I am back in the Midwest after a long post-DC road trip from Wisconsin to Montana to Oregon to California to New Mexico and back home. Because you can’t quite write a single thing about such a diverse trip, I decided to try to share the story of my trip in lists. I’m hoping this form also makes it easier to skim and scan to the details that might most interest you!
By the numbers
- Miles: just about 6,000
- Days: 21
- States: 14
- Friends visited: 15. As full of good places as it was, this was a trip, more than anything, of good people. Thank you, everyone who shared your time and space with me!
- Brothers visited/road-tripped from Portland to San Diego with: 1 (but I have just the one, Frankie, so that worked out well)
- Waves I definitely didn’t actually surf on but at least didn’t really fall off of when Frankie gave me a surfing lesson: 2
- Ratio of nights in motels to nights camping: 4:4
- Nights with friends/family: 13. Thank you to all my hostesses and hosts!
- Discs listened to, of 20 comprising the Moby Dick audio book I got from the library: 10 (print book now on my nightstand to finish)
Best and worst road food decisions
- Green Giant Broccoli Medley (pre-washed and cut broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower: mmm, road-body is always grateful for veg!)
- Gin-Gins Ginger Chews. Have you had these yet? Get. The perfect edible traveling companion, excellent when you haven’t had enough to eat, exceptional when maybe you’ve had too much.
- Eating approximately eighty toffee almonds from a farm stand California while stuck in traffic in Albuquerque, bored and annoyed after finding no local radio station suitable for the occasion. Damn you, Albuquerque!
- Accepting the “buy one, get one for 10 cents” deal on Hershey’s candy bars at the Chevron in Yuma. Never accept the “buy one, get one for 10 cents” deal on Hershey’s candy bars at the Chevron in Yuma, because you’re about to drive across the Sonoran Desert and it’s about to be 110 degrees at 10:30 am and even though you will have the AC on full blast (resulting in getting half the fuel efficiency you’re used to), in 20 minutes both those candy bars are going to MELT, and when you finally eat them, one hour and one day later, you will get melted chocolate all over your fingers and steering wheel, and it’s also going to end up in your hair somehow and all over your khaki shorts, so the next time you stop for gas you’re going to be not only wound up on nasty cheap sugar, but sticky and messy and gooey, and also your car is going to smell like a melted Reese’s Fast Break for the next four days, and finally you will realize with a hot, heavy heart that your loves of chocolate and desert will always be incompatible.
Nice one-liners from strangers
- “Man, bein’ back East’s the shits.” – guy at gas station in Wallace, Idaho, re: my “Taxation without Representation” DC plates
- “You’re on your way to write the next chapter in your book.” – lady with whom I’d eaten lunch at a Madison River picnic area in Yellowstone, who didn’t know anything about my writing life
- “The best surfer is the one having the most fun.” – Frankie, quoting a saying he heard from someone
- “They created surfing to keep the truly gifted from ruling the world.” – bumper sticker, Ocean Beach
- “I hope all your explorations prove very fruitful.” – old timer guy at the Florence, Oregon, visitors’ center
- “Every day is a good day.” – older timer guy, Wranglers and cowboy hat variety, at a chile stand in Hatch, New Mexico
- “Nah, I see good in all. Well, good and bad in all.” – Amos, a transient energy sector worker who told me stories and got my dinner at a Mexican family restaurant in Brush, Colorado—when I asked him if, after living in so many places around the United States, he had a favorite place or group of people in the country.
- Pelicans, dive-bombing for fish among my brother and the others in the surfer line-up, sunset at on Ocean Beach, California
- Seven river otters, including a family of five, cracking the bones of their fish dinner on rocks along the shore of Yellowstone Lake (other big wild things in Yellowstone: bison, elk, blacktail deer)
- Trout and crayfish, Crater Lake, Oregon (both species introduced to Crater Lake, which would otherwise not be home to animals beyond birds)
- Lots of fish, including vibrant orange Garibaldi and some kind of bass, as well as a bunch long silvery blue guys I couldn’t identify, in among sea grass and kelp. Spotted while snorkeling with my brother in La Jolla Cove, California.
- A super-fast scurrying lizard, a rabbit, a couple bighorn sheep, and four furry tarantulas, Rio Grande Gorge, New Mexico
- Pronghorn in the high sage country, New Mexico
- Oh yeah, seals and gulls! All over the coast.
Really good breakfasts-and-conversations with really good friends
- Eggs benedict (Beth) and a Polish omelet with cranberry walnut sourdough (me), plus lots of coffee with half and half we stole from the next table over – Wisco reunion with BRab, Fayze’s, La Crosse
- Swedish pancakes and lingonberry cream sauce with Lindsay at Paul’s Pancake Parlor, Missoula (ladies of EVST, we missed the rest of the Lindsay and the Writers crew!)
- Savory crepes and Stumptown cappuccinos on the patio, Vivace, Portland, with Trina
- Milagro Coffee, AKA rocket fuel, with Brittany in Las Cruces. Brittany hails from the Northwest. She hates Utah for its dearth of caffeine. When it comes to coffee, this woman doesn’t mess around.
The “I’m grateful for the kindness of strangers” moments
- When my campground neighbors from Boulder/New York at Indian Creek Campground invited me over to share their campfire on my first night back in Yellowstone. We talked about our love-hate relationship with social media.
- When the local auto parts store owner in Wallace, Idaho, spent approximately 18 seconds replacing my windshield wiper blades, a task that always takes me at least 15 minutes (when I can even do it at all) because I can never seem to maneuver my fingers and wrist just right to get the old ones off. I was back on the road and venturing farther into the misty inland Northwest in 5 minutes.
- Charlie at Hungry Lou’s, Ocean Beach, California, who offered me a sample of his special lemon ricotta cannoli filling, his grandma’s recipe from Sicily, and gave me a bunch of fresh raspberry butter sandwich cookies for free. When I said it looked like he had a pretty good existence, baking family recipes with butter and sharing good food with people every day, all the while two blocks from the beach, he said, “We’re very blessed.” (Charlie’s family had come from Italy to California via Wisconsin, where they had a creamery. I’d say that explains their good taste in quality dairy ingredients!)
- Amos, at that Mexican restaurant in Brush, Colorado, who joined me for dinner and told me stories. One time he and his buddy hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in one day with nothing but a can of Spam, a bag of Doritos, and a half-jug of whiskey. (It was late December, so they didn’t die—just wore themselves out, finally re-emerged on the South Rim at 11 o’clock that night, and almost fell asleep at the wheel as they drove to Flagstaff for a room). Amos told me good story after good story, said the conversation was better than staring at the wall in his hotel, and insisted on getting my dinner.
Real cool public spaces – urban
- Keller Fountain, Portland. Waterfalls in the city: what’s not to love?
- Mission Beach Boardwalk, San Diego: the first moment in my life when, can’t put my finger on exactly why, I kind of wanted to watch old episodes of Baywatch
- Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market: I bought a baby cactus, a New Mexico Rainbow (one endemic to the Las Cruces area), and it’s the cutest, and I love it, and I hope it gets enough sun through my windows this winter.
Real cool public spaces– rural/natural
- National Parks: Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Saguaro
- National Monuments: Cabrillo, Sonoran Desert
- Wild & Scenic Rogue River
- Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
- National Forests: I lost count at 12. A few new favorite national forests discovered on this journey: Umpqua (Oregon), Cleveland (California), Carson (as in Kit; New Mexico)
Some good walks
- Up above Butler Creek, Montana, with Lindsay, past her place to a nice high ridge near Snow Bowl, where we could look down and out at the city of Missoula, Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel, and the Bitterroot Valley. Good views, better conversation.
- Beacon Rock, Columbia River Gorge, with Trina, not far at all from her home in Washougal, Washington. Ditto to the above.
- Ocean Beach, California, a fine neighborhood for wandering around in a sandals, Packers tshirt, and straw hat, on a lazy Sunday morning.
- Rio Grande Gorge, North Rim, Taos Mesa, New Mexico, with David, Horatio, and Melissa. First we watched dense morning fog burn off the rim. Then the sun found and shone bright off the Rio, hundreds of feet below.
- Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. I walked alone on a country road surrounded by cottonwoods and sage as a full moon rose from behind the Sangre de Cristos. My last night in the mountains, for a while.
Select ice cream experiences
- Wilcoxson’s. Montana-made, a Yellowstone tradition. Wilcoxson’s, my sweet, you know our history. Neither fire nor flood could shake my allegiance to thee.
- Big Dipper, Missoula. When it’s late summer in Missoula and you go out for a beer with a friend, it becomes dinner with a friend, which becomes a lovely long aimless stroll along the river with a friend, which becomes the realization that you’re really not all that far from Big Dipper, and while you’re so near you better bring your conversation to the long line in front of Big Dipper to get a sundae made with fresh coconut ice cream. This is how life is in Missoula.
- Salt and Straw. In Portland they make meringue out of sea urchins and put it in ice cream. Unfortunately I was the unPortlandlike dork who went conventional and ended up with your standard, run of the mill almond brittle ice cream with salted chocolate ganache. Um—yum.
- Umpqua, which, in the form of a nice peanut butter shake, topped off one of those perfect greasy meals that hit the spot at the end of a long day outside. From Phil’s Frosty, a little pink-painted drive-up, in Shady Cove, Oregon.
- Blue Bell. Good Lord, this is what happens when you let Texas attempt dairy. All. Wrong. The ice cream base is way too sweet, not at all creamy, and the mix-ins are too small and too mixed-in. This was the last ice cream of my journey, and it was one thing that made me glad I was headed back to Wisconsin.
Rivers I got to follow for many, many miles
- Yellowstone, Montana
- Clark Fork, Montana
- Columbia, Oregon and Washington
- Umpqua, Oregon
- Rio Grande, New Mexico
- Platte, Nebraska
- (Credit to saltwater, too: the Pacific Coast also guided me a good many miles)
Good eyeball stretches
(gazing long distances in the West sure beats staring at screens several inches from your face)
- Clouds over Yellowstone Lake and the Absaroka Range, Wyoming
- Butte, Montana, at night in the rain. After dinner Nancy took me up to Walkerville, and from the Granite Mountain Mine Memorial we looked out over the lights of Butte and up to the top of the Continental Divide, where a huge illuminated white statue faced down at us: Our Lady of the Rockies.
- The Palouse, Washington, where I felt very small and alone in my little red car: a landscape where the straight horizontal ribs of clouds above are powerful contrast to the slant and thrust of the Columbia Plateau, angling up in layers of long, irregular lines.
- From that big hill in Portland, Frankie and I could see Mounts Hood, St. Helens, and—we’re pretty sure—Rainier. We had such a sunny, clear experience in Portland! A local guy said, “You should move here. Portland’s like this all the time!” I said, “Right! So I hear.”
- From Cabrillo National Monument, California, we scanned far down the coast and caught sight of distinct white buildings. Tijuana. That’s also where I got a text from Verizon: “Welcome to Mexico! Special rates apply…”
- From my new favorite Denver bypass, Limon to Brush, Colorado, via Last Chance, miles and miles without a tree. I drove it just before sunset, and I’m sure the golden curves of the high range have never been prettier.
Some superlatives from the journey
- Most appropriate shuffle-selected song for the landscape/mood of a moment: “Simple as This,” Jake Bugg, afternoon, Sonoran Desert, Arizona
- Most inappropriate shuffle-selected song for the landscape/mood of a moment: “Fight for your Right,” Beastie Boys, 7:20 am, North Platte, Nebraska
- Best place for water-nerding out (and wishing I’d brought my copy of Cadillac Desert for reference!): Central Valley and Southern California. Southern I-5 is posted with dozens of signs from farmers: Stop the Democrat-created Dust Bowl. This water crisis was made by Congress. Southern Californians pay for millions of gallons of water every year that is never delivered. Food grows where water flows. Water equals jobs…Once we made the desert bloom. Now our almonds and our citrus and our lettuce and our pistachios need lots of water in a landscape where there is precious little.
- Best forearm tattoo: Portland.
- Favorite license plate: Euphony. I saw the car’s driver in the parking lot at Canyon Campground, Yellowstone, and asked him about the plate. He said, “In the past I’ve had many cacophonous relationships, but now finally one that is sweet and good. So—euphony!”
- Time when it was best to have my big brother by my side: when I swam out past the big waves pummeling La Jolla Cove so we could get out to calmer water and then realized that calmer water was pretty cold and pretty deep and even when they’re not breaking, the big swells look pretty scary-tall when they round that rocky point and come rolling right at you. “Just let the energy of the swells pass through you,” he said. So I watched the next one approach, took a deep breath, and did. Thank you, brother.
- Best match of local radio station to the vibe of a place: 94.9, San Diego. Me, to my brother, every time we got into his car in San Diego: “What do you know, they’re playing another Chili Peppers/Sublime/MGMT song!” For the nine minutes every hour that 94.9 did not play one of those bands, they filled the cracks nicely with newer beats from the likes of Tame Impala, Cage the Elephant, and Portugal, the Man. Light and fun–just right for the beach.
- Most cringe-inducing American moment: driving along the US-Mexico border on I-8 in Southern California. A hundred yards to my south, a tall black wall slices the desert. Off the shoulder of the interest, I am buttressed by a long line of huge white barricades, chained one to the other.
- Most satisfaction-inducing American moment: OK, it’s not a moment, but a layering kind of satisfaction rose in me as I crossed into each new state and region on this journey. From prairie to Rockies to gorge, Cascades to canyons to coast, rainforest to tundra to desert—the landscape called America has so much, so much, in it. Politically and culturally, it’s pretty cool that so many of these distinct and beautiful places are set aside, accessible to the public for little or no cost, and (as long as we stay diligent) likely to stay that way. I mean, wow! I always intellectually liked how Wallace Stegner said the national park was America’s best idea (Yellowstone the first in the world!), but this trip was when that notion really sunk in for me. Public land represents, offers, and does so much for Americans and American-ness. A good idea, indeed.
Ways you can tell you’ve crossed that mysterious and perhaps arbitrary line back into the Midwest
- The gas station restrooms are suddenly spotlessly immaculate.
- The interstate changes: from a scattered collection of semis, beat up rancher pick-ups, and sporty small SUVs and Subarus to a car parade thin on ranchy pick-ups, thick on monster SUVs.
- Many bodies, like so many of their cars, are bigger.
- The customer service manager calls you a day after you return a wrong-sized Packers tshirt to Fleet Farm just to double-check that you had a “prompt and courteous” customer service experience. You say, “Yep, it was just right.” A good welcome back to the Midwest.