Sunday, November 27, 2016

The West Coast Road Trip & Big News

I have always loved road trips, and I strongly believe they are the best way to travel through the United States of America. That is why when Marijke told me that her return ticket back to the Netherlands was out of LA, planned that way so she could see more of America before going back to her home country, rather than send her down the west coast alone I decided I'd drive her there myself! Now in my opinion there are a lot of things to like about America, and a lot to not like if I'm honest, but perhaps the thing I'm most proud of and want to show off when it comes to my country is our beautiful, diverse and wide open spaces of the American West. On this trip I lead Marijke just shy of 3,000 miles down the west coast, from Shaw Island to Los Angles International Airport, exploring our most stunning national parks, camping in the woods and enjoying our time together. (then driving 1,100 miles home solo)

And oh yah, Marijke and I decided to get married!

Just a few days before the trip was to begin we were laying on the couch in my cabin and got to talking. She had already decided to return to Shaw to spend the summer with me after spending some time back home in the Netherlands, but we both wanted more than that 3 month tourist visa would allow. Neither of us can remember the conversation exactly, but I made a somewhat casual comment about how we could get married, and she said she would “marry me in a heartbeat.” We both said a few other things, and then I recall saying something like “Did we just decide to get married?” and then “Yah, I guess so!” We didn't know when it would happen, or how, or where, or the legal requirements or implications of it, being from two different countries, but it seemed like such an obvious decision that we wanted to spend our lives together that it didn't require any further discussion.

With that on our minds we packed up the van, excited to have an our first great adventure together, and went to sleep, ready for the journey that lay southward.

Day 1:

The morning we set out was fairly relaxed because everything was already prepared. Around 9am we caught the ferry off of Shaw to Anacortes, with the intention of camping…. somewhere on the Olympic peninsula that night. As always, I had a rough idea of where to go and how the trip would pan out but had no details in mind, just a confidence everything would work out wonderfully.

Because we were going from the San Juan islands to the Olympic peninsula we still had another ferry to take, the Coupeville – Port Townsend route. Once on the other side, in the picturesque old main street we treated ourselves to a nice lunch and began driving west towards the Washington coast, not sure where we were going to make stops. I'd wanted to go to the top of Hurricane Ridge, but clouds had rolled in making that pointless, but driving past Lake Crescent was beautiful, as everything was beginning to be heavily draped in moss and there was a light dusting of snow in the hills above.

A look at my road tripping setup: Double bed in the back with storage underneath, 10x10 pop-tent that reaches over the back of the van for uninterrupted dry space, two tables, two chairs, propane stove and a cooler accessible from the back doors. Everything is organized in a way that the camp setup slides out the back first, then everything you need including food and dish bins is right there. Also, I removed the roof rack for the trip as it wouldn't be carrying anything up there, which at 50/60mph, gave me another 2-3mpg. The only thing we lacked was a toilet and shower, and a goal of mine is to devise a shower solution for the next big trip. All things considered, it was a pretty ideal road trip setup.

I like to think I have a talent for finding spots to camp for free, picking the right dirt roads in the right places to head down and finding places to park for the night. On this first day we found a dirt road that looked just right a few miles out of La Push and headed down it to explore. We ended up making camp part way along it, tucked in between some hills on the edge of a gravel pit on the edge of the forest. We made camp, started cooking dinner and had a cup of wine to celebrate the start of our trip.

Day 2:

After packing up camp we drove into La Push and checked out the amazing First Beach, then drove to the trail head to Second Beach where we walked through the forest, signs of spring showing, down to the water below.

Marijke and Second Beach looking stunning. It had been a little drizzly the previous day, and after all it was March on the Pacific coast, but it was perfect now. I have to say there were a few people camping on the beach and I envied them a little bit for their various kayaking and hiking adventures, but we were on a different kind of trip and had a lot of miles to cover. We will do hiking trips another time!

After passing through Forks and being surprised to see them still clinging to the Twilight series, as well as some new TV show, we entered the Hoh Rainforest, a temperate rainforest, bought our National Parks Pass (a great deal) and saw a small group of elk hanging out right by the parking lot. It had been a long time since I'd seen seen groups of large mammals (the deer on Shaw don't count!) and even I was excited.

The national parks are excellent at offering short hikes to some of the most scenic spots for the drive in, drive out the same day visitors like us (LA was a long ways away, no time to move slowly!) and the Hoh certainly delivers. As most do, we did the Hall of Mosses trail, quickly finding ourselves surrounded by deep, lush greens all around us and towering firs and spruce trees above.

We hadn't planned the time of year this way, it was dictated by Marijkes visa expiring and her flight, but March turned out to be the perfect time of year for this trip. I'd worried it was going to be wet and rainy, but the sun came out every day and because it was still so early in the season there were very few other tourists around. I've been some of these places before in peak season and they were a zoo, this time however we had the trails and highlights mostly to ourselves.

That night after driving through a large herd of elk in the woods in search of a camping spot on state forest land we found ourselves in an old gravel pit again and had a peaceful night.

Day 3:

Filling the gas tank in Aberdeen, WA. Cheap gas makes road tripping easy.

With a full gas tank we headed southeast towards Mt Rainier National Park. The tremendous scale of this mountain was something I was really looking forward to showing Marijke, who of course had seen the mountain from a distance but never been there. Driving through the suburbs on the way was probably the least interesting part of the whole trip, with culture-less strip malls and housing developments rapidly encroaching on forest and farm land, but eventually we made it into the park and headed up. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudy and we were unable to see the whole mountain at once, but considering the time of year I was still happy with what we got. Going from a temperate rainforest one day to being 5,400 feet up a glacier covered volcano is pretty fun and a testament to Washington diversity.

Without asking locals for road conditions beforehand, we attempted to head south on a rather small road through the mountains towards Oregon. Trees and snow had been removed a certain distance but after a short while we were stopped by snow and had to turn back and pick a different route. Marijke was not impressed by rural Americans tendency to shoot their own road signs.

Towards the evening we found ourselves in not exactly a populated area, but not far out enough to wild camp in any state forests, and thus had to pay for camping. Usually in this situation I would just pay for a tent site and be ok with it, but in this damn camping area you couldn't drive to the tent area, so because we were sleeping in the van we had to pay for an RV spot even though we weren't using any of the RV services. Also, the showers were a rip off and cheated me on the time I paid for… stupid developed camp sites...

Day 4:

Marijke behind the wheel of my big American van. I did more of the driving than her, but we did take turns and it was nice to be a passenger sometimes.

Heading east on Highway 12 we reached White Pass. At 4,501 feet the ski area was still open and we found ourselves being snowed on.

And in another dramatic show of the states diversity, within 15 or 20 minutes we reached the east side of the mountains, had dropped a huge amount of elevation, the landscape changed dramatically, it was hot out and Marijke could hardly believe the tremendous shift in climate and ecology.

We continued on the 12 past all the farmland and huge warehouses full of apples to Yakima and stopped for lunch at a little Mexican place. We were the only white people there, everyone was speaking Spanish and the food was so good Marijke still talks about her fish tacos to this day!

Although it's not the most dramatic landscape around, I always like driving the 97 south. The changing forest, the rolling hills, the open space, passing Brooks Memorial State Park, views of the mountains and the wind turbines as you head into the Columbia River gorge make me smile every time. Every time I drove by I also have to make a stop at the Maryhill Stonehenge Memorial, dedicated to those who died in WW1, and my favorite view of the Columbia river as you look west.

After crossing the river we were now in Oregon, passing through small farm-based towns.

Wide open space as far as the eye can see.

Crooked River from the Peter Skene Ogden State Scenic Viewpoint.

We were in sight of Smith Rock and while I was hoping to camp at the base, a quick google told me sleeping in your vehicle was not allowed there. Rules, man… But luckily there was a free campsite, Skull Hollow just beyond where it was fine. Although the days were warm, we were in the high desert, around 3,000 feet, and as the sun got low it got cold quick. We made a half-assed dinner, wrapped up in all our clothes and blankets and watched an episode of Sherlock before going to bed early.

Day 5:

The frost and the still chilly temperature the next morning showed how it was well below freezing during the night and honestly for all my preparedness on the trip this was something I hadn't counted on. We stopped in Bend, a place that constantly blows me away with it's growth every time I pass through it, and bought another blanket. As we were in the store trying to pick one, we realized this was our first 'couples' purchase for our new life together, and it's actually the blanket we use in our bedroom now!

Looking at the chain of volcanoes that run north-south through Oregon.

Me behind the wheel on the long, straight roads that run through this part of the state.

Our next stop and next national park was Crater Lake, which of course meant driving up another mountain and into the snow. As I drove up the winding road I was thinking back to when I was here two years ago with Stefan road tripping in my 1970 VW and recalling the 1.6 liter carbureted engine struggling to haul our heavily loaded vehicle up in elevation. The 4.6 in the van had no such troubles!

The road to the visitors center and hotel was open, but of course due to the early season the rest of the rim road was still covered in snow. The weather was perfect though and we got out to walk in the snow and enjoy the views for a while before turning around and heading back down and onward.

One of my goals for the trip was to spend as little time on the big interstate highways as possible and I succeed most of the time, but our route did take us on I-5 for a few short miles around Grants Pass, but it's still pretty nice looking, so it wasn't bad.

Sorry in advance Marijke, I know it's a bad picture, but I wanted to show the bed/sleeping space inside the van and it's the only photo I have!

The next day we would be visiting the redwoods in northern California, so we headed on the 199 until it was time to find a place to camp. Looking at my map I saw the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest ahead and at the right moment turned off at a logging road and into the hills to find a place to camp. Due to the mountainous terrain I was unable to find a perfect spot, but we were far out in the hills that a large pullout on the side of one of the dirt roads worked well, and there was no one around anyways.

Day 6:

Breakfast in the forest, not bad.

Our campsite was close to the border with California, so after packing up it didn't take long to get to the famous “Welcome to California” sign. I put Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication and headed towards the giant redwood trees.

I've been to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park a number of times before and it never ceases to amaze me. And while Marijke isn't as into trees as I am, I was thrilled to be able to share the spot with her as well, and having never seen something like this before in her life, she was certainly amazed as well.

We walked through the trees for a while, enjoying the peacefulness of the spot, then drove down the dirt road a few minutes before finding a pull-out spot to park and eat lunch. As we sat under these massive trees, overlooking a stream, I sure wished we had a few days to spend at spots like this, but alas we had a lot ways to go and a lot to see still.

We took the dirt road the rest of the way through the park and watched as the trees got smaller, then changed species before winding down the hills, connecting with the 101 and joining the northern California coast where we got out to play for a few minutes on the beach.

I wouldn't say the 101/Redwood Highway is exactly 'developed', but it's not exactly wide open space free to roam. The geography mean roads wind through hills and valleys, and due to the huge numbers of road trippers who pass through the area, it is built for people to use only approved state and private camping areas, no wild camping around here. But I suppose it was time for a shower anyways, so we wound up at a state park camp site and cleaned ourselves up before dinner and bed.

Day 7:

After continuing south and doing some internet and grocery shopping in Eureka (a place that seems to have a large number of weirdos roaming the streets) we finally joined the famous Highway 1 and spent the next 200 miles driving south on the dramatic coast roads in nearly perfect weather. Love it.

And on the subject of perfect weather, it literally couldn't have been better when we reached San Francisco! Naturally the park was crowded as always and we struggled to find a parking spot, but the views of the bridge and city beyond were worth it and then some. A big change from the fog that enveloped me the last time I was here.

Now on that previous trip we were heading the exact same way, through San Fran and towards Yosemite, using the GPS to guide us. I did the same thing, not knowing the city at all, and trusting it would lead us the same route I'd been on before which worked perfectly, avoiding the city center while still giving us some views of the downtown. However my GPS was not so kind this time around and it lead us right into the heart of the downtown, and it was rush hour as well. Because of this dumb mistake, we spent the next two hours in traffic, inching along or simply not moving at all. At one point, it took, and I'm not kidding, over an hour to move one city block. I didn't know it was even possible for things to be that bad…

Having lost so much time getting through the city I had no idea where we would be able to spend the night. The whole bay area is so big and populated that we just headed east and hoped for the best. Eventually we were back out in the sticks and on two lane highways. Trying to find a place to wild camp in the dark is a challenge because you don't want to wake up in someones front lawn or something like that, but I saw a road that looked good somewhere in the vicinity of Chinese Camp, parked the van and hoped for the best.

Day 8:

Unsure where we were awaking, I was sure surprised when it turned out to be a beautiful little spot! After a nice breakfast in the morning sun, we continued towards Yosemite.

Now given all the mechanical issues (well, one reoccurring issue actually) on my last Western USA road trip in my VW, I felt I had to address this one tiny issue with my van on this trip! My van is a 1996 Ford Club Wagon (Econoline 150) with almost 230,000 miles on the 4.9l inline 6 cylinder. I bought it for just $2,000 to move building materials for the cabin and since then it has become an indispensable tool in my life and completely reliable. Anyways, I started hearing a rattle when I went over bumps and realized the strap on the muffler hanger had broken. No problem, I stopped at a hardware store, bought about $5 of copper wire and in the parking lot climbed under the back of the van, wrapped it up and went on our way. In 4,000 miles, that was the only vehicle issue we had. In fact, 8 months later this quick fix is still working and I haven't even thought about it again until writing this just now!

But most people are more interested in the scenery than in the vehicle, so back to that! After the quick 'repair' and filling up the gas tank, we headed into Yosemite Valley, which in my opinion is easily in the top 5 most stunning places in America, and was the location that impressed Marijke the most actually. That winding road that leads you into the valley is just jaw dropping the fist time you come around the corner which puts it into view…

The park was a bit of a zoo (which yes, we were also contributing to) but we did snag a nice lunch spot in the valley along the Merced River before venturing onward.

Yosemite Falls was just one of the many you see from the valley and it did not disappoint.

And of course Half Dome.

I had really, really, wanted to take Tioga Pass on our way to Death Valley, our next stop, but at nearly 10,000 feet it was still very much snowed in this time of year. A shame, because not only were we missing out on one of the most beautiful drives I've seen in my life, this new route would take us quite a bit out of the way. But we did drive out the valley on a different road I hadn't been on yet, and saw a bear, so at least there was that.

Once we were out of the valley we sort of returned to civilization for the first time in a while, with highway 99 taking us through flat, straight, open, boring land, with massive scale agriculture on either side of us. Of course we wanted to get out of this kind of area as quickly as we could, but with a lot of miles to cover going south all the way to Bakersfield, turning east where we passed through fragrant orange groves as the sun was going down, until Mojave and north all the way towards Big Pine we had a ton of miles to cover. As a general rule I try not to drive at night on trips like this, because you can't appreciate the scenery, but we had places to go and charged ahead. It was 8:30 before we stopped driving, and set up camp on state land in a 4x4 vehicle park. Not where I'd usually camp, but it was late, it was free and it did just fine.

Day 9:

Where we awoke the next morning.

Marijke behind the wheel again.

We continued north and while the road was pretty straight and flat, the mountains and scenery on either side was wonderful. Due to an unusually wet period down here we actually caught the tail end of an unusually large desert flower bloom and at times we could see whole hillsides covered in greens, yellows and oranges.

Stopping in Lone Pine for coffee and internet. Lone Pine has been a location for just about more Hollywood films than you can count over the last 80+ years and with the dramatic and diverse scenery so close to the heart of the American film industry it's easy to see why.

From Lone Pine we headed to one of my favorite places ever, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. This is a highly underrated spot, but it is a group of trees that sit around 10,000 feet and are the oldest living things on the planet. In 2013 the oldest to date was found, at 5,066 years old! Again due to the early season, the road was still snowed in, so Marijke and I parked where the gate was locket and hiked two miles to the (closed) visitors center and loop trails.

Marijke standing among some of the trees on the trail.

And finally, my favorite tree on earth (even though it's actually dead). I've been here three times now and it never ceases to have a powerful effect on me.

As we hiked back down on the closed section of road, we came across a tiny snowman someone had made on the road. Put a smile on our faces :)

In a great mood after seeing my favorite trees, we headed back down in elevation and into the northern entrance to Death Valley. This area is very undeveloped and contains some of my favorite areas in the park.

Our first stop in Death Valley was the Eureka Valley Sand Dunes, a shifting mountain of sand at the end of a valley. The sun was strong and the sand was hot enough to burn your feet, but we covered ourselves as best as we could and ventured out onto the dunes and into a world as different as possible from where we live in the wet Pacific Northwest.

As we were leaving the dunes on the bumpy and rocky dirt road I saw a car pulled over with a flat tire and I stopped to see if they needed help. Although they were initially reluctant to ask directly for my help, it was clear from the bewildered look on their faces, the brand new cheapie camping gear they had with them, they fact they were staring blankly at the manual trying to figure how to change the tire and their rental SUV that yah, they needed help. As it turned out, they were from LA and were out for the weekend to celebrate one of their 30th birthdays. I quickly took care of it for them and gave some advice on how to proceed on their spare. Ss a thanks they sent us off with a few cold beers.

I wanted to get into the main valley to spend the night but we were falling behind on daylight. We made it over the ridge and into the valley as the sky turned an absolutely amazing pink and purple, and while I was out taking this photo I watched a bobcat saunter up that trail to the hilltop, it's looked back at us in the setting sun, and then it walked away. Magic.

I am fairly familiar with the north end of the valley from my previous trip here and knew that we were allowed to camp anywhere off the road. Last time Stefan and I camped in a dry stream bed and that was my plan again, but by this point it was totally dark and I was in a rush to stop for the night. This of course was a mistake, haha. After passing a few obviously bad spots we came across a large dry stream bed that looked promising. I got out and scouted it, walking a ways up, feeling the ground and determined that it wasn't great but that it would probably work. From the main dirt road I built up a bit of momentum, crashed through the soft shoulder and for the first little while it seemed to be working fine. Then after about 100 feet I began to feel the wheels slip, spin and eventually sink into the sand as our heavy, rear wheel drive van had broken through the hard sand layer on top and into the soft stuff below. I climbed out, saw we were nearly axle deep in sand and shut the engine off. This is where we were going to be spending the night, and I'd deal with getting unstuck in the morning.

Nights in the desert are something special; the crisp air, clear skies and zero light pollution made for the most star filled view I've seen outside of the Kalahari desert. I sure wish we had more time to spend here.

Day 10:

We ate breakfast, packed up the van and then worked on getting unstuck. I had a shovel to dig out the rear wheels and we collected rocks to put under the tires and make a 'temporary road' to get out of the soft stuff, but it wasn't enough to get ourselves out trying to reverse the heavy rear wheel drive vehicle. As soon as the wheels got beyond the stones we laid out, it sunk again and started spinning the tires, digging deeper. If only I had a 4x4 van it wouldn't even blink at this kind of thing…

Our best bet for getting out was having someone pull us, and luckily it wasn't long before a 4x4 Toyota crossed our path. I waved him down and he was happy to help. While this happened, another guy in a Jeep with a winch showed up to help if needed. The guy with the truck put it in 4-low and using my tow strap had no trouble getting my van the 100 feet or so back to the solid road. Perfect. I helped people in need the night before and this morning someone helped me when I was in need, karma (car-ma?) I guess.

Earlier in the year southern California had received well above average rains that lead to a 'Super Bloom', or a huge amount of blooming wild flowers that are usually dormant. Now we were far too late to see the real thing, but we did see some of the lingering effects of the increased flower activity, including on cactus.

Continuing our way south through the main valley we finally hit the paved roads again and made a quick stop at Ubehebe Crater, a half mile wide crater formed by a volcanic explosion. As we were standing at the rim looking down, Marijke commented on how in a place like Death Valley even a half mile wide crater is just a side note in an overall tremendously interesting place, that even Death Valley is 'just one' interesting place among dozens in the region, and how if something like this would be in the Netherlands, it would be the largest and most amazing natural attraction in her entire country!

It was around 95 degrees as we explored the valley, hitting up the Borax works, Bad Water, Artists Palate and so on before heading out for civilization. This would be the last park of the trip.

Our next stop was to meet and stay with my brother and his wife in Irvine, so we drove until almost 9pm that night to get as close as possible. At this point we were no longer traveling in the open, wild areas, but between cities and suburbs, driving on interstate freeways and in traffic. Not exactly the kind of places I like to be, but that's ok, contrast is good. Both because there were no longer wild areas to camp in and because it was time for a good shower and cleanup before meeting with my family, we finally stayed a night in a hotel which I will admit is nice once in a while.

After a lazy morning and the standard hotel breakfast we got back on the interstate, into the traffic and reached UC Irvine where my brother Brian lives with his wife Emily, who is in grad school there. Brian and Emily have lived here for a few years actually and this was the first time I'd managed to get down for a visit, so it was nice to finally make it. It was also amusing for Marijke to meet my triplet brother! We all visited the beach together, went out for nice lunch and dinner and spent the night in their on-campus townhouse.

Day 11:

After some final packing, today was the day Marijke would be flying out of America and returning to the Netherlands, after a year on Shaw, after meeting me, after deciding to get married and after deciding to begin a totally new life. But first she had to return to her home country for visa reasons.

Of course Marijke grew up watching a lot of American movies and TV shows and wanted to see some of LA before flying out and it would be silly not to, so we headed out into the mess of traffic to explore a bit. I can't recall where this is, but naturally we had to stop at the beach somewhere and watch some surfers, gotta get those California cliches in.

This was most of our LA experience. Since we only had half a day to spend before dropping Marijke off at the airport, we just drove around LA, often at a snails pace.

For a laugh we stopped by Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills, and yah, it looked just like the movies.

The view over downtown LA and the Hollywood Bowl. Compared to the wilderness we spent most of the trip exploring, LA couldn't have been more of a contrast.

And of course we had to see the Hollywood sign…

In the early afternoon it was time to drop Marijke off at the airport for her to return to the Netherlands. Not long ago we both made the biggest decision of our lives, to get married, and had just gone though this wonderful and intense journey together as a goodbye until she could return. She was 'only' going to be in the Netherlands for 7 weeks before returning to America, but saying goodbye is always hard, especially during such an emotionally intense period. Once she did return, we had honestly no idea what was going to happen. We didn't know how getting married would work, when it would happen, what country it would happen in, or anything. It was just an idea, something we knew we wanted but beyond that was still a mystery in terms of what it actually would mean and require. And with that we hugged, kissed goodbye and parted ways, for the time being.

2,986.4 miles, aka 4806.1 kilometers. This was the distance we drove together, from my cabin on Shaw Island, WA through Oregon and to the Los Angles International Airport in California. I just did a quick google maps test, and for some comparison, this is about the same distance as driving from Maastricht, Netherlands where Marijke is from, all the way to Tehran, Iran! I wanted to give Marijke a taste of America and the American west, to show some of the tremendous scale and diversity, the open spaces and the stunning landscapes. I think I did a pretty good job. I wanted to be sure she had a reason to return to America and to me, and I know I did a good job at that as well, haha. Even covering all these miles we have only scratched the surface, and we have talked about doing another huge road trip through some of the inland states for a honeymoon trip! The Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yellowstone, Glacier, these are all places for the next journey, and there will absolutely be a next!

Day 12:

Having dropped Marijke off at the airport I was now traveling solo. As much as I would have enjoyed taking my time heading home, I decided to just make the return as fast as possible. I drove late into the night, stopping only to eat dinner, stretch my legs from time to time and get gas. Somewhere in Northern California I stopped at a rest stop for a few hours of sleep, then continued north back to Seattle.

1146 miles later I pulled the van into my parents driveway in Seattle and with that the journey was at an end. Total mileage 4,150.4. (goes to show how much shorter the direct route is!)

All things considered, it was a perfect trip. Marijke and I had a wonderful time together, the scenery was incredible, the weather was great the entire time, the van worked flawlessly and the camp setup I devised was easy to use and very comfortable. Most importantly it was some wonderful bonding time together, time for us to reflect on our relationship, talk about what our new lives together would be like and to keep our bond strong during the time apart that lay ahead. Lucky for us it is easy to communicate anywhere in the world these days so the time apart would not be too challenging, but even so both of us were already counting the days until her return to America.

With the trip over, I had a few days to see friends and family in Seattle, gather supplies and then drove the comparatively short rest of the way north, back to the ferry and the San Juan islands.