December 2010


It all began in Bozeman, MT. No, back up. It all began on the runway of the San Francisco airport, some time around eight o’clock on a bright, brisk morning. The captain of the nearly empty 50 seat CRJ 200 on which I was seated cackled over the loudspeaker. “It’s a chilly 7 degrees in Bozeman this morning. We should be cleared to take off any minute now,” pause. “We’re only at about half capacity on this 50 seat plane this morning so feel free to spread out, get a window seat, enjoy the view outside of San Francisco.” His voice was warm, as though he was smiling as he said it, as though he knew of special places beyond the city and he was about to show them to us. By stepping onto the plane, I felt I’d already left the city and would remove myself entirely from its busyness over the 1700 mile road trip across the northwest my friend Brendan and I embarked on during the days to follow.

Here, a play-by-play of the journey, the places, the people, the snowfall strung together by collections of images and words:

The journey from Yellowstone to Stanley, Idaho began at dawn in air so cold my nose hairs froze immediately on the first inhale. Morning grows now along the highway, splashes pink and baby blue hues across the sky beyond the snowcaps. Lucky is the human so privileged to relish the heart-lifting experience of watching day arrive on the mountains, even if only from the window of a black Toyota Tacoma rocketing by at 65 mph. Especially these mountains where the sky above is so fittingly declared as big. I’d say huge, in fact, and this morning slightly veiled by thin wispy clouds. The land is as vast as the sky– snow dusted golden hills roll out from the interstate to meet tree studded mounds that fold and grow into white mountain ridges. Route 90 casually paves a way through this seemingly barely man’s land, still open, wild, mostly uninhabited. Occasionally a herd of fuzzy-coated horses graze roadside, hardy and undisturbed by the single digit temperatures.

Negative seven degrees now as we wind along sleepy Route 43. The Wise River steams beside us, its waters warmer than the frigid air it glides beneath. Open field beside us, bordered on three sides by tall orange rock walls.  A lone bull wades through the snowfield, his patchy coat an irregular pattern of stark white and burnt sienna. No snow falls but the air is thick with vapor as we wind deeper into this valley. Oh, this is bliss.

A wolf! A lone wolf posed on the bank of a frozen creek. Vapor all around, white surrounding the silver wolf who spotted us, stared and then silently loped through sagebrush into white. It was as though he was a ghost, a silver spirit emerged and then evaporated into these misty Montana mountains. We tried to watch him, to track his movement, but once the binnoculars were dug out of the cluttered truck bed, his silver coat blend into the snow around him. I hadn’t even reached for my camera; I couldn’t take my eyes off the creature long enough to find it.

The Salmon River is a wide channel of musical current studded with  ice chunks. This is Idaho–steep sided valleys, icy rivers, Jeffery  Pines that smell like butterscotch. The last town we passed through  was Salmon, a small establishment with around 3000 in habitants  and no less than six gas stations and a restaurant called M&Ms  Burnt Buns. I wanted to stop for buns but we kept on. We now drive  93 South, which we picked up  from 93 West. The two meandering  roads met atop a mountain pass, their confluence marked by an  empty T intersection and the beaming white slopes of sparsely skied,  freshly powdered Lost Ski Resort. We descended into the Salmon  Valley past towering stands of fir trees whose boughs bent beneath a  fresh foot or so of snow. Magic, such magic. Idaho, I never knew!

We stop in Stanley, grab a map at the visitors center that will take us out to Redfish Pond for a cold night of camping. In the parking lot we meet Mary, a VC employee who advised Brendan about the campspot over the phone last week. As we prepare to pull out, she comes to our car and I roll down the passenger window. Mary has beautiful white skin that’s cracked around her friendly smile and clear blue eyes. Hardy skin, mountain skin accented by the wrinkles of contentment. “Do you live in Stanley?” Brendan asks.  “I live outside of Stanley,” she replies wistfully.” “ I bet it’s a great place to live,” Mary pauses before answering, her eyes shining. “It is heaven,” she declares, then says slowly with a slight drawl, “you don’t have to die to go to heaven.”

We gather our gear for camping.  An extra sleeping bag to layer up, down booties, insulated pants, water bottles that we hope won’t freeze before we arrive at camp. The jagged sawtooths beside us are dusted in the gold crystals of dusk. A waxing moon rises above a white ridge. It’s three degrees when we leave the truck on skis and snowshoes and night has yet to settle.

Whiteout in the Sawtooth. Cloud cover and a snow squall brings warmth today, the temperature rises to a balmy 28 degrees.

Subzero camp on Redfish Lake last night; we expect the temperature dropped to -10 degree. Snowshoe and ski-in illuminated by nearly full moonlight. Burrowed bodes in a 4-season tent. Double sleeping bags and capaline, hand warmers massaging frozen toes back to life.

This morning, magical ski out. Silent forest, falling flakes, a creek softly gurlgling and hissling around snow-pillowed rocks. How did I leave the mountains before? But now, someone to share them with, and that’s something.

In the truck, Fionn Regan croons through the speakers. We climb the pass to Ketchum; not a jagged peak in sight, only white, only white.

We bypassed Boise this afternoon. The city emerged from dull coffee-colored plains as though it had been plopped down there from an airplane some time ago. Here Idaho is brown and flat until the plains meet small mountains in the north and south. It’s 40 degrees now; the sky is a dusky, charcoal blue. Taillights ahead, strip malls to the left and right. We cruise I84 across the southern expanse of the state to Oregon. We hope to reach Hood River by midnight.

These plains are where the potato farms are, Brendan says. Growing up, I thought potato was synonymous with Idaho. ‘Boise potatoes grow in Idaho’ was the mantra my first class recited while memorizing state capitals. This confused me then when my mom showed me how to dig potatoes out of her garden in Pennsylvania. Weren’t all potatoes from Idaho? Can’t they only grow there? If she can grow potatoes here, I thought with a 10 year old’s reasoning, the seeds at least must be from Idaho.

An electronic billboard flashes in red letters “Seek and you will find.” “Ask and it will be given to you” Matthew 7:7.

“Highway evangelism,” Brendan comments. A few miles later we pass another billboard. “After you die, you will meet God.” Apparently potato country is God’s country as well.

The Columbia River is wide and flat, silver surfaced under heavy gray clouds. Washington lay just on the opposite shore, its mountaintops shrouded in thick mist. Little did I know we’re traveling the trail of the pioneers, the Oregon Trail itself that was a game so central to my childhood. In elementary school, my friends and I would lose our selves in the game we played on boxy Apple desktops during typing class, trading bushels of flour and butter, fording rivers, fighting Indians always with the intention of reaching Oregon. Here, we made it, Brendan and I modern day pioneers riding a path that’s been paved for us.

Oregon is green now. Green fields, mossy branches, bushy evergreens, all resting beneath a swollen rainy sky. Occassionally a red barn pops out of the landscape but otherwise all green. This land feels generous, so giving of its beauty, its fertile surroundings, its moisture. Here we see a thick band of cloud stretched over shrubby emerald hills and tree-spotted snow patches in the east. The sun breaks cloud cover for a brief moment and a band of purple, red, green and yellow rainbow shimmers above a crimson colored barn. Mist sifts out of evergreen branches beside the highway, rising into the air if its own accord, rising as though the trees themselves are exhaling.

Northern California is incredible. Sage colored hills, expansive space to the east and west of I5. The sheer square mile mass of this state is astounding.Sometimes it is almost to much to grasp, it is a country in and of itself. Overwhelmed with so many options of places to go and experience I can barely choose one among them to explore.

Low angle winter light throws tree shadows uphill. Mt. Shasta rises in the east, but without a map we’d never know it. She is swathed in a dense swirl of white clouds, completely hidden from man’s eye. Now clouds hide the fading sun as well. A light rain begins to fall. I5 south, south to again to the city, to that strange urban experience, to that urban life so far a leap away from these grounding expanses of nature and the soul quenched sensation of being within them. Perhaps again sometime. Perhaps again soon. But until then, back to the rest of civilization. The pilot was right, the views outside the city are outstanding.

Yesterday I joined two friends for a wander in among the dips and hills and wave-crashed coastlines of Tennessee Valley, just north of San Francisco in Marin. Our hike began beneath heavy cloud cover but before long we climbed above the fog. Our sneakers sank into the muddy trail underfoot, our eyes scanned the white cloud band below for intermittent glimpses of the Pacific. We tromped along the coastal path to Pirate’s Cove, stepping into and out of foggy patches that exposed glimpses of the rocky shores. A mile from the parking lot, our trail crested a high ridge and the rolls and rounded peaks of the Bay Area, the house dotted hillsides of Saulsalito, and the skyline of the city framed between the sides of a valley, were spread out before us. A gentle breeze blew past, a large bird sailed overhead. We paused for a moment, exclaimed ‘oh, it’s so beautiful!’ and then continued on our way, back to the packed streets, packed schedules, packed public spaces of city life.

After six months of San Francisco, I continually ask the question: how the hell do people do this? I keep hoping that with time the densly populated lifestyle will get easier, the concrete stretches more soft and giving, the many public park sufficient substitutes for real nature. If anything the experience becomes more challenging each day. I seek and grab any opportunity to escape to the world beyond the city, hoping that doing so will refresh my perspective and allow me to open myself to the city again. Excursions beyond the Golden Gate, Bay Bridge, or 101 South have become mental breaks but also painful reminders of how good life can be in quieter, greener, less populated settings, reminders that make return each time more challenging.

But, there’s something to be said for pushing yourself through an experience that challenges your every last resolve. If life were easy, it would be boring. My 45 minute daily walk to work is peppered with scenes I’d often rather not see–a crackhead lurching down the sidewalk at Market St. and Jones, his eyes rolling uncontrolled like marbles in their sockets; the bums that dot the lawns of city hall pushing their shopping carts overflowing with trash bags of their belongings, peeing, defecating in the bushes; rows on rows of buildings, sidewalks, streets, accompanied by the incessant swoosh, whoosh, honks of cars busses, trucks, cabs, trains passing by, so densly packed that the sun sometimes is hidden by the sky scrapers. But the walk is also filled with sights I enjoy–polished women in funky couture coats and every variety of knee high boot; the herd of bicyclists, many donning suits, that flood Market Street en route to work; the sophisticated storefront displays of the downtown Anthropology, Gucci, Versace; the white tents and mouthwatering local, fresh produce of the Civic Center Farmer’s Market. Despite the discomforts, witnessing this raw variety of life everyday makes me feel strangely connected to humanity and the human experience of life in this concentrated 7 mile by 7 mile square of the world. And that’s something I wouldn’t feel so easily in a small mountain town.

So maybe that’s how people do it: they take the bad with the good and simply live their lives. Or they just don’t get caught dwelling on it all like I do. Or they block out the less appealing facets of the city with headphones and an IPod (which I also have taken to doing), and celebrate the more appealing ones.

Or some people do this–they appreciate the culture, the diversity, the human connections, the entertainments of the city for a time. Once they’ve had their fill, they return to life on the quieter, greener, perhaps more mountainous other side with a slightly broader world view, expanded not by traditional institutional education, but simply by life.