Sunday, August 04, 2013

Home Again, Home Again?

It's Sunday night, and I'm sitting in my townhouse in St. Peter, MN, surrounded by boxes and furniture which has been placed exactly where it was set when we descended on this property with my stuff back on July 6th.  I had imagined that I would be arriving a week or so later in August, but now that I'm here and my anxiety level vis-a-vis unpacking and arranging this transition is in full swing, I am glad I have given myself a few weeks to unpack the house, as well as unpack the trip.  It has been a whirlwind six weeks of travel, theater conferences, moving, and reflection.  It will take some time to gather myself together and triangulate my scattered emotions.

The trip has been a surprising space for strong, wonder, fear, anxiety, guilt...all of which has a place in completing a grounding process before school begins on August 22nd.

Meanwhile, I need to capture some thoughts from the past seventy-two hours or so.  In the headlong plunge from the coast of California homeward I opted not to pause and collect my observations, so I am now reconstructing some of it from this already distant vantage point.

Thursday morning, after posting Wednesday's journey, I set off on highway 199 towards the California coast.  There was an active wildfire somewhere in the Illinois River valley, which as far as I can tell is a tourist destination with the kind of climate that supports fruit farms and such.  In any event, the sky was pretty thick with smoke, which was like the usual morning fog and clouds, only tinged with a kind of lovely yellowish hue.  It must have been pretty bad, as they had a road closed and I later heard that a large number of folks had been evacuated from the valley.  For myself, I passed over a ridge or two and the air cleared up once I had moved into areas that were west of the affected areas.  Not too long after I crossed into California I encountered a visitor center that was a part of the Redwood National and State Park system, and accumulated the usual assortment of literature about the redwood forests.

It turns out that what in my head in the past had always been a single place where there were these large trees, is actually two separate areas, both of which are fairly large and sprawling in their own right.  There are coastal redwoods, which grow to be hundreds of feet tall as well as quite thick, and then there are giant sequoias, which get almost as tall, thought not AS tall, but are thicker at the base.  Old growth groves of both species of tree are protected through a national and state parks.  The coastal redwoods are located along routes 199 and 101 in a series of parks on California's northern coast.  The giant sequoias are located inland along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, primarily in Yosemite and parks just south of there.  The two areas are quite distant from each other, and the giant sequoias are east of Fresno, which is quite a ways south into California.  This was a bit of a surprise, and I wasn't entirely sure if I was on board for a drive down that far.  If I were going to do the southern Utah parks, then it made sense, but my enthusiasm for this route was fading, so I figured I would make the decision after I spent some time with the coastal redwoods.

Which I did.  Amusingly, I encountered large statues of Paul Bunyon and Babe on my route that morning...I guess its the logging connection.  I took a scenic byway into one of the  parks, and at the first opportunity pulled over to get out of the car and walk back into the forest.  The spot I had pulled into was a short interpreted trail, which means there are little signs explaining things along the way, which I am fond of.  The parking area was barely that, more of a side road that only extended about ten feet, leaving room for a couple of cars to park and that was it...not a popular spot, I guess.  The first sign explained that this was the site of an old logging road which was deconstructed to allow the land to return to its original state.  They had literally removed and refilled so that the contours of the area were in their original state.  The road in question had been built in the fifties, and removed about a decade ago.

In I went, and although I had been seeing these enormous trees all along the road, this was the first time I had walked back in among them, on top of which this trail, while well maintained and supplied with little informative plaques, was very lonely.  No one else was parked at the trail head, so I knew I was the only one there...which seemed cool, at first.  I had not gone more than a hundred feet or so when I started to feel completely overwhelmed by the presence of these trees.  The larger of these trees, which are apparently five or six hundred years old, have a singular and unique impact as you move past them.  In forests I have been in before there is sometimes a sense of the spiritual in a place, but it is a presence that is created by the collective, by the whole.  In this place, there was the very real sense that some of these trees had a presence of their own, individual and specific.  I was absolutely freaked out.  The trail was not long, but it took a gathering of will to continue to the end of the path.  I was in awe, but I was also deeply aware of my diminutive mortality here.

Heading back toward the car, as I rounded a ridge there was a movement in the undergrowth off above the trail.  These parks with the coastal redwoods are all rainforest environments, so in addition to being dominated by these groves of powerful trees, the floor of the forest is covered with ferns and plant life.  Huge tree trunks are strewn throughout the forest, covered in moss and ferns in their own right.  It is worth mentioning that coastal redwoods are family trees.  When the central parent tree dies...mind you this is after hundreds of years of growth...the root system shoots up new trees all around the dying central parent.  Eventually the parent will fall, usually at a point ten or twenty feet in the air, leaving a statuesque memorial to itself surrounded by new growth as its fallen trunk feeds the forest floor.  In amongst all this green and vibrant life there was a movement.  It was large enough that I thought perhaps a deer was moving through the area, but it did not escape me that this was also bear country.  My bear spray was not with me.  As I stood there waiting for more movement my level of complete panic and fear rose wildly.  I waited long enough to be sure that whatever was moving, which it did several times while I waited, was not in a place where I could see it and wasn't going to move enough for me to do so.  Eventually I gave up and, steeling my nerves which were completely out of control by this point, I walked back to the car.

I really have no idea what was out there.  It could have been a big squirrel, though it seems most likely to have been a deer that I could only hear and not see.  I spent a lot of adrenaline on it, whatever it was.

Leaving that area, I moved on to a place where there was a redwood referred to simply as the Big Tree.  There were a lot of trails in the area, so I parked, walked to the Big Tree (which it was, though not really bigger than others I had seen to this point) and wandered the forest for a while enjoying the cool and crisp air in this green lush place.  There were little streams and an amazing assortment of trees and trunks to be seen.  There were also more folks around, so I was a bit more under control during this walk.  To be a bit more specific, the Big Tree was probably about as thirty feet in diameter?  Maybe forty?  It had a little plaque with info, but I didn't read that one.

Having spent a fair amount of time amongst the trees, I was satisfied that I had seen this sight and was ready to move on.  I took a closer look at the map, realized the enormity of heading south to the sequoias and then on to Utah, and decided instead that I would head northeast toward the Clearwater river valley, where I could pick up the Lewis and Clark trail and then head home from there.  I was ready to head home.  I have much to process and would like to do it within my new context.

Getting to the Clearwater river valley required getting on highway 299, which would take me east across northern California, eventually connecting with highway 395 which heads north into Oregon.  I would be taking 395 all the way through Oregon to Walla Walla, WA, and then east from there to Lewiston.  It was a good long way and it would all be on a two lane road.

Up until this point I had been quite successful at avoiding the interstates.  Most of my journey had been on two lane roads, and for the most part those roads had provided me an unending banquet of beautiful terrain.  I must say that 299 through northern California is no exception.  I passed through a series of summits in the Coastal mountain range, and then after passing Redding I moved up through the Sierra Nevada range, which this far north is quite spread out.  Farming and ranching is happening all around and the road is winding through narrow canyons filled with trucks and folks busily ranching, farming and logging away.  I had planned to spend this night in some kind of rest area or campground, and earlier in the day rest areas had looked fairly inviting and common.  As I moved further and further inland, the area became denser with commerce of one kind or another and it had been some time since I had seen a likely rest stop.  As the sun set with a lovely display of color I was beginning to think I might need to drive longer than I would prefer.  As darkness fell, I suddenly found myself in the Modoc National Forest and all evidence of commerce ceased around me.  Within just a few miles, a campsite advertised itself and I headed off into the land of gravel roads in hopeful search for a resting place.  By this time it was dark enough that I couldn't see beyond my headlights, but the campsite quickly appeared and I made one loop around the grounds to see what was there.

The answer was...not much.  There was no host, and for a bit I though there might be no campers at all.  Before I finished the loop, which only had about ten sites, I passed a parked and quiet RV (no lights).  I went around the loop again and pulled into a spot on the other side of the loop from the RV, settled into my sleeping space, and (pretty freaked out by this lonely place in the woods) spent the night with my doors locked.

The morning revealed a quaint campsite with these neat rock fire pits.  The RV was gone, which seemed strange, but I rolled out of the back of the car and headed out to the road to resume my journey.  The morning drive was a series of valleys and passes.  It was interesting that each pass would place you in a valley with a somewhat higher elevation than the valley before...a series of steppes, as it were.  The valleys were green with agriculture, and the passes were tight winding roads surrounded by lovely conifer forests.

This might be a moment to comment on the amazing variety of pine trees that I saw along this trip.  I need to do some research to get this right, but every area had its own grouping of species, though there were patterns and recurring species that I felt like I saw throughout.  It was amazing.

Logging continued to be a pattern as well.  In a couple of spots I encountered piles of tree trunks that appeared to have been treated with some kind of petroleum product.  I assume these would then be sold as telephone poles (ever notice how telephone poles are oily?)  These piles of logs had sprinklers on them, presumably to keep them from igniting while the oil soaks in.

Another interesting facet of this part of the drive was the fact that the ridges I was encountering as I moved north of the Sierra Nevadas were created by the land separating, rather than smashing together.  The resultant shift caused one side to sink, creating depressions that filled with water that had no escape to the see.  The ridges beside these depressions were caused when that portion of the land didn't sink, rather than from being pushed up.  It was cool.  This area was also very dry, such that in one area I actually saw sand dunes formed along the road.

The ridge portions of this section is almost all covered by national forests.  The Malheur and the Umatilla National Forests appear all along highway 395 and are a beautiful area filled with great scenery.  There is a spot that is marked as being at the 45th parallel at which I stopped for a lovely nap along a roaring river.  It was a very satisfying and peaceful moment.  Later that afternoon as I was driving through this beautiful canyon they took the time to label several of the curves on the road.  No idea why.

I reached Walla Walla on Friday and decided to stop and check in on the electronic world before continuing my journey to Lewiston.  I anticipated another night in the car, and hadn't taken the time to stop and journal yet, so it seemed like a good moment to do so.  When I logged on my inbox was filled with alerts from my financial software, and a few quick checks revealed that a bill which I had intended to pay when I returned to town had, in fact, been automatically paid, thus cleaning out my checking account and making me suddenly and seriously insolvent.  It was one of those, "oh, crap, that was a mistake I need to fix it", moments; but I was almost two thousand miles from home, and barely had a home in the first place.  Panic.  Panic.  Panic.  Shift money around...gather all the various liquid accounts I had together into one place and, whew, I think it's all fine.  (Next day I was able to confirm that, yes, I had made the needed transfers in time).  It was a harsh intrusion into my psychic space, but I tried to leave it in Walla Walla and headed back out on highway 12 toward Lewiston.

The drive from Walla Walla to Lewiston was an entirely new kind of terrain.  Deeply agricultural, with what I can only assume was fields of wheat in various stages of cutting.  The hills were striped with color from the wheat fields, and it was alive with energy and growth.  Also along this path were the first signs of the Lewis and Clark journey.  They had followed this valley as a shortcut between the Columbia and the Clearwater on their return journey.  At one point, there is even a visible trail in the hillside that is the same trail they had followed.  This path was also used by the Nez Perce, so the trails were well known and heavily worn.

As I approached Lewiston, which at this point highway 12 is following the Snake River, I again encountered areas where the river was being used to transport logs and to manage the logging trade.  There is a large factory that process logs taken from the river just west of Lewiston.  At Lewiston, the Clearwater river joins the Snake, and it is from this point forward that the road is following the path of the Lewis and Clark journey westward from the pass over the Bitterroot range.  I have an irrational fascination with their expedition.  I read a book, so that provides me with some rudimentary knowledge, and it is a compelling story.  What resonates for me, however, is the way this story plays out as part of the mythology of the European conquest of North America and stands in contrast to the story of the native peoples who unwittingly assisted us along the way.  Lewis and Clark would have failed utterly and early had it not been for the fact that they were actually following well known and heavily traveled paths across the continent.  All along the way native people who knew where they were going and what they would encounter, and provided essential assistance.  It was as if Lewis had a AAA card, and he used it numerous times.

Highway 12 runs ninety-nine miles through narrow and winding roads between Lewiston and Lola.  Along this route it initially is following the Clearwater, and then the Lochsa rivers.  Initially the road runs through private commercial lands that are developed in various ways, but it soon enters the Clearwater National Forest, at which point begins the most beautiful and scenic of all the national forests that I drove through during this six week journey.  The Clearwater and Lolo National Forests are bordered on the south side by the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers.  On the south side of the rivers, then, are areas designated as wilderness areas, and the Lochsa is designated a wild and scenic waterway.  The combination of these things mean that development is very limited and the area is honeycombed with a range of backcountry and day hikes.  It is a spectacular area and considerably less busy than the other areas I have been in.  On a Saturday in July there were people around, but not crowds.

The river is not the actual path of Lewis and Clark.  There is a point along the drive where the expedition came down from the hills to join the river, but above that point the river gorge is too difficult to pass.  Lewis' team instead had followed a path that runs along the ridge that lies above the river.  Naturally, they were able to do this because the indians showed them the way.

I spent the night in one of the pullouts about a third of the way through this drive, then finished it in the morning as the sun was rising.  Once again, the fog and clouds with the rising sun made for some spectacular scenery.  I had a lovely chat with visitors and staff at the Lolo Visitor Center, changed into clean clothes, grabbed a cup of free coffee, and headed for home.

The drive home, which took the rest of Saturday (I left Lolo Pass about nine Saturday morning) and Sunday was uneventful.  I spent most of the time searching for public radio stations and going as fast as I could.  Montana is not a good state for public radio.  South Dakota, surprisingly, was.  I also spent a little time listening to a Fox radio station.  For speed, it was nice to have a flat drive, but you can't beat mountains for things to look at.

As I got closer to home I began to feel anxious about the return.  Would the electricity still be on?  Is everything still in order?  Is stuff fine?  It was and it is, of course, but I had an amazing sense of bewilderment at being here.  I emptied the car, and sat around for a while wondering what to do.  It was about 6:30 in the evening, and while it seemed to late to start unpacking, I did a few boxes in the bedroom, did some writing, and then moved some furniture around.  All seems to be well and I think I am finding my balance.

Tomorrow, I am going up to the cities to get some money in the bank, retrieve my cat (Yoda) and then come back.  Katie and Mike will be here for dinner tomorrow as Katie has business at Gustavus in the afternoon.  I think that tomorrow begins the process of establishing good routines here, as well as investing some time in deconstructing this journey.

What have I learned about myself?  What have I learned about the world out there?  What do I do with any of it?  While this journal has collected my observations and thoughts as I went, there is a wealth of insights to be gained from uncovering how I felt about what I did and saw along the way.  All of it is fodder for next steps.

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