I Went to the Great Northwest!

I don’t have the heart to sort through all the pictures or polish them for presenting them online, but I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a little bit now that I’m all done with my trip to the Pacific Northwest! My quest to visit all 48 contiguous states by my thirtieth birthday is still not complete, but at this point I have now seen all the western states: North Dakota, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon have now been experienced by me.

Overall I’d say I didn’t care much for Idaho, even if Shoshone Falls was cool. North Dakota was bleak from start to…well, not finish, but almost finish: Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Painted Canyon was gorgeous, but it’s almost at the border with Montana! Speaking of Montana, it’s one of my favorite areas of the West now, along with one of my favorite states in general. Even the eastern parts, where streams like the Yellowstone River flow with rapids and rafts, are rather pretty, continuing the trend from northeastern Wyoming, perhaps the most gorgeous part of the entire High Plains. But the western parts were dreamy in quite a few places; I really liked Bozeman, and had a wonderful time there sipping me a Starbucks in a cool breeze outside on Independence Day under the mountains. Even Helena was nice, not to mention cool, with all the Victorian architecture.

I caught my first snowcaps going by Glacier National Park; I declined to actually enter it on account of the Going-to-the-Sun road still being closed on account of heavy snowpack (this is later than usual, but far from unheard of; these sites often don’t melt off totally until well past midsummer), but the mountain range was spectacular, the southern extension of the Canadian Rockies.

The Kootenai and Flathead areas were…blech. I didn’t like them much. Ditto for eastern Washington, though things picked up once I got into one of those canyons cut by the Columbia River. I had no idea the state of Washington had quite so much desert-like area. That was really cool; the experience made me wistful for Death Valley. Sagebrush, sun, and impactful views abounded.

Seattle was much better than I expected; I actually really liked the area, which is a surprise considering I didn’t go gaga over San Francisco last winter (the closest city I had come to a Pacific Northwest urban center before this trip). I especially found the Seattle waterfront dreamy; I got the chance to eat some delicious ice cream out on a pier at sunset on Puget Sound (which comes off like a real arm of the sea, unlike many sheltered bays in our country). This was in the middle of a “heat wave”, by the way; it might have been one by local standards, but the most heat I felt was feeling hot when the sun was shining on my back. Apparently a day when the cold breeze from Puget Sound doesn’t start until after sundown is brutal by local standards. Oh, and there was no humidity to be felt either. Even the “cool waves” where I live don’t feel as clement as a “heat wave” does in Seattle.

Of course it was a heat wave compared to what I encountered later, when I drove to the other side of Puget Sound and tracked the Strait of Juan de Fuca, passing into the Cascadian rainforest and savoring every glimpse of that dreamy water at sunset. Until I came upon Cape Flattery, the edge of the world…er, the contiguous part of the United States. But out there, where aside from one island with a lighthouse blinking a signal at you there’s no trace of land on three sides of you, where the dank stiff breeze ripples across the water and up the rocky cliffs of the beach straight into your face, it feels like you’re at world’s end. It was nothing short of breathtaking, especially in a cloudy twilight at 53 degrees Fahrenheit, which was the garb in which I experienced it.

After that, any other coast I’ve ever been to just seems tame. I actually ended up hiking back to my car in deep twilight; together with the clouds and the thick forest cover, it was almost totally dark on the forest floor, but I made it…and then drove hour after hour down foggy roads in rugged terrain set in the thick lush rainforest to get to my vacation rental, a beachside cottage on the Washington coast. The next day I went to the more tame environs of Long Beach and spent most of the daylight hours there, taking in the scenery; although a brown-sand beach with the sea on one side is not nearly as hardcore as the peninsular rocks of Cape Flattery, it still had a dank and biting quality to it. With the sea mist obscuring some nearby hills on the coast and the sublime grey waters of the world’s largest ocean crashing ashore, cooling breezes caressing my face, it seems exactly the sort of weather out of which some 18th century British naval officer would emerge unaged, or perhaps even the Flying Dutchman himself.

Out on the Cape I saw no less than two lights from ships in the ocean, one of which even seemed like it was sending me a signal. Most likely it wasn’t, but hey, if whoever was manning that ship had binoculars or a spyglass they might have seen the light from my camera on the peninsula and known somebody was out there. When I hiked in everyone else was going out, and I was all alone the whole time at the observation deck, and this is the peak of the tourist season in midsummer, so I gather people aren’t usually sighted out there at night.

And speaking of people, the shadows on Tatoosh Island seemed to be playing tricks, since I swore I could see a man out there on its coast…or maybe they weren’t. After all, the Makah (who own the place; both cape and island are on the Makah Indian Reservation) were known to have fished there in traditional times; who’s to say one of them wasn’t out enjoying a summer night the time I was out there?

The whole place had a kind of magical quality that carried right over through Long Beach. But it faded out by the time I crossed the Columbia River into Oregon, and met the town of Astoria. Astoria is a nice and charming place, and I quite liked it. So much so I felt compelled to extend my trip down the Oregon coast, penetrating as far as the town of Seaside, which I found nothing short of dreamy (it’s certainly a lot swankier than anywhere on the Washington coast).

But it’s a lot like a more northerly version of the California coast, geographically. Yes, the California coast is my favorite region I’ve ever been to, and I do like the Oregon coast too, but it’s just not the same as the big bad Cape. The California coast (extending up through Oregon) might be paradise, but the Washington coast is an experience. Not emblematic of the Beautiful, but rather embodying the Sublime. Perhaps that’s why Death Valley always draws me in so much: it’s to the desert what the Cape is to the coast, and to the rainforest.

Anyway, I followed Highway 26 through the rainforested mountains to Portland, which was a much better place than I was expecting; I actually really liked it, and it has to rate as among my favorite cities now. It’s no Los Angeles or even Seattle (just can’t beat that seawater!), but it’s nice. The Columbia Gorge was a cool place, but I was surprised how abruptly the transition is to an arid environment once you reach The Dalles. From there I proceeded through the Oregon desert to Idaho, which was neat and everything, but I liked the Columbia River portion of the Washington desert better.

The Snake River was the highlight of the Idaho experience, such as it was. I have to say I didn’t like Boise much, and I liked the other Idaho cities even less. Things really picked up once I approached the Tetons, which were absolutely gorgeous. The town of Jackson, Wyoming has to rate as among my favorite places; it’s really swanky, yes, but it’s also very much an Old West town, from the buildings to the wooden boardwalks to the vibe of the populace. If you want the American West in its best form, look no further. Like Astoria and the Cascadian coast in general, the place has always fascinated me, and for once I was not disappointed.

The weather was rather average, and the climate is honestly rather odd. It feels downright hot in the sun during the afternoons, even if temperatures are just in the seventies, but it cools off fast at night. Indeed, I slept under the stars once during my trip there and it dropped down to 42 degrees for the morning low; very comfortable weather if you ask me. I got a better sleep out there than I do in my own bed, despite more difficult circumstances otherwise.

It was also home to the most spectacular night sky I’ve ever seen: well outside any zones of major light pollution, and blessed with a clear sky and little traffic on the roads, I was able to pull off and have at it when it came to stargazing, getting by far the clearest naked-eye view of the Milky Way I’ve ever seen in my life. One peculiarity I noticed is how much bluer all the stars seem; in the more polluted skies I call home they come off as a dim white, but out West they appear a crisp blue.

One of the most striking aspects of the American West to me is that it seems you can see what the sky actually looks like; you can see clouds stretching from horizon to horizon, you get the “big sky” effect (particularly in Montana and Wyoming; it’s called “big sky country” for good reason), and you can actually see stars and the galaxy on a clear night, clearly and crisply. I’ll just state it flat-out: in the eastern United States, you don’t even see a real sky, even if you’re in a dark area. The authentic article can only be apprehended in the West.

The Grand Tetons National Park might actually be the favorite of all the national parks I’ve visited; it was so gorgeous, and so pleasant. Yellowstone, on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment; it’s really cool with the geological features (I saw Old Faithful erupt…twice, and I saw Grand Prismatic Spring, the “mud volcano”, and the gorgeous expanse of Yellowstone Canyon (not to mention the Falls)), but it’s just up on a rolling plateau (with sulfurous fumes everywhere; those with sensitive lungs, take note!). The scenery just doesn’t compare to the magnificent vista of, say, the Tetons across from Jackson Lake; after seeing that Yellowstone was a bit of a letdown. Well…at least the core part of the park, anyway.

On the way out toward the East Entrance I descended some sort of canyon, and came face to face with snow. Yes, literally right by the side of the road, were large patches of snowpack that had not yet melted from last winter, melted and compacted into icy masses. I pulled over to the side of the road, braved the ditch, and reached out and touched one of these masses: the first time I’ve ever touched snow in July. Everything else in Yellowstone was well worth seeing for once in my life, but that took the cake for the whole trip.

Passing through Cody and Greybull (not to mention Shell), which amounted to more arid terrain, I then ascended the Bighorn Range on Highway 14, a gorgeous and impressive sight. If you’re heading into the High Plains from the west, this is the way to go! You get a view of the whole expanse from one of those scenic pullouts just east of the crest.

The High Plains of northeastern Wyoming are my favorite part of them, and they were all green in their gently rolling splendor this summer, big sky and puffy clouds stretching from horizon to horizon, sublime and all-encompassing in its desolate beauty. On the way I stopped by Devil’s Tower, perhaps the most peculiar natural structure in the entirety of the United States; I made sure to go into the National Monument and get a closer look at it than I have ever before in my life on that hiking trail. It’s one of those things where the closer you look at it the weirder it gets. Striking to the eye, though.

But it turned out my hike was merely an appetizer for what was to come. That day, July 11, was the first time I ever came face-to-face with a supercell thunderstorm, coming up right behind Devil’s Tower at sunset, rotating visibly in all its sublime glory in the treeless expanse of rolling hills surrounding us. From mammatus clouds to rainshafts to copious lightning, this one had it all…and it was heading straight at me.

Fortunately when I was a kid I watched The Weather Channel way too often, so I knew what I was looking at, and I successfully evaded the path of the storm by driving to Hulett, before backtracking on the rear side of the storm to a rest area outside Sundance. The rest of the evening the squall line continued to belt out lightning before me.

The finale of the trip was passing by the Black Hills and paying the Badlands of South Dakota a visit, staying for quite some time on the scenic drive, enjoying those lovely rocky landscapes for all they were worth, before heading home across the (still!) vast expanse of the Plains left for me to traverse.

It was a grueling bit of travel, but it gave me a so much more three-dimensional view of the American West, and reinforced that this is my favorite region of the country; the further west I go, the better I like it, meaning the West Coast is far and away my favorite region of the country. I hope to go back there, and especially to California, in the near future, but in the meantime a different destination calls to me…

Map of all the parts of the world I’ve been to so far (red is where I’ve been, black where I have not). Doesn’t take a genius to figure out where I’m headed next…

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