The next morning, I hauled myself to Portland, fabled mecca of counterculture, Brooklyn of the West. I drove about the city for some time, equal parts exploration and errands, before checking into yet another hostel, setting down my things, and taking off to a bar for some reading and nourishment of a more physical variety. I slept early that night, tired from a late night of beers and bars and bands and bonfires the one before, and woke well-rested for an eventful day of getting better acquainted with the city.
Of all American cities, Portland has the highest ratio of green space to urban space, and thus I whiled the morning and early afternoon away exploring its different parks, lush forests and grassy expanses and blossoming orchards. Wandering into the International Rose Test Garden, I was astounded by the sheer number, the variety of color and shape and size, of its subjects, roses of every hue, all fragrant and beautiful. I walked about, getting lost in the garden and its surrounding park, stumbling upon a heart-wrenching and well-done Holocaust Memorial and a small scattering of wonderful bronze sculptures.
Later, I emerged from the forest and drove a few short blocks into town, where I visited Powell's Books, Portland's staple independent bookstore, a bookstore so enormous visitors are offered a map of it upon their arrival. I spent some time meandering those shelves, wishing I had the room to carry so many of those books, but packing light, and already carrying more paperbacks than I'd intended, I settled for just one, The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, an excellent compilation of musings from scores of travel writers, quotes and anecdotes and ramblings that, flipping through its pages, I found it easy to relate to.
Book in hand and stomach growling, I headed next to the nearby Lan Su Chinese Garden, a tiny sliver of southwest Portland not just built to resemble the zen-like Chinese gardens of the Middle Kingdom, but built to be one of them, with blueprints and labor and materials all imported from the motherland. Though small in size, no more than a condensed city block, the Chinese Garden of Portland was a splendid place, temples and ponds and bonsais all bringing back fond memories of my travels in China some years ago.
Of course, no Chinese garden would be complete without a teahouse, and Lan Su was no exception. After walking the grounds, I followed the scent of mint and chamomile to the Tao of Tea, a two-story structure overlooking the main pond with a small list of snacks and a much longer list of tea, white and green and black and herbal and floral and more, and sat myself on the second story, overlooking all of that lovely walled kingdom. I ordered noodles, and then some vegetable rolls, and of course tea, a sweet citrus-infused green offering, and then I paged open my new book and there, in the Tao of Tea, I read the Tao of Travel, finding the words on those pages to perfectly describe my sentiments of joy and gratitude at that very moment.
I enjoyed several hours in that tea shop before leaving to meet Connor, a colleague and Portland transplant, for drinks just down the street. Exiting the garden, I felt a sudden sharp pain at the back of my head, a striking, clawing affront to my skull that caused me to jump and clamp a hand against the point of impact. I heard a flutter near my left ear, and then caught sight of a bluebird fluttering away, coming to rest on an ornate roof some ten feet in front of me. I glared at him, and he stared back tauntingly, seeming pleased with his ambush, which I learned from a man on my way out was an attempt to protect his eggs, for the bluebirds were nesting up in the rafters, rafters toward which I had, it seems, wandered too close.
Scalp still stinging, I met up with Connor, and we were joined shortly thereafter by another friend, Sarah, whom I knew from back in DC and had only just learned, the very night before, was temporarily stationed out west as well. And so, over smoked wheat beers and local brews, the three of us caught up, Sarah ducking out early for a long bike ride home and Connor and I grabbing a bite to eat before calling it a night around eleven.
Connor, who spent most nights at his fiance's apartment, generously offered his own vacant dwelling to me, and having found the hostel of the previous night rather dull, I gratefully accepted his offer. After giving Connor a ride aboard Rousseau to his fiance's, we said our goodbyes, and I headed back to his place for some rest.
Cloudy skies loomed overhead the next morning, wet asphalt below, and I bundled up in all my layers before hitting the road, snaking north toward the coast, sad to be leaving lovely Oregon, a place of such neverending beauty and such individualist culture, a place where counterculture is the culture, a place where everyone just seems to get, fully and truly and sincerely, what life is all about. But my adventure had to continue, and so I breezed through Astoria up against the Oregon coast and then into Washington, the corner of the country, the great Evergreen State.
Though the drive along the coast remained magnificent, the weather did not, quickly deteriorating from overcast to rainy, brisk to downright cold. The sheilded sun was still high in the sky, with miles of open road to cover, but my stamina that afternoon was lacking, my endurance flagging, and so I surrendered for the day, retreating to the small seaside town of Ocean Shores, where I checked into a pleasant and very affordable hotel with excellent views of the Pacific and, even more prized at that very moment, a heated pool and hottub.
Seconds after setting down my things, into the hottub I went, warming my chilled bones and only much later swimming laps in the pool's cooler waters. Muscles relaxed, I then dried, dressed, and departed the hotel in search of food, a quest that took me right along the pristine beach of the Olympic Peninsula. Such a beautiful beach it was, a flat, quiet, undisturbed stretch of sand, and standing there, gazing across the waters into the setting sun, I felt as though I was on the end of the earth, the final frontier. The sensation of absolute peace, seeming nirvana, the feeling of realization I had felt in Joshua Tree returned there, on those shores, and I reveled in them as I glided across the coast, waves lapping at my feet.
Eventually, I worked my way inland to a bar, where I secured a beer and a sandwich, and alternated between hearty conversation with the bartender and bits of reading. When I had ate, drank, read, and conversed my share for the night, I returned to the hotel, took another swim, and went to sleep, window open and calm crash of cresting waves wafting in.
The next morning, I ran. I love to run, and I had hoped to do a fair bit of it on my journey, but between my pack and my early rises and my inescapable exhaustion, I never found the time or opportunity, and I bemoaned passing such marvelous pieces of land, so ripe for a run, without taking advantage of them. But there, on the Olympic Peninsula, I had no excuse, for my hotel room could secure my belongings, and the early check-in and relaxing activities of the day before left me feeling better rested than ever before. So I took off, sprinting barefoot across the beach, sand spraying underfoot, puddles of salty seawater splashing about, gulls squacking and taking for the skies, feeling so energized and triumphant and free.
After my refreshing race along the coast, I took to the weight room, and to round out the set, I did a bit of yoga in my hotel room, some simple poses, before getting carried away and attempting a headstand, albeit supported by a wall, which began well but ended poorly, a small turn of my head enough to squeeze a loud cracking sound from my neck, a twist that left my head unable to rotate left for the remainder of the day.
This ailment proved inconvenient for a number of reasons, not least of which was that scootering about the country required a fair amount of neck-turning, but my pleasant stay in Ocean Shores had left me restless, and no small inconvenience was to leave me stuck, so I continued north, ignoring the grey skies, which looked no more promising those the day before, and ignoring the stiff pain, north toward Olympic National Park.
Olympic National Park is, or at least much of it is, a rain forest, and I soon learned that rain forests are called such for good reason. Halfway around the peninsula, I was drenched, cold and wet and far too much of either to fancy a hike through the park or a stop at a scenic vista. Instead, all I wanted was east, was away from the Pacific's troublesome waters, and so east I trudged, slowing only slightly to take in some of the park's marvelous views, which were, to be fair, quite marvelous even under that bruised sky, until finally, hundreds of miles later, the skies cleared and the Puget Sound opened up before me in the distance.
I knew little about the Puget Sound before my time on the Olympic Peninsula, knew nothing of its immense depth, and thus ignorantly assumed I could cross from the Peninsula to the mainland, from Olympic to Seattle, across some bridge, some feat of civil engineering, some connection of land to land. Such was not the case. No, my option, I soon learned, was either to enter Seattle by scooter from the south, a long horseshoe down the west end of the peninsula and back up, or by ferry, straight across the Sound with Rousseau down below.
With ferries arriving only once every hour, and the necessary loading and unloading of passengers and vehicles, neither option was particularly expedient; both, I assumed, would take several hours. But the ferry sounded like an adventure, the road just more of the same, and and so, as one if by land and two if by sea, I chose the sea, Rousseau and I coming to Seattle separately.
I worked my way to the ferry's dock, paid nothing more than seven dollars and some change for myself and Rousseau, and passed the next half-hour drying my clothes against Rousseau's exhaust pipe while watching the incoming ferry make its way from across the water. When it docked, a bell sounded and a thin hiss worked its way around the bend, growing louder, louder, and then, whish, out came scores of cyclists, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a Tour De Olympic of commuters returning home from a day's work in Seattle, buzzing in a tight procession past us like wasps, up and around and into the distance.
When the last cyclist ambled out from around the corner, a new sound, roaring and revving and loud, and then a rush of bikers, several dozen motorcycles, chrome gleaming against the setting sun, all pushing out and away, fanning from the ferry's narrow exit to a wall of angry metal commanding the whole of the road's width, and then they went the way of the cyclists before them, up and over the hill, up, up, and away.
The parade continued: after cyclists and bikers came cars and then trucks, just a few trucks, and then all was quiet, and I was asked to board first, and I drove Rousseau around the corner and down into the depths of the ferry, parked her on her center stand, and wiggled her a bit, a little worryingly, hoping it'd be enough to keep her upright over the waves of the Sound.
I then headed upstairs, found a seat and some tea and a pretzel, and watched Seattle draw closer, perhaps a little guilty about choosing ferry over bike for this leg of the journey, but Rousseau, I justified, deserved a break anyway, and quickly forgot about such silly sentiments as the Space Needle came into view, as the sparkling shores of Seattle drew into my peripheries.
Once docked, I went below deck, was delighted to find Rousseau still standing, and rode her off the ferry into Seattle's hilly streets. Tired from the long day of wet driving, I treated myself to yet another hostel, an odd boarding house sort of feel to it, and walked about downtown, market to pub to big ferris wheel in the sky. The next morning, I continued my exploration of the city with a particularly touristy but surprisingly enjoyable and informative expedition into Seattle Underground, a guided tour through century-old abandoned streets buried underneath the buzzing metropolis.
Seattle has an absolutely fascinating history, especially from an urban planning perspective, a tale of trial and tribulation and exploding toilets and stoves falling from the sky, of giant staircases and sewage floods and sinking buildings and devastating fires, of cutting corners and making the best of a bad situation at its very finest. Perhaps I'll attempt to to recount this story at some later date, but for now, it will suffice to say that due to poor foresight, the city's original downtown was later built over, that is, walls were constructed on either side of Main Street and an entire throughway was built atop it, and the old Main Street, all thirty-three blocks of it, was left in the dark to deteriorate, shelter for blowsies and bootleggers until it was, eventually, condemned and sealed up.
Until many years later, that is, when an enterprising businessman thought to begin giving tours of three of those blocks, down to the depths of the city, through a handful of musty rooms and corridors, picked bare by looters of yesteryear, not much to see in the way of urban decay, but nonetheless a great way to learn a bit about Seattle's colored history.
After the tour, I crossed the river and stopped by Gas Works Park, a unique green space with a rusted old gas plant as its centerpiece, and then a few blocks away, a twenty-foot bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin, an out-of-place relic of another age with just as interesting a backstory as Seattle itself. Then I was off, off for the border, off for Vancouver, off for Canada, friendly neighbor to the north.
A few hours later, I was there, in line to cross the threshold, then interrogated by a customs official, who wanted firm details as to where I was going and where I was staying and how long I would be there for, who grew frustrated when, under my cavalier style of travel, I could provide no specifics, who finally gave in and let me pass with a curt "Welcome to Canada," and then in Canada I was, racing to meet Vancouver by nightfall.
I quickly found kilometers to be a lot of fun, not just more practical than miles in their base ten element, but more enjoyable too, every few seconds another tenth of a kilometer dialing by on Rousseau's odometer, making my destination feel somehow closer, myself somehow faster. And then there was the added bonus of another dimension to my mental arithmetic, allowing me to pass the time not just by calculating arrival deviations against my current speed, but by converting kilometers to miles and back again, just for fun.
Kilometer by kilometer, Vancouver drew nearer. Entering from the south, I first arrived in her suburbs, then worked north toward the peninsula, downtown, her beating heart. Vancouver's skyline, I must say, is a beautiful one, one of the most visually consistent I'd ever seen, all silver and glass and reflections of different shapes and sizes, all modern and clean, and despite the homogeneity of it all, all around quite impressive, quite lovely.
For the umpteenth night that week, I booked myself a bed in a hostel, this one leaps and bounds more exciting than my last stay, a sprawling complex sitting above a bar under the same ownership. The bar, I learned from the friendly receptionist around front, was hosting trivia at nine, and so shortly before nine and I worked my way down to the bar and ordered a drink and, doing something I'd almost never do, walked right up to a table of men laughing over a pitcher, asked them if they were playing trivia and would they mind if I joined, and they said not at all and told me to go ahead and grab a seat. I introduced myself and they did the same, Ray from Alberta, Manuel from Germany, Connor from Ireland. We were, it turns out, a well-rounded and multicultural unit, a formidable threat to our pubmate opponents, perhaps strengthened, if only a little, by Connor's penchant for, well, cheating, his phone working its way out of his pocket and into his lap at the slightest hint of uncertainty upon our very first question.
I assumed it would be in bad taste to scold my new friend with a lesson in ethics, so I ashamedly kept quiet, attempting to counteract our wrongful conduct by simply answering questions more quickly than Connor's phone, which proved to be a fairly effective strategy. Eventually, with Ray and I taking turns delivering confident responses round after round, Connor relented, and we finished the game honest and fair and, it turns out, up ahead of any of the other dozen teams by a wide margin. We had won, two free drinks each our prize, and we cashed in on those with a succession of pitchers, more conversation and fun stretching into the early hours of the morning, and a plan hatching to walk out to the beach for a midnight stroll.
Ray got up for a moment, and the check came, and Ray did not come back, and quickly, the appealing plan fell apart, Connor and Manuel puzzling over how to pay the tab they had run up, some three figures deep, and I, feeling bad although I had ordered all my drinks at the bar, pitched in what I could, and we settled up and called it a night, and all went our separate ways, mine being straight to bed.
Back in Utah, at Arches National Park, a lifetime ago, I had been walking across a sandstone fin stretching into the sky, glowing with gratitude for being alive after a short stint stranded on a boulder, and I had come across a jovial older couple, Barb and Ray, who stopped to comment on my barefoot hiking. We got to talking, and Barb mentioned the pair was on holiday from Vancouver, and I mentioned that I was headed to Vancouver, and Barb suggested I let them know when I was arriving so they could pepper my stay with recommendations of Vancouver's best. That I did, and Barb and Ray did even better than their word, offering to show me about town that day. So late the next morning, I met Ray at their gorgeous east Vancouver home, a beautiful house with wide windows overlooking all of Vancouver and its bustling port, and we spent the day exploring, driving and walking our way downtown and along Vancouver's shores and through its markets, until Barb, who was at work all day, met up with us that evening.
Earlier, Ray had asked me if I had ever tried yoga, to which I replied, while massaging my still-sore neck, that I certainly had, and he then asked if I might be interested in joining him and Barb that evening, part of their daily ritual, to which I responded that I'd be honored. Barb and Ray were not students of ordinary yoga, however, but hot yoga, a variation I had never tried but was greatly eager to. And so after meeting up with Barb, the three of us headed to the couple's yoga place, where they were warmly welcomed by their classmates and instructors, and the three of us changed into our respective yogawear and headed into the silent studio.
Entering the studio was hot. Hot and humid. Sweat instantly began dripping from my face, perspiration seeping from every pore in my body. By the time class began, I was drenched simply sitting there, and commencing physical exertion only made matters worse. Within minutes, I joined the other men in the room by shedding my shirt, already drenched, and minutes later, my gym pants, remaining only in a thin pair of running shorts and still sweating more than I ever had in my life, so much my fingers began to prune, so much sweat burned my eyes and my ears and prevented me from securing even the most basic grip on a basic tree pose, let alone a more complex contortion.
By the end of the hour, my body felt battered and dehydrated, as though I had been run over by a freight train and left to weather in the sun for three days, but with that came a feeling of intense calm, immense relief, and in a way, I felt better than I had in quite some time. Hot yoga, I found, was one hell of a workout.
After showering and changing into dry clothing, the three of us left the studio for Barb and Ray's home, where the two, as though they hadn't been generous enough already, had kindly offered me a room to stay in. Once back, we enjoyed Canadian beer and leftover sushi from my and Ray's earlier adventures, and talked at length about our respective travels, our respective nations, our respective lives. Sadly, Barb had work early the next morning, and I had a long drive ahead of me, and so shortly before midnight we parted ways, and I drifted slowly to sleep, watching the boats drift by in the harbor.
Barb had left by the time I woke the next morning, but Ray was still around, and so we spent a few more hours talking over blueberry smoothies and green tea, and then off I went, disappointed to be leaving that lovely pair, but glad to be reminded that people like that existed, people so giving, so full of life, so adventurous, so young even after their many years.
Leaving Vancouver marked a turning point of my journey, a literal one, for Vancouver was the furthest point I'd reach from home, every mile before it bringing me further away from my fair District, but pivoting east and out of Vanncouver, I was pointed home, working toward it, at least, and though it would be weeks before I made it back to the Atlantic, those weeks would be part of the return leg, the homecoming. And so across British Columbia I drove, fresh motivation and spirit, all the more buoyed by the majestic scenery around me. British Columbia, I must say, is one of the most beautiful places I've ever had the privilege to visit. Riding along the Trans-Canadian Highway, railroad to my left and river to my right and mountains all around, I felt humbled, not just by my relative insignificance but by my inability to even take it all in, to comprehend so much of something, and so powerful that something, within my simple mind. "I sink under the weight of the splendor of these visions," Goethe's Werther once said, and here I felt just like Young Werther, almost pained by just how splendrous it all was.
Never had I seen mountains so jagged, nor so white, never had I seen lakes so serene, nor so blue. Blue, here, is an injustice to the Canadian lakes, for those lakes are not blue: they are every shade of blue and every shade of green and some are of a hue I'd never seen before, colors without names, beauty without adjectives strong enough to convey. In my past life, life before my journey, I was something of a lake utilitarian: out east, I appreciated those aquatic bodies for their function, for swimming or watersport or simple gazing, but British Columbia, and its neighbors of Washington and Oregon, together they converted me, they showed me that a lake could be more than a place to splash around, so much more.
What's most striking about the beauty of British Columbia is that it never stops. Down in the States, every splotch of splendor was punctuated by the occasional bore or billboard, but rocketing through Canada for hundreds of miles, I never found my eyes still, for forever they wandered, oscillating from left to right and back again, never wanting to miss a thing.
By that evening, I had made it well across British Columbia and almost to Alberta, and having spent the past week sleeping in beds, I yearned for a more intimate reunion with nature, a night of camping in the shadows of the Canadian Rockies. My initial plan was to simply find a quiet stretch of road and pull over for a rudimentary camp somewhere in the woods, but in scanning the shoulder for a suitable place, I nearly ran into a black bear, and I began to think better of that scheme, instead resigning for the night and pulling into the next campground I found, a soulless place charging more for a campsite than I had paid for a bed in any city of the last seven days, but I was tired and ready to turn in, and so I gave in and asked for a bundle of firewood with my purchase and built myself a nice little fire on which to roast veggie sausage I had picked up back in California. I scarfed down three of these charred meat impostors before feeling a bit queasy, and then I slept, keeping warm, or at least warm as I could, next to the dying embers of the fire.
The next morning, I resumed my drive east, entering Yoho National Park by noon and Banff National Park a short while later, grabbing a quick wrap for lunch and taking it to Lake Louise, which I had heard was a pretty nice lake. Lake Louise, however, is not a pretty nice lake. Lake Louise is a gorgeous lake, a breathtaking lake, the epitome of the beauty of lakes I spoke of earlier. The turquoise of Lake Louise more vibrant than the waters of the Caribbean, the mountains that form its backdrop more grand and snowy than Colorado's Rockies, Lake Louise is spectacular.
Lake Louise is also, understandably, quite crowded, and so eventually I continued on, through Banff and on to Calgary, where the scenery transitioned from bold mountains to quiet plains, no less enjoyablle, and then south, back into the United States.
Back at the border, I was once again interrogated by suspicious officials, all the more suspicious seeing my DC plates way out in northern Montana. "What do you do in DC?" they asked.
"I work for the federal government, actually," I replied, nervous for no good reason, "with the Department of Housing and Urban Development."
"Hey," the one to the left called, "you know Flores?"
"Flores?" I thought, "Is that first name or a last name?"
His eyes narrowed. "It's a last name."
"Hm, I don't think I know Flores," I replied truthfully.
His squint intensified. "So you say you work at HUD, but you don't know Flores. That's funny, 'cause Flores is pretty high up in the food chain."
"Oh?" I inquired. "Are they ... political, or career, or ...?"
"Flores is in charge of the whole Hawaii operation, you see."
"Ah," I nodded, not sure whether it was better to lie and say I did know Flores after all or tell the truth and explain to the official that his friend wasn't really all that high on the proverbial food chain, so instead I just stared blankly, eventually muttering something about field employees and headquarters employees that, I assume, pleased the crew, for they very slowly handed me back my passport and welcomed me back to America, watching me intently as I pulled away.
By this point, it was getting dark, and dark at these latitudes, I should note, happens at about 11PM, whereas light, at these altitudes, happens at about 4AM. Expecting another necessary motel stay, I was pleased to happen suddenly upon the entrance to Glacier National Park, my next destination, and even more pleased to find a campground just minutes after that. I settled in to an unclaimed site, pitched a quick tent, and got to work building a fire, later using its warmth to roast bagels and bananas, which I mushed together with a smattering of peanut butter between them, an inelegant but inarguably filling meal.
Sleep came eventually, and blazing sunlight not too late after that, and by 8AM I was back on the road, climbing toward Glacier's Logan Pass along what is regularly called America's most scenic drive, which I found to be a well-deserved title, and which made it all the more disappointing when I reached the summit of the pass to find the gates drawn shut, snow still too widespread to safely open the road fully through the park.
Still energized nonetheless, I shrugged and turned around, enjoying the reverse drive just as much the second time around, leaving Glacier a bit later and turning south onto US89, a road that would bring me nearly eight hours south to Yellowstone.
Having driven nearly twenty hours in two days, I felt my stamina waning, feeling tired of driving, not simply the cold or the rain or the road but driving itself, for the very first time. Rousseau must have felt similarly, because just minutes later, no more than ten miles from the entrance to Glacier, my back tire began to spin out, tail fanning let and right, and I ground to a halt on the side of the road, praying the problem was anything, anything but what it was, which, to my horror, was a rapidly flattening back tire.
I grabbed my phone and confirmed my second fear of the moment, that I was in the middle of a cellular wasteland, and so with little time to spare, I hopped back aboard Rousseau and continued on, hoping to make it just a little further on my remaining air, to find some reception, perhaps to even make it the twenty miles to the next town, but three more miles was all I could get from her before the rim bottomed out, rubber burning and flapping from side to side, throwing me violently as I attempted to straighten, slow, and shoulder Rousseau. And there we stopped, alone and stranded, up the proverbial creek without a proverbial paddle.