Reflections from the road: On traveling by scooter

6.30.2013


During my first month on the road, I've experienced and learned a lot. And while I've been doing my best to document everything I've seen, thought, and felt, my attention to the what, where, and when has often overshadowed the how, which is just as important. So this week (or, as it turns out, month), I'm aiming to publish seven reflections, each on a different aspect of travel, free from time and space. Here's the sixth.

Nothing has characterized my road trip more than my mode of transportation: a scooter. Many have trekked across the country in cars, motorcycles, even bicycles and foot, but to my knowledge, no one was ever crazy enough to make a go of it by scooter, or at least not a full 15,000 miles, or at least not to live and care to tell the tale.

Traveling by scooter, then, had some anticipated (and unanticipated) drawbacks. For one, I was always fully exposed: exposed to the elements, exposed to the road before me, exposed to the vehicles around me. The simplest rain or wind could easily turn a magnificent drive to a life-threatening one, the most mundane pothole or trench could start my scooter wobbling toward collapse, and the most harmless person, distracted behind the wheel of a car, could throw me to the ground in an instant. Yes, while a three-hundred-mile drive in a car might be a solid day's work, a pleasant ambling through the countryside, aboard a scooter is was an achievement, and I always felt grateful to have survived another day.

Rousseau, of course, was a spectacular companion as far as scooters go, no puny Vespa or diminutive crotchrocket, but a fully grown 250cc powerhouse, capable of speeds up to 90MPH, capable of easily cruising at eighty, and, steep inclines aside, never giving me any trouble with a fast acceleration to get out of harm's way.

Beyond a flat tire, a few moody starts, and a mild but manageable calamity during the last week on the road, along with a few aesthetic plates and pieces that fell off in transit, Rousseau never gave me a problem along those many miles. She did make it clear, however, that she was no pack mule: upon first embarking, I had loaded her rack with items that wouldn't fit in my pack or her under-seat trunk, a helmet and a coat, and then a small tank of gas, and then a few guidebooks, and thrice she bucked that extra cargo from her back when I wasn't looking, not to discover the incident until a hundred miles later, despite my increasingly intense efforts to lock that cargo down with redundant sets of bungee cords, until I finally gave in, sent some items home, and made do with the small space provided underneath the seat.

More so than the danger of demise, lack of storage was my key grievance with my mode of transport, not because I wished to carry more, but because I simply wished for a place to leave my pack while running into a shop or embarking on a short hike, and with no safe place in which to store it, I was forced to always move with my Kelty 50L Redwing affixed to my spine, weighing down on my core, a good workout indeed but not always a desired one.

Though exposure to the elements was indeed a drawback, it was also a benefit, for it brought with it not just gratitude for life, but a sense of having deserved the destination. I'm sure setting eyes on the Pacific Ocean after a long drive westward would be soothing for any cross-country traveler, but to have done it aboard a little scooter, the smallest thing on the highway, against all odds, it felt wonderful. I felt proud of myself; I felt like I had earned it, each and every sight of the trip.

The most blatant advantage to scooter travel, however, was the novelty with which it touched others. A vagabond in a car may indeed pique interest by some, but my DC plates were all I never needed to announce myself as a person worth talking to, and I found myself, each and every day, chatting with complete strangers in the dozens, all wanting to know where I'd been and how I'd made it and what it all was like. And though I grew tired over the same questions day in and day out, I appreciated the interest and the interaction, and positively glowed when someone said they were "inspired" by what I was doing.

Economically, the scooter was also a good choice, with mileage per gallon ranging from sixty to a hundred, on a few occasions even more than that. The economic advantages were not absolute, though; while I saved in gas, I often paid dearly in lodging, for while I may have been fine getting a late-night slumber in the back of a car, or driving through a nasty patch of rain, cold nights and rainy days occasionally nixed my camping plans and left me running for the nearest motel or hotel.

Most important, however, and the reason I'd do things exactly the same if I were to do them again, is that traveling aboard a scooter allowed me to experience the world around me in the most visceral, direct way: no blind spots, no closed windows or windshields or obstructive car roofs, just 360 degrees of earth, vibrant and near in every direction, so close I could literally smell and sometimes taste it, and always feel it, the winds and the temperatures and the energies of each and every location, just me and the road. And my scooter.

To Nebraska (Days 51, 52, 53)

6.28.2013


I dragged myself to the Badlands, cursing my journey the whole way, and made it to the national park entrance around 6PM. Almost as soon as I entered the park, the winds that had hounded me through western South Dakota upped their efforts to an all-out attack, swatting me into the oncoming lane of traffic in one powerful gust and leaving me clutching a now-stopped Rousseau with all my might, it being all I could do to keep her from falling over. Thankfully no oncoming cars whipped around the bend during that minute, for that was how long it took to pull the bike back into its rightful lane, and recognizing that it would be suicidal act to drive the precipitous Badlands canyons in that weather, I turned around and scurried a few hundred feet to an overlook's small restroom, whose wall I used to protect Rousseau from the bullying winds.

I ducked for cover myself along that wall, passing the time by staring at a map and determining just how I could make it back all that way in my present demoralized state. I thought about cutting out my scenic return to Canada, about foregoing Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Toronto and instead simply skirting along the Midwest through Chicago and Cleveland. I thought about a lot of things, most of them negative, the violent winds doing little to brighten my mood. Those winds, unbelievably, had picked up even more, forcing me to pitch my tent, itself an impossible task, on the concrete behind the restroom and diving in it before it could blow away, unstaked and held down by nothing more than my body weight.

Several hours later, the winds calmed if only by a bit, and I hastily crammed my tent back into my pack, hopped aboard Rousseau, and made for the campground twenty-four miles in the distance, too conscious of the possibility of flash flooding to chance a more primitive camping adventure. That ride through the Badlands at dusk, quite possibly, may have saved the remainder of my trip, for driving through those decaying canyons, those sandy gorges and alien sandcastles, I felt my spirit returning, the fond memories of canyon country creeping back into my consciousness. Deadened after a dull day, I felt a breath of life work its way back into my inner vagabond.

I completed that eerie ride in the dark, enchanted by the mysterious landscape. Of those very Badlads Steinbeck once wrote, "They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child; such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding. A sense comes from it that it does not like or welcome humans."

Welcome or not, I needed rest, and shelter, and I pulled into the campground around ten, pitched camp, and slept, my first night of the entire trip in which I did not feel cold, that arid South Dakota summer keeping me warm throughout the dark starry night.

I woke early the next morning in better spirits than the last, and a new approach to boot. I needn't concern myself with making it to eastern Nebraska that day, I told myself: just the Route 83 junction, some sixty miles ahead. And when I got there, I thought "well that wasn't so bad," and so I shot for Valentine, just another eighty miles south, nothing more than a short drive away! Arriving in Valentine, I set my sights on the Sandhills Journey Junction, a nice little trek, and from there to Mullen, and Thedford, and so forth, until I found myself, late that afternoon, pulling through Grand Island and sprinting the remaining twenty miles to Central City, at my destination but for the grace of incremental mental trickery.

And, I found, I didn't mind the trick. For one, I had enjoyed the drive, and had given little thought to my spatial hopelessness, and besides, I had now earned a day of rest, and one with great friends at that.

I had traveled to Central City, a hefty detour but a worthy one, to visit Steph and Chase, friends from my Georgetown days who had moved back home, where they met as childhood sweethearts, to have a daughter and be by family. I hadn't seen either of them in nearly two years, and so there was no greater reward for days of thankless driving and cold weather and overall defeat than to see Steph's beaming smile on the porch of their lovely house, green and homely and full of warmth. We greeted each other with a long embrace, and then headed inside to see Lily, their precious two-year-old daughter, who sat innocently in her high-chair finishing a snack.

Lily largely ignored me, which she continued to do for most of the trip, but that was quite alright, for it allowed me to witness her interactions with her mother, and later Chase, in such a natural state. Instantly, it amazed me how much Steph had grown into her new role, such a loving, adoring, caring matriarch who understood each and every of Lily's garbled words and knew just how to best assuage her cries and demands.

While Steph cared for Lily, we caught up on our respective lives. I recounted my travels and my past few years in DC, and she told me of her move and new work and time with family in Nebraska, and we whittled the hours away until Chase, Steph's husband, came home from work. Seeing Chase was just as lovely, and as we chatted, Steph began to prepare dinner, a thoughtful vegan alternative for me, and we passed the night sitting about the kitchen table and simply talking like old friends.

The next morning, with Chase at work, Steph aimed to show me as much of her hometown as we could squeeze in, so we got Lily into the car and drove around town, stopping here and there along the way, and later arriving at Steph's old school and present employer, a terrifically pleasant little institution with a great little compact building, a nineteenth-century castle of sorts, serving as its flagship edifice.

We walked the campus grounds, from administrative offices to dormitories to gymnasium to chemistry lab to art room, and it was simply wonderful to experience Steph and Chase's childhood in this way, to see their yellowed class portraits on the wall and to gain such greater visual and sensory detail about the places they held most dear. Wrapping up at the school, we drove a short distance to Steph's old home, where I met her sister, and that magical feeling persisted, persisted all day really, following me all around Central City, Nebraska.

Steph, Lily, and I stopped at the library after that to return some of Lily's well-read borrows and replace them with some fresh reads, and for a moment, Steph left me with Lily, who still refused to acknowledge my presence, to go check for a book in the catalog. I sat by Lily while she rifled through a small toy bin, and used to working with and talking to kids of a slightly older age group, I struggled to make conversation, opting to simply teach Lily the words of what she was drawing from the chest, for she ignored my inquiries as to what they were. "Mickey Mouse," I would say as she pulled a domino with Mickey Mouse stickers stamped to it. "Minnie Mouse." And then, her grabbing onto a fluffy plush kangaroo, I said "kangaroo."

She continued to play in solitude, but once Steph returned, she ambled clumsily over to her mother with kangaroo in hand and shouted "kang-a-roo!"

Steph beamed. "Yes, Lily: kangaroo! I didn't know you knew that word."

So Lily was listening, I learned, and to her credit, warmed to me just a pinch as time wore on, sneaking a wave every now and then, and smiling when I handed her a book. Later, she learned the phrase "bring Jay" from Steph, and would ask it as we would move from one place to the next, appearing to have some interest in whether I'd be coming along.

And move we did, from the library to the popcorn factory, where Steph's mother worked. It was a pleasure meeting her, and doubly a pleasure to be invited to tour the popcorn plant, where millions of pounds of popcorn each year were cleaned, filtered, sorted, and packaged. Leaving Lily with her grandmother, Steph and I followed the plant's quality assurance manager to a room where we dressed into gowns and hairnets, and then into the plant we went, listening to our guide's excellent explanations of what we were seeing over the roar of menacing machinery and growling gears.

After getting our fill of robots and conveyer belts and, of course, fresh popcorn, we thanked our guide and Steph's mother for their kindness and returned to our vehicles, Steph to her minivan and me to my scooter, where we drove to Grand Island as a caravan of two.

I had mentioned to Steph and Chase the previous night that my scooter was having fuel trouble, and it just so happened that Chase's brother owned a shop that serviced scooters, so hoping he could give Rousseau a little love and care, we dropped her at his shop and then rode together back to Central City, after a quick stop at the grocery store, to wait for Chase to get home from work.

When he did, the four of us loaded back up into the van and drove just a few miles down the road to a lake, where the two had access to a friend's cabin. And so, relaxing by a lake with the barbecue smoking, Steph and Chase and Lily and I had a dinner of watermelon and asparagus and cauliflower and hot dogs, tofu kielbasa for me, and then waded through the lake's warm waters to a neighbor's rope swing.

This rope swing was no simple string on a tree; it was a towering structure of lumber and irrigation pipe and cable that offered the daring jumper two options: sit on a thin wooden board and swing a few feet into the waiting lake, or climb a rickety ladder and swing from up top, ten or fifteen feet above the sand, arcing down and then back up in a high-velocity parabola and then flying off the seat of their pants, up and out and then down in a climactic, plummeting splash.

We adults started small, on the short ledge, but thirsty for more thrills, we quickly graduated to the upper swing, where we each catapulted ourselves off, time and time again, drinking in the momentary weightlessness of the fall before dropping into the inviting waters and spluttering back to the dock, where Lily sat watching, one of us with her, of course, and apparently not enjoying seeing her loving parents rocket into the air and then disappear into the lake's depths.

After subjecting Lily to enough fright for one night, we secured the swing and walked back through the lake to the cabin, where we cleaned up and closed up and then headed back to their home, putting Lily to bed and ending a marvelous day with hot tea and more jovial conversation.

Lying in bed that night, I thought about what a special place Nebraska was. It was my first venture into the heartland, indeed, and I loved it, everything about it: the wide open spaces and the golden fields and the sun that seemed to shine more warmly than anywhere else I'd ever been. I loved the tractors and the pivots and the host of small towns scattered across that gorgeous state, small towns where everyone knows each others' names and people know how to take care of themselves and their neighbors, where doors can be left unlocked and keys can be left in cars, where your business is everyone's business, where everyone is okay with that.

I thought about Steph and Chase and how much they belonged here, how much they thrived in their tiny hometown of 2,500. I thought about how clearly they were loved, two exceptional people the entire community seemed to adore, genuine smiles and warm welcomes everywhere they went, everyone, indeed, knowing their name. And for the first time, I really got it, the whole ethos behind America's conservative thought.

Steph and Chase are, they would not and should not be afraid to say, confident conservatives, whereas I, I suppose, am something of a left-leaning libertarian, so left-leaning I may have toppled over at some point, hit my head, and become a libertarian. Politically, we do not share much in common, and if our current political war is any indication, we probably shoudn't be friends, but bitter rivals staffing the lines of a growing culture war.

And yet, talking politics with Steph that Wednesday afternoon, there was no animosity, no tension, no outward need to convert the other to a particular viewpoint. No, we were happy just chatting, sharing opinions, content trying to learn not how to change the other's beliefs, but why they believed what they did, curiosity over conversion, and away from the political frenzy and ideological puppets of DC, I was so thankful to share such honest, thoughtful conversation, to learn about conservatism not through the mouthpiece of a slanderous Democrat, but through the kind words of a true, sane conservative in the heartland of true conservatism.

I guess where I'm going with this is that, lying in bed that night, I got it, I felt conservative thought. Having spent just one day in Nebraska, it made perfect sense, what with a self-sufficient community that takes care of itself and its own, why the government wouldn't be welcome in those parts, why the way America's cities were headed would terrify those kind souls. It made sense just how someone born and raised in Nebraska would nearly have to be of that mindset. Were I to settle there, I'd probably be too.

I can't say I agree with conservatism, and I do not have to, for that is the true beauty of our political system, but there in Central City, I felt closer than I ever had to the essence of it, and I welcomed the reminder that people we don't agree with are still people, some of the best people in fact, something we often forget while tucked away in our respective fortresses in Washington.

Leaving the following morning with a renewed respect for the political differences that make America great, and though that may be a cliche, it was something of a revelation to my cynical soul, I bid Steph and Chase and Lily a sad goodbye, and grabbing a ride with Chase back to Grand Island, I boarded Rousseau, fresh sparkplug and oil, and took off into the cornfields of Iowa feeling better than ever about the future of my trip.

To the Badlands (Days 49, 50, 51)


Surviving another near-freezing night in Wyoming, this time on a concrete slab in the courtyard of an empty school, I woke early and, as had become custom, rushed to the first open cafe I could find, passing several hours with a pen and a cup of tea before the sun shouted loud enough to draw me back outside.

I spent a little more time exploring the shops of Jackson, touristy but with a few unique finds here and there, and then took off north by northwest, toward Idaho and the Rainbow Gathering.

Idaho, indeed, had never been on my list of travel destinations. Months earlier, my sister Jude had informed me that that year's Gathering would be on the Idaho-Montana border in early July, and figuring I'd be in that general area around that general time, I decided I'd certainly stop through if all lined up well. But details on the Gathering's precise location, which changes every year, came only a week or so prior, and so it wasn't until I'd made it nearly to Yellowstone that I learned the Rainbows would be meeting in just a week some 250 miles northwest of me, and that my sister would be arriving the following Tuesday to join them.

It was Saturday when I wrapped up in Wyoming, and I knew making it to the Bitterroot National Forest, the Gathering's location on the Montana-Idaho border, would take the better part of a day, so I decided to head there a bit early, meet up with Jude a few days later, and then complete my sizeable loop and return east, where I'd fly by Yellowstone once more, then race across Wyoming and South Dakota and Nebraska, all the way to Minnesota, later that week.

I suppose I should pause to explain what the Rainbow Gathering is, and why I'd drive five hundred miles out of the way to go there. To begin, it is a rare opportunity to see my sister, me all the way out in DC and her some seventeen hours west, residing in an intentional community in a not-too-accessible patch of southern Missouri, and so us being within a 500-mile radius of each other at any point was a situation worth taking advantage of. I had also never been to a Rainbow Gathering, and Jude had always spoken highly of them, so I knew I'd regret it if I continued home without experiencing it for myself so as to save a few extra days of driving.

The Gathering itself is really nothing more than a bunch of people, thousands of them, converging in a national forest for a few weeks in early July to celebrate life and humanity through song and dance and fires and food and conversation and company. It is, in short, a large gathering of hippies doing hippie things, and I saw no better way to wait for my sister than joining them.

The drive through Idaho to the Gathering was beautiful, a beautiful day with beautiful calm scenery for hundreds of miles. I first worked my way west, then north, and then west again, arriving at the National Forest turnoff by late afternoon.

I had been warned that the route concluded with nine miles of unpaved road, and was prepared for a bumpy ride, but grew quickly agitated by just how rough that last stretch of travel was. Within minutes, I had slowed my speed from eighty miles per hour on the highway to about eight, each bump of the ribbed trail beating my spine into submission. Rousseau bounced along, slowly but surely, and all seemed okay: inconvenient, slow, and painful, but altogether manageable.

Then I turned a corner and found myself driving right through a swath of mud, wet dirt from an overflowing creek that paralleled the road, and my back wheel instantly began to fishtail, slipping and sliding back and forth until I wrestled Rousseau to a full halt. Once composed, I resumed driving, at a snail's pace, feet nearly touching the ground, dragging through muddy puddles in search of something stable. Even at a speed of six or seven or eight miles per hour, Rousseau still struggled to remain upright and pushing forward, sinking instead into the mud every few feet.

The road eventually dried out, but only for a bit; a quarter-mile later, again it would be flooded, and again and again and again. The situation finally improved about a mile from the gates of the forest, and I picked up some speed, all the way to a staggering fifteen miles per hour, before coming upon a bull in the middle of the road. I stopped suddenly, twenty feet from the animal, surprised to see that he wasn't fenced in, but then realizing that this stretch of road had no fences, a free range in the most literal sense, dozens of cattle, fortunately sans horns, simply grazing about on whichever side of the street they pleased.

I waited a few moments for the bull to move, but he did not, and so I gently pushed forward, another few feet, aiming to communicate that I was trying to get by, and would he please excuse me. To this, he did not clear the way, but actually moved further into the road, as if to communicate "thou shalt not pass" in stern reply.

I found myself surprised yet again, this time by the boldness of the beast, and tried once more to peacefully inch forward. Once more he moved in to block my path, this time huffing and clapping a hoof to the ground and making it all-around quite clear that I was not to challenge him. As I looked around, hoping to find an alternate route magically appear before me, I instead discovered that every single cattle, all fifty or sixty of them, were now standing, and each and every one's gaze was locked on me, this trespasser on their lands. A few of them had actually begun to near me, and one trudged onto the road some twenty feet to my rear.

Surrounded by angry bulls, retreat was no longer an option, I knew; I must keep calm and carry on. And so, just like in the final scene of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the three of us, me, the bull toward my front and the one toward my back, stared at each other, daring the others to make the first move. I narrowed my eyes, Bull 1 stomped his hoof, Bull 2 huffed. Tension rose. I looked at them both. They looked back. Minutes ebbed by. I revved my engine, they held their ground, and then, at just the right moment, I took off, bumping and bouncing forward, hugging the road's non-existent shoulder, flying by Bull 1, who anticlimactically did not charge at me when I passed, but just held his own, and out toward safety I went, adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Still ungored and untoppled around 6PM, I finally pulled into the forest, and nature being no slave to arbitrary demarcation, matters were no better inside. I rolled past a small squad of police officers and forest rangers, who suspiciously eyed each entrant to the grounds, the Rainbow Gathering's quasi-legal status held together through a shaky detente, and drove onward into the wet woods, roads completely muddied from snowmelt, with heaps of remaining snow, packed and icy, lining the sides of the road and nearly everywhere else. I climbed the forest's hills with absurd caution, parking at the first permissible spot about a mile or so later. Then I dismounted, packed everything I would need for a few days away from Rousseau, and headed down the mountain.

Along the way, I passed a number of hippies, with whom I shared some of my food, and in exchange was given directions to the main meadow, where I assumed I'd find some critical mass of Rainbows with whom to pass the evening. The main meadow, which I arrived at ten minutes later, was truly gorgeous: open and green and undisturbed, but also, well, undisturbed, with very few people in sight. This, I reasoned, was to be expected, for while Jude had told me that several hundred were already gathering, the festival didn't truly start for another week, and thus many, like my sister, were still en route.

No matter, I thought, and I pitched my tent up on a hill near a few others and returned to a lone firepit in the meadow where, finding a spot on the grass twenty feet away, I resumed reading of Rousseau's Social Contract, largely set aside since the Southwest but nowhere more applicable than in a gathering of individuals seeking a more natural, liberated way of life.

A few Rainbows sat down at the firepit some time later, and we said hello to each other, and others joined, me still on the outskirts reading, and they all began to chat. One of them had a dog, and he rushed over to me for some attention, and so I pet him, and shortly thereafter someone asked where the dog was, to which a girl responded, "Oh, I think he's over by that nerd."

I looked up. The girl who had made the offending statement, a grungy teenager, smiled, and to be fair, she had said it loudly and playfully, a comment I had been intended to hear. I smiled back, not particularly annoyed and certainly not offended, but rather somewhat amused, though for different reasons, I'm sure, than my new friend.

Heading to the Gathering, I knew I'd be a bit out of place. Though I would consider myself something of a hippie at heart, I certainly don't look the part: short hair and close shave and skinny blue jeans and form-fitting sweatshirt and North Face coat and black Chuck Taylors all contrasting strongly with their dreads and beards and tattered pants and baggy sweaters and surplus jackets and laced boots. I also knew that my lifestyle itself would clash against that of the stereotypical Rainbow: I had money and a stable job and a house and a vehicle and a pair of degrees. Now, of course none of this mattered to me, not in the least, but I suppose my fear was that I would come off as stuck-up, or entitled, or inauthentic, and I didn't want that; I wanted to be able to say "hey, I'm just like you," and I hoped that, having driven all day to arrive at a Gathering built on a foundation of love and acceptance, that would not be an issue.

But there it was, however innocent, a hint that the difference wasn't just in my head, that they saw it too. That I was the other. And, well, I found this amusing, that though I had become America's highway child over the past two months, though I had so easily earned the interest and kindness and acceptance of average people in every corner of our big, diverse, often intolerant country, that here, in a meadow of alleged peace and love, I should find myself, for the very first time, feeling shunned, unwelcome.

She asked me what I was reading, and I said Rousseau, and she said she'd never heard of him, and asked what it was about, and I began to explain, but realized it was a lost cause, every word I said making me sound more pretentious, more intellectual, less and less like them. Eventually, I tucked away my book and joined the circle, attempting to be a little more social and at least give things another try. A few of the Rainbows, to be fair, were friendly, introducing themselves and asking where I was from, even if they grimaced slightly when I responded that I lived in DC and, later, that I worked for the government.

"Fuck the government, man!" a greybeard yelled to an epilogue of head nods and silence.

As dusk descended, we were joined by three more travelers, all white kids wearing feathered headdresses. Their apparent leader, Tom, introduced himself to the circle at large, and then more individually, shaking hands with each seated Rainbow, starting at his left. Around the circle his eyes went, from Davey Jones to Specter to Tomahawk to Lotus to Tiger Lily, and then, just as I was about to introduce myself, his neck snapped to his right, eyes following, resuming the round of introductions in the opposite direction. Sienna and Nick-at-Nite and Sasquatch all bid him hello, and when the turn again came to me, his eyes met the ground, and he sat himself down, making it abundantly clear that my introduction was not worth his time.

Again, I didn't have the heart to be offended by this rudeness; I instead drank in its humor. These weren't hippies, I realized; they were hobos. They were kids who ran away from home and dropped out of school and slept under bridges and stole rides on boxcars and hadn't any other option, and thus rationalized their supertramp lifestyle as though they were William H. Davies himself, as though it was one of deliberate and unrelenting choice.

Somewhere between their conversation about the best way to pickpocket a yuppie and a vicious diatribe against hipsters, which was a broad term they threw around for anyone who had attended a liberal arts university, my amusement turned to pity; I felt sorry for those kids, all living with so much hate inside, so much intolerance toward anyone who didn't look and talk and dress and act like them, anyone who had the means to do something else.

I want to be clear here in saying that I find absolutely no fault with the vagabond lifestyle; indeed, I often fear that I''m simply too cowardly to adopt it fully myself. But as much as I respect it, I recognize that it has to be wanted, it has to be desired, and a post-hoc adoption of it for lack of other options, I knew, would only breed resentment. And those kids, each with their own post-hoc rationalizations, had so very much of it. My presence offended them.

I excused myself from the circle and took a walk and tried to figure out how I could stand to be around such people for another sixty hours until my sister's arrival, and decided that I just couldn't, that I'd have to leave the very next morning. No, no, I thought, that might be too rash; perhaps I could just waste away the next two days reading in a quiet corner of the woods instead, nerdcalls be damned.

Feeling trapped in the forest, which was growing colder every minute and which was wet simply everywhere, the meadow really more of a swamp, sneakers sinking deep into its puddles and soaking through to my socks, I headed back to my tent, where I took off my shoes and put down my things and tried to read a little more, but the sun had set and it had grown too cold to focus, so I instead wandered out again, barefoot in the snow, following light and noise to a raging fire in the middle of my camp.

A large group, older than the last, had just gotten the fire going, and I waved hello and took a seat and warmed myself against its flames. A dog rushed over to me, and I pet it, and it climbed into my lap and I rubbed its neck and then another one sat at my feet, and another on the edge of my knee, and soon I was smothered by canine, and the dogs' guardians all came by to chat, and I found them to be far more accepting, friendly, likeable people than the lost boys down in the meadow. This isn't so bad, I thought, I can definitely survive here until Tuesday.

After another half-hour by the fire, and a few songs from a musical quartet, and a few hits from a communal bowl, I was feeling quite good, quite settled, all my worries from earlier melted away like the snow around the pit's glowing embers. I was growing tired, but it was so warm there, and so cold back at my tent, and so I stuck around until I couldn't any longer, until my yawns were nearly incessant, mind exhausted after so many days of such poor slumber, and I then returned to my tent, bundled into my sleeping bag, and begged sleep to come find me.

It did not. Not for a single minute the whole night. Instead I passed the hours in a fit of delirious stupor, reality slipping away and nothing remaining but cold, bitter biting cold. I lost all feeling in my toes, then my feet altogether, and my body trembled against the hard forest floor. I withdrew my phone and watched the minutes tick by, eventually forgetting what those numbers meant, what time was, thinking 1:48 was either the amount of time in which I had been trying to sleep or the number of minutes until dawn. By 3AM, I threw in the towel, turning on my headlight and reading, at least trying to read, until five.

When day broke, I knew I had to go. I felt awful about leaving before seeing my sister, about missing her by such a narrow window, but I felt just as awful physically and mentally; I felt ill, not well, dangerously delirious. I was mildly hallucinating and extraordinarily tired and my spirit was entirely drained, and after four straight nights of miserable camping, I knew I couldn't make it through another two, realistically three or four, in the Bitterroot Forest.

And so, guilt-stricken and overcome by second-guessing all the way to my bike, literally frozen sneakers on my feet, I said a silent goodbye to the Rainbow Gathering, happy to have experienced it nonetheless and sad to be leaving so soon. I left my sister a note in the meadow, I fought to get Rousseau up and started and moving in the freezing temperatures, and then I returned to the bumpy road, thankfully free of cattle at that early morning hour, crawling slowly back toward civilization.

Nine miles later, my wheels touched asphalt, real even asphalt, and I sped east with the feeling that I was driving on a cloud, actually having to slow down at one point for fear of floating away. Meanwhile, the cold was no less inviting at such high speeds; my purple fingers felt ready to explode. Nonetheless I continued forward, another forty minutes, arriving finally back in Dillon, my original turnoff to Bitterroot, where I raced into a grocery store cafe and gulped down a soy chai latte, free from all judgment and shame, and passed a few hours writing before returning to the road.

Before ending discussion of the Rainbow Gathering, I feel it necessary to caveat that my experience, which was soured only by a small group of false Rainbows and poor weather, is not a fair assessment of the Gathering itself, which again, wasn't even due to start for a week. I am certain that, had I toughed it out and stayed, I would have had a wonderful time with Jude and come to appreciate all the Gathering truly had to offer. But alas, I had resolved instead to march onwards.

And march onwards I did, hovering just north of Wyoming and crossing Montana for as long as I could bear. I was still tremendously sleep-deprived, of course, and thus found myself traveling very slowly, stopping often for stretches and snacks and overall having a very tough time staying awake. While on the road, I sang along to John Mellencamp as loud as I, and that did a fair job of keeping me moving for a while, though I'm sure I must have appeared crazy to passing drivers. By mid-afternoon, though, I was through with it all, actually falling asleep at the handlebars while hurtling down the highway at eighty miles per hour, and, head jerking back up, decided the only responsible thing to do would be to stop, and so shortly after dipping back down into Wyoming, I got myself a room in Sheridan, ate some food, showered, and slept early.

I slept so soundly that I woke up paralyzed the next morning, really having to work to wake my various limbs and joints. Before leaving Sheridan, I changed Rousseau's oil, which I had gone far too long without replacing. A few days earlier, I had noticed that her mileage was beginning to drop, flagging disconcertingly from seventy to sixty to fifty miles per gallon, and though she was otherwise driving well, I hoped a well-deserved oil change would return her to her old fuel-efficient self.

She definitely did run more smoothly with fresh oil, I'll admit, but I was dismayed to find that her fuel economy was still low, worrying as to whether it was symptomatic of a greater problem. With no scooter shops in the area, though, there was little I could do, so I got back on the road and made for the eastern edge of Wyoming.

I had hoped my good rest would restore my positive attitude, my will to drive, but the drive that day was a tough one, perhaps the worst to date, despite excellent weather and utterly pleasant scenery. I just felt done, tired of it all, no longer up for a drive. I felt angry, bitter, hopeless. I was still at least two thousand miles from home, and I had lost the stamina to go on.

Once, in San Francisco, I had embarked on a run from the Tenderloin to the Golden Gate Bridge with no water and no money and no shoes, and making it to the bridge, I just kept running, making it eleven miles across San Francisco, barefoot, before turning around and realizing that I was far too dehydrated and far too tired to make it back all that way. My present situation felt a lot like that, like my enthusiasm on the way out had gotten me far further than I should have been, only the consequence here wasn't being stranded on the north side of the Golden Gate with a long walk home; it was being stuck with my scooter days away from home, weeks even.

I fantasized about selling Rousseau right then and there and using her profits to buy myself a first-class ticket back to DC. I blamed her for my soreness and my bad attitude and faulted her sharply for being so wasteful with the gasoline as of late. I looked at passing cars longingly, asking her why she couldn't be more like them. I had bought her brand new oil and the best gasoline money could buy, I reasoned; what more did she want?

We bickered all the way to Devil's Tower National Monument, the country's first national monument, a strange formation rising hundreds of feet from the ground with fascinating cracks on all sides, essentially a giant stone thimble resting upon the earth. I pulled into the parking lot, took a look at it, nodded, and left, annoyed that I had driven forty minutes out of the way for a stupid rock.

In retrospect, most of this negativity was colored by my present mood; Devil's Tower is at most rather interesting and at worst still quite unique. There isn't a lot to do there, as the Tower is really just a one-man show around a nice patch of Wyoming, but in any case, I was agitated, and felt it necessary to throw my angst at the next subject I could find, having already mentally berated Rousseau to boredom.

My next stop on the journey was a cluster of sites in western South Dakota, buried in the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse and Wind Cave and Custer State Park. I had always been conflicted about visiting Mount Rushmore: I felt like it was essential on any true trip through America, but showing support for the faces of four white imperialist presidents carved into a stolen and sacred Lakota mountain troubled my conscience. The story of Crazy Horse was even more disturbing: some time ago, a rogue Lakota, who wanted to show whites that his people had heroes too, commissioned a white man to carve the body and steed of one of the Lakota heroes, Crazy Horse, into another of their mountains. "No, no," the Lakota at large had said, "Please don't do that. Our culture doesn't idolize our heroes through shrines like that, and we certainly don't believe in carving our own images into nature, especially not our sacred mountains."

The Crazy Horse Memorial, I should add, wasn't simply to be carved into a mountain like Mount Rushmore; it was to actually become the mountain, so that when it is complete, which may be some time this century, there will be no mountain left, just a towering horse and a towering man above it, a modern-day Colossus of Rhodes, tallest standing sculpture in the world.

The Lakota objected, Crazy Horse's family objected, but the white man's generosity and his lone Lakota compatriot couldn't be stopped. He insisted. And some time later, they began to dynamite the sacred mountain, commencing a project that has, to this day, delivered the face of Crazy Horse and the eyehole of his namesake companion.

In a poor mood, and already self-righteously indignant about the faces carved into the Black Hills, and honestly just too tired of driving to subject myself to another hundred-mile detour, I chopped the whole set from my itinerary, instead staying on the highway and making for the Badlands. On the way, the sky darkened to match my mood,  threatening me with its incoming rain clouds. I didn't care. I glared at the sky and I dared it to rain on me; no, I wanted it to rain on me, to soak me through and at least give me some incident to pass the time, anything to save me from the mind-numbing boredom of open road. Do it, I seethed.

Realizing rain would not bother me, the weather instead threw at me violent gusts of wind, tossing me back and forth along the highway, only worsening my mental state of affairs. It was all wrong, I thought, with the wind slowing me to a crawl and Rousseau's fuel gauge prematurely blinking and my mind just feeling so lost, so far away from home. I was tired, I was lost, I was over it.

I want to go home.

To the Rainbow Gathering (Days 44, 45, 46, 47, 48)

6.18.2013

So there I was,  over two thousand miles from home, stranded on the side of the road with phone and bike equally useless. US89 was remote, but fortunately, as just one of a few thin arteries through the massive state, not entirely desolate, so I did not have to wait long before a car came 'round the bend. I flagged it down, but apparently the driver had better things to do, and breezed by with a nod of affirmation that did little to help my situation.

Several other vehicles proved equally unhelpful, so I was particularly grateful when a middle-aged man in a middle-aged sedan slid to a stop next to me and Rousseau. He rolled down his window. "Anyone coming for ya?"

"Not yet," I said, "I have AAA, but no cell reception. Do you?"

He glanced and his phone and frowned. "Sorry, but me neither. But hey, if you want to give me your information, I can try to give them a call when I get into the next town." His plan sounded great to me, and I thanked him for his help, and quickly scribbled down the numbers of AAA and my membership before sending him on his way. Then, waiting for the calvary to arrive, I sat myself down on the side of the road, leaned up against Rousseau's chassis, and found myself with the first opportunity I had all week to relax and write, recounting my tales through the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Looking up at the view before me, I didn't find myself too upset by the current state of affairs; after all, there really couldn't be a more beautiful place to be stranded than the outskirts of glacier country. Plus, it had been weeks without something going wrong, and ten thousand miles without a flat, so I felt that all was fair, and aimed to make the best of my bad situation.

A half-hour passed, and then a full one, and still no tow came to my rescue. Climbing to my feet at a serendipitous moment, I caught sight of a roadwork vehicle rounding the corner, and waved them over just in time. To my luck, they had a radio box in their cab, and were able to call in to the command center, who in turned called in for a tow. They left, and another half-hour later, the unmistakable clamor of a large clanging vehicle sounded behind me. I smiled, stood, and greeted the tow truck driver, who helped me to load my beleaguered bike onto his trailer, and then we headed south to Browning, the driver's point of origin.

Once in Browning, Rousseau was unloaded from one trailer and onto another, and it pained me to see her chained and shackled in that way. I wanted to tell her things would be better soon, that she would be all fixed up, but right inside the shop a few feet away, the owners of the towing company were puzzling with what to do about a flat scooter in the middle of rural Montana. It would have to go further south, they knew, but where?

Conrad, a town some sixty miles down the road, seemed like the closest bet, and so after working things out for a further AAA tow, we got back on the road, this time with a new driver, Pedro, a friendly young gentleman of the Blackfoot Tribe who kept me talking and listening the whole way down. Arriving in Conrad and pulling into the town's only bike shop, we were dismayed to hear that the shop had no scooter tires in stock, nor the means to procure any quickly; instead, he recommended, we should head down further to Great Falls, a city another sixty miles south.

At least I was headed in the right direction, I thought, and Pedro and I got back in the truck, giving a quick call to AAA to let them know that we had to extend the tow a bit further. After fifteen minutes of waiting, I was told that that would not be possible, as my membership only allowed for one long-distance tow per year, and I had just used that.

"Right," I reasoned, "but Conrad is directly on the way to Great Falls and the bike is still loaded on the truck, and the truck is still here, so I don't need a second tow, just an extension of this current one."

The woman on the other end of the line sighed. "Yes, and that would be a second tow. A re-tow."

"Well, no," I rebutted, "A second tow would be if we dropped the bike off this truck, the driver left, and then I had to call another guy to come out and load it up, no?"

"No. Either way, it's a second tow."

"But what if we had just checked with Conrad earlier, learned they couldn't help, and asked for authorization to tow all the way to Great Falls, past Conrad, in one fell swoop?"

"Well that would be just fine. But you didn't do that."

Being told that AAA would not authorize a tow of my bike any further than this small town that could do nothing for it, I grew frustrated, stress levels rising as I bounced from one representative to the next, Mozart screeching through the poor connection during the inordinate hold times. After a full seventy minutes on the phone, sitting on the side of the road when we could have already been in Great Falls, I finally received the okay to carry on, that my one tow was indeed just one tow, and as the scooter shops of that southward city began to shutter their doors, clock rounding 5PM, we bounded toward its limits.

We entered the city about an hour later, dropped the bike at the shop most likely to be able to help, though it would be impossible to tell until morning, and with AAA's trip interruption service footing the bill for my night's accommodations, and AAA having lengthened my ordeal by over an hour, I felt it only appropriate to splurge with a stay at the Hilton, where Pedro kindly dropped me off. I wished him a safe travel back, thanked him for his tremendous help that day, and tipped him whatever cash I had in pocket, then placed my pack in my room, showered and swam and ate, and then slept, comfortable in body but all the while worried about what the following day would bring for Rousseau's chances of repair and the very future of my trip.

I woke late the next morning, no reason to rise before the shop opened at nine, and placed a call to the company when I did. They did not have a replacement tire in stock, they informed me, but they could order one overnight and replace it when it arrived. I told them that worked just fine for me, authorized a hefty rush shipment of over a hundred dollars, and then thanked the mechanics for their help, arranging to meet them at the shop the following afternoon.

I had little to do until then, no car and crammed all the way in the corner of town, out by the airport, and to make matters worse, the Hilton had been all booked up that night for a conference, so around noon, I loaded my things, which had exploded onto the floors and desks of my hotel room, back into my pack, carrying myself and my bag across the blacktop parking lot to a Holiday Inn on the far end.

Hoping to spend most of the day swimming and floating and reading in a hottub, I was disappointed to learn that the Holiday Inn's pool was undergoing repairs and would be closed all day. Lacking other options, those conferencers having bought out both the Hilton and the nearby Hampton, I acquiesced to a room without pool access and instead wasted the day away reading and watching television while working my way through a full bottle of wine. By late afternoon, I had grown restless, and perhaps a little drunk, and headed over to the movie theater, one of just a few buildings in that sprawling parking lot, to watch a self-referential apocalyptic comedy blockbuster that turned out to be, and perhaps this is just the wine speaking, not all that bad.

When the film wrapped up, I brought myself back to my hotel room, drew a hot bath, and dunked myself inside it with a Ken Burns doumentary of Yellowstone National Park streaming into the bathroom. Some time later, eyes tired of staring at words and images all day, I headed off to bed.

I killed another few stranded hours the next morning, then called the mechanics at noon to ensure the tire had come in, and my heart swelled when I heard that Rousseau was all ready to go. Quickly, I got my bag together, called the front desk to request a cab, and thirty minutes later, I was on the other end of town, admiring her new back tire, fat and fresh and black as night. By one and as one, we were back on the road, reunited, and it felt so good.

We got back on US89 about 160 miles down from where we'd last left off, turning toward a heavy sky seeming ready to collapse at any moment. Far in the distance, I spied blue, and so we barrelled through that blackened arch of ominous clouds for safer weather, pushing forward as cumulonimbus closed in all around us. The road curved, pulling me away from my destination, and then, minutes later, the sky caved in, bullets of hail raining down, pelting my body, stinging my uncovered fingers and exposed neck, with acute fury. Still, I pressed on, hurtling toward the light at the end of the tunnel, the open skies just a few miles further. I ignored my body's cries to stop, to slow down, for doing either would simply allow the storm to gain on us, and being trapped in its depths, on that open stretch of asphalt, was not what I wanted for my first hour back on the road.

Fortunately, the pain paid off; eventually the hail stopped and the skies cleared and I left the storm in my rearview, still rocketing forth to Yellowstone, a straight shot south from there. I arrived at its original arch, its north entrance, a few hours later, and snaked my way through its roads for roughly another hour, happening upon a rather chilly and violent windstorm in the process. It was still early, maybe just five or six, but I had made it and was comfortable settling into my tent for the night; alas, each campground I passed boldly declared "Full!" at its main gate. And so by the third campsite, nearly an hour after the first, I simply stopped caring, parking my bike and walking over to a nearby restaurant where I aimed to warm my bones and to plan my next few days in Yellowstone until dark.

Darkness came around nine, when I headed over to the Canyon Village campground to scope out a spot on which to lay my head. I entered through the campground's amphitheater, where I almost literally banged into a park ranger, a young, energetic woman whom I'd actually met a few hours earlier, at the Canyon Village information center, when I asked her if the Village's campground was full and she told me yes but that the Lewis Lake site, about an hour further south, was open, when I'd said I'd head down that way and thanked her for the help and wished her a good night.

Busted.

She eyed me curiously, seeming surprised to see me, and I said hello and quickly fabricated a small mistruth about waiting to see if there were going to be any last-minute cancellations at the Village lodge. I was killing time, I said, and was hoping to find a program in the amphitheater to aid my pursuit.

I don't think she believed my story, but there seemed to be an innocent mutual attraction between us, so she didn't question me further on the subject, instead informing me that, indeed, there would be a program that night, and in fact, she'd be hosting it.

"It's on owls!" she declared proudly..

I confessed I knew nothing about owls, that I was something of an ignoramus when it came to birds, but that I'd love to learn a bit, which was entirely true, and so I grabbed a seat and we chatted about Yellowstone and federal employment and our respective opinions on the national parks in our mutual memory, and then others began to file in, families and couples and children, and the program got underway.

How glad I am that I did not go straight to the campsite and thus miss that wonderful program. The ranger was a delight: intelligent, entertaining, informative, eloquent. The audience, it turns out, was just as spectacular. Early on, a young kid, ten or eleven maybe, broke from his family and sat up front right next to me, and all throughout the presentation  he supplemented the ranger's talking points with trivia of his own, sometimes whispering to me and other times standing and raising his hand and calling it out to the whole group. There were others, too, children of varying ages all so intrigued, all so interested, all so engaged in the program, and I felt grateful that there were such good parents in the world, for children like that could hardly come from anything but.

Kids do, indeed, say the darndest things, and so all of us, the children and the adults and the ranger, passed the hour in fits of laughter. But the program was, to be sure, far more than mere entertainment; the amount I learned about owls in that short hour was simply staggering. Accompanied by a riveting slideshow of amazing photographs, I gained a new respect for those nocturnal hunters, for birds in general, and felt my experience of Yellowstone, of nature, would be that much richer for having been a part of that program.

When the hour concluded, I thanked the ranger, who was being swarmed by questions, and raced off, hoping to make her job of turning a blind eye to my own nocturnal hunting that much easier. My prey, in this instance, was simply a spot of land, unlit and outside the boundaries of any other campsite, and I found just such a spot about ten minutes into my hunt, and swooped down at it, talons of tent stake digging into the ground, and there I feasted on a late-night Clif Bar, safe in the confines of my tent, before drifting off to sleep.

Sleep was hard to come by, for Yellowstone, at its eight-thousand-foot elevation, was cold, but I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag as well I could and shut my eyes for as long I could and, by six the next morning, I was back up, breaking down my tent and thus destroying any evidence of my crime, and then making my way back to the Canyon Village restaurant for some hot tea and granola. I passed a few hours there, waiting for the mountain air to warm, refining my plans a bit further and then taking off to Dunraven Pass, the trailhead of my first true hike in Yellowstone, up to Mount Washburn.

In my travels, I climbed many canyons and hiked along many mountain ridges, but my plans to actually summit any five-digit mountain, Mount Rainier and Mount Elbert and Mount Shasta and Longs Peak and Lassen Peak and so forth, all were thwarted by surprisingly frigid temperatures that left me, without an ice axe and snowshoes and proper attire, simply unable to make it above the treeline on any of those. Thus, I was excited to be making a climb up Washburn, a marvelous hike through Yellowstone's sub-alpine tundra and some of the park's most majestic views.

The hike itself was enjoyable, a worthy challenge, and crawling over large mounds of ice blocking the trail was a small price to pay for such terrific vistas: meadows and dying forests and mountains and glaciers and Yellowstone Lake stretching impossibly far to the horizon. As I climbed, of course, the weather cooled, wind picking up speed and snow even flurrying about toward the summit. The summit itself was adorned with a large fire tower, a much needed escape from the frigid cold and katabatic winds, and I spent a good hour in there, reading and warming, before regaining the energy to return to the trailhead.

About a mile into my descent, it occurred to me that I had taken the wrong trail from the summit, and thus was headed in the opposite direction of Rousseau. I thought to turn around, but was enjoying the scenery and the increasing warmth, and a second climb to the peak seemed far more work than a bit of hitchhiking, so insead I continued onward to the trailhead of that second route.

Reaching the nearly empty parking lot, I stuck my thumb up and out and attempted to flag down a presently passing driver and his passenger, who simply waved and kept on driving, which vexed me for a number of reasons, first because I could see his empty back seats, second because there was only one way down the mountain and as such any excuses of going another way were invalid, and third because I'd rather just be ignored than waved to, as if to say "I hope you're enjoying your stroll through the parking lot; so long!"

My thumb met the same fate for the next two drivers, to my dismay, and finding little value in standing in a virtually empty parking lot, I simply followed the cars, albeit much slower, down the road. Cars passed me on their way up, and about ten minutes after I'd started walking, one of those cars was already headed back down, and I again hitched my thumb with low expectations, but this time the vehicle stopped, a blue truck with four passengers, and one of them poked their head out the window and asked if I needed a ride, and I said certainly, and she told me to hop in.

It felt wonderful to be in a warm car, and I thanked my new friends for their kindness. Candy, Sheila, Tim, and Mickey, their names were, two elderly couples from Oregon. They were visiting Yellowstone for ten days, well into their third, and said not to worry about it, that they were happy to give me a lift. My appreciation grew even more when we reached the main road, at which they were heading north and I was parked south, and despite my protests that I would gladly hop out and hitch another ride back to Rousseau, they insisted that they'd return me to my vehicle, out of the way as it was.

And so, the surprising generosity of those four individuals canceling out the lack thereof of the last several, I reboarded Rousseau a few minutes later with a warm body and a warm spirit, and steered her south toward our next stop, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Having seen the actual Grand Canyon, along with Bryce and Zion and Gunnison and more, I didn't expect much from Yellowstone's canyonland: a mere sideshow, I figured, to Yellowstone's real headliners, its geysers.

Incorrect.

On my journey, I've seen some beautiful things. I've laid eyes on America's most renowned landmarks, its most photogenic vistas, its most fabled  landscapes. Each and every one of those was spectacular, and to compare any to any other, to call Yosemite Valley "more beautiful" than the Chisos Basin, for instance, would be to compare apples to oranges, I thought.

You see where I'm going with this, I gather. Hands down, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, as viewed from the very end of the Brink of the Lower Falls Trail, off in Canyon Village of Yosemite National Park, Wyoming, is undoubtedly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

The trail ends at the brink of the Lower Falls, that is, at the literal tipping point of an enormous waterfall, cascading unimaginable thousands of gallons of water down its precipice every minute. The turquoise water, already foaming from its crash down the Upper Falls just a few hundred feet to the left, plummets hundreds of feet beneath one's feet, where an explosion of inexpressible magnitude shoots a mist halfway back up the falls, and everywhere in that radius.

That cloud of mist, at least when I approached the falls in mid-afternoon of a mostly sunny summer day, refracts the sun's golden rays, painting a rainbow directly over it all, the Yellowstone River and the canyon walls and a glacier hugging its right bank, and oh, then there is the canyon itself, yellow stone so remarkable it is the very namesake of the world's first national park, a wild container for a wild river, winding and snaking into the distance.

I spent the better part of an hour just staring, awestruck, mentally recording every minute detail of it all, before hauling myself up a short but steep trail to the surface. Along the way, and not in any particular rush, I sat on a bench for a snack and some reading, watching families go by and agonize over whether to hike the strenuous Lower Falls trail or to instead take a flatter stretch of gravel across the canyon's north rim. I eavesdropped on one family leaning toward the latter, a hike I hadn't personally done but knew, so assuredly, could not have been better than what I just did, and so I butted myself into their conversation and told them they simply must do the Lower Falls, enticing them with tales of rainbows, and they changed their minds and did just that, and a half-hour later, returned to my bench to confirm that my glowing recommendation was not ill-advised, that the view down there was quite possibly the most incredible they'd ever seen.

I spent the last hours of my first real day in Yellowstone exploring the park's east end, roaming past herds of peaceful bison and completing a few short hikes through putrid, stomach-wrenching, sulphurous mud volcanoes and steaming cauldrons. A highlight from that east end of the Yellowstone caldera, the park's rim of geothermal activity, was the Dragon's Mouth, an unassuming cave that breathed steam from its depths, pushed water outward in an incessant natural wave pool, and most notably, growled like a dragon itself, a deep rumbling roar that would undoubtedly strike terror in any passerby were they to come across such a cave in the unmarked wild. All of Dragon's Mouth, its steam and waves and roars, almost felt too novel to be authentic, the deceptive handiwork of a host of speakers, fog machines, and agitators in a plastic-lined artificial cave, and this seeming novelty, if anything, made the site all the more remarkable when realizing that it was nothing more than a natural product.

Later, I happened upon a campsite, a real vacant one, along Yellowstone Lake, and pitched myself a tent and lit myself a fire and toasted myself some bread and brought myself, at 9:30, to the campground's amphitheater for an hour-long program on wilderness preservation and the history of national parks, which was good, though not as captivating, I'll admit, as the prior night's program from the cute owl expert.

When the program wrapped up, I headed back to my tent and, wearing every item of clothing I had with me, pulled myself down deep into my sleeping bag to weather yet another frigid night at 9,000 feet.

At some point during the night, my tenuous slumber was interrupted by a howling, a series of high-pitched shrieks growing louder, and I woke with visions of a wild pack of wolves, hot in pursuit of prey, in my head. Truthfully, I have no idea how close those wolves actually were, whether they were racing along the campground's main road or far off in the distance, and fast as they were moving, the shrieks faded into silence just moments later. Again I tried sleep.

I woke once more early the next morning, or rather, gave up on my pursuit of sleep, made a small breakfast fire with some leftover wood, and departed around eight for Yellowstone's western regions. If the air was cold wrapped up in my sleeping bag and lying still in the shelter of my tent, then it was absolutely unbearable on the open road, forty-mile-per-hour winds per by driving alone, and making it to the Old Faithful area an hour later, I actually found it necessary to duck inside, take off my shoes and socks, and check my toes for frostbite. Fortunately, those digits were still intact, just very, very cold, so I purchased a hot cider, gulped it down, and then wandered outside to have a look at Old Faithful, most famous geyser in the world.

The Old Faithful geyser isn't the tallest or the prettiest or the hottest or the most frequent or the titleholder for any superlative, really; perhaps it's just the most well-rounded. I overheard a nearby park ranger tell his tour group, "It's really just famous for being famous; the Kim Kardashian of geysers."

Old Faithful erupts about every 88 minutes, but with a window of nearly twenty, and so I hung about watching steam billow from its crater for five, ten, fifteen, until boiling water began to sputter at its base and, moments later, a jet of it shot into the air. and with the cloud of steam widening at its top, the whole geyser took on the unnerving appearance of a tornado, an inverted cone of moisture writhing just a hundred feet from a large throng of onlookers.

The eruption lasted about three minutes, after which the geothermal activity and the crowds died down in equal proportions, and a little cold myself, I stepped away as well, seeking warmth and sustenance in the nearby Old Faithful Inn, a glorious old timberframe lodge looking out over the geyser basin. My second breakfast of the morning, a tofu burrito stuffed with greens, was far more filling than the first, dried toast with peanut butter spread, and well-fed and well-warmed, I returned the basin for a walk around Old Faithful's neighboring geysers.

Old Faithful's neighboring geysers, it turns out, are far more interesting than the world's most famous geyser. Sure, Old Faithful erupts far more powerfully and far more frequently than most of them, really just hiccuping puddles in the ground, but the diversity and the character of those hiccuping puddles are absolutely splendid. Some gurgle, some belch, some growl, some boil; some are red, some green, some blue, some orange. Some rise up from platforms above the ground, others from depressions within it, and all of them, each and every one, has shaped itself into some unique polygon, making names like Ear Pool and Heart Spring and Goggles Geyser not just cute recall devices, but utterly appropriate titles.

Working my way around the looped boardwalk, I approached a rather humble formation, perhaps four feet high and four feet wide, a dome with a small crater in the middle. Not thinking much of it, I began to pass it, when suddenly, a jet of water, some six feet high, began to shoot out of a crack in the ground near its base. I stopped, waiting to see what unfolded, and as I waited, crowds began to rush over, nearly pushing each other off the boardwalk to make it there. This was the Beehive Geyser, I overheard a fellow spectator tell a friend, and the small torrent at its base was a sure sign that it was due to erupt any minute. Her voice was excited, enthusiasm uncontained, and after another few moments of eavesdropping, I learned why: the Beehive Geyser was not a predictable one, not like Old Faithful; though it might still erupt a few times a day, it might also sit dormant for ten days straight, and thus waiting for it without eruption symptoms was a fool's errand.

I felt fortunate to have walked by at such an opportune moment, ready for a good show, but what happened then far exceeded my wildest expectations. In an instant, the puny six-foot jet of steaming water at the Beehive's base was accompanied by one from the beehive itself, but a fifty-foot one, spiraling up from the dome to the clouds, literally spiraling, and in the process soaking us, us lucky onlookers, with its what-goes-up-must-come-down truism. The force from that geyser was unbelievable, as though gravity were irrelevant, as though the geyser were a waterfall flowing upside down. For nearly eight minutes that glorious bridge between earth's crust and its mysterious mantle displayed its power, its strength, before finally calming, slowing, and then stopping.

The audience applauded, because at that moment there was nothing else to do but clap at the planet's wonder, and then seconds later, a call from my right, "Grand is about to blow!"

Grand Geyser is another unpredictable geyser, somewhere right in the middle of Old Faithful and Beehive on the reliability spectrum, with most eruption projections coming with a three-hour window of possibility, so calling a sure eruption was a rare event. Grand Geyser, it so happens, is also the largest geyser in the world, its jets shooting eight stories in the air. I raced over.

Arriving at Grand just a few minutes later, I learned that the call was a false alarm, but not by much: though the geyser hadn't blown yet, it was just minutes away from an imminent eruption, nearing the very end of its prediction window. So I sat and waited, watching the geyser's mist climb toward the clouds, watching for a minute, for five minutes, for ten minutes, and then, finding this the perfect opportunity to get some reading in, I drew out my copy of The Plague and thumbed to my current page.

Eight words in, I was startled by a cheer from the crowed, and looked up to find Grand Geyser bubbling violently, waves crashing over its shallow walls, and then it exploded, boiling water rocketing high into the sky, a brilliant liquefied fireworks display, burst after burst firing upwards. This eruption, like Beehive, lasted for nearly ten minutes, and then it slowed, and more clapping, and even a chorus of "Hallelujah!" from some jovial travelers on the far side of the overlook.

I left the basin a little while later, having witnessed the world's most amazing geothermal features with serendipitous timeliness, and continue onward to Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring. It's difficult to explain precisely what the Spring is: it's a hot spring, sure, an enormous heated lake with mutilcolored bacteria painting its shores yellow and orange and red, but its appearance is so unlike anything on the planet, it looks so alien, that words do it little justice. Climbing and scrambling up a steep hill to get a better look at it, for all one sees at its base is steamy mist, one can't help but feel as though they're staring into the eyeball of the Earth, a portal to another world, so iridescent and rainbow and literally oozing with color. If the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was the most beautiful vista I'd ever seen, then the Grand Prismatic Spring was certainly the most unique: that spring, I'm certain, would be its own national monument were it not conveniently located within a national park.

I had been in Yellowstone for nearly forty-eight hours, and had intended to stay for longer, but I found Yellowstone to be exactly as cold as it was beautiful, which is to say a hell of a lot of each, and the fact that I had weathered its temperatures for two full nights spoke leagues about the wonder of the park, for nowhere else would I have stuck around for so long in such discomfort. But I could not, I knew, spend another night camping at 9,000 feet, especially with such a long drive the following day, and so I hesitantly moved on, working my way down to Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone's southern neighbor.

Grand Teton, translating pretty literally from French to "Giant Breast National Park" is so named for its voluptuous peaks, gorgeous rocky mountains that jut from the surface of the earth with remarkable theatrics. The Tetons are not the tallest mountains, not the grandest of any sort, but what set them apart from other ranges on my trip, the Appalachians and the Chihuahuas and the Rockies and the Sierras and the Canadian Rockies, is just how isolated they are; that is, they don't bother with foothills or smaller peaks on the frontlines: they just rise, straight from pristine Jenny Lake, climbing to their enormous height without the frivolities of a valley or secondary range. And everywhere, meadows, calm miles of cool grass, all so beautiful, so picturesque, mellow and striking all in the same breath.

I had previously picked out a fourteen-mile hike within Grand Teton's borders, a long quiet stroll from Jenny Lake to Solitude Point, but between the cold and my sore legs, my left knee feeling particularly aggravated, I thought better of it, and instead simply enjoyed the scenic drive, pulling off at every overlook, and mentally marking the Tetons as a place worthy of return later in life. Then, I left that perfect park and continued south, pulling into Jackson Hole by dinnertime.

Jackson Hole was a cute little town, a base camp for skiers and hikers and climbers, a town stuffed full of art galleries and wild west lore. I had considered a hotel stay in Jackson, my reward for a hard day's night twice over, but the room rates of that small village rivaled those of the country's biggest cities, and I decided instead to rough yet another sleep in the cold, albeit with an altitude drop of about a thousand feet.

No room in which to crash, then, I whittled away the evening at a terrific vegan-friendly cafe, catching up on writing and messages and imbibing beer after beer in the hopes of finding fortitude with which to brave the impending cold. I would need sleep, I knew, for the next day I was headed off to the Idaho border, a lengthy detour west, to meet my sister at that year's national Rainbow Gathering.

To Glacier (Days 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44)


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."

"Ah, HUD."

"Yup, HUD."

"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.

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