Day 15 (July 14), Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington.
I dropped off AM at the airport early in the morning (this time she didn’t miss her flight), came back to the hotel and slept for a couple of hours more. Then I checked out of the place, got myself yet another latte from the fantastic coffee shop we had gone to the previous day, and started driving towards Seattle.
On the way, I kept my eyes out for a view of Mt. Rainier but the day wasn’t clear enough. The drive was short and pretty, though there wasn’t anything spectacular worth relating.
One thing that I liked about Washington (and also Oregon) was the frequency of rest areas by the side of the freeway. (Every state constructs rest areas by the freeways, but usually not as frequently). I am a huge fan of rest areas. They cost very little to maintain (they are just a simple restroom, a drinking water fountain and some picnic tables) but they make the journey so much nicer. Also, by allowing tired drivers a place to rest awhile, they make the freeways much safer at very little cost.
It took about three hours to reach Seattle. I went straight to the place of my friend J (with whom I was crashing for the night).
It was very nice to meet J and his wife. J took me out to see the city. We went to the famous Pike place market, where I posed for a picture in front of the first ever Starbucks!
Just around sunset, we caught a glimpse of Rainier, far away, high above the skyline and the horizon, towering over the city like a ghost.
Later I had an excellent home cooked dinner at their place and played some after dinner Wii. All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening and I grateful to them for their wonderful hospitality.
Day 16 (July 15), Seattle, Washington to Ritzville, Washington.
After some vacillation over whether to head straight for Montana or make a Rainier-motivated detour, I opted for the latter. A road-trip is about the journey; what good then to hurriedly reach a destination?
As I got closer to Mt. Rainier, the views got grander. Rainier is an incredible mountain. Standing at over 14000 feet, it is one of the highest peaks in the lower 48 states, and its prominence is breathtaking (there is no mountain of comparable size in a very long distance). It is also incredibly glaciated.
I sat down next to a little lake with Rainier in the background and read for a while.
Then I headed eastwards again. But the sun was already low and I would most certainly not make it anywhere near Glacier National Park that day. I eventually stopped at a motel in the town of Ritzville.
Day 17 (July 16) Ritzville, Washington to Glacier Natl. Park, Montana.
I have to make a confession at this stage. When I started the road trip, I loved everything, including (and especially) the *driving* part of it. By now though, I had driven over 5000 miles. I was slightly jaded. Besides, the terrain for the last couple of days (except for the little part near Rainier) had not been very interesting. Thus, when I started driving on Day 17, it was more like a mild chore. Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to keep going. All, I am saying is, the driving component of it didn’t thrill me as much as it had a week or so ago.
Day 17 changed that. It made me fall in love with driving again.
As I neared Montana, the roads got prettier. Once more, I could see the terrain around me literally change (I have not emphasized this point enough, but seeing the terrain change, from green to brown to desert to mountain to prairie is an incredible experience). I started enjoying the drive. I stopped at a Starbucks and got myself some coffee. I put on peppy music.
I had started this day slightly dreary of the long drive ahead but I got happier as I kept driving. However, the real difference happened when I entered Montana.
While Washington and Oregon were green and pretty with occasional cute towns and undulating hills, they also were monotonous. Montana was anything but monotonous. The road was curvy and exciting. The scenery got more and more spectacular with every mile. The lakes were blue and perfectly shaped, the slopes were completely covered by pine trees so green that they take your breath away.
I can find only one way to express it: Montana is impossibly beautiful.
And the roads there! They are a driver’s paradise. Especially if you like driving fast. Everywhere else in the US, the speed laws are a huge dampener (they are unrealistically low). Montana is a different deal. True to its ruggedly individual image (Ron Paul got more votes than McCain or Huckabee in the primaries here), this state did not have any daytime speed limits on its rural highways till 1999. That has now changed, but the current speed limits on most of its highways are nevertheless comparable to (and some cases even higher!) than what I would actually drive if there were no speed laws. As a result, I was able to simply drive at the speed I wanted to without worrying about getting a ticket.
(Actually, as I wrote in this old post, I believe that speed limits ought to be eliminated from all rural highways and instead replaced with recommended speeds, as the Germans have done with their Autobahns. People are usually pretty good at gauging what speed they are safe driving; replacing an arbitrary posted limit by their judgement does not significantly increase reckless driving or accidents but vastly increases convenience and pleasure, the qualities that bureaucrats and legislators are so loath to place any value on.)
Anyway, I drove through the mountains and valleys in that indescribable state of mind that every true driver experiences at times when his deep-seated aspirations are met and sustained; it is bliss. A little before sundown, I passed the gateway town of Kalispell; it was full of casinos!
There were also an unusual number of motorbikes on the road. The bikers seemed to be enjoying the ride as much as I. Most of them wore helmets, some wore bandanas and a few had their hair flying. (Montana, like many states in the mountain west, has no mandatory helmet law for adults.)
I entered Glacier National Park and set up my tent by McDonald lake.
Dinner was tasty (I heated some soup and ready to eat Indian stuff on my little stove) and sleep was peaceful.
Day 18 (July 17), Glacier National Park, Montana.
I woke up and started making my plans for the day. From the start of my trip, Glacier had been something of a holy grail and now that I was here, it didn’t make much sense to not see the place thoroughly. So I decided that I’d stay on for a second night at the park, and thus have two whole days to hike and explore the place.
I packed up my tent and drove eastwards along the going-to-the-sun road, the famous highway that bisects the park.
I stopped often for pictures. Sometimes I did short hikes.
As the road climbed, I could see the snowcapped mountains and the glaciers. Unfortunately, current models predict that all glaciers in the park will be gone in twenty years due to warming.
I parked my car at the ‘loop’ trailhead and started on my substantial hike of the day. It was a four mile each-way, 2200 feet elevation-gain climb to the granite chalet along the highline trail.
I was slightly wary of bears, especially the grizzlies. For the uninformed, there are two kinds of bears in the US. The smaller black bears are more numerous and will usually not attack humans unless threatened. The grizzlies are larger, found only in the north, and have been known to injure and even kill people without provocation. Glacier had plenty of both kinds.
I made noises from time to time so that I don’t surprise a bear. The trail was nice and the wildflowers were pretty but the day was extremely hot, which made the hike much more strenuous than it ought to have been.
It took about two hours to reach the chalet. The place offered wonderful views of the the entire range. I had some lunch and then descended to my car.
I saw several deer on the way down; one really close.
I came back to my car and continued driving along the Sun road. The highway rose and eventually crossed the continental divide at the spectacular Logan pass. Then it descended to St. Mary Lake on the eastern side of the park. I saw my first bear, it was foraging on the meadows by the road about fifty meters away.
Around sundown, I found myself a campsite, got a shower (really needed it!), ate dinner and went to bed, tired and sleepy.
Day 19 (July 18), Glacier National Park, Montana to Choteau, Montana.
I woke up very early to catch the sunrise on St. Mary’s Lake.
My plan for today was to go Many Glaciers, the area north of the Sun road often regarded as the heart of the park. Once there, I would do the Iceberg lake hike (9 miles roundtrip, 1200 feet elevation gain) which every guide book seemed to highly recommend. They also warned the hiker that the trail goes through prime grizzly habitat.
So I journeyed to the trailhead, and once there, found myself in a dilemma. Should I buy a bear-deterrent spray?
It’s one of the those things where the cost-benefit analysis isn’t so clear. The spray is expensive and does not work 100% of the time. Bears are pretty common in the area, but actual attacks are very rare. Still, in the eventuality that a bear does charge at me, it would definitely boost my chances of remaining injury-free. If I was a frequent visitor to these parts, there is no doubt I’d get myself a canister. However, the chances of getting attacked by a bear on this one visit was so low, that it wasn’t clear I should buy the thing.
After much thinking, I decided to buy it anyway. It would also give me peace of mind. I familiarized myself with the usage (its sort of like firing a pistol one handed, and is supposed to be used only if a bear is charging at you and is closer than 10 meters).
I set off on the hike.
It started with a steepish climb but then eased out. The scenery got better and better. There were forests and vast meadows full of wildflowers. There were pretty streams and fierce waterfalls.
Within an hour of the start, I was convinced; this was one of the best hikes had ever done.
Little did I know that I had seen nothing yet.
About an hour and half from the start, I was passing through a section of densish forest with occasional clearings — there were also a couple of hikers just behind me — when I saw the thing.
It was a bear, pretty large, light brown in color; probably a grizzly. It was barely 10 meters from me and busy foraging on some plants in the clearing.
I froze. I had never seen a wild bear this close (very few hikers have). Carefully I armed myself with the spray in one hand and the camera in the other. The bear hadn’t seen me yet. I tried taking some pictures while staying ready to use the spray if the animal decided to charge. The hiker couple behind me had also seen it by now and they were also taking photos.
The bear must have sensed something amiss, for it looked up and saw us. Immediately it stood on its hind legs and slightly showed its teeth. For a few seconds I was sure the thing would attack. My fingers were on the spray-trigger, my body under a peculiar adrenaline rush.
I wonder what went through the bear’s mind. Maybe it was the fact that there were three of us, maybe it didn’t feel that threatened. In any case, the bear relaxed after some seconds and sauntered away in the opposite direction.
I resumed my hike, never letting my hand too far away from the spray canister buckled on my hip. Unfortunately, my photos of the bear encounter were overexposed and unfocussed (I am still waiting for the hiker-couple to email me theirs).
Back to the hike. If the scenery was amazing before, it got unbelievable henceforth. High glaciated walls, snowy peaks, valleys that were more beautiful than anything I had seen.
Finally, I reached my destination.
It was a lake surrounded on three sides by icy vertical cliffs that rose thousands of feet high. The lake had icebergs floating on it. It was heaven.
Some things are perfect. I am a fairly experienced hiker but till this day I had not thought of any one hike as the perfect hike. Henceforth, the Iceberg lake hike will occupy that position in my mind.
I stayed there for a few hours and read my novel. Then I started hiking down and got back to my car around four. I didn’t see any bears during the descent, though I was constantly on my guard.
I drove southwards. I had seen the last major destination of the trip and now it was time to return to California. It would take some time though. The Golden State was about a thousand miles away.
Once more, I realized how exhilarating driving in Montana is. The curvy roads, the high speeds, the wonderful scenery. The mountains and the valleys, the gurgling streams, the revving motorcycles, the casinos, the quaint small towns.
Overall, I loved Montana. It was my favourite state of all the ones I visited. It is beautiful, it is exciting, it is adult. There is no infantilizing here.
I stopped around nine pm at a motel in the tiny city of Choteau. The motel manager, a plump middle aged lady, was extremely nice and personable. There was a friendly mom-and-pop air about the place very different from the chain motels in larger cities.
I got some pizza for dinner and slept nicely on a soft bed after two nights of camping.
Day 20 (July 19), Choteau, Montana to Twin Falls, Idaho.
I continued driving soutwards. The drive was still pretty nice. At some point, I put on the soundtrack of Requiem for a Dream and was surprised to see how well Lux Aeterna gells with driving!
Not much to report for this day. I stopped to see the Craters of the Moon National monument in Idaho but the rest was uneventful. I stoped pretty late, thirsty and tired, at a motel in Twin Falls, Idaho. I drove almost 600 miles this day.
Day 21 (July 20), Twin Falls, Idaho to Palo Alto, California.
This was the longest day of driving of my entire trip; over 700 miles!
Again, not much to report. I arrived at SF’s place around midnight. I will stay here for a day or two and then go home (a mere five hour drive from here).
So there you go, that was my trip. It was a wonderful, if occasionally tiring, three weeks and I saw a great deal of the country. I am glad to have done something like this and I hope to have the time and opportunity to do something similar in Europe. To all readers who were following, thanks, and hope you enjoyed the descriptions and pictures!