Way Out West 2002

The Short Of It

In the dog days of the Summer of 2002, I took a trip across the U.S. to find out if all those maps we rely on are simulacrum or if they have a solid base in reality. Was the continent solid? Or was America a nation of islands interconnected on occasion by air travel? It's hard to get a sense of scale when you're up in an airplane, the gate to gate time is too short for us to recognize just how many miles have passed. The question of how big America was, in the non-dictionary sense, was the question I set out to answer.

The Long Of It

The Summer of 2002 was a life-changing experience for me. I'd just finished up the last of my requirements to graduate with a degree in engineering from Ohio State and had actually excused myself several weeks early to participate in the Washington Internship for Students of Engineering summer internship program in Washington, DC. Through this program I met a number of great engineers who wanted to understand politics and public policy like I did.

As the summer wound down, and the program ended, I found myself in the most desireable of circumstances. The WISE program finished at the end of July and my next assignment, an internship with the New America Foundation, was not set to begin until the end of September, leaving me with a perfect two months to travel in the dog days of summer. Mostly, though, I wanted to get away from the oppressive heat and humidity of the DC swamp.

I flew back to Cleveland, Ohio and spent a few days helping my brother freshly paint the living quarters of his new house. We chose some fun, mostly-edible hard pastel colors (you know, now quite the robin's egg blue) such as Clearest Ocean Blue, St. Martin's Sand, Melon Popsicle, and Avocado. (I'm still wonder what St. Martin's sand really looks like.)

After prepping my old 1987 Subaru, and getting packed, I popped into Columbus and Dayton on the first leg of the trip to visit college friends and my Mom.

Afterwards, a quick hop to West Lafayette, Indiana, where my friend Gilbert was attending Purdue and getting his degree in engineering as well. I remember we went and watched a ridiculously bad movie at the local $8.00 theater, but I don't remember which one it was. And I spent fifty bucks having the Sube's radiator flushed, but mostly the radiator was junk, and so the constant spectre of engine overheating was over my head. I figured if the car died out on the road, I could just junk it. (Thankfully, it didn't fail me once.)

Then it was off to Madison, Wisconsin, to find out just what the place was like. In some ways, I wish I'd at least gotten a chance to go to school there for a year. The campus and the town are both beautiful, and at that point, hadn't been gentrified to the extent that it has only a year or two later. (I had the chance to go back this past November 2003, and I talked to a shopkeeper who said things were getting harder for the local businessowners.) Also, I'd managed to tuck my mountain bike frame into the trunk of the Subaru and had the chance to race around town on it. The town itself was pretty empty, as only summer term kids were there taking classes. I got into a conversation with a nice waitress at a local vegan restaurant, where the food wasn't so great, but I was having an alright time anyway.

I crashed at a nice HI hostel in town, which I thought was sweet that one even existed. There are so few in the States.

After Madison came Minneapolis, a northwestern haul across a hundred miles of green prairie land and corn. Rolling hills and the Mississippi River greeted me at the border, and I passed through several beautiful and small towns along the way. It is a sad fact that small towns are a dying breed, but at the same time it's sad that people are moving to commoditized and lonely suburbs just to find decent jobs.

Minneapolis was good. I spent some time hanging out with my Dad, working on the car. We changed out the thermostat that controls the engine fan, to make it turn on earlier and cool the radiator down sooner. This helped some. We met up with one of my cousins, Ahnet, and had dinner at a sushi restaurant on Lake St., it was good. And we watched Men In Black II at the theater, when it rained the same night. I bought a polyethylene footprint for my tent, to keep the floor nylon fabric from getting torn up and to waterproof things better. Also, I had the chance to just drive around exploring Minneapolis and getting a sense of the city's bright neighborhoods and nice in-city living spaces. I spent some time in the Skywalk, basically going from one end of the downtown all the way to the other, and stopping in at the library briefly to have my travel journal stamped as a momento. At various points, I encountered flea markets and fresh fruit markets in the city itself.

In the evening, I went to a show of Hope Sandoval, former singer from... Mazzy Star.

My sleeping bag was inadequate, and I knew it. The first night I spent camped out on the western edge of Minnesota, a place called Blue Mounds, where the park service was helping to restore buffalo in controlled pastures. I bought provisions at a place called Food Jubilee in the nearest town and asked the cashier where people went to have fun. "Sioux Falls", she told me. The town itself was sleepy and beautiful, and the sunshine fell on it as the sun dipped down to the horizon.

From Blue Mounds to the Badlands were miles and miles of open fields and small towns. More corn than cattle out there because the land is fecund enough to support agriculture. I stopped off for a half hour in Pierre (one of the most uninteresting places in the world) and also took a break at a Wall Drug, where I managed to have my photo taken with the elusive jackelope. It's mostly a gimmick though, and not worth much of a visit.

The Badlands, however, are definitely worth a stay. Located in the southwest corner of South Dakota, the landscape features are like nothing else I've ever seen. The Badlands sit on the edge of a large plateau that is receding. As it erodes away, the plateau leaves behind striking geological features and reveals colorful oxide bands.

Traveling in early August was probably the best decision I could have accidentally made. Since peak season for the parks is in mid-summer and then again around Labor Day, I obtained campsites very easily in all of the parks I visited during my trip. And that's how I wound up spending the night in the heart of that park, and how I managed to somehow cook and eat a pound of frozen, tubular, 80/20 ground beef that I purchased at the Interior, SD convenience store (the only store in that tiny town). It was, definitively, the worst beef I have ever had.

Next on the list of things to see (a short and constantly changing list) was Devil's Tower. Geologists changed their semantics about the tower where I had heard it called the core of an old volcano, and more recently, an igneous upthrust. It all sounded the same to me. The Tower is awesome, though, and I would love to climb it sometime. I climbed as far as permitted on the footpath and then came down, and basically just spant a bit of time being a kid and hiking.

After finishing the exploration of that odd monument, I drove on til dusk and stopped to camp in the Bighorn National Forest, which is now my favorite place to camp in all the world. Nearly eight thousand feed high in the pines, the air was cool, clear, and light. I remember setting up the tent and testing out my single-bulb propane lantern for the first time, and saying hello to a passing deer that wanted in on my dinner.

The wind blowing through the trees...

The absolute peace and quiet of being out in the woods was priceless.

The next day I set out towards Montana. A friend of mine had parents living in Butte, Montana, that she put me in touch with, and so that was the ultimate destination on this leg of the trip. I went up further up the Rockies and crossed at 9600 feet before rejoining the highway for a short stretch before bumping off to the side roads again. The side roads are definitely more enjoyable, in my mind, and anyone planning to do a cross country trip would be well served by exploring them.

Montana's pretty desolate. There are more cattle than cornfields here and the land is pretty barren, broken up into huge tracts by barbed wire fences. The dirt is rusty colored and dry, and towards the south (or Northern Wyoming), storm clouds were pounding Yellowstone, which I skipped.

Butte was an old and mostly dead mining town dealing with the country's number two Superfund cleanup site, an old copper mine that shut down, leaving a gigantic open pit crater at one end of town. The town's buildings themselves are beautiful old brick like the tenement building of New York City. I wouldn't want to live there until retirement age, but even then, there wasn't too much going on. Well, besides over at the Wal-Mart.

From Butte, I headed northwest towards Glacier National Park, which is one of the best I've ever been to. Again, in early September, the park was not crowded and I was able to find a camping spot very easily. The weather had stayed drizzly and gray, although I managed to do a 20 mile hike under pretty sunny conditions, almost getting gored by a mountain goat (with a joey, that's trouble!) on the way down the Sperry Glacier trail. The trail was, if I remember correctly, the only one that puts you right up against a a glacier. I drank some glacier melt right from the source, and probably hiked in the dumbest fashion I've ever done before. 3 granola bars, a liter of water, and a big canvas bookbag filled with camera and camcorder gear that I pretty much did not use. Be judicious on those hikes, folks.

In any case, that night I had trouble sleeping because my hip joints and legs hurt so badly, and it drizzled, all night long. And it was cold. But I was lucky to have bought a zero degree down sleeping bag while down in Butte, and I was comfortable for the most part. But I only ended up spending a day in the park, and the next morning headed up to Canada.

I drove up Going-to-the-Sun Road and then out the other side, through Fort MacLeod, Alberta, and then through Calgary at rush hour, which was awful. Then West, West, West on the Trans-Canada 1, which is a really wretched mostly one-lane highway. Regardless of route, I have to say that Banff tops my list for the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen on this Earth. You'll have to see it for yourself, and I hope that everyone has a chance to at some point. It's majestic, beautiful, a thousand adjectives to describe just how marvelous the place is.

I spent a few days crashed at the hostel there, met a few interesting folk, drove around the area some, and then headed off to Vancouver, to see what I could see. Unfortunately the hostel was packed, so I ended up staying at a campground a few miles east of the city. It turned out better and cheaper for me than actually staying in the city, and it was straightforward because I had the car and the bike with me. During the day, I took my bike in to the city and biked around, Granville Island, and Robson Street, and all the other posh areas, as well as some of the parks and some of the industrial areas.

A few days later, I drove back down to the U.S., checking in through a small customs point about a hundred kilometers north of Seattle.

In Seattle, I bummed around a few hours, walked around the waterfront at Elliott Bay and then booked it to Portland to find my old friend Hilary. Portland was pretty nice, I had the tires rotated and balanced, and then headed down to Roseburg, Oregon to stay with her family a few days before packing off to Crater Lake and the area of Bend, Oregon.

Bend was really weird. It just had such a non-organic, strangely-existing town feeling to it.

Then it was west to Newport and south along the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping to rest in Port Orford, the furthest west continental city, and one that I'd remembered passing through a long time ago on a family vacation to Yosemite. Port Orford was the kind of town where not much was going on, and people liked it that way. I was standing in line behind a lady at the local grocer, and the cashier accidentally rang through a plum that I wanted, and instead of knocking it off her tab, the lady just said, "It's my treat, have a good one, and that was that..." The laid back air, the laid back people, it's the kind of place people would like to retire, and indeed, many Californians are now doing just that. Whether or not that has negative consequences for the Oregonians remains to be seen, and I certainly hope the laid back, and calm atmosphere of Oregon does not give way to the laid back, but hyperfrenetic attitude of Californian imports.

Camping on the beach and taking pictures and video of the sunset along the beach was one of the best times I've had, though I wish I'd had someone there to share it with. Then, the thoughts of the sun coming up over the island of Japan and over China in the east, and the thought that somewhere in a line following the curve of the earth, over that wide ocean, you could find other people, and other adventures. It's an exciting thought: A whole world to explore.

San Francisco was awesome. I spent some time hanging out with my friend Lori, a med student studying there and exploring the area, Chinatown, Oakland, Berkeley, Palo Alto, took a quick look at Stanford, and so on. When I go back to school, I think the West Coast will have to be where it's at.

I took a drive up Sand Hill Road, the road mentioned briefly in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs.

Leaving SF starting the quick fireball run back to Ohio. By this point in the trip, I had something little more than a week to get back to DC and then back to Ohio to drop off the car.

I drove the 1500 miles between San Francisco and Fayetteville, Arkansas in three days. More than eight hours a day on the road meant that I was pretty used to passing large spans of time by myself, and going slowly crazy in the driver's seat of a non-cruise control car. No problem. I'd logged over a hundred hours and ten thousand miles in the car by the time the trip was finished.

I stopped in to pay a visit to a WISE alumnus and went on a quick tour of the University of Arkansas, which, hilariously enough, has a status of a chicken wielding a butcher's knife (if I remember right) in their food sciences building. Built by the Purdue chicken people, of course. And there are huge paeans to the Waltons, whose Bentonville firm Wal-Mart (you may have heard of it) is set to take over the world shortly.

After UArk, I cruised quickly up to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne, and spent a few days hanging out with my friend Jen. Then it was back to Purdue, and then a quick visit to my friend Kathy at Ball State, where she was just getting underway towards a graduate degree in their Psychology department. Pretty sweet, though not much going on in Muncie, Indiana. And too many people have those damn soul patches under their bottom lip.

Anyway, then I fireballed it straightaway across the state of Ohio and down to Washington, DC to clear out bits of the storage space I'd rented on U Street.

September 29th, the trip came to a close. I started work at New America, and another chapter of my life that day.

©2002 Max Vilimpoc