe thunderstorm. I was convinced that would be my first and last camping experience. We went camping again at a state park in South Carolina, which slightly redeemed the prior experience except for the raccoons that ate our food. About a week-and-a-half later I camped and hiked alone for the first time in Big Bend NP, which home to a healthy population of black bears. Luckily I didn’t see any bears, a scar that surely would have limited my future adventures. I am fortunate to not have encountered any bears on any of my hikes or at any campgrounds. My only bear citings were of black bear cubs sitting by the side of the road while I was sitting safely in my car. I also did not encounter any mountain lions, and the only wolf I saw was from my car, as it scurried across the road in Yellowstone NP. I was always cautious of these animals and analyzed every sound and slight movement in the distance to determine if I was in danger. Most often I discovered birds, deer and marmots to be the cause of such distractions. The other animals I had the pleasure of seeing in the wild include mountain goats, big-horn sheep, javelinas, a king snake, a rattle snake, elk, bison and mutated monster crickets. The crickets were the worst. I still have no tolerance for bugs.

Over time I developed better survival skills. On hikes I became keenly aware of the direction I came from and the direction I was going. I got in the habit of looking up to the sun to determine my direction and the time of day. At the start of a long hike or when debating whether to put on my rainfly I looked up to make sure there weren't any storms clouds moving in. Towards the end of my road trip when I developed a comfort of being outside at night I spent a great deal of time staring up into the black sky trying to make out constellations and catching my first ever “shooting stars.” As it turns out looking up at the sky is something I haven’t done very much of since I was a child and discovering it all over again brought with it a new sense of innocence. The sky bestowed upon me the most amazing weather throughout the course of the road trip. While everyone in the northeast suffered through dreary summer days I soaked up sunshine all across the rest of the country. The only adverse weather I encountered was a severe thunderstorm in Shenandoah NP, flooding in North Cascades NP, tornados in Devils Tower NM and extreme heat in Arches NP. Oh, and did I forget to mention that it was 115 degrees in Phoenix when I left to fly back to Boston?

That brings me to my next topic: a ranking of the best and the worst. I will start with the worst (I should note here that these picks do not necessarily align with the people I visited and/or met.)

Top three worst road trip stops:
1. Albuquerque, NM
2. North Carolina
3. Phoenix, AZ

Top 3 best road trip stops (cities):
1. Portland, OR
2. Austin, TX
3. San Francisco, CA

Top 3 best road trip stops (parks):
1. Zion NP (UT)
2. Mt Rainier NP (WA)
3. Bryce NP (UT)

Here's a detailed map of all 41 stops I made:

In three months I traveled down the eastern seaboard, skirted across the southern border, zigzagged my way up the west coast, hopped on over to Montana and meandered south through the mountains and deserts in Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, Utah and Nevada until I concluded my road trip in Phoenix. At some point during my travels out west I stumbled upon a brand new feeling: patriotism. To continue this thought I must breach my usual stance to not involve politics in my blogs. I believe that it was with incredible foresight that the National Park Service was created and that so many fragile and beautiful lands were preserved in this process. With that said I do believe that a more peaceful agreement could have been made with the American Indians who previously occupied such lands. In any case, there is so much beauty in this country; beauty beyond the lands of the NPS and beyond the soil of this country. I am thankful for my freedom; thankful that I have the ability as a single white female to travel alone across state borders. I infrequently worried about dangers posed by others and was instead greeted with jovial conversation. Although I am acutely aware of the dangers that lurk behind endless corners and the systemic flaws of this society I am at a new found peace with my fellow Americans.

This is perhaps the best attitude to bring with me to my studies in global business. My MBA program at Thunderbird begins in less than two weeks and I can barely believe it is here already. I can barely believe the road trip has come to an end. When I flew back to Boston I found myself at Sarah’s apartment, where I began the road trip. I laid down to rest on her couch and when I lifted my head I had, for the briefest moment, a fear that my road trip was just a dream. But it actually happened and the whole experience was way more amazing than I could ever have anticipated. I could not have been at such peace and with such a sense of adventure if I did not have set plans at the conclusion of the trip. So, in less than a week I fly back to Phoenix, move into my apartment and begin orientation on the 23rd. Although Phoenix appears in my top 3 worst road trip stops I have hope for the next 15 months. Who knows I may actually enjoy living in the desert after all. And after 15 months, when the program is over with I will have my choice of where to move next. Although I did not have the chance to visit Denver, CO that is my #1 pick preceeding my top 3 favorite cities in the ranking above. That brings me to my next rank:

The next North American travel destinations (cities):
1. Denver, CO/Boulder, CO
2. Victoria, BC
3. Milwaukee, WI

The next North American travel destinations (parks):
1. Grand Canyon NP (AZ)
2. Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP (CO)
3. Jasper NP (AB)

The analyst in me would love to continue to rank things, but I will stop after just one more, unless there is a request from one of my readers :)

Favorite Road Trip Albums
1. Paul Simon “Rhythm of the Saints”
2. Gorillaz “D-Sides”
3. Easy Star “Lonely Hearts Dub Band”

Okay, now is the exciting part of the blog. Here is a list of road trip facts. I even included a few charts for all my visually inclined stats lovin' friends. Enjoy!

13,715 ……………. Miles driven

1,317 ……………… Money spent on gas*

1,257 ……………… Pictures posted to FB (54% of total pictures taken)

740 ……………….. Mileage of longest drive (#8 to #9)

305 ……………….. Hours of driving*

88 …………………. Days on the road

60 …………………. Turkey sandwiches consumed*

41 ………………..... Different overnight stops made

41 ………………..... Mileage of shortest drive (#15 to #16)

34 ……………….... Hikes >1 mile*

27 ……………….... Average fuel economy (MPG)

26 ……………….... States visited

25 …………………. Nights camping (see chart below)

22 …………………. Longest time spent in one state (see chart below)

21 ………………….. National Parks visited

19 ………………….. Blogs, including this one

18 ………………….. New FB albums

17 ………………….. Mileage of longest hike

12 ………………….. Other significant stops not included in the tally of 41 stops

7 …………………... Times I paid for internet at Starbucks

6 …………………… People I got to play hookey

6 …………………… Different venues I sang karaoke at

5 …………………... Longest number of days without a shower

3 …………………… National Monuments visited

3 …………………… Paul Simon albums accumulated

2 …………………... Fellow road trippers I met who were also unemployed

2 …………………... Strip club visited

2 …………………… State Parks visited

2 …………………… Calls of mother nature answered in mother nature

2 …………………… Couchsurfers I stayed with

1 …………………… Music videos I starred in

1 …………………… National Forest visited

1 …………………… Times pulled over by a cop (I was not driving)

1 …………………… Times stayed with a cop

1 …………………… Times I flipped off an RV while passing on a dangerous curve

1 …………………… Times I got yelled at for driving like a Masshole

1 …………………… Times I got offered marijuana in a Gondola

1 …………………… Number of fast food stops when I actually bought something

0 …………………… Massachusetts license plates seen outside of New England

0 …………………… Speeding Tickets

0 …………………… Car Accidents

0 …………………… Animals injured

0 …………………… Injuries to self

0 …………………... Regrets

I will end on this note. I have absolutely no regrets about this road trip and if I had the chance to do it again I would, but I would do many things differently like perhaps try a ham or roast beef sandwich instead of turkey.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From Angel's Landing to Sin City

With the exception of the peculiarities of Yellowstone the parks in Utah were by far the most awe inspiring and exquisite. I didn’t get much sleep during my week in Utah. I chased the sun from its disappearance to its reappearance on the horizon, standing in amphitheatres and on canyon rims to watch shadows fall from the earth’s awkward protrusions. I hiked early in the morning and late at night, saving the hot desert afternoons for café stops and commutes in between the parks. At cafés I fueled up on espresso and chatted up the locals for info on the area. I ditched my GPS and drove in complete serenity through Utah (well except for all those RV’s I had to slow down for.) This last week in southern Utah was the best week of my road trip.

Many people I met throughout my travels said that the parks in Utah were their favorite. By the time I reached my first Utah park I had already visited 16 National Parks (mostly in the West) and consequently had already seen some of the most beautiful parts of this country. My expectations were high yet I was still blown away by the sheer beauty of it all. Even the drives in between parks, through National Monuments, National Recreation Areas and even through tiny mining cities were enough to make me pull off the road, get out of the car and stare jaw-dropped at the land. In a marathon last week I spent each new day in a new Utah park, starting with Arches on the Southeast side of Utah and ending with Zion on the Southwest side.

It was sad to leave Colorado without seeing more of its beauty. Namely I really wanted to get a sense of the Front Range area (metro Denver), yet I had to catalog my craving for another day or weekend perhaps. I took the highway down from Vail and west into Utah. Anja, the friend I had stayed with in Vail suggested that I duck down off the highway early and enter Arches National Park through the back. This back road barely had a painted line down the middle and there were few cars traveling on it. Within an hour of the park the landscape started to turn into deep shades of red and from a distance I could see rigid tower-like shapes sticking out of the side of mountains. The nearer I drove the more towers I could see and soon I was driving right alongside these giant walls of red.

(along Route 191)

The park’s two campgrounds were full when I arrived, so I turned back around and grabbed a campsite on the Colorado River just a few miles from the park’s entrance. I bummed around for the evening, driving through the local city strip in Moab and hanging out back at my campsite starting dinner and planning a hike for the following morning. I came across “Delicate Arch” in my Fodor’s book and read that it was a must-see sunset hike. I checked my watch, 7:00pm. As soon as my water boiled, I dumped it into an MRE, threw it in my car and drove back to the park. I spooned out freeze-dried chunks of lasagna as I maneuvered through the windy roads of Arches, almost hitting a frightened big-horn sheep that ran out in front of me. I made it to the trailhead at 8:00pm just in time to start the hike and just in time to meet Evan and Will. Will had been on a shorter, yet fun-packed road trip that started in Connecticut and would end shortly in San Jose, CA. Evan was along for the ride, taking advantage of the spectacular photo opportunities. We all hiked in together to catch the sunset.

The “must-see” park knowledge was widespread and there were dozens of people already in place to watch the sunset when we arrived. The arch began a golden hue and then, as the sun mixed with clouds and dropped over the horizon the arch turned darker shades of red until just the silhouette of the arch stood out in the darkness. It was past 9:00pm and the three of us were the last people at the arch. Evan took a few silhouette photographs of Will and I and then we strapped our lit headlamps to our heads and started the hike back to the parking lot. Before we parted ways we set tentative plans to catch sunrise in the morning; tentative based on the weather and our ability to wake up early.

(Will and I strike a pose)

Back at my campsite I tossed and turned in the heat, hoping a cool breeze would circulate through my tent and allow me some sleep. I may have gotten a few hours of sleep that night between the stagnant heat, my noisy neighbors and the anticipation of the catching sunrise. I packed up and left my campsite at 4:00am, arriving at the Landscape Arch trailhead at 5:00am. The sky was cloudy and I half-expected the guys not to show up. During my wait I boiled some hot water for an MRE breakfast and tea. I started to snooze in my car when a van pulled up. It was barely light outside, but I could count seven people pile out of the van and make their way over to the trailhead. Forty-five minutes had passed and I was pretty sure the guys had slept in, so I got out of the car and asked the group if I could hike with them. Soon I discovered that they were a family from Iowa. The mom and dad, in their fifties were celebrating a big anniversary (30 years I think) and with them were their three sons, one with a wife and one of the parent’s fathers. They were simply a delight to hike with. We made it all the way out to a blackened statue in the desert called “Dark Angel” and back, covering almost eight miles. I left them at the parking lot and moved on to quickly take in the rest of the park before it got too hot.

(the family I hiked with)

When I left Arches and I stationed myself at a café in downtown Moab for the afternoon, avoiding the 100+ temperature. Here I met a nice gentleman who sat down next to me with a map and showed me some fantastic driving routes through Southern Utah. I scribbled down route numbers on a torn piece of paper and put it in my pocket. Not before long I was back on the road headed towards the northern section of Canyonlands called Island in the Sky. It was still rather hot and so I kept my hikes to a minimum. I drove around all the paved sections of the park and took a peek at the landscape every chance I could get. My walk along the canyon rim was lovely and I started to anticipate how grand the Grand Canyon might be in comparison. Before I left I couldn’t resist hiking to Upheaval Dome, which was a spot in the earth where a meteor was rumored to have hit. The meteor left a large hole in the mountain with rock shaved away to reveal a sea foam green color. I was very amused by the color. After spending some time staring at the rock I got back in my car and drove to the south section of the park, called Needles.

(me at upheaval dome)

It was getting dark by the time I neared Needles and I thought it best to get a campsite anywhere along my drive. I pulled into a tiny campground on a narrow road that led to a lookout of Needles, a lookout which the café owner had highly recommended. There was one other couple here and they had just arrived themselves. I chatted with them about the weather, noticing that the sky was filling with dark clouds. I continued my drive around the campground loop and noticed two other guys sitting in their car at one of the campsites. They looked sketchy and I kept a watchful eye on them. Moments later the two men drove away slowly, idling for too long near where I was setting up my tent. I didn’t think much of this at the time as I was in hot pursuit of another sunset. I took off as soon as I staked my tent and drove the eighteen miles to the end of the narrow road to reach the lookout. The dark storm clouds were dramatic and overpowered the setting sun. The lookout was amazing though; from the canyon rim where I stood the bumpy canyon floor continued on as far as the eye could see, which with the setting sun was less and less distance by the second. I ran around the fenced off perimeter of the canyon rim, catching as many angles as possible and then ran back into my car before the sky turned completely black. Back at my campsite while I was preparing dinner a car slowly entered and took a drive around the loop. I hid from the car, my immediate thought was that the two guys had come back to kidnap me. I’ll admit I was slightly delirious from lack of sleep. Leery of being kidnapped and getting struck by lightning I decided to sleep in the passenger seat of my car.

(sunset at Needles)

I woke up refreshed and with renewed sanity. I went to disassemble my tent I noticed that one of the rain fly zippers was undone. I could have easily forgotten to zip it the night before, but nonetheless I was reassured that sleeping in the car was in fact a good idea, and a comfortable one at that. The couple a few campsites over invited me to breakfast that morning and obliged, I joined them. I left before the day got too hot and checked out Needles. I did a few short hikes here, noting that a multiple-day backpack journey into the merging of the Colorado and the Green River would have been more exciting than the measly one-mile hikes I was catching off the side of the road. On my drive out to Capitol Reef I stopped at Natural Bridges National Monument and got in a beautiful hike in between the Sipapu and Kachina Bridges. I met up with a family from Madagascar upon reaching the second bridge and shared in a good conversation with them as we hiked our way up and out of the valley. I drove quickly that evening to reach Capitol Reef before sunset.

Same as the evening before it got dark before I reached the park. Not chancing the lack of campsites I decided to spend the night at a motel in Hanksville, UT. Plus I was really in need of charging my camera battery, so my decision seemed further justified. The run-down motel was your typical setting for a horror movie. The “lobby” was smoky and small and the table to the right offered free hot water and instant coffee or tea. The wall to the right featured several framed photos of people, a handful of whom were extraordinarily bloody. When the owner came back into the lobby after escorting some folks to their room I asked him first if there was vacancy and second what the deal was with the bloody pictures. He pointed to a bloody woman said that was his ex-wife. He immediately laughed when he saw my terrified reaction and told me there had been a horror movie filmed there a few years back; figures. I was happy to have electricity and internet for the night, even if there may have been “fake” blood stains all over the place (which, for the record I couldn’t detect.)

The following day I took off to Capitol Reef and got in an early morning hike out to the Canyon Rim. In line with my experience in Canyonlands I felt I could have gotten a much better experience of the park if I had the time to do a multiple-day hike getting further away from the road. I jokingly titled my photo album from Canyonlands and Capitol Reef “The Worst of Utah” because many people skip over these two parks. They are farther away from the highway and sandwiched between the more popular parks and that is perhaps why the reason why more people don’t make it a point to stop. These parks have a more subtle beauty that I hope to experience more intimately someday.

(along Route 12)

Leaving Capitol Reef I picked up Route 12 which is said to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Based on what I had seen so far of the world I have to agree. It was quite difficult to keep my eyes on the road and I often had to pull over. I got to Bryce Canyon National Park well before sunset and after I secured a camping spot I drove around the park. The first time I got a glimpse into the Bryce amphitheater I got a craving for creamsicle ice cream. The “hoodoos” in the amphitheater were all shades of cream and orange. As I think of it now I’m still craving creamsicle! I drove up and down the canyon taking in the views and made my way to a lookout at Inspiration Point to catch sunset. The park was just so darn pretty and I was anxious to hike into the amphitheater the following morning.

(sunset in the amphitheater)

I got a great night of sleep and awoke at 5:30am to start my hike into the amphitheater. Not only did I get to experience a tremendous sunrise but I got the whole amphitheater all to myself for nearly three hours. I walked the “Fairyland” eight-mile loop and didn’t run into people until my sixth mile. I was giddy the entire hike; I felt like an ant surrounded by creamsicle pops. I have no more words to describe it – it’s definitely something you need to experience firsthand to really understand.

I was certain Zion National Park couldn’t be any more beautiful. I got to the park later that afternoon in the hottest part of the day. I tied up my hammock at my campsite and took a sweaty nap before I decided I needed some AC. I drove out of the park to the west, with intentions of seeing the northwest side of the park before I headed back to my campsite for the night. I stumbled upon a cute little café in Virgin, UT and stopped in for an espresso and some internet. I had a lovely chat with the owner who recommended I go up through the middle of the park instead of the northwest side. The temperature dropped over twenty degrees as my car climbed up through the mountains. I enjoyed the cool, smoky overlook into the park and relished in what I knew to be one of my last moments of solitude.

Back at the campsite I touched based with my friend Scott who would be my next and final stop on the road trip. I suggested he drive up from Las Vegas that night and hike with me in the morning. I went to bed with no hopes of having a hiking partner in the morning, but much to my surprise when my phone turned on at 5:00am I received a message from Scott saying he had driven overnight and was sleeping in his car in the parking lot of a motel just outside the park. I had him drive in to meet me at my campsite and we walked through the dark to the visitor center to catch the shuttle to the Grotto. Other than us there were a handful of early morning hikers hitting the same Angel’s Landing trail. We booked it up the mountain gaining distance on everyone else and gained even more distance after blowing through the 21 compact switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles with no problem. In just less than an hour we were 80% to summit and stood before our first set up chains. I had an idea of what to expect for this last half mile. Everyone I had spoken to about the trail, including park rangers and the owner of the café I visited yesterday asked if I was afraid of heights. For the last half mile the trail gets as narrow as three feet with a drop-off of over 800 feet on one side and nearly 1,200 feet on the other side. A chain is mostly present for this last stretch, which not only helps to keep you from falling off the cliff but also helps you pull yourself up the steep bits. It is highly recommended that people with a fear of heights avoid this last section. After hanging off the ledge of Half Dome in Yosemite staring nearly 5,000 feet into the valley floor I figured that heights wasn’t a real concern of mine.

(going up the last half mile of Angel's Landing)

Scott and I were first to reach summit of Angel’s Landing that day, well except for the park cafeteria worker who started his hike at 4:00am. I was blown away with Zion’s beauty, which immediately trumped that of Bryce. We sat on top of the exposed rock taking in the never-ending canyon vistas all around us. From this mountain peak we could see down into the many crevasses of the canyon and into the start of the Narrows to the north end of the park. I closed my eyes for a while and listened to the silent cries of the early morning sky. The experience was incredibly serene. We left our peaceful perch after about an hour, leaving just before a bus full of sullen teenagers reached summit. Our next hike was through the Narrows which follows the Virgin River between two giant canyon walls. Our trusty Choco sandals led us through uncertain river terrain with the water levels reaching up to four feet in some spots. Scott identified a deeper patch of water about two miles in. We spent some time there jumping off of rocks and into the water. It was the perfect way to stay cool on this really hot desert day.

(Scott climbing up on the rock)

From there we drove to Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but I will say this… The first evening in Vegas, following the serene summit to Angel’s Landing couldn’t have been more of a stark contrast. On the subsequent night I went to an Aerosmith concert with some friends I made in Vail, CO. I was happy to meet up with familiar faces in the endless sea of greedy, disgusting and uninhibited bachelors and bachelorettes of Sin City. I will also say that beyond the cheese and fantasy that makes that city tick are the mountains, a perfect escape; now that’s a part of Vegas I could get used to.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Passing the torch

Yellowstone was gorgeous yet was a real test of my patience. Pictures tell the best story of the park, of how diverse and strangely beautiful the earth can be. I wasn’t the only person who sought out such dynamic beauty, nor did I expect to be. The thousands of people exploring the park were among the most inconsiderate people I’ve encountered on my trip. A woman yelled at me for inching my car through an endless stream of people coming back from the timed geyser spurts of Old Faithful and said “Pedestrians have the right away – we’re not in Massachusetts you know!” My time until the end is short and my ambition for exploring is immeasurable and my delay caused by inconsiderate tourists made me irritated for the first time since my epic adventure started.

(mammoth springs at yellowstone)
I blew through Yellowstone in a day and moved onto Grand Teton the following day, a Saturday. My intentions were to explore the park and camp there in the evening. How quickly my plans were diverted however. My first stop was a drive up to Signal Mountain to take in the high-altitude views. I parked my car, walked to the edge to experience the prime view and waited to take a picture. I waited and waited and waited. I generally don’t enjoy other people in my photos and so I waited for a family of fifteen or so to conclude their photo shoot. Beyond the standard group photo they insisted on getting an individual photo of every family member with the same backdrop. I just about lost it. For those of you who know my freak-out moments, well this was one such moment I tried so desperately to control. I got back in my car and off the mountain quickly, swerving to avoid the oncoming traffic as I barreled down the mountain. New plan: a stopover in Buffalo, WY.

Getting out of the woods was exactly what I needed. I had been alone in the woods for five straight days. I was by myself, yet could not experience true solitude and introspection as my caution for grizzlies made me fully reliant upon following other people on hikes, going at their pace. Not to mention I managed to find a shower only once in that entire five-day stretch. The thought of getting a hotel room with all its privacy and amenities made me salivate a little. Buffalo was halfway between the Grand Tetons and Badlands and had too cool of a name to pass up, so when I found enough cell reception on the side of the road I booked a hotel room and started driving towards the middle of Wyoming. I don’t exaggerate when I say I cried the moment I laid down on that plush hotel room bed. After a really long hot shower I spent the evening half-watching cheesy romantic comedies on TBS, playing on my computer, eating Pizza Hut take-out and gabbing to my girlfriends on the phone. The night reminded me of a life I once had before this epic road trip began.

For the first time in a while I woke up on my own accord. The heavy and dark curtains shielded every ray of sunlight from disturbing me in my slumber. I awoke with a smile and stretched my limbs to the farthest reaches of my bed. Ah, comfort. After enjoying the hotel’s continental breakfast I packed up the few belongings I had brought inside and continued on my road trip. Driving to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota elicited a sense of renewal and a strange feeling of magnitude. I had heard many personal descriptions of the Badlands and was eager to see it myself. Some people described it as disorienting because it was so flat, some said it felt like you were on another planet and others said it was disturbing to drive through. My Fodor’s guide book quoted Custer who once described the park as “hell with the fires burned out.” I had high expectations for this park.
(view at Pinnacles)
I was surprised to land in the national park so soon after passing through the nearest town. For some reason I thought the desolate park might have been further from any form of civilization. I immediately drove to a lookout at the Pinnacles. The peaked mounds of colorful rock spread across the landscape and appeared never-ending. In the valleys between were lush grass and the occasional clump of ordinary wildflowers. It was much prettier than I thought it would be – the alternate planet visual just wasn’t ringing true for me. I got back in my car confused by how anticlimactic the park was already and began to drive towards one of the park’s few primitive campgrounds. I hit the gravel road heading southwest in the park and immediately started kicking up large pieces of debris in the road. I rolled up my windows quickly, unable to distinguish what exactly was bouncing off my windshield and flying off the side of my bumper. Then one of the pieces of debris landed on my windshield and stuck – a cricket. Not just an ordinary cricket though, this guy was the size of a bite-sized candy bar and there weren’t just a few of them, there were thousands. At one point I had five crickets sitting comfortably on my front windshield and one guy hanging out on the back windshield. I know they couldn’t get into the car, but because I am extraordinarily bug-phobic I had to keep reminding myself of that. My faith in this “primitive” campsite had faded and after about ten miles of crickets flying in my face I turned around and headed to the east end of the park where the only non-primitive campground was.
On this drive through the park I made all the customary stop-offs to take in the scenery and by the time I reached the campgrounds I had seen the entire park. I immediately began to rethink my plans for staying in the park two nights, questioning what I could do for a whole other day in the Badlands. I rolled into campgrounds and started to circle one of the loops. I came to a stop when I reached the first desirable looking campsite on my right. The land was flat and I could see vacancies in the distance so I idled, scanning the grounds for a better looking site. Just as I was contemplating driving off the guy occupying the campsite to my right said “hello.” That seemed like a good enough sign for me, so I put my car in reverse, parked and walked around the site doing my usual scouting for a nice piece of flat land to lay my tent on. I paid the campsite fee, pitched my tent sans rain fly, set up my hammock and cooked dinner on my propane stove. After dinner and a quick read I took off in search the sunset, which had been turning the sky bright shades of pink and purple. I climbed up a crumbly mountain in hopes of getting a view of the colorful sun, but had just missed it. I made it back to my campsite in time for the ranger talk at the amphitheatre; I figured that was a pleasant way to spend my evening.

In front of me on my walk to the amphitheater were four people who looked to be about my age, including the guy who said hello earlier. Over the course of the evening and the following morning I discovered that all four of these people were also road tripping. Klaus, a guy from Denmark was on a cross-country bike trip that started in New York City. Amy and Stacey were travelling from Gloucester, Massachusetts, on their way to Santa Barbara, California. Mike, a guy from Jersey was just a week into his own epic summer-long road trip around the US. Here in the Badlands all of our paths crossed. I was so happy to meet everyone! All along I wanted to meet people doing the same thing as me, but up until the Badlands had only met people stationary in their own lives. I chatted with the girls for a while about the continuation of their travels and recommended national parks and cities to visit in the west. Mike and I got to chatting and we realized we both were on a quite similar government-funded road trip. I shared with him my acquired knowledge of travelling alone and suggested a few great hikes I had done over the course of my trip. It felt as though I was passing the torch. The predictive sense of magnitude I had felt on my drive into the Badlands all at once made perfect sense.
(amy, stacey and i at mt rushmore)
In the morning we all gathered at Mike’s campsite and discussed our plans for the day. Klaus took off on his bike and the rest of us drove a similar path to Wall Drug, Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse and eventually Devil’s Tower. My lead foot and unwavering commitment to my GPS put me at Devil’s Tower nearly an hour before anyone else arrived. The skies were dangerous looking and the weather forecast included a tornado warning for the area. I sat in my car and cracked open a beer while I waited for the Amy, Stacey and Mike. By the time the others arrived the sky had opened up with heavy globs of rain and the winds were whipping through. The storm drew thin and jagged streaks of light in the sky all around us; an eerie sight next to the giant protruding butte that was Devil’s Tower. Because of our close-knit travels during the day we were now all in it together and we took some time making a decision about whether we would stay and camp for the night or leave to find safety and dryness at a motel. I was the first to recommend getting a motel, thinking back to my first night of camping with Katy in the middle of a thunderstorm in the Shenandoah. Mike was the first to put his tent down in the earliest pause from the rain. Just as the girls decided on leaving and getting a motel I decided to stay. I was comforted knowing Mike was going to stick it out and hopeful that the storm would pass.

The storm cleared up by 8pm and we were safe for the time being. A ranger passed by in his truck and stopped to have a chat with us. He informed us that the ranger talk for the night had been cancelled and that we should keep an eye on the weather. He also mentioned that a tornado had touched down about eight miles from where we were. Neither Mike nor I knew what to expect of the weather in southeastern Wyoming and the ranger’s caution to keep an eye on the sky was confusing to us. We weren’t sure what would be safe: staying put, getting into our cars or getting the hell out of there. Regardless, we stayed and at sunset drove to a spot the ranger had recommended. The sun was not visible, but the giant painted cloud in front of it was mesmerizing. I had never seen a cloud like that ever before and its position right next to Devil’s Tower was simply uncanny.
Although the wind came back to wake up both from our sleep at three in the morning, all the dreadful weather had passed by daybreak. We spent the morning hiking up and around Devil’s Tower. Mike had an immediate attraction to the rocks, and so I followed him up the boulders of the base of the tower. The afternoon’s drive was lovely. I turned off my GPS and followed Mike through two-lane highways in middle-of-no-where Wyoming. His friend recommended we stop at Vedauwoo in Medicine Bow National Forest and so that became our destination for the evening. No soon after did we find a campsite did we take off for the rocks, hoping to catch the sunset from atop. We scrambled our way quite a distance up the flinstone-looking rocks, yet fell short of reaching summit as the rocks higher up were flatter and larger, with fewer crevasses and protrusions to grab hold of. When we returned safely to the ground we set off on the trail at the base of the giant rock formation. Our three-mile, post-sunset hike in the woods was an adrenaline pumper. We spent a good half-hour to an hour hiking in the blackness of the forest and didn’t make it back to our campsite until 9:30. Mike tended the fire while I cooked dinner: rice seasoned with balsamic vinaigrette, thickened with poly-o string cheese, sprinkled with chunks of tomato and served on a bed of spinach. After we ate we sat by the fire listening to its crackle and pop while Mike strummed a few songs on his guitar.
(mike climbing the base of devil's tower)
Around 11pm we were ready to extinguish the fire and get into our tents when we heard a voice calling out to us in the woods. Harvey, a 29-year-old avid rock climber joined us by the fire. He too was travelling alone of a road trip of sorts. Soon after his arrival he let out a big fart. He explained to us that he had just eaten an entire can of lentil beans for dinner. We shared a laugh and many hours of conversation. After seeing Mike’s guitar Harvey suggested that he get his guitar and they play together. Among Harvey’s endless gas, the wonderful conversation and the beautiful harmony of their two guitars I was quite entertained for the evening, which ended just before sunrise.
(mike and harvey jamming out at vedauwoo)
The guys got out their guitars again in the morning and I practiced some yoga in a clearing off to the side in earshot of the music. Later I joined them in a forest jam band and sang along to “Bad Moon Rising.” I wish I could have continued my travels with Harvey and Mike, but alas it was time for me to move on to Colorado.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The grizzly dilemma

Black bears don’t scare me much; they are spooked easily by humans. If I ever encounter a black bear I have my defense all planned out: arms over head waving violently, high-knee foot stomping and loud hoots, hollers and barks; all the while I would be surveying the ground to identify what I could throw. This technique doesn’t quite work with grizzly bears however. The customary grizzly bear defense involves dropping to the ground, assuming the fetal position and covering one’s neck and head. The thought of having to assume such a submissive position, let alone the righteous fear of having a giant bear hovering over me is enough to put a slight damper on my solo journeys in grizzly territory.

After an *interesting* Fourth of July in Tacoma and a refreshing visit to the Emerald City (Seattle) I left for the North Cascades National Park in northern Washington. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at this park; I hadn’t met anyone who had been and thus had no insider knowledge. My Fodor’s book highlighted the park’s dense wilderness and abundant wildlife, but that was about it. I stopped at the ranger station on the outskirts of the park to get information on camping and hiking. A handsome and overly energetic park ranger helped me explore some options. I settled on a campsite in Johannesburg, at the trailhead for the popular Cascade Pass trail.

The sky, already overcast, grew more ominous as I got closer to the campground. My car hobbled over gravel road and around dangerous cliff edges and passed through bursts of rain and quickly moving clouds. Tidbits of worrisome information I chose not to pay serious attention to at the ranger station had suddenly started to worry me. I recalled the danger signs on the outside of the building cautioning against traveling on certain trails due to bear and cougar sightings. There were numerous signs mentioning the ‘fetal position’ defense. Other signs cautioned against hiking alone. Then I remembered the ranger saying that I would be alone at campground and that he was familiar with the area because he had just done a search and rescue there. There were a few of cars in the parking lot at the trailhead. I stepped out of my car to explore there was an eerie silence, a silence broke only by the voice of reason in my head: bears, GRIZZLY bears, cougars, alone, the cold, rain, GRIZZLY BEARS, search and rescue, fetal position, alone, GRIZZLIES…

Needless to say I turned around and found another campsite. I traveled into the main area of the park in search of other campers and was in luck. The first site I surveyed was occupied by one RV. Apparently no one else wanted to brave the rain that evening; it was coming down pretty hard. I chose a site a few down from the RV and near to the pit toilets. I spent most of the evening in my car in attempts to stay dry and warm until it was time to sleep. The following morning when I emerged from my tent I was alarmed to see that the stream which was at a comfortable distance from me when I fell asleep was now just a few yards from my tent. Yikes, that was a close call!

(the morning after the storm, note water level in background)

Lake Chelan would have been beautiful to visit, but it wasn’t accessible by car or by day hike. Cascade Pass would have been a gorgeous hike I’m sure, but I just spent two hours travelling away from there. It made sense to move on and so I did, driving ten hours east to Glacier National Park in Montana. The drive through eastern Washington was peculiar. Once I left the giant peaks of the park I stumbled into a precious little town called Winthrop. The town was preserved from the 1920’s; large vintage store fronts set boundaries on both sides of the street. I felt like I was on the set of Blazing Saddles when the townsfolk banded together and created a fake city. It was more than real though and most of the shops were open for business. I got a latte and strolled around taking in the scenery. Everyone I passed on the sidewalk was doing the same curious head swirl, as if to portray the wonderment of “where the hell am I?” Just past Winthrop was a desert, yes a desert in northern Washington. Next there were rolling farm fields. The fields brought me into Idaho, which was altogether an unmemorable state. Then I was in Montana, progressively approaching a curtain of spectacular mountains.

(Winthrop, WA)

I didn’t have quite a concept of how spectacular these mountains really were until the following day when I drove the famous “Going to the Sun” road that runs west to east in the park. With that drive in mind I chose a campsite in Apgar Village, just past the western entrance to the park. Following the advice of my Fodor’s book I started the drive early, to avoid the crowds and delays. I purposefully chose the soundtrack for this drive, Easy Star’s album “Lonely Hearts Dub Band” (an album Jayme had burned for me before I left Seattle) which is a reggae cover of the Beatles. It was fitting. The first dozen miles were along windy roads lined with towering evergreens that broke for just the briefest moments to reveal the colossal peaks ahead. Soon the mountains got so close that the evergreens could not shield them anymore and the incredible peaks were right in front of me. The road hugged along mountains and passed underneath multiple waterfalls, creating quite the driving obstacle, especially when trying to take in the views. I took advantage of the numerous turn-outs though and took picture after picture.

(Glacier Mountains)

I stopped at the Logan Pass Visitor Center just past the Continental Divide to get a feel for the mountains on foot. I hiked the popular trail to Hidden Lake Overlook, negotiating yet more snowy terrain. I made it a point to stay relatively close to other hikers as I didn’t want to make myself an easy grizzly target. Three mountain goats and a kid were casually hanging out at the overlook. They were so majestic and to my merriment, photogenic. My visit to Glacier was immediately worth it.

(mountain goats at Hidden Lake Overlook)

I managed to get in a few more brief hikes even with the intermittent thundershowers and staggered flow of hikers. That night I camped south in the park at Two Medicines. The rain and wind persisted through the evening, again confining me to my car until bedtime. Although the beauty here is unparalleled I will be happy to return to dry lands where I can hike at my own pace and on any trail I chose without fear of grizzly bears.

(view of lodge from Swiftcurrent Lake trail in Many Glaciers)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Into Narnia

After a brief stop in Astoria, OR to seek out cinematographic scenery from the Goonies, I entered Washington and drove straight into Olympic National Park. I entered Olympic through the south, at Quinault Lake. I drove past crowded campgrounds, lodges and year-round communities as I made my way further and further into the woods. After five miles of gravel road I stumbled upon the North Fork campground, a primitive campground at best with only ten sites. I occupied a vacant site, ate, slept and left early in the morning.

I took to the road with little caffeine in my system and a mellow mix of celestial yoga songs playing softly through my car speakers. The forest was dense and the trees grew every which way in their fight for sunshine. The sun was barely breaking and its angle cast drastic shadows. Many trees were backlit and appeared almost black. I passed by a giant tree with a peculiar shape. Just past the tree I stopped the car, leaving the engine running and the music playing and walked back over to the monstrosity. I thought perhaps I was imagining it all as the tree’s formation bore a jarring resemblance to that of a thunderbird: a long branched body, a left-facing head with a protruding beak and two ears and a pair of giant wings spreading out horizontally with bent claws at their ends. The construction was made all the more extreme by the backlight and the ominous tune projecting from the car. I stole a picture; I don’t think anyone would have believed me without such proof. What the picture can’t convey though is the eerie feeling that enveloped me in the moment, a feeling like I just passed through the wardrobe and into Narnia.

I emerged into civilization shortly thereafter and the feeling soon fled. The gravel road returned to paved road returned to highway. Highway 101 took me up and around Northwestern part of the Olympic peninsula. I made a couple of beach stops, tasting the salty air at the back of my throat and hearing the vibrations of waves crashing in between my ear drums. After a near three hour cruise around the peninsula I claimed my second campsite at Altair near the Elwha Ranger Station on the northern side of the park. Five-miles past my campsite the road ended and I picked up a mineral spring-bound trail. On the two-and-a-half mile trek in I passed by several clumps of people whose clothes bore visible spots of wetness, evidence of time spent in the springs. I thought back to the description of the mineral springs I had read in my Fodor’s travel book and recalled the term “clothing optional.” I sized up the people walking my way and took most of them for the “clothing optional” type. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I neared the sulfur smelling springs.

(Ruby Beach)

I bypassed the springs somewhat accidentally. I wanted to tack on just a few more miles in my trek before relaxing in the hot, smelly water. Soon the trail disappeared and I turned around to spot a male park ranger approaching from the distance. We discussed the ambiguity of the trail and he explained that he was looking for the last mineral spring pool. We chatted some and then both took off in search for the elusive springs. We soon were followed by a family and all discovered the pool together. The ranger convinced me of a few other trail options to supplement my mineral springs hike, so I decided to rest here. I dipped into the hot water and then got out. There was something terribly un-serene about sharing a small mineral bath with a family with a park ranger hovering.

(mineral springs at Boulder Creek)

I trekked back to the parking lot with the ranger, sharing bits of random and fairly uninteresting conversation. When we departed at the trailhead he suggested that I follow him on a drive up to Hurricane Ridge, where he had to close down the ranger station. My tired legs allowed me another couple miles of hiking and then I met him at the Elwha ranger station. I followed him on a short cut leading 5,000 feet up to Hurricane Ridge. The views at the top were beautiful and uncovered an entire range of glacier peaks. In need of food and sleep I left shortly after my arrival and returned to my campsite to find that I had acquired a new neighbor. In the lot beside me was a yellow VW bus with an awning giving shelter to the side of the bus facing away from the road. After passing by a few times I realized there was only one occupant of the campsite, a shorter man in his early forties with a slightly receding hairline and legs and arms covered in bright intricate tattoos. I stopped by on my last trip from the bathroom and had a pleasant conversation with the man about both our travels.
(view from Hurricane Ridge)

The next morning I rose early and left early with intentions of getting to Mt Rainier National Park by noon, which is the magic time for campsite check-outs and check-ins. I nabbed one of the few campsites left, and decided to stake claim for two nights. I snoozed in my hammock for a short while and then took off to explore. At the Longmire ranger station I picked up a trail that led to a beautiful view of Mt Rainier and intersected with the Wonderland Trail for the last few miles back to the trailhead. The Wonderland Trail is a 93-mile trek that circles around the mountain – I hope to come back and hike this someday. On my way back to the campsite I caught the view of a few waterfalls and took the customary photographs. It’s not as though I’ve grown apathetic to waterfalls, but after standing in the base of a mammoth waterfall in Kauai I have yet to experience a waterfall that truly takes my breath away.

At the Paradise trailhead the following day I laced up my hiking boots wishing they were gators (boots with spiked, cleat-like bottoms and calf-covering, waterproof shafts.) I also wish I had hiking poles, but alas was too cheap to buy a pair from the gift shop. I ascended over a thousand feet in the snow, passing by better prepared hikers than myself. The way up wasn’t so bad, other than the thickening air and the blinding snow. I wasn’t quite sure how I would get down the mountain, but assumed some slipping, sliding and falling would be in order. I stopped off at Panoramic Point to take in the near and far equally snowy mountains. Although the ranger warned me that the continuation of the trail was slick in spots I decided to press on from there and am so glad I did. I traversed down the mountain part hiker, part stumbling drunkard, part skipping child, part trickster skier, part novice snow boarder, part sledder, and part klutz. My feet were wet and frozen and my butt a little sore by the time I returned to my car, but it was totally worth it!
(ascending on the lower skyline trail)

Back at the campsite I was greeted by several of my neighbors. A Californian dude passed by and chatted me up about my travels; another woman came by and after noticing my license plate told me she was from Weymouth, MA; then a peppy older gentleman named Scott came by and invited me to join him, his wife, sister and park ranger friend for desert and whiskey. I was sitting in my hammock filing my nails at the time and was delighted to receive such an invitation. I followed Scott to a few campsites down the way and sat at the picnic table with everyone and ate apple pie, blueberry pie, and sipped smooth whiskey. They were several drinks ahead of me and were giddy and chatty. We shared stories and laughs and Scott educated me on geology and Dutch ovens. Scott and his sister Maurine talked about their grandmother who was one of the only women in her day to hike Mt Rainier. It was a pleasant evening and I was fortunate to be surrounded by such friendly and interesting people.

Monday, June 29, 2009

I could think of no better scenario to be wearing high-wasted shorts and singing oldies than on a stripper stage

I have intentionally left out some juicy bits in the blog thus far. However if I used the same discretion in my Portland blog it would not do this city and my time here justice. There, now you’ve been warned…

Portland, Oregon is a city of epic proportions, a city pumped full of fun, a city with an air of generosity and genuineness. My brief stay in Portland with friends Kristi and Zack quickly morphed into an extended stay. Kristi and Zack have been the most generous hosts and have shown me tasty food joints, fun community happenings, beautiful hikes and scenic views, and playful, peculiar and even promiscuous evening activities. I’ll start with that last one.

On my first night in Portland Kristi took me to a vegan strip club. Zack made the lame decision not to join. We did however have male accompaniment. We spotted Roy near his window on the second tier of the house as we crossed the driveway towards Kristi’s car. We asked him if he wanted to join us and after approximately ten seconds of contemplation he was in. None of us had ever been to any type of strip club before and we all were a tad nervous about it. We assessed our cash situation and shared in a giggle outside the front door of Casa Diablo before we headed in. Enter stage right. There was a dancer on stage naked, except for a neck-tied bandana and a g-string. We passed through the entrance, past the stage which was centered in the room with poles at either end and made our way quickly to the bar. I stole a few glances back at the stage as we sat at the bar and ordered our drinks – I wasn’t imagining it, we were definitely at a strip club. Our topless bartender casually poured local brews from the tap and delivered them to us in exchange for cash. To no surprise we received our change in one dollar bills.

I carefully and thoughtfully surveyed the scene. There were mostly men, a few straight couples and a handful of lesbians. People were scattered around the stage, mostly clustered around the poles at either end of the stage and then seated towards the back at tables that were dimly lit. With drinks in hand we approached the stage. I suggested that we sit in the middle of the stage between the two poles where the dance floor narrowed. To my estimation the lack of poles and sufficient floor space meant that the strippers wouldn’t pay us much attention. I was right for the most part. A dancer was in the middle of her performance. There was money on the stage. When the music stopped, the dancer collected the money and her clothes and left the stage. After her performance the DJ (yes, there was a DJ) announced that everyone sitting at the stage should leave a dollar per dance. We were starting to understand the etiquette.

We fished through our wallets while the next performer prepared to step up onto the stage. Then the most unlikely song came through the speakers, “Hotel California” by the Eagles. I unfortunately will never be able to think of that song in the same way. The girl took who mounted the stage wore tattered scraps of clothing and was the only girl who did not wear black knee-high leather boots with five-inch heels, she danced bear-foot. Her most impressive move was a dash in between poles, where she would then grasp the pole with both hands, swing around several times and then run back towards the other pole. When she approached the three of us she immediately took a liking for Roy. I was enormously glad that we had a guy with us because I wanted to receive no such attention. She attempted to crawl across me and towards Kristi and in the process knocked over my cup of beer. Kristi instinctively took back one of the dollar bills we left on the stage for her.

For the most part I was uncomfortable yet was amused by the novelty. I tried hard to control my nervous giggle. Another song choice “Drops of Jupiter” by Train produced a little chuckle. I dutifully put my one-dollar bills on the stage at the start of each song, yet pushed all my money in front of Roy, who was happy to receive the attention. We ran out of cash at the exact moment the dancers circled back around to the top of the lineup and the girl with the neck-tied bandana reappeared on stage. With that we were gone. We tried to place the ‘vegan’ categorization of the strip club, but couldn’t. Perhaps if we had asked for the food menu we would have come away with a better appreciation for their slogan “the only meat is on the pole.”

I awoke with the sobering awareness that I had indeed gone to a strip club the night before and I wondered what else was in store for me during my stay in Portland. That afternoon I accompanied Kristi and Zack’s roommate, Aaron to the downtown REI store where he worked. I picked up a few MREs, a keychain compass and a pack of beef jerky and left my purchase with Aaron while I took off on foot to explore the downtown area. I walked around the Pearl neighborhood passing by cute restaurants, boutiques, small grassy parks and numerous buildings that were questionably commercial. I used the trusty Google Maps application on my phone to steer me in the direction home. It encouraged me to cross a couple of bridges that were not pedestrian accessible, so I had to improvise. Downtown walking was easy – a grid system with pedestrian walk signals. Outside the downtown area not so easy – I crossed a few highways in ‘frogger’ fashion and was pleased when cars actually came to a full stop for me.

I returned to the house, met up with Zack and a few of his friends and we drove to a community-wide art fair called “Last Thursday.” There were artists everywhere. When Zack and I stopped into a Mexican restaurant for mediocre burritos there was even a couple of musicians near the counter playing their guitars and singing songs in Spanish. The street was decorated with colorful booths showcasing an eclectic variety of goods for sale. Zack bought a couple of necklaces with very large medallions, which he referred to as ‘hippy bling’ from a very talented young Mexican artist. I even bought a print that I found particularly striking from another artist. I was stopped by one vendor who gave me a free sanitary pad. The people at the street fair were equally as eclectic as the art. Zack and I accidentally parted ways at an African drum circle that I stopped to take in. When we attempted to meet back up I scanned the crowd near where he said he would be and completely missed his waving hand of recognition. I mention this because on any other street I would have no trouble picking Zack out of a crowd. He is a skinny white guy with trim facial hair and partial dreads and on this day wore a thick cloth headband, a dusty colored t-shirt, jeans and had brown satchel strung across his back. It was refreshing to be around so many genuine people.

(Zack at Last Thursday)

Kristi came on the scene in time to pick us up and bring us to Darcell XV’s for a spectacular drag show. Darcell was a 70-something year-old drag queen with jolting eye makeup. She told a battery of one-liners that people hesitantly laughed at, not because the jokes weren’t funny but because it was difficult to decipher what she was saying through all her mumbles. For her age though she did a fabulous job and so did her entourage of drag queens. The crowd was mostly women. Present were two bachelorette parties and a dear older lesbian couple that was celebrating a birthday. At the conclusion of the show we wasted no time in moving on to our next exciting stop, the Alibi Tiki Lounge. Here we sang a few karaoke songs each. For the first time ever I used an alternative stage name: Day-zee, which is apparently my ‘west coast’ name [it’s best not to ask.] Under this new guise I sang some Stevie Wonder and Outkast. Kristi and I did a tribute to Michael Jackson, her singing “Heal the World” and me signing it. Our KJ was inspired and followed that song with “Man in the Mirror.” We moved onto another karaoke bar where Kristi continued the MJ tribute and sang “Remember the Time.” Zack and Ali sang “Time Warp” and I busted out “Let’s Talk about Sex.” Overall it was a calm karaoke night, yet very satisfying.

(you should have seen what these drag queens had underneath those dresses!)

We returned to the house and slid into hot tub. Not before long Kristi disappeared into the house and came back with a hoola hoop. This was not any ordinary hoola hoop though, there were large nubs sticking out of the exterior of the hoop, evenly spaced along the circumference. Kristi dipped each of the nubs, which were Kevlar wicks, into a canister of white gas. She gave the hoop a few twirls around her hip, shaking off the excess gas and asked Zack for a light. Zack was already out of the hot tub and carefully raised a lighter to each of the wicks setting each aflame. Kristi stepped back from the hot tub and turned the wooden deck into a stage, carefully swirling the fire hoop around her hips, legs, torso and neck. It was mesmerizing to watch the fire circle around her body.

When the wicks ran out of gas she returned to the canister and this time Zack was dipping his own contraption in the gas. Zack lit Kristi’s hoop on fire again and then lifted the two wicks on his contraption to her hoop to catch fire. Zack spun the fire poi – two long chains with wicks at the end. He looped the balls of fire around in circular patterns in front of his body, behind his back and above his head. The combination of their two performances was stunning. Roy, who had joined us in the hot tub on our return from karaoke asked to spin the poi. Then a new contraption entered into the fire dancing – the fire fan. Roy whipped around the fan, Kristi twirled the hoola hoop and Zack spun the poi and all the while I basked in the warm bubbles of the hot tub, fully enjoying my late night entertainment…

The next morning came sooner than expected. After brunch Kristi left for a weekend Che Kung retreat, the other roommates left for a weekend backpacking adventure and I took off to get my car serviced. My Jelly Bean is still running as smooth as ever, even after the 8,000 miles I’ve put on her in the last couple of months. I’ll need new front brake pads and a flush after the next 3,000 miles; and come to think of it I’m not quite sure where I’ll be after the next 3,000 miles – maybe Colorado, maybe Utah or maybe I’ll make it all the way back to Phoenix. The guy at the service counter noticed the cowboy hat in the back seat of my car and asked why so many people from Massachusetts wore cowboy hats. I told him it was my “road trip” hat and then tried to make some sense of the why people in Boston wore cowboy hats; I forget now what I said. He lit up when I told him about the road trip and we spent a good half an hour talking about places to visit in Oregon and Washington. I love when I meet people like this on my road trip.

The afternoon was lazy. Zack climbed into a hammock suspended by tree limbs that was nearly eight feet off the ground. He explained where his emergency medical card was before he attempted this feat. I chose the hammock near the fence that hung a normal distance from the ground. A dog on the opposing side of the fence barked viciously at my mere presence in the hammock and so my stay there was limited. I took advantage of the spacious wooden deck that had previously been a stage for fire spinning and rolled out my purple yoga mat for a long satisfying practice. It eventually turned into night and Zack cooked a delicious dinner for the two of us that featured cilantro sprinkled Halibut on a bed of beets, zucchini, potato and hazelnuts. Good food was soon followed by good dancing at the Good Foot.

(Zack in the hammock)

Dancing at the Good Foot was comparable to the ‘Sand Storm’ dance party at Kristin and Mo’s wedding reception, the random hip-hop shake downs in the kitchen at my old Mission Hill apartment and that Halloween dance party when Liz and I wore full-body spandex suits, dressed as Thing 1 and Thing 2. On this Friday night the DJ was playing old funk and soul interlaced with several Michael Jackson songs. Zack, Roy and I took to the dance floor after enjoying yet another round of really tasty micro-brew. We danced and we danced and we danced and so did everyone else. I have never been to a venue that was more about dancing. The scene was not particularly gay or straight, not too alternative or too preppy, not many obvious couple or obvious singles; there wasn’t even a group of sketchy men lining the exterior of the dance floor. The intermittent MJ songs were greeted with shouts of delight. It was a wonderful way to pay tribute to an artist who shared so much beautiful music with the world in the peak of his existence. So we danced and I could think of nowhere else I’d rather be.

I branched out the next day and went off on my own to explore some more. I stopped by a local farmer’s market on the PSU campus and purchased a vanilla honey latte, cheese croissant and pint of raspberries. On my drive out to Mt Hood I munched on the berries and croissant and rather enjoyed filling the pastry with the berries and eating it like a sandwich. I drove to Timberline Lodge, and walked on trails alongside skiers, snowboarders and their dogs. Initially I was pleased I had my hiking sandals on, noting that my hiking shoes would have gotten soaked from all the snow. My toes froze quickly however. I looked upwards to the continuation of the trail and tried to figure in my head how many times I would slip and fall on my ass coming back down. I cut my losses and moved on. Next I drove to the gorges along the Columbia River and got out of the car to enjoy a five-mile hike alongside Eagle Creek. Afterwards I met up with Zack who had just finished volunteering on the east side of Mt Hood. We met at Multnomah Falls, which was one of the most beautiful waterfalls I had ever seen, yet the hoards of other tourists enjoying the same view somehow made the experience less special. The evening concluded with spicy Thai noodles, Jasmine flavored shisha, a double shot of espresso, few bites of chocolate cake and riveting conversation.

(Multnomah Falls)

My fifth and last day in Portland had been built up since my arrival. That evening, after Kristi’s return we all went to Striperoke. Striperoke is exactly what you think it is: strippers dancing to karaoke singing. The door to the club was wide open when we arrived and in the distance we could make out the performers in the distance. We had our IDs checked by a man whose head and visible arms were covered in tattoos, ordered drinks from a seemingly normal male (clothed) bartender and found our way to a booth a few yards away from the stage. The place wasn’t particularly seedy. Because of our strip club outing just a few days ago there was no shock or nervous giggles. It also helped that these strippers were comical and had the good sense to keep on at least a few articles of clothing. One stripper at a time and one karaoke singer at a time would take to the same stage. Whatever you sing is what the stripper dances to. Kristi and I tried to come up with songs that we could sing that would be really hard to dance to; we added our slips to the line-up. I was called up on stage first. I stood there in my brand new high-wasted khaki shorts, an aqua blue tank top which was tightly tucked in to right underneath my boob and a matching blue boa that Kristi happened to have. Berlin, the stripper came up to me and said “You’re Big Al?” I laughed. I normally get that reaction from the KJ when I go to retrieve the microphone before my song. I sang “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper, which I believe was a popular song in 1957. Here’s the Big Bopper himself singing the song, just in case you were wondering…

I could think of no better scenario to be wearing high-wasted shorts and singing oldies than on a stripper stage. Berlin rocked it out though. She was also on stage for Kristi’s performance of “Shout.” Kristi’s song choice really stumped Berlin and although she joined Kristi in slowly crouching down to the lyrics “a little bit softer now” she didn’t have much a clue for how to dance along; it was really funny to watch. Towards the end of the night I anticipated Zack and Kristi’s duet to Du Haust. It is a classic duet performance complete with dead pan expressions, sun glasses and arms folded across the chest. Unfortunately their karaoke card was trumped by a heavy-set metal guy with long brown hair whose performance of the song was good, but not nearly as entertaining as the duet would have been. I was anxious to see how the stripper would react to the song. After all this was the song I did an interpretive dance challenge to the Halloween I dressed in full-body spandex where I injured myself by doing a leap across the floor and landing in an unexpected split. The stripper didn’t really change her dancing style for the song she just adjusted to the beat. For that matter none of the strippers really embraced the interpretive dance quality of each song. One exception though was when this one guy sang “Thriller” the stripper actually did a few MJ moves like the crotch grab and the moonwalk – impressive.

I am supposed to leave Portland today, but have decided on one more day in this fabulous city. When I finally do make my departure I will surely miss Kristi and Zack, the wonderful people I met and the irreplaceable memories.

(Zack, Kristi and I at the food carts getting dinner before Striperoke)