“Sometimes all that we can know is there’s no such thing as no regrets…
I’m not running, I’m not hiding, I’m not reaching
I’m just resting in the arms of the great wide open
Gonna pull my soul in and I’m almost home”
— “Almost Home”, Mary Chapin Carpenter
After three months, nearly 13,000 miles, nine states, four Canadian provinces/territories, and an ungodly amount of canned soup I returned home today. While the trip is over, strangely enough it felt like more of a beginning than an ending as I was turning off of 101 towards the house. The future is bright and very full of possibilities.
Spent the majority of the day driving through western Utah and Nevada, and while the country was often pretty it was the type of place that I was glad to just be passing through. Stopped in Reno to get dinner, and for only the second time in the past month I’m stuffed. I had seven quarters with me and decided to try my luck — the first one was a dud, the second quarter won me fifty cents, and the third hit for fifty dollars. Five semesters of college calculus was more than enough to tell me to quit while I was ahead, but perhaps I’ve stumbled upon a way to support myself without rejoining the corporate world 😛
I was forced to make an early exit from Yellowstone today when a giant snowstorm moved in and threatened to close every mountain pass from Montana to Idaho. With that departure it means that the trip is now in its final stage, with just a bit of driving to do before I cross into California and then make it back to San Francisco. The past three months have been much more than just a road trip — I woke up each morning eagerly anticipating whatever that day might reveal to me, and almost every day something happened that I’m sure I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It is going to be a challenge trying to continue living life in this manner after I return home.
Yellowstone is a place that just has an incredible amount of riches — today I’ve seen hundreds of bison and elk, two bald eagles, dozens of deer, a coyote, and I’ve heard wolves howling. And all of this is in addition to the geysers, hot springs, and other scenery.
One of the nicest things about this park is that since it has been protected for so long the animals have learned both not to fear people and also how to deal with having people around. As I write this I’m watching a huge buffalo wander down the road — when a car comes he slowly makes his way to the side of the road, then wanders back out again when they’ve passed. The elk that were near Old Faithful knew where the trails were and kept about fifteen feet away from them, but otherwise completely ignored anyone who came along. And a coyote came trotting by, completely ignoring everything and everyone around him, although he did pause whenever a car started up to make sure it wasn’t going to be coming towards him. Quite a place.
Stopped briefly in Missoula while driving down to Yellowstone. A pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a loaf of fresh bread made that stop extremely worthwhile.
The weather gods are making amends for the bad weather I had earlier by giving me sunny days with bright blue skies. The only downside of the cloudless days is that they lead to colder nights, with temperatures dipping down to the low-teens or single digits.
Spent the morning hiking in Glacier National Park from Logan Pass to Hidden Lake. The scenery was great, but the solitude was even better — I sat down by the lake and couldn’t hear anything but the occasional boulder falling, and I didn’t see another person until I was halfway back. The mountain goats are keeping to the high slopes, but the deer and elk are showing up in droves each day at dawn, often no more than twenty feet away.
The northern lights are actually visible down here, but the difference between the tiny smear of light on the horizon and the bending, twisting lights that filled the entire sky in Alaska are extreme. Still, seeing them again feels a bit like reminiscing with an old friend.
Passed through Calgary this morning and got rather lost — having more than one road to follow is something I’ll have to get used to again. After Calgary the land turned to prairie, with golden hills rolling to the horizons, blue sky above that defined “big sky”, and the snow-capped Rockies just to the west. It’s been a dream of mine for many years to one day buy a ranch and settle down on it, and in those dreams the country has always looked exactly like what I was seeing today.
Made a brief stop in Waterton National Park and had several bison cross the road around my car — it’s normally not smart to get too close to one of these beasts, but I was in a protected area that had been fenced off so I figured these guys were used to cars, and as a result had an eye-to-eye view with three bulls (I was in the car — I’m stupid but not crazy).
While it’s sad to be leaving the wilds behind, there have been a couple of benefits to returning to civilization. In Browning, Montana I stopped at Subway for dinner, and ate a sandwich that consisted of stringy chicken, stale bread, and old lettuce, and still tasted ten times better than canned soup. Another benefit of returning south is that I’ve had at least one radio station for most of the day. Radio highlights included an introduction on CBC (“Let me bring out a man who plays the bagpipes professionally, which means he’s far from rich and his neighbors want him dead”) and a Budweiser salute to Starbucks (“Sure you charge five dollars for a cup of coffee, but what takes real guts is putting out that tip jar”).
Alberta decided to do an impersonation of the Yukon Territory last night, and as a result I woke up with a layer of ice on both the outside and inside of the car. After thawing out I headed to the trails around Lake Louise and spent the next six hours roaming — I finally ended up at the Plain of the Six Glaciers, which is a spot high up in the mountains that overlooks the lake and (surprise!) six glaciers.
After leaving Lake Louise I decided to take a secondary road towards Calgary, and right at the park border encountered twenty bighorn sheep on the road — they come down to lick it for minerals or salts or something. None of these animals had any fear whatsoever, and I watched a few of them from my car at less than two feet distance. Watching sheep from a park road stretches the bounds of what could be considered a “wildlife encounter”, but it was nevertheless amazing to get to see these animals so close up. Their eyes are a deep amber color, and if the eyes really are windows to the soul then these animals have extraordinarily peaceful souls.
Perfect weather today, and a great day for it. The scenery in Banff and Jasper National Parks is unreal — the Rocky Mountains here define the word “rugged”. It looks almost as if they had come shooting up from the core of the earth and burst through the surface into huge vertical towers crowned with razor-like ridges. The addition of snow on the barren grey rock further enhances the forbidding aspect of these behemoths. There haven’t been many trails to get out and hike on, but I’ve managed a few short excursions and can say with certainty that anyone who stands on the summit of one of these peaks would most definitely have to earn the right to do so.
I turned east at Prince George and am now heading down towards Jasper, Banff, and Glacier National Parks to chase mountain goats. Jeremiah Johnson would feel quite at home in the remote, mountainous country I’ve been passing through this afternoon.
I feel as if I’ve crossed an invisible boundary — in the far north there are pockets of humanity in the midst of the wilderness, while in the south there are islands of wilderness in the midst of a sea of humanity. The country that I’m traveling through now feels very much like a transitional zone between the two — the area around Hudson’s Hope didn’t feel like a wilderness, but it was in no way crowded or spoiled. Bradford Angier never wrote anything negative about his home, and seeing the country around Hudson’s Hope I can better understand his views — it would indeed be an amazing place to live. The Peace River rolls lazily through a wide valley, mountains rise slowly on all sides, forests are interspersed with golden meadows, and dozens of deer roam throughout. It lacked the wild feel of lands further north, but had a “homey” feel that the Yukon and Alaska lacked.
A last note, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention Jason’s Log. He and I have followed eerily similar paths over the last few months — I made up my mind to quit my job while on a backpacking trip with him, we both left jobs at Accenture at about the same time, and our lives have both changed direction dramatically since we quit. Jason’s journey, however, has involved more showers, less soup, and the occasional bit of haggis.
For reasons that are a complete mystery to me I woke up at 2:00 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. The fog was so thick that visibility was (maybe) twenty feet, so I waited in the Subaru until the sun came up around 7:30, at which point visibility improved to (maybe) thirty feet. Spotted two coyotes along the road, but they didn’t stick around long. A short while ago I bid farewell to the Alaska Highway and am now heading towards Hudson’s Hope to find out if it really is like Bradford Angier described in his books.
The first two Canadian moose finally made their appearance, popping out of the fog a few miles back. I knew they were out there somewhere.
I didn’t plan on doing much driving today, but after hiking through a canyon at sunrise I wanted to move further down the highway to see what animals might be out. Seven caribou met me near Summit Lake, which is the highest point on the Alaska Highway (4248′). Shortly thereafter I saw four deer — this is the first time I’ve seen deer since leaving British Columbia back in early August. It turned foggy as the morning went on, but the fog cleared occasionally to reveal some spectacular views of snow-covered peaks in the Canadian Rockies.
All told I probably covered about 350 miles today, and only 120 miles remain before the end of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek. Just before stopping tonight I spotted what was either a wolf or a big coyote near the road, but no sooner had I pulled over to get a better look when he was gone. I waited a while to see if he’d reappear, but unfortunately I’ll never know if this was my third wolf encounter or simply a coyote sighting.
On a side note, many thanks to Sheila for helping to get the journal back online.
Along the British Columbia border the Alaska Highway travels through the northern extent of the Rocky Mountains, and the scenery and wildlife are spectacular. I camped last night along the Liard River with torrents of water pouring through the canyon next to me. Once the rain stopped a campfire made for a relaxing evening. This morning the sun appeared for the first time in over a week, and the sunrise turned the entire sky pink. I followed the highway for about forty miles to the Liard River Hotsprings Provincial Park, and after hiking for a half-mile along a frozen boardwalk I enjoyed an hour in the hundred-plus degree water — sitting in a hotspring is not a bad way to start the day. When I got out of the water and back into the thirty-plus degree air I very nearly blacked out, but after a short rest everything was back to normal.
One of the folks I met in the hotspring was a guy who had been working in Denali for the past eight years, and we chatted about how awkward it’s going to be returning to the city after being out in the woods. He’s off to Memphis, but he also thinks he’ll be back in the wild places of the world before long. Upon leaving the park a herd of about thirty bison greeted me, and a short time later several woodland caribou appeared on the road, to be followed immediately by a small group of stone sheep. All of these animals were extraordinarily tolerant of people, and allowed me to watch them from as close as about forty feet.
Since the initial sighting I’ve encountered several more caribou, and the road has led through rugged canyons, past huge emerald lakes, and to the current camping spot along a wide gravel river surrounded by snow-capped mountains and giant spruce forests. All in all a great twenty-four hours.
Continuing rain and clouds, and since the forecast calls for more of the same during the next week I’m going to do a good bit of driving south today. The scenery in the southern Yukon Territory/northern British Columbia is extremely tranquil — the forests are considerably greener and taller than those further north, and the lakes all are clear with an emerald tinge to them that is reminiscent of South Pacific waters. Today should definitely be a relaxing day.
Stopped at the Pizza Hut in Whitehorse around noon, and they probably still don’t know what hit them. I was hungry.
I’m camped out for the night at the beginning of the Atlin Highway next to Little Atlin Lake. It’s a very peaceful spot, surrounded by mountains and with hardly any traffic at this time of year. I’ve kind of been reflecting on the trip as I’m beginning the journey home — sitting with a Dall sheep, watching the peak of Denali glow pink in the sunset, howling with wolves and so many other things have all been very special experiences. I’ve spent the past ten weeks immersed in wilderness, and in the words of Thoreau I’ve been able to “front only the essential facts of life”. As I’m returning I feel a responsibility to give something back — Aldo Leopold wrote that even if we never visit the wild places of this earth, we need to know that they exist. Having gained so much from this experience I feel the need to help to keep the wilderness as it is, so that even if I never come back I’ll always know that such a refuge is here when needed.
More rain and clouds, so I said goodbye to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and also to Alaska — from this point onwards the path home leads through Canada and eventually back to the lower forty-eight. Despite the fact that I’ve left Alaska it’s not a terribly sad parting – were I a betting man I would wager very heavily that I’ll be visiting again in the not too distant future.
I’m trying to time the driving tomorrow so that I get to Whitehorse right around lunch time. On my last visit I noticed a Pizza Hut that was advertising a lunchtime buffet, and since then I’ve had dreams about pizza on several occasions. If all goes well I should be setting new pizza-consumption world records in another eighteen hours or so — there will be no canned soup for me tomorrow, oh no.
The weather is again rainy and overcast, so while I’m seeing some amazing sights I’m unable to do much photography — it’s both uplifting to view all of the eagles that are here, and at the same time horribly frustrating not being able to capture the experience in any way other than as a memory.
Just hanging out with the eagles today. The weather is being uncooperative for photos, so hopefully tomorrow will have more sun. I can get NPR out of Haines on the radio here, and the opinions being expressed on public radio are encouraging — apparently I’m not completely alone in thinking that war should not be the first option when trying to attain peace.