I spent a large part of my time in San Francisco trying to figure out what to do next. I planned my trip in increments, the first of which was Buffalo to SF, where I could crash for a while and hatch more plans. I’d started out with a vague idea that I would try to WWOOF in northern California. It turns out that even in California there isn’t much going on farm-wise in November. It took a long time just to gather information about all of my options, and then I had trouble getting responses from folks. I ended up joining Workaway as well, thinking that if farming didn’t work out I could at least work at a hostel or retreat center for a while in exchange for room and board, but most of my requests went unanswered. Frustrating. I finally got a positive response from a laid-back-sounding “tree farm” in northwestern Washington. Since I hadn’t seen Robert in a month and he wanted to fly out to meet me, I planned a week-long mini-road trip for us from San Francisco up to Seattle.
Robert and I went to Yosemite for a day, then to Davis, CA, where we spent a night with my other childhood next-door neighbor. My brother met us in Davis the next morning and all three of us drove to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon—we actually stayed in a woodstove-heated cabin at a defunct lumber mill through AirBnB.
My favorite part about driving north from Davis to Chiloquin, OR, had to be Mount Shasta. The sun was already down, and suddenly, out of the twilight, rose this magnificent snow-capped mountain. As is the way with mountains, words cannot do it justice. I’m definitely filing it away under “places I’d like to return to.” That drive also marked the beginning of the Stan Rogers chapter of my journey: I put his entire discography on my music player and listened to it for at least a couple hours a day for the rest of the trip. Crater Lake had gotten a few feet of snow the week before we went, and when we arrived at the park it was melting at 35 degrees. We drove up the mountain and ascended into the cloud hovering over it, and when we reached the top, the fog was too dense to see the lake. It was just a big misty void. We hiked through the snow along the edge of the purported lake and turned back when we got too cold. As we neared the visitor center, the fog magically lifted for about five minutes and we were able to get some pictures.
My brother headed back to San Francisco from there, and Robert and I drove north again through Oregon into Washington. I was surprised to learn that in Oregon it is illegal to pump your own gas. The only explanations the Internet had to offer for this were “Tradition!” and “It keeps people employed.” (Sure, but then why not outlaw more things, like doing your own laundry or driving your own car or carrying your own groceries? So many jobs!) We spent two nights at an AirBnB in Shelton, WA, with a family and an 8-week-old puppy who was, of course, ridiculously cute. We tried to get to Olympic National Park, but my little car was not able to make it down the pothole minefield that passed for a dirt road leading to the nearest entrance, so we hiked in the surrounding National Forest instead. Then we drove to Seattle, where Robert caught a flight for home. Because his flight left so late in the day we had time to explore Fremont. We visited the troll under the bridge, got coffee, went to a chocolate factory and a fancy beer bar where we ran into some guys from Buffalo, and met up with a high school friend of Robert’s for dinner. I spent the night at a cool hostel in Fremont and drove north to the tree farm the following day.
“Tree Farm: I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I thought it meant “tree nursery,” and the place I stayed did sell seedlings, sometimes, but that wasn’t really the point of the operation. The owner was a woodworker and ran a small lumber mill. His main source of income seemed to be rental properties he owned in rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods of Seattle. “Tree Farm,” in the state of Washington, is a designation that one receives for participating in a sustainable forestry program. So he was raising native trees and planting them in his woods in order to steward his forest. (Except that many of them weren’t, actually, native trees, but European ornamentals he dug up in Seattle…) He was a nice, generous older man and was hosting another senior friend as well as four other WWOOFers while I was there. I slept on a couch in the living room because the WWOOFer quarters were already taken up, so I spent the evenings in the living room with him while he watched Fox News. I had been planning on staying longer, but for a variety of reasons (upon which I could elaborate, but which I will just summarize as “I wasn’t very comfortable there”), I only ended up staying four days. I explained, truthfully, that I was concerned about getting my tiny car back over the Cascades and the Rockies in the coming snow storms since I didn’t have chains for my tires. I picked up a gallon of emergency water and some hand- and toe-warmer packs on my way out of town, and I began my trek back on November 20th.
I drove I-90 the whole way back to Buffalo, which took me a week. Because I went to Boston in 2005, I’m pretty sure that I’ve now officially driven the entire length of I-90. The places I stopped were Spokane, WA (AirBnB); Bozeman, MT (hostel); Rapid City, SD (weirdly cheap hotel room); Sioux Falls, SD (AirBnB); Pleasant Prairie, WI (former roommate’s apartment); and Fremont, OH (my great-aunt and uncle’s house). I spent Thanksgiving with my former roommate and her romantic partner, a trained chef who can roast veggies to perfection. The western part of I-90, all the way up to Illinois, is toll-free, and its rest stops are basically just restrooms and parking lots. Once the tolls start, the rest stops include fast-food restaurants and gas stations. The highlights of this leg of the trip, which I titled “Get Home Quick!,” had to be Montana and South Dakota.
I had never given much thought to Montana before. When saw it, the source of its name dawned on me light a light bulb: Montana = montaña = mountain = I am in love. I spent the night at a funky hostel in the quaint-yet-hip college town of Bozeman. I got to walk around the town a bit in the morning, and then I drove down to Yellowstone, about an hour and a half south. The drive was absurdly, breathtakingly scenic, fields and ranches spread out at the base of snow-capped mountains all around, rivers a deep cerulean, and so much sky. I pulled over several times for mountain pictures. (Do people ever get used to living amid such beauty? Do they ever stop staggering around in awe? I hope not.) Most of the roads in Yellowstone were closed for the winter. I hiked on the maze of boardwalks around Mammoth Hot Springs, the only easily accessible geological feature at the time, and drove down the only other open road to try to find bison. The bison found me! The herd was blocking the road, making all the cars stop. I rolled down my window and got some really close pictures. I also spotted elk, mule deer, and a bald eagle.
I spent most of the day there and then had to drive eight hours in the dark to get to my cheap hotel. Even as I was driving down I-90, I could tell that the stars were incredible, so I pulled off at a “parking stop” in Wyoming to see. Got out of the car and turned off my headlights. I wasn’t near a town and there were big gaps in the highway traffic, so minimal light pollution, and I was out of the mountains, so the stars stretched from horizon to horizon. The moon was not up. Orion and the Big Dipper had just risen, and I drove east toward Orion for the rest of the night, watching him ascend.
The day after Yellowstone, I drove across South Dakota. I wanted to stop at Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in DeSmet, but I knew I didn’t have time for all three. I got up pretty early after not much sleep to maximize my touristing time. I drove for about half an hour and hit a Wall of Fog, which was at least as thick as pea soup. I passed the exit for Badlands in the midst of the fog and ruled it out, figuring I wouldn’t be able to see much. I did stop at Wall Drug long enough to get the free bumper sticker their signs had promised. I was trying pretty hard to make it to DeSmet before the museum closed, and I called them to make sure they were open (it was the day before Thanksgiving). The woman in the gift shop who answered the phone assured me that they were open but said that she would like to leave early, and she asked me to call back when I was getting close. So I drove over the speed limit (rare for me, since I have too many points on my license to risk getting pulled over) and didn’t stop for lunch, bathroom, or anything else…
…BUT: I had forgotten to account for the hour I would lose in the middle of the state due to time zones. I called the gift shop again when I was getting close—my e.t.a. was 2:20—and the same woman told me that she wanted to leave at 3:00, so I should let her know if I was going to be any later. I figured that at best, that meant I would get a rushed 30-minute tour. I was driving down country roads surrounded by fields, passing signs like “Town of ____, Population 108,” when I realized I was almost out of gas. Miraculously, I came across the first gas station I’d seen in an hour and performed the fastest fuel-up of my life, race car-style. I got to the museum around 2:30. The woman on the phone, it turned out, was not the tour guide, and the actual tour guide was totally willing to hang out as long as I wanted. I got a private tour of all the buildings and it was the best tour I’ve ever had of anything, period. I got to ask all the questions I wanted. He was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, a sometimes-high school history teacher who had just moved back to the town where he’d spent part of his youth. He was able to draw me back into that prairie town I’d loved so much at fourteen and made me want to reread that whole series.
This post concludes the major events of the road trip. I might write one more just to assemble my thoughts and general observations about it all. Stay tuned!