Saturday, May 23, 2009

Surtainly Magnificent

Yosemite had been an up-and-down experience. I hope as I look back on it I recall the majesty of the peaks and even the burning of my quads before the throngs of people and wildlife suppression techniques. Then again, I'm grateful for having seen the ugly side of things, and wouldn't have wanted a sugar-coated experience. Either way, it was only upon leaving the park on Saturday evening (May 16th) that we felt like we were getting a break from civilization. Weird.

Saturday night we stayed at an inn above a saloon in Coulterville, CA. Coulterville boasts the sort of old West, one-horse town aesthetic that tourist traps seek to replicate, but the boarded up businesses and sleepy feel to the town speak to its authenticity. It was a great place to recharge after Yosemite.

From there it was on to Santa Cruz, a town that is one part beach, one part forest and two parts awesome. It has beachfront for surfing (or learning how to surf...or simply carrying a board around town and winking at the ladies), mountains for hiking, and independent businesses for supporting. It's also known as one of the biking capitals of North America and has the best falafel I've ever tasted outside of Ottawa. Yeah, I think Santa Cruz and I will get along just fine. We were only there for a couple of days, but bookmarked the local Craigslist page before leaving, as of all the places we've visited thus far, it seems to be the front runner in the "Where are we going to live when we get home" sweepstakes.

South of Santa Cruz, past the ├╝ber-ritzy tourist destinations of Carmel and Pebble Beach lies Big Sur. More a region than a specific location, and perhaps more a state of mind than a region, Big Sur (a bastardized derivative of the Spanish "Big South") is 90 miles of rugged coastline where the Santa Lucia Mountains jump abruptly from the seething Pacific Ocean, with Coastal Highway One serving as a winding and arbitrary boundary between the two. Many great writers have called Big Sur home (or at least called it muse) and standing in between the mountains and the sea, it was not difficult to understand why.

Of all the artistic greats who spent time in Big Sur, novelist and painter Henry Miller is the one whose legacy is the most enduring. On Wednesday afternoon, May 20th, we wandered into the Henry Miller library set across the street from the ocean in a thicket of lush Pacific vegetation. The aesthetic of the building is more wooden cottage than library, and over and above any other purpose it is a modest bookstore, selling Big Sur-inspired works and other books that make you think. In addition to a bookstore, however, it is also used as a performance space, and we happened to stumble upon it on the day of an open mic. We spent a short time at the library in the afternoon, with plans to return that evening for the open mic.

After some time back at our campsite - a beauty walk-in site at Andrew Molera State Park - we bundled up for the long night ahead and drove back to the library for the open mic. Seeking to get off the tourist track and spend time engaging in bona fide local activities is something I always endeavour to do while traveling, and to that end the open mic didn't disappoint. We arrived to find a smattering of locals sitting on the sprawling deck to the right of the main library building, shielded from the wind by trees yet fully exposed to the stars, liberally sharing mugs of coffee, cans of beer, pipes of combustibles and anything else that could be passed to your neighbour.

It was a pleasure to spend a few hours listening to locals sing and strum while we sat beside them, with songs about Jesus and love mixed in with the occasional poem or Sublime cover. When the music they played over the speakers in between performers included Leonard Cohen telling Marianne "I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy/Before I let you take me home," I couldn't help but wonder if those are words I'll be singing to Big Sur before my time out West is done. We departed the open mic when it concluded at 11:00, but the night was far from over.

There is still much geologic activity on the west coast (geologic time includes now, after all) and along with the not-so-pleasant earthquakes come some of the more enjoyable byproducts of seismic activity, such as the hot springs at the Esalen Institute.

The Esalen Institute is a retreat and educational center on the ocean side of the highway a few kilometers south of the library. It has hot-springs-fed mineral baths that overlook the Pacific, and they open the baths to the public from one to three A.M. every night. Yes, that's 1:00 to 3:00 in the morning, and it's done by reservation only. When you make your reservation, they tell you that you have to be waiting in your car at the top of their driveway in a dusty pull-off alongside the highway at quarter to one in the morning. Someone will come meet you. Do not drive on to the property until he comes to get you. Just to recap: you have to sit and wait in a dark car in the middle of the night on the side of a highway for someone to come knock on your window, and you cannot proceed until he collects you. From the way they set it up, I wondered if there had been a miscommunication along the line. "No, you misunderstood me," I wanted to say. "I'm looking to soak in the mineral baths, not buy drugs." I bit my tongue, though, and several hours later Sarah and I drove from the open mic to sit in the pullout for a couple of hours, waiting for the knock on our window.

There was another car waiting when we pulled in, and a couple of others drove up to wait in the hour and-a-half before the staff member emerged from the darkness down the hill in a golf cart at a little before one o'clock. Shadowy figures emerged from the cars one at a time. "Walk down the hill," he told us all. "There is someone in the guard booth. He will sign you in. Wait there."

No, seriously. Am I trying to soak my bare ass in 2009, or buy moonshine in 1933?

We made our way down to the guard hut, signed our names and a standard waiver, and the man who had collected us in the highway pullout then escorted us through the compound down to where the baths are. After a brief rundown ("Here are the baths, here's how you make them hotter, someone will come tell you when it's almost three and your time is up") we were left to soak. There were eight of us altogether - Sarah and I, another young couple, and four single men. This makes for an odd dynamic when you are at a "clothing optional" bath with communal change rooms, but everyone managed to stifle their point-and-giggle impulses as we disrobed, showered (also communal) and individually wandered out to the baths themselves. The dim lighting helped.

There were four baths, each about the size and depth of a hot tub, with two of them outside sandwiched between stars and sea and two more under partial or total cover, but still in the open air. The baths were etched into a cliff, several stories above the crashing waves. The water was a little warmer than a well-heated swimming pool, but with the turn of a valve you could pour additional natural hot spring water into the tub to up the temperature.

There were also empty claw foot bathtubs, which you could fill with cold water from a garden hose if you wanted to jump between hot and cold water. Thinking this to be an exciting option, I turned on a hose to fill up one of the bathtubs, only to have it flail around on the deck when I let it go, spewing cold water at quite an impressive radius. I'm not certain, but I don't think having a furry naked Canadian shouting "What the hell?!" and chasing a garden hose raining ice water in all directions was what our fellow bathers had bargained for when they paid their twenty bucks, so I had to quickly shape up and rig up some sort of system where I could leave the hose unattended while I enjoyed my soak. After a few failed attempts I managed to tie the hose in a knot around itself that was sufficient to weigh it down until the tub filled. Moving back and forth between hot and cold was exhilarating, to be sure, and worth the brief interruption in the serenity.

Amusing misfortunes aside, the middle-of-the-night soak was a full-sensory endeavour in regeneration. Nurturing for mind, body and soul, and offering a strong connection to the elements. For our eyes: the silhouetted black clouds jockeying for position in front of a never-in-the-city star scape. For our ears: the pulse of the ocean a hundred feet below us, churning and thundering, apparently unaware that night is for resting. Even the strong aroma of sulfur emanating from the thermal pools was gentle and welcome, reminding us that it was Mother Earth on her own who was keeping the baths warm. All the while the mineral water washed over us, providing an embryonic immersion of the most soothing proportions. Much like a night at the bar - but for entirely different reasons - three o'clock came much too soon. After a drive back to the state park, the walk back to our campsite in the pitch black forest as the clock struck four was a fitting punctuation to a night of the sublime.

Short hikes and beach time were the order of the remainder of our time in Big Sur. That Wednesday night, though, was not only the sort of night that makes me want to travel in the first place, but the sort of night that makes me wonder in retrospect why I chose to keep moving. For now I am enjoying my time as a gypsy boy (a gypsy boy with a gypsy girl accomplice, that is), but if Big Sur calls me home, I will be only too happy to answer.



Monday, May 18, 2009

Yosemite Part 3: A Sad Encounter

Fifteen hard miles in ten hours in the hot sun will leave anyone feeling a little wilted. There was a palpable air of relief around us as we shuffled our way back to the car, which was parked in a dusty lot and pulled in facing a wooded area. The setting sun was still beating on the granite cliffs to the South, but the parking lot was in total shade.

I was on the driver’s side and had just let out a relieved grunt as I slid off my stiff and heavy backpacking boots. Standing up to stretch after slipping my feet into some sandals, my jaw dropped as I saw two hundred pounds, four legs and light brown fur lumbering away from a neighbouring car with a brown paper bag in it’s mouth.

“Sarah! A bear!”

She wasn’t fifteen feet away from us and only wandered about twenty feet into the woods to dig into her new find. Seeing a bear with a tag on its ear and a grocery bag in its mouth doesn't quite recall the majesty of John Muir's Yosemite, but there was still a quiet awe in both of us as we stood transfixed and silent.

Sarah and I had each snapped a picture and I was going to reach for a phone to call and report the late afternoon snacker when I turned and saw the rangers approaching us. Dressed in their green pants, matching ball caps and crisp khaki shirts, the gang of four were probably a couple years younger than me. Two men and two women, with two of them carrying high-tech listening equipment and a paintball gun.

I was approached by the younger of the two men, wearing big glasses and a stubby dirty blond pony tail pulled through the back of his hat. Knowing what he was looking for I whispered “Right there, straight ahead,” and pointed. He took a look and then went back to his teammates. There was a deceptive and fleeting moment of calm as the four of them took about three steps toward the bear.

The contrast could not have been more stark: the silent reverence when we sat watching the bear eat, and the top-of-their-lungs shouting as the rangers gave chase. "HEY BEAR! GET OUT OF HERE!" They exploded like a pack of wolves on Red Bull, a college football team emerging from the tunnel trying their best to psych out their opponent as they ran straight at the animal. She was undeterred for a moment, but once the rangers were within about ten feet she dropped her find and retreated to the woods. As quickly and silently as we had seen her, she disappeared in a jarring mess of shouts and pressurized paint pellets.

They weren't done, though. The older of the two male rangers, sporting close-cropped black hair and a neatly groomed beard (pffff) went back to the truck and emerged with what looked like a Soviet assault rifle. The younger woman stayed close by him with radio equipment they could use to track the animal into the woods.

"So, what do you guys do now?" I asked.

"We have to go and find her. This bear has been a real problem," came the cavalier, almost boastful response from the ranger brandishing the firearm. "We've been chasing her almost exclusively for about a week and-a-half, and she's getting bolder and bolder. We're going to shoot her with rubber bullets to try and keep her away, but we've relocated her five times."

"Did she break into a car just now?" Yosemite bears are famous for tearing into locked cars in search of food.

"No. Somebody put their food down and walked a hundred yards away. She came and grabbed it as soon as he walked away."

"So I guess he didn't pay attention to the signs that seem to be every five feet telling you to store your food properly, huh?"

"Yeah, well, signs are only so effective. " And then, as a casual afterthought he added "We'll have to put her down if she gets worse."

So, just to recap: Person comes into bear's habitat. Person told not to leave food out. Person leaves food out. Bear gets shot. It was a strange and troubling end to four days in Yosemite that were overwhelming for any number of reasons - both magical and devastating.

Yosemite National Park is stunning. The granite cliffs, soaring waterfalls and mountain meadows are enough to bring a grown man to tears. They have captured the imaginations of writers, artists and musicians for generations, and are why three and a half million people visit the park every year (that's an average of ten thousand a day, for those of you keeping score at home). But of those 3.5 million, one has to wonder how many of them see the park as simply a forested extension of the cities from which they come. It would not be a stretch for anybody to view Yosemite as yet another consumerist enclave, only one that happens to be surrounded by natural, rather than artificial skyscrapers.

I am not an elitist. I think the woods are for everybody, and just because I can walk a little ways into the mountains, that does not mean that I am any more entitled to see Yosemite than someone who, for whatever reason, cannot venture more than a half mile from the car. But to nurture the sort of roadside tourism which Yosemite oozes - a pizza joint, souvenir "clearance outlet" and sprawling, cancerous golf course can all be found on the valley floor - does not show the same sort of reverence for the natural environment that the park pretends to espouse. How are tourists supposed to take seriously the warnings about locking up their food when they are parked a stone's throw from an all-you-can-eat buffet? The park is dotted with signs asking us to keep the animals wild, but they aren't exactly setting the best precedent with what they've done to the landscape.

If ten thousand people a day want to respect and learn about the land - even from the comfort and safety of their cars - then that should be encouraged. Awareness and education are the cornerstones of conservation. But I am at a loss as to what good is served by the hordes coming through Yosemite to eat pizza and buy t-shirts, only to have the wildlife that is emblazoned on those very t-shirts be euthanized as a result of the negligence of park visitors. (Funny, too, how John Muir - a man whose image and name are shamelessly plastered all over the park - defined his life by the time he spent in these mountains without every buying a single t-shirt).

Let anyone who so desires come to Yosemite. Let them stay awhile, take pictures and tell all their friends about it. I, myself was a temporary guest, and am very grateful to have been allowed to come for a visit. But let the people come on the terms of the mountains, dictated by compassion, not consumerism. I'm happy to pay to enter the park, but I want to pay to enter a park in the mountains, not a shopping mall in the woods. If you want a pizza buffet, stay at home. If you want a buffet for the soul, bring your sleeping bag and plan to stay a while.

Just remember to lock up your food.



Yosemite Part 2: Half Dome (Choose Your Own Adventure)

(Please choose a number between 1 and 4. You'll need it later on in this post)

Friday had been a great day of recharging, and after some back-and-forth between us about avoiding crowds and what we wanted out of our time in Yosemite, we decided that climbing the fabled Half Dome on Saturday would be a fun and challenging way to cap off our time in the park. Half Dome is more rock than mountain, a granite formation rising up 4800 feet (1, 144 metres) from the valley floor to an elevation of 8,836 feet (2,693 metres). The summit of the rock is accessible without technical climbing gear, with fixed cables shepherding hikers up the last 400 feet (120 metres) of the steep climb. It's a grueling 15-mile round-trip, but something we were very much looking forward to as we packed up camp on Saturday morning and took the short drive to the trailhead.

There are other lookout points and waterfalls on the way up to the summit, so we were very much part of a thundering herd as we started the walk. I felt like a pilgrim heading to Mecca, only with more of a crowd. While the crowds would ebb and flow throughout the day, we never quite had the feeling that we were "getting away from it all," as we estimated at day's end that we spent less than ten percent of the day without other people in view or earshot. I shudder to think of the masses that flock to Half Dome at summer's peak.

The highlight of the early part of the hike is the misnomered "Mist Trail," a steep granite stair climb that has you walking along side a pumping waterfall (pumping in springtime, at least), while the mist from the falls gives you a thorough soaking. It wasn't a bad way to start the day, as the scenery was great and we knew that we were in for a hot day of hiking.

The walk levels off somewhat after the mist trail culminates with the thundering Nevada Falls four miles (about seven kilometers) in. After a flat, sandy section the trail climbs gradually toward the summit, with the final two miles being gnarly to say the least. There are dozens of steps seemingly carved right into the side of the rock, then some free scrambling up bare rock (nothing but the valley floor to stop a fall) which takes you to a false summit. From the false summit, you look straight up to the final 400 feet (120 meters) of climb: a seventy degree rock face where the only (sane) way up or down is to haul yourself up using the steel cables that are in place from May to October. It took me a long, hard look at the cables to figure whether or not I wanted to make the final push, but in the end...(kindly recall the number you chose at the beginning of the blog to complete this sentence. Let's all meet up again after number four.)

1. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. The Maori people of New Zealand have asked climbers not to stand directly on the summit Aoraki/Mount Cook - that country's highest peak - out of respect for the mountain's sacred history. I thought the honourable thing to do would be to show the same respect to Half Dome.

2. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 200 feet. My mother is an avid knitter, and my untimely demise resulting from a potential misstep would have put her way behind on her Christmas socks for this year. I couldn't do that to her.

3. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. Sarah told me I was more of a man for not doing it than all of those who did it just for the sake of doing it. And besides, I haven't felt the need to prove anything to anyone since my second successful defence of the Camp Sheldrake 60-second burp record in 2003(120 burps in one minute, and it still stands to this day).

4. But in the end, I chose not to pull myself up the cables and climb the final 400 feet. The thought scared the living piss out of me.

So I didn't stand atop the absolute summit of Half Dome. But to let that detract from what was a near-idyllic day on the trails (save for the crowds) would be to miss the point of a day in the woods altogether. The lizards scampering below me, wild flowers in bloom beside me and snow-covered peaks in front of me were the stuff of a Planet Earth highlight reel, and to spend a day letting my senses feast in such a theater was a wonderful privilege. Summit or no summit, to be so blessed as to be wincing my way down the mountain in the relentless sun after walking on the shoulder of a giant was soul food of the highest nutritional content. I am grateful to Half Dome for letting me spend a blink of her eye alongside her, and have never had a shower so glorious as the waterfall mist on the descent.



Yosemite Part 1: Any Room at the Inn?

We enjoyed our stay in Arcata, but a guy can only see so many dreadlocks and yoga pants before looking for a change of scenery. We headed just a little ways down the 101 to Ferndale, CA, a one-horse town renowned for its Victorian architecture and quaint Main Street.

My Lonely Planet guidebook told us that we could camp for a modest fee - hot showers included - at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale, so we followed the signs when we arrived in town. The fairgrounds are located a couple of kilometers outside of town in some pretty serious agricultural country. We weren't sure the camping rumours would be true, but sure enough we found a field adjacent to the county racetrack that had a few ramshackle motor homes amidst the overgrowth and a hand-painted red-and-white sign that said "Camping Check-In". The sign pointed to a trailer that could not have had half as much furniture inside as it did outside.

Ten dollars later we were setting up our tent at the edge of an unkempt field across the street from a fine bovine herd on one side, the county fair grandstand on another and a scrap tire yard on yet another. It would seem that they don't get too many one-night visitors at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds (except during the fair, we were later told), as eyes peered out from behind tattered screens and rickety front doors of each of the ten or so trailers and motor homes that lined the field, watching our every move as we set up the tent and settled in for the night. A couple of young road trippers from Canada were the front page story for the fifteen hours we were camped at the fairgrounds, as every time we went to the bathrooms or walked off the property, locals made sure to find a reason to be standing in front of their trailers or in their windows to get a good look. I'm not sure if it felt more like a scene from Deliverance (backwoods creepy) or Snatch (bare-knuckle boxing gypsy creepy), but either way I wasn't sad to be leaving on Tuesday morning, the back-in-time charm of Ferndale not withstanding.

The coast had been good to us, but it was time to head inland a ways. After a one-night stopover in Ukiah, CA we headed to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada Mountains therein. It being midweek and early May at this point, we were looking forward to some time in the woods away from civilization. Everyone knows that National Parks are mobbed from June to September, so we were psyched to think we were ahead of the rush.

We were surprised, then, when we arrived late Tuesday night and found an "All Campgrounds Full" sign taped to the unoccupied entry booth in the Southwest corner of the park. Slightly confused and a little but unnerved, we turned around and set up camp in a dark and primitive campground (no picnics or brushing of teeth allowed, because of bears) about forty kilometers outside of the park.

We rolled in to the park again, for the first time, on Wednesday morning. We were told that all of the reservable campsites in the park were taken, but that the walk-in and non-reservable Camp 4 might still have a few spots left. Camp 4 is located on the floor of the Yosemite Valley, a good half-hour's drive from the entry to the park, so we booted it there as fast as we could, knowing that if we got shut out from Camp 4 our Yosemite experience might be in serious jeopardy. Again, this being the supposed off-season, we were taken aback at the amount of traffic we saw driving in, but we plowed on undeterred and were relieved to get one of the last sites available in Yosemite National Park.

How to describe Camp 4? It's a walk-in only campground, where everyone parks in a dusty lot and walks in to their site (we were about two hundred metres from the car to our tent). People are camped on top of each other, six to a site with, one meagre set of washrooms (no showers) serving all two hundred and some campers. Set in the shadow of Yosemite Falls and the iconic El Capitan, Camp 4 is renowned among rock climbers, who seemed to comprise at least 90% of the residents of this strange little village that was one part campground, one part music festival, and one part parents' basement. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who could probably be doing something more productive with their lives are the norm (present company proudly included), but the duct-taped gear and mac-and-cheese diets belie the diversity of the campers. Once the headlamps get turned on around the picnic tables at night you are just as likely to hear conversations about how "Siiiiick, dude" the nose route of El Cap is as you are to get recommendations on where to get sushi in Berlin or whether The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer's best work.

Tents and bear-proof food storage cabinets at Camp 4. You really have to hope your neighbour doesn't snore.

The full campsites and traffic heading from the park entrance to the valley (where most of Yosemite's commercial and slumbering activity takes place) had given us some cause for concern, but I don't know that either of us were quite prepared for the total gong show that would await us after we set up in Camp 4 and made our way to the beehive that is Yosemite Village.

The village is the hub of Yosemite National Park. Three and a half million people visit the park each year, and it seemed to us on Wednesday afternoon that 2009's entire allotment had checked in that afternoon. There were gift shops (and one "souvenir clearance outlet") swarming with tourists browsing the floor-to-ceiling t-shirts. Others clambered over each other in line at the full service grocery store, and still more were found in line at the plethora many eateries in the village, or on their way to the 18-hole championship golf course. It was like a dusty Disneyland, with all of the jostling, noise and aggravation of a major tourist trap and none of the anticipated tranquility or even mutual respect one anticipates when entering a national park. We had paid twenty bucks (the entry fee to the park, per car) for the privilege of fighting crowds for parking spots and roadside views, and were both feeling pretty demoralized.

Thursday was better, however. After the confusion and frustration of Wednesday, we checked out of Camp 4 into the more serene and natural North Pines Campground, and had a wonderful day of hiking 10 miles (round trip) to the top of Yosemite Falls - North America's highest waterfall, plunging over 2,000 feet to the valley floor. Watching the water unfurl as it leaped over the falls and billowed its way into the streams below and hearing its jet-engine roar that could only have been soothing in this particular setting was just the therapy we needed and left us feeling like we'd had a real day in the woods. We looked forward to a rest day on Friday and then a climb of the mighty Half Dome on Saturday.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Honey, I Blew Up the Trees

Lincoln City, Oregon was a stopover serving little more purpose than a bed and a shower, but when we awoke Tuesday to sunny skies, we took a morning run on the beach before skipping town. It can be easy when road-tripping to let your physical well being slide, so we've tried to make a point of starting off at least a few days a week with a run. When you have hundreds of miles of coastline with which to do this, it definitely makes things easier (although we only use three or four of those miles at a time).

Continuing our journey south we spent the night at Humbug Mountain State Park - a lush, rainforested campground tucked in a nook with rich green hills rising sharply to the south, and the ocean churning and crashing a half mile to the west. Lying in my sleeping bag Tuesday night it was a soothing pleasure to hear the low rumble of the ocean harmonizing with the sway of the coastal wind through the trees, while the rain played percussion, sizzling like bacon on the roof of the tent.

Humbug Mountain (highly recommended) lies near the Oregon-California border, so we knew that Wednesday would bring a crossing into the promised land of Northern California and the coastal redwoods. We stopped in Crescent City, CA (not recommended) only long enough to get information at the Redwood National and State Parks visitors' center and were on our way, pointed slightly inland toward Jedediah Smith State Park, smack in the middle of the Northern sprawl of coastal redwoods.

Right. The coastal redwoods. Sweet fancy Moses, these trees are big. With some of them topping off at close to four hundred feet (that's about 394 feet taller than me, give or take), these are the tallest trees in the world, and it's not as though they're skinny either. To be honest, the size of these trees is absurd to me, as even when I crane my neck to see one from top-to-bottom it simply does not seem possible for a tree to be that big. Wednesday night we camped snug amidst a grove of giants, which by their size alone constantly and silently reminded us of our own insignificance.

Thursday afternoon we set off on a fairly gentle six-mile (10K) hike through the forest to a modest waterfall. Snaking our way through the trees, each seemingly bigger than the last, it occurred to me that I was living out a long-dormant childhood dream. That is not to say that I have long wished to visit the giant redwoods. Rather, I remember thinking as an 8 year-old boy how cool it would be to run around on the set of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids - to spend some time in a spatially askew world of giants where I was reduced to the role of insect. This is very much the sensation that I had hiking through the trees - that I did not belong. That they existed on a scale so beyond my comprehension and significance that the best I could ask for would be to walk beside them for a few hours and hope they didn't catch on to the fact that a foreigner was scurrying around their roots.

Eating, sleeping, walking and driving in the redwoods for three days (with more to come) was something that I won't soon forget and an experience I am having difficulty conveying with the written word. The redwood forests were at once overwhelming and intangible. Sensory and visceral. Soothing and intense. I was never quite sure whether I should be bowing my head or raising the roof, so I did a little of both. Booting our way down the highway on Friday through a sun-drenched grove of giants with the ocean to our right and some tasty Phish coming through the speakers elicited more than one fist-pump from yours truly, and was the perfect way to emerge from the woods and punctuate three days that were simply spectacular ( can feel free to insert your own overused superlative here).

Friday night had us camped at the beach at a decidedly non-forested site, but one that was idyllic on its own terms. Watching the waves dance against the hardwood of the Pacific sunset from Gold Bluffs Beach was a joy, and the breathing ocean once again lulled me to sleep, only to nudge me awake with the same song hours later.

We are now spending the weekend in Arcata, CA, a very crunchy Humboldt County town plucked from the Vermont tree, where beards are the norm and self-righteous bumper stickers abound. Gee, I wonder if I'll fit in.

From here it looks like we'll be headed inland. Yosemite National Park, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the giant sequoias that caught the imagination of John Muir are calling us. While the coast has been spectacular, we're looking forward to spending some time among mountains and fresh water, and getting more lessons in humility from those damn big trees.



Monday, May 4, 2009

Going Places that I've Never Been

(Warning: there are two bad words in this post.)

The going away festivities from the night before had left me with a broken head and slightly dehydrated heart, so I was feeling fragile when we drove on to the ferry. Having finished school (forever[?]) a few days before and finished moving (not forever) a few minutes before, I pulled onto the Coho ferry with Sarah, headed for Port Angeles, WA with a station wagon full of stuff and a roof full of bikes. Our plan: to cruise the American west coast for a while (weeks? months?), looking for a place to lay our heads for a slightly longer while, and take some time to smell the roses along the way.

Leaving Victoria proved harder than I thought, though, in more ways than one. I tend to boast about the amount that I move, and with my last few have developed a smug sense of self-satisfaction at how smoothly it can go. This time, however, proved to be quite the scramble to vacate the apartment, tie up loose ends and catch the last southbound boat of the day from Victoria. While I wasn't entirely surprised at the rough go I had getting everything to fit in the car, I hadn't figured on having to mask a quivering lip and salty cheeks as we sailed away from the Island I had lamented more than once over the past three years. I'll try and save face by chocking the emotions up to the lingering effects of the previous night. Either way, though, at 4:00 on Thursday afternoon, I was headed for the mainland.

We camped in Olympic National Park the first night and headed south down US 101 the next morning. The Washington section of 101 has its share of Pacific Northwest greenery, but we both felt inclined to drive through the state at a utilitarian pace. We knew that Oregon and California would give us much cause to take our time, and looked forward to exploring those states at a gait so leisurely it might invite the middle finger from RV-ing retirees. Washington could be cruised through at a decent clip.

We arrived in Oregon late in the day on Friday and camped in Fort Stevens State Park at the extreme Northwest tip of the state. A funny thing about Oregon: one is prohibited by law from pumping one's own gas. Ostensibly this is to create jobs in the state, but if nothing else it adds some local colour to an out-of-stater's visit. Case-in-point: a conversation I had with an attendant at a rural gas bar on Saturday morning:

"Hey man, where are you headed?"
"Not sure. South is pretty much all we know. We're going to go at least as far as the giant redwoods in California."
"The redwoods are fucking bad, dude!"
"Yeah man. They blew my mind. There are trees that are as wide as from me to that building over there."
"Sweet. Looking forward to it."
"Yeah. I think they're prehistoric or some shit."

Heading inland from there, we made our way to Portland to check out the city and visit a friend of Sarah's. After getting caught in a hail storm and learning the hard way that there is a dearth of public restrooms in the city, we decided that the time might not be right for us and Portland to become acquainted. We enjoyed a great evening with an old friend and his wife and then headed back toward the coast late Saturday night.

As far as scenery, the Oregon coast has not disappointed. To our right has been crashing surf and the open ocean (I think it's the Pacific), and to our left have been hills blanketed with foliage so lush I've daydreamed about riding my bike atop the canopy, only to be snapped back to reality by the logging truck approaching me in the oncoming lane I have drifted into.

Sunday afternoon we arrived in Cannon Beach, where any well-cultured child of the 80's should know that The Goonies was filmed. We both felt initially drawn to the town, as it's a quaint seaside village where most of the shops have posted hours that include the words "around" or "ish." There are also striking similarities between Cannon Beach and Lake Placid, New York - a village that is near and dear to both of our hearts and has a similar resort vibe.

Upon closer inspection, however, Cannon Beach seems to be like the head cheerleader of coastal Oregon: it's nice to look at for a little while and is pleasant enough for a day or two, but eventually you can't help but realize it is a little too perfect. The meticulous landscaping, ultramodern vacation homes and picturesque storefronts came to give off an aura of the manufactured (despite the absence of chain stores), and the longer I spent in town the more I felt like I was in Disneyland for rich people from Seattle. Indeed, it looked like a village that had everything one could want, except for the sense that any real people actually lived there. There was enough distinct about it that I could maybe see myself enjoying the beach there for a summer, but I won't be surprised if I'm greeted by a Stepford wife the next time I roll into town.

Before departing Cannon Beach we sent some mail home. Now, one of the joys of our trip is not knowing quite where we're going, and not having anywhere to get back to. There is something at once liberating and guilt-inducing about having to shrug our shoulders when asked where we are headed either to or from, and in the past three days I think we have used four different home addresses. It can also add some flavour to even mundane activities such as mailing a letter. Here is the return address I put on a card that went in the mail box this morning:

99 Outback
BC Plates
924 HMR
Highway 101
West Coast

After the post office we contined south this afternoon. In light of the rather gnarly wind and rain that are pounding the coast, we've opted to move inside for the night. We're hunkered down at a Mom and Pop motel in Lincoln City, Oregon, hoping to be up and at 'em early tomorrow and camped somewhere cool tomorrow night. Private ownership is prohibited on the Oregon coastline, so there are heaps of prime camping spots lining the shore (the hippies finally got something right). I'll update when I can, and look forward to sharing more adventures as we move along.

Just don't ask me where I live.