Mountains to Maritime

Sep 14th, 2020 in Adventure

We pick up the story with me encamped at the aptly named Harrison Lake, a rural wetland area north of Yellowstone. This section of the road trip blog will cover my drive to the Pacific, all the wondrous, mountainous nature en route, and the sudden exodus back as the wildfire situation out West quickly developed into a life or death situation.

My next park would be the esteemed and remote Glacier. But before venturing into that wilderness, I’d have a stop in on an old friend from TransAm, Curtis, a friend of cyclists and CDT hikers. This trip was designed to be socially distanced and not risk being a COVID vector. However, I was travel-weary and Curtis was not concerned about the virus, so I slackened my rules a bit to savor my only night indoors on the trip, warmly sharing memories and ideas, and cooking a meal from his well-stocked pantry. Oh, and having my first shower since leaving Flagstaff.

Driving up to Glacier wasn’t super eventful, though I felt a moment wistful driving through Missoula, a city I considered living in before settling on Flagstaff. After months of biking the country back in 2017, riding a bike into Missoula was equivalent to Eden for an urbanite like me; I haven’t forgotten the warm reception and welcoming vibe from the denizens of the Bitterroot Valley.

Upon entering Glacier, I immediately headed to the Backcountry Office, which was an in-person permitting system this year. I was able to secure a four night out and back itinerary in the remote North Forks area, right on the Canadian border. Half the park is closed due to the Blackfeet Tribe’s objections over COVID, and who can blame them. In hearsay, I have heard that cases regionally soared upon the park’s reopening, which was roughly in line with the national American indifference to the pandemic and consistent cases.

My hike in Glacier was just a fantastic nature experience. Going up and down a series of exposed mountain passes twice (once through a rain cloud), strolling about and swimming in picturesque lakes and even getting a little grizzly bear scare gave me a full gamut of wild things to savor. I clocked something like 70 miles total.

I got a great amount of socializing along this section too. The developed campsites, with fire pits and communal eating areas, were a great way to end the day for people on the same path. I wound up even reprising the Scavenger alias briefly when waxing poetic about Appalachian days, and got rewarded with people all dumping their extra food on me. Good times and then some.

Next was making west for Rainier, stopping on the Idaho border along I-90 at the 50,000 Silver Dollar Inn. At face value, it looked like a greasy truck stop / Montana-themed gift shop, but it actually had a diner with a vegan burger option, wifi, and even free camping (for RVs, but I just cowboyed). I rolled the dice with any COVID exposure, choosing a remote booth to eat and sip coffee where I composed the last writeup. It sure is a stressor to have to think about these sorts of measures constantly.

I’d find my limits would be stretched upon reaching Rainier. First, my comprehension at how such a mammoth mountain exists; it towers fourteen thousand feet tall, and is the most prominent topographic feature in the United States after Denali. I first saw it while biking Washington three years back from fifty miles away and it shocked me then. Hiking around it from a few angles just kept leaving my jaw dropped. Sadly, the backcountry was off limits this trip due to COVID / high use, so I was limited to day hiking.

Conversely, my patience would also be stretched due to the sheer volume of people recreating on premises, especially the easily accessed trails I was sharing. It was a masks-on hiking experience, with tons of traffic, including on trail, forcing regular mask use. It just isn’t fun hiking garbed up like that, nor dodging more people than I might’ve seen in Central Park. Dispersed camping around the park also left me slightly ill-at-ease; the unsureness of if I’d be safe and secure each night wearied me.

Last up on the parks list, and furthest from home, was Olympic National Park, which encompasses the entire Olympic Peninsula off Washington’s coast. I had the privilege of cycling around its extremely dense forests and sought to uncover its mysterious interior one day. I made it into the backcountry after some extensive deliberating on a suitable route online. Alas, I discovered a massive blister on my foot, sourced either from my tattered trail runners or possibly driving barefoot. Feeling crippled, I abandoned my itinerary with only 10 miles, but at least I got a night in.

Fortunately, I had my second couchsurf of the trip with Lonnie up in Port Angeles, a curious character who oversees his own personal forest, bird collection, and misc. oddball tenants. He lets people camp on property and hang out without much fuss, and like Curtis, was a visit cashed in from experience on prior travels. And was it nice to have his lawn and patio to plot out my next steps from, as everything suddenly descended into chaos.

The wildfire situation in the West the last week has been rapidly worsening, and I reached a decision upon surveying the forest closures, smoke clouds, and damage that it was appropriate to end the road trip and head back home immediately. Places like the California coast and Crater Lake would have to still wait for another time. Unfortunately, it was about a 1,500 mile drive back, which I’d aim to crush in three dedicated days.

I drove through a gray-fogged Portland the next day, smelling the smoke in my car and air, and did my best to stop minimally. Once I cleared the Cascades, the smoke fell behind me, and I was able to relax a bit. I set up camp on BLM land near Bend, and woke up the next day choking as the death cloud had drifted east overnight. I’ve never hightailed it out of camp as fast as I did that morning, and tore off for rural Nevada

One silver lining was getting to see the Silver State. I had only been here via Amtrak, so getting two full days of driving through its most desolate lands was an opportunity to understand the state. It just seems so hostile looking out at those barren mountain ranges bursting up out of the land in every direction. The mostly empty small towns between the interstate outposts added to the ambience. I did get a wonderful night in a wild hot springs near Tonopah that was frequented by wildlife in the night, and my last day’s drive began with passing by Area 51, some place I had looked up many nights on satellite and imagined about.

It was a bummer to end my road trip suddenly, but accumulating injuries, gear wear and extremely adverse conditions were more than enough in addition to a sense of weariness that had overtaken me in Washington. It had been nearly a whole month (I set out on August 15th), and I was still paying rent back in Flagstaff. It was a bit ironic to end this trip due to fires, when my Arizona hike didn’t even get started due to similar woes. I wish the best to all struggling out West with them, and will conjure up a synopsis, statistics and thoughts article soon.