Madison To Portland

After a year of pinching pennies and planning, Beth and I set out for a 7,000 mile two month road trip. On June 21st we set out in a packed Honda Element from our home in Madison. Our first stop was Minneapolis to see friends and family. I jumped on my bike north of St. Michael, MN and rode to the Northeast District of Minneapolis to watch some friends win a softball game. I have heard the bike infrastructure in the city is fantastic, and was not disappointed. Well manicured trails wind through the city often ensconced in forest. It’s easy to forget you’re cruising through a city of 400,000. Many of the industrial buildings have large graf pieces and murals covering the rear of the structures bringing an added dash of color to an already beautiful trek. The quality of the art leads me to believe these are sanctioned pieces. All told I rode from the northern most point down to Eagan. The trails are dizzying at times. Each side of the road has its own trail and the areas around Ft. Snelling and the Minnehaha Falls are a weaving patch work criss-crossing one another. To someone unfamiliar it’s a bit difficult to navigate. Even the route navigation got confused. “Turn left, sharp left, then turn left.” Not terribly helpful GPS but thanks for trying. In any case what a great ride.

Home away from Home

Home away from Home

Next we hit Fargo, ND. The land flattened and the sky was rife with billowing cumulus clouds. We stayed with a friend who took us for drinks ranging from fine dining to holes in the wall. Fargo struck me as an average college town, but there seemed something more under the surface. It may not be on a list of destination you must see, but what great town. Under ranked in my mind.

We left the next day tearing across the whole of North Dakota in a day. The little four cylinder engine strained under its full load as we flew past fields and truck stops at 85 MPH. We crossed the Montana state line and arrived in Makoshika State Park. Never having heard of the place we were in for a pleasant surprise. It was like a verdant Badlands. With colorfully banded rock formations, bright birds, and fields of juniper and sage it was an aggregate of joy for the senses. We drove into the park climbing 15% grades on rutted gravel roads. Many of the roads could only accommodate one vehicle at a time. We found a camp site with good tree cover and a lovely sandstone formation. We positioned the tent the shade and read the names and words etched in the back of the stone.

Makoshika State Park. Photo Credit: Beth Crook

Makoshika State Park. Photo Credit: Beth Crook

As the sun set we hiked out on a grassy plateau to watch the sky streak with colors over a landscape similarly banded in brilliance. With no campers within eyesight we enjoyed a bottle of wine by the fire and turned in for the night, drifting off to sleep with the wind serenading us through the thick needles of the pine stand.

Sun falls across the rock the black K-T line clearly visible.

Sun falls across the rock the black K-T line clearly visible.

Waking the next morning in our little two person tent, sun streaking through the trees, we had the pleasant sage and juniper air greet our faces. There is no water in the park save at the ranger station, so after a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs with a spring mix wrapped in tortillas we made our way back down the winding dirt road in the truck. The ranger informed us we were allowed to hike anywhere. Yes, anywhere. We filled our water drove back up the trail hiking the shorter trails as we went. Natural land bridges, capstones, and a thousand variants of vibrant stone entranced us. Dinosaur fossils have been recovered in the park, and K-T mass extinction sediment layer is clear to the naked eye. If you hope to find the remnants of 46 million year old creatures, look below that black line belted through the rock formations. We stocked up on water and forayed into the wilderness. Horses sporting various brands met us at the trail head,

DSCF6465 DSCF6469flipping their heads when we came closer to the foals. Taking a wrong turn we struggled up eroding rock faces pulling our bodies up on sage and thorny brush as the loose ground crumbled under our weight. The landscape changes rapidly in a matter of yards. Some is a gray stone appearing soft but is actually sure ground. Next you step on copper colored stones that give way like marbles, and should you reach the top you find stands of pine, wind swept rock faces, and flowered sage prairie. The landscape is mesmerizing and disorienting. While the landscape is radically varied, it all somehow all looks the same. We kept close watch we didn’t lose visual contact with landmarks and orientation to the sun. After a few miles of trekking up and down the stone and sage we returned to camp exhausted, splintered, and satisfied. Once again we drifted off to sleep listening to the pines whisper to the chirping bats.

Capstone

Capstone

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Western Yellow-bellied Racer

Western Yellow-bellied Racer

The following morning we packed up the car and headed out missing the land almost before it was out of view. We tore across Montana all day enjoying the wide open skies and abandoned buildings and implements dotting the landscape whirring past. We arrived in Helena National Forest that evening and set up camp in the forest at a $5 camp site. It was stunningly peaceful. The mountains rose up around us as Moose creek bubbled not 20 feet from our tent.
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We packed quickly and thanked the creek for the soothing sleep sounds it gave us. It was time to drive through the mountains. Luckily the little four banger humming under the hood liked the high altitude and we purred through canyons, steep climbs, and switchbacks. I was amazed at the skill of the truckers maneuvering their heavy loads up and down massive elevations jake braking, shifting, and slinging tons of freight through the throngs of smaller faster moving vehicles. The mountains themselves were breathtaking blotting out of the sky and peril they present. Falling rocks, burnt sections of forest, and rushing rivers gave me perspective of what Lewis and Clark had to contend with as they crossed the same land in 1805. Men of true grit to say the least.

At last we broke out of range and land flattened giving both the car and our nerves some reprieve. We missed a turn at some point and were forced onto rural highways somewhere in southern Washington. The fact this was the first time we were lost since leaving Madison is remarkable to say the least. The detour gave us first hand knowledge of what a wild fire truly is. As we traced our way to tiny abandoned towns save a bar and filling station, we saw a haze on the horizon obscuring the mountains. Beth posited it was fog, but it seemed far to dry. In fact, if I were to write a book about the drive it would be called “50 Shades of Brown”. Nothing was green. Even the riverbeds were diminished to sand trails hinting that water had once been there. As we neared the haze we cleared a rise there and before us laid scorched earth as far as you can see. Water trucks and fire fighters prepped at staging areas, mobile LED signs redirected traffic from the affected areas, observation planes circled the sky, and acrid smoke wafted through miles and miles of sky. Fighting that fire seemed insurmountable, and yet brave men with small tanker trucks, water packs, picks and shovels drove across burnt expanses of dirt toward the thickening smoke. Truly brave. Truly heroic.

We planned to camp in the Maryhill State Park on the shores of the sprawling Columbia river, but the site was full of firefighters staging to go undoubtedly to the land we had just left. The Goldendale Observatory is located nearby and Beth and I were primed to see the rings of Saturn, green-blue-red nebulae, and arc of the Milky Way. We bought a day pass and enjoyed a picnic on the shores of the Columbia staring at the cliffs of Oregon on the opposite shore waiting for night to fall. Finally the sun sank low in the sky and we drove up from the river bed to the top of a nearby rise. The Observatory seemed quiet and uninviting. We parked and sauntered to the door. It. Was. Closed. We had been in the car for nine hours that day and crossed most of five states in the past couple days. We broke out in a sort of disgusted desperate laughter. As defeating as it was, the laughter brightened us and we stared out over the valley as we considered our options. We were a mere two hours from Portland. Being Maryhill was full our option was to sleep in the car at a travel plaza parking lot. The choice was clear. Portland or bust. We crossed into Oregon. The blackness of the mountains in the night made the bridge over the Columbia looked like a road to nowhere. We pushed through the night, moon glinting off the Columbia to our right, mountains looming black and ominous to our left, and Venus and Jupiter reflecting brilliantly in the sky above. Unshowered and shipped across 700 miles for 11 hours in a vibrating box we arrived met by hugs of friends and cool gin gimlets. Thousands of miles. A matter of days. Madison to Portland.

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