Thursday, March 24, 2016

Joe Omundson

The desert purifies

I recently spent 12 nights on a road trip, touring through parts of Oegon, Nevada, California, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho (in that order). I went by myself, leaving Portland on February 28 and returning March 10.

Day 0: I went to my regular Saturday morning yoga classes. This is my only weekly commitment, and I enjoy going, so I wanted to miss only 1 week of classes while maximizing my time spent traveling. I was going to leave immediately after class, but there was an afternoon meeting at the yoga studio to take photos for the new website, and after that my friend was hosting a potluck at her house. I don’t usually turn down free food so I went to the potluck and then spent the night in my car in her driveway. So, I left on a Sunday, missed 1 Saturday of yoga, and returned the next Friday night.

Day 1: I had trouble getting to bed the night before (as is often the case when I am parked w/ access to Wi-Fi). I couldn't stop watching hilarious Brother Jake videos on youtube. So, I didn’t wake up and hit the road as soon I had hoped. It was maybe 10 or 11. No problem. I drove to Hwy 26, went over Mt. Hood, through Madras and Prineville, and made a short detour into Burns. From there I headed down toward Nevada past Steens Mountain, but I was running out of diesel so I stopped at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge intersection to buy 3 expensive gallons. It was the kind of store that combines a funky diner with a gas station and a travel stop of sorts. The place seemed nearly abandoned and the fuel pumps were old. I was curious what their perspective would be on the whole militia occupation thing that happened there recently but I figured they must get asked that question all the time, so I let it go. Then, I drove past Steens which was beautiful. At sunset I parked on the shoulder of a deserted highway and drew the curtains over the windows that faced the road. I only heard 1 car pass by that whole night.

Day 2: In the morning I crossed into Nevada. I had a negative impression of the state from previous visits, but this time I saw the beauty of the snow covered mountain ridges that decorated every edge of the horizon and the vastness of the valleys that lay between. The empty freedom of the back roads felt expansive compared to the enclosed life of the city.

I drove in to Winnemucca and went inside a casino hoping to find a buffet, but I was to have no luck with that. I spent a dollar in a penny slot machine for fun. I ended up eating at Taco Bell and using the Wi-Fi there to get directions. Continuing south, I drove through Austin, and into the Big Smokey Valley.

In Tonopah, I stopped at a brewery and drank a habanero IPA which was surprisingly good. I leeched some more internet at a gas station and smiled as a group of people walking past reminisced about a VW Rabbit their family had owned. I looked up a map of hot springs, found one about 20 miles south, googled it, found out that it was a legit place to camp and have a soak for free… and off I went. I had the pool to myself that evening. There were some other people parked in the lot but nobody else soaking. One woman came out of her trailer at night and filled a bowl of water from the tub I was sitting in, not really sure what that was about, maybe she just wanted to soak her feet back at the trailer. I dried off as best as I could and went to bed.

Day 3: From the hot spring, it wasn’t too long of a drive to Death Valley. I drove through a couple of intentionally historic-looking towns, stopping in the 2nd one to fill up on diesel (I decided not to run out in Death Valley).

I paid the $20 for a day pass but wasn’t happy about that part, and decided to avoid National Parks for the rest of my trip. I don’t need to pay a bunch of money and wade through crowds to see beautiful sights; there are plenty of public lands where I can see awesome stuff in isolation for free. Death Valley was really beautiful and fun to explore, though. It was in a “superbloom”, the 3rd one to happen in about 20 years, so there were a lot of yellow flowers and some purple ones too.

I drove to Badwater, which is the lowest point in North America at about 280 feet below sea level, and walked out onto the salt flat.

I drove through the “artist’s loop”, a fun 1-way road which takes you on a tour of some colorful rock formations. That drive was probably the highlight for me.

I wanted to take the route south from Badwater, but it was closed so I stopped by Zabriskie Point ...

... and then headed to Shoshone, which was an awesome little town that reminded me of some of the small towns on the PCT. One gas station, one restaurant, a post office, all clumped together on 1 road… that kind of place. They had a great shaded outdoor hangout spot and it even had Wi-Fi. I looked up a place to camp on It was a powerline service road which people claimed was OK to camp on, even though when I got to the turnoff it said “private road”. I went down it anyway and found a spot where I could drive up to a semi-private fold in the hills and go to bed.

Not that privacy was necessary; the only traffic I saw was a few semi-trucks driving down a connected gravel road. I had a nice view of the sunset.

The night was completely still, and perfectly silent.

Day 4: It was just a 10 mile drive to get to Baker, CA. I hopped between several different fast food restaurant parking lots until I found free Wi-Fi near Denny’s, and I did some more planning. I went to a Mexican restaurant and got an awesome burrito from some very friendly staff. Then I went to the general store to grab a bag of chips and ask where I could fill up on water. The guy asked how much I needed to fill; I said 5 gallons, and he said there’s a spigot around the back of the building. A filtered water machine would have tasted better, but this was free and it was kind of them to let me use it.

It was still morning, and I drove maybe 1 hour more to get to the Mojave National Preserve, which is actually one of the biggest parks in the entire National Park system, but it is free and very primitive. Just a few roads cut through the vast expanse. The only services offered are a couple of visitor information centers and simple campgrounds. No stores, food, gas, or anything like that. There are many places where it is permitted to camp for free. I found a spot in what I later learned was the biggest Joshua Tree forest in the world. I didn’t go far for the rest of the day, or do much worth noting. I set up my hammock but decided it was probably not good for the Joshua Tree bark, so took it down. I cooked some rice and beans to make burritos. I listened to music, played with my solar panel, and thought about things.

Day 5: I almost decided to take a “zero day” here, and camp in the same place again. So I was slow in the morning and hung out until noon or so. But, I started feeling antsy and like I wanted to check out something different. I knew where to find another free campsite nearby from the research I had done in Baker. It couldn’t have been much more than a 20 mile drive, but it took a while because most of the distance was on a washboard-y gravel road and my car isn’t made to go fast on that stuff. I stopped at the visitor center and was amused to be alone in the room with the most annoyed, dispassionate park ranger I’d ever met. The overall sense of neglect was what made the park endearing to me. A few minutes later I drove to my next campsite. There was a bit of a trail leading from there into a neat looking valley enclosed by rock formations, and I wandered into there for a minute; I saw that I was approaching some horses and wasn’t sure if they were wild or not, and didn’t want to disturb them so I returned to my car and eventually went to bed.

Day 6:

I drove to the nearest gas station and misread the price of diesel on the faded display; I started fueling, thinking the price was something like $2.30/gallon, and by the time I realized it was actually $5.230 I’d already put in more than a couple gallons. That was irritating. Then I drove down what was apparently historic Route 66, past some abandoned little outposts and stuff, down to 29 Palms. I’m not entirely sure why I went there actually. But I brought my laptop into a McDonalds for a while and used the internet. I was very close to Joshua Tree NP, but I avoided it because of my earlier national park experience.

I took back roads all the way to Blythe, CA, which is right on the border with Arizona. On the way there I passed a gas station that was selling diesel for $9.63/gallon. I couldn’t believe it. I went to a grocery store to get some food and beer. Grocery stores are always a disorienting experience after spending time in the wilderness. Then I crossed the border into Ehrenberg, AZ, and took a gravel road that went south along the Colorado River, where there is a lot of free camping; I found a spot there for the night.

Day 7: This was kind of a weird day that felt like a turning point of the trip somehow. I camped only a few miles from where I’d woken up. I spent several hours at the Flying J travel stop in Ehrenberg using the internet. It is hard to pinpoint what was going on but I felt weird emotionally that day. I had made it down to the Sonoran Desert; now what? I had been hoping to spend a few days in one spot with some trees for a hammock. I wasn’t crazy about this stretch of road I was camped on; everything felt too exposed and there were a lot of ATV riders buzzing by. I knew of a spot that I liked near Yuma, but I didn’t really want to drive all the way there and repeat my past experience simply because I knew there was a tree there. There had to be something else to see. But I was uninspired to get in my car and explore, so after my time at the travel stop I went back to the same road and pulled over next to the river.

Day 8: I decided to give up on my obsession with the hammock trees and continue driving through Arizona and up to Utah. My relative Melody (second cousin once removed, as she informed me) had invited me to stay at her house in Mesa, near Phoenix. I texted her to see if the offer still stood, and it did. So I drove there and spent the night at her house. It was lovely; she was an excellent host, the kind who knows how to fully meet the needs of a traveler while not making them feel smothered or exhausted. Her generosity and thoughtfulness were evident as I joined her on the nightly walk that she takes with her neighbor, who otherwise is not self motivated enough to leave her apartment after going through some health problems in recent years. I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect when I went to visit her, because I didn’t really know her at all, but I was very glad I went.

Day 9: Before I left Melody’s house (stocked up with snacks and freshly showered), I looked up some info on another hot spring in central Arizona called Verde hot springs. It sounded pretty cool but I saw that the approach road was 21 miles of rough gravel. Well, I was up for an adventure but I knew that my spare tire was rotted out, and it seemed like I might need it. I filled up on some water, and then started looking for a place to get a spare tire.

I would have bought a new tire if it was under $50, but preferred to find a used one for cheaper. I must have called 10 or 15 places, and the few stores that carried my tiny tire size were only selling them new, for more than I wanted to pay, but I chose one anyway and started driving there. I was amazed at the number of tire stores I’d found within a 2 mile radius. As I was driving I saw another tire store that I hadn’t called, and pulled in there to see if they had my size; they didn’t, but they knew someone who had it, used, and gave me directions. So I drove there and got a used spare for $35. Then I was on my way north. The drive up to Payson was beautiful, I saw more cactuses than any time in my life, and as I climbed in elevation the dramatic desertscapes were replaced with forest. From there it wasn’t too much farther to the gravel road turnoff, and I took about an hour and 15 minutes to drive those 21 miles.

The very last section down to the lot was kind of crazy, it was pretty steep and had large rocks that I had to avoid. My car got high-centered at one point but fortunately nothing was damaged. I made it down this gnarly road in my tiny 35-year-old hatchback that some people in 4x4 trucks were too afraid to try. From there, it was a 0.8-mile walk to the spring, including a moderate river ford. The 2 springs were perfect temperatures and there was a lot of interesting art work around them.

I had a very interesting experience at this spring. I’ve written about it in detail in a previous post, so I won’t repeat it here; in brief, 3 of the 5 people I met were wonderful, but the last 2 were a couple who were difficult for me to interact with. They were quite drunk and had some terrible relationship dynamics. So my experience at Verde hot spring felt at times fun and lighthearted, personally significant, depressing, and frightening.

Day 10: I woke up at dawn; I had slept outside near the spring with my pad and sleeping quilt. After going for a morning soak to warm up, I packed up my things and hiked back to my car. I decided to scout out the steep, treacherous section of road before attempting to drive up it, and as I was doing this I met a funny older guy who talked to me for a while and was very entertained by my efforts to get up and down the hill in my tiny car. I showed him pictures of the hot springs art, and he yelled "haaaw look at all that hippie shit! I've got to go there and take pictures just so I can bug my wife!" After choosing my route I executed it well enough to get up the hill. As I made my way up the slope, I passed 2 guys who seemed my age and similarly weird, camped in their vans by the road. We waved at each other as I drove by and I wished I had stopped to say hi. This became my only regret of the entire trip.

21 miles later I was back on the pavement with no flat tires. My rear shocks seemed to be making a croaking kind of sound at times and I’m not really sure what that’s about (it still happens). I drove through Sedona, admiring the dramatic red cliffs but not the hordes of sightseers. Up past Flagstaff I drove, and filled my tank at a gas station. For the first time, I tried topping off my tank as much as I could, and I found that I could fit an extra 2 gallons that way if I was patient! This was a revolution. 2 gallons is almost 100 miles of extra range on the highway. I ended up driving 530 miles on that tank, I was amazed. Anyway, I entered Navajo country and stopped at a food cart, and got a burger that was wrapped in fry bread. Driving through this area was really interesting. I also stopped at a McDonalds in one of the reservation towns and this little girl confidently approached me with her cooler full of baked goods and homemade candy, which was adorable, and I got a loaf of banana bread for $3. From there I drove north and passed through Mexican Hat, where the 7/11 contains the town’s PO boxes. I pulled off onto some BLM land for the night and passed out.

Day 11: The sun had already set when I arrived at camp the previous night, so I didn't see the Mexican Hat balancing rock until I woke up in the morning.

Another early start; I headed north. I was in contact with a couple of friends who were in Alta, Utah, and I planned to meet up with them that night. I decided to pass through Moab first because I had heard good things about it. The drive up there was gorgeous, very interesting rock formations, spires, canyons, balancing rocks. I noticed that Utah has a very bare-bones approach to its road signs, which keeps roadside visual clutter to a minimum. After passing through a few smaller towns, I drove through Moab, and kind of decided to move there. I heard a lot of people live in vehicles and rock climb and do other cool stuff. I think I would have fun there, so I'm going to move there in May. I continued to Provo, driving through Price, and saw the only other Rabbit I would encounter on this road trip.

I did some writing in a McDonalds for a few hours as I wasn’t sure what time my friends could meet me. Honestly, I don't like McDonalds as a company but they have reliable internet so I often leech from them. In return I succumb to buying their food every once in a while. I messed up the time by 1 hour but I got to Alta by 7 and got to see my friends, Rock Ocean and Kimchi, both of whom I met on the PCT in 2014, both of whom are incredibly fantastic people and role models to me. They are adventurers too, planning to start living in Rock Ocean’s Westy pretty soon and drive it from Florida to Alaska, and stay nomadic even after that. They have some other very exciting projects in the works, too. So it was great to see them. I slept in my car at the highest elevation yet, 8400’.

I more or less considered this the end of my vacation. The rest of my driving would be long hours on the interstate to get back to Portland. So I didn't do any sightseeing, I just focused on driving:

Day 12: I drove through Salt Lake City and most of Idaho. I cruised westward on I-84 and I ate gross food, chicken nuggets for breakfast and Golden Corral for dinner. The big box district of Nampa, Idaho, where I camped, was not my favorite place ever.

Day 13: I continued driving on the interstate and got back to Portland. I had an interesting conversation with a gas station attendant in Grant's Pass. Those hills in Eastern Oregon are always prettier than I remember them being. As I was driving in to Portland and the anticipation of my return built, I was listening to my music on shuffle (as I commonly do when I drive), and the last song that came on was this song:

Something about it was so energizing. I felt fully animated. The song ended right as I pulled up in front of the building and turned off my car. I grabbed my camera and went inside, and spent most of the next 12 hours creating a video using footage from my trip. It was an idea I'd been forming the last couple days as I was driving on the freeway. I decided to bust it out and get it done while my mind was in a kind of crazy mode where I could focus for a long time. Here is that video:

So, that is a quick surface level summary of my trip. Of course, the real meaning of it would be difficult to describe. I can share pretty sights and funny stories, but the really interesting part to me is what I learned about different aspects of myself, relationships, traveling, music, and family; and the opportunities I had to be present with my thoughts and feelings for hours and days at a time, without being forced to act in a prescribed way that someone else expects.

Please be advised that reading this trip report is not a replacement for going on a trip. In fact, the main reason I want to make a trip report at all, is because the memories of the scenery and the daily activities fade; if I don't make a record, I won't remember what I saw and did. Scenery on its own is the least memorable and impactful aspect of my journeys. The reason I go to these places is not to collect photos or look at beautiful things, but to unlock an inner state that promotes growth, processing, and reflection. It reveals my own desires to me and helps me sort out my goals for the future. These revelations are what become embedded in my life and change me ever after. For me, traveling is more about the quality of the time spent than it is about the places I go and the sights I see. It just so happens that the best way to cultivate that quality experience is to get out into these beautiful places, so that's why I keep going back.

Subscribe to this Blog via Email :