charlie's blog

Saturday, July 15, 2017

traveling the west

Roughly twenty years ago, I took a long camping road trip with my Grandma (Mary), covering almost every state in the western US. We drove, camped, hiked, and explored for three weeks. We also watched birds and saw more than a few prairie dogs. When we got back we had traveled 7000 miles, visited 14 states, and seen more than I've seen in any trip before or since.

A few weeks ago Donelle and I took a road trip to Nebraska and the Dakotas, and we saw some of the same places Grandma and I visited (including the Badlands of South Dakota and the mammoth dig in Hot Springs). Seeing those places again brought back so many memories it was almost overwhelming. It made me realize how lucky I am to have had such an amazing grandmother, to have learned so much from her, and to have spent that time with her.

It turns out I remember a lot more of the trip than you might expect after twenty years, so I decided to write those memories down for posterity. I'm including some of the photos we took as well, scanned from a very old photo album.

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We started from San Antonio and took US 183 north through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and into South Dakota. We didn't stop much along the way and I remember being really surprised that 183 went so far. Looking at a map now I see that US 281 (running parallel to the east) actually goes all the way to Canada.

Unidentified rock formation from early in the trip

I don't remember much about this stretch other than one night of camping. We stopped at some kind of reservoir in Kansas or Nebraska and pitched the tent, and it was so blustery that we finally moved the car directly against the upwind side of the tent to block the wind. I also tied a rope from the roof of the car to the top of the tent. In retrospect I think this was all probably for my benefit; Grandma was an experienced camper and had probably seen much worse.

Prairie dog (I think) from South Dakota

In South Dakota we visited Badlands National Park and camped overnight. The next morning we hiked the Saddle Pass Trail (a steep uphill climb) and part of the Castle trail. I remember it as pale, jagged, and moon-like. For some reason I was fascinated by a car we saw in the parking lot at the trailhead, and took a picture like you might see in an advertisement.

Unidentified car at the Saddle Pass trail head

Heading northwest from the Badlands we visited the mammoth dig in Hot Springs, drove past Mt. Rushmore, and took a tour of Jewel Cave. I don't remember the cave but I can still picture the visitor center and parking lot in my head; it was cool and surrounded by tall evergreens, like Oregon or Washington.

Unearthing mammoth bones in Hot Springs SD

The last stop in that vicinity was Devil's Tower in northeast Wyoming. We camped there, and I took lots of pictures. Pictures back then were on film (we took seven rolls of photos), so we didn't see any of them until we got back, but I was thrilled to get one great shot of the tower. For a long time after that I had the idea that I might sell it to be put on a postcard, but I never did.

Devil's Tower, as never seen on a postcard

We drove straight west from there towards Yellowstone National Park. I don't remember much of the drive but I remember it being beautiful, and I remember seeing yellow-winged blackbirds by the road. That was really exciting and felt like one of my first real birding finds.

Of Yellowstone I remember the entrance station (evergreens, winding road, and a view of the park), driving around the edge of the massive lake (there was a white wood fence in one part), and seeing an osprey with a fish. I was so thrilled to see the osprey; it was the first big raptor I had ever seen and identified. I didn't see one again for over a decade, but since Donelle and I have started birding I feel like we see them everywhere. They are still huge and beautiful.

One of the many hot springs in Yellowstone

Leaving Yellowstone to the west we drove through the corner of Montana - we got out of the car briefly so we could officially give ourselves credit for visiting the state. Then it was on to Idaho and Craters of the Moon National Monument. We camped there and explored some of the lava caves, which were fascinating and a major draw for me. I don't think they were particularly exciting for Grandma but she humored me. We also went for a reasonably long hike; to balance out our age difference and substantial height/stride difference I carried a backpack and filled it with books and canned goods.

Further west we stopped briefly in the Snake River canyon to look for raptors (I don't think we saw any), and then headed north to camp in Hell's Canyon. The road to the campsite was a steep dirt mountain road, and part-way up was still covered in snow, so we had to give up and turn around. That was one of only two nights we didn't camp; it was too late in the day to find another campground.

From there we drove north and west across Washington to Seattle. We stayed with some extended family (Aunt Frances maybe?) in a beautiful house east of town. I remember the area as undeveloped and heavily wooded. My aunt worked at Microsoft at that time and took us to the campus the next day, which was really exciting to me. We got an oil change in town (we were already 3,000 miles in to the trip) and to round out the visit we got a speeding ticket on IH-5. It may have been Grandma's first ticket. She was *pissed* at the officer and only got angrier when she found out he had followed us past three speed limit signs before pulling her over. She was a very conscientious and law-abiding person, so I think it rankled her to get in trouble.

That night we camped at Mt. Rainier, although it was mostly still snowed in, so there wasn't much hiking or sightseeing to do. My only real memory from this stop is a disappointing one. After we set up camp I walked back to the camp store to call my girlfriend from a payphone, and apparently I didn't explain my plan to Grandma, so she had no idea where I was. When I got back (probably 30 minutes later) she was really worried and angry. I still feel bad about that.

I forgot until I was looking at the photos, but after we left Mt Rainier we drove to Mt. St. Helens, which still showed (and today shows) the scars of the most recent eruption. There are thousands of bare trees and Spirit Lake is still clogged with logs.

Mt. St. Helens from the road to the viewpoint

Heading south from Washington we stopped at Crater Lake. We never actually saw the lake, because the top of the mountain was covered in clouds. I remember driving up into the cloud from underneath as we made our way to the campground. We only had one evening and morning there, and the clouds never lifted, so we moved on without seeing much. Years later my mom and I took a trip there - it was beautiful and worth the wait.

South again and into northern California - the next stop was Lava Beds National Monument. The lava tubes at this park were particularly well developed, and I really wanted to explore one, so Grandma agreed to wait for me. I don't remember if she wasn't interested or if the trail was too challenging or what. I remember being exceptionally geeky and deciding to do a battery-replacement drill with my flashlight in an unlit section of the cave. This was probably not a good idea.

From there we drove east across Nevada, and I don't think we stopped for much. My only real memory of that section was the thrilling sight of a huge raptor perched on a sign by the road. We slowed down to get a better look but it flew away before we could see it very well. At the time we decided it was a golden eagle, and it was another first for me.

In southern Utah we visited Bryce Canyon National Park, possibly Arches National Park (I don't remember), and drove through Zion National Park. Of this I only remember the beautiful sculpted sandstone features from a hike in Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon, or maybe the Grand Canyon

We left Utah to the south and in Arizona we found Grand Canyon National Park, Meteor Crater, and Petrified Forest National Park. I don't remember any of the Grand Canyon, but Meteor Crater was massive and sobering. From the Petrified Forest I remember two things: firstly, I saw a raven close up in the parking lot, and it was huge. That was another first-sighting for me (what Grandma called a "lifer"). Secondly, I remember talking with another visitor about his car and realizing that you can talk with just about anybody if you want to, and people are pretty friendly in general. As an older and more aware person I now realize that my experience was heavily influenced by being white, male, straight, and middle class. Even so, the experience had a real effect on me, and after that trip I have always felt much more at ease interacting with strangers.

A friendly lizard I found in the Petrified Forest

The same lizard, showing off

One of only two pictures of me in the album

The only picture of Grandma from the album

I don't think we stopped for much in New Mexico, but if I recall correctly we did visit White Sands National Monument. It was and remains a beautiful place.

From there we made our way back to San Antonio, and to our regular lives. For me it was summer and a part-time job, and for Grandma it was church, charity work, quilts, and probably twenty other things. I will always be grateful for her time, her teachings, and her love. She passed away in the spring of 2015.

Grandma around 2014
Photo credit Mareena McKinley Wright (I think)

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