“So, let me see if I understand this,” the barkeep said, eyeballing me skeptically. “You’re 24 years old, you ain’t married and you ain’t just got outta jail, and you’re just…driving ’round the country?”
I’d been in Omaha less than an hour and I already felt like a pariah.
I tried to calmly explain my tentative plans about the future and how I was making an effort to stop in places I traveled through to add to the experience of my road trip. The reaction from the bartender was mixed at best.
“Yeah, but why are you here? Nobody comes to Omaha that ain’t born here or stuck here,” she said as she tried to pour me another beer. But like the first attempt, this one was a total disaster from start to finish, and I was handed a glass of about 85% foam. The frustration must’ve been evident on my face because, at long last, she relinquished her line of CIA-style questioning and accepted the fact that I was probably just a weirdo.
I guess I really hadn’t anticipated what other people might think of my modern manifest destiny. My friends and family had been supportive of the idea, but in Nebraska, I might as well have been speaking Yiddish. Wasting gas on a thinly veiled mission to “find myself,” was not finding much of an audience here, so I drank the 15% of my glass that had beer in it and got back on the highway. What a strange place.
Since leaving Chicago, I had rolled across the Mississippi River, stopped briefly in Des Moines, and continued churning across the low plains until my awkward encounter in Omaha. For the most part, the Great Plains had, not surprisingly, been rather plain, though I did think Des Moines was quite pretty. Geographically, the occasional fold of land or river was as exciting as the region could muster, so it did feel good, five hours after Omaha, to finally cross into the centennial state.
It wasn’t really the state crossing or the mileage markers that convinced me I must be getting close; it was the air. One of the things I had found in my research of Colorado was how high and dry the state is. Despite its hundreds of inches of snow a year, most of the state is in a semi-arid climate at best. So, once I felt the moisture flee my lips until they were just dry husks of skin, and blood began pouring out of both nostrils simultaneously, did I finally feel like I was getting close.
My goal was to get to Denver, the capital and largest city in Colorado. The city has a great atmosphere, as I was to discover, but its location is also very telling. The city is nestled up against the front range of the Rockies but still technically in the plains below it. It’s as if those first frontier miners, traveling in their rickety old wagons and riddled with dysentery, took one look up at the formidable mountains and instead of declaring “There’s gold in them there hills!” settled for, “Nope, there’s probably gold down here somewhere.” As history can verify, it turned out there was, and that’s how the city started.
My destination was my friend Allison Johnston’s place in Lakewood, a western suburb of the city. I didn’t have an agenda or list of things to do when I got to Denver but I figured the area could hold my interest for a day or two. I ended up spending nearly a week in the mile-high city and it definitely left an impression.
The first night I arrived, I wound up at a local bar with a ridiculous variety of craft beer. In fact (at the time), Colorado had the second most craft breweries in the US behind California and considering there is a population gap of 34 million people, that’s an impressive feat. 5.6 million Coloradans can choose from a dizzying 180+ breweries; Colorado does beer well. Allison met me at the bar, and we caught up before heading back to her family’s place. Allison, like a proper adult, had a job, and since I was in the midst of my road trip of discovery, I used her family’s place as a launchpad for day adventures while she worked.
Getting hikes in was a priority, so over the next few days, I made my way to the front range foothills to get some elevation at Green Mountain, White Ranch Open Space, and Mt. Sanitas, which was just outside of Boulder. On the nights when Allison was off work, we’d venture into Denver. The first night, we visited Voodoo Comedy Playhouse and watched an immersive improv comedy group, and when I say immersive, what I mean is that at one point one of the comedians took his shirt off and started gyrating through the crowd. I had gone in expecting nothing and came out smiling from ear to ear. If you’re in the area, I would recommend a visit.
One of the more memorable evenings was being able to take the light rail into downtown to see a Rockies game in the highest professional baseball stadium in the US. Watching the sunset behind the formidable line of mountains to our West was brilliant. I’m not a huge fan of baseball, but the position of the stadium, looking towards the mountainous skyline, helped elevate the experience.
ANYWAY, while Allison and her friends were staring at the game, I was staring at the horizon. It was hard not to marvel at how big the sky felt out here, vast and unending. While the Great Plains had given me that expansive feeling as well, with the mountains visible for scale, I was able to really appreciate how immense the land was out West. Nothing like a road trip to make you appreciate how dang big the U.S. is.
While I would’ve liked to stay and explore the area more, I reckoned that with my eventual move to Durango, I’d have plenty of time to explore this state in the not too distant future. Five days into my stay, I began to yearn for the open road and committed to pack up and continue my adventure. The next stop was Estes Park at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
It was warming up across most of the continental US as April continued churning forward, but Estes Park had evidently forgotten about this, so as I drove up the clouded canyons towards town, I found fresh snow!
After playing in it for a while, I ventured into Estes Park proper and was surprised to see elk casually hanging about. Unbeknownst to me, Estes Park sports a huge elk population, and they are, for all intents and purposes, locals. Seeing those Elk up close was a reminder of how large the wildlife can be out west. Some of these guys were just about as tall as my Subaru!
The weather began to close in before long, and I decided to get lower in elevation before the snow overnight forced me to stay. The drive down through Big Thompson canyon was windy and steep, a gnarly ride with craggy rock faces looming over both sides of the road after every turn. While it was hard to peel my eyes from the road, during one straight section, I glanced up at the cliffs above and spotted bighorn sheep! I couldn’t stop for fear of creating a car pileup behind me, but there was a whole herd, maybe 30 in total. They were hanging out on steep and rocky terrain above the curves of the road, silently judging all the cars below. I managed to snag a couple of pictures before continuing on.
The weather only began clearing once I had driven into Wyoming and started heading west on highway 80. I could still see the snow clouds lingering to the south, but it was dry as I rolled past Vedauwoo, a prominent rock climbing area, and over a lower point of the Continental Divide.
Wyoming is a geographically interesting state. It’s high up in elevation, but a lot of the state is desolate, with a few pockets of mountain glory. Some of the better-known areas include the Wind River Range, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Tetons. Unfortunately, the part I was driving through was just high and dry, not a whole lot else out there. By the time I finally pulled off I-80 and headed towards Jackson Hole, the sun had gone down, and I made the rest of the drive in the dark, wondering what the rest of Wyoming looked like.
My insistence on driving the rest of the distance that night was because I’d rented an Airbnb for two nights on the Idaho side of the Tetons in a HuuUGe remodeled ranch house. The house was owned by a retired horse rancher who had come back to her native corner of Idaho. The following morning, after a lovely breakfast and conversation, I heaved myself back into the car and headed towards the Grand Tetons National Park. Between the Tetons and Yellowstone, northwest Wyoming has some of the most stunning mountain terrain I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The Teton range, in particular, is one of the most picturesque mountain ranges in the Western United States, drawing millions of visitors a year to its rocky reaches.
Because it was early season, the road connecting the Tetons to Yellowstone was still buried under snow, but I spent the day staring in awe at Mt. Moran and Grand Teton Peak, shooting up from the Snake River like silent sentinels. Early season visitation has both pros and cons, the biggest con being the road and trail closures due to snow. The biggest pro, however, is the solitude. Not many people come out early to the Western Parks, so I had a lot of the park to myself. Though that isn’t an entirely true statement, I had to share the views and open trails with a serious abundance of elk. They were everywhere and not afraid of me.
Strapping snowshoes on, I ventured out to climb Signal Mountain from the shores of Jackson Lake. In the summer, there is a road to the summit, but with everything closed down, I ventured out into the snowy scape, accompanied only by my thoughts. By the time I returned to my car after a satisfying and successful summit, the sun was beginning to set. I drove out further around the Lake and found a pull-off along the road where I could watch the sun descend behind the mountains. It was a very surreal moment and one that I can still feel as I type this almost years later.
The next day I was off to Yellowstone, through southeast Idaho, which gave me this cool view of the backside of the Tetons.
After a couple of hours of driving, I arrived at the Western entrance to the park and was no more than twenty minutes into the park itself when the Subaru became surrounded by wild Bison. What magnificent creatures!
Though, seeing them reminded me of how close we came to losing them entirely. In fact, the Bison of Yellowstone are one of the only herds of wild American Bison that weren’t hunted to extinction in the late 19th-Century.
Ultimately, I think the story of the wild Bison is emblematic of America’s historically convoluted relationship with nature. First, we go in guns blazing, killing, and eventually running out of the resource entirely. Then, we feel regret for killing all the wild (insert animal type whose habitat we have constricted or decimated). Then, through science and conservation, we bring back the (insert animal type), and finally, we forget that we killed them all in the first place. Lather, rinse, repeat? A pessimist could make a fairly compelling argument that we haven’t really learned anything at all, and instead, just keep covering up our mistakes. At least for the time being, animals such as the American Bison and the Bald Eagle have entered our societal subconscious as crucial to “American Heritage,” so they are offered more protections than other animals, but that doesn’t bode especially well for animals such as the passenger pigeon, which we killed off entirely by the early 20th century.
I think in a lot of ways, the National Parks allow us to hold a mirror up to our own understanding (or lack thereof) of nature and how we as a species fit into the natural design of the world. For some, a visit can become an almost spiritual experience, where the symbiotic relationship between species is on full display. Some National Parks, however, have to contend with millions of visitors a year, and sadly, many of those people do not care about the delicate natural balance that the Parks represent. Yellowstone is in many ways the epicenter of the US national park complex and, as such, appears to attract a stunning amount of stupid people.
While I didn’t personally experience gross levels of idiocy during my exploration of the park, one needs only to turn to the internet to find examples. For some reason, Yellowstone just appears to be a magnet for imbeciles. From tourists putting animals into their cars to chasing bison to pissing off bears, to stepping into off-limits areas like geysers, people continue to impress with their complete lack of awareness. Seeing that type of behavior makes you wonder how on earth we ended up at the top of the food chain…but I digress.
For those who come out to genuinely enjoy the parks, Yellowstone offers a dizzying amount of terrain to help people find their spiritual moments. It has everything: wild animals (including the bison and reintroduced wolf), thundering waterfalls, mountains, hundreds of miles of uninterrupted wilderness, lakes, and the world-famous geysers.
Even more interesting, or terrifying depending on how you look at it, is the geology of the area. More than half of the national park lies atop the Yellowstone caldera or supervolcano. A little more than six hundred and forty thousand years ago, the last of three eruptions occurred, spewing ash as far as Mississippi and covering the intermountain west. Scientists suspect it’ll be another few hundred thousand years before a subsequent eruption, but the land is definitely alive, epitomized by the geysers themselves, which are essentially pressure release valves blowing out scalding hot water.
When the day finally closed, I had seen bison, geysers, Yellowstone falls, climbed Bunsen Peak, and managed to set up my tent at a developed campsite by Mammoth Springs. Yellowstone is a national treasure, and I hope collectively, people continue to appreciate how crucial these areas are to biodiversity and our understanding of the environment.
The next morning, satisfied with my visit to Yellowstone, I soldiered on, driving into Montana to continue my transformative pilgrimage.
Montana, like Wyoming and Colorado before it, was awesome. From the views of the Beartooth and Absaroka Ranges to the headwaters of the Missouri river to the funky college town of Missoula, Montana exceeded expectations. I confess I didn’t spend much time there, busting through the state with a small stop to climb the M outside Missoula, but I logged away the memory of the drive and vowed to return to explore the state properly. There are so many things to do in the rocky mountain states that if you’re a tree hugger like me, it’s worth splitting it up into multiple adventures, to really give an area the appropriate amount of attention it deserves.
The surprise of the day was Northern Idaho, that skinny panhandle section on the map. After a long crossing through the Bitterroot Mountains, I ended up in Coeur D’Alene, a fun town on the banks of a giant lake of the same name and ringed by steep hills. I took a detour to explore the area around the lake, and it was absolutely breathtaking. The foliage was thick and a deep shade of green, pockets of snow still hiding beneath the canopy of the denser areas. I hadn’t expected much from this small part of Idaho, which is more easily accessible from Canada than from Boise (the state capital), but it was surprisingly beautiful.
I spent the night in another AirBnB in Spokane Washington, driving the following day across one of the most barren parts of the states I’d seen so far, comparable to the Mojave in Southern California. I did NOT expect Washington to be that dry! It’s really only that sliver of land between the Cascades and the Pacific Ocean that gets 90% of the rainy Northwestern stereotype. As expected, once I crossed the Cascades it started raining and continued to do so as I blasted through Seattle and up the 5 past Bellingham. By the time it stopped raining, I had reached the Canadian border, bound for my most northerly destination: The Gold Coast, British Columbia.
As I sat in my car at the border crossing, waiting for my turn in line, I thought about what the barkeep had asked me way back in Omaha, “why are you here?”
…I guess it had seemed like a legitimate question at the time, but this road trip had morphed into something beyond a simple explanation to me. The roar of the car engine, the ability to be my own captain, and the freedom to set my own course were things I was finding to be incredibly inspirational. I was drunk with choices, and I wanted to see as much as I could. Logically, I’m sure it didn’t make any sense to her; Omaha might’ve been the only place she’d ever known. But, after seeing Colorado, the Tetons, Yellowstone, and Montana, sitting still just wasn’t an option for me. As silly as the answer might’ve seemed to her, were she to ask me the same question again, I might only have responded with, “Why not?” Life is for the living soul, and after this adventure (and all the ones to follow), not even that bartender in Omaha could say that I hadn’t lived.