Driving Across America Twice during the Covid Apocalypse







During the summer of 2021 I lifted myself out of a stupor brought on by 15 months of hermetically sealed Covid-19 isolation. After endless hours of watching cable news from my couch, I felt like shit, left with the impression that this was the summer of the apocalypse. Around the world there were searing hot temperatures, forest fires, earthquakes, biblical floods, and resurgence of a new strain of Covid called the Delta variant. The news was all about it. It was a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Disinformation from politicians, the internet, cable TV and talk radio left the population, divided, confused and fearful. Physical violence broke out in public places over disagreements concerning, masks, vaccines, Antifa, BLM, QAnon and the validity of the 2020 election. An unsuccessful insurrection had taken place, and mass shootings were becoming a daily experience. It felt like the end of the world. But was it? Was it really?

Things were actually pretty quiet in my little upstate New York town. What was really happening out there and the rest of America? It’s not like reliable information was plentiful. Cable news, and various other media sources keep you glued to the screen by appealing to your fears. If you mow your neighbor’s lawn, it’s not news but if you burn your neighbor’s lawn it most certainly is. After a while you start thinking, “what’s come of the world everybody seems to be burning their neighbor’s lawns.”

Was it really that bad? There were forest fires and earthquakes in California. But 99% of California was not burning, rumbling or spitting apart at the San Andreas fault.

For months I had been planning a bust-out-of-isolation hiking trip out West on the Pacific Crest Trail.  I had already hiked on the PCT from Mt. Whitney to Sonora Pass ten years before. Why now? Why do it at all? There’s nothing to prove. I have walked long distances through the High Sierra, Alps, Pyrenees, Andes, Himalayas, Dolomites, Appalachians and the Adirondacks. How much more do I really need to do? 

I sat around for a year and a half farting into the same couch, yawning my way through countless, Netflix, Prime Video and HBO Max series. I felt numb with the sameness of every day; hating the routine but being sucked further and further into it. Life was slipping away. 

After retiring four years prior I had been in perpetual motion, one adventure after another: Pyrenees, Patagonia, New Zealand, Australia, Corsica, Lugano, Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Circuit, India, Western Ireland, the Cotswolds.

Then came the lockdown. The last winter of it (between 2020 in 2021) was the hardest. It felt like half the nation lost its mind on January 6. The dystopian hopelessness of the world was on display everywhere. We couldn’t even elect a new president without the old one looming over everything. The quantity of bogus information had reached a point where it was very to tell the truth without digging deep. The political issues of the day, were all swept aside and replaced a sort of seventh grade lunchroom drama. Things like starvation, economic inequality, climate change were opaque and out of focus.  As a society we could no longer make collective decisions. Nothing more effectively bring us to our knees than this unbreachable divide that had been wedged between left and right. That’s where we were as the bleakness of January and February took hold and as my spirit sunk farther and farther into a state of weary indifference. The availability of vaccines came with the warm light of Spring and with vaccines came freedom. By the month of May I was able once again to sit in the same room with people and make music, laugh and share food and wine.

The Fourth of July came and at last it was time to get on the road again. Believe it or not I was dreading it. I didn’t want to leave the soft warmth of my marital bed. My wife and I fell in love again for the hundredth time after she retired the previous April. We both trimmed down over the winter. She was lookin’ good, and I was hesitant to leave her.

Alas, at my age how many years do I have to simply go off on adventure by myself to parts unknown?  Most people would never go on an adventure by themselves. Most of us are consumed by fear to the degree that we have difficulty going beyond the sphere of our immediate lives, seeing new things and talking to new people.

 

My sister, a devout Trump follower, warned I should be careful of immigrants on my trip. She is concerned with the security at our southern border. She thinks this way because she doesn’t know many people who have recently immigrated. I spent 20 years teaching in a school full of immigrants. I saw their struggles, and their dogged ambitions. Sadly, this is never reported. Most people see desperation in the eyes of those at our borders and imagine that most immigrants of color are simply criminals that another country didn’t want. This is cable news catnip. But having been in lockdown so long, I too am afraid. There’s so much that can go wrong on a long adventure like the one ahead of me. And I return to the question why? I’ve got nothing to prove.  I have lived the good life with a beautiful family and a lovely wife. I played in Carnegie Hall; made a difference in young people’s lives as a teacher; brought joy and emotional solace to many just by playing the violin. I traveled on six continents. (I still can’t afford to go to Antarctica). I could die right now and be satisfied with what I’ve done. But it wasn’t quitting time yet because, there I was, driving through the enervating and mundane state of Pennsylvania, headed out west to the territory ahead.

Pennsylvania lies somewhere between joy and frustration (lust und frust). This comes like a vision on interstate 80 going west between interstate 81 and the border with Ohio. There are vast stretches of beautiful farmland and undulating, verdant hills. Absolutely gorgeous. Like hillsides I have seen in Wales. The frustration comes from the fact that for decades and decades there’s always been some maddening kind of construction on I-80 so that you’re elatedly soaring through the mountains at one point in the next instant you are stuck in traffic at a bottleneck where it goes down to one lane because there’s some guys in Day-Glo vests working. I imagine them laughing at all the foolish drivers who have slowed to a crawl. Just when you start to get hope in your heart. Just when you’re making fantastic time barreling down this beautiful highway … BOOM… a construction site comes into the view and the tedium begins once again. Buzzkill.

At the border with Ohio, you cross into a genuine Midwestern rustbelt state. Ohio is completely different in terms of regional affiliation. Ohio is like normal America – “flyover” America. It’s made up of POC and liberals in the urban areas, and the purveyors of white rage in the small towns. Folks whose families had worked for the last few generations in the factories, steel mills and coal mines are shit out of luck. Those factories are closed and those jobs; those good paying union jobs with health care benefits went away. You could no longer just get by with an eighth-grade education and have a future working in the shop. It wasn’t the guaranteed ticket to the middle class that it used to be. Life for these folks has bottomed out. The jobs are gone, their lives are miserable; plagued with substance abuse and opioid overdoses. They resent blacks because of entitlements and affirmative action. They feel neglected, forgotten and super pissed. They haven’t figured out how to move on from the past yet.

What they don’t understand is that separation between them and their impoverished brown-skin counterparts is just making things worse. If indeed black, brown and white working people were to unite as a political force no one could stop them. As it stands, they are desperately divided, and it plays right into the hands of those who wish to exploit and oppress them.

The eastern part of Ohio has mountains and rolling hills left over from West Virginia, but central and western Ohio are flat as a griddle. Driving through this part of the state is almost like being on the ocean with all the farmhouses and groves of trees like islands amidst an endless sea of corn fields. The presidential election every four years is often determined by what happens in Ohio. The state is so divided politically that it always goes to a victor by only a handful of percentage points. Ohio is the ultimate swing state. Like Florida, if you live there during the election season the number of political hate ads and robo calls, one after another, is so relentless that it numbs the perspective voter so completely he/she becomes disaffected and doesn’t want to vote at all. That’s what happened in 2016. But in 2020 everybody was so pissed off that they all turned up to vote anyway.

I’m from New York. I drive a Prius. I’m self-conscious as I drive through the rust belt and beyond. With the internet/cable news fueled division of the country right now I am no longer a human being to many of my conservative compatriots. They view me as simply a part of the evil, power-hungry liberal elite. I enjoyed the times where I could simply hang out with conservatives and tell them they’re full of shit, they would return the favor and then we could order another round of drinks. But now they are fed misinformation that liberals all want to open borders, defund the police, and take away the right to bear arms. People like me are imbued with the myth that conservatives are all racists with fascist tendencies and zero compassion for anyone who is not white.

 

The Midwest is littered with the skeletal remains of rusted factories of the industrial age. The jobs were replaced by automation and outsourcing. Weeds grow through the crumbling asphalt of abandoned malls and outlets. Sumac trees overtake the former warehouses, machine shops and auto dealerships. You can smell the apathy. Nobody is hired to pick up roadside trash, since most of them would be hired by the government and receive a decent salary, health benefits and a pension plan. Anybody who’s getting a fair deal is likely to be the first one that employers (private or public) look to cut. Many years worth of retreads and trash foul the wide shoulders of interstate 80. More and more of our taxes are spent looking after the donors of politicians. There’s nothing left for infrastructure, healthcare, education, and the kinds of services that benefit the common good. E Pluribus Unum.

 

Services along the interstate are homogenized. On any major exit you can find one or more of the following businesses: Holiday Inn, Best Western, Motel 6, Hampton Inn, Comfort Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Springhill Suites, Marriott Courtyard, Pilot, TA, Speedway, Subway, Safeway, Sinclair, Sonoco, Bob Evans, Chickfilet, Pizza Hut, Micky Dees, Double Tree and Flying J. There is almost no local business or local color. Most of these franchises are owned by the same two or three corporations.

 

 

As I head west out of Chicago and race through Iowa and Nebraska, I get a glimpse of what happened to family farms and agrarian culture in the Midwest. Like the businesses along the interstate, the endless fields of wheat and corn are controlled by a handful of corporate entities. 

 

I am more impressed by western Iowa than anticipated. True, there is conservatism; still few left-over Trump signs on the side of the road. Pickup trucks are plastered with whole arrays of conservative bumper stickers. Sort of the opposite from the liberal bumper stickers plastered all over Priuses and Subarus in my neck of the woods. Trump, abortion, and libertarian stickers are just an Iowa version of coexist, resist, question authority, eat the rich, etc.

All of that seems to disappear in the rolling cornfields of western Iowa with windmills at the top of every knoll looking like dancers  swirling gracefully. Sure there are people who find them unsafe and unsightly.  Probably the same way that I find smokestacks, refineries and rusted factories unattractive. You can’t really argue about taste but you can’t really argue about climate change either.

It is still green here. There are farmhouses sparsely separated across the wide, rolling prairie sprinkled among the rows of crops divided by government claims made 150 years ago in a totally different America. This must’ve been such a beautiful land when first viewed by those discovered it, whoever they may have been. You can see why the Native Americans fought hard to keep it.

Many people prefer to flyover the checkerboard farmland in Iowa and Nebraska. Those who have driven through often them find the ride endless and boring. It takes soul to love the plains and prairies. I don’t know if I have any more soul than anyone else but I do love the subtle shape of the prairie; the gentle roll of the hills, the beautiful cultivation of the farmland; almost like environmental art. I’d like to go for miles up one of these long, gravel farm roads until I can stop the car, open the door and just stand there. It would be still and so quiet you could hear your heartbeat. That, my friends …that is life.  Just you and the natural world; nothing else. Nothing that is the construction of a human mind. The quiet of nature and the peace of living the way were originally meant to live. We weren’t meant to rush through this beautiful landscape at 80 miles an hour in a motor vehicle or at 600 miles an hour in a jet. Just sit and be. I might only be able to do that for 10 minutes or so and then 21st century angst will take over and I’ll have to move on to something else like staring at my iPhone or otherwise engaging myself in some low attention span activity. Wild animals, reptiles, and insects are content to sit on their perch and watch the world go by without requiring external entertainment. After a human being has satisfied their physical needs, they turn to matters of vanity, ego and the will to power.

 

Things start to change at the hundredth meridian in Nebraska. The West begins here. The rich green farmland turns into a semi-arid landscape that requires some kind of sprinkler system for farmers to keep their fields producing. The road is more deserted, and the altitude starts to creep higher and higher. First 2000 feet then 3000 feet and then you’re in Colorado. Turning south on I-76 into Colorado the landscape changes completely. The air is dry. The sun is intense. The green grass of Nebraska gives way to a kind of shrubbery almost like yellow grass in California. Delicate wisps of long grass that morphs with the changes of the wind.

It’s starting to get dark. I hope to get a room in the town of Sterling Colorado. There are a handful of hotels there and I pull up to a Holiday Inn express. The young man at the reception desk told me the place was booked and offered me some of the most bogus information I’ve ever received while traveling. He told me that all the hotels in town were full - false. He told me that there was a Holiday Inn Plus in Sydney. He said Sydney was only 20 minutes away - false. I’d just come from there and it took a good 45 minutes. He was only interested in finding me lodging at some other Holiday Inn. He told me that the hotels in Fort Morgan down the road I would be $300 a night – false. That’s when I decided the guy was bullshit, thank you very much, and got back in the car. The Expedia app on my phone told me that there were many hotels in Fort Morgan some of them a good deal cheaper than the one I just left. I felt slimed. I carried on into the murky night, delirious after 11 hours of driving. By the time I got to the Hampton Inn in Fort Morgan I was almost psychotic with fatigue. It was exquisite to take a long shower and slip between the clean sheets. I might’ve read three pages of A Movable Feast by Hemingway before falling into a rich sleep full of vivid dreams.

After breakfast I searched Fort Morgan for a place to buy the cheapest possible small backpack since I hadn’t brought one and I was hoping to do some day hiking in Colorado. I passed up on the Spiderman backpacks in the Family Dollar and ended up buying a little postage stamp of a thing. Probably meant for women but it seemed more suitable than in the ones with the Disney characters.

Then through the heart of Denver on I-70. I have been on this very road many times but never had a hankering to stop although many people say it’s a great place to visit.

Denver is not in the mountains but on the last of the high plains and even though they call it the mile high city it’s really just the pinnacle of the High Plains. It’s the flat basin just before you hit the front range of the Rockies. My destination was a small touristy town called Winter Park, not too far from Idaho Springs. I would stay two nights at the Trailhead Inn in and recuperate from three solid days of driving. The town was peopled with typical Colorado denizens, all of them trim and fit, looking like they’d spent the majority of their lives running, hiking and biking at high altitudes. They all were unbelievably friendly. In the east people just barely acknowledge each other and are just as likely to flip you the bird. I wonder how deep the friendliness of westerners runs. Whatever, it’s better than getting flipped off.

I took two hikes on two different days in the jagged mountains; dotted with green timber and snow fields. I worked my way to the top of Mt Flora: 12,000 feet. At the top I felt a small sinus headache and a bit of tingling in my fingers. The next day it was Stanley Mt. at about the same altitude.

Going west on Route 70 I noticed another line of demarcation around Vail, Colorado where to landscape starts slowly turning to desert.  You pass through Glenwood Canyon with the first significant sightings of exposed red rock. I’ve passed through Rifle, Colorado, the town and where congressional freshman Lauren Boebert is from. She boasts of her origins among the bible thumping, gun toting citizens here in Rifle. (Even though she was born in Florida). She uses the name of the town to rally support from the NRA membership who are such an important part of the Republican base. She’s given all manner of  bat shit crazy speeches on the floor of the US Congress to the point where even the Republican leadership has sought to keep her under wraps. Just a few days prior to the January 6th insurrection, Boebert lead a tourist group for two hours through the capital even though capital had been closed to tourists’ groups during the Covid lockdown. This led some to believe that she helped some insurgents case the joint.             

 

By the time I crossed the Utah border, the temperature increased, the altitude decreased, and the mountains were either red rock or a white sandy kind of alkaline.

The green grass of eastern Colorado was gone and this was the land of tumbleweeds. By the time I get to the Cisco exit in Utah the car thermometer read 110 F.  I-70 twists and winds through rust-colored, towering cliffs of canyons that look like Gothic cathedrals.

There’s probably no other state in the union with such a powerful and diverse landscape as Utah. From the southern red rocks to wide open expanses, to the lofty grandeur of the Wasatch Mountains, to the moon-like Salt flats that go on forever to the west of Salt Lake City.

Drivers in the general Salt Lake area are equal, in terms of aggressiveness and sheer discourtesy, to the those that I’ve come to know in Boston or New Jersey. On the freeways around Salt Lake, you meet that same guy who, even though you’re already going nearly 90 miles an hour, gets 6 inches from your rear bumper and starts flicking his high beams like there is an emergency. I hate to say it, but when someone like that in on my ass, my first impulse is to slow down.

As the zinfandel sun sets on the salt flats, I’m on my way to Wendover, Utah right near the Bonneville salt flats where they do crazy things with cars. On a good night you can see the headlights of cars hot-rodding around. I consider bringing my Prius out there to see if I could shatter the Prius land speed record.

 Wendover is the sister city (it’s really just one city demarcated by a border sign) to West Wendover just over the border in Nevada. In West Wendover  you can go to a strip club and gamble in a casino. On the Utah side you have to behave yourself. I’m sure there are many pious Mormons, happy to sleep on the Utah side after they sin on the Nevada side.

Speeding along on the interstate in Nevada, there are large expanses barren, desolate plains with mountains that rise up from the basin. The details of the landscape were obscured by a thick, smokey haze from forest fires blazing in California and Oregon. It was brutally hot. I think of the pioneers who came out west in wagon trains. I can’t imagine how the hell they did it. I’m shvitzing like a schmuck in an air-conditioned car. I think of all the sickness and suffering that they must surely had to have gone through. How many of us in the current times possess that kind toughness and resilience. These are people that didn’t necessarily need to go out west, they were compelled by a dream, a desire, and a will to power.

It must be hard for a business of any kind to make a go of it in Nevada without having a casino element of some kind. You can’t stay at a hotel or go to a gas station without seeing rows of listless looking people with a glazed look in their eyes working the slot machines.

They’re trying to pass off Reno as Sin City north. Many of the famous Vegas casinos have opened up branches in Reno.  But the insane energy of Vegas just hasn’t been duplicated. There’s nothing there to make you lose all your inhibitions and marry a perfect stranger at 3 in the morning. Just too squeaky clean. Zzzzzzz.

 

From Reno I traveled south on route 395 past the yawning shopping malls of  Carson City and then, after what seems like forever, you give a perfunctory wave to the agriculture border control booth and you’re in Cali. I have left that mercilessly hot, smoke filled, dusty, barren, mistake of a state, Nevada and entered the northern Sierras, and I remember why I came on this journey.

It had been a good 10 years since I was last in this beautiful part of the world. My spirits lifted to the sky as the road wound past semi-arid mountains and streams lined with sugar pines, white firs and incense cedars.

I stayed at a mid-20th century modern motel called the Redwoods Inn.




After unloading my car, I was so tired that I forgot to close the car trunk and left it open in full view of the main highway all night. It was still wide open in the morning. Though I felt senile and questioned my cognitive function, miraculously there was nothing missing from the car.

The only time I ever do things meticulously is when I’m worried.

For the previous two years I had been looking at the PCT trail going north from Sonora Pass on Google Earth checking out the contours and traverses of the trail in 3D. The day was upon me. I had my usual fears, principal among those was the fear of camping out in the middle of nowhere all by my self. I’ve done it before a bunch of times, but I’ll never quite get used the vulnerability of it. The fact that anything could happen gives me trepidation. The overwhelming odds are that nothing scary will happen and that gives me the courage to embark.  

 

I didn’t even know if I could park overnight for several days at the Sonora pass lot.  Indeed, it was allowed, and I had no choice but to lift my 30-pound pack, including a well-worn violin, made around 1940 in Salem, OR,  that I call “the prospector” and set out on the trail.


 


The first order of business was a 1500-foot ascent in the blazing sun to an elevation of 10500 feet. There were the kinds of narrow traverses that allow you about a two-foot-wide trail that consists mostly slippery sand and scree. Lose your footing and you could end up tumbling to your death 1000 feet below. I tried not to look down. After three laborious hours of straining, gasping, cursing and hyper-vigilantly looking up to see if I’m there yet, I arrive at a windy pass. I feed and rest for 20 minutes and then descend 1500 feet into a cool forest of conifers on the other side of the pass.

I found a shady campsite where the wind whispered through the pines next to a flowing stream. I got buck naked, washed off the day’s grime, then fell into a delightful nap stretched out on a rock. 45 minutes later I was startled awake by an earnest looking woman of about 20.

She apologized effusively and humbly asked for my permission to share the site. Of course, she could. It’s not up to me, I don’t own the damn forest. But it is proper etiquette to ask. Props to her. After a delicious meal of freeze-dried macaroni and cheese I pulled out my fiddle and gave it a tickle. I looked up to see a couple of PCT thu-hikers setting up for the night next to us. Kemo, a man in his mid 50s from Lawrence, Kansas and VeeFee a woman in her late 20s from the Czech Republic arrived and set up their separate tents while I played some setup music on my fiddle. We sat down and hung out for a while.  VeeFee’s trail name came to her as a result of her pronunciation of the word wi-fi. She had begun her hike at the Mexican border at Campo on the 12th of March. (The current date was the 11th of July). Kemo started in the same place on the 23rd of March. He caught up to her somewhere near Big Bear and they paired up as trail mates. She set up her tent next to his, but I couldn’t clearly tell if they had a romantic relationship or not. We crawled into our separate tents at about 9 PM. I watched a downloaded Netflix series on my phone until I fell into a deep sleep with the rushing stream singing a lullaby. This is the shit. This was why I came out here.

Everyone was packed up and gone by the time I coaxed myself out of the tent the next morning. I never quite get off to an early start. I lingered over breakfast and went back into the tent for a nap because the six days of driving and the timezone change had finally caught up to me. Fatigue had made my mind fog up and I had to do everything slowly so as not to forget things or generally fuck up. It took so long to pack up that, hell, it was lunchtime and so I lingered a little longer. It was 1:30 before I finally headed north on the trail. This was my luxury as I didn’t need to get to Canada or anyplace else. This was the first time that I ambled along a hiking trip without a worry, free from having to get anywhere in particular or race down the trail like it was the Long Island Expressway. I hiked down another 1000 feet into a pleasant, shaded forests of pines and firs, and then up 1000 feet of rocky switchbacks until I came upon some campsites near Boulder Creek. Spaces were filling up quickly with thru hikers who are dropped off at Sonora Pass in large numbers from the Kennedy Meadows North shuttle bus. The bus drops hikers off every day at 9AM, 12PM, and 3PM.  This created a thru hiker rush hour three times a day on the trail. I drew water from the Boulder Creek alongside a pretty blonde woman in her 20’s. She asked what my name was. “Fiddlerrick”, I said “what’s yours?” “Trouble” she said. “There’s a lot of people looking for you”, I said. “Everybody tells me that”. Trouble and her twin sister (never learned her name) were cowboy camping (open air) 200 yards down the creek.

In the morning I hiked back to the campsite where I had met Kemo, and VeeFee. Every 3 hours there would come another gaggle of thru hikers from the Kennedy Meadows shuttle. I set up my tent and took another soak in the stream. A couple of thru hikers straggled in at about 7:30 PM. I played the fiddle while a wispy woman in her 20’s named, Sparrow, and a hirsute man about the same age, named Goldilocks set up camp. Three more thru hikers stumbled in after them: Hurricane, Wren and Scarecrow. We had assembled a party complete with fiddle music and craft beer.

After 4 days in the backcountry, I arrived back to my car at Sonora Pass and drove down into sizzling Truckee where I lingered over a hot shower, some non-freeze-dried food, and phone call home to my loving wife.

Donner Pass is unfortunately famous for the tragic Donner party. Their wagon train spanned the North American continent from Independence, MO to Truckee, Ca with much trepidation. They had already crossed the Rockies and most of the Sierras when they got to deep, blue, beautiful Donner Lake and decided to wait for about five days to rest before they took on the task of hauling their wagons over the pass (You can do it now in about 10 minutes in your car). During those five days the the pass became so snowed in that they were stuck waiting at the lake for a long cold winter where many of them died and others resorted to cannibalizing the dead in order to keep from starving to death. This lends a creepiness to the area. It’s helpful if you can tuck that little bit of history in the back of your mind as you hike through this region. It really is a gorgeous place.

 

Parking at the Donner Pass trailhead was a nightmare. The main lot, small to begin with, was overflowing and cars were parked for half a mile along the road. I hiked an extra ½ mile with a 25-pound rucksack just to get back to the trailhead. There was a reassuring little PCT sign at the beginning of the trail – these signs are not as prevalent as you may think. I imagine they must get stolen a lot.

Going north from the pass, the trail was covered with slippery gravel and loose scree baked in the sun. My least favorite surface. I would rather climb steep rocks then fall on my ass slipping and sliding on this stuff. Nevertheless, I got through that part of the climb and then up over a mountain of maybe 8300 feet. Going downhill on the other side I got closer and closer to interstate 80. The trail actually goes underneath the highway. It’s not natural beauty at its best. You don’t actually stop hearing the highway until you get another 2 miles north and over Castle Peak. From the pass, after a couple of mostly downhill miles, I got to the Peter Grubb hut, built in the 1970s by the Sierra Club. There were signs on the entrances that said the hut was closed due to Covid and they also needed to resolve “other issues”. Since they left the hut wide open, I can only assume this was a sort of double message. What they’re trying to say is you should go ahead and use the hut, no one will bother you about it but if you get hurt or sick or try to sue us … well we hung up the sign and you didn’t leave did you? I opted to set up a tent.

 

There was a group of about eight fortyish women; all of them moms who managed to escape their parental duties in Sacramento. This was a loud and bawdy girls-night-out-goes-camping crew. I set my tent up on the other side of the hill from them and took a wonderful nap listening to the wind in the trees. In this part of the Sierras there is always a whispering wind through the trees or a rushing stream to lull you into a quiet revery followed by a period of unconsciousness.

Three mountain bikers from the bay area set up a polite distance from me. They invited me over to their campsite for hot chocolate after dinner. While I was savoring a spot of freeze-dried mac and cheese, a pair of thu hikers (Tag and Wonder Woman) set up a polite distance from me and noticed that I had a fiddle. Tag, who came from Hawaii, was carrying a ukulele and wanted to jam.

We started playing and the three mountain bikers came over with their weed. Pretty soon the Sacramento moms came over with folding chairs, booze, and even better weed. Tag and I ended up doing a little impromptu concert for about 12 people who were enraptured by the music. Maybe the weed had something to do with that. And we all watched the sunset over the mountains. It’s the kind of thing that happens on the PCT and makes it special. The beauty of nature, of course, would be enough but then there’s also the beauty of human interaction which can be just as lovely. In what we euphemistically call the civilized world there is so much suspicion, fear and reluctance. Many of us refuse to leave the little bubble that we live in, and our minds are filled with things that we are supposed to be afraid of like people from a different political party, people with a different skin color, the world burning up, and everything just plain going so badly that you want to just sit on your couch and watch the world go to hell from a digital distance.

The news of the day was that there were many forest fires that had been caused by drought, lightning, human error, and climate change. There were indeed large fires and many, many people’s lives were devastated.  The part that they don’t tell you on the news is that 99% of the west is not burning. 99% of the time people aren’t getting robbed. There are overwhelming acts of warmth and kindness that take place between human beings every day. There are many decent and lovable human beings that we happily coexist with. It isn’t news if you mow your neighbor’s lawn, but it is news if you burn your neighbor’s lawn. It’s not long before we become afraid that all our neighbors will start burning each other’s lawns. Once you’re caught into the trap you become paralyzed by fear. As someone who spent a few years playing in the New York City subways I can tell you the world isn’t nearly as dangerous as it’s made out to be. And indeed, there are overwhelming acts of kindness, warmth and love every day. I know this might sound naïve but isn’t it equally inaccurate to operate under the assumption that everything is shit.

My next stop was Paradise Lake. It’s a couple of miles off of the PCT. Once you are close to the lake, it is easy to get lost as there are many, many paths that go in every direction. Eventually, I found a beautiful tent site right next to the lake and after a long hard hike I went into the cool water with my clothes and sandals on. It was a welcome relief from the heat and toil of the day. I needed to wash my clothes anyway.

Paradise Lake is way too overused, but I was there on a Sunday night and there were only a couple of groups; one of them was over-the-line loud but I put in some earbuds and ignored them.

There it was, a paradisial setting in Northern California at a time when the rest of the world assumed that this whole section of California is burning to the ground. It was in fact was not burning to the ground although there were fires in the region. The stars were still magnificently clear at night; set in a deep blue sky. Ironically, smoke from the fires to the north and south and east of Paradise Lake were blowing eastward, filling the sky with smoke where I live in Rosendale New York.

On the way back from Paradise Lake, I stayed again at the Grubb hut. There was a young woman sitting up high on a rock, enjoying the late afternoon breeze and trying to get a signal on her phone. She was an ebulliently friendly thru hiker who went by the trail name “Musty”.  She had been waiting there most of the day for a male thru hiker whom she swore was not a romantic interest.

This time I got nervy and set myself up a little spot to sleep on the second-floor loft of the hut. The loft was spacious and open with large windows at each end. By the time it got dark, seven people, Including Musty and her friend, were there with me. This was a friendly, playful but well-mannered group of people most of whom had decided to walk from Mexico to Canada, and that sort of person has to be special. I played a little bit of fiddle and sang a little bit of the song “Misty” using the word “Musty”. We joked and laughed, and I felt the wonderful camaraderie and sense of universal love that seems to abound on this fabled trail.

Your average schmo does not pick up and decide to walk 2300 miles from Campo, Mexico to Manning Park, British Columbia. Most people are either too busy or too lazy to do such a thing. Most through hikers are people in their 20s and great physical specimens. They like to sport trademark funny clothes, like American flag shorts or dinosaur hats. The guys all had beards, and the women favored braids. They all had deep tans and a layer of dust over their entire bodies. Those that have been on the trail long enough to get blisters would wear sneakers rather than hiking boots. To keep the dust from caking up on their feet they would attach a kind of low gator with wild looking patterns. These are called Dirty Girls made by a company (owned by two eccentric women) of that name. Many thru hikers, having gone through many experiences of needing three showers to wash their feet, have opted for Dirty Girl protection.           

 

At this point there were two worrisome fires in Tahoe area and another super fire to the north. Sections of the PCT were getting closed off every day. Looking at the Calfire map it was apparent that the coast had no fires at all. After some internet research I could see two possibilities: the first was the Pine Crest trail that climbs up into the dramatic mountains that rise above Big Sur. The second was the Lost Coast trail near Eureka California. I had been Big Sur before and loved it. The idea of climbing way into the mountains far above the swarming tourists on Route 1 was pleasing.

The drive from Truckee to Big Sur lasted about six hours and it was tedious and tiresome. I took interstate 80 which was heavily traveled passing through Sacramento. I’ve heard Sacramento is a beautiful and livable city. This may well be true but my experience from interstate 80 was one of a congested highway, filled with litter and not maintained well by whoever is responsible for that task. There are plenty of aggressive drivers who resemble those that I am familiar with in the New York City area particularly New Jersey.

San Francisco wasn’t that much of a pleasure to drive through either. Again, there were plenty of aggressive drivers and, if you had to pee, there were no rest areas or very few signs indicating the key services available at an exit. This was not California dreaming at its best. California been going through a lot of unpleasant things in the recent past: various surges of Covid, Problems with heat, drought, earthquakes, forest fires, and mudslides when the heavens finally brought rain. There was an ongoing effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsome.

Newsom is a handsome and charismatic man. Once the mayor of San Francisco, his winning smile hinted at his greater ambitions. Ironically, he was married 2001-2006 to Donald Trump Junior‘s girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle. You might remember her speech at the 2020 Republican national convention proclaiming “THE BEST IS YET TO COME!! “

There’s been a lot of dissatisfaction in California lately illustrated by a surprising exodus in the last two years to Texas. I don’t know how that works. If I were sick of floods, mudslides, earthquakes and forest fires I still don’t think I’d go to Texas. Obviously, I don’t want to mess with Texas or infer that it lacks coolness. Indeed, Texas has elements of coolness that rival other cool places. A lot of Californians are moving to Austin. Little artistic communities like the one founded by Donald Judd in Marfa are also oaises of coolness. Ornette Coleman and Willie Nelson come from Texas. Both unquestionably cool individuals. Still, there’s a lot to be said for California. I write this laying in my tent in the midst of a redwood forest next to rushing stream and feeling no interest in going to Texas.

There was no permit required for the Pine Crest Trail in the Ventana wilderness. Parking for four days however, ended up costing $40. The hills in the Ventana wilderness are a lot steeper and more hazardous than you might think. Often there are narrow traverses where a wrong step could send you tumbling down a ravine to severe injury or possibly death. The odds are always stacked in your favor if you take care. Most of the trail is in good shape with some spots a little washed out and others strewn with slippery rock scree. The mountain flora reminded me of the kind that grows on the steep hillsides that rise above the sea on the other side of the Pacific in Japan or Southeast Asia. It seems like the same flora although I don’t know for sure how much commonality there is between the east shore of the Pacific rim and the west one.



Throughout the Ventana wilderness there are campsites next to rushing streams of cool clear water. On my first night in the wilderness, I camped in complete solitude with only a few passersby. Despite the vulnerability of sleeping in the deep forest alone, it is easy to slip into a revery in this kind of place.

I used the site as a basecamp and took a lighter pack with me to explore the higher reaches of the trail, leaving anything unnecessary behind. The trail climbed and climbed and then dived down deeply into a ravine. Then climb, and climb up to a traverse and then dip, once again, deeply into a ravine, and then climb and climb to another hilltop. Eventually an ambitious hiker will encounter Sykes hot springs where you can strip down and take a soak in soft, warm water. It’s refreshing and most hikers in the area dash towards the Springs paying attention to the little else. In general, there is a tendency amongst hikers to race nature rather than embrace it. When I was younger and more able, I too was more inclined to race down the trail. At this point, having accomplished many grand things in the mountains and well into my 60s, I choose to embrace the trail at a slower pace, but my pleasure is greater. In my late 60s I’ve become softer and more easily touched by flowers and babies and dogs.

There are mountains in this part of the wilderness that actually rise above the tree line and resemble the hard, gray, granite hills in the Sierras. It was Saturday on my second day there. Hordes of people headed up and down the trail; most of them making a quick beeline to the Hot Springs. The numerous campsites along the trail were full including the one I had to myself night before. When I got back from my walk to the Hot Springs there were people getting a little testy about choice and control of campsites. I was happy to have set up the day before and established myself at what I considered the best site.

A boy, about eight years old, began to walk like a balance artist across a large tree trunk that extended high above the river. It looked dangerous for a kid that age. If he was my kid, I would have discouraged him. But his parents cheered him on and gave him advice on what would be the best technique. They assured me that their child usually made good decisions. Hmm. Who was I to interfere? I left it in their hands. As it was, the cheeky monkey made it all the way across, although he had to finish on his hands and knees. If that were my kid, I would’ve been shitting my pants.

On my second day in the Ventana Wilderness, I climbed about 1200 feet up to the Big Sur Crest Road. I fully expected to end up on some ugly looking dirt road. But, instead I arrived in nirvana. There were beautiful rolling hills of California yellow grass, Monterey pine, and blue gum eucalyptus. Below you could see the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. At least in theory you could, for what I saw was the vastness of the marine layer. That is, the clouds that hang the ocean and hopefully lift as the temperature rises during the day. From the top of this crest, it looked like the clouds you see below when you’re riding in an airplane. It was ethereal; almost like looking down from the rim of Kilimanjaro and seeing similar clouds that, later in the day, will possibly lift enough so that you can see the yellow grass of the Serengeti.

There was a new family that moved into the campsite right next to me and though it was scary sleeping here alone the night before in the vast wilderness I look back upon the experience with a sudden fondness. These new neighbors remind me of the Flintstones. Yabadabadoo!!.

The air is dry, and the temperature is absolutely perfect for human habitation. The sun in California is brilliant and burns deep into the skin if you aren’t careful to wear sunblock. Climbing up the switchbacks toward the ridge today was perfectly pleasant until the trees give way to open spaces higher up the mountain. The sun is so intense that, even when the temperature is only 70° the uphill climb makes it feel like 90°. I saw quite a bit of animal scat along the trail that looked like it came from a coyote or maybe a mountain lion. I’m afraid I haven’t studied scat the way I should have. I would have worried more if I had known for sure.

 

REI should be grateful for the people that come here. All of them are wearing and carrying highly expensive outdoor gear. They are almost all white. So far on this trip I have seen one black person near Tahoe on the PCT. An expedition of about 12 Chinese hikers came though the campsite earlier today. They were loud and chatty, and it was good to see new people drinking in the beauty of nature. Many folks who have grown up in an urban environment are unfamiliar and perhaps even uncomfortable in the backcountry. City dwellers are known to enter the woods with a dread fear bears, snakes and insects. Conversely suburbanites enter an urban environment and fear random violence, robbery and sexual assault. This is just another way in which we are unfortunately separated into tidy little groups.

At dusk last night I heard young man with an overloaded backpack stumble into the camp site. He, no doubt, had to set up camp and make dinner in the dark. Many hikers delude themselves into thinking they will cover more miles than they actually end up covering. I met him the next morning. He stopped by and we talked for a long time. He seemed to be in no hurry at all and clearly liked to savor the simple pleasure of human conversation. He saw my fiddle there, so I played a few tunes, and he was suitably exuberant. He’d grown up in St. Louis Obispo and just recently graduated from a Catholic seminary. He was a newly ordained priest in the town just north of where he grew up. We chatted for a while and then went about our separate business. As I was packing up my campsite I looked over and saw him reciting mass over a small portable altar complete with candles that stood grandly golden holders. He had donned a white robe and was waving a silk cloth about. Evidently, according to my wife, priests have to say mass every day. And so there he was for at least half an hour with his candles and his white robe in the cathedral of the redwood forest.

I packed up and hoisted my 25-pound rucksack beginning an 1800 foot, mile and a half ascent.  I stopped to take drinks quite often and paced myself carefully. The Nepalis say, “Bistari, Bistari”, the Africans say, “Polé, Polé”, and the South Americans say, “Despacio.” Slow and steady will make the climb happier and healthier. I thought of Russell Banks and his article titled “Old Goat or Old Fool “.  Pacing myself properly I was able to get to the top of the hill in the blazing sun without fainting or having a stroke. The marine layer crawled halfway up the hill but still you could see down from this perch of about 2800 feet into a cloud covered blanket over the Pacific Ocean. I walk down the road. Down, down, down past a limited number of exclusive, “hedgefundy” houses. The dusty, dirt road was well-maintained. It took me about two hours to get to the bottom where I strode past a Tesla country club, supercharger resort; a curious place full of not-my-crowd rich people. Then onto US 1 where I had to walk another 2 miles on baking tarmac to the Big Sur ranger station where my car was parked. Fortunately, on the way there was an old fashion quaint-looking gas station/store/restaurant where I could stop and get a soda and a celebratory Reese’s peanut butter cup.

Arriving at the parking lot, I fell into a conversation with a man about my age who held forth, without pause, for what seemed like a long time, about his equipment and his orthopedic problems. Recovering from a hip replacement he was grateful that he could still walk 5 miles. I told him that he should be grateful to just put 1 foot in front of the other. I too am grateful.

I drove north to Piedmont, California to visit a cousin who is two years older than me, and I haven’t seen since the 1960s. She was fun to hang out with back then and she still is. She’s gone through a couple of husbands but has lived in the same house for about 40 years where she runs a daycare center for kids between between the ages of one and four. Every day at nine o’clock her house fills up with little schnookums. I had a great time hanging out and playing the fiddle for them. They particularly liked my imitations of bees and birds.

At night Debbie and I got a good red wine buzz going with one of her employees who hung around. We laughed into the night, laughing and talking about the past, the present and the future. We traded a few deep family secrets. It’s amazing how family bonds can last over decades of absence. We hugged a lot.

I pointed the Prius north on I-5 from Sacramento not really knowing where I was going to go. I vaguely had the Shasta wilderness in mind. The road from Sacramento to Shasta City is not beautiful. There’s a long sequence of flat farmland that looks like poorly disguised desert. The temperature was hot reaching as high as 108°F. The highway went through 20 or 30 miles of solid burnt forest. It made my heart sick. The Douglas firs, spruces, and lodgepole pines were all reduced to black sticks jutting up from charred earth. That summer of 2021 was the driest in California since 1924, and I hoped that by the end of August the whole place wasn’t burnt to the ground.

 

I found a free campsite, what they call a dispersed campsite, in the forest at about 7000 feet elevation near the foot of Mount Shasta; a 14,000 foot mountain with an impressive amount of the climb above timberline and frosted with glaciers at the top. You must obtain a Summit permit to climb the mountain, but this involves no more than putting $25 in an envelope including your address, name and a few other pieces of information on there in case someone asks. Nobody asked.                                                                                                                              

                                                              

After a quiet, revitalizing night at the dispersed campsite, I took the trail up to the Shasta Alpine Lodge and horse camp and then toward the summit of Mount Shasta. At the parking lot I disembarked the same time as a 60ish couple with California plates. I hardly noticed them at first, but they ended up following me, at a polite distance, up the mountain for the next 2000 feet. There comes a point on Mount Shasta where there’s no longer a discernible trail. You have to go what the people in the west call “crosscountry“. This means there are no longer any cairns or trail markers of any kind. Sometimes there is a discernible track and then it disappears into a rubble of rocks and scree leaving the baffled hiker to scratch their head. The California couple quit at about 8500 feet. And by 9000 feet I had no idea how to proceed. The idea of getting lost way the above tree line, let’s say 14,000 feet, all by my 66-year-old self, seemed foolhardy. I didn’t really want to have to call the rescue chopper (besides, there was no cell signal) at sunset when I didn’t know where the fuck I was. The best bet was to saunter back down to the trailhead, get in my car, coast down into town, and have a good lunch, followed by a deep meaningful nap at the dispersed campsite.

The campsite was preciously quiet for about an hour. And then the newcomers started to come in. I could hear, on the other side of the hill, some sort of drum playing a repetitive pattern a lot longer than I thought was musically necessary. But this is after all California. There were small groups of people in their 20s who looked exactly like the hippies I knew at the Cambridge food co-op in the 1970s; complete with the kind of nobler-than-thou arrogance that conservatives like to call wokeness.

I skirted southern Oregon through Ashland and Medford then scurried back across the California border to Crescent City. Crescent City it’s not a posh seaside resort. But it is a place where plain old folks can go to catch a little ocean, eat a little seafood and drink a little craft ale. I settled into cold, damp, seaside clam shack. They told me there was a 55-minute wait for food. There’s been a shortage of low wage help in California in general and so restaurants either limited their capacities or they’d tell you right out front that it’s going to take quite a while to get your food. I told the waitress that it wasn’t a problem. Just keep the craft beer coming. I was sitting along a screened-in bar with a vivacious, fortyish couple. They had moved to Crescent City a few years before looking to escape from a high-pressure, professional life in the San Fernando Valley. They loved to prattle and drink, telling long humorous stories with lots of movement and pantomime. They lifted my mood. I had gone for stretches of time on this trip without talking to much of anyone so the opportunity to just sit around sipping craft beer and having few hoots was welcome. I ordered a poor boy on sourdough bread with blackened, seared shrimp, a little bit of lettuce and some chipotle sauce for zing.

Glowing from a craft beer buzz, I went back to the Curly Redwood motel. It was mid 20th century modern that reminded me of the hotel my parents managed, and we resided in, when I was a kid between the ages of two and six. This place looked as if it kept the same furniture since the 1960s and was otherwise never remodeled. It was rough around the edges but still oozing with charm. It had solid red wood siding on the outside and redwood wall paneling on the inside.

I sped down the 101 in my trusty Prius to Arcata then Eureka and then over the mountains to the Lost Coast. You had to twist and wind endlessly on narrow roads lined with redwoods, going no faster than 25mph until you finally arrived at the coast about an hour away from the 101 turnoff.

I started from the parking lot in Shelter Cove. There were no signs whatsoever for the trail. You simply go down to the beach and start walking. This was disconcerting, like a formula for disaster. It was laborious to walk through the loose, black sand with a 30-pound backpack. After two miles there was still not a single sign for the Lost Coast Trail. This even though I had to register online and pay a fee to hike the trail. To avoid overcrowding they only allow 60 hikers per day to register, and I was lucky enough to find a cancellation. It would’ve been nice if they’d been a little more welcoming. Thankfully I had a Guthook GPS guide app for the trail, so I knew where the tent sites and water sources were. I hadn’t realized, from what I had read, that the entire walk was on the beach. For my money that’s just as hard as walking uphill with the big bag.

I started out in a pissy mood. But by the time I walked a few miles on the beach and found a campsite next to a creek that ran down onto the beach I was starting to feel like, “OK this is pretty cool.” And so, it was. I had never before slept in a tent on a beach, and I started to really enjoy the scent of the sea and the rhythm of the surf.

The next part was more harrowing. The terrain was never easy. This is not like your standard walk on the beach hand-in-hand-along-the-sand, casual kind of thing. This is uneven surfaces, large areas of slippery rock scree, fluctuating tides, and a constant search for firm ground to walk on. Walking with a heavy pack through deep sand is no doubt good exercise if you are training or conditioning yourself for something. But that’s not what I was looking for here. There was a four-mile stretch that is impossible to traverse during high tide and so you have to coordinate the hike through that section with the tide tables. The tide needs to be at least a couple of hours into the ebb otherwise you risk being pinned to some rocks for several hours, trying to avoid being pounded by the savage sea.



Looking up from your struggles however, you will see a breathtaking coastline, with mountains covered in conifers, and cliffs that sharply rise from the Pacific Ocean. When the sun breaks through the marine layer the ocean turns a deep and beautiful blue. When the beach is covered in Marine layer the landscape is dark and melancholy like the shores of western Ireland. I consciously raised my head at regular intervals to take in the magnificence. It was important to concentrate on my footing as it would be very easy to hit the deck with all those rocks and uneven surfaces. It goes without saying that hiking poles are a must. I got to the other side of the impassible-at-high-tide section, defined by an area with a big stream called Flat Creek stream. Here there were a multitude of campsites and you could tell that it had been a busy weekend there with as many as 50 to 100 people camping in a relatively small area. Impressive when you think that the only way to get there is a cross several miles of fairly inhospitable terrain. You’d have to hike at least 10 miles across this rough and rugged beach to get to this location. As a consequence, the people I met there were the kind that I usually like. Call it natural selection. These are interesting and adventurous people with many fascinating things that they can talk about. They are the ones who search beyond everyday life to see what it is that’s over the ridge. I admire any person who has refused to have the imagination and curiosity beaten out of them by the mundane practicalities of life.

After more than 20 miles of walking on this laborious terrain I was shattered. I had to wait out the tide in the morning as did many of my fellow campers at the stream. I took my violin out and played it. I wasn’t sure anybody else could even hear me and I simply enjoyed the daily ritual of playing. For me it’s like a form of prayer. A religious ritual that I perform every day for my own spiritual solace. I looked up and there was a young woman about 20 or so. She gushed, “that was so beautiful” and I thanked her. I saw her and her hiking buddies later as we were walking towards the end point of the trail. She came up to me and said, “there is someone who is not afraid to share their beauty with the world “. I was touched by this. She asked me, as if I was her guru, what are the most important things in life? I told her without hesitation they were truth, beauty, love and nature. She and her friends repeated the four of those words a couple of times so as to remember them I suppose. I felt as if I should baptize them in the ocean. But that would be cold.

I was exhausted, delirious and possibly staggering by the end of the hike. Although, after five minutes in the parking lot changing into some dry clothes and a pair of sandals, I begin to feel that kind of elation one feels after having done something very difficult successfully.

 I was bleary-eyed after 23 miles over narrow, winding, mountain roads from Shelter Cove to Highway 101. Compensation for the effort came with the plentitude of gorgeous redwood trees along the way. I headed south on Highway 101, thinking I would drive for an hour or so and find a motel for the night. But curiosity got the better of me and when the road turned on to the northern terminus of California 1. I couldn’t help but want to drive down the fabled and legendary road. To get down to the shore however I had to do the reverse of going from shelter Cove to Highway 101 and then twist and wind over the mountains once again to get down to the shore. This was another agonizing trip where one couldn’t really go faster than 25 miles an hour. When I got down to the shore at the beginning of the Mendocino Coast I was stunned by the beauty of the place. At about 7:30 I arrived Fort Bragg and saw a good-looking restaurant where I stopped and while I was waiting to be seated, I reserved a room on Expedia at what I thought was a local Super 8 hotel. They told me it was 25-minute wait for a table so I put my name down and told them that I would go and check into my motel. Then I opened up my Expedia app once again get directions and it turned out the hotel, I had just confirmed was 55 miles away over another twisted, curvy, no-more-than-25-mile-an-hour road. I couldn’t bare it. Desperately searching the main drag of Fort Bragg, I managed to get the last room, the Jacuzzi suite, at a local motel. It would’ve been pure agony to have to go 55 miles over another curvy highway to get back to Highway 101 where the Super 8 was. I was delirious. I went back to that restaurant had myself some of the best fish tacos of my life, a 24-ounce draft beer and chocolate something or another that was absolutely out of this world. The next morning, I was useless.

Useless or not, I had to drive about 6 hours east again to position myself conveniently to pick up my wife the next day at the Reno airport. Consistent with the usual mismanagement, her flight was delayed one hour, then two, and then three. I was overjoyed to hold her in my arms once again after 4 ½ weeks apart.

Quickly, I whisked her away from the absurdity of Reno back to the sweet bosom of the California Sierras. We were booked for three nights at the century old Granlibakken in Tahoe City. The Granlibakken is like a lot of grand old resorts with glowing reputations. The service was spotty, the menu was limited and overpriced, the was no air-conditioning, the sprawling grounds were homely and non-descript. Since we were both exhausted, we ate at the restaurant on the premises. We were planning to go al fresco but smoke from a wildfire northwest of Tahoe had forced all diners at Granlibakken indoors to what looked like a function room. We had a salad, two burgers, and four glasses of wine. The bill was $140. They even tried to pad it by charging us for an extra wine. We able to knock it down to $120 -  big whoop. Needless to say, we ate in town the next two nights.

Tahoe is known for its cool dry air, deep blue lake, and clear views of the surrounding mountains. None of that was evident over the next two days. California was raging with one of the worst forest fire seasons ever. I hadn’t rained a drop during the month I had been there and all it took was the smallest spark to set thousand of acres ablaze. We were downwind of the Dixie fire which ended burning over a million acres in Plumas, Butte, Lassen and Alpine counties. 

We took a drive and hike near Emerald Bay which on another day would be drop-dead beautiful but on that day was obscured by copious clouds of smoke. My throat was scratchy, and my eyes were bloodshot from irritation. We spent the rest of that day and evening indoors doing our best to escape the unhealthy air. By the next morning things had cleared enough for us to go for a hike on the PCT near Donner Pass. We were still a long way from golden sun and robin’s egg sky by we were too restless to stay indoors for yet another day.

As the reader might recall, the last time I had been to Donner Pass I was forced to park a ½ mile from the trailhead due to the overcrowded parking lot. This time there were only a ½ dozen cars in the lot. Despite all these distractions we managed to enjoy ourselves and by the end of our hike we had agreed to backpack into the Peter Grubb hut on the PCT a few miles north of I-80.

The next day, outfitted with full backcountry gear, we climbed up to Castle Pass 8400 ft., the last major pass on the PCT. This is a speed bump compared to the fabled passes (Forester, Muir, etc.)  of the high Sierra but it’s still a pretty good workout with a 30-pound pack.

Unlike the last two times I visited the Grubb hut, there was no one else there. We had the entire area to ourselves. We set up my new MSR Hubba-Hubba tent. It’s supposed to be a 2-person tent but you better like the other person an awful lot because it makes for tight quarters. After setting up camp we fell into a peaceful, timeless reverie listening to the wind in the trees and feeling that intense inner quiet that comes when you allow yourself sit still for long enough in the wilds. I wanted my wife Kristina to have a chance at glimpsing the brilliant, dense, endless stars that come out on a clear night in the Sierras. The stellar reception was good until about midnight when another cloud of smoke came in from the Dixie Fire to the west of us.

We hiked out the next morning. It was sad to realize that this marked the beginning of the trip home. I had a month’s worth of extraordinary adventure behind me, but it was time to point the bow east. We stopped by the Donner Kitchen in Truckee and had a breakfast that may have been the best meal that either of us had during the entire trip. In Reno we paused briefly to get lunch and an oil change at the Jiffylube to ensure that we were adequately lubricated for the ride home. I am pleased to announce that they did not try to sell me a new cabin air filter.

We navigated east for several hours through the scorching, smoky desert to the Elko, Neveda where we planned to turn north into Idaho.

Most of the news I’ve heard from Idaho is either about Demi Moore, retired LA cops, or ultra conservative militia crazies. I’m happy to say that I encountered none of the former. Well, Demi Moore might have been fun. I knew that the Rockies were spectacular here and that Lewis and Clark had their difficulties at Lemhi Pass. I hadn’t realized how much I would fall in love with the Salmon River, how it winds its way past pine-studded mountains, old mining towns, and spacious ranches. There is old western charm in the small towns along the river where traces of a pioneering past are apparent throughout.

The main problem with Idaho is that it’s too close to Montana and that’s where the strange forces of wanderlust tugged us next.

I’d visited Montana before; went back country hiking in Glacier National Park and hung out with fresh air hipsters in Whitefish and Missoula. It’s famously big and open. Unfortunately for us it was also plagued with forest fires due to the same drought that had cursed California and Oregon. There were great billows of smoke and flashes of red flame on route 43 near Wise River. Nothing is more dispiriting than driving through a charred forest still smoldering from a recent fire.

We passed through this grim scene on our way to Bozeman where we stayed at the shabbiest Motel 6 either of us had ever seen. The guy at the front desk looked like a tweaker in rehab wearing a Motel 6 t-shirt and baseball cap. He was sickly thin, with battered, ruddy skin and several gaps in his teeth. The motel was surrounded by government housing and social service offices. It had vinyl flooring that was cold on the feet. The inside of the room door was bashed with cracks and gouges from a blunt instrument making it look like someone was desperately trying to escape. We escaped to the Walmart across the street to buy food and supplies. There were no live-in-person cashiers and we had to wait 45 minutes in line to use an automated checkout machine. There were about a half dozen long lines like ours, filled with beaten-down, weary looking people who shuffled their feet slowly forward and passively accepted their fate. Between the forest fires, Motel 6, and Walmart concentration camp we had reached an emotional abyss. Kristina got the creeps from the motel and hardly slept a wink. 

We went for a 5-mile hike on the outskirts of Bozeman which led us to an overlook with a vast panorama of the city and the surrounding mountains. It was a nice 2 ½ hour hike although some of the route skirted past high-end housing developments that I referred to as, “MacRansions”.

We were booked for one night at a hot springs campground just south of town. Ten seconds after we pulled in the parking lot we decided not to stay. It just wasn’t us. Too much gray concrete, too many RVs, and just way too KOA. We are the wooded tent site kind of folks and not power/water/sewer hookup people. It was mid afternoon and we still had time to kick up some dust driving east to Billings where we stayed in an executive room at the Hampton Inn. Down the street from the hotel, we found a surprisingly good pizza place with a wood-fired oven. With the possible exceptions of North Beach and Sausalito in the bay area, the west has a small population of Italians,. Finding good pizza in Billings Montana is like finding an orchid in the desert. What the west may lack in at Italian cuisine they make up for with an abundance of microbreweries and I washed the pizza with a rich, local IPA.

 

We broke away from the interstate the next day and hopped on US 12 east from Miles City Montana. We immediately noticed the absence of commercial traffic. Conservative states like Idaho and Montana actually allow triple tandem trailer trucks that shake and wobble perilously in the wind. The first 60 miles of US 12 out of Miles City was almost completely devoid of traffic, making it a stress-free alternative to the interstate. The agrarian landscape rolled gently past exposing layers of green and tan crops. It was wide open and endless. We rejoined I-94 west of Bismarck, North Dakota and made it as far as Jamestown before we checked into another Hampton Inn executive room with high ceiling and an enormous bed. I had hoped to spend the night in Fargo. We both loved the Coen brother’s movie of that name with Francis McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi.  I was crushed after learning that the Paul Bunyan statue wasn’t there and that it was just a prop for the movie

The drive from Jamestown, SD to St. Paul MN takes about 6 hours. By this time, we had past the 100th meridian and were geographically in the east once again. It’s flatter and greener. Humidity and cloudiness return. It’s the beginning of the end but not quite.

We stay in downtown St. Paul at a hotel on 7th St. a few blocks from the Mississippi River. The area, once overrun with homeless encampments and shelters, had recently seen a lot of new development. As a result, there was the now familiar combination of yuppies, panhandlers, and corporate robber barons occupying the same sidewalks.

We had people to visit in St. Paul. Kristina had an old friend from grad school to meet up with and I hung out with a record company guy who was about to put out my latest release on his label.

Philip Blackburn of Neuma Records lived near the 3M corporate headquarters on the eastern edge of town. His house was set back off the road and had a nice view of both Twin cities. His parents were English, and he had a distinct southern English accent despite having spent most of his life in the US. We jumped into his vintage 1980’s Nissan 300ZX and cruised the area in search of some decent Asian food. Once we settled into a fusion restaurant, we had an interesting discussion about music. I had chosen to release my music on his label because Philip had a vital passion for new music, and I needed someone with a ready understanding of the audience that had to be reached. Back at his place, he took some still photographs and a video to help promote the new release. We also taped an improvisation, just for the heck of it.  

 

We had dinner that night with Kristina’s grad school friend and her husband. They were politically progressive but nevertheless bemoaned the unfortunate move toward strict political correctness in the movement. It’s getting more and more difficult in the current illiberal atmosphere to open your mouth without offending someone. Agreed, it’s important to be respectful but there is no benefit from stifling honest and open discourse. We had an extraordinary meal that could easily have been prepared by a celebrity chef and then took a long evening walk down to the Mississippi.

I had promised my Aunt Penny that we would visit her in Chicago on our way back from the west coast. This is a labor of love insofar as Chicago is a major buzzkill to drive around in. Penny is my mother’s younger sister and though I knew herwell in the 1960’s and 70’s, we hadn’t seen each other since then. We met at yet another Asian Fusion restaurant in Roselle in the western suburbs. I had hoped that Penny would be joined by my cousin Diana who I had also not seen in something like 50 years. Sadly, she was caught up at work and couldn’t make it to the restaurant on time.

Penny lived with my family in Litchfield, Connecticut when she, as a single parent, gave birth to Diana. As a result I got to watch Diana grow up for the first couple of years after she was born. Like the naughty adolescent that I was, I even taught her how to say “shit” which she picked up right away and wandered around the house repeating over and over. Penny had always been fun to hang out with when I was a kid. She tried to convince my mother that she should abandon the strict and abusive child rearing techniques that she employed and rationalize with me more often. This line of discussion pissed my mother off to no end and Penny and I loved to watch her stew. As with my cousin Debbie in Piedmont, CA, it was effortless to pick up where we left off 50 years ago. We had a fabulous night that could easily have gone on for many hours past closing time at the restaurant.

Navigating our way out of Chicago and then Cleveland the next day was stressful and devitalizing. We spent our last night on the road in a Hampton Inn in Erie, PA.  I’ve already trashed Pennsylvania earlier in this journal and I don’t want to kick a dead horse, but Erie is unbearably dull. The best place we could find to eat was an Olive Garden. My apologies to Olive Garden devotees but I find highly processed, pre-made Italian food to be offensive. I’ve visited Italy a half dozen times, and the Olive Garden cuisine isn’t nearly as good as the stuff they serve in gas stations in the old country. We fortified the experience with chianti, coffee and dessert to comfort our weary souls. It was the best we could do. We were very brave.

We decided to forgo the rest of Pennsylvania in favor of routes 86 and 17 through the southern tier of New York state. This route is more sparsely traveled than I80 in Pensy and there are far fewer construction delays. Throughout my travels this year I was astonished by how many times the road would narrow down to one lane, traffic would slow to 45 mph for 5-10 miles of orange barriers and at the end there would be a group of guys standing around a truck and a state cop sitting in his cruiser, lights flashing, scrolling through his phone. Despite this perception, the work does seem to get done eventually.

As we get within 50 miles of our home, I start to feel the same sense of pride and relief that I get after a harrowing time in the wilderness. I am relieved to have survived the adventure alive and proud of myself for seeing it through despite the obstacles.

I slept like a baby that first night home in my own bed. There was only a handful of times over the course of the previous 6 weeks that I had slept in the same place two nights in a row.

After a few days of comfort and relaxation in my own home I became keen for another thrill or two on the road. Kristina also reported having a let down after the long journey and spent a week or so in a rueful state, cursing the August heat and humidity. What will come next. There will always be something else in the future. I’m already dreaming about it.

 

Two Months Later

 

For many years, in the autumn, and in particular my adult life, I sing Joni Mitchell’s song “The Urge for Going” to myself.

When the leaves we’re tumbling down

and shivering trees lie standing in a naked row

I get the urge to go I get the urge for going

but I never seem to go.

The shackles of adult responsibility required me to bury that urge deep within.

I pulled the blankets to my chin

and bolt my wandering in

But this fall, with the company my wife Kristina, I set off on the road headed West past the blazing autumn leaves of Pennsylvania. (I still don’t like Pennsylvania see previous tirades about road construction in Pennsylvania) but the cozy hills covered with garish colors were beautiful and even more so as we moved into West Virginia.

That autumn of 2021 senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia had become a national, in fact international, focus of controversy for his obstructive strategies regarding the large infrastructure and social services package that the Democrats were trying to pass through Congress while they still held a razor thin majority. You couldn’t help but think of Joe Manchin as you went through West Virginia. His picture was everywhere. He was the last hope for the fading West Virginia coal industry. He was the lone Democrat in the Senate blocking climate change legislation fearing that it would spell the end to coalmining in West Virginia. West Virginians were clearly on his side but the consequences his political maneuvers would be felt by the entire world. Being a pivotal person in terms of majority in the Senate, he had to be reckoned with. There were signs and ads everywhere supporting Manchin and his strategy to save coal mining in West Virginia.

But I didn’t really go to West Virginia to start whining about Joe Manchin, I went there with my wife to enjoy the mountains, foliage, fresh air and the feeling that we had put some distance between ourselves and our home in New York State.

We stopped in Bridgeport, WV a little bit South of Morgantown and stayed at the first of many Hampton Inns and ate at the Bob Evans across the street. My wife had never been to a Bob Evans. She hadn’t missed much but it was solid, B-flat family food at a time when we didn’t feel like getting back in the car and foraging around Bridgeport WV for food. So, Bob Evans it was. They hardly had a speck of vegetarian food and I settled for an omelet. Such is the fate of a vegetarian on the road. I once spent the summer hiking the GR10 in France and ended up with an omelet for supper on the majority of nights. The wife had Honey butter chicken that came with a biscuit. She didn’t realize that and so she ordered two extra biscuits and it ended up being a 3-biscuit dinner. She tried to press one of her biscuits on me, but I wasn’t having it.

We slept well even though the hotel was maybe 100 feet from highway. It was a classy way to sleep by the side of the road I suppose. We could have stuck our thumbs out the window and hitched ride.

We decided not to go on the Interstate but chose US 50 instead so that we could escape the convoy of 18-wheelers and catch some local charm. US 50 traveled west from Clarksburg to the northwest corner of the state in Parkersburg. I had looked it up online and found a website dedicated to describing the entire length of US 50 which goes from Ocean City, Maryland all the way to Sacramento, California. The description said that we would be going on the “loneliest road in West Virginia”. Hot Dang we thought how could we miss that? The description went on to say that there would be scenes of impoverished West Virginians and the ruins of rusted industry. There would be plenty of discarded appliances in yards and abandoned automobiles. The whole place was like a Walker Evans photograph, so they said. It ended up being a delightful drive through some brightly foliated mountains and that was about it. I think you had to go off US 50 a ways in order to observe any kind of genuine Appalachian poverty. We’re not really into tragedy tourism and so we stayed on the main road.

We did enjoy listening to some gospel music on the radio along with manic, loud preachers who sounded completely incoherent and all the over the place, talking about everything all at once. There’s always an underlying social and political message in listening to these Christian broadcast stations. And I wondered if that’s how Trump managed to win over this population. If they could believe in virgin birth maybe you could sell them anything.

From West Virginia we moved down into Kentucky where the road became more sparsely traveled and things seemed more spread out, wide open and a bit more relaxing. We were both excited to travel through Salt Lick, Kentucky. It makes you want to go up to a salt block in the field and lick it – maybe not. I don’t even know if cows still do that. They could be on low sodium diets by now.

 I don’t know how they get anything done in Kentucky. The entire state seems to be soaked in bourbon. At nearly every exit of Interstates 64 and 65 there is a distillery. At the hotel where we were staying in Louisville there was a display of locally distilled bourbons some of which cost as much is $800 a bottle. Who the **** buys bourbon for $800 a bottle. Your brain would have to be pickled in the piss to spend that much money.

We went down to the waterfront and took in the grandeur of the many bridges that cross the wide Ohio River. There’s a long river walk where a hobbling old fellow like me can go for a run. The astonishing thing was there wasn’t another soul down there. Well, let’s not say there wasn’t another soul. There were very few when you consider you’re in a city of a half a million people and this is a beautiful walkway along the river on a nice day in October. Is it that the population is so shit-faced from $800 bourbon that they can’t even go for a walk? I hope not. I did notice a disproportionate number of people you don’t associate with Kentucky parked in cars or walking along the river. People with brown skin or women wearing hijabs. Perhaps this is a place for them to go and shed all self-consciousness since all the white people seem to be in a bourbon-induced stupor.

Our hotel was in an area called Whiskey Rd. where we had an exceptionally good dinner at an Irish pub. Usually Irish pub fair is bland and basic, but I had an extraordinary seafood mac and cheese, and Kristina had a curious kind of quesadilla. She said it, wait for it, “tasted like bourbon.” Sounds legit. Afterward we went back to the hotel where, understandably, I had a glass of bourbon on the rocks, and we shared a lovely á la mode bourbon peach cobbler. Then, appropriately soaked with bourbon, we fell asleep early.

 

Memphis has storied history of music, cotton and slavery. It’s on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River with several islands and lots of amusements for tourists. What I don’t understand is why there isn’t anybody there. We drove into town on Interstate 40 and got off on North Front St. Like in Louisville, the streets were void of all but few pedestrians. Is this a Covid thing? There were many buildings, shiny new ones, and an impressive skyline but it didn’t seem like there was anybody home. We were creeped out. It seemed like the apocalypse had already arrived and everyone had somehow vaporized. The film I am Legend comes to mind.

I went for a run on the riverfront walk. You would think there’d be all kinds of people out there running and walking their dogs and picnicking with their kids but no. There were a couple of homeless people sitting around with bundles of belongings looking destitute. Maybe one or two other joggers and that was it. I took a long walkway across part of the river to an island that had all kinds of touristy stuff like a museum, swimming pools, a big sign that said “Memphis” and all kinds of walkways and places to run and hang out and it all looked totally cool but there wasn’t anybody there. I had a peaceful but creepy run .  We went out in the evening to Beale Street. There’s got to be somebody on Beale Street for God’s sake! There was a couple of folks. But mostly we saw empty Blues joints with live bands and empty barbecue restaurants. We stopped into a place where Kristina had incredible barbecue ribs and I had some credible catfish. We slugged down some great local beer and even went to the gift shop next door to buy some barbeque sauce. That was Beale Street in Memphis on a drizzly Wednesday night. It was like a bomb scare. We went back to our deserted hotel on the waterfront and had dreams of drizzle and wet, empty streets.

 We drove from Memphis straight through to Amarillo. Why not. We sped through, what we unfairly imagined to be the blandness and banality of Arkansas and Oklahoma. We had originally planned to stay in Oklahoma City but since we miraculously arrived at 4:00 PM it seemed kind of silly to hitch up the horse so early. The roads were mostly flat except for the western part of Arkansas where we grazed the edge of the Ozark mountains. They provided a bit of relief. The humble rolling hills have beautiful deciduous and coniferous trees to break up the topography of an otherwise featureless drive.

Amarillo itself lies right on the 100th meridian and it is and feels like the beginning of the West. Indeed, right on cue the landscape becomes more arid. Little by little tumbleweeds start to blow across the road and the grass becomes yellow and wispy. The most spectacular thing is the windmills. The windmills light up red at night. They flash in unison; thousands of them that look like a Martian army performing drills in the desert night. We stopped twice to take pictures and marvel at the sight. It was a useful distraction from our fatigue brought on by 607 hundred miles of driving. We needed this side show to carry us into Amarillo.

Amarillo and Interstate 40 in general between Oklahoma City and Amarillo is part of what used to be route 66. Route 66 does not officially exist anymore, however we did pass two different Route 66 museums in the middle of nowhere.  When I was about ten years old there was a TV show called “Route 66” the starred two cool detective-looking guys wondering along the famous highway in a Corvette. The storied road was also celebrated in the song “Route 66” written by Bobby Troup and made famous by the Nat Cole trio. The idea of Route 66 causes us to long for the American kitsch of the mid 20th century. The gawdy looking restaurants and hotels, enormous cowboy statues and old gas stations. 


 

 

In the spirit of this we had dinner at the Big Texan steakhouse in Amarillo.

They offered a free 72-ounce steak to anyone who could eat the whole thing within an hour. The main dining room had a series of clocks to measure the time of multiple steak-eating contestants. They look like the scoreboards at a basketball game. The contestants make their attempt on a raised dining area kind of like a boxing ring and each contestant is be announced by an older woman with the Texas drawl in full cowgirl regalia. The idea seemed disgusting to me not only as a vegetarian but also someone who couldn’t imagine consuming that much food in an hour. I think most of us would vomit. According to our waitress only one in twenty of those who attempt the 72-ounce steak (you must also eat the shrimp cocktail and the salad that comes with it) succeeds. That must mean that the other 19 contestants have to pay $72 (when they return from the restroom) for the privilege of trying. The restaurant is an essay in American kitsch with its wild west décor and abundant display of stuffed elk and antelope heads. Surely this must be a mainstay on any Route 66 landmark map.

 



 It only takes about an hour to drive from Amarillo to the New Mexico border. But once you’re in the state of New Mexico, you’ve entered the proper southwest. Everything in the landscape starts to take on a red tint. We found a route that would allow us to circumnavigate both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We weaved our way through the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The increase in elevation came with a greater accumulation of Piñon pines. We went up and up and finally stopped at a turn out near the top of a pass and looked to the east of us where we could see the foothills and then the flat desert beyond. Then we went down, down, down onto the other side of the mountains and into the lowlands once again. We continued on a county road to Abiquiu. This is a very small town that was once inhabited by the famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe. I have seen many pictures of her standing tall and thin wearing mostly black posing against the barren landscape that surrounds this area. Across the street from her residence is a museum and the Abiquiu Inn restaurant/motel. The place was a balm after all the look-alike motels we’d been staying at previously on the trip. The buildings were of the adobe Pueblo style. Our room had charming woodwork and a fireplace where we sat to read after dinner. Dinner itself was extraordinary. I had, and this is an official record, the best fish tacos of my life so far. To be fair the fish in this case was pan-seared trout and not the usual fried -whatever fish. That trout added sweetness and authenticity that many fish tacos lack.

 

I played the fiddle in a garden with a fountain (not running) A 10 year-old girl came and listened to me for a long time. She was chatty but interesting. She was traveling with her grandfather and looking for a place to go hunting on the area. She had many dimensions. She sang in her school choir. She was interested in rock climbing and wanted to try it as soon as she could. She asked me a million questions about myself and my life experiences. She must have retained the information because the next morning at breakfast her grandfather asked me to elaborate on my travel, and musical experiences. The kid was cool.

North to Utah. The red rock country of southeastern Utah makes my wife go wild with spiritual awakening. It is deeply emotional (she’s moved to tears often) when she gets amongst the red rocks. The experience is intensified if I put Navajo wooden flute music on the stereo. We have visited this part of Utah I’d at least a half a dozen times and we’ve come to know some of its the many treasures. Each time the place becomes more etched in our memories. Our first day in Bluff, Utah was spent driving down route 163 to Monument Valley. I wanted to do the same run that Forrest Gump had done in the movie.



If you stop about 10 miles north of Goulding’s on 163 and look to the South, you will behold one of the most iconic views in America. This view must occur a million times in western movies. People from all over the world will identify this as the Great American West. The towering Bluffs of Monument Valley have a personality all to themselves. The Navajo Nation as projected upon them all kinds of meaning with names like: The Mittens Buttes, Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, Three Sisters, Camel Butte, Totem Pole and Yei be. Legends of these rock formations are omnipresent in Navajo folklore.

I ran about 10 miles down to just north of Goulding’s. Despite the torturous hills it was the most geographically spectacular run I have ever taken. Of course, there were motorists that drove by and encouraged me. Two energetic, young Asian women stopped and told me I was the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. They gave me a water bottle which I appreciated. I can go 10 miles easily without water where I live in New York State, but I had miscalculated the dryness in my mouth that I would feel in the desert.  Another guy in a van that I passed told me I looked just like Forrest Gump. I told them that I knew eventually some would have to mention this. As he drove past, he shouted out his window “Run Forrest Run”. Yeah right.

We ate in town that night at the small café across the street from our hotel. The place was surprisingly hip and urbane. These words are antithetical to my previous impressions of Bluff, Utah. They had some trendy food and beverage choices along with yuppie jazz playing on their sound system. Most of the diners wore expensive outdoor clothing while lounging about munching on tostadas and drinking pinot noir. They were thin, athletic, healthy-looking people mostly over 50 years-old A lot of people we met where our age or even older, spending their golden years wandering through the vivid red desert scenery. We spent three days and three nights in Bluff. It was valuable time to rest and recover from the cross-country journey.

The road from Cedar Mesa to Hanksville was so arresting with red rock splendor that audible exhalations were expelled at every turn of the road. After many hours on this extraordinary ride we reached our destination in Hanksville, Utah. We stayed at the Whispering Sands Hotel. It was completely deserted when we arrived. Even the office was closed. It was easy to laugh off the situation. And indeed I took a comic picture of Kristina in the empty parking lot. The owner showed up at about 3 PM and we checked in. While exploring the town we came upon some interesting businesses. Notably for me was convenient store, called Hollow Mountain, completely submerged inside a rock. A regulation red rock.

We dined that night at Dukes Slickrock GrilleDuke’s was a pretty darn good restaurant dedicated to the memory of John Wayne. The walls were adorned with photographs of The Duke. Some were from his younger years when he was handsome  and trim. Others were from the older years when he was showing signs of heavy wear. I was left doubting that he ever set foot in the place. There were numerous artifacts like saddles and other things that look like they might’ve belonged The Duke but there was nothing to certify  authenticity.

We were delighted to converse at length with our loquacious waitress who provided us with a lengthy oral history of the town. She had grown up there and married a teenage sweetheart. They had a bunch of kids and moved to Las Vegas. Then, after some disasters, they moved back to Hanksville. She told us about a massive flood that had recently buried much of Hanksville in mud. The flood had affected the hotel we were staying in. We are forever guilty for laughing at the Whispering Sands Hotel which had to be rebuilt after the flood.

She told us about her life growing up in Hanksville and how it was hard to connect with anyone for a romantic relationship since almost everyone was related. When her kids came home from school and said they had a crush she’d have to go through a quick genealogy to make sure things work out. Unlike the scenery south and north of Hanksville the town itself was flat and featureless. At first it felt like it might be a desolate and dreary place to hang out. Over the course of our 16 hours there we became more in touch with the soul of Hanksville.

We drove through the highlands to the north known as the Fish Lake National Forrest. All of a sudden things were green again. The area is popular with people who like to fish and hunt. In Bluff we had met a friendly and talkative man from Arkansas who was on his way there to hunt elk. I was rooting for the elk.

Initially the impetus for this adventure was to run in the Moab Trail half marathon in Moab, Utah. After a few days of relaxation at the Best Western in the center of town, I rose from the comfort of my bed at 6:30 AM and drove four miles out of town to the beginning of the race. I say race but it was certainly not a race for me. My goal in participating this event was to have an adventure, finish the 13.1 miles, and avoid breaking my neck. I was successful in all of these thank heaven. The course was incredibly demanding. This was, at once, the best and worst thing about it. It started with about 5 miles of almost constant uphill running over rough and rocky trails with some intervals of slick rock and, steep switchbacks. After we got over the top of the first canyon rim the course was mostly downhill with an occasional torturous uphill battle. The course descended into a deep canyon, a dissent that involved perilous rock scrambles and nerve-rackingnarrow traverses over sandy rocks. Once we reached the floor of the canyon, we immediately climbed another long hill then dipped down again into a creek that started at mile 11 and ended at mile 12. At first it was a novelty and those runners who had come to know from constant leapfrogging were giggling. We all laughed at the silliness of trying to run through an ankle-deep creek, but after a quarter mile or so we all became kind of quiet with a negative inner dialogue that may have gone something like what the fuck is this shit and when does it end. By the end of the mile we were completely saturated from the knees down and the famous red mud of Moab had filled our shoes to the point where they felt like squishy red cement. After that there was only a mile left of the course but as in any event like this, there’s nothing so far away as “almost there“.

 For the next four days my body needed time to recover. The first two days I felt as if I was walking on stilts because my calves were so stiff. My left knee had a tendon that was seriously inflamed. Each time I stepped on my left foot there would be this annoying little click. It didn’t even hurt really it just clicked and got on my nerves.

Our time in red rock country was coming to its conclusion and we spent just one more night in Monticello. We stayed at the Inn at the Canyons (a needlessly pompous name) where we had tethered the Prius many other times. It was cheap, fairly good hotel.

Before we checked in, we needed one last fix and therefore took farewell tour around the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park.

First, we tried to make sense out of the Indian Creek section where there are many unmarked paths that amble their way into the canyons. There’s also a subculture of climbers who like to climb the deep cracks in the cliffs. We enjoyed watching them dangling from their ropes. Quite typically there is one climber and about a half a dozen people down below cheering them on; perhaps providing technical assistance as well. We wondered who these people were and why there were so many of them. The spacious parking lots were crowded with dusty vans that looked as if people lived in them. A quick Internet search that night introduced me to the term boondocking. Boondocking is a nomadic life that involves living in a van/camper/tent on BLM land for extended periods of time on the bum. We knew about ski bums and beach pubs but there are also climber bums and just plain bum who enjoy the wide open BLM lands even though you’re only allowed to stay in on site for a maximum of 14 days. The climbers and boondockers would often leave messages for each other on little bulletin boards with sticky notes. A notice might go something like: “hey Joe I’m staying at East Hamburger campground tonight I’ll be in the orange tent.”  



There are seemingly infinite trails running through Indian Creek and we came to the conclusion that you had to know something that we didn’t know to really navigate your way through this place.

The Needles section of Canyonlands was nearly empty on this sunny November afternoon.  There was no one in the entrance booth and we were never charged a fee. During previous visits in the stifling heat of summer there had been much bigger crowds that paid hefty fees. We stopped at panoramic overlooks and checked out the Needles as well as the Muffins.

That night in Monticello we were hoping to catch a meal at a restaurant called the Peace Tree. Years ago, I had fallen in love with the Peace Tree while in Moab and always enjoyed coming back to during subsequent visits. The owner of the Peace Tree, which had two locations; one in Monticello and one in Moab, had gone through some changes during the COVID lockdown. The Peace Tree became the High Desert Café, but we couldn’t go there during the time we visited Monticello because their reduced hours conflicted with our schedule.

We headed east from Monticello, through the La Sal mountains over to Colorado where we looked at the Bedford Store which had been in the movie “Thelma and Louise”.  We had watched it night before on Netflix. We stopped there for a moment, but Kristina was underwhelmed by the sight of it, and we moved on quickly, along the curvy roads that led to Ouray, Colorado our ultimate destination.

En route, we stopped in Telluride, a tony ski town. It was cloudy and much of the foliage had fallen off the trees making it gray and autumnal, causing my wife to feel a despondency that at first, she tried to hide from me, but I was not fooled. We didn’t stay in Telluride very long. It’s really not my style, or Kristina’s, and we got the hell out.

Ouray is a beautiful old mineral town surrounded by San Juan mountains of 10,000 feet more. We booked a room in a place called the Beaumont advertised as “an adults only hotel.” Oooh. We were looking forward to an adult situation. The Beaumont was it study in perfectly preserved western gothic design. Think Miss Kitty from Dodge City.  The décor seemed over the top at first, but it grew on us. The Beaumont was run by a fun, chatty woman named Maria who had a lot of insights, not only about the historic significance of the Beaumont, but also the community surrounding it and its various economic and political issues. The lobby had a grand looking staircase that reminded me of the Titanic or perhaps Gone with the Wind. The staircase was at least ten feet wide and led up to a large antique clock. There with a spacious landing at the top with staircases that spread out like wings on the left and on the right. I felt a little bit like Rhett Butler heading up the stairs and turning around and say, “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.” Our room had high ceilings and tall windows with gaudy drapes. At first the bed looked like it might be lumpy and unwelcoming but we both slept well.

I took a walk up on the perimeter trail which brought me up to an altitude of nearly 9000 feet. There were wonderful views of the towering San Juan mountains which were covered with an early coat of snow. I descended to a gorge that went to Uncompahgre River and then up through Box Canyon which has a sign that lights up at night and you can see from the center of town. The trail descends back into town and the whole hike was about five miles. Took me about 2 ½ hours including a detour down to the ice cliffs. On the ice cliffs there were people engaged in dripping water from hoses which would freeze and form giant icefalls available to the ice climbers who clamored there in the colder months.

 

The season was at a low point and there were only a few restaurants open. The streets were eerily empty particularly at night. The hot springs in town were a novel experience with the outdoor temperature at about 40 degrees and water temperature at 102. Steam rose off of the water and was blown by a stiff wind in rapid, horizontal clouds across the water.

We met a newlywed couple there who were almost naked by a waterfall. They were so cute and taking so many selfies I offered to take a picture of them. I made this offer only after I heard her call him a fucking weirdo. I suddenly felt a connection. I said, “you just called him a fucking weirdo. Now that is love.” I took some pictures of them kissing. It turned out they’d been married just five days and were on their honeymoon.

 The next day we had to begin our trip east which took us first through the desolate, western desert of Colorado and then over the heights of the Rockies on Interstate 70. Once we got up to around 10,000 feet there was quite a bit of snow not only on the ground but falling from the sky and creating a slippery road surface that was filled with inclines and ascents as well as many, many curves. It was stressful driving which was followed by a hair-raising romp through heavy traffic on interstate 70 through Denver.

We pulled in for the night in Colby, Kansas. The Hampton Inn there was like any Hampton Inn any place. We had arrived in the darkness and didn’t fully realized how astonishingly flat it was there. In any direction you could see for miles and miles. There were no bumps or dips in the landscapeonly an infinite view of flat farmland. Many people regard the trip through Kansas on interstate 70 as something to grit your teeth and endure. This may be partially due to the fact that they post the mileage at every other exit. So you’ll have a sign that says Kansas City 253 miles and then a couple exits down Kansas City 252 miles and then another few exits down Kansas City 249 miles. With this kind of attention to the distance it’s no wonder people consider the route to be agonizingly long. Since we had already heard a number of stories concerning the dreadful crossing of the Kansas plains we were mentally prepared and it wasn’t that bad.

This is a part of the country that’s inspired many a song. There’s “Kansas City here I come“. After we got through Kansas City we crossed a portion of Missouri that was equally uninspiring although there was a little more topography there. Then we began to sing the “St. Louis Blues“.

St. Louis itself is city that piques my curiosity. I know that there are people who work  there at businesses and universities. There’s a big scene down by the river but we stayed at a hotel called Aloft. I am a fan of this particular franchise and I’ve stayed at the same chain in Kathmandu, Asheville, and Louisville. This particular Aloft was not up to snuff. It was barren and lonely in comparison to the irrepressible hipness of the other versions of this hotel. There were no restaurants nearby except for a sushi restaurant and my wife hates sushi. So we ate at the bar. But there was almost nothing available from the menu. Wwould choose an item and the bartender would say no we’re out of them. We settled in on a little salad and some macaroni and cheese. They came out a little bit later in small, fully recyclable, to-go, pint containers like the kind ice cream comes in. It was weird eating from a funky, to-go container while  sitting in the restaurant. But the wine was good and we managed to enjoy ourselves anyway.

It was time to sing Back Home in Indiana Indianapolis was memorable only for its unpleasant highways rife with construction, filled with heavy traffic that bottlenecked, jammed up and entertained us with the usual detours and confusing signs that can create tension in any marriage. We wound up just shy of Columbus Ohio and settled into another Hampton Inn west of the city where there were no credible restaurants at all. When the Olive Garden is the best you can do then you know you are shackled to the ball and chain of chain hotels and restaurants.

On our penultimate day we drove a couple hours and met with my brother-in-law, his wife and their two newly adopted children. They chose in a meeting place called Sunny Boys in Bridgeport Ohio just over the river from West Virginia where they live in Wheeling. It was good to see them although the restaurant itself which was packed at 12 o’clock on a Sunday, perhaps with the after church crowd, was a super spreader event. It was close quarters, nobody (not even the staff) was wearing masks and a lot of these folks gave me the feeling that they weren’t vaccinated. West Virginia has had some major problems with Covid and these folks didn’t seem to be doing much to protect themselves from it. But it’s family what the hell are you going to do.

We were becoming deeply fatigued. It had been a long road trip and we were winding down to the end. It was gray and raining as we drove through the hills of Northwest Maryland with the muted, mid-autumn colors on display. It was easy to get moody and so we did. Things got so romantic in Hagerstown where we stayed the last night, that my wife read me a Wikipedia history of Wheeling. It was like that.

 

 





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