Day 79: Fleeting bear sightings from my car

June 30, 2009


DAY 79: Cody, Wyoming
Miles traveled: 10,524
States visited: 25
Weather: 71, sunny

Last night I slept in a campground in Yellowstone, and it was frigid. The elevation here is more than 6000 feet, and the temperature got down to around 40 degrees. It was the coldest night in the van since that first night in West Virginia. Despite that, I slept pretty well, all bundled up under the covers.

Today I drove back and forth between Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley, two areas where bear sightings are frequent. While heading towards Hayden, I got stuck behind a line of cars. Everybody had stopped to look over and watch a black bear near a creek along the road. I saw it for only a few seconds, then it ran out of sight. I managed to snap a quick photo, which I present as evidence that I finally saw a bear, for the first time in my life. The bear would be that dark thing right in the middle.


I’m pretty sure I was the last one to see this bear, because I noticed people in the cars behind me raising their arms as if to say, What are people looking at? I don’t see anything!

After that, I was driving past Mount Washburn, where I did my hike yesterday, and got stuck behind another long line of cars. By the time I got to the front, all I saw was a brief glimpse of the upper part of a brown torso, which quickly disappeared behind a ridge. I was hoping it was a bighorn sheep, but I overheard some of the people who’d been parked there for a while say it was a grizzly bear.

I only saw a small portion of its body, but that still counts. A black bear and a grizzly within 30 minutes of each other – dreams do come true at Yellowstone!

The funny thing is that when I hiked Washburn yesterday, I remember thinking, At least I don’t have to worry about bears up here. They wouldn’t live at elevations this high! How wrong I was!

Once again there were lots of bison walking around near my van. Ho-hum.


A squirrel tried to run away from me and found itself stranded on a ledge, allowing me to approach it and get super-close photos. Then, I threw rocks at it until it fell off the ledge and died. (Not really.)


I spent the rest of the day exploring the park’s east side. The main feature here is a giant lake, which creates some picturesque scenery. I didn’t like this side of the park, though. When I think of Yellowstone, I think of mountains and forests, not boating and beaches.

Here’s a random deer… or is it an antler-less elk?


My Yellowstone visit has been thoroughly satisfying already. Whatever I see tomorrow will just be a bonus.

Day 78: First day in Yellowstone!

June 29, 2009


DAY 78: Gardiner, Montana
Miles traveled: 10,242
States visited: 25 (just added: Wyoming)
Weather: 65, cold & rainy

I finally made it to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. My first day there was one of the most full days I’ve ever had. I arrived at the park before 8 am and spent the next 14 hours sightseeing, hiking, and wildlife watching.

The two things I most wanted to see were a buffalo and a bear. The first wish was realized quickly. While driving down the road, I spotted a large brown object way back near the trees. I pulled over, took loads of pictures, zoomed in and confirmed it was a buffalo. This was an exhilarating sight, because I never expected to see a wild buffalo in my life.

Little did I know that before the day was through I would see more than 300 bison, including several within ten feet of my van. They cross the street whenever they please, and you’d better stop and wait. Sometimes it takes them 30 seconds to saunter across the road. But it does create great photo opportunities.

Say hi to my new friends!



While driving around I passed a trailhead for Mount Washburn with a summit of 10,200 feet. I had no plans to take this hike, but when I read that bighorn sheep may be spotted on the mountain, I grabbed my backpack and began the climb.

There was snow on the ground all around me. As I reached higher elevations it got really cold and then actually started to snow! Well, it was more like a combination of rain, sleet, and snow. A wintry mix, if you will. Snow in late June is pretty awesome if you ask me.

Eventually I started feeling a little lightheaded – I think the thin air was getting to me – so I headed back down without spotting any sheep. But the hike was worth it, because I set a new personal record for highest elevation I’ve ever reached – I think I got up to about 9,700 feet.

I tried to take pictures of me up there, but they came out blurry because the camera kept focusing on the wintry mix instead of me.


Then it was on to bear country. I didn’t see a bear. But I pulled into one of the turnouts where a bunch of people with binoculars and high-powered scopes had gathered. This was apparently a superb spot for wildlife watching. People were looking way off in the distance, where two wolves were feasting on a buffalo carcass. It was too far away to see with the naked eye, but someone let me see it through their scope. Wolves!

Shortly after that, two more wolves appeared at a much closer distance, ran towards a small creek, swam across it, and then raced out of sight into the forest. This was cool to witness, especially because Yellowstone only had 128 wolves at last count, so it’s a rare sight. These were close enough for me to get a low-quality picture. The speck in the middle is a wolf swimming, and his friend is on the shore to the right.


The park has lots of hot springs where water is boiling up out of the ground.


A couple of deer mosied about near one of the springs.


I also saw some elk, a few pronghorns, and possibly a small coyote – a small, white and grey cat-like object darted across the street in front of my van. It seemed too small to be a coyote, but I don’t know what else it might’ve been.

No bears yet, but I have two more days here!

Day 77: I saw a bear… statue

June 28, 2009


DAY 77: Missoula, Montana
Miles traveled: 10,024
States visited: 24 (just added: Montana)
Weather: 78, sunny

Astute blog readers may have picked up on the fact that occasionally I write blog entries ahead of time. WordPress, like most blogging platforms, has a Schedule feature that allows you to write a post in advance, then have it magically appear later at your desired time. This is one of those posts. It may not be live, but it’s close enough – just think of it like watching the Olympics on tape delay.

By the time you read this I should be deep in the heart of Yellowstone National Park. Hopefully I haven’t been eaten by a bear. Here’s how you can tell – if I come back next week and start blogging again, I haven’t been eaten by a bear. If I don’t, then send out the search team.

On my way there I stopped through Missoula, which is a nifty little college town sort of like State College, except the businesses aren’t right next to the school – you have to walk through 4 blocks of residential neighborhood to get to them. On this day I think it was new student orientation, because everyone on campus seemed to be high school age. Either that, or I’m getting older faster than I thought.

Montana’s mascot is the grizzly. They have a grizzly statue in front of their old main building. Notice the giant M on the hillside in the background. Rolling Stone rated the University of Montana as the most scenic campus in America, and I can’t argue with that.


I wish I had more time for Missoula because it seems like a fun place. But now it’s off to Yellowstone and Grand Teton!

Day 76: So long, west coast

June 27, 2009


DAY 76: Coeur D’Alene, Idaho
Miles traveled: 9,856
States visited: 23 (just added: Idaho)
Weather: 73, sunny

I’m in Idaho. Lake Coeur D’Alene has some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen, and the Coeur D’Alene River is so clean I want to drink from it. I’ve now started the 4th leg of the my 5-part adventure. This one is the longest in terms of miles. Over the next 4 weeks I’ll head from Vancouver back across the U.S. to Pittsburgh, where I’ll stay for two days before moving on to the Northeast.

The rough path is as follows:


There are several states that I’ll only be seeing briefly. It looks like I won’t be spending more than an hour in Missouri, Iowa, and South Dakota. I haven’t missed a single state yet – I could still see all 48 lower states if I want to. But I just don’t see myself making it up to North Dakota. That would be way off my projected path. I’m already going out of my way just to reach South Dakota.

Sorry North Dakota, but you won’t be a part of my trip. Unless someone convinces me otherwise!

Day 75: Petrol crisis in British Columbia!

June 26, 2009


DAY 75: Keremeos, Canada
Miles traveled: 9,520
States visited: 22
Weather: 77, sunny

One of the most worrisome moments of my trip happened the other day. After Vancouver I decided to head east through Canada rather than coming back through the U.S. As I was driving through the mountains, I saw a sign that said “Next gas 77 km.” I looked down and I was a little low, so I decided to stop for gas. Except there was no place to stop. Inexplicably, they posted that sign after the last gas station instead of before it, so if I wanted gas I’d have to drive back.

I thought I had enough gas anyway, so I continued onward. The scenery was spectacular – snow-capped mountains, fast-moving streams, rolling forests.


As I was climbing the mountains I looked down and I was suddenly at less than 1/4 of a tank. Now I was in trouble. My GPS said the closest gas was either 30 miles behind me, or 48 miles ahead of me. I estimated that I had about 2-3 gallons left in the tank, which might be good for 30-35 miles. I also have an emergency gas can that is probably good for another 10 miles.

Driving back would’ve added at least an hour to my voyage, and I was already scheduled to drive for 7 hours that day. Plus, I had just reached the summit, and it looked like the rest of the driving would be downhill, so I could take my foot off the gas and let gravity do the work. So, I crossed my fingers and began the most nerve-wracking 48-mile journey ever.

After 12 miles, the tank was very low but still in decent shape. I thought I’d either make it, or come very close. And then, in the distance, I spotted a gas station! This was an old, run-down place that looked like it was no longer in business. But it was indeed open. For some reason it wasn’t on the GPS. But it was a thrilling sight – like seeing water in the desert. I filled up and continued on with my trip.

The scenery in Western Canada was great and then further east, to my surprise, I encountered a desert. For some reason it doesn’t rain much in this part of the country. There were signs posted to look out for bighorn sheep and mountain goats, but I didn’t see any.

I passed through some quaint little towns like Princeton.


On my trip I listened to some bizarre cassette tapes I had purchased from a Goodwill in Seattle. They were old-timey radio shows from the early days of radio. One was the first episode ever of The Lone Ranger, from 1948 – it was a gripping and fascinating tale! And it even featured a Wheaties commercial. Another tape was the Best of Jack Benny, and another was something called Inner Sanctum, a murder mystery show. I bought these cassettes for $3, and it was one of my favorite purchases so far.

Tomorrow, it’s back to the U.S., if they let me back in…

Day 74: How ’bout some free parking, eh?

June 25, 2009


DAY 74: Vancouver, Canada
Miles traveled: 9,145
States visited: 22 (Countries visited: 3)
Weather: 20°C, overcast

Since I stayed longer in Seattle than I’d originally planned and then spent a day whale watching, I had to cut my Vancouver stay from 3 days to 2.

Crossing the border was fairly quick, although here’s something odd – Canada requires that you have a job in order to visit their country, so that if you break down and have no money, you won’t have to work illegally to get back home. Since I don’t have a job, this created additional scrutiny upon my entrance. I had to convince the guy that I had enough money in the bank that I wouldn’t go bankrupt while visiting Vancouver.


Gas is barely a dollar in Canada!


But it’s in Canadian dollars, and it’s per liter, not per gallon. After you do the conversion, it’s actually more expensive than in the States.

Vancouver has some fun neighborhoods, but one of my enduring memories of the city will be how miserable it was trying to find parking. It’s worse than in San Francisco! At least there, every space is up for grabs, even if they’re just 1 or 2-hour spots. Here, huge sections of street are labeled “Permit parking only.” Sometimes you have to drive for blocks just to find a place where you can park for 2 hours. And then you have to repeat the process again.

I’m sure they do this to encourage people to use public transportation, and if I lived here and used the bus and light rail, I wouldn’t mind. But as a visitor with a large van, I found commuting and parking to be one massive headache.


I read a lot of reviews online that said if you visit Vancouver, you have to visit Granville Island, but I wasn’t buying it. The description made it sound like Pike Market in Seattle or the Strip District in Pittsburgh… just an outdoor market, some expensive restaurants, and a bit of nature. Sorry, there’s nothing too amazing about that. Plus, it’s not even an island! It’s connected to land on one side. Meh.

Downtown Vancouver is attractive, though, strangely, all of the buildings look exactly the same.


Because of the parking headaches and because I was alone since I didn’t have a couchsurfing host, I actually started to get bored on my first day in town. Day two was a different story. I started off by heading to Stanley Park, a huge park on the water. Parking here was $2/hour, so I grudgingly paid for one hour and went on my way. In my limited time I was a model of efficiency, driving on the road that follows the perimeter of the park, stopping at all the important spots to take pictures, and then moving on. I saw the whole park and even snuck in a short hike during my hour.

They have a big display of totem poles, to honor the Indians (Native Canadians?) who once inhabited the area.


The park offers a great view of the town and mountains on the other side of the bay.


After Stanley Park I grabbed lunch at Hamburger Mary’s in Davie Village, then checked out the Commercial Drive area, which is the gritty indie neighborhood of Vancouver. There were a lot of restaurants and coffee shops here, but no thrift stores. In fact, there wasn’t a Buffalo Exchange or Crossroads to be found in the entire city. There was, however, a Ravoli Shop.


Just like in Seattle, I discovered a band giving a free in-store performance at a local record shop. This time it was party king Andrew W.K. and the Evaporators at Neptoon Records. They rocked the overpacked store with a bunch of 2-minute punk songs. What else could you do at 4 pm that would be more fun than this?


I’m glad I visited Vancouver but I don’t think I’d wanna live here. If they ever restore the draft and I have to leave the U.S., I’m still heading to Toronto. (Unless a worldwide nuclear war breaks out, in which case I’m going to hide in the Yukon.)

Day 72: Epic fail on the Free Willy front

June 23, 2009


DAY 72: Anacortes, Washington
Miles traveled: 8,990
States visited: 22
Weather: 68, rainy

When I was in Seattle I discovered that there are lots of daily whale watching tours throughout Puget Sound and further north. Three pods of killer whales hang out in these waters, and they are seen frequently. This piqued my interest because I never thought I’d have a chance in my lifetime to witness whales in their natural habitat. I always assumed they hung out miles away from shore.


The private tours were too expensive, so I chose the poor man’s route: Drive to Anacortes, take the ferry across to San Juan Island, take a bus to the other side of the island where the whales usually hang out. When I arrived at the island, I walked to the bus terminal and was informed that I’d just missed the bus because the ferry arrived there late. So I had to wait an hour for the next one.

Perhaps you can guess what’s coming next, based on the title of this post…

When the next bus finally arrived the driver gleefully informed us, “The whales are out today! You just missed them! We saw them on the last bus trip!”

Lime Kiln Park (aka Whale Watching Park) is regarded as the best place in the world to observe whales from land. By the time my bus got there, the whales were long gone, much further north into Canada. So I saw nothing. Witnesses said that earlier there had been upwards of 30 orcas splashing around in the waters just offshore. And I would’ve seen them if the ferry had arrived ten minutes sooner and I had caught the earlier bus! Missing them by such a small margin was a crushing disappointment. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it – when I’m 80 I’ll be talking about the time I barely missed seeing 30 killer whales. (Unless I end up moving to Seattle, in which case I’ll have other opportunities to see them…)

I had to spend 90 minutes at this park to wait for the next bus back, and pretty much all I saw was this:


The round trip for the driving, ferries and busses was about 7 hours, so it was a big time investment with no payoff. I’ve had some great adventures on this trip, so I suppose they can’t all be successes. Perhaps my luck regarding wild animals will be better in Yellowstone, which I’m visiting later this week!

Day 70: Zany goofy wackiness in Seattle

June 21, 2009


DAY 70: Seattle, Washington
Miles traveled: 8,910
States visited: 22
Weather: 73, sunny

Yesterday was Seattle’s annual Fremont Fair and Solstice Parade, which celebrate the start of summer. This was the most fun parade I’ve ever attended. The entire thing was merely an excuse for people to be goofy, and everyone had a blast. There were spaghetti monsters, zombies, dancers, people on stilts, dudes in chicken suits, skaters dressed like Abe Lincoln, and other random costumes that made no sense.

I have a ton of pics so I’m posting them small-like. Click the thumbnails to see the full version.








After the parade there was an all-day fair with local bands and art cars. My favorite was the one with floppy disks all over it. That takes me back to middle school!


I got to know Seattle really well thanks to Michael my couchsurfing host, whose hospitality was unmatched. We saw all the important neighborhoods, went to some great restaurants, and experienced the nightlife. On Friday we went to an in-store performance by Carbon Leaf at Easy Street Records. It was a novelty for me. I’ve never been to an in-store, because we rarely have those in Pittsburgh. This is an example of why I’m looking to move to a bigger city!


While I enjoyed the city, I’m not sure I’d want to live here, because of the “Seattle freeze,” a term which describes the personality of the people here.

In a nutshell, the people in Seattle are all super friendly and nice on the surface, but when it comes to trying to make connections on a deeper level, they’re not interested. People stay in the cliques they are already part of, and they’re extremely unreceptive to new members, so it’s hard to establish friends here as a newcomer. Here’s a newspaper article that explains this bizarre phenomenon perfectly.

This is both baffling and deeply disturbing. I talked to some residents who confirmed that the Seattle freeze does exist. Yet they’re not really bothered by it. And that is a total deal-breaker. I see the existence of the Seattle freeze as a scathing indictment of the entire city, and it makes me seriously question whether I’d want to be here.

Oh well. It was nice at least flirting with the idea of moving here. On to Vancouver next!

Day 69: A few sights from Seattle

June 20, 2009


DAY 69: Seattle, Washington
Miles traveled: 8,884
States visited: 22
Weather: 71, mostly cloudy

In Seattle my couchsurfing host is Michael, who has been terrific at showing me around the city. On my first night in town we grabbed food at an Afghan restaurant called Kabul. I’ve never eaten Afghan before, but it was tasty – I had vegetables in a spicy sauce with rice covered with carrots and raisins, served with flatbread.

Then it was off to Gas Works Park, a former gas plant that is now a park with a great view of downtown Seattle. There was a small group of people here doing some chanting and meditating. They served as unwitting fodder for a few snapshots.


Seattle has a bridge with a giant troll underneath it. Michael said this was created several years ago as part of some art project. When we visited, a theater group was rehearsing its show in front of the troll.


There’s also a 16-foot tall statue of the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin that used to stand in Czechoslovakia but somehow made its way to the Fremont area of Seattle after the fall of the USSR. Worship the evil dictator!


I saw a car here with only three wheels.


Seattle is very much on the shortlist of places I’m considering moving to, so over the next couple of days I’ll make an effort to visit key neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Fremont, Wallingford, and Ballard. I want to talk to people, research rent figures, and really get a sense of whether this could be home.

We took the ferry to Bainbridge Island.


More to come from here in the next few days!

Day 67: I have toys!

June 18, 2009


DAY 67: Olympia, Washington
Miles traveled: 8,810
States visited: 22
Weather: 72, overcast

I’ve arrived in Seattle after spending a fun day in Olympia. I have so many great pictures from here already, I don’t know how I’ll be able to post them all. For now, I want to write about some of my gadgets, as I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while.

I have three important toys that I couldn’t live without. First is my electrical charger, which plugs into the cigarette lighter. It has two outlets ready for use. I use this almost daily to charge my camera batteries, laptop, phone, and other gadgets. I found it on Amazon for something like $30 and it’s been great to have.


Next is my GPS. I would truly not be able to do this trip without it. I don’t know how people did road trips in the old days. I guess they just bought books of maps. But then they were stuck sticking to main roads. I can go anywhere without fear, because I know the GPS will lead me back. Occasionally, it takes me to a business that is no longer there, but overall it’s a lifesaver. Sometimes it does get confused – this shot makes it look like I was driving in the Pacific Ocean.


Last is my little stove, another purchase I made on Amazon for less than $40. It looks like a lunchbox. You put the food in heavy duty aluminum foil, close the lid, and plug the oven into the cigarette lighter. Twenty minutes later, the food is ready to eat. I brought some cans of ravioli and stew with me so that if I ever don’t feel like buying lunch, or if I’m in a campground and have no place to eat, I just plug in the stove and I’m set. That’s some good eatin’!


I’ve lost weight on this trip, but I’m not sure how much. When I got to LA, I weighed myself and was shocked to see a number I hadn’t seen since high school. It appeared as if I had lost 12 pounds. But I was skeptical. When I found another scale, it indicated that I’d only lost 4 pounds. At any rate, I’m delighted by this because I worried I’d be getting fat since I’m not exercising much at all. I haven’t gone on a jog since I was in Little Rock. But I guess plain old walking and hiking is good enough to burn calories.

My van doesn’t have a CD player, just a cassette player. I’ve been using an adapter to play the 100 or so CDs I brought with me, but I’ve been wanting to buy some actual cassettes too. This morning, I found gold at the Goodwill in Federal Way, Washington. I bought eight cassettes for 59 cents each, mostly ’80s pop, including 1999 by Prince and stuff by Debbie Gibson, Expose, OMD, and Bell Biv DeVoe. And – get this – a 60-minute guide to managing your money by Suze Orman, who I love. Road trip entertainment doesn’t get any better than that!


I’ve gotten to page 320 of the 800-page Warhol diaries. I’m up to August 1980. I actually read the entry where Andy talks about watching the Mount St. Helens eruption on The Today Show, which was funny since I visited there two days ago. I haven’t had a lot of quiet time but the other night I arrived at the Walmart in Chehalis a bit early and had some time to relax and do some reading. It was so refreshing – I need to make time for that more often.