On the Road Again
This was it. The Big Trek, by my lonesome, across four states to end at a fifth, from San Fran (I can now call it that) to Sacramento to Reno, through the prairies of northern Nevada, the plains of southern Oregon, a quick stint in Boise, around the Sawtooth Range and through the Craters of the Moon, over the Continental Divide, and down to Helena.
I was my captain, navigator, companion, and DJ. With Helena now in my sights, this was the epic road trip I’d always wanted. It wasn’t a cross-state slog like my trips to ND, where the endless plains of Ohio easily suck the excitement out of any returning college student. I expected this to be a trip of breathless vistas, unique characters, essential reflection, and minimal bathroom breaks.
My expectations ended up being pretty spot on.
GRANITE & PINE: CALIFORNIA
I looked in the rearview mirror as I crossed The Golden Gate Bridge for the last time in a long time.
I took in the Presidio and its sprawling forest, the rays of the morning sun just starting to turn the Eucalyptus leaves on fire, took in the city next to it, the hills and skyscrapers catching the golden sun and throwing it back at me. My biggest regret, as I entered the tunnel on the other side of the bridge, was not taking the time to stop at the lookout point to snag one final picture before I left to encapsulate the wonderful city that I called home for a brief half year, a city that I’d only scratched the surface of.
But my future was East.
I drove out of the Bay Area into the California scrubland that surrounds it. Fields of amber covered rolling hills as I neared Sacramento, my first time travelling through The Republic’s capital. What impressed me most about driving through that area was the gradual changing of the landscape. The rolling hills became waves, then became massive granite crests that closed in around me as I drove. It was magnificent. Sycamores, walnuts, and cottonwoods gave way to rows upon rows of pines that covered the granite mountains, crowding any available soil and breaking the rocks to stay alive. It will always amaze me how life can eek a living from this hard, merciless rock, yet it does.
The road wove in and out of the granite claws, a ribbon across the eastern border of California. I rode the rolling blacktop, careful to keep my truck at a reasonable speed in some of the breakneck turns as I forced myself to keep my eyes on the road.
And then, without any fanfare or noticeable signage (maybe I missed it), I was in the next state.
DESERT & SCRUB: NEVADA
The granite peaks receded as I crossed the border into Nevada, giving way to smaller mountains and large hills as I neared and passed the city of Reno.
Now that I was in Nevada, my knowledge of West coast ecosystems snuck up on me. In my mind, the state was a desert wasteland, its citizens eking out an existence in a Mad Maxesque state, fighting for every drop of water. I can neither confirm nor deny if Max is tromping around in the southern part of Nevada, but the northern portion of the state surprised me. There was sand, and sometimes whole dunes of it, but most of the land I found myself driving through was prairie scrub, tinged a faded hue of green and yellow.
There’s an arid beauty to northern Nevada. Valleys roll over hills and plateaus as low-hanging clouds scud across the sky, their shadows advancing in front me as I caravanned across the mostly empty Interstate 80. I drove on and on but never found myself getting tired. Maybe it was the countless phone calls I made to get back into people’s lives, or maybe the soothing voices from NPR, BBC, and the 80s top hits station I came across. Either way, I was riding an unknown energy source across the prairie desert of Nevada.
The exhilaration of being on the open road, by myself, continued into the next state when I passed through McDermitt, a small town that straddles the state line.
PRAIRIE & PRESIDIO: OREGON
Again, I really need to see more of the West in order to understand the typography of these states. For me, someone from the East Coast, I’m used to one continuous forest that practically starts in Maine and makes its way all the way to Florida. Granted, there are swamps and marshes, different types of forests scattered throughout the whole system. But what I’m trying to say is that you could drive through most of PA, MD, and VA without seeing any change in the land.
It’s not the same out here. I always pictured Oregon as covered in pines, like Portland. Instead, I found myself still driving through rolling prairies in its southeast corner, transitioning from Nevada without even noticing. Not a pine tree in sight.
It's amazing, sometimes, how small this world is, though. I was coming up on another plateau, my gas tank showing less than a quarter as I pulled into a small gas station, its two gas pumps analog, not electronic. The attendant that walked over was short, stooped, but built like a tree trunk. He was older, gray and black hair covering the ravines of wrinkles that crossed his forehead. He reached out to shake my hand and introduced himself, Joe, with hands that saw work on a daily basis, calloused and dusty, fingers that held mine in a grip that could easily break it if need be. He spoke haltingly, chewing over his words, and asked about where I was going and where I came from.
I mentioned Helena and SF, my journey through the states so far. At my mention of SF he perked up. Turns out that he lived in The Presidio back in the 80s when he was stationed there as an Army officer, before retiring in ’89 to move out to Oregon where I met him that day. We talked about SF’s National Park, The Officer’s Club and forest, what it was like back then to live there.
“So I have to ask,” he said, squinting against the sun as we walked over to the café to pay for my gas, “ever been to The Final Final?”
“No way! That’s my favorite bar in San Francisco!”
“Ha, that’s good to hear. I’ll leave ya with a little fact: I was the only one that the owner bought a round for. Back when I retired, the day I was done, he did it. Never has done it since, I think.”
He doesn’t know how true that is. I tried multiple times, multiple nights, at my favorite bar for a free round and never got it.
SUN & MOON: IDAHO
I raced to meet the dawn as I drove deeper into Idaho. Subsisting on a Cliff Bar eaten at 5:30am, I drove through the early morning darkness for a good two hours before light started to slash across the skyline. It came gradually, deep black velvet pinpointed by stars giving way to violet, wine, and navy. Clouds covered most of the horizon, the dawn beginning to burn through them, painting their undersides vermillion. I kept my eyes focuses ahead as the sky lightened, orange and yellow splashing across the countryside. I continued through a deep valley as light began to pour across the sky, but the sun was still hidden behind the mountain range ahead. The valley road wound between their bases, through their range, out to the other side where I lost my breath.
The sun came over the horizon, its yellow magnificence subsuming all other colors that had come before it. It charged, flared, burning away clouds and bathing my windshield in its brilliance. This sunrise put all others I’d seen so far in my life to shame, seeing the sun completely dominate the horizon for as far as I can see. It pushed all hues away, violet and vermillion giving way to canary. I could barely see the road with my sunglasses on as I continued along, driving East, around the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains and through the Craters of the Moon National Park, whose dark, jagged boulders soaked up the sun like miniature black holes
(Google Craters of the Moon right now, as my photos won’t do it justice. I had no idea that I was going to drive right through it and when I finally realized where I was, you could have told me I was on the Moon or Mars and I would have believed you. It was eerily otherworldly and like nothing I’ve ever seen.)
MOUNTAIN & HOME: MONTANA
I’ve rambled long enough in this post and will keep some nuggets for later. I’m looking forward to being happy, lonesome, and free.
There’s not enough room to fully convey what it was like to drive through five states by myself. I can say is that it was the adventure of a lifetime and is an experience that I will always hold close to my heart. It also solidified my goal to ease up on the international travel (don’t worry, Collin, Patagonia is still on the docket) and explore more of my own country, a country that offers more than what many of us expect, and deserve, for that matter. There is so much out here to explore, so many adventures to find, rocks to overturn, before even trying to step foot outside of this beautiful, stunning, merciless land that we find ourselves on and in.
Right now I want to see what Montana and its surrounding states are hiding from me, what Craters of the Moon still exist to be stumbled upon. Much like the two intrepid explorers for whom my county is named after, I’ll continue to keep pressing forward, because the chance to be out there on my own, exploring America, is a memory that will never be taken from me.
Beer I drank – Wild Turkey Bourbon Stout by Anderson Valley Brewing Company
Song I heard – Montana by Pierce Edens