One Last American Road Trip

I know I said the posts were going to be shorter. And I was going to post this in smaller chunks, but bugger it. It’s going up in one big load. I’m sorry.

When I last left off, Hailee and I had quit our jobs and were getting ready to fly down to Australia. However, there were still six weeks until our flight left, and we had a Prius-load of stuff that had to be in Seattle before then. We resolved to use four of those weeks to blitz through as many national parks as we could but first, while Hailee had business at Los Angeles’ Harry Potter World, I had business my own south of the equator.

A Quick Trip to South America

Despite being on (kinda) the same continent, it turns out the plane ride from the US to Peru is still a long one. But at least jetlag isn’t an issue! After a minor adventure with a taxi driver that seemed to say “welcome back to Latin America,” I found my friend Johan’s apartment in Lima’s funky Barranco district.

Johan was once my neighbour in Bogota, and he now works at his country’s embassy in Lima. With a departure to Australia imminent, it felt important to see him at least once while we were on the same continent.

peru-johanCeviche time. All the photos for this post were taken on a GoPro, which should help explain the sometimes questionable quality.

We got straight down to what we do best: sitting in plazas, drinking, talking shit and observing the comings and goings of the parallel human, dog and pigeon societies that occupy every public square south of Tijuana.

After a day in the plazas and a night in the bars, we headed out of town to escape the greasy, permanent fog that hangs over the city for large parts of the year. Lima is full of history and great food, but it also has a very palpable sense of desperation. It is a vast sprawl of rubbish and razor wire, of families living in unfinished buildings, a sheet of torn plastic where a front door would be. Teeming barrios climb the hillsides and on the outskirts, monstrous black factories hold court over shanty towns scratched into the poisoned dirt.

peru-lima-streets

We found sunshine at a town called Lunahuana, tucked into a green incision cut by the Rio Canete through Andean foothills. Any former housemates reading this might be surprised to hear that I found loquats in Lunahuana. Loquats are a small orange fruit that taste like a mix of citrus and mango, and they grew well in our backyard in Burlingame. They run riot along the banks of the Rio Canete. Peruvians call them “nisperos,” and everyone in town seemed to have pockets full of them. Lunahuana also hosts a “Festival del Nispero” in November (of course), during which prizes are given for the largest nispero, the best crop and the tastiest nispero-flavoured baked goods.

peru-loquats-nispero

The Grand Canyon

Before long I was back on a plane to the United States, that great cloud that hangs over the Americas. The rest of the continent is always watching the US – sometimes resentful, sometimes admiring – but most Americans seem oblivious to the attention of the rest of America, beyond their borders.

Hailee picked me up in Wanda, her indomitable little road tripping steed. Wanda was loaded high and heavy, but she was keen to stretch her wheels and so were we.

Our route between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon followed the same roads I’d ridden two years earlier with Baxter. It was fun to spot the fields where I’d camped, the diners and shops I’d stopped in, and alarming to see how little shoulder existed on some of those roads. Cycling seems much more dangerous from the seat of a speeding automobile.

grand-canyon-sandals

I’ve already banged on about the Grand Canyon on this blog – and it hasn’t become any less incredible in the last two years – so I won’t bore you with my hyperbole here. One difference, though, was that we visited in September, not December. This meant that:

  1. The weather was quite pleasant at the canyon’s rim, and the nights did not become too cool. But most importantly,
  2. It was almost unimaginably hot on the windless canyon floor. We started our descent before dawn, arrived at the Colorado River by 10 a.m. and spent the rest of the day on the river’s bank, migrating with scraps of shade cast by scant bushes. We were on the trail by 3:30 the next morning to hike out, and Hailee was sweating by approximately 3:32. She says our relationship would not have lasted if she knew, from the outset, how little I sweat compared to her. Nevertheless, my shirt was also soaked within the half hour.

grand-canyon-sunrise
Sunrise on the way down.

grand-canyon-bright-angel-near-the-endAlmost at the top.

A scene at a lookout on the Grand Canyon’s rim:

A pink-faced woman and a man in a fedora are attempting to take a selfie that captures the majesty of the canyon behind them, as well as their sweaty faces. A second couple approaches in matching caps, jean shorts and mystic wolf t-shirts.

“Would you like me to take a photo for you?” offers the jort-wearing man in a southern lilt, and he snaps a few shots for the grateful first couple. “We’re from Houston, Texas! Where are y’all from?” he asks as he hands the camera back.

“We’re from England,” chorus the first couple.

“We’ve got three weeks in America,” continues fedora man, “and we’re already so far ahead of schedule. In England, if you want to go anywhere you just end up in a traffic jam, and so we overestimated how long it would take to get anywhere. It only took us five hours to drive here from Las Vegas!”

“Well,” says jort man, “I sure love English tea – so I hope you have a great time here!”

“Oh,” sighs the pink-faced lady with feeling, “we had our first cup in several days this morning. It was so lovely.”

grand-canyon-deep-in-the-canyonThis chasm looks like a tiny slit from the canyon’s rim.

Zion National Park

Most American national parks seem to have at least one Big Ticket item – a single feature or view that inspires awe, draws crowds, and provides iconic backdrops for profile pictures. Examples include the aforementioned Half Dome, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, and the NPS has done a fantastic job of making these wonders accessible to the masses. In addition to unspoilt wilderness, American national parks offer sealed roads, car parks, lodges, food courts, hotels, campgrounds, camping stores, gas stations, bus stops, gift shops, bathrooms, museums, restaurants and supermarkets.

So you don’t need to be a hiking nut or a pro camper to have a fun holiday in – or near – the American outdoors. Between posing for photos and chowing down in the cafeteria, visitors learn a little reverence for the beauty, intricacy and fragility of nature. Meanwhile, those who seek a little quiet and solitude must simply venture a little further to find it.

zion-national-park-the-narrows

We found no such solitude in Zion, and that was just fine. We had a campground by a creek at the mouth of jaw-dropping Zion canyon (we queued up at 8 a.m. to get it), and a shuttle bus service (at least four per hour, running on natural gas) to drop us off at any number of trailheads up and down said canyon. We explored slot canyons, splashed our way up the deep, steep Narrows and clambered up cliffs to Angel’s Landing.

zion-national-park-angels-landing-viewViews from Angel’s Landing

zion-national-park-h-climbing-on-angels-landingzion-national-park-h-and-qzion-national-park-h-fallszion-national-park-h-on-angels-landingHailee points at where we came from on the way up Angel’s Landing.

zion-national-park-on-angels-landingzion-national-park-river-view-angels-landing

Angel’s Landing is Zion’s Big Ticket, a lofty promontory jutting into the canyon floor. Standing on it is a little like standing on top of a hot air balloon floating inside the canyon. As the trail leaves the canyon wall to make for the Landing, there is a sign that warns of those drop-offs. It states exactly how many hikers have died here since 2004 and urges caution. In certain places, the ridge narrows to a handful of feet wide, with hundred-metre drops on either side and naught but a chain to cling to. It’s exhilarating, terrifying and the views are absurd. In Australia they wouldn’t let you anywhere near it.

That’s because Australians build high railings and locked gates around anything that might skin the knee of a particularly dimwitted toddler. The footpath on the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a cage, with all the atmosphere of a prison. By contrast, the walkway on the Golden Gate Bridge is like a balcony in the flipping sky – and its railing reaches no further than nipple height. In the United States, falling from a bridge or being out of your league on a precipitous hike are fiercely protected rights. In Australia, we are always presumed “better safe than sorry.”

zion-national-park-angels-landing

Canyonlands and Arches

After three days exploring Zion we packed up Wanda once more and headed north. We met Caitlyn, an old roommate of Hailee’s, at a campground near Canyonlands National Park and spent three days exploring it and nearby Arches National Park.

arches-national-park-double-o-archAt “Double O Arch”

canyonlands-hailee-and-caitlynOn Canyonlands’ Sycline Loop

Although the two parks sit opposite one another across Route 191, they couldn’t be more different. Arches is small, encompassing a patch of desert where giant rows of red rock abruptly rise from the sand in parallel lines called fins. It’s as if a herd of those giant sand worms from Dune were frozen as they surfaced together, and it’s loads of fun hiking around, through and on top of them.

arches-national-park-finsarches-national-park-delicate-arch“Delicate Arch”

arches-national-parkarches-national-park-lichenarches-national-park-toilet-signThe (literal) shit some of those rangers must have to deal with…

Canyonlands, by contrast, is huge. There are few official campgrounds and only a handful of sealed roads, which only penetrate as far as lookouts that offer views down into the canyons cut by the Green and Colorado rivers. Canyonlands lacks a Big Ticket, and therefore sees much fewer visitors than its more famous neighbour.

canyonlands-arch-sunriseThere’s an arch in Canyonlands, too.

canyonlands-sunset

Canyonlands was the second place where we encountered the trail of one John Wesley Powell, who was the first European to explore the Colorado River and the canyons it formed. He assembled a crew and four riverboats, and set off down the Green River in Wyoming in May 1869. They negotiated rapids, chased down runaway boats and portaged their way down waterfalls. In August they emerged from the Grand Canyon, having lost two boats and three men who abandoned the expedition midway – and were never seen again.

By the end of that trip, the men had become more preoccupied with surviving the uncharted river than mapping it, and so Powell decided to try again. In 1871 he assembled another crew for what turned out to be a less eventful trip. He even had an armchair lashed to the lead boat, so he could look for rapids and waterfalls ahead and remain comfortable as he did so.

Oh yeah, and he did all this with only one arm – he lost the other to the Civil War.

After an excellent few days, we bid Caitlyn goodbye and jumped in the car to…

Salt Lake City

One of our main reasons for visiting Salt Lake City was to check out Temple Square, the Mormon Vatican. (The other reason was to have a shower.) There’s a large temple, sealed off to non-Mormons (known as “gentiles”) but an army of pretty missionaries in long skirts are happy to show people around their two visitor’s centres.

There are many lessons to be learned at these visitor’s centres. There are lessons about Mormon teachings on every conceivable social issue and lessons about Joseph Smith, the charismatic founder of Mormonism, and the revelations given to him by an angel named Moroni. There are lessons about the Neophites and Lamanites, and about Jesus’ visit to North America sometime after his resurrection (I shit you not). But the biggest lesson, I think, is that if your presentation is slick enough, some people will believe just about anything.

Grand Teton and Yellowstone

We left the Salt Lake and wound upwards into Idaho’s hills studded with yellowing aspen trees. We stopped for huckleberry milkshakes at Victor Emporium on the border with Wyoming, and then hopped over a range of Rockies, descending onto a wide flat, wooded around the Snake River, and flanked on the western side by a series of triangular peaks arranged like shark’s teeth. The view of those mountains is Grand Teton’s Big Ticket, though the park also features some deep blue lakes formed by moraines. We saw our first storms of the trip here, and we quickly realized how easy camping is in the dry, dewless desert.

grand-teton-amphitheater-lake-hikegrand-teton-lakegrand-teton-lake-hike

Yellowstone is a far larger park, encompassing several rivers, valleys and minor ranges, as well as a geothermal area full of geysers, steaming pools and weird mineral deposits.

yellowstone-thermal-goopyellowstone-thermal-pool

Yellowstone and Grand Teton are also essentially big game parks, full of large, dangerous creatures. But instead of locking tourists in heavy duty Land Rovers and posting armed men on the roof, the NPS gives out hiking maps and encourages people to wander off into the thick of it. They recommend carrying bear spray, but at $50 a can it’s certainly not an enforced requirement. I can only assume that a handful of hikers each year achieve the distinction here of being trampled by moose and bison, eaten by bears and wolves or pounced on by cougars.

yellowstone-bison

We saw plenty of these large creatures, which cause traffic jams of selfie stick-wielding motorists every time one wanders near the road. We saw moose (meese?) in Grand Teton, as well as a grizzly bear’s behind as it disappeared into the bush. Hordes of prehistoric-looking buffalo graze in Yellowstone’s meadows and although they look peaceful, apparently they can run up to 56 kilometres per hour. We saw black bears in a tree harvesting pine cones, big-horn sheep grazing by the highway and foxes skulking at night. One afternoon, Hailee had to stare down a bull elk as he chased his preferred mate and her calf through a campground.

Americans like to think of their national parks as time capsules. Arches and Canyonlands evoke the heavily romanticized lifestyle of the early cowboys. Zion gives a look at the Mormons’ search for a polygamist’s paradise hidden from the wider world. The Grand Canyon makes us wonder what the Native Americans thought when they stood at its rim.

Yellowstone is a huge park by American standards, and especially beloved by its people. “Behold,” it seems to say. “This is what much of our country once looked like.” With its eerie geysers and happy rivers, seeded with forests and prairies and peopled with large, noble beasts, Yellowstone does lend itself to poetry. Thank goodness we have a scrap of it left.

yellowstone-waterfall

Glacier National Park

We crossed into Montana and after a stopover in Missoula, drove on to Glacier National Park, which bumps up against the Canadian frontier. Those same large creatures are here, as well as a striking roadway carved out of mountainsides on its way to Logan Pass, and known as the Going to the Sun Road. There are huge, steep mountainsides and glacial lakes that look like someone’s been fiddling with the colour “vibrance” settings in Photoshop.

hailee-in-glacier-national-park

glacier-national-park-lakesglacier-national-park-going-to-the-sun-roadOn the Going to the Sun Road.

Any visit to Glacier National Park should be tinged, I think, with a sense of shame. This is because by 2030 (and probably earlier), there will be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park. To see them now in the twilight of their long years, withered and cowering in the chasms they once wrought, is to begin to understand the magnitude of what we, in the blink of a geologic eye, have just done.

The generation to which Hailee and I belong has inherited this mess from those who came before us. Now, a mostly older portion of the American electorate has delivered us a president who thinks climate change is a hoax, who will (or mabye won’t) ignore the goals of the Paris Agreement and has pledged his efforts, instead, to extracting and burning coal and gas.

glaciers-in-glacier-national-parkGrinnell Glacier

Banff National Park

Canadian national parks are expensive. And while some of the funds must go to those cool softshell jackets their rangers wear, we stopped grumbling when we pulled up at the campground: The bathroom had showers. With hot water. The bathroom itself was heated. There was a sink for washing dishes – also with hot water. It was freezing and even snowing by this point, but Hailee, Wanda and I were hardened car camping veterans by now, and we reveled in the luxury of the Canadian national parks. We saw the iconic Lake Louise, hiked to a tea house far above and saw a grizzly bear, spooked by a passing freight train, sprint right behind Wanda on a small side road.

banff-national-parkIt was cold by now.

lake-louiseLake Louise.

After a stop with my sister in Vancouver, we found ourselves back in Seattle and lugging bags through Hailee’s parents’ front door. Road trips are weird like that – there’s very little decompression time afforded by a final bus ride or flight home. You’re sitting in the car, doing the same thing you’ve been doing for a month – listening to Harry Potter audiobooks, in our case – when suddenly, it’s all over.

Next stop: Australia! I swear the posts will get shorter!

3 thoughts on “One Last American Road Trip

  1. When do you leave for Australia? If you’re still in Seattle and have a free day, why don’t you drive up to Anacortes and visit us. It’s only a little more than an hour away, and we have a guest room if you decide to stay overnight.

    • Oh Vince, I would love to! Unfortunately we have already been in Australia or about a month – it’s been pretty busy over here and I was late writing this post. I will have to take you up on that next time though!

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