Northward and Home Again: Road Trip Conclusion

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.


Crater Lake in a cloud.

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.


Olympic National Forest.

“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-90 crossing the mighty Columbia River.

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.


Wallace, Idaho.

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.


Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone.

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.


The first house where Laura lived when she moved to SD.

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!


Map of my route from


Road Trip Interlude: Three Weeks In San Francisco

I stayed with my brother, his wife, and their dog Pixel from October 18th to November 9th.  They just bought their house in the Outer Sunset in May, so I was excited to go visit them.  My brother is three years younger than me and has lived out in California since 2011 when he was hired at Google; I usually only see him for Christmas, so it was nice to actually have a chance to hang out.  Because I lived in San Francisco for a year (’08-’09) for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I’d already done most of the tourist things and didn’t have much interest in doing them again.  I hadn’t been back since my last brief visit in 2012.  Here are some highlights from this visit:

I got my car fixed!  By the time I got it to SF, it needed an oil change, new brakes, a new serpentine belt, and a new wiper fluid nozzle.  All this cost me somewhere around $1400.  Hooray!  (Sarcasm.)


I tried fixing it with electrical tape first – ha!  It didn’t work.

Most days when I didn’t have some other adventure planned, I took little Pixel on walks to the beach, helped cook meals from Plated. meal subscription service, and tried to identify the foreign (to me) succulents and cacti growing in their yard.

I bought a new Muni map, put some money on a Clipper card, and attempted to refresh my memory of the bus system.  Last time I lived in SF, I didn’t have a car, so I took public transport by default.  I tried driving in the city a couple of times on this visit but it was way more of a pain in the ass than it was worth: I would spend as much time circling around trying to park, as I spent driving to my destination.  So I mostly bussed it and hoofed it.


Takin’ pictures, waitin’ for the bus.

I met up with my JVC supervisor for lunch and she caught me up on her life and developments in the San Francisco non-profit world.  My uncle, who’s living in Palo Alto, also met up with my brother, his wife, and me for brunch one day.


Cappuccino at Outerlands on Judah.

I went to a Google-sponsored, Halloween-themed glass-blowing workshop with my brother and his wife at Public Glass, where we each got to make a glass pumpkin.  Pretty cool!

We went to two concerts: Bon Iver at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, and the Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheatre where we saw Neil Young, Metallica, Roger Waters, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Willie Nelson, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Cage the Elephant, and Nils Lofgren.   It turns out it’s really hard to get tickets to anything in the Bay Area because the scalping is out of control.  Good luck getting to a show unless you’re a computer wizard or willing to pay twice the retail ticket price.  I enjoyed the shows we saw, but the ridiculousness of getting tickets made me glad I don’t live in such a major population center.


Bridge School Benefit Concert.

I took myself to the San Francisco Botanical Gardens for a day and had a nice time wandering around looking at all the exotic plants.

My brother and I signed up for a two-hour surfing lesson together in Pacifica, CA.  It was not all that I’d hoped—our instructor was not terribly helpful—but I did get to surf a little, so I can say that I’ve done it.  After a few facefuls of salt water, I decided the surfing was not the thing for me… but it sure does clear out the sinuses.

I went to Muir Woods about three times and admired the majestic coastal redwoods there (Sequoia sempervirens), as well as the bigleaf maples in their autumn gold (Acer macrocarpa).

My childhood next-door neighbor, who I hadn’t seen for about 12 years, met up with my brother and me for a walk up the Land’s End Trail from the Sutro Baths ruins to Sea Cliff.  Pixel got to meet her skateboarding bull dog!


Mile Rock Beach, San Francisco.

My brother and I drove back down Highway 1 to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for a day to go hiking.  The trail wasn’t well-marked.  We thought we were on a trail, albeit a challenging one that included ropes dangling down rock faces from tree trunks that kind of required us to rappel… until it just petered out and we realized it was never a trail.  We basically hiked up a gorge and found some cool waterfalls.

I spent an afternoon wandering around the Mission and went back to visit my old apartment (just the outside; I didn’t knock).  The billboard on the side was gone for the time being, and the businesses that used to be on the first floor had changed—Glama-Rama Salon was now Lotus Center Healing Collective, and the Housing Rights Committee was a guitar shop.  (The previous businesses still exist; they just moved.)  My old laundromat was being remodeled and turned into apartments, and the abandoned gas station that used to be across the street from our apartment is now a swanky new five-story apartment building.  Otherwise, things seemed more or less the same.  All the shops I remembered on Mission and on Valencia were still there, and the 16th and Mission BART station was still a shit show.


Possibly the coolest thing I did during this visit was participate in Food Not Bombs at 16th and Mission.  We met in the kitchen of a housing collective & anti-capitalist event space that was shockingly clean (by my Buffalo housing co-op standards) and full of radical flyers and posters.  About 15 people came to prepare the meal, and most of us set to chopping all the produce that had been donated by local grocery stores that would otherwise have thrown it away.  A couple of people were in charge of putting it all together into a meal.  Those who participated were from all over: Lithuania, France, Boston, L.A., Virginia, and even Brockport, NY!  When the cooking was finished we had pasta, ratatouille perfectly spiced, pinto beans, salad, fruit salad, and apple cobbler.  We ate together with the residents of the collective before taking the rest of the meal down to the BART station to serve to whoever wanted some.  The food was gone within 15 minutes.  It was a great way to meet some awesome, friendly folks and restore some faith in humanity.

My last full day in San Francisco happened to fall on November 8th.  Robert flew out to meet me that evening so that we could embark on a mini-road trip together the next day.  I had a hell of a time trying to find him at the airport—why would a flight from NYC end up at the “international” terminal?—but I finally did manage to pick him up, and we stopped at Safeway for a six-pack to bring back with us while we watched the election coverage.  The cashier asked us if we were sure we didn’t want something stronger.  That was my first real indication that things were going the way they did—I’d been listening to NPR that morning and everyone on the radio seemed pretty confident that Hillary had it in the bag.  As it happened, I was pretty much off the grid for the following three days.  Before I had embarked on this trip, I had created a road trip playlist on my mp3 player, which I tinkered with throughout the journey, adding and deleting tracks.  One of my favorites ended up being “Grand Canyon” by Ani DiFranco, which is more of a spoken-word poem than a song.  During that first week or so after the election, it was the only thing that made me feel better about the state of my country.