The End of the Road

In June, I wrote about Portland and naked people riding their bikes to work. That was a bit awkward… I’m used to naked people, even on bikes, but work…? Come on! We were on a Sabbatical! Who needs work!

Well, apparently we do. Our travel budget, the Sabbatical fund I wrote about last December, started to dry out quickly. Now, I’m back to work and the daily routine. I’m not dreading it like I used to. Even if it’s really not as fun as visiting National Parks and sleeping with the bison, the job provides for our daily needs and… builds the next Sabbatical fund. But before we go to far out into the future, let me finish this one first.

While in Portland, we actually stayed in a neighboring Vancouver, which is just across the river in the state of Washington. We lived for a few days with a Polish couple (“friends of our friends”) and also with people we’ve met in Bend, OR. During that time we had a chance not only to visit Portland, but also to take a tour of Columbia River attractions. What we didn’t do, is to say good bye to the Ocean. Realizing that the weather in the valley between the Coastal Range and the Cascades is rather unpredictable, we decided to skip Seattle and the other Vancouver and start heading East, towards home.

Our first stop was just mere few hours from Portland, where our new friends took us to teach us wind surfing. After all, we were in The Dalles, near Hood River, the World’s capital of windsurfing! We all tried the sport with… various degrees of success. I have to admit, Nadia was probably the best student and was able to surf within minutes. Alex wasn’t far behind, so was Agnieszka. I, on the other hand, am rather slow learner and my body’s flexibility resembles that of a log. Most my attempts to stand up straight ended up in uncontrolled falls. The sailing is relatively easy, standing on a small board in the middle of a mighty river is the difficult part…

After passing Mount Hood, we entered the high desert again and the weather improved significantly. Following the Oregon Trail, with a short stop near Ontario, small town on the border with Idaho, we reached Boise. We lived there for a few days with yet another friends from Poland and during that stay finally had a chance to see what the Famous Potatoes state is all about. We were not disappointed – Idaho, maybe not as famous as Utah or Colorado, can easily contend with them for the title of Americas capital of outdoors. Sitting on the Snake River Plains, with the breathtaking backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, Boise is one terrific town to live!

We spent a few days in Idaho Falls. It’s a small little town near Wyoming state border. Our next stop was suppose to be Yellowstone National Park, and we needed to refill our food supplies and gear. As we’ve learned before, anything and everything in the parks is twice as expensive.

To get from Idaho to Yellowstone National Park, we had to go through Montana. The park is located primarily in the North-West corner of Wyoming and there are four entrances leading in, two of them are in the state of Big Sky. The park, widely known for it’s natural beauty and abundant wildlife is enormous in size. It spans an area of almost 3,500 square miles (9,000 km2), comprising lakes, canyons, rivers and mountain ranges. We lived there for almost a week, covered over 300 miles, almost never crossing the same path twice and still left the park with a feeling of deficiency. We could easily spend another month in the park and still be awed by it’s beauty.

Our base camp was at the shores of Yellowstone Lake, which is one of the largest high-altitude lakes in North America. It is centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest active volcano on the continent. It has erupted with tremendous force several times in the last two million years. Fortunately we have been spared the spectacle… but one can tell that something’s going on under our feet. The entire park is full of geothermal features, Old Faithful being probably the most renown, but definitely not the only one. Apparently half of the world’s geothermal features are in Yellowstone! Everywhere we went, we stumbled upon geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.

We’ve learned that Yellowstone is the the largest remaining ecosystem in the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It is the largest remaining continuous stretch of mostly undeveloped pristine land in the continental United States. With the successful wolf reintroduction program, which began in the 1990s, virtually all the original faunal species known to inhabit the region when white explorers first entered the area can still be found there. Most tourists visiting the park create traffic jams taking pictures of bison, elk and deer from the comfort of their car seats. Some embark on the journey on the many hiking trails available, and are rewarded with close up encounters with the fauna in the unspoiled surroundings. We happened to setup our tent next to a bison’s favorite scratching tree. Falling asleep 20 feet away from the buffalo, we listened to snores of that 2,000 pounds piles of beef, telling ourselves that those animals are nothing more than just furry, oversized cows…

The next stop on our journey was just a mere couple of hours away. South of Yellowstone, almost adjacent to the park, lies another marvel of American tourist industry – the Grand Teton National Park. The park takes it’s name from the massive mountain range shooting up from the plains. It’s biggest peak, also bearing the same name is 13,770 ft (4,197 m) tall and overlooks a beautiful valley down below, where we stayed for a few days. We spent our time discovering park’s rich history and geography, hiking, playing in the many lakes, boating and just relaxing. In our records, Grand Teton is one of the places why we embarked on this journey in the first place.

We have left Grand Teton on the eve of Independence Day. We started late afternoon and decided that this will be our first teleportation experience. The kids felt asleep in their comfy seats around 9.30 PM, Agnieszka followed within minutes. When they woke up in the early morning, the car was park in front of… Bryce Canyon National Park waiting for the gate to open. As promised before, we were back in Utah! Overnight, the tall peaks of the Rocky Mountain ranges gave way to hoodoos and the moon-like landscapes of the canyons. Juicy greens of the fertile northern ecosystems turned brown. The air was filled with dirt that hasn’t seen rain in months.

Few nights in the park gave us an opportunity to discover not only the marvelous views from the top of the canyon, but also to explore below the it’s edge. On our treks we stumbled across many weird and mysterious looking rock formations, many of them resembling in shape faces, people or animals. Very spiritual place indeed…

We continued our passage through southern Utah in the daylight. From Bryce we took course for the Arches on the state’s back roads. On the way there, we stopped for a short visit in Capitol Reef National Park. We didn’t plan a longer stay, just enough time to collect the Junior Ranger badges… After all, who wants to stare at yet another Lime or Navajo Sandstone formations, right?

The next few days we spent at an RV park in Moab, Utah. This small town is surrounded by the most unusual rock formations making this part of the continent an ideal set for low budget sci-fi movies. What’s more interesting though, is the fact that both, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are just a stone throw away from the town center.

We left Moab in the afternoon and once again, applying our newly acquired teleportation technique, the crew woke up on the shore of a little mountain lake  in… Granby, Colorado. It was time for breakfast.

The southern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is just a few miles north from town. The steep road quickly climbs  from the bottom of the valley, all the way up to the 14,000 feet (3,700 m) tall peaks above it. We have spend the entire day driving through the mountains, inhaling high altitude air and admiring the breathtaking views… or as much as we could see through the thick of clouds.

Once on the other side of the Rockies, we headed back North. We ended our little detour and got back on the all familiar I-90 in South Dakota. While there, we decided to visit Wind Cave National Park,  Mount Rushmore and Badlands. In fact, the Black Hills are full of tourist attractions and if we were to see them all, we would need an entire month… and much deeper pockets, too. A little tired with all the fancy sites, we decided to skip the Crazy Horse Memorial (the largest sculpture in the world),  Jewel Cave National MonumentHarney Peak (the highest point east of the Rockies), Mammoth Site in Hot Springs (the world’s largest mammoth research facility), historic Deadwood and even the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (that’s because I sold the bike and the rally wasn’t until August anyway).

Out of the Badlands and onto the I-90, we spent the next couple of days observing endless fields of corn. Once on the other side of the Great Plains, we visited our good friends, who live in small town on the west outskirts of the greater Chicago metropolitan area. We haven’t seen each other in several years and the acquaintance goes back to our teenage years. No wonder we needed over a week to catch up.

We left Chicago and headed almost straight home. One stop in Sandusky, and we felt like home again. This little town sitting in the middle of the Rust Belt resembles many of the towns we got used to see in upstate New York.

At the end of July, after 14 months of wanderings, we got back to New York. The tenants were getting ready to leave, but not quite out the door yet. We stayed a few days in Stony Brook State Park, just minutes from our house. Since there were high winds going over the area, one night we even got to visit our neighbor…

To finish the journey, we met with friends, who year earlier came for a farewell party in Buckaloons, this time we welcomed them in Watkins Glen. After traveling throughout most parts of the continent, we came to a conclusion, that there isn’t a region in the US more beautiful than upstate New York, and particularly the Finger Lakes are the most spectacular of all.

Aren’t we lucky to live in the heart of it…!?! The End.

Grand Canyon to Fresno

It’s early Wednesday morning in Fresno. I’m sitting outdoors at a Starbucks Coffee table, watching people drive by, talking on their cell phones, texting, listening to the silly morning shows and the ever scarier news. They’re grabbing their bucket-sized coffee mugs without even getting off their cars – efficiency, I guess… I’m sitting alone, sipping my coffee and munching on an overpriced piece of preprocessed carbs (leaning the lingo from the hyper-wife). The place is busy, most young people getting in and out in a hurry, some retirees lingering indoors for hours – talking, reading newspapers or just sitting quietly, enjoying the drink.

It’s only 8.00 AM and the temperature is already in the upper 80’s. I move inside, looking for the air-conditioned breeze. Soft jazz tunes flowing from the hidden speakers are topping up the cacophony of noises: steaming coffee machines, people’s chatter, baristas calling orders, doors opening and closing, chairs scratching the floor… Slowly, I work my way up to the comfy armchair in the corner. It takes persistence and time, but just like the retirees, I have plenty of it. The car is left at a local repair shop and I rode the bike to this chain, characterless coffee shop to write this little update.

The brakes needed tune-up to bust my confidence level. Couple of days ago, we came down from the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in Sierra Nevada. Fortunately we entered the magical, giant forest from the south, which means we had to climb the steep, curvy roads in a 7,000 feet ascend. Getting down to Fresno, the road was of a much lesser incline with only a few winding bends. Next stops are going to be Yosemite and Lake Tahoe before visiting Sacramento. Good brakes will be essential, while traversing the Sierra back and forth.

The barista yells another order: Grande Iced Skinny Caramel Orange Mango Machiato! What, the heck is that? All I understand in “grande”, which in the Starbucks units of measurement is a medium size. Still, that’s 16 oz of liquid… Anyway, it reminds me that I’ve written the last trek update in Grand Canyon and in the meantime, we’ve moved a few states to the “left”.

In the Grand Canyon we had an opportunity to see elks, mule deers and plenty of other wild- (and yet surprisingly domesticated) life passing through our campsite. That of course to top the wonderful views down the world’s most famous hole in the ground. We even found the strength and courage to hike down the canyon. Not to it’s very bottom, just to the Cedar Ridge, but we joined the club of only 5% of visitors, who dare to set foot below the rim densely spotted with shops, lodges and restaurants.

The weather was very cooperative with chill nights and pleasant, sunny days. Considering that just a week before, there’s been snow on the ground, I think we got very lucky. Unfortunately, our luck left us upon leaving the park. Headed to the Zion National Park, we decided to stay for the night near Page, Arizona at the Colorado river dam at the southern end  of the Glenn Canyon. The place in known for it’s uncommon views that attracted lots of science fiction movie makers looking for the Moon or Mars-like views. It also draws a lot of photographers, who seek the perfect light down at the Antelope, one of the few slot canyons around here. When we set up the tent, the wind started blowing, black clouds rolling in from the west. The weather forecast for the next day called for rain, a lot of rain… As one of the fellow campers put it, we were lucky to experience such weather in this otherwise very hot and dry place. Well, I guess everything depends on your point of view…

We decided to fold our camp before it gets wet and headed west. Passing the campground gate I turned the windshield wipers on. The timing couldn’t be better… For the next few hours we drove in heavy downpour. Our moods were gloomy, but the car got washed off of the dirt it accumulated on the different deserts.

Approaching Zion, the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, when we entered the park, it cleared off almost completely, giving us truly unspoiled views of the most unusual and colorful rock formations we have ever seen. Dominated by reds and deep browns, the park is a mecca for all sorts of outdoors enthusiasts. Even though there is a winding road going through the park, large of it’s portions are only accessible by foot. The free shuttle delivers thousands of amateur photographs, hikers, climbers, bikers and boaters to the heart of the valley, from where they have to carry their gear to all the breathtaking places you see on the postcards. None of them complain. Not even the campers, who are offered only the basic of amenities: picnic tables, toilets and cold water. There are no showers, no laundry, no coffee, no Internet, nada… Fortunately, in the adjacent village of Springdale there is plenty of entrepreneurial folks, who know how to take advantage of this situation and offer those services at such astronomically high prices that are only matched by the cosmic views of the valley.

Refusing to pay $5 for shower or an hour of decent Internet access, I decided to develop a few days worth of a body odor, and visited the local library to maintain connection with the rest of the World through their flimsy wi-fi. My wife and kids decided against my better judgment and allowed the local shower-moguls grow prosperously, while our travel fund (read retirement savings) was melting quickly. In the result, even the snakes we’ve met on the less traveled trails were giving us right of way… Despite of the shortcomings of the campground infrastructure, we did fell for the enchanting beauty of the canyon and decided to visit more of them. The plan was to do a little loop, following highway 12, one of the most scenic in the US to Bryce Canyon, then to Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches, except… we felt it was bit too early to visit most of those higher altitude places, where temperatures at night were falling to the upper 30’s. At the time we thought it was cold, so we decided to work on our trek’s itinerary and allow for a second touch down in Utah on our way back east. This time in the midst of summer.

In the meantime, it was time to wash off the dirt, refresh and warm-up our frozen limbs (and other body parts). What better place to do that then… Vegas! We remembered the city from our previous visit. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. We remembered the city from the pictures we have taken (or were taken of us) during our previous visit. We were much younger then, childless and worry free. We enjoyed the ambiance of the city much more. At that time we were spending the afternoons at the hotel pool, partied at night and slept during the days. Just like any other tourists there.

But the times and our view on pleasures changed (I think that’s a better way then saying that we got older). Walking down the Strip at noon we sweat in the scorching heat, even more trying to answer some of our kids questions. At lunch time it is much easier to find a buzz happy hour then a decent food stand. Seeking refuge from the heat and looking for kids friendly attractions, all we could find were huge shopping malls with their “famous” aquariums…

At least the hotels are inexpensive and plentiful. I managed to wash off the canyons dirt, but after a few days in Vegas I acquired a much more difficult to get rid off distaste for the city. For some people cheap drinks, expensive shopping, glamor and gambling might be the dream vacations. For us, it’s like visiting a different planet. In fact, the streets are filled with extra-terrestrial creatures and living zombies that crawl up at night. Unlike the last time, we’ve spent the three days in Las Vegas visiting local library, cooling off at the pool (whole day, not only afternoons) and sleeping at night.

Twelve years ago, I planned to visit Death Valley. Unfortunately, at that time we were traveling in a rusted, well beaten up Oldsmobile, which among other things lacked one essential feature – working air conditioning. Getting ready for the passage, sitting at a parking lot, waiting for the steering wheel to cool off enough to be able to touch it, I made the mistake of letting Agnieszka read the chapter dedicated to Death Valley in our guide book. Fortunately, it was a cheap book and not very thick. Therefore it didn’t hurt that much when she smacked me on the head with it…

This time, I made sure the air conditioning works well, we have enough gas, ice and water before we set off. Since the temperatures in the spring are still rather moderate, we even decided to risk an overnight stay at the bottom of the valley, 200 feet below the sea level. With very strong winds, it was like sleeping in a tumbling dryer. I had to get up few times at night and affix the tent poles, which were about ready to take off. Still, it was much more appealing experience than the city we just left behind…

On the other side of Death Valley is a mountain range, called Sierra Nevada. It raises steep from the desert – dramatic shift in the landscape – preventing easy access to Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite parks from the east. We’ve decided to circle it from the south and approach the Giant Sequoia National Forest from Lake Isabella. Granted, it wasn’t the easiest of drives – a twisted, narrow road climbing up the hills, causing some of the passengers to develop motion sickness. But the views were breathtaking!

Looking for a place to overnight, we found ourselves going up on a lone road, which 15 miles of narrow curves later ended up in… dead end. Tired, hungry and a bit annoyed, we decided to get back to Lake Isabella, were we pitched our tent on the river’s edge. We weren’t alone. It was Friday night, opening to the Cinquo de Mayo weekend… Fortunately, the mountain steam with it’s constant humming was louder then the drunken neighbor’s midnight attempts at “We Are the Champions”. Despite of lack of basic amenities at the primitive campground, in the morning I had to admit that the setting was actually quite nice. Moreover, since we didn’t pay for it, I simply had to include it on my list of best places we stayed at…

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks span over many square miles of mountains and offer quite a few accommodations. Spoiled by temperatures at foothills, we chose a family friendly, showers equipped campground at Lodgepole, almost 7,000 feet above the sea level. Going uphill, I watched the temperature drop about 3 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet of elevation increase. The upper 70’s quickly became 50’s during the day and barely 30 at night (my wife is convinced it was even less than that). We stayed for couple of nights, did a few hikes, never met a bear. Nadia was relieved, Alex disappointed…

The car is ready, all brake pads replaced, rotors machined, studs fixed, nuts replaced, even some other small repairs I didn’t know were needed were performed. Tomorrow we leave sunny and warm Fresno, leaving it’s economy supported by a substantial donation from our travel budget. We are ready for the next adventures, vehicle safe and sound, bracing ourselves for cold nights and scenic roads. Warm cloths aboard, I must not forget the brown paper bags…