With the smoke and the fire and the stars at night

Up again in the morning bright

With nothing but road and sky in sight

And nothing to do but go...

—old hobo poem

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Finding Time to do Very Little

When I had a house in Moab, I used to get up in the morning, have a cup of mud, pack a lunch, then head out to points unknown and just wander with the dogs. 

I worked part-time for the local newspaper, and since I was always out and about, I managed to find lots of news stories the editor wasn't aware of. 

Sometimes a story would consist of interviewing some old timer, and other times it would be "real" news, since I covered the crime beat (such that it was), as well as search and rescue (SAR). The SAR beat could keep me pretty busy, as Grand County has one of the most active SAR groups in the country.

I covered lots of stories of base jumpers falling into the rocks, ATV drivers going over cliffs, hikers getting lost, rafters disappearing in the big rapids, bicyclists breaking legs—the kinds of things that always happen in an active outdoors area. 

The emergency room at the local hospital actually has a chart showing the number of accidents for the season at each mountain biking trail.

But sometimes my day would include dropping by the office to listen to Sam Taylor, third-generation owner of the paper, relate stories about the early canyon country, some that I knew were tall tales—Sam's been gone a number of years now. Those were good days.

I explored a lot of the area in an intimate way, looking at every nook and cranny, which is really the way to get to understand an ecosystem. 

There were places I knew so well I could tell you what grew where and when. I was always finding something of interest, whether it be an old sheepherder's stove, lithic scatter, or a rare penstemon.

I had several books on the flora and fauna and could tell you what everything was called, an art I've partially forgotten at this point. I knew where the jackrabbits holed up and where the bullsnakes lived and even could walk you to a coyote den or two. I have no idea how many miles I walked each day—sometimes not even one and other times a lot.

It was the best of times and in some ways the worst, as I had very little money and many bills to pay. This improved after I decided to sell the house, freeing me from a house payment and associated costs.

I've had some hard times camping, especially in inclement weather, but nothing can beat hearing coyotes yipping in the middle of the night or getting up to a stunning sunrise. 

I'm currently in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, one of the nicest towns anywhere, with cool nights and days and stunning scenery, but the canyon country tugs at my heart and I'll be going back over there when it cools off, probably mid-September.

Moab's been discovered, but there are still lots of places where one can hide out and explore and watch the full moon rise over the distant mountains. 

And there is lots of big desert close to Moab that the tourists aren't even aware of—places over by Price and Green River. Plenty of country for everyone.

As much as I love my home state of Colorado, maybe I'll give up the wandering life and move back over to the canyons one of these days. I guess that if I do, I'll still be wandering, but in a smaller way.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Hot, Dry, and Broken Down

Leaving the shade of the tall larch trees at my camp near Kalispell, I head south, but not until I buy a bottle of Glacier Huckleberry Wine for back home.

I take the wrong exit in Missoula and find myself at the smokejumpers' headquarters at the airport. After taking a break from the sweltering heat by sitting in the shade with the dogs (my car thermometer reads 100 degrees), I flee. The heat is setting records, and it feels like if you lit a match the atmosphere would catch on fire. 

Having lived on gorp for most of my trip, I suddenly have a hankering for good Mexican food. I turn south at Butte, heading for Dillon.

For some reason, I really like Dillon, Montana, and the food at the Mexican bus is actually some of the best I've ever had. But there's a bicycle race that day, and the town is so packed it's hard to drive around. 

I take the dogs out to the fairgrounds for a walk, then brave the crowd and get some enchiladas. It's evening, and I had hoped to camp there, but it's still too hot, so I continue south, ending up camping on a back road near Pocatello, Idaho. 

I should turn east to go to Yellowstone, but I decide I want to go visit Logan, Utah, where I spent some time last year. I'll cut back north from there, camping at Bear Lake.

Seeing a sign that says Soda Springs, I turn off the freeway and go east, thinking this cutoff will take me to Logan. Before long, I'm at a small lake with picnic tables, and I stop and make coffee while the dogs swim. 

We have the whole place to ourselves, and it's paradise with the cool water and distant mountains—and even an occasional nearby train, as this is where they cut through the mountains of southern Idaho. A sign points out ruts from the Oregon Trail, but the grass is too tall to really make out much.

I'm soon in Soda Springs, a small town on the old Oregon Trail with historical signs everywhere. I find the springs and wait, as it erupts every hour on the hour, and it doesn't disappoint. Gulls love the water, which is carbonated and supposedly tastes like a mild beer, and they bathe in the geyser.

I spend some time driving around the town, then decide to head on over to Star Valley, which is near the Tetons. Taking a back road that winds through the mountains, I stop after an hour to take a break.

It's then that my battery light comes on. I call my brother, but soon lose the cell signal. I check for loose wires, finding none. 

After a moment of panic, knowing it's probably my alternator, I decide to head back the way I came. Going forward would take me to Jackson, where it's expensive to even breathe, but maybe I can make it back to the Wasatch Front and the Salt Lake City area.

I manage to drive the 70 or so miles back to the freeway, then head south, soon going up Malad Pass. Just as I'm being passed by a truck, my car begins acting like it's possessed—all the dash lights come on and the speedometer starts jumping around. I limp the car into a nearby rest stop at the top of the pass, wondering how I could be so lucky. The car completely dies under the only shade tree there.

I ask a man and his wife in a nearby pickup if they can give me a jumpstart, and they kindly help me limp 10 miles into the nearest town of Malad, Idaho, population 2,000. We have to jump my car several times to get it there. I pull into the first motel and get a room, marveling at how seedy it is, but happy to be there, as they allow dogs and have air conditioning. It's 102 degrees.

After two days in Malad, the local shop has my car fixed for the exorbitant sum of $300. It was indeed the alternator, and I feel fortunate that their prices are so reasonable. I do have roadside service with Geico, and they said they would tow me to the nearest Toyota dealer in Logan, who told me they would charge $500 to fix the car.

While walking the dogs, I meet a Marine on his way home from Iraq, and he asks if I've seen any bedbugs. I'm kind of puzzled until he tells me he's staying at the same seedy motel and that the Trip Advisor ratings say it's infested with the little beasts, though he thinks the complaints are from the wing we're not in. 

My love of motels grows, and I decide to buy another trailer when I get home—at least if you break down, you still have a place to stay. When in motels, I always sleep in my sleeping bag with a sheet covering the bed, and I've seen no signs of bedbugs, but I end up washing everything in hot water at a laundromat on down the road. I'd been lucky again, as none seem to have come along.

I'm happy I didn't break down in the Yukon, where just the tow alone would have cost thousands of dollars. I feel very fortunate and celebrate by spending the night in the desert, howling with the coyotes, happy to be home. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Finding Another Piece of My Home

An old army truck used to build the Alaska Highway during WWII. The 1500 mile highway was built in eight months by over 30,000 military men and civilians.

After spending some time with my family near Fairbanks at Harding Lake, I decided to head on down the road.

I immediately started getting into smoke, and before long, it was so thick I couldn't see any of the countryside. I drove through this for over 60 miles, wondering if just ahead the highway would be closed.

I kept thinking I would soon see flames jumping through the sky, but the smoke lifted a little after Delta Junction. At the time of this writing, Alaska has over 240 wildfires burning.

Budget police presence in the town of Teslin, Yukon,  home of the Tlingit people. I wonder if this guy is related to Lucky the Dumb Cop in Lakeside, Montana.

I had intended to drive the Top of the World Highway, then go on up the Dempster to Inuvik (site of the Ice Truckers show), but I was told by a station attendant that the smoke was thick that way. 

No point in driving a long ways to see nothing but smoke—it seemed I was already doing that. I decided to continue down the Alaska Highway.

I stopped to let the dogs out for awhile, and it was then that I realized we were all getting road weary (I ended up putting over 8,000 miles on my car). 

I was missing the desert, and I'll be the first to admit that camping alone in the vast and truly wild country of Alaska and Canada wasn't quite as carefree as camping in the deserts of Utah in my regular hangouts. 

I decided it was time to head home. I could come back anytime I wanted, but I suspected I would fly next time.

A young black bear keeps an eye on two scary and possibly very dangerous sandhill cranes near Fort Nelson.

It took five days to reach the U.S. Border, and I was quite surprised when I saw the sign that said "You'll soon reach the U.S. Border" (or something like that—I was pretty tired). 

Muncho Lake in B.C.

I had cut from Calgary over Crowsnest Pass to the ski town of Fernie and had no idea where the border actually was, having never come that way. 

Crowsnest Mountain at the top of Crowsnest Pass.

I went that way because I wanted to see the Frank Slide, which wiped out an entire town in 1903 and was Alberta's worst landslide in history. It was a grim sight, seeing all the massive rock.

I was feeling sleep deprived again, and I have to admit that I felt a sense of relief when I saw that the border was a mere 20 or so miles away. 

When one visits the Nuxalt people of Bella Coola, they'll remind you that the entire earth is our shared home. They say, "Coming here as you have, you've found yet another piece of your home."

RVs at Dawson Creek, B.C., the start of the Alaska Highway.

Even though we all share one planet, most of us feel more at home in some places than in others, and for me, it's where I was born and raised—the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.

As much as I love Canada, and as similar as the culture there is to ours, the comfort and familiarity of being in your own home country can't really be described. I had seen many pieces of my home, but I was ready to go back to the desert.

What started it all, near Calgary.
Being home gives you a sense of relief, knowing that you understand how things work and know the rules, even if you choose not to follow them.

Failing to find a suitable camp spot in Kalispell, Montana, I bent the rules and drove down this road across from Costco, finding peace and quiet.

I spent the night in Kalispell, marveling at the lack of mosquitoes. The next day, I drove to Lakeshore State Park on Flathead Lake, one of my favorite campsites.

I set up my tent and slept the afternoon away, the dogs snuggled up to me on my cot. They seemed happy to take a break from driving. When we left and I took down the tent, the main pole broke, making me feel grateful it hadn't happened in the Land of the Midnight Mosquitoes.

In Bigfork, Montana

We would spend several days at the state park, resting up and revisiting some of my favorite haunts around the lake, then continue south. 

We were only a mere 1,000 miles from home, but I was getting a second wind and decided to go see Yellowstone, the Tetons, and drive over Beartooth Pass.

But as the novels say—alas, it was not to be. 

Flathead Lake

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Lakeside Respite

Some cool antennae at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks—probably used to track reindeer and such.

It's been awhile since I posted, as I haven't had any internet connection in the Alaskan wilds, so I'll try to bring you up to date in the next few posts.

After basking in the intimidating grandeur of Denali, I made my way to Fairbanks, where I immediately (and quite accidentally) discovered the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company, which made the whole trip worthwhile, moskies, sleep deprivation, and all. (I'm beginning to think that Toyota built an espresso-seeking gadget into the hood of my car, the way it always ends up at espresso cafes, but I'm not complaining.)

I think I got a bit carried away there (probably a case of E.D., or Espresso Deprivation), as I ordered a large iced latte along with a half-dozen pounds of their specialty coffee. I kind of wondered if Amundsen felt the same when he reached the tiny outpost of Eagle City, Alaska after being part of the first expedition to reach the North Pole in 1926. It's hard to describe, but it's a feeling of relief, that one maybe will survive after all. 

I then drove to my aunt and uncle's townhouse, which is near the University of Alaska. I managed to barely catch them, as they had just returned from three weeks in Tuscany and were on their way to their house on the shores of Harding Lake, about an hour south of the city. They were somewhat surprised to see me, as I was arriving early and hadn't been able to contact them.

The Museum of the North in Fairbanks

I wanted to see a bit of Fairbanks before going to their lake house, so they headed out after telling me that I absolutely had to visit the Museum of the North at the university. 

This is definitely not the bear I'm looking for...
I'm not much of one for museums (unless they're filled with rocks and fossils and such), but when my uncle said they were having a special dinosaur exhibit, I headed up the hill to the campus. I could see Denali in the far distance, somewhat like a dream, its peak hovering above a thick low wall of smoke (or maybe moskies).

Polar bear paws are not something to be messed with.

I watched a film in the auditorium about the Aurora Borealis (Fairbanks is the best place in the world to view the Northern Lights), then wandered around aimlessly, checking out the ivory collection, stuffed animals (including a huge brown bear named Otto and a polar bear), as well as Inuit tools, boats, and clothing. 

I always feel sorry for the critters that got stuffed and ended up in a museum, thinking in this case that maybe they would prefer to be alive and down at the Alaska Coffee Company drinking espresso. I'm pretty sure I would feel that way, if it were me.

A rare caribou-polar bear hybrid

Finally, I found the dinosaur display, which was in a room through the gift shop, where I found some cool geology t-shirts that I just had to buy. (Good marketing on their part to make you walk through the shop.)

After checking out the dinos, I felt disappointed. The display seemed pretty small and insignificant, especially for a special exhibit. However, it did make me realize how truly amazing Utah and Western Colorado are for dinosaur finds. 

Sometimes disappointments can make you feel lucky, and it did make me feel lucky to live where I do, being a fossil aficionado. I'm spoiled and now realize it, which is a good thing to be aware of, I guess. It makes you feel more special or something.

I monkeyed around a bit in Fairbanks, getting lost (which is hard to do there) and ending up at the airport (sigh, not again). When my parents travelled, my dad would usually get lost in whatever city they passed through, ending up at the rail yards (he was a train fanatic). My mom always accused him of doing it on purpose, which he always denied. 

Must be genetic.

I was soon at my relatives' house on the lake, where I spent several days visiting, eating fresh-caught salmon, and enjoying the beautiful weather, as well as seeing a momma moose and her tiny baby. 

This photo was taken from my aunt and uncle's deck. The house two over belongs to my cousin and her husband, who spend their winters in Tucson. The houses are really close together, as lakefront property is hard to come by.

I hadn't planned on being near the Arctic Circle on the summer solstice, but there I was, and it was interesting to watch the sun barely go down for only a couple of hours, then rise again over the lake. 

Summer solstice sunrise over Harding Lake

Fairbanks has the Midnight Sun Festival on the solstice, which is a major event, but I decided I'd rather stay at the lake. I'd met a guy at the museum earlier who had flown in from Seattle for the event, and he said over 30,000 people attend. I think this would be about 70 people fewer than the entire population of the city (32,070).

After a few days at the lake, I decided to head south. I was still feeling sleep deprived, Alaska was beginning to feel overwhelmingly big, and I was feeling the call of the desert. I was tired of fighting moskies and vowed to return with a better camping setup, something like a pickup and camper.

In retrospect, trying to car camp was hard, as there was really very little shelter from the mosquitoes and endless light, and I hadn't counted on the heat, either. And yet I was glad I wasn't driving a motorhome or pulling a trailer, especially after following them along stretches where the frost heaves and potholes had slowed them down to unbearably slow speeds. I figured they took about twice as long to make the trip as I had, and I heard plenty of horror stories about broken hitches and axles. In general, the roads are good, except for places where they aren't (like Destruction Bay).

Not sure I would want to take this old Chevy RV in Pocatello, Idaho up to Alaska, though maybe if I were more of the mechanical type...

Before long, I would break down myself, another disappointment that would make me feel lucky. But more on that later...

The Alaskan pipeline in Delta Junction.