The light show, the thunder bumpers, and 100% precip.
As we make our way toward the distant Rocky Mountains on Hwy 2, a codger’s voice on eastern Montana’s local radio station reads the forecast for several counties. It’s pretty much the only news of the day. I come to understand that it’s not that there aren’t other news items, but that in the west, it matters when, where and how much it rains. This morning’s destination is The Hitchin’ Post in Malta, MT where egg and sausage English muffins await. Earlier, we woke up at a campground outside Medora, ND and packed under storm-yellow skies, ahead of any precipitation. We decide to eat a snack in the car, some Feridie’s hot & spicy peanuts from one of six precious cans, tucked behind my seat for unhindered access, to keep us going until we can get our hands on those breakfast sandwiches. After 300 miles it is lovely to stretch our legs, fill our stomachs, and listen to diner conversation. A homemade caramel sticky bun is also on the menu and I’m sleeping on the passenger side within the first ten minutes of getting back on the road. An updated weather report tucks me in.
The newlyweds and nearly-deads.
Sherri, her husband, and two granddaughters are on an extended summer vacation touring the western states in their travel trailer. We are staying at the same campground in Glacier National Park and find ourselves waiting together for a shuttle to take us up Going-to-the-Sun Road. I’ve noticed that, when traveling, people seem less interested in who you are. Rather, they want to know where you are from. We are from Chicago, IL. We are Dennis and Natalie from Chicago. They are from Custer, SD. They own property on a lake. In the spring of 2017, Dennis and I spent a week in the Black Hills near Custer and I describe our visit to Sherri as “quiet, like we were the only ones there”. She remarks, “yea, the newlyweds and nearly-deads”, the only tourist activity she knows of. She’s like a friend who knows what to say to make us smile, no effort required on her part and no hurt feelings if we’re not amused. We laugh a few more times, talking of ordinary things. It is the fifth day of our trip, there is nothing surprising about an enjoyable talk with strangers at a bus stop, and we are car-camping for the next twelve days in our Subaru, aiming for the Pacific Northwest.
Hiking. It’s better than divorces and affairs.
The trail to Numa Ridge Lookout is like the road to Bowman Lake. Bumpy, single-track, overgrown. Worth traveling for where it takes you, not so much along the way. Since the first year we visited, I had ideas about spending time in the North Fork. Now that we were up here, about as far as a vehicle can get to in this remote corner of the park, I was eager to take on a challenging hike through this unknown place. Another unknown was what Montana was like in mid-July. Our past experiences were of wonderfully cool days and cooler nights later in the season, the only bugs being the wasps that came like wolves to freshly-cooked trout and then disappeared when fresher fillets came out of the kitchen. I’ll skip the geek report on mileage, duration, elevation gain, average temperature . . . it was a long way up and my knees were cashed half-way through the long way down and it was hot. The only shrub I could identify in the brambly approach that ascends to the lookout tower is the Thimbleberry, so up we hiked through dense Thimbleberry bushes for many hours. Mosquitoes are the only idiots who like being surrounded by Thimbleberry and we were the idiots being surrounded by them. “Who’s the bigger idiot? The idiot, or the idiot who gets kidnapped by the idiot?” And the berries weren’t even ripe yet.
Having read up on this path, I was willing to continue. For what lie ahead were rocky ridges above tree line, views of tye-dye alpine lakes and mountains, mountains everywhere. Sensing that Dennis wasn’t aware of these eventualities and/or didn’t care about them we stopped at a place that had a breeze (a second’s worth at least) so that I could get my tears out and he could tell me that he wasn’t liking it. That he wasn’t doing the hike because he liked it, but because I did. That I should do what I came out here to do and he’ll be right behind me. Him saying these true and, once I thought about it more, sweet things didn’t make me feel better. It made me feel stupid, as I had somehow tricked myself (again) into thinking that, independent of my enjoyment of hiking he sometimes liked it too. Not ready to bail quite yet, feeling somewhat sullen, I kept going.
Further along the trail opened up. Bowman Lake appeared far below, the forest we had started in was just evergreen moss on a sloping rock in the distance, mountains were everywhere, mosquitoes were not. Cheerful once more, switch-backing until the lookout peeked at us from above, I found a flat perch to rest where I took out a snack to share. We would have to repeat the miles we had just done to get back to the head of the lake, but I know my hiking partner enjoyed feasting on those snickerdoodles atop Numa Ridge as much as I did.
Shh shh shh. Beach.
To avoid the heat wave in the Enchantments (where we had intended to do some backpacking) and the expected heat wave headed for Seattle (where we had our fill dining on dim sum in Chinatown) we went north and west to the coast of Washington. Arriving in Olympic National Park to 45 degree temperatures and mist in the air felt like we had traveled through seasons, not a couple hundred miles. Eleven days had passed since our departure from home. The previous night had been spent in the Hoh Rainforest under the best blanket. So nice to fall asleep beneath heavy wool. Upon waking, I was immediately thinking, would we stay here another night or try for the more popular Mora Campground closer to the ocean?
Some background: the idea behind the road trip was to not plan, only have a general course laid out and then see what we felt like doing each day. Fun/not standard procedure for me. I was struggling. On a typical trip I have all the ideas and details worked out, but this was like filling in a random bubble on the Scantron, hoping for the best. After doing that a few times there’s some anxiety, a few more . . . confidence wanes, and so on until a painful surrender to indifference. That’s where I was the morning we set out for one of two places, neither of which I knew enough about to select for certain. When Dennis suggested a simpler option, to turn off US-101 or continue, I didn’t respond. He had re-upped at the Hoh campsite for tonight, so one decision down. Still, I remained despondent all the way through Neah Bay in the Makah Reservation, past several signs for tsunami evacuation routes, while reviewing the tide charts, even along the trail – not a single sighting of the ubiquitous banana slug for two miles!
Shi Shi Beach: sea stacks, tidal pools, ravens, greys and greens, the Pacific. A few hours later, when we arrived back at the day-use parking lot, I was claiming it had been all my idea. And I plan on returning.
It’s a long time to be out there — naked and afraid.
I play a game during our drive through twelve states; it’s called counting Airstreams. Dennis isn’t playing so I’m up against a trickier opponent, my own shutting eyes. While an Airstream trailer isn’t difficult to spot, there aren’t many of them out and about. I manage to keep from dozing (most of the time) and gather a respectable tally of shiny aluminum pods over the course of what we are now calling “the 2.5 XL vacation”. I’m reminded, a bit, of trout. Fat, shiny trout hanging out in the current. Each one is a little bit different and even after I’ve seen a dozen, I keep looking, hoping for another. I hear our fly-fishing guide, Matt, calling out “Nice fish!” when I just barely catch a big vintage one in the shadows of the eastbound lanes. On the way back to Chicago we pass an Airstream dealer off I-84 where hundreds of them are lined up in neat rows, grouped together by model. I don’t count these. They are inactive, not yet out on those promised adventures. There’s no fun in netting a dead fish. I tend toward melancholy thoughts when a trip comes to its end, so it feels right that there are no additional Airstreams on the road after that to cheer me up some. Dennis is keen to be home. Eventually, begrudgingly, in central Nebraska once the tent has been pitched the final time, I admit that yes, two and a half weeks is a long time to be out there.
Cans of peanuts: 6
*IL, WI, MN, ND, MT, ID, WA, OR, UT, WY, NE, IA