I love Lolo Pass. I’ve only driven over it once before, but I just love the lazy, sweeping curves along the river on the Idaho side. Hence the swooping [g].
I headed west then south into what passes for Missoula, Montana’s morning rush hour, then west again up the thirty or so miles to the top of Lolo Pass. This is where Lewis and Clark finally made it over the Rockies back in 1804. It’s also where the Nez Perce fled across the mountains in the other direction on their way to Yellowstone to encounter the tourists before they (the Nez Perce) almost made it to Canada. So, a lot of history here, and a nice visitor center staffed by a fellow who apparently didn’t have enough tourists to talk to, because he all but followed me into the exhibit room and kept talking when all I really wanted to do was look at the exhibits. Oh, well. I know I’ve done more than my share of talking the ears off of people when I’ve been on my own for too long, too.
The road down the west side of the pass into Idaho (the border between Idaho and Montana runs along the ridge line, and so does the line between Mountain and Pacific time) swoops down next to the Clearwater River through a deep canyon, curving gently back and forth and back and forth, for almost a hundred miles. It’s just so much fun to drive, almost like some sort of carnival ride or something. I’m not doing it justice at all, but that’s life.
About seventy miles on from the pass, I stopped in the tiny hamlet of Lowell, Idaho, for lunch in a cute little café. Those were the first buildings I saw after the border, so this is seriously wild country.
When the canyon finally opens out, it’s into a lot of warm brown hills (at least they’re brown this time of year) and then out into what I thought would be the southeastern edge of the Palouse, but the road cuts show basalt, not deep soil, so no, not Palouse.
I crossed a big chunk of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation to get to the Washington state line, then stopped for the night in the town of Clarkston, which is directly across the Snake River from the Idaho town of Lewiston. Gee, I wonder where those names came from [g].
From Sheridan — well, actually from Twin Bridges, the next little town down the road — there were two ways to go. One north, which I hadn’t driven before but which led to I-90, which I’ve driven at least a couple dozen times, and one southwest towards I-15, that stretch of which I’d never driven before. Even though it was about twenty miles further, guess which way I took?
And I’m glad I did. The first bit was very pretty, through sparsely populated ranch land ringed with mountains and down into the town of Dillon on I-15. I’ve only been to Dillon once before. It was the first place on my Long Trip in which I couldn’t find a place to stay (due to it being Labor Day and the annual rodeo).
From Dillon I headed north on I-15, and, less than twenty miles down the road, I happened to glance over to the right and saw a bald eagle perched on one of the posts holding up the wire fence running alongside the road. Fully mature, white head and all, he had to be two feet tall, I swear. Too bad I was going 70 mph on a freeway — I’d have tried to take a picture of him. He was amazing.
Deer Lodge Pass over the Continental Divide south of Butte (where I-15 and I-90 cross) is much more gradual and less steep than Homestake Pass due west of Butte. But because of that I think I was climbing pretty much all the way from Dillon to the pass. At any rate, once I hit I-90 I was on familiar territory and pretty much ready to head home.
I stopped for iced tea in Deer Lodge (the town, not the pass, which is about forty-five minutes from Butte (the highway signs say west, but the road runs almost due north-south at that point). I stopped for lunch and more gas in Missoula.
And I crossed over Lookout Pass into Idaho and the Pacific Time Zone about the middle of the afternoon, aiming for Spokane.
I won’t bore you with the hunt I had to make for a motel room in Spokane. Suffice to say that I think I’ve found a new reasonably-priced convenient place to stay there on my way to wherever, which is a good thing as the one I was used to using had upped its price out of reason because of Hoopfest (I’m assuming) that weekend.
Only one photo today, taken along I-90 between Missoula and Lookout Pass, probably closer to Lookout Pass. I was trying to take a photo of the rain falling ahead of me, which actually turned out to be mostly virga (that is, not hitting the ground).
And that was the penultimate day of my trip, two weeks ago today.
Well, that was the only night I camped on this trip. For some reason I could not get comfortable in my sleeping bag, and I finally gave up about four in the morning. So I pulled out my Kindle and read till it got light at about 5:30, packed up, and headed out.
Not very far at first — the Sunrise campground sits at the very top of the long, steep drop to Bear Lake, and a very nice viewpoint/visitor center, which was unlocked even at that gawdawful hour of the day (much to my pleasure, as the campground only had pit toilets and no running water), is practically next door to it. So I got cleaned up and then sat and watched the sun rise over Bear Lake. It was fairly spectacular.
I decided I deserved breakfast out after that, and after descending 2000 feet (7900 to 5900) to Bear Lake and the small town of Garden City, I started looking for somewhere that might feed me one.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, was open in Garden City at six a.m., though, so I went on, heading north along the shore of Bear Lake. Eventually I crossed the state line back into Idaho, and found the small town of Montpelier, which was just waking up for the day. The lady at the gas station where I filled the tank for the fourth time on the trip told me the truck stop just north of town was about the only place to go to get breakfast (I did mention that Montpelier is a small town, right?). So I went to find the truck stop.
It turned out to be a nice place, as such things go, and the waitress very helpfully warned me that I only wanted one pancake, not a short stack. Wow, was she right. That pancake was about twelve inches around and at least half an inch thick. It was good, though, especially with Bear Lake raspberry syrup (the berries are a local specialty). I ate a bit more than half of it before I gave up.
I headed north and east on U.S. 89, the same highway that I took all the way to Yellowstone. Up and over a pass and into Wyoming, where I noticed that I was not as alert at the wheel as I could be, so I stopped in a forest service campground, let my seat back all the way, grabbed my pillow and afghan, and crashed for a couple of hours.
Much refreshed, I arrived in the town of Afton an hour or so later, where I got stuck in a bathroom line with a bunch of French-speaking bus tourists, and saw what is purportedly the world’s largest antler arch across the main drag in town. I did not get a photo of it, but if you click here you can get a look at it.
My goal for the day was the ski resort of Jackson Hole (no, not Jackson’s Whole — that would be the wrong Nexus, thank goodness), where I was going to spend tonight, and Grand Teton National Park, where I would spend the rest of the day.
I’d spent about half an hour on my cell phone last night in the campground — I don’t know why I’m still astonished that I can talk on the phone in places that remote, but I am — making sure I had a place to sleep tonight at the hostel in Teton Village (at the base of the ski resort) and for the next two nights (they didn’t have space after that — last minute trip planning can be a bear) at the hostel in West Yellowstone.
I hadn’t spent any time to speak of in the Tetons since I was a kid. In 1999 on my Long Trip (see my book Cross-Country: Adventures Alone Across America and Back) I’d spent an evening on a dinner cruise on Jackson Lake with some friends, and in 2008 my friend Mary and I passed through, stopping for a few photos, on our way from Yellowstone to Denver for WorldCon, but that was pretty much the extent of it. In all the rest of my jaunts to Yellowstone, I hadn’t bothered to come south even that far. So I wanted to spend a little time here, at least.
The Tetons are spectacular, I’ll give them that, but they strike me as a bit — aloof. It’s hard to get out in them without doing a lot more hiking than I’m capable of. I stopped along the roadside to take pictures and to look at wildflowers (which were everywhere), and then at the visitor center at Moose, which was fun. Then I drove out to Jenny Lake and decided on a whim to take a boat ride across the lake to a trailhead that led to a waterfall.
The boat ride was fun. It was also a great way to cool off from the 80+ degree temperatures. And the hike to the waterfall, albeit with a boatload of my new close friends, was good, too. So that was worth it.
After the ride back, though, it was getting late, and I took what was supposed to be a short cut but turned out to be a goat trail back to Teton Village.
And I ended my day by scaring the bejeebies out of myself. There was this gondola, you see. It was free in the evenings. I thought it would be like the gondola at Crystal Mountain here in Washington state, which is a pleasant little ride. This was not a pleasant little ride. It turned out to be about three times as long and three times as steep, and by the time I got to the top, I was a gibbering idiot (I don’t do manmade heights, at least not ones like these). If you want to see what the view from the top looks like, click here. I left my camera in the car.
I almost couldn’t make myself ride it back down again, but a group with a baby(!) got in the gondola with me, and that happy little baby was a great distraction. Thank goodness. I’m not sure I’d have made it down sane without him!
Across the wide open spaces to some rather strange places
Southern Idaho, as I’ve said before, is a desert except where it’s irrigated. I was traveling across the path taken by the Yellowstone hotspot in ancient times — if you look at a satellite view of the region, you’ll see this sort of U-shaped giant-sized ditch in the land where, over the last few million years, the hotspot made its way from northeastern Nevada/southeastern Oregon, across Idaho, and up to northwestern Wyoming, erupting periodically along the way. What it left behind was a vast trough full of volcanic rocks of various kinds.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With enough weathering and the addition of some water, it can be transformed into hellaciously fertile farmland. Think about where all those famous Idaho potatoes come from. Although Washington actually grows more potatoes than Idaho does these days — but they do it on the same types of volcanic soil. Different eruptions, though.
Anyway. I headed southeast on I-84 to the Utah state line. Once upon a time, I drove this stretch of highway in January, moving from Eugene, Oregon, to Fort Collins, Colorado, and the landscape didn’t actually look all that different from today except for the skim of dusty white snow swirling across the highway back then. This is true high desert — don’t let the signs for Salt Lake City fool you.
I left the highway at the exit labeled #26 after crossing the state line, where the sign said, rather ominously, “NO SERVICES.” But that’s where the directions for the Golden Spike National Historic Site said I was to get off, and it’s not the most isolated place on the planet I’ve ever been (see Stanley, Idaho, night before last, which doesn’t take that pride of place, either). The other sign at that exit said, rather mysteriously, “ATK.” I had no idea what ATK was, but maybe I’d get to find out.
After coming over a rise and crossing abruptly from desert to irritated farmland, then going around a few miles worth of bends in the road, I found out what ATK is. Apparently it’s where they build rockets for NASA and missiles for the Defense Department. And they’re proud of it, because out in front of this big cluster of 1960s-era-looking buildings out in the middle of absolutely nowhere was something I’ll call a sculpture garden for lack of a better term.
Bemused, I parked the car and took a gander. Each one was mounted on a big metal pole, and each had its own label telling what it was.
After goggling for a bit in the windy heat (it was well into the 90s that day), I got back in the car, fired up the AC again, and headed for a much older form of transportation.
Golden Spike National Historic Site, like Pompey’s Pillar (a Lewis and Clark site I visited a couple of years ago) has always sort of been on my nonexistent bucket list. It’s where the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific met in 1869, to form the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S. The event was celebrated by a bunch of dignitaries coming to this place out in the middle of the Utah desert just north of the Great Salt Lake (you can see the salt flats from a viewpoint at the site) to hammer a golden spike into the last railroad tie and ceremonially join the two railroads together.
It’s an interesting place historically, and it’s also cool because the NPS keeps two replica steam locomotives on site, and runs one or the other of them daily at 1 pm for a short distance.
I ate a picnic lunch while waiting, after having been told by the ranger that I couldn’t bring my food indoors into the AC because they had a small mouse problem (I’m pretty sure it was the mice that were small, not the problem).
Then I got to see cutting edge transportation from the 19th century, smokestack, whistle (loud!) and all. Which was pretty damned cool (unlike the weather).
After the demonstration, I headed east again on a backroad that thought it was a roller coaster, back down, down, down to cross I-84 again and on to the city of Logan, Utah. I hadn’t checked email in a while, and I needed groceries and gas. What ended up happening is that I got really lost trying to find the library (for email — my netbook no longer being wifi capable), but I finally made it out of town after a stop at a ranger station to make sure I was on the right road (there wasn’t a sign to be seen), where the ranger gave me a wonderful pamphlet about Logan Canyon, which was where I was headed.
And that’s how I ended up camping at Sunrise Campground in Utah, overlooking Bear Lake, up in the aspens where it was lovely and cool and the wildflowers were everywhere.
Oh, and I sold a copy of Repeating Historyto a couple I struck up a conversation with at the campground. Which is the first time that’s happened. I’m glad I took the print copies with me.
In which our traveler spent a morning with flowers and an afternoon wondering if she was ever going to get there.
It was already getting hot when I left Ontario, Oregon, and crossed into Idaho. Heat shimmering off the pavement and all that. But I stopped at the first rest area along the interstate, doubling as a welcome center, and stepped out to take a look at a nicely full Snake River, wending its way across southern Idaho on its way to meet up with the Columbia. It’s always good to see a river with plenty of water in this part of the country (east of the Cascades, west of the Rockies). The Snake was a lifeline for the pioneers on the Oregon Trail, too.
It was only an hour’s drive that morning to Boise, the state capital, a pleasant town along the Snake that has a great deal in common with many other western state capitols; while Boise is the largest city in Idaho, unlike Salem or Olympia or Helena or Carson City, it’s got that “we’re the seat of government because of some historical accident, not because this is where things happen” sort of vibe down pat.
The Idaho Botanical Garden is situated on the grounds of the old state penitentiary, of all things, and the ruins of the 19th century stone buildings look almost like some sort of antique backdrop to the acres of beautiful landscaping.
The trouble with visiting places like this in other climates is that they grow things I would love to be able to grow but can’t. I realize I live in a very favored climate where many choice plants flourish with abandon, but it still makes me jealous that flax, for instance, its flowers looking like bits of the sky fallen to earth, won’t make it through our rainy winters. Then again, I wouldn’t appreciate botanical gardens in other climates so much if it did.
The highlight of the Idaho Botanical Garden was the Lewis and Clark Garden, featuring plants that L&C discovered while they were in Idaho, each labeled by name with where they were found. The garden path wandered back and forth up the hillside to a statue of Sacagawea and a view across Boise to the Snake River and beyond. Quite lovely.
I filled the gas tank for a second time in Boise, and ate lunch while trying to choose whether I wanted to drive 300 miles down to Great Basin National Park in Nevada or northeast up into the Idaho mountains. I decided on the latter. Great Basin NP will have to wait for another year.
The road up through the dusty desert foothills into the Sawtooth Mountains was steep and winding. And seemingly endless. At first I wondered if there were going to be mountains at all, as I passed by a dam that made me laugh:
But as I went farther on pine trees started to appear and the hills were covered in mock orange (Idaho’s state flower) in full bloom.
I stopped in Idaho City, one of Idaho’s earliest settlements and a gold mining town (of course), and visited the Boise Basin Museum which told all about its history, including a 10-minute film narrated by, of all people, Tennessee Ernie Ford, who spent some of his later years here.
After that entertaining interlude, I kept going, thinking I’d spend the night in Stanley, one of the most remote towns in the Northwest but only about a hundred miles on. I must admit that was the case — that it’s one of the most remote towns, if you can call it a town with a population of 63. I drove and drove and drove that afternoon, up through a canyon and into the mountains. I was stopped at one point by a traffic accident involving a motorcycle that seemed to have been going around one of the many sharp curves too fast. The motorcycle was lying on its side, and its rider was on the ground with it as if he were still riding it. I was assured by one of the many people standing around that the ambulance was on its way. I suspect it took a while to get there, and I hope the rider wasn’t too badly off.
At last I reached Real Mountains ™, snowcapped and jagged and glorious. I also reached miles and miles of roadside covered in bundles of dead trees. I found out later that the cause was pine bark beetles.
But when I finally reached Stanley, in a lovely broad meadow surrounded by mountain peaks, I found a sweet little log cabin with my name on it, and sat out on its porch for the evening enjoying the peace and the beauty. It was so quiet there that I could hear a car coming for miles before it passed by. Perhaps half a dozen of them passed by that evening before the stars came out, it got chilly (I’d gained a few thousand feet in elevation from Boise), and I finally went inside.
And home again, home again, AKA bombing home on the Interstate.
It takes about a day and a half for me to get home from Yellowstone. A very long day and a half, but still. I left my cabin at Old Faithful early in the morning, feeling wistful as I always do, and comforting myself with the thought that I will be back. At the rate things are going, I’m not sure when my next visit will be, but return visits will remain inevitable until I become too decrepit to travel. A long time in the future, I hope.
I did not make any more stops in the park, as I hoped to get as far as Spokane that day, which is less than ten miles shy of 500 miles. I did make two stops in West Yellowstone, one for just enough gas to get me to the Interstate, where it’s about thirty cents a gallon cheaper than in West, and the other at the hostel to pick up the wristwatch I had inadvertently left there two days before. Fortunately, the cleaning staff had found it and set it aside for me. And, I discovered later, sent me an email to let me know they had it.
After that, well, Kestrel and I could probably drive this route in our sleep. North out of West to Hwy. 287, which runs along Hebgen Lake to Earthquake Lake, the site of the landslide caused by the earthquake I’ve been nattering on about for the last two weeks. Up and over the natural dam, and downstream along the Madison River, past the Gallatin Mountains and through the little town of Ennis, which makes a great deal of its living from the fly fishermen who flock to the Madison every year.
And on north. It takes about three hours to get from Old Faithful to I-90, headed westbound. From Old Faithful to Livingston is only about two hours, give or take an animal jam in the park, but that puts you an hour and half east from where 287 eventually debouches, so it’s not a time-saver that way.
Once past Ennis, the land opens up and the mountains draw back, but after I landed back on I-90 it wasn’t all that far to my last crossing of the Continental Divide on this trip, at Homestake Pass, then Butte, where my great long lasso of a trip reached its knot and I was back on highway I’d already traveled this trip. I stopped in Butte for lunch and gas, then let Kestrel really start eating up the miles.
It was about the middle of the afternoon, somewhere along about Missoula, I think, that I started thinking, why don’t I just keep going? Theoretically, if I drove straight through (something I have never done in all my Yellowstone trips), I could make it home before midnight.
I debated the idea for miles. All the way through the last 100 miles of Montana and the 60 or so miles across Idaho as far as Coeur d’Alene, where, in spite of the fact that I still had over a quarter of a tank of gas, I stopped to get more because I knew the price would jump forty cents a gallon as soon as I crossed the state line into Washington. However, the moment I climbed out of the car, I knew I wasn’t going to do it. One of the odd things about spending the entire day making miles is that I tend to not realize how tired I am until I actually stop. So I resigned myself to that one last night on the road.
I crashed and burned in a little mom and pop motel out by Spokane International Airport, and got up and out at the crack of dawn the next morning. I was pretty much sick of breakfast bars by that point, so I decided I would see what the little town of Ritzville, which is the next wide spot in the road after Spokane, had in the way of a diner. My mouth was set for pancakes. I did find some, or, rather one enormous one after the waitress told me two would be overload, bless her, but only after giving myself the grand tour of the entire town. It was worth it, though.
Back on the highway, I stopped at a rest area to clean up, then took a glance to the west and did a doubletake. Was that Mt. Rainier? Surely not, I was still too far east. I fetched my binoculars and stared again. Lo and behold. Home.
You see, I have this theory. My theory is that there are place-oriented people and there are people-oriented people (kind of like the way there are introverts and extroverts). I am a very strongly place-oriented person, which is a good thing because a) I’m really bad at marriage, having tried twice and failed both times, and b) my blood relations are scattered all to hell and gone in places I wouldn’t live in on a bet. I was born in New Orleans and grew up in LA, Denver, and San Franscisco (my father was an engineer, which is the next thing to being military for getting transferred regularly), so it’s not like I have a hometown, either.
But home is the Pacific Northwest, and in particular, my corner of western Washington, where I’ve lived for the last almost twenty years. I moved to Oregon in my mid-twenties and loved it, but then I made the mistake of falling in love with a Midwesterner who hoodwinked me into moving to Ohio. He claimed that we’d only be there long enough for him to finish grad school before we moved back to Oregon. Then he got within two hours’ drive of his seven brothers and sisters and I never did pry him loose.
I finally managed to finish grad school myself, leave him, and find a job in Tacoma, Washington. I remember driving over Snoqualmie Pass in tears because, dammit, I was home. Never mind that I’d never lived here before. It was just like the John Denver song, only a different part of the country.
Anyway, I still had about two hundred miles to go, but I was home. Much as I love traveling, and as you can see I really truly do, I love coming home almost as much. Especially since this is where I get to come home to.
I hope you enjoyed my travelogue, and that you will stick around for more adventures. For one thing, I am in the process of adopting a pair of kittens, which ought to be good entertainment value. And there are always new places to discover, even in the old familiar stomping grounds. And beyond.
If you like my travel writing, you might enjoy my fiction set in Yellowstone:
I hit the road for my first long trip alone in five years. Not that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed the trips I’ve taken in the last five years, with my friend Mary and my friend Loralee (oddly enough, the three of us all have Mary as a first name — Loralee and I go by our middle names), but it was time, and past time, for me to take off on my own.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me how brave I am to travel alone, I could probably finance one of these trips, but you’re only brave if you’re scared first. And I’ve never been scared of traveling by myself. Traveling alone is an entirely different experience than traveling with a companion. If you enjoy your companion, it’s fun to share what you see and do, but when you’re traveling alone, you’re more open to what’s around and about you, to meeting new people and absorbing new things. And there is an abundance of time to think.
Even on the first day and last day of this trip, which was basically the only bat-out-of-hell driving I did, to get across Washington and northern Idaho — someday I need to explore northern Idaho instead of flying past it to get somewhere else — into Montana or to get home, I didn’t listen to anything except my thoughts. No radio except the occasional search for a weather report, no CDs, no nothing except peace and quiet and time to think.
I’ve said this before, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing like being behind the wheel of a car. Being between places, neither here nor there. It’s why I fight so hard when other people say we need to get away from private transportation. For one thing, many of the places I long to go will never have public transportation. It simply isn’t cost-effective when you’re connecting towns of less than 2000 people a hundred miles from each other, or getting people out to places where they can get away from people altogether — to the edges of wilderness areas where they can really renew their spirits. What we need is a way to run private vehicles that is renewable, efficient, and environmentally friendly. Not to get rid of private vehicles.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes. The bat out of hell first day. I will admit that sometimes it would be nice to be able to transport me and my vehicle (which carries more necessities and is cheaper and, really, faster, to transport via driving than I am by flying and renting a car) across the wide-open spaces of eastern Washington. Getting off the Interstate and exploring there is one thing — I’ve done that before and enjoyed it. But it is not attractive or interesting from the freeway.
Snoqualmie Pass is beautiful, with some snow still on the ground. The wild horse sculptures on a butte above the Columbia River are striking. There’s a terrific fruit stand in the tiny community of Thorp in the eastern foothills. After that? I’m just waiting to see the first pine trees west of Spokane.
Spokane is a lovely city at the foothills of the westernmost stretch of the Rockies in the continental US, and it happens to possess Manito Park, one of the nicest traditional public gardens in the inland Northwest, in my humble opinion as an amateur garden fanatic. I spent about an hour there, admiring their signature lilacs as well as the first iris and peonies and the landscaped beds just beginning to come into their own for the summer. Then it was on to 75 miles of northern Idaho, past Lake Coeur d’Alene (heart of the axe is what I was told that means many years ago — I have no idea if that’s right) and over Lookout Pass and down into Montana. About 500 miles that first day.
I spent my first night on the road in a forest service campground along I-90 just west of Missoula, under the pine trees with the early flowers — balsamroot and serviceberry and bistort. And got snowed on just a bit that night Yes. In late May. Welcome to the Rockies.