In my lifetime I've traveled through a fair number of countries between Europe, Asia, Africa and North America; but in all my adventures no single country has even come close to comparing to the open space, ease of travel and environmental diversity that the United States of America has to offer. My home state of Washington alone has the Pacific Ocean, a rainforest, incredible islands, an entire chain of glacier-covered active volcanoes and a semi desert, all within two to three hours of a major city, Seattle. The state of California alone, where we spent a significant amount of time in during this trip is 1,040 miles (1,673km) from one end to the other! Oh, and then there are the other 48 states (Alaska anyone?) to explore as well.
The idea for this 'Great American Roadtrip' began nearly two years earlier, outside the Okavango Delta of Botswana. I was on my year and a half long journey across the African continent when I met a German man named Stefan. He was driving across Africa solo in a 1974 VW Bus and we decided to join forces for a while. We ended up spending two whole months together traveling through Botswana and Zambia, then met up again in Germany before I flew home to America. I can't remember if it was on the first or the second day of our time in Africa together (which you can find Here and is defiantly worth a read), but I remember telling Stefan he ought to come to America and we would do an epic road trip in MY Volkswagen, as I have a 1970 Baja Bug.
What began as a bit of an off-hand remark was the start of a friendship that has brought us together on three different continents, the most recent being this trip which took us on a whirlwind tour of the American West; crossing through 9 states, seeing the San Juan Islands, Mt Rainier, the Redwoods, San Francisco, Yosemite, Death Valley, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Zion, The Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and so much more over our 4,340+ mile 6,984km) adventure. It's a long post, so either turn back now, just skim the pictures or relax, settle in for the long haul and prepare to see the best of what the American West has to offer!
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest with very active and involved parents, I had the opportunity to do an extensive amount of road trips around the west. I have fond memories of my whole family piling into our minivan full of camping gear and heading out on multi-day trips to nearly all the western states as well as through western Canada. When I was 17, I actually borrowed my parents Chevy Suburban and by myself, set out on a nearly identical road-trip of 4,500 miles and 3 weeks. With that background, as well as countless other trips I've done in the intervening years I was excited to see some of these places again 10 years later, with a fresh perspective and with my friend Stefan along for the journey. Neither of us has much interest in cities, so this was to be a tour of Americas natural beauty and we were both very excited to set off.
I left my home in the San Juan Islands, spent a day or two at my parents house in Seattle gathering camping supplies and picked Stefan up at SeaTac Airport on a beautiful day on May 14th. I'd been sure to tell him to try and get a window seat, as the flight into Seattle and the views of the mountains (Mt Rainier especially) were truly stunning. Just a week or so before flying out to America for the first time, Stefan broke his foot which changed our plans a bit (I'd hoped to do some hiking and other more active things) but at least it gave him seating preference and a window seat!
We didn't intend to spend much time in Seattle (even though I love the city), so it was time to pack in as much as I could in a short amount of time. From the airport we went straight to Kerry Park to get the classic view over the city, then on to Dicks Drive-In to get a burger and fries, then were able to meet my friend Dan at the Arboretum to do some canoeing on Lake Washington before catching the night view of the city from Gasworks Park.
The next day was more of the same, eating at a diner on Lake City Way for breakfast, then driving around to all my favorite parts of Seattle. Being that both of us are VW guys, one thing that just HAD to be on the list was the Fremont Troll, as the thing is so big it has a real VW Beetle in it's hand! We spent the rest of the day looking at one of the local VW shops, visiting the Ballard Locks, Discovery Park, the Jimi Hendrix statue on Broadway, eating teriyaki and doing some shopping before meeting my parents for dinner.
So I've mentioned the car a few times and here it finally is: my 1970 VW Baja Bug. Because the car is essentially the third member of our journey I ought to give a little background. Baja Bugs were never made by Volkswagen, every vehicle on the road is a custom job. Essentially, they began in Southern California in the late 1960's and were created as a cheap desert race car or dune buggy. This was done by cutting off many of the original body and replacing it with light weight fiberglass, raising the suspension and adding larger tires, stripping out the car as much as possible to save weight, adding roll bars for safety and exposing the aircooled engine to aid in cooling under rough driving conditions. There are entire classes in the Baja 1000, the 1,000 mile long race down Mexico's Baja Peninsula that are devoted to these types of Volkswagens.
I bought the car about five years earlier with the intention of learning to work on it, then taking it on a road-trip through Mexico but to be honest other than some summer driving around the city for fun I promptly lost interest. It was a while after that I found myself traveling through Asia for six months, road-tripping the American West and then crossing Africa that I came back to the Bug. I'd sold my 2007 Subaru to help fund my travels, and when I returned the Bug was waiting for me, as my rather unique mode of transportation. I moved to the San Juan Islands and while using it for more than a year, the car became a well known feature of the islands. With the road trip imminent, I finally sprung into action repairing things on the car, adding comfort and safety features and hoping it would serve us and our adventure well.
Early in the morning we left Seattle and headed towards the Mukiltio – Clinton Ferry, the first of three ferry boat rides of our trip, and drove up the picturesque Whidby Island, over Deception Pass to Anacortes and onto the next ferry to our destination, and my home, Shaw Island in the San Juan Islands, a small group of islands near the border with Canada.
Stefan may have had a broken foot, but he wasn't about to let that slow him down.
After a brief tour of my friends properties on the island, unloading the car and moving into my 83 square foot home we headed back towards the ferry landing to Blind Bay where one of my friends has a barge where we often go to hang out and BBQ. After a great evening with friends, food and watching the sun go down from the water we headed home.
The reason I moved to the San Juan Islands in the first place after my return from Africa was to help my friends start an organic farm. After sleeping off the beer and BBQ of the previous night I took Stefan out to the garden where my friends were installing the new drip irrigation system in the newly expanded garden. I gave the tour of the island, we checked out the fire trucks (I'm on the volunteer fire department), shot some guns and ate organic food out of the garden. Another beautiful day in a beautiful place!
Along with simply showing my friend where I live, much of our time in the islands was spent preparing the car. Although I did a fair bit of work (with Nick's help) before Stefan arrived, he is vastly more knowledgeable with VWs than I am (after all, he rebuilt his completely and drove it solo across Africa) and did a great deal of work on the car in just one afternoon. It was great finally finishing some of the work the car needed and it made a huge difference in our trip. As Stefan said, it began as rough as a tractor but once we were done it was nearly a car!
Day 1: ~242 miles.
(As my car didn't have a working odometer, all mileage is approximate, generally lower than actual distances but pretty close)
We had a tight schedule since we had such an ambitious trip planned. Although Stefan himself said Shaw was such a nice place he could easily spend weeks there, we both knew we had a mission and prepared to set off.
We packed up the car in the evening and right away I was reminded of why Stefan and I travel together so well, and that is we have very similar mindsets as well as a sense of organization. The packing of a car on a road trip is actually pretty important and from day one together we set the car up in a way that was logical to both of us, and was so good it remained essentially unchanged for the entire trip.
With the car packed we left Shaw Island, passed Lopez Island (pictured above) and headed to Anacortes and the mainland.
Hitting the road, out into the unknown. I had the route roughly planned in my head (Stefan had no idea really where to go and simply trusted me) but I was unsure how the car was going to work, how much ground we would really be able to cover and what wound turn out to be fun and what wouldn't. We had a LOT of driving ahead of us but both Stefan and I are big VW fans, so just driving the car was half of the journey.
Just two long haired guys listening to classic rock and driving a VW around the American West, a perfect cliché!
Our first major stop, on our first driving day was to Mt. Rainier. At 14,411 feet, this active volcano is one of the tallest points in the continental United States and a beautiful feature of Washington state, visible for hundreds of miles in every direction. We bought our National Parks Pass (the best deal around by the way if you are on a road trip) and began the drive up to Paradise, about 5,400 feet, or 1,600 meters. This is a place that gets 53.4 feet of snow (16.3) a year and although it was well into spring, the snow banks were 20 feet high in places. On the way up we had our first of MANY conversations about VW's with people along the way (it's just part of owning a VW, you find yourself talking with middle aged men about your Volkswagen and then the one they had back in high school, at least once a day!) but that's just part of the trip! It was a perfect day on the side of the mountain, but after enjoying it for a while, getting cold and taking some photos, we headed back down to find somewhere to camp for the night.
Besides just having an awesome road-trip in an awesome car, our goal was to camp and cook as much as possible, spending the most time we could in the bush and the least amount of money. Around Rainier this isn't all that easy however, and we ended up spending out first night out in a campsite. It was surprisingly expensive at $23 a night, but I'm probably just out of touch after so much time in the developing world. We setup camp, with Stefan using an old North Face A-frame from my family I remember camping in 20 years ago, and myself sleeping in the same tent I carried across Africa. Plenty of good memories.
That night we saw another man camping who was traveling by bike. I had some extra stove gas and offered it to him. We ended up chatting around a campfire that evening, and the guy was legitimately crazy! He told us about his tough life growing up, being robbed by his 'friends' while they were growing marijuana, how during the robbery “God put a pair of scissors in my hand and I just started stabbing them!” and the resulting time in jail. I shared some of the brownies my mom made me with hi, hoped he would spare me from his next scissor-rampage and called it a night.
Day 2: ~269 miles.
After a quick breakfast of milk and cereal, a shower in the campgrounds quarter-fed showers and getting the car loaded up, we headed south. We had an atlas and GPS, both of which were extremely useful on the journey, but little local knowledge of where we were. With this deficit we headed into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest for a little dirt road driving, high mountain pass crossing fun. Heading towards Horseshoe Lake was great, with two-lane winding forest roads, turning into gravel and completely traffic free for miles and miles. I was pushing the 44 year old, 1600cc, 50hp engine and even drifted a few corners if I'm honest, but the car felt great the whole time. I had the feeling we were heading towards a dead-end, and after a quick conversation with a Park Ranger who happened to be driving down the road it was clear we had to turn around because the road was covered in snow. Sure it was almost a half a day and a 100 miles out of the way, but it was some stunning forest and mountain views and I can't say I regretted the detour.
In an attempt to find a way through the forest without diverting another 100 or so miles through Yakima, I headed into a local diner to get the real info from the locals. When I walked into the dimly lit, small town diner and saw the young women behind the register and the counter, and the seats half full of old men wearing war veteran hats I knew I'd come to the right place for local knowledge. The old men talked among themselves, chuckled and told me the roads I wanted had three feet of snow on them, wouldn't be passable for another month or two and that I would in fact have to go through Yakima.
As we climbed upwards on a rather steep mountain pass along Highway 12, at about 40mph at best, we pulled off at an awesome stone formation called The Palisades. These hexagonal cliffs above the Cowlitz river were formed as long as 100,000 years ago by deep pooling lava from a nearby volcanic eruption and sit as a reminder of that event.
Crossing White Pass, elevation 4,500 feet, was beautiful as was the descent alongside the reservoirs that head towards the incredible agricultural region of the Yakima Valley. After stopping in Goldendale, a small town where my dad lived as a young boy for gas and groceries, we were just north of the Columbia River and the area where there is a large concentration of wind power stations. Pulling off the two-lane highway and down a country road we stopped at the base of one of the turbines to check it out as well as to check the cars oil. These particular wind turbines are far from the largest around, but they still tower over everything in eyesight and made a tremendous low frequency 'woosh...woosh...woosh' as the blades spun above us in the sun.
At this point Stefan and I were just north of the border of Washington and Oregon, on the 97. Having been through this area many times I wanted to stop and show Stefan one of my favorite views in the state. Just before the bridge to Oregon, overlooking the mighty Columbia River is a scale copy of the Stonehenge monument. This monument was built by Samuel Hill, a man who helped develop the surrounding area and who dedicated it to the soldiers who had died in World War One. The monument is interesting, but I like the view it offers more; the river, the bridge, the trains rumbling past, the lush fields between the high plateaus above and Mt Hood (11,239 feet) in the distance.
We started up the music once we got back in the car, headed down the hill, over the bridge crossing into Oregon at the mid-point (it's marked by a small sign) and up the valley on the other side to climb out of the river gorge. In the car, we talked a lot about travel and about road tripping in Europe (which Stefan has done extensively) and road tripping in America, the west in particular. The biggest thing I wanted Stefan to get a sense of in America is just the size of it all and how much open space there is. Oregon didn't disappoint in that regard, and Stefan was certainly impressed at the size of it all, how spread out everything is, and that in so many places we drove through it was just open space as far as you could see in every direction.
This part of Oregon was very much open space, but it was nearly all private land and livestock fences. As it began getting later in the evening and we past the tiny town of Shaniko I was starting to wonder where we would be able to camp. We explored dirt roads off the main road a few times with no luck and I was about to just stop at the next farm house, to ask to camp on their land when I saw another dirt road. We pulled off the highway and were lead to a gravel quarry a short distance off the road. There were no signs saying to keep out, no signs of recent usage, it was out of sight from any other road and had a pond and an amazing view of Mt Hood as well as two other snow capped mountains in the setting sun. It was perfect. We cracked open a few beers, setup camp, cooked dinner, watched the stars come out and went to bed in high spirits.
Day 3: ~250 miles.
Although Oregon has a great deal of natural beauty to see in it's own right our time there was limited since we had so far to go. We headed south stopping at the incredible Crooked River Canyon Bridge near Smith Rock, fueled up and drove on towards Crater Lake National Park. By now we were driving at over 5,000 feet high and the car was a little sluggish but kept on going without incident. As we climbed higher and higher up the mountain we were entering more and more snow, but the road to the top was clear so it wasn't an issue. When we parked at the rim of the crater at the visitors center, we found ourselves at over 7,100 feet on a gorgeous day, looking out into Crater Lake and it's stunning blue waters. We explored a bit around the rim walking in the snow, but I was in flip flops and Stefan was on crutches so we probably looked a bit silly. Oh well. Due to snow on the road the entire rim road was not open, but we went as far around as we could to get a different perspective on the area, then headed down the mountain again.
After a stop at the Rogue George viewpoint to see 'The Chasm', an incredible little section of river where the water cuts through a narrow channel of moss covered rock (worth the stop) we pushed onward in search of a place to camp. The short version of my free camping strategy is to look at the map and find dirt roads in state and federal land, then go exploring. As we went farther and farther up into the mountains on old logging roads I saw this shot-up stop sign. Shooting at signs seems to be a rather popular activity in rural America, and while some see it as scary, I knew what it actually means is there are no rangers or anyone else to hassle people, and thus we were in prime territory to find a great bush camp site!
After a few miles of dirt roads we saw an overgrown path we stopped to explore. I walked in a ways, pushing brush aside and came to an opening at the end that looked perfect, an old campsite someone had built years ago. We returned to the car, squeezed it through the overgrown road and got to work setting up camp. Stefan and I had already nearly perfected our loading and unloading of the car, and we immediately began setting up our tents, the folding table, chairs, propane stove, cooler, water jug and set about collecting firewood. Because Stefan had never had Mexican food before, I attempted to make some delicious burritos for dinner, but well, I'm not much of a cook and they were OK at best... We drank some cheap Canadian whiskey around the campfire, talked about how it was a great day, and fell asleep quickly.
Day 4: ~359 miles.
One of the many steps to starting off in the morning, after packing up all the gear was to set up all the battery charging. To do this, we would first turn on the inverter which was directly connected to the battery. This charged both of our laptop computers and camera batteries. Then we would plug in the iPod that provided the trip soundtrack, my GoPro to recharge batteries and one or both of our cellphones. It was a little bit of an electronic rats nest at times, but we had a system and it all worked perfectly.
After breakfast and the car, we were excited for what was going to be a BIG day. After packing up, we were to crash through the bushes, drive down the logging road, across the border into California, through the Giant Redwoods, to the California cost and head south towards San Francisco on the 101.
Being an American who loves big things, as well as an American who loves nature, I had to show Stefan the redwoods of northern California, as well as to see them again myself. Redwoods are the tallest ('Hyperion', the worlds tallest tree is a redwood at 379.7 feet/157 meters tall) and oldest living things on earth, living to 1,800+ years.
It is challenging to describe the feeling of driving and walking between these trees. They are so big, so tall, so straight, it feels like you are an ant in some cartoon world. Three years ago I was in this same area and climbed to the top of one of these trees, around 240 feet (you can read about that, getting stopped by the sheriff and fined $1,000 in This post-). I've always felt these trees were something extremely special, but climbing to the top of one gave me so much more respect for these things not only as a lovely piece of living nature, but as a piece of organic art as well. Yes, I wanted to show this to Stefan, but if I'm honest I was there for personal reasons, I wanted to see an 'old love'. As we drove through the park I looked for that tree I'd climbed three years before and was sure I'd recognize it, but I never did find that tree...
We took the dirt road out of the northwestern part of the park, squeezing between the redwoods towering above us and were excited to exit the forest and get our first views of the Californian coast. That said, I was not surprised at all (although disappointed for Stefan’s sake) when we arrived at the coast and it was so grey and foggy we could barley see a thing. That said, we still got out and stood in the water, Stefan poking a dead crab with his crutch and me walking through the waves in my flip flops.
A bit further down the road we came across the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statue. At this point I had to try and explain to Stefan 'Americana,' the story of Paul Bunyan, and American highway culture of the 1950's. I feel I did a rather poor job, and all I can remember these days is how some random guy a few days back had told us to “touch it's balls” when we went past the statue. Charming isn't it?
We continued south through Eureka down the 101, got rained on for a brief time and then turned west onto the legendary Highway 1, the northern California coast. With Stefan at the wheel (and clearly loving every second of it) we climbed the steep, narrow and twisting highway through the forest to the top and down the other side, driving the Baja as if it were a tuned sports car. Stefan barreled into the corners, mashed the gas on the way out and pushed that little old car to its limits. It's a long, long ways from a sports car, but with the right driver can be just as exciting.
The whole way it was getting darker and darker, and we needed to find a place to sleep for the night. It seems the people of this area are familiar with people like myself who are looking for a free place in the woods to camp and every road was either gated or marked private. Because of this we ended up having to pay for a campsite again, near Westport. The campsite was just a strip of lawn with a long-drop toilet and no other facilities, sitting between the road and the water. I was rather appalled to see was going to cost us nearly $30 to use this campsite but we didn't have a choice and set up our tents to get some rest after a long day.
Day 5: ~354 miles.
Because we had another big day ahead of us (honestly, every day was a big day, we never really rested the whole trip) we woke up before the sun and got to work. It was foggy and we couldn't even enjoy the beauty of the place had found ourselves but well, you can't control the weather. We had intended to glue in the headliner of the car before setting out but we actually brought the piece of carpet with us and did it this morning in the campsite before heading out. It looked great and I was extremely pleased to see more of the car finally coming together.
After the carpet job was complete and we'd checked and topped off the oil, we set off down the historic highway, considered to be one of the most beautiful roads in America. Other than occasional traffic (being stuck behind people towing trailers who can't keep up with the speed limit for miles, and zero passing opportunities isn't much fun) the drive didn't disappoint. The asphalt twisted through beautiful coastal towns, farm land, open spaces and endless views of the water. This photo is just a sample of what the 1 has to offer and was one of the many places so beautiful I just had to stop driving and take it all in. The roads were usually open, allowing for some spirited but within the speed limit driving. My Baja Bug really was the third member of our trip and these roads showed that fact very clearly. It's an old, primitive, under-powered car that has been modified and often times even driving it at the speed limit takes concentration and technique. I'll try not to blather on too much about it, but driving an old VW like this makes for a totally different experience from most cars, and certainly all modern cars. Stefan and I switched off driving duty and we both had smiles on our faces the whole time.
Driving above the clouds on Highway 1 felt a bit surreal. The sun was out, the roads were in perfect condition, the hills were beautiful, there was no guard rail and the ocean could have been just below the clouds or it could be thousands of feet down for all you knew. Smile and drive on.
So one of the big things Stefan wanted to see in America was San Francisco. Heading south towards the city we found ourselves still in clouds and although I was hopeful the whole time it would clear, I knew the Golden Gate Bridge and one of the classic views of the city was going to be obscured. We arrived at the Marin Headlands around 3:30pm and headed up to where the old gun batteries used to protect the bay.
Once we'd crossed the bridge and entered San Francisco, naturally the fog began to clear and we had a wonderful little tour through the city. Stefan remarked it seemed like one of the few cities that had a great deal of personality and I have to say I tend to agree. I had originally hoped to find a CouchSurfing host in the city to stay with for a day or two, but it was also Memorial Day weekend and I think that made things difficult. For the first time in my CouchSurfing 'career' I was unable to find a host! This changed our plans, now all we wanted to to was get out of the city so we didn't have to spend a huge amount on a hotel and parking.
Getting out of San Francisco on a holiday weekend was a nightmare. Driving the Bug through Bay Area traffic was a serious workout. At times we were in such heavy traffic as to be at a standstill, in 90 degree heat (no AC in this car!), roasting the clutch and driving between strip malls and lifted trucks. Other times we were blasting down hills at 75mph, faster than I honestly thought the car was capable of doing, nearly shouting over the engine and wind noise and blasting rock and roll. Essentially I was driving with 100% focus for almost four hours straight and while at times it was fun, it was utterly exhausting. I love my bug, but at times it sure is a lot of work!
After we finally got out of the nearly endless sprawl of the Bay Area, past the suburbs and to the edge of the agricultural land, we stopped in a small town at a classic American drive-in burger joint. Between photos of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, model hot-rods and a jukebox, we approached the overweight employee at the register, ordered some grease-soaked food and sat outside discussing American food culture and it's connection to the automobile revolution and modern highway systems.
Because we hadn't planned on driving past San Francisco on this day we found ourselves in a difficult sleeping situation (mostly because we were too cheap and stubborn to pay for a hotel). We were still surrounded in private farm land so there were both nowhere to bush camp and nowhere to legitimately camp either. Using Stefan's GPS (which was very useful, but as an addition, not a substitute, for a map) we saw the nearest campground was still a long ways away. The headlights on the Bug were terrible (which we later found out to be caused by a dying voltage regulator we then replaced) but the sun went down all the same we had a long ways to go. The first campground we stopped at was totally full, being a holiday weekend, and the next was still 20 miles away. We had no choice but to head there and what followed was the worst 'camping' night of my life.
We arrived at the campground at about 10pm, in total darkness. As we tried to find our campsite we wound through hordes of people, all seemingly driving lifted trucks, towing jet-skies, drinking and blasting music. We set up the tents, only to find every square inch of ground was dry, barren dirt and covered in biting ants that got into everything and after showers that were admittedly excellent, spent the rest of the night trying to sleep while people shouted and blasted music so loud the ground shook 20 campsites away. The partying went on literally all night and all I wanted to do was get out of the populated areas and back into the bush. The next morning I cooked breakfast while Stefan checked a few things on the car, we packed up and left as quickly as we could. (photo from the next morning)
Day 6: ~164 miles.
Our next destination was Yosemite National Park and as we drove we got our first look at the area we had entered in darkness the night before. It was rolling hills covered in dry yellow grass and that combined with the low levels of the reservoirs we passed made the regions water issues pretty clear.
We drove on and began to hear a noise coming from one of the wheels. Pulling off the road to diagnose it we found it was the rear passengers side, but we didn't have a socket big enough to tighten the wheel nut. After going to an auto parts store that was unable to help, we stopped at a truck garage. Naturally it was closed for the holiday weekend but I knocked and there was actually someone inside. Right away I could tell she was an army brat (and not just because of the pants!). As we talked, I discovered not only was she born on the base in Germany, she had a VW Beetle at home and even though it was the holiday and the shop was closed, she was happy to loan us some tools to tighten the wheel nut and help us on our way. Unfortunately this was far from the last we saw of this problem, but for the moment it solved our problem and allowed us to keep moving.
We took the 120 East towards Yosemite Valley, passing through huge areas of pine forests that had suffered through major fires. As we neared the park entrance traffic stopped and I had nightmares of sitting for hours just to get into the park, however it wasn't so bad and after just about 20 minutes we were inside the park and had open roads into the valley.
There are a huge number of amazing national parks in the USA and I've had the good fortune to visit many of them. Without a doubt, Yosemite ranks in my top 5, and a place I wish all Americans (since they are 'our' national parks, but all are welcome!) would take the time to visit. Entering the valley, as you pass by roaring waterfalls, steep cliffs and get that first glimpse down the valley of Half Dome in the distance sends a chill down my spine. It looks like something from a scifi movie but it's real and it's here and it's something open to all. And it seems 'all' came. Being a holiday weekend we naturally found ourselves in a traffic jam through the park for most of our visit, but we did have a chance to get out and hike to the base of Bridalveil Falls, eat lunch in a campground and enjoy wonderful views of El Captain (which my dad climbed 40 years ago), Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and more.
Yosemite Falls from the road through the valley. Taken while stuck in a traffic jam, haha.
In keeping with our breakneck pace around the West, Stefan and I headed out the park but instead of following the crowds back towards the Bay Area we were headed east, over Tioga Pass. I know this story is full of superlatives but Tioga Pass meets and exceeded the criteria for a place worthy of praise. Driving over the 9,943 foot mountain pass, between huge mountains of stone, alpine lakes, meadows, pine forests and even into snow and frozen lakes towards the top was a wonderful experience. Stefan had adjusted the timing on the engine to allow it to run better at such high elevations and the car did well (in addition to having a lot of people take photos of it) the entire way up and down the other side. Looking back towards Yosemite Valley, the photo above, is truly a sight to behold and one of the many highlights of the journey for me.
On the other side of Tioga Pass we filled up the gas tank near Mono Lake and entered a section of high desert. Instead of the wonderful steep twisting roads we had been on the 395 South was a bore, but it did provide for more restful driving as we searched for a place in the bush to camp that evening. We followed my usual strategy of looking at the map for state land then simply following dirt roads until we found a suitable spot. Where we ended up was in a series of 4x4 trails along side the highway where we studied the map over a cold beer, had some deer wander through our camp, cooked up a stir-fry for dinner and slept under the stars after watching the sun setting behind a snow capped mountain range. Yes, another perfect day.
Day 7: ~207 miles.
I cooked us pancakes for breakfast and once camp was packed up we found our way back through the maze of sand roads towards the highway, re-entered the world of paved roads and drove towards Bishop, CA. The last time I was in Bishop was ten years ago on my solo road trip in high school and it was shocking how much it had changed. What was previously a small desert town had grown into a huge 4-lane road surrounded in national chain stores and sprawl. Stefan and I picked up some more motor oil and a few other bits at the auto parts store and headed out of town.
On the way out of Bishop however we came across a place called Sierra German Auto. As VW fans, this place was simply amazing. Growing up in Seattle, far from the epicenter of Baja Bug culture, I was thrilled to see probably 10 or 15 different Baja Bugs in various states of repair, dozens of Westfalia buses, restored Bugs, sand rails and much, much more. Unfortunately the shop was closed for the holiday weekend so there was no one around to talk to (otherwise I probably would have spent a ton of money on parts!) but Stefan and I spent about 20 minutes looking around the amazing collection of cars parked in the sand lot, many Stefan had never even seen at home in Germany.
If I hadn't somehow decided to visit our next stop on my road trip a decade ago I probably wouldn't have even known about it, but our next stop was south of Bishop, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. We turned east and headed out of the valley floor to the high ridge above and began our hour long drive, climbing around 6,000 feet in elevation up open, winding desert roads. It was an awesome driving road that even if it lead to an empty dead -end I would have been thrilled to simply turn around and drive back down.
That said, the reward at the end was without question the best part of the entire trip for me. We took the Methuselah Walk through the Inyo National Forest and found ourselves at over 10,000 feet surrounded in trees as much as 4,000 years old. The oldest of these trees discovered is 5,064 years old and although I've always found the huge redwoods of the California coast to be amazing, these trees trump the redwoods any day in my mind. The shapes are unlike anything I've ever seen, but more than that there is something about the color, deep, dark, rich blacks and reds, a color I could never hope to capture with my little camera and I don’t think any camera, no matter how nice could capture. The color and the texture create a depth to the trees I've never experienced anywhere else.
The trees are amazing but you can't talk about these trees without talking about the context which they occur in. Growing in tremendously harsh conditions, between 9,800 feet and 11,000 feet, in poor soil and with an extremely short growing season, these trees have been shaped by their environment and have persevered. Looking west over the valley below and the snow-capped mountains on the other side gives you some idea of where they live and one can only wonder how many more years they will continue doing so.
I love these trees I had to share one more photo. I seriously believe this dead tree may be the most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on. During my travels across Africa I came to know one of my reactions to such things, I call it my 'stupid happy laugh.' Sometimes, in the right place and the right situation, when I'm sort of overwhelmed with joy, I just start smiling and laughing to myself, uncontrollably, for quite some time. Being among these trees alone (because Stefan had turned back due to his still injured foot) gave me that feeling again.
We were headed into Death Valley next, through the dirt roads of the north entrance, so after attaching the GoPros to the outside of the car we headed back down the amazing road. I may have drifted a corner or two...
The northern entrance to Death Valley begins as a good paved road through narrow cliffs, scrub brush and a section of joshua trees. Then the pavement just ends. There is a road sign to alert you to the fact, but the transition from smooth road to washboard dirt and sand, with the resulting huge dust clouts makes it clear enough. I'd been into the valley this way before it and this was exactly what I wanted. It was hot, it was dusty, and it was empty. For about 24 hours I think we saw two other cars, which was fine by us.
One of the best features of the north end of the park is the Eureka Sand dunes. As we drove down the dead end road to the dunes, Stefan remarked that it felt just like driving in Africa, which of course lead both of us to reminisce about our respective journeys across the continent. As we were driving across the washboards at around 45mph everything was shaking like crazy and all of a sudden the horn started going off and I actually saw sparks shoot out of the button on the dashboard! We stopped the car, simply unplugged that circuit and continued to the dunes under the oppressive heat of the desert sun.
Once we arrived at the end of the road we were faced with a small mountain of sand with essentially nothing else around. Stefan's foot was still not totally healed but we grabbed water bottles, sun hats and began to hike up the dunes. As always I was wearing flip flops and I have to admit this was a pretty poor footwear choice, as the intense sun had made the sand so hot it was literally burning my feet! We climbed about half way up the roughly 680 foot tall dunes (one of the highest in North America) to survey the view before turning back towards the car to continue on our journey.
A ways further south we came to the old gypsum mine and decided to have a look. This it turned out was a mistake, because we promptly got stuck in the hot, dry, flower-like substance that was more than a foot deep. The car died and wouldn't start. I began to dig out while Stefan looked at the car and tried to start it again. Eventually it fired up allowing us to get out, with Stefan creating a pretty epic dust cloud that covered myself and the car, but we made it out and that's what matters.
In the unpaved section of Death Valley you are allowed to bush camp anywhere you want as long as it's a certain distance off the road. After some more amazing dirt road driving and getting our first true view of the main valley, we passed through Crankshaft Crossing, ventured off road down a dry river bed (which we scouted first for safety!) and setup camp.
By this point in the trip we had developed a perfect rhythm of living, driving and traveling together. After setting up camp together, I began cooking dinner while Stefan began working on the car. As I cut up veggies, boiled the noodles and opened a can of sauce Stefan was busy re-wiring the car. On this particular night I think he fixed the horn, replaced the oil pressure sensor, added a new indicator light on the dash and probably a few other things. Once we had eaten, we washed the dishes, stacking them on the car to dry, put the stove away and sat at the table reviewing and sorting photos from the days adventures. Again, on a journey of so many spectacular campsites, this was probably the best, sleeping under the stars in the cold, clear desert night.
Day 8: ~ 407 miles.
After heading out the next morning we eventually rejoined the paved road, the driving got a whole lot easier and we set off to enjoy the sights of the Valley. I really wanted to go to The Racetrack, a dried lake-bed with the 'mysterious moving stones' (google it) but as we calculated our fuel usage and what we had with is it was going to be close, so we skipped it. We did stop at Ubehebe Crater, a 500 foot deep crater caused by an underground explosion just 2000 years ago, then headed south towards the more developed heart of the park.
Stefan and I are both guys who travel well prepared. Because we were on main roads and in National Parks so often finding water was never hard, but we always kept the 5 gallon jug filled just in case. The water in the valley didn't taste all that good, but hey, water is water and it was fairly cool. I washed off my filthy feet from our gypsum mine adventure, filled the jug and headed on our way.
One of our next stops was at the old Harmony Borax Works, which operated from 1883-1888 in the valley. Stefan is of course from Germany, and when I was visiting him in Germany for example we visited a friends house that was nearly 500 years old. I always got a laugh at trying to show him “old” things in America, especially out west where few things are over 100 years old!
Death Valley is full of sights, and next we took quick looks at the Artists Drive (hills colored by different minerals), Devils Golf Course (salt deposits, hot tip: dont' go all the way to the end, everything is worn down by too many visitors damaging it, stop part way down the road for a better look) and finally Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the USA at 282 feet below sea level. If I remember correctly, it was something like 105 degrees at this point and I'll be honest, a car with AC would have been nice at about this point!
Having entered the park at the farthest north entrance we naturally had to exit at the farthest south point, just to say we drove the whole way. Highway 178 took us through more seldom used roads where we saw next to no traffic and more wonderful scenery, took the 160 over another mile-high mountain pass and suddenly had the city of Las Vegas in our sights.
Passing many little roadside casinos in small towns it was clear we were now in Nevada, what seemed like a different world from the lush greenery we experienced just before Death Valley a few hundred miles west. We stopped at a hardware store for some supplies, got some free hot dogs outside because it was Memorial Day and Stefan swapped out the voltage regulator in the parking lot while I shopped. This was actually a huge improvement, for not only did it improve the performance of the windshield wipers, it also made the headlights much brighter which came handy later that night.
We never intended to actually stop in Vegas but it was something we just had to drive through and see. I've been to Vegas a few times and it's just not my thing, but it certainly is a sight to behold. We spent the next hour or so driving through the hot, dusty, soulless suburbs of the city before getting onto the strip and spending the next thirty or so minutes stuck in traffic, crawling between red lights and looking at the insanity all around us. It's fun to see, but I was ready to get back out into nature...
A short ways outside of Las Vegas is Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. Driving down the interstate towards the lake was amazing as you go from a dry desert to seeing this huge man-made lake, a pretty tremendous contrast. We exited the highway, went past some silly post 9-11 security checkpoints (lying to them saying we weren't carrying gasoline or propane), drove across the dam and parked the car to check it out. Built between 1931 and 1935, the Hoover dam is not only a tremendous marvel of engineering, it is also an incredible piece of architecture and style. Here is another travel tip, even if you don't have to go, check out the bathrooms! Located midway across the dam, in monolithic windowless rooms they are decorated in black marble and appointed with 1930s era toilets that you will probably never see anywhere else, haha.
Stefan was very open and flexible as to what he wanted to see and do on this road trip, leaving it up to me pretty much entirely, but he did have a few things he wanted to do. Among those was to drive on the historic Route 66 and stay in a cheap motel. I blame Hollywood. We exited Interstate 40 and turned onto Route 66 towards the Hualapai Indian Reservation. At this point it was starting to get dark and we began searching for a place to camp. We searched and searched but there were no public campsites, no option to bush camp and as we kept driving east on 66, somehow no motels either. We came to the motel pictured above at around 8:30 and were very at this point. The sign was partly broken but lit up, and there were lights in some of the rooms but no one came to front desk when we knocked, so we were forced to keep driving into the night. A while later we came to a hotel on the reservation, but they wanted over $100 a night and we said screw that, so decided to drive even more. We ended up driving essentially the entire stretch of Route 66 in the dark, missing out on a lot of the Americana along the way and eventually rejoined the I40 at Seligman where we happened to find a campsite for $16. Sure, it was already about 10:30 at night and it was just a patch of gravel between the highway and a train track, but it had hot showers and was good enough for the night.
Day 9: ~252 miles.
Having been a while since our last shower we took advantage of what the campsite had to offer, cooked up some breakfast burritos and took off. The town was very much into the Route 66 thing which had experienced an obvious resurgence as a result of the movie Cars, and tourists and buses were making stops at the ktichy roadside shops but it was all pretty unauthentic and we simply drove past. Just after this we heard more noise from the back wheel, the same one we'd had problems with earlier, and stopped to jack the car up and investigate. As before, Stefan was unfortunately unable to diagnose what was going on, and we simply tightened the wheel nut more and kept driving.
Around lunch time we came to the entrance of the Grand Canyon, a place I was very excited to see again and one I was really looking forward to sharing with Stefan. I've had the opportunity to do two big trips here, one was with Boy Scouts where we spent almost two weeks hiking in the canyon, the other was in college and was about 10 days of hiking. Both were wonderful trips and while we obviously weren't doing any hiking on Stefan's still healing foot we would at least get an overview. At the gate we whipped out the National Parks Pass (again, the best deal around if you are on a road trip) and drove to the visitors center.
After struggling to find a parking spot in the crowded and bustling lots we quickly explored the visitors center to get an overview of the history of the park and an attempt at the tremendous scale of the park, then headed to the trail on the south rim. Of every park we had visited so far, the Grand Canyon seemed to have by far the most international tourists, including bus loads of Japanese people who seemed more interested in taking pictures of squirrels than of the canyon!
Somewhat to my surprise, there are some sections right around the main visitor center and trail where you can actually stand right on the edge, without any fences. Naturally I had to get as close as possible and I spent a few minutes sitting on the edge of the canyon, feet dangling over the edge probably 150 straight feet down.
The canyon without my feet ruining the photo! We continued driving east along the canyon rim, stopping at the various lookout points which seemed to get better and better. The photo above is of what I consider to be the best, Lipan Point.
The drive away from the canyon was also full of scenery. Passing by the native art stands along the road we stopped at a wonderful side-canyon before turning north on the 89. Forest and mountains will always be my favorite natural environment, but the desert southwest has it's own equal beauty and the drive up the 89 was far more scenic than I'd remembered it being.
After a quick stop at the 467 foot high Navajo Bridge and the gas station to refuel, we drove below the dramatic Vermilion Cliffs (left skyline in this photo) and turned off onto a dirt road to look for a place to camp. Other than the cliffs in the distance, we were in some of the most open, empty space possible; something Stefan often remarked doesn't really exist in Europe. As we watched the sun setting on the horizon and heard coyotes in the distance, everything around us took on the wonderful yellow glow of the sun's last minutes and I have to admit I was a little overcome by the experience. After cooking dinner and relaxing in the chairs, we both decided to get to sleep early and laid down under the stars once again, listening to both animals and semi-trucks in the distance.
Day 10: ~276 miles.
We were very near the border of Arizona and Utah and after packing up camp (leave no trace!) we hopped in the car and kept driving, heading for another 7,600 foot mountain pass. The speed limit was 55 but my car was very much unable to do those kinds of speeds uphill at such high elevations. We often pulled aside to let others pass, at one point pulling aside to let a few trucks of wild-land forest fighters past who were probably going to smoke we had seen from the Grand Canyon.
Although I could easily say it about every single US state we drove through on this road trip, Utah is a place I really wish we had time to see more of. But because our time was so limited, I picked Zion National Park as our 'Utah representative.' Like many of the National Parks, the road into Zion Canyon is almost as spectacular as the canyon itself. The red, yellow and orange stone all around us looked like something out of another world and was just a taste of what was ahead. One of the most amazing things about the approach to Zion, and it's something everyone remarks on is the tunnel. Before entering the canyon, you first drive through the 1.1 mile Carmel Tunnel. A marvel of engineering, the tunnel has cutouts that give you tiny glimpses of the valley as you drive through near total darkness, then when you come to the end and into the light again you find yourself in what I think is one of the most stunning places on earth. It's not my first time, but still the transition from the dark tunnel into the bright red valley, that seems to glow in the sunlight is absolutely breathtaking.
Unlike Yosemite, Zion has the hole shuttle-bus thing figured, meaning no getting stuck in traffic there. Visitors park at the headquarters, then board buses that I think were going every 20 minutes or so through the actual canyon, making stops at the various trail-heads, viewpoints and other attractions. We made a few stops and decided to hike up the Angels Landing trail. This trail takes you right up the side of the canyon wall using an amazing series of switch-backs and through a narrow side-canyon.
Looking the canyon from near the top. We had a few good options for where to go in Utah and I have to say I was not disappointed by choosing Zion.
We headed north on I-15 and when it was time to find a place to camp turned off the interstate into the Fishlake National Forest. After passing through some random small towns we headed up some dirt roads into the forest. This time all we found was a scrubby forest area with a bunch of cut trees laying about. It wasn't a pretty place to camp, but it was free, quiet and peaceful so I can't complain.
Day 11: ~429 miles.
Our day started out as it usually did, with breakfast, packing up the car and heading back towards paved roads. Rejoining the I-15 that would take us across the entire state (we avoided the interstates whenever possible, but in this situation and our schedule it was the only reasonable route) we had a lot of boring driving to do on this day. Things were livened up a little bit when I noticed a police car in my mirrors with flashing lights. Now I know I wasn't speeding, and I haven't been pulled over for years so I had no idea what it was about. After taking my license and registration he told me I was being cited for having expired registration. He told me it was so many years out of date that he could seize my car if he choose to do so. As it turned out, he was a VW guy himself and had two bugs at home, but still gave me a ticket. Now I knew my registration was fine, and after panicking about how the state of Utah was going to unlawfully steal my car I stopped at a McDonalds (because they had free wifi) and then called the Washington DOL. They confirmed my car and registration was totally fine, that the Utah system just wasn't seeing it and that I should have no problems. That was a relief, but I still was worried that Utah could still steal my car and it would ruin the trip trying to get it back so I mostly just wanted to get out of the state fast.
Coming up to Salt Lake City I think the interstate was something like six lanes wide in each direction, and everyone was flying past us in my little Baja. We decided to take a quick stop in SLC to check it out and we we did I gave Stefan a little background about Mormonism and the way the group operates (basically runs) the state. Now I hadn't been through SLC in years and had sort of forgotten what it looked like. I'll let Stefan explain it, when he said “Everything looks too clean and perfect, all the buildings are Mormon and the people look like Zombies.” We put some Black Sabbath on the stereo and got out of town.
Now obviously I love natural beauty like mountains and trees and water, but I also love traveling through man-made spaces as well, farmland in particular. We got off the interstate and were treated to mile after mile of green farmland, tractors and other equipment seemed to outnumber cars as we drove down the roads and trains rolled on in the distance. I found the section of Highway 34 around the town of Henry to be especially nice farm and industrial scenery.
Farther east we entered the Targheee National Forest where the road transitioned from long straight sections between plots of farmland weaving between old barns into a small and narrow canyon, with the road following the river through it as the sun lit the trees perfectly. After gunning the engine to get through a few muddy pits in the middle of the dirt road we were exploring we found a less than ideal campsite and called it good enough. There was no flat ground, it was all bumpy clumps of grass and it was right next to the road but the only thing about it which was truly unpleasant was the mosquitoes! It was the first time having to deal with them on the trip and they were so ferocious it lead us, who had usually been sleeping under the stars into our tents to hide. It turned out they were only around for an hour or so then disappeared.
Day 12: ~12 miles.
The mosquitoes of the previous night lead us to setup our tents which turned out to be a good thing since it got cold overnight. It was well below freezing for the first time on the trip and everything was covered in a decent layer of frost. Because of that we waited until the sun had a chance to melt the frost from our tents before packing them away, got the car even more muddy on the way out (the mud looks good on it!) and began to hear some pretty nasty noises from the rear wheel that had been giving us problems the whole trip. We stopped again and when we tried to loosen the axle nut to examine the wheel the socket snapped.
We crossed into Wyoming at about 20 MPH, through 'the town of Freedom, which was a nearly abandoned town where even the gas station was out of business and entered the town of Thayne a few miles beyond. Thayne, population 366, elevation 5,950 obviously had far more cows than people, but we crawled down main street and into the parking lot of a garage.
Where we found ourselves was an autoshop called Master Tech & Tire, run by a local father and son. As it turned out, the sun was also a VW fan and was happy to let us just setup in their parking lot, borrow tools and diagnose the problem ourselves (well, Stefan did everything, I watched). As soon as we got the wheel and the drum off it was clear what was happening, the spline had almost totally worn off from the axle wearing on it somehow. The shop didn't have a new brake drum in stock but ordered one that would be in the next morning, then offered to let us sleep in their parking lot. This was by far the least pretty campsite of the trip (and the shortest day at just 12 miles!) but it was a breakdown, nothing we could do. Luckily for us the shot was extremely friendly, letting us use the bathroom, charge our computers inside and there was even unsecured wifi!
A car like mine attracts a great deal of attention, far more than I've bothered to mention in this post really, but the short version is that we probably got in a few VW conversations almost every day. This is just part of owning one and I enjoy it (most of the time!). There happened to be an old hippy who was hanging drywall in the auto parts store and he came right up to chat. I talked for a while and I eventually asked where I could buy beer in the town because I didn't see any in the grocery stores or the gas stations as you usually do. For one, this sent him on a rant about the Mormons who control the town and the entire region because they are the ones who dont allow alcohol to be sold here, but he then offered to go home, get some microbrews and come back and drink with us in the parking lot! He seemed a little crazy and I didn't trust most of what he said, because it seems every old hippy you talk to claims to have sold LSD to the Greatful Dead back in the day, but whatever, free beer and crazy conversations is always fun. He hung around until nearly midnight, telling stories so loudly and enthusiastically I was sure the Mormon Police were going to show up and arrest us all, but that never came and eventually we called it a night.
Day 13: ~247 miles.
The replacement brake drum arrived after we'd had breakfast and within a few minutes Stefan had it on the car and ready to drive. We thanked the shop for all their wonderful help and hospitality, they didn't charge us a dime for their time or tools, just for the part, and we drove off, hoping this would be the last of this car problem..... it wasn't, but it got us on the road again at least.
We passed through Jackson with its iconic arches made of antlers and into Grand Teton National Park. It's yet another park I've gotten to experience previously and would have loved to have more time this go around, but sadly we only really had time to drive through on our way to the next destination where we had scheduled more time; Yellowstone.
With a scan of our National Parks Pass we were in Yellowstone, possibly one Americas best known national parks and for good reason! It was late May, but winter was still only ending in Yellowstone and in many places there was as much as three feet of snow on the ground. We ate lunch next to a frozen lake, stopped on the side of the road to watch a group of moose browsing in the bushes, crossed the continental divide which stands at 8,391 feet and after a bit more driving got out to see Kepler Cascades, a beautiful series of waterfalls. Once we had taken that in, we continued towards the bigger and more dramatic features of the park.
The Old Faithful geyser is without a doubt the most iconic part of Yellowstone and while I have to say it's not nearly as impressive as some of the parks other features in my opinion, no visit is complete without seeing it. The geyser erupts somewhere between every 35 and 120 minutes and luckily for us it was expected to erupt soon, meaning we didn't have to wait around too much. Around the geyser is a series of boiling mineral colored pools which are quite interesting which we explored waiting for the pressure to build. Once it was nearing the expected errruption we joined the masses of hundreds or more other tourists all standing around the walkway with cameras at the ready, trying to get the perfect shot. Around this point I started to realize the absurdity of it all, but as Old Faithful began to spray hot steam into the air, first in small spurts, then in the full stream there I was, holding two different cameras and doing the exact same thing as everyone else.
To me, the mineral pools were far more interesting and beautiful than a muddy hole that shoots steam, no offense to Old Faithful. Stopping at Black Sand Basin and Midway Geyser Basin (both I highly recommend) we got out to explore the walkways through the often boiling pools of water, colored in bright and seemingly unnatural shades of blue, red, orange, green and more. We covered a lot of different environments and scenery on this trip, but nowhere looked or felt more alien than the pools in Yellowstone.
One of the other features the park is famous for is of course it's bison (also called American buffalo). As many know (and many do not), the American West was once covered in roaming herds of the animals, 30-60 millions strong. As a result of westward expansion, hunting for skins and deliberate killing to remove it as a food source for the native people those numbers were reduced to near extinction levels. Today there are only around 30,000 of the animals left in the wild (more are raised as livestock) and the herd in Yellowstone is the largest remaining wild herd in the country and under federal protection. With both Stefan and I having spent so much time in Africa, a place where large herds of animals are more common (but also disappearing at an alarming rate) it was wonderful to see large groups of the animals roaming through the grasslands, but also a reminder of what used to be.
After making a few other stops, mostly to try and spot animals somewhere in the trees, we came to the absolutely incredible Yellowstone Falls. This particular shot is from Lookout Point and was the best view of the two or three we checked out. The color of the stone and eroded hillsides combined with the tremendous roar of the falling water is a truly dramatic and moving sight. I'd actually forgotten just how impressive it was in my previous trip, so although I'd been here before it felt like seeing it for the first time. This is often called “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” but I think that description is so wrong as to be just silly. Without a doubt it is a feature of great natural beauty, but what makes the Grand Canyon SO impressive is not just the color of the rocks, or the river slowing carving it out, it is the immense scale. Yellowstone Canyon is wonderful, but the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, with hundreds or even thousands of miles of side canyons; on that kind of scale even a thing like this could be lost! Sorry for the little rant, but seeing them so close to each other, for some reason this bothers me, haha.
Our time in the park was coming to a rapid close (as was the daylight) but we had one more stop to make before putting Yellowstone behind us, a place I had vivid memories from during my solo road trip a decade earlier. That place was Mammoth Hot Springs, at the very north end of the park, probably the most alien looking place I know of. Formed by the same types of geothermic processes that create many of the parks other unique features, in this case, calcium carbonate.
After consulting the map it was clear we were not going to be able to find anywhere to camp for free in the forest before we lost daylight and to be fair we both could use a shower. After finding the parks campsite was full, we drove a bit further and would up setting out tents up at a private campsite more oriented to RVs than tents. After setting up the tents and cooking dinner, I laid in my tent on my laptop until the battery died because the camp had wifi and I hadn't been online in a while.
Day 14: ~463 miles.
Yellowstone was pretty much our last major stop of the trip and Stefan had a flight to catch in a few days, so we had a lot of driving ahead of us. We hopped on I-90 West, an interstate I've driven many, many times and intended to just spend the day driving, getting as far as we could. The day started off with gray skies that rained on us a bit, however I think it was only the second rain we experienced the entire trip and was not a problem. As we were driving across what was the entire western half of Montana, what was a problem though was the new noise the car started making, again, from the same stupid wheel that had been acting up the entire trip.
As usual, we stopped to try and see what was going on, jacking up the car in a rest stop along the highway, but were unable to figure out what the problem was and couldn't do anything about it. It was Sunday and the nearest aircooled VW specific shop was hundreds of miles away. The noise got worse and worse and while Stefan drove, I was on my phone searching on VW message boards and reading auto shop reviews because we knew it was something serious. Our only option was a place called Hooks VW Repair in Spokane Valley, Washington. This meant we had nearly a third of Montana, the panhandle of Idaho and part of Washington to cross to just get to the shop! Although I have AAA towing insurance with coverage as far as 100 miles, I still had to get within that range to avoid a huge charge. The car was still working although we didn't know for how long, so we just kept driving.
Somehow, with the noise getting even worse, we made it all the way to Spokane Valley, 463 miles from where we had started that morning. Even though we made a lot of stops that day and were sort of limping the car down the interstate it was our biggest mileage day. Because we were now in a developed area again we had to pay for a campsite again, but it was only a few miles from the auto shop that was supposed to open at 8am the next morning. I went to bed that night really hoping everything would work out with the car and wondering how much time and money it was going to cost. After falling asleep I was awoken around 4am by the entire ground shaking, flashing lights and a tremendous roar. We didn't realize it when we first arrived at the camp ground, but our tents were probably 50 feet from train tracks. Yah, I prefer camping in the forest away from people any day.
Day 15: ~324 miles.
The auto shop was supposed to open at 8am that Monday morning and we arrived around 7:30 just to be safe. We didn't have any sort of reservation so we were just showing up hoping for the best. Where we ended up was a place called Hooks VW Repair. The owner arrived late, but as it turned out this was because he was dropping off their VW sand dragster somewhere after racing it that weekend. Looking around the lot and finding tons of rare Buses, Bugs, a turbo charged Baja, a Thing, a trike and more sure made it look like the right place. Like the shop in Wyoming, this shop was also a father-son team and were extremely friendly. We told us our road trip story and what was going on with the car, he tapped the rear of the car with his hook hand (hence the name 'Hooks') and told his son the wheel bearings were bad and needed to be replaced. Despite simply showing up that morning and having a backlog of cars to work on, they got straight to work on mine.
As mentioned before, I like VWs but Stefan loves them. He was like a kid in a candy shop as we looked around the yard and he told me about the different features on the dozens of cars around the lot. At one point him and the mechanic were even geeking about over original VW grease this shop had but Stefan said he couldn't find in Germany. The work was going to take half a day so we headed next door for lunch at a pizza and beer place and discussed the route the rest of the way back to Seattle.
Once the work was finished we paid the repair bill, thanked them for getting the work done so quickly and headed off on our way west to Seattle where we hoped to arrive that evening. The day was half over and we had over 300 miles to do, but I still wanted to stay off the fairly boring Interstate and so we turned off and took Highway 2 west instead, driving the two lane highway through small towns and what seemed like oceans of farmland.
The Grand Coulee Dam was just a slight detour but we were close and making good time so I decided it was worth a visit. Begun in 1933, the Grand Coulee is 550 feet tall, nearly a mile long and the largest hydroelectric dam in America. It created electricity to fuel production in WWII and today provides power for millions, as well as huge amounts of water to irrigate crops in the region. After an admittedly brief look we turned to the 155 along Banks Lake, which was far more beautiful than I'd remembered it being.
We rejoined Highway 2 and drove through Wenatchee where I'd originally bought the Baja Bug, then through Leavenworth, over Stevens Pass and arriving at about 8pm on a perfect spring evening back in Seattle. After 15 days of what was essentially a high intensity road trip, we were done.
My aunt Kathrine and uncle Steve generously offered to host us upon our return to Seattle that evening and had dinner and clean beds ready when we arrived. Than you! I do love life on the road, but I'm also a pretty big fan of hot showers and queen size beds!
Our arrival the previous night allowed for a full day in Seattle to relax, run errands, sort through gear and meet some of my family. After Stefan adjusted the engine valves with the car sitting outside my aunt and uncles house we went to visit Peace Vans, a VW Wesfalia only shop in Seattle that specializes in Subaru engine swaps and other high-end work and restorations. We spent about half an hour poking around looking at all their unique Westies and chatting VW with one of the mechanics who showed us around for a while and were given free t-shirts. You don't get this kind of thing when you drive a Honda Civic, haha. Stefan had a shopping list of things his friends wanted from America (Chuck Taylor shoes, Jack Daniels BBQ sauce, etc) so we picked those up, met my uncle John at a bar in the Fremont neighborhood, then went out to Thai food with even more of my family. A pretty good day.
At 5am we threw Stefans bags back in the Bug for the last time and headed off to SeaTac International Airport. We said our brief goodbyes, a quick hug and disappeared into the terminal, headed home to Germany.
This is a rough map of our route through the west. We passed through 9 different states, 9 National Parks and many other National Monuments, National Forests and State Parks. We drove roughly 4,340 miles on mostly two lane state highways, crossed more high mountain passes than I can remember and did a lot of dirt road driving. We only paid to camp 4 times in 14 nights and had no fixed plan or schedule. We covered hundreds of miles a day in a 43 year old car with a wheel problem and we did all of this in 15 days. I can't say I'd recommend such a fast paced trip to other people, but for our purposes it was perfect.
I never really set out with any fixed goals for this trip. I think what it was mostly about was the chance to get to travel with a good friend again, drive my car like maniacs from time to time and if I'm honest, to show off what America has to offer. Despite my experience and love of international travel, and although it was a very different type of trip than my others, to me it ranks up there with the best of them. I had so much fun traveling with Stefan, driving my car, retracing my steps from a decade before and going on a whirlwind tour of the most beautiful places in the American West I just couldn't help but smile the whole time. I think Stefan feels the same way. It also reminded me of just how much there is in America to see and to do, how easy it is to get around, and made me proud that the government, for all it's faults, has managed to protect these treasures of the American natural landscape for everyone to see. I don't know when Stefan and I will get to travel together again but I hope it happens some day. The first time was in Africa, the second time was in Europe and the third was in North America. Who knows, some day we might meet again in China, or Brazil or something!
I know the 'call to action' at the end of a travel blog is a huge cliché, but I feel obligated to drop one in here anyways. I hope everyone who sees this post not only enjoys it just for the story and the pictures, but also sees how much is out here in America. Not only that, but how easy it is to do with a little time and a car (buy that National Parks Pass and support state and national parks!). “The great American road trip” is a travel classic and I believe a part of the American identity and soul, everyone ought to do it at least once.