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(For the second week, click here. For a google maps summary of the route for the first two weeks, click here. For a summary of the route for week three, click here.)

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.

seattle 004

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.

rainier 004

I sat down next to a little lake with Rainier in the background and read for a while.

rainier 011

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.

montana 008

I can find only one way to express it: Montana is impossibly beautiful.

montana 006

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.

glacier 001

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.

glacier 022

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.

glacier 012

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.

glacier 016

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.

glacier 036

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.

sunrise 008

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.

glacier 002

Within an hour of the start, I was convinced; this was one of the best hikes had ever done.

glacier 009

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.

glacier 007

Finally, I reached my destination.

glacier 013

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.

glacier 014

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.

glacier 015

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!

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Day 8 (July 7), Park City, Utah to Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
I had asked AM a day or two earlier if she would like to fly in to Portland and go to Crater Lake with me over the weekend. Got an email from her in the morning. It was a yes.
Which meant, instead of doing Utah — Wyoming — Montana– Washington state — Oregon, I should now be doing Utah — Wyoming — Idaho — Oregon in order to reach Portland in time. Washington state and Montana will need to wait.
I spent the morning socializing with a bunch of math people at the Park City conference I had rudely crashed. I even attended a math talk!
Then it was time to go shopping in order to restock on supplies. Wouldn’t want to be caught camping in the wilderness without food and water, would I?
Finally around 2 pm, I started driving northwards. The destination for today, Grand Teton National Park.
The drive was through beef country. Expansive prairies and few people. Finally, from a distance, I spied the Teton range.
If you ever get an opportunity to visit Grand Teton, you should grab it with both hands and feet. I had been there once before and was utterly charmed by the pure natural beauty of the place. Everything is picture perfect. Looming above the valleys and lakes and river is above all, the imposing Grand Teton mountain.
There’s something about this mountain. It’s incredible rugged beauty will overwhelm the first time visitor. This is a peak that gives no quarter and expects none.
I had planned to stay at a motel just outside the park (the map seemed to suggest that the best choice was Jackson, a mere 5 miles south of the entrance) and then drive in to the park and take sunset pictures. But when I arrived at Jackson and asked the attendant of the first cheap-looking motel what their cheapest rate was, he informed me it was $99 plus tax.
Swallowing my shock, I drove over to the nearby Super 8. The manager informed that the rate would come to $149 plus tax.
Wow! Never till today had I encountered a Super 8 charging more than 70 odd dollars.
I thanked the manager and informed him I was looking for something really cheap. As I was leaving, he stopped me.
“You know, just so you stay, we will give you a really really incredible deal. This is a special, dont tell anyone.”
“Ok?”
He wrote down on a piece of paper: “99 plus tax”.
“No thanks, still too high”, said I and walked out, this time for good.
“Well, your best bet is to camp then!” he hollered after me.
So camping it would be. By now I had realized that Jackson was actually the famous Jackson Hole, renowned ski resort and vacation town. No wonder everything was so darn overpriced.
I drove into the national park and started looking for a campground. But then I caught a glimpse of the Teton range, and the Grand Teton in particular, and started taking pictures.
The mountains were particularly gorgeous around sunset.
I set up my tent fairly late; it was a beautiful spot near Jackson lake next to warnings about grizzly bear presence. Cooked some dinner and then went to look for internet in the moonlight.
If it sounds like I had gone crazy, the fact is that most motels and lodges in this part of the country have free unencrypted wifi. So, you can just drive to the parking of one of them and log on.
On my short night drive to the parking lot of the Signal mountain lodge, I encountered several deer-in-the-headlights, including one that refused to move and I had to screech to a halt so that I don’t run the thing over. Finally I reached the lodge area, found the desired wifi, checked my email etc. and returned to the tent around midnight. It was a full moon and I had a most beautiful sleep, alone under the perfectly round moon and the twinkling stars, next to the lake and amidst the bears.
Day 9 (July 8), Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming to Rupert, Idaho.
I woke up to a beautiful day and sat by Jackson Lake reading a novel. It was Kundera’s “The unbearable lightness of being”. It was the only fiction book I had packed, the others being either math or economics/philosophy (examples of the latter: Friedman’s ‘Capitalism and freedom’; Nozick’s ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’).
On the other hand, it is hard to classify Kundera’s book as pure fiction. One could say it is a novel of ideas, but that term is rather vague. In any case, I cannot recall the last time I read a book that I liked so much.
I could try to review it, but I’d be a failure. Some things are just too great, and touch you too personally, to attempt a real review. There are not too many things like that in my life. Bitter Moon among movies. The Great Gatsby among novels. Hardy’s apology. To an extent, Carmen. And some stuff by Mozart. But all these were a while ago. Carmen was relatively recent, but that was more aesthetic appreciation than the fire of intellectual touch.
And now Kundera.
Among novels of ideas, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Fountainhead are the two that have touched me most intensely. The Fountainhead, Rand’s greatest fictional work, is essentially about individualism. Kundera’s TULoB: well it is hard to define what it is about; but it intoxicates as heavily and is as true, though in a very different sense. One could perhaps say it is about life and human existence and the choices inherent therein, or one could simply say it is about love, but neither of these are very accurate.
There is a line from The unbearable …: “No one can get really drunk on a novel or a painting but who can help getting drunk on [examples of musical works].” Well, for me at least, this novel itself is a counter-example.
Anyway, let me not get carried away. Some day I’ll write a post on libertarian existentialism. That day is not today. Today it is about Day 9 of my trip.
So I lay beside Jackson lake and read this book. It was pretty close to being in paradise.
Finally I got up, had lunch and started driving. It was an uneventful drive (Idaho is boring) and around eight, I stopped at the little town of Rupert and checked into a motel.
I tried going for a run but my attempt was thwarted by the many dogs (every house had at least one, and they were unleashed, and they all barked like crazy as soon as they saw me).
I did some math before going to bed.
Day 10 (July 11), Rupert, Idaho to Pendleton, Oregon.
I started driving relatively early and headed towards Oregon. On the way I stopped at a Starbucks and read my novel for a short time while sipping an iced latte. Then I stopped at a Subway and picked up lunch. I stopped at a rest area and filled up water. Around 3, the sign by the freeway announced that I was entering the state of Oregon. To celebrate, I stopped by a restroom to pee.
It was then that I realized I don’t have my wallet.
Thankfully, I still had my laptop and the rest area claimed to have wireless internet. Using the saved credit card number of my browser, I succeded in buying twenty minutes of online time. I opened google maps and searched for the Subway where I thought I had dropped the wallet. Got their number and called. No, said the sandwich artist on the phone, they hadn’t found any wallet.
My wallet was gone.
Imagine, for a moment, the incredible consequences of this discovery. Not only would I be unable to get to Portland now to pick up the lover tomorrow, I would not be able to go anywhere in a long time. Without my wallet, I had no credit cards. I had no cash. I had no driving license or id of any kind whatsoever. And there was no one I knew within a thousand miles.
In any case, staying there was useless; so I turned around and drove back into Idaho.
Then I decided to check the fuel indicator. It was basically empty. I would barely be able to drive another thirty miles. I was in the middle of nowhere in an incredibly desperate situation and had no money to buy any gas that would get me out of there.
It was a remarkable series of fortuities that saved me that day.
Fortuity one: Quarters. A few miles into Idaho, my panicked brain suddenly remembered something of immense significance. In order to do laundry at Denver, I had been forced to enter a twenty dollar bill into a change machine, which had in response spat out eighty quarters. Surely most of them were still in my backpack? Yes they were.
I dug my palm into my backpack and after a few attempts found the expected handfuls of coins. I drove into the next gas station and dropped about forty of those coins on the desk of the lady at the cash counter and asked for fuel. I don’t know what was more interesting, her utter disbelief or my intense exuberance.
Now that I had enough gas to go about a hundred miles, I started thinking. Maybe, just maybe, I had called up the wrong Subway?
Fortuity two: An atlas that shows rest areas.
I had bought a fat atlas of road maps the other day. It also had some other cool features. For instance it showed the location of rest aread. The significance of this was that I had stopped at a rest area shortly after I had bought my sandwich at the Subway. I carefully perused the map and realised with a huge relief, that I had indeed called the wrong Subway the first time around.
Fortuity three: Super 8.
Now that there was still a chance my wallet was not gone, I drove on. Then I spied a Super 8 motel just off the freeway. I exited and entered their parking lot. As expected, there was some wifi, and it was free!
I searched google maps again (with my now superior knowledge of my lunchtime coordinates) and foind about eight Subways around that region. Hell, which one had I gone to?
Fortuity four: Best Western.
I tried to imagine how my Subway looked. There was some motel next to it. I closed my eyes and tried to remember its logo. Was it a Best Western? Probably.
I now tried to search for Subways next to Best Westerns. This time Google did not fail me. There was a unique possible location.
I called them.
They had my wallet.
I will not try to describe the extent of my relief. Instead, I will merely say that I drove back ninety miles as fast as I could and picked up my wallet. Then I drove all the way back to Oregon again. I kept driving and driving till it was about eleven in the night. I stopped at some small motel
Day 11 (July 10),  Pendleton, Oregon to Portland, Oregon.
I woke up and left for Portland around noon. It took about three hours to reach the city. I checked into the hotel I had reserved and then went walking.
Portland is a pretty city. It is also incredibly European. You know what I mean? Plenty of public utilities. Tramways and buses that are free in the downtown area. Lots of squares in the middle of the city. Many parks. And so on.
Also, Portland, like the rest of Oregon, had plenty of signs warning of heavy fines if you didnt wear your seatbelt or put on your helmet. It also has some bizarre laws that are all its own. For instance, it is illegal to simply drive into a gas station like everywhere else and fill gas into your car; here the attendant at the station must do it.
I had always thought of Oregon as one of those libertarian-ish mountain west states (like Colorado or Montana) but nothing in my trip seemed to support that. Oregon is a nice state, but it not a particularly free one. At best, it is free only in some ways that align with European style liberalism. It is much like the Bay area that way.
I went to the airport and picked up the lover. We had a wonderful dinner at a seafood place and then came back to our hotel.
Day 12 (July 11), Portland, Oregon to Crater Lake, Oregon.
We woke up early and started driving towards Crater lake. It was a place I had longed to visit for years and we were both very excited.
It took almost five hours to reach it and we got our first sight of the lake soon after.
It was unbelievably blue. It
The reason for this blueness (and this is what makes this lake unique enough to be designated a national park) is the lake’s amazing depth and incredible purity. The lake basically fills the entire crater of a huge dormant volcano and is almost two thousand feet deep at parts. And because there are no inlets, the water is just pure melted snow.
It was an enchanting place in every way.
We hiked down to the surface of the water and enjoyed the sights. Then we came back to our camp-site and made a fire. As the sun went down, we cooked some dinner in my little stove and retired inside our tent shortly thereafter.
Day 13 (July 12), Crater Lake, Oregon to Portland, Oregon.
We went for a longish hike to the the top of a peak at the rim of the crater. The views of the lake were gorgeous. In fact, the view in every direction was spectacular. Verdant pine trees, layered ranges that dissove into the clouds. I am lost for words.
After having lunch at the top, we hiked down to our car and finally left crater lake in mid-afternoon. It was pretty late when we returned to our Portland hotel.
We decided to walk the city for a while and then went into a bar. We devoured a lot of excellent food at happy-hour prices and drank soke good beer on the tap.
Then we came back to the hotel and drank some wine.
It was a beautiful day.
Day 14( July 13), Portland, Oregon.

(In this post, I will describe the second week of my (still ongoing) road trip. The first week was covered in my previous post, where I described my sights and adventures as I passed through California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. In the second week, that I describe below, I travelled through Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. For a quick Google summary of my route for the first two weeks, click here.)

Day 8 (July 7), Park City, Utah to Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

I had asked AM (the lover)  a day or two earlier if she would like to fly in to Portland and go to Crater Lake with me over the weekend. Got an email from her in the morning. It was a yes.

Which meant, instead of doing Utah — Wyoming — Montana– Washington state — Oregon, I should now be doing Utah — Wyoming — Idaho — Oregon in order to reach Portland in time. Washington state and Montana will need to wait.

I spent the morning socializing with a bunch of math people at the Park City conference I had rudely crashed. I even attended a math talk!

Then it was time to go shopping in order to restock on supplies. Wouldn’t want to be caught camping in the wilderness without food and water, would I?

Finally around 2 pm, I started driving northwards. The destination for today, Grand Teton National Park.

The drive was through beef country. Expansive prairies and few people. Finally, from a distance, I spied the Teton range.

If you ever get an opportunity to visit Grand Teton, you should grab it with both hands and feet. I had been there once before and was utterly charmed by the pure natural beauty of the place. Everything is picture perfect. Looming above the valleys and lakes and river is above all, the imposing Grand Teton mountain.

The Grand Teton

The Grand Teton

There’s something about this mountain. It’s incredible rugged beauty will overwhelm the first time visitor. This is a peak that gives no quarter and expects none.

I had planned to stay at a motel just outside the park (the map seemed to suggest that the best choice was Jackson, a mere 5 miles south of the entrance) and then drive in to the park and take sunset pictures. But when I arrived at Jackson and asked the attendant of the first cheap-looking motel what their cheapest rate was, he informed me it was $99 plus tax.

Swallowing my shock, I drove over to the nearby Super 8. The manager informed that the rate would come to $149 plus tax.

Wow! Never till today had I encountered a Super 8 charging more than 70 odd dollars.

I thanked the manager and informed him I was looking for something really cheap. As I was leaving, he stopped me.

“You know, just so you stay, we will give you a really really incredible deal. This is a special, dont tell anyone.”

“Ok?”

He wrote down on a piece of paper: “99 plus tax”.

“No thanks, still too high”, said I and walked out, this time for good.

“Well, your best bet is to camp then!” he hollered after me.

So camping it would be. By now I had realized that Jackson was actually the famous Jackson Hole, renowned ski resort and vacation town. No wonder everything was so darn overpriced.

I drove into the national park and started looking for a campground. But then I caught a glimpse of the Teton range, and the Grand Teton in particular, and started taking pictures.

The mountains were particularly gorgeous around sunset.

road trip (wyoming) 023

I set up my tent fairly late; it was a beautiful spot near Jackson lake next to warnings about grizzly bear presence. Cooked some dinner and then went to look for internet in the moonlight.

If it sounds like I had gone crazy, the fact is that most motels and lodges in this part of the country have free unencrypted wifi. So, you can just drive to the parking of one of them and log on.

On my short night drive to the parking lot of the Signal mountain lodge, I encountered several deer-in-the-headlights, including one that refused to move and I had to screech to a halt so that I don’t run the thing over. Finally I reached the lodge area, found the desired wifi, checked my email etc. and returned to the tent around midnight. It was a full moon and I had a most beautiful sleep, alone under the perfectly round moon and the twinkling stars, next to the lake and amidst the bears.

Day 9 (July 8), Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming to Rupert, Idaho.

I woke up to a beautiful day and sat by Jackson Lake reading a novel. It was Kundera’s The unbearable lightness of being. It was the only fiction book I had packed, the others being either math or economics/philosophy (examples of the latter: Friedman’s ‘Capitalism and freedom’; Nozick’s ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’).

On the other hand, it is hard to classify Kundera’s book as pure fiction. One could say it is a novel of ideas, but that term is rather vague. In any case, I cannot recall the last time I read a book that I liked so much.

I could try to review it, but I’d be a failure. Some things are just too great, and touch you too personally, to attempt a real review. There are not too many things like that in my life. Bitter Moon among movies. The Great Gatsby among novels. Hardy’s apology. To an extent, Carmen. And some stuff by Mozart. But all these were a while ago. Carmen was relatively recent, but that was more aesthetic appreciation than the fire of intellectual touch.

And now Kundera.

Among novels of ideas, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Fountainhead are the two that have touched me most intensely. The Fountainhead, Rand’s greatest fictional work, is essentially about individualism. Kundera’s novel: well it is hard to define what it is about; but it intoxicates as heavily and is as true, though in a very different sense. One could perhaps say it is about life and human existence and the choices inherent therein, or one could simply say it is about love, but neither of these are very accurate.

There is a line from this book …: “No one can get really drunk on a novel or a painting but who can help getting drunk on [examples of musical works].” Well, for me at least, this novel itself is a counter-example.

Anyway, let me not get carried away. Some day I’ll write a post on what I fancifully might call libertarian existentialism. That day is not today. Today it is about Day 9 of my trip.

So I lay beside Jackson lake and read this book. It was pretty close to being in paradise.

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Finally I got up, had lunch and started driving. It was an uneventful drive (Idaho is boring) and around eight, I stopped at the little town of Rupert and checked into a motel.

I tried going for a run but my attempt was thwarted by the many dogs (every house had at least one, and they were unleashed, and they all barked like crazy as soon as they saw me).

I did some math before going to bed.

Day 10 (July 11), Rupert, Idaho to Pendleton, Oregon.

I started driving relatively early and headed towards Oregon. On the way I stopped at a Starbucks and read my novel for a short time while sipping an iced latte. Then I stopped at a Subway and picked up lunch. I stopped at a rest area and filled up water. Around 3, the sign by the freeway announced that I was entering the state of Oregon. To celebrate, I stopped by a restroom to pee.

It was then that I realized I don’t have my wallet.

Thankfully, I still had my laptop and the rest area claimed to have wireless internet. Using the saved credit card number of my browser, I succeded in buying twenty minutes of online time. I opened google maps and searched for the Subway where I had stopped an hour and half ago. I found their number and called. No, said the sandwich artist on the phone, they hadn’t found any wallet.

My wallet was gone.

Imagine, for a moment, the incredible consequences of this discovery. Not only would I be unable to get to Portland now to pick up AM the next day, I would not be able to go anywhere in a long time. Without my wallet, I had no credit cards. I had no cash. I had no driving license or id of any kind whatsoever. And there was no one I knew within a thousand miles.

In any case, staying there was useless; so I turned around and drove back into Idaho.

Then I decided to check the fuel indicator. It was basically empty. I would barely be able to drive another thirty miles. I was in the middle of nowhere in an incredibly desperate situation and had no money to buy any gas that would get me out of there.

It was a remarkable series of fortuities that saved me that day.

Fortuity one: Quarters. A few miles into Idaho, my panicked brain suddenly remembered something of immense significance. In order to do laundry at Denver, I had been forced to enter a twenty dollar bill into a change machine, which had in response spat out eighty quarters. Surely most of them were still in my backpack? Yes they were.

I dug my palm into my backpack and after a few attempts found the expected handfuls of coins. I drove into the next gas station and dropped about forty of those coins on the desk of the lady at the cash counter and asked for fuel. I don’t know what was more interesting, her utter disbelief or my intense exuberance.

Now that I had enough gas to go about a hundred miles, I started thinking. Maybe, just maybe, I had called up the wrong Subway?

Fortuity two: An atlas that shows rest areas.

I had bought a fat atlas of road maps the other day. It also had some other cool features. For instance it showed the location of rest areas. The significance of this was that I had stopped at a rest area shortly after I had bought my sandwich at the Subway. I carefully perused the map and realised with a huge relief, that I had indeed called the wrong Subway the first time around.

Fortuity three: Super 8.

Now that there was still a chance my wallet was not gone, I drove on. Then I spied a Super 8 motel just off the freeway. I exited and entered their parking lot. As expected, there was some wifi, and it was free!

I searched google maps again (with my now superior knowledge of my lunchtime coordinates) and found about eight Subways around that region. Hell, which one had I gone to?

Fortuity four: Best Western.

I tried to imagine how my Subway looked. There was some motel next to it. I closed my eyes and tried to remember its logo. Was it a Best Western? Probably.

I now tried to search for Subways next to Best Westerns. This time Google did not fail me. There was a unique possible location.

I called them.

They had my wallet.

I will not try to describe the extent of my relief. Instead, I will merely say that I drove back ninety miles as fast as I could and picked up my wallet. Then I drove all the way back to Oregon again. I kept driving and driving till it was about eleven in the night. I stopped at some small motel in the little town of Pendleton and slept better than I have had for a long while.

Day 11 (July 10),  Pendleton, Oregon to Portland, Oregon.

I woke up and left for Portland around noon. It took about three hours to reach the city. I checked into the hotel I had reserved and then went walking for a while. The motel was in a great location; smack in the middle of downtown.

I went to the airport and picked up AM. We had a wonderful dinner at a seafood place by the river and then came back to our hotel.

Day 12 (July 11), Portland, Oregon to Crater Lake, Oregon.

We woke up early and started driving towards Crater lake. It was a place I had longed to visit for years and we were both very excited.

About an hour into our drive, we stopped at the college town of Eugene to get some breakfast. Eugene has this reputation of being a very hip place, but the morning was cloudy and mildly dreary and there was hardly anyone on the streets. For a while we thought that Eugene’s hipness was exaggerated. But those fears vanished once we entered a cafe to get breakfast.

It was full of the hip crowd. People who would fit in perfectly in the coolest parts of Berkeley or San Francisco. The place itself was full of signs exclaiming their commitment to organic/local produce/vegan/fair-trade/universal brotherhood/world peace etc. And the coffee was so good.

We lounged around for an hour, enjoying our coffee and breakfast and making fun of hippies. Then we left and continued our journey towards Crater Lake. It took almost four hours to reach it.

Often enough, when you have heard many great things about a place, the expectations are so high that you end up disappointed. Crater Lake met my expectations. It was as beautiful as billed, and its waters looked, as we had heard, unbelievably blue.

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The reason for this blueness (and this is what makes this lake unique enough to be designated a national park) is the lake’s amazing depth and incredible purity. The lake basically fills the entire crater of a huge dormant volcano and is almost two thousand feet deep at parts. And because there are no inlets, the water is just pure melted snow.

It was an enchanting place in every way.

We hiked down to the surface of the water and enjoyed the sights. Then we came back to our camp-site and made a fire.

As the sun went down, we cooked some dinner in my little stove. The canned soup tasted so good! Eventually, we retired inside our tent .

Day 13 (July 12), Crater Lake, Oregon to Portland, Oregon.

After waking up and packing up tent etc, we had lunch and then went for a longish hike to the the top of a peak at the rim of the crater.

The views of the lake were gorgeous along the trail. In fact, the view in every direction was spectacular. Verdant pine trees, layered ranges that dissove into the clouds. I am lost for words.

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After having lunch at the top, we hiked down to our car and finally left crater lake around mid-afternoon. It was pretty late when we returned to our Portland hotel.

We decided to walk the city for a while and then went into a bar. We devoured a lot of excellent food at happy-hour prices and drank some good beer on the tap.

Then we came back to the hotel and drank some wine. AM and I had had a wonderful couple of days but she had a flight out the next morning to Berkeley. As for me, I was going to go to Seattle where I would spend a day with my friend J.

Day 14 ( July 13), Portland, Oregon.

I dropped off AM at the airport very early (5:30) and then came back to my hotel.

A little after, she called. By a strange coincidence of heavy congestion at the check-in counter and a broken security metal-detector, she had missed her flight. Now she was flying out the next morning.

As a result we had one more day together at Portland. I picked her up from the airport (and called up J and informed him I would not be able to make it to Seattle till the next day). We rested for a while and eventually left to see the city.

It was a long, loungy, beautiful day. We walked (and occasionally took the free bus) to explore downtown Portland. We spent a couple of hours at a coffee-shop and did some math. We played scrabble in a park next to a pretty fountain.

On the subject of coffee-shops and parks, Portland has lots of both.  It is in fact an incredibly European city. You know what I mean? Plenty of public utilities. Tramways and buses that are free in the downtown area. City halls. Large squares and lovely fountains. A nice riverwalk. Cafes strewn all over the place. An air of cultured sophistication.

Overall, there were things about Portland I loved (coffee-shops, bars, parks, architecture, culture, jaywalking, proximity to mountains), things I had mixed feelings about (the free downtown bus rides and other signs of large public spending, the fickle weather) and things I hated (the preponderance of one-way streets, the occasional air of righteous hippiness, the everywhere-signs warning of heavy fines if you don’t wear a seatbelt).

Like the city of Portland, the state of Oregon also left me with mixed feelings. It is a beautiful state, and has many nice features, but they mess things up by their annoying meddling. The speed limits on most roads, including freeways, are too low (this is true everywhere in the US, but Oregon is particularly bad). The most common sign on the freeways are those that warn of heavy fines if you didnt wear your seatbelt or put on your helmet. Oregon also has some bizarre laws that exist virtually nowhere else. For instance, it is illegal here to drive into a gas station and self-fill gas into your car; here the attendant at the station must do it. If you decide to fill your tank yourself and a cop spies you, you can be slapped with a $500 fine. Apparently, Oregonian legislators think you are too dumb to safely fuel your vehicle and thus you (and your children!) must be protected from attempting to do so. I am serious.

I once used to think of Oregon as one of those ruggedly individual libertarianish mountain west states (like Colorado or Wyoming or Montana) but nothing in my trip seemed to support that. I mean, it does have better assisted suicide laws than anywhere else in the States. It has fairly liberal drug laws. But if you come to Oregon expecting an overall enhancement of your freedom to deal with your body and property in any manner you deem fit, you may be disappointed.  (Your better bets are Colorado, Montana and New Hampshire). As I earlier observed in the context of tobacco, Oregon’s apparent libertarianism is an accident. Oregon is a nice state, but it not a particularly free one. At best, it is free only in some ways that align with European style liberalism. It is much like the Bay area that way.

Anyway, enough about Oregon’s political identity. I’ll go back to talking of our day in Portland.

It is a blissful experience to explore and walk about a pretty city for a whole day when you have no worries or deadlines.

The coffee-shop we spent some time in had such wonderful latte that we ordered it again. The roadside Greek cafe had super-tasty food. We walked by the fountains and the river. The scrabble game was exciting. Dinner was at a really good fondue restaurant.

We came back and finished the left-over wine from the previous night. It was the perfect end to a wonderful day.

So that was week two of my trip. The next day, AM would depart and I would drive (again alone) to Seattle, and from there to Montana. There will be another (final) update in about a week!

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The idea of road tripping the American southwest and mountain-west first occurred to me a month ago when I was wondering how to spend the five free weeks I would have before my planned early August departure for Switzerland. The way I had envisaged it, it was going to just me, doing a grand circle from California eastwards through Nevada and Utah all the way over the Rocky mountains to Denver; then northwards through Idaho and Wyoming till Montana; westwards to Washington state; and finally south through Oregon into California.

It seemed like an incredible idea at the time, and now that I am a week into it, it seems even more incredible.

As it turned out, I did have company for the first five days of my trip. SG, an old friend from Calcutta currently studying in the USA was excited by the idea and decided to fly over to LA so that she could travel with me for the LA — Denver leg of my trip.

Day 1 (June 30), Los Angeles, California to Las Vegas, Nevada.

I had arrived just the previous night from Hawaii, so planning and packing was incredibly hectic. I went to the airport around noon to pick up SG. We had dimsum for lunch, shopped for supplies, did some more last minute packing and left for Vegas around 5 pm.

Vegas never disappoints me. Perhaps it is the extraordinary opulence, the decadence, the lights and sights, the mastery of man over nature. Or maybe I am just thrilled by the unabashed capitalism in action, its open (and legal) gambling and prostitution, its unusually libertarian laws on everything from smoking to public drinking. SG had never been there before and she had the typically overwhelmed reaction that first timers often have.

We walked and talked and went to a bar to drink some cocktails. Around 2 am, after I had accidentally spilled a glass of wine on both of us, we decided it was time to return to our hotel.

Day 2 (July 1), Las Vegas, Nevada to Zion National Park, Utah.

This was my fourth trip to Zion. It is a magnificent national park, with its unbelievable rock structures, high cliffs, deep canyons and blazing red colors. Like the rest of the American Southwest, the word to describe it is majestic.

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Zion

We reached around 4 pm and set up our tents.

Campsite

Campsite

Later we took the shuttle across the park and stopped by the pretty Virgin river. SG and I waded to the middle of the waters and took pictures.

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On our way back, we scrambled to the top of a hill with great views of Angel’s landing. Then we returned to the tent and had dinner. After dinner I had the wonderful idea that we should go on a night hike and even more wonderfully, she agreed. We hiked for about an hour to an overlook from where we could see the valley far below bathed in moonlight. Eventually, we returned to the campsite around midnight and went to bed.

In the middle of the night I was woken up by cold drops on my face. Once I had gotten over the confusion, I deduced that it was raining, so I went out and put on the rainfly. So much for sleeping under a transparent roof. The rest of the night was uneventful.

Day 3 (July 2), Zion National Park, Utah to Green River, Utah.

This was the day we truly experienced the American southwest. What can I say? The extraordinary colors, the gorgeous buttes and the deep canyons, the infinite expanses. The deserts and the mountains, the brutal power of a land that has not been mastered and perhaps never will.

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The American southwest is an incredible place; words cannot describe it, pictures cannot capture it. You have to go there.

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We passed by Bryce and drove through the Grand Staircase Escalante. The road winded through red gorges and white deserts. We could literally see the land changing.

Later in the day, when we were driving through Capitol Reef National Park, SG fell asleep. I decided that she does not deserve to miss these sights for something as mundane as sleep, so I woke her up and we hiked to a huge boulder about half a mile away and then (of course!) climbed it. It was quite an adventure and on the way down she was rather scared, but at the end we had a good laugh about the whole thing.

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We spent the night at some motel in a little town called Green River. Dinner was pizzas and beer (three bottles out a six-pack we bought).

Day 4 (July 3), Green River, Utah to Silverthorne, Colorado.

From the rugged rocks of Utah to the high mountains of Colorado. It was another utterly beautiful drive. The Colorado river, at this point a lovely stream on our right, was a constant company. As the Rockies neared, the sights got prettier. Here are some pictures.

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I had an interesting experience at a gas station. A guy asked me if I knew the way to Denver in a very slow and strange intonation. After I had given him the information he wanted, he said in an even stranger voice (and even more slowly): Thank you sir. God bless you sir. May Jesus be with you sir. I could think of nothing more intelligent to say than: You too.

Towards the end of the day, we tried hard to find a campground but everything was taken. Finally we realised why; it was the Fourth of July weekend! So we started looking for a motel. We ended up staying at a relatively expensive place at the vacation town of Silverthorn, CO. Finished the rest of the beer at dinner.

Day 5 (July 4), Silverthorne, Colorado to Denver, Colorado.

We did a nice little hike in the morning.

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Then it was back on the road. We crossed the Rockies and entered Denver. I dropped off SG at the airport. She was sorry to leave, we had had an amazing four days.

It was time to find a place to stay. I searched online (the airport had free wifi!) and found a cheap hostel right in the middle of the city, exactly what I desired.

I checked in there an hour later and was greeted by a woman wearing an Obama t-shirt and looking like a political activist. No surprise. After all, Colorado was one of the three most important states in the last election and the Obama machinery here had been formidable.

It was also time to do some laundry and I found a laundromat nearby for the purpose. (Later at night, I returned to find that the water pipe serving the laundromat had broken, flooding the street!)

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Had bison burgers for dinner at a place that claimed to make the best burgers in the US. The waitress was extremely hot. The burger was very, very good.

Then I decided to drive outside town to see fireworks. Didn’t get much of a sight (it was too late and the place was too far) but it was a nice drive nevertheless. On the way back I picked up a female hitchhiker who was high on pot and wanted a ride down to the parking lot.

I liked whatever I saw of Denver. People jaywalk all the time. The mountains are close by. The roads are full of interesting shops. The city is both incredibly cosmopolitan and perfectly fits in the mountain west. They say it is one of the most libertarian cities in the US and I certainly saw a lot of marijuana being smoked late at night.

Day 6 (July 5), Denver, Colorado to Craig, Colorado.

I had come as far east as I desired and now it was time to go in a different direction. Also, from now on, it would be a solo drive.

My initial plan was to leave early and go all the way to Park City, where I would crash with a friend. But I woke up and got caught watching the long Wimbledon final (Yay to Federer!).

I left around noon and decided I would spend the bulk of the day in Rocky Mountain National Park. Park City can wait.

It was breathtaking. Imagine snow capped peaks and picture perfect valleys. Think of pretty lakes by quaint towns of the kind you seen in the movies. Above all, imagine a road that goes up to 12,190 feet.

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I stopped so many times. I hiked, I took pictures. I sat on the peak and mused. Every moment was worth it.

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I even spotted a magnificent elk grazing.

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I ended the day at a motel in Craig, CO. Just before I stopped I saw a very beautiful sunset. My pictures probably do not do it justice.

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Day 7 (July 6), Craig, Colorado to Park City, Utah.

It was mostly an uneventful drive with one singular exception.

Near the CO-UT border, I stopped at a pretty little cafe (they had really good espresso) and stared at a picture on the wall.

It was a photograph of a truly gorgeous canyon. I asked the lady at the counter where this place was.

She told me it was about 30 miles north of there. She said I should go there.

Then, with a twinkle in her face (she was old, around 65) she said I should do the hike that starts where the road ends and then cross the fence they have put up at the end of the hike and go some more (“unless you are afraid of heights”)

In a way her attitude epitomized that of the people who dwell in the mountain west. They are proud and dignified but also fun, and above all fiercely independent. This old lady was running this shop in the middle of nowhere and she was encouraging me to jump over the fence put up the authorities. Implicit in it were the magic words, individual liberty and individual responsibility. She did not think that it is the government’s job to put up some damn fence and protect us from ourselves. These people do not like a paternalistic state, they don’t want government dole-outs; they can evaluate their own risks and take care of their own lives. And in the event they do fall off a cliff after ignoring a warning sign or a fence, I can almost imagine them not asking for government help (and if they do, they will make sure they reimburse the cost of the airlift or whatever to the taxpayer). I hope I am not projecting too much of myself into the old lady!

So I went to the spot she recommended. It was about an hour detour. But it was worth it. I have been to many overlooks and this overlook was perhaps the most unbelievable of them all.

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I saw the fence too. Yes, it was mildly scary beyond it. But I was glad there was no sign warning of fines if one

violates it. Well, if by putting up the fence all they are saying is — go ahead at your own risk — then I have no problems. road trip (colorado, utah) 005

I crossed the fence and carefully walked some more and soaked in the amazing vistas. It needed a non trivial amount of my mountaineering skills to make sure I did not fall two thousand feet below.

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It was an utterly, utterly incredible place.

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I sat on the rock and did some math. On the drive back, at one point the road was full of cows. I had to honk for three minutes before they let me through.

I reached Park City around 10 pm.

So that was the first week. 7 days, over 2000 miles driven. Tomorrow I head northwards. It has been a wonderful journey and I hope it continues this way.

Driving across vast swaths of land can put you in a state of mind that nothing else can. It also gives you an extraordinary sense of freedom, especially if your itinerary and route is as flexible as mine is.

This trip has also been enriching in so many other ways. America is such a wonderfully varied country that no single generalization can apply to it. How can one government, even if elected by a majority, truly claim to represent the people? The answer perhaps, is a much greater distribution of power (anti-federalism), counter-balanced by some basic individual rights that no state law can violate. Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day.

I hope to post more descriptions and pictures in a few days.

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In about ten hours, I will leave on a long trip in my car to explore lands from California to Utah, Colorado to Wyoming, Montana to Oregon. I expect to be on the road for three to four weeks, and hope to post descriptive reports from time to time.

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I am supposed to be writing a paper but here I am browsing through the website of James Milne (famous mathematician) who has climbed many mountains. Particularly breathtaking is his account of his Everest attempt (he was 61, reached within 350 m of the summit before turning back). Go to this page and read the sections under Tibet 2004. The description and pictures are awesome and it is chilling to read the last section where he describes his fellow climbers who died or almost died while trying to climb the peak .

I also found this great quote on his page, taken from some book:

The next thing an aspiring mountain climber should do is choose which mountain to climb. Mountain climbers that are still alive (usually because of luck and not for long) will probably advise that you should start with a fairly easy mountain to ascend so that you aren’t killed or maimed or disfigured. However, that is total nonsense since as a mountain climber it is inevitable that you will be killed, maimed, and disfigured, possibly in that order. So, if you want to climb Mt. Everest first, go for it and God have mercy on your soul.

Why am I suddenly browsing mountains? Well, I’ve always dreamt of climbing some serious peaks but at this conference I met this Polish guy who is an experienced mountaineer and he offered to take me up Mont Blanc this fall (highest peak in Alps but relatively easy climb) and eventually with enough practice, we hope to go up the Matterhorn!

Talking of the Matterhorn, watch this video, and you will know why it is such an iconic emblem and everyone’s dream climb.

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I am the guy with the blue helmet.

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Rope skills at 9900 feet on a cold Sunday morning

(Photo courtesy of Stephan)

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I am an avid hiker and have visited plenty of National Parks in the USA and India. I have been mesmerized by the grandeur of Zion, the majesty of Grand Canyon, the sublimeness of the Himalayas, the spectacular beauty of the high Sierras and the rugged harshness of Joshua Tree. Yet in terms of sheer variety, scale and that undefinable ‘wow’ factor, Death Valley is in a class of its own.

For where else can you find expansive unending desert plains, vast salt flats hundreds of feet below sea level, Saharan sand dunes, deep walled multi-colored canyons and snow-capped mountains all an hour’s drive from each other?

We were a group of eight and notwithstanding some minor issues, gelled together well and had an amazing time. Over the last five days, we rolled down sand dunes, hiked up canyons, scrambled up rock faces, camped one night deep inside the wilderness, walked upon the lowest place in the Western hemisphere and braved deep snow and chilly conditions to climb a 9000 feet high mountain. It was a wonderful trip and I will cherish the memories.

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