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Entries about roads

The Long Road to Idaho: The North Dakota Sessions

North Dakota's Frozen Splendor, A Twelve Hour Drive

semi-overcast 27 °F

Friday, February 3rd: North Dakota’s Frozen Splendor, American Road Trip Realities

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Who knew North Dakota could be so beautiful? Well, in truth, I did, and this morning proved it once again. I had left my hotel at 8 a.m. It was still gloomy, the fog still hasn’t burned off. The air is cold and fresh. The parking lot is a little slick, and I step into the driver’s seat and settle in. I stop for a cup of coffee, set up my mp3 player to listen to a book, and head out onto the freeway.

After a snork or two of coffee, and a few miles later, I really start enjoying the view. It is beautiful out! The fog has frozen onto everything, leaving everything encrusted in a thin layer of delicate frost. The thick mist still holds over the prairie, and the crispy grass and rolling landscape lines fade off into the clouds.
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I am enthralled. I take the first exit that I can, and pull over on a small dirt frontage road. I grab my camera, and step out into the cold. I see a barbwire fence covered in frost. I set up a few photos with the fence as my leading line that leads to the dull gold glow of the rising sun obscured by the fog. It is glorious.
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I love starting my day with a good morning photo shoot. I jump back in the van and drive along the dirt road. I see a grove of trees on my left, and in them resides a cemetery. I pull over, get out and begin exploring the trees for possible angles. The frost has softened the world, giving the landscape a sepia like feel to it. I spend twenty minutes out in the cold, and my hands are freezing by the time I get back in the van.
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I drive back to the freeway, and accelerate back onto I-90 west. It isn’t long before the sun breaks through the thick fog, and above me, a bright blue sky is forming above the clouds. It is too much for me to take, and I get off on the next exit. Just south of the freeway are long rows of cottonwood trees. Cottonwoods are among my favorite trees, commonly found along the streambeds of the American west. They are huge trees. They have charisma and charm in their trunks and branches. I find they often photograph very well.
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I head south along a crunchy frozen farm road and take in the magical landscapes all around me. It’s beautiful. The crisp white branches of the cottonwoods made for a pleasant contrast with the high blue sky of northern winter. For the first time in three days, the sun came out, and brought a cheerful brightness to the long landscapes. I got out of the van, and began walking up and down the road, composing and shooting, thoroughly enjoying my impromptu photo shoot.
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Satisfied, I saddled up once again, retraced my way to the freeway and headed west. I made one more stop at a rest area to use the loo, but after that, I didn’t make any recreational stops for the rest of the day.
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For those of you who have never driven across America, let me say that America is huge. I drove for 11 hours today, and covered 630 miles. I’m still almost 500 miles away from my destination. Most of this distance will be crossing the broad plains and river valleys that weave between the “island” mountain ranges of western Montana.

I bring this up, because I as an advisor on TravellersPoint for the United States, I often get asked how long it will take to drive across the country. There are many people who have three weeks of time to spend in America, and they want to see everything. I have to tell them that they are going to be spending a lot of time in a car. That’s where I was at today, burning up the miles, listening to two books and music in between. Today I listened to “The Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsythe and “The Atlantic” by Simon Winchester. Both are very good books.
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Eventually the boredom set in, and I let my mind wander. I tried talking to my manatee who is riding shotgun on this trip. He seemed more interested in looking out the window than conversation, and I eventually left him in his brooding silence. I don’t think North Dakota has much to offer a manatee, and I suppose that is why he was so gloomy.

I sang along with my music, I yodeled, I took pictures, I ate cheese and crackers for a snack, and had a bologna sandwich for lunch. Steady Rolling. I rambled on, and on, and on. I passed through an entire weather system, crossing underneath a cloud that stretched for 450 miles between central North Dakota and Billings, Montana. I watched the sunset, and was almost blinded by the intense last light of day that lined up perfectly with the road ahead of me.

At dusk, I still had another hundred miles to go, and I figured out my plan for the next couple of days. I've decided to stop my photo shoots every 100 miles. I would still be in North Dakota if I kept that up. I like the idea a lot, but it isn't worth it on this trip.

Tomorrow, I’m going to take a detour off the beaten path, and head down into Yellowstone National Park. I want to soak in a hot spring, and I know just where to find one.

“The enjoyment of an idle life doesn’t cost any money…It must come from an inner richness of the soul in a man who loves the simple ways of life and who is somewhat impatient with the business of making money.”
~ Lin Yutang

Posted by Rhombus 21:37 Archived in USA Tagged trees winter landscape driving roads ice photography frost philosophy fences roadtrips Comments (0)

A Day Off In Gustavus, Alaska

When Not To Laugh, Concerning Bikes, Flowers, Libraries, Pizza, and The Great Settlement of Gustavus, Alaska

semi-overcast 65 °F

I had spent the last few hours running around the ship wondering why we were sailing at full speed with our “not under command” lights up. I was also wondering why I was the only one working the night shift while everyone else slept and why nobody told me that nobody was driving the ship. I frantically ran up to the bridge to try and steer the boat away from the island we were headed straight for. I awoke to find myself running in bed, thrashing through my blankets. Argh! Only a dream.

So began my day off. I jumped out of bed, threw some stuff in my backpack, took two sips of coffee and jumped off the ship. I walked up to the Glacier Bay Lodge to inquire the cost of a room for the day. I informed them that I was from the National Geographic Sea Lion, looking for a cheap rate. The nice lady at the front desk looked me over (I was wearing my ripped up comfortable jeans, homemade sailor beanie, xtratuffs and raincoat, completely unshaven and haggard from little sleep) and then responded, “Twen… hundred and twenty four dollars.”
I must’ve misheard her. “Could you repeat that?”
“For a standard room it will be two hundred and twenty four dollars.”
I told her I had to think about it, which didn’t require much effort. I thanked her and opted for plan b…

Plan B began with a frantic exiting of the boat and jumping into a cab against my better judgment to be taken to the small settlement of Gustavus, Alaska with two other crew members. One was going to Juneau for the day, and the other looking for a cheap room to hole up in. The taxi driver unceremoniously dropped me off with Pete at The Gustavus Crossroads. When the driver took my 40 bucks and tucked it into his front pocket without offering me any change, I swear I heard blues music coming from somewhere. The dude made 40 bucks for a five minute cab ride, and left us standing on the roadside wondering what just happened. I’ll admit, my mind wasn’t really operating on all cylinders yet, and so I was literally “taken for a ride.” I guess I’m a sucker.

So Pete calls up the nearest motel to find out they also charge 200 dollars a day for the experience of staying at an Alaskan Bed and Breakfast. Pete gave up and wanted to go back to the lodge to hang out, and not wanting to face the shrewd cab driver again, we decided to hitch hike. When your best options include hitch hiking you might ask yourself if the decisions you’ve made up to this point in your life have been good ones.
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The first guy to pull over was a true Alaskan wild man. Dirty blond hair fringed light on a dark tan face. He had a hunk of chewing tobacco in his lip. He wore a dirty blue jean jacket and jeans (some call this a Canadian Tuxedo) and a deep sullen voice. He drove a rancid old ford that looked in no worse condition than he did, and told us that he wasn’t going as far as we were. He looked like an axe murderer. We hopped in anyway. I sat up front with him, while Pete hopped in the greasy back of his pickup.

I’m seriously trying not to laugh my ass off at this memory. I’m writing this at the Gustavus Public Library, and I’m dying. This guy looked like an axe murderer, and yet we blindly jumped right in his truck like the rubes we are. Silence. He didn’t speak. I didn’t speak. I pondered my last few minutes in this world. I got the giggles. I didn‘t dare to snicker, as I didn’t want to upset “Spike.” I’ve found when I have to laugh, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I can’t, it makes me want to laugh even harder. I had to bite my lip to keep from busting a gut and laughing at the incredible start to my day. I looked back at Pete huddled up against the cold wind, looking less than amused, and damn near lost it.

He let us out several miles up the pike from whence we had come. When we got out of his truck, I burned up some good laughs and we carried on walking through the dense forest of Alaskan’s temperate rain forest. The second ride was unremarkable, and we arrived back at the lodge thirty minutes later, 40 bucks poorer, and hungry.

I decided to eat breakfast which would improve my day immediately. Then I parted ways with Pete, opting to rent a bike while he chose to relax at the lodge.

Finally, I felt in control of my destiny, and my day began to take shape in a series of enjoyable experiences. On the way to and from Gustavus, I had seen a couple of scenes that I wanted to investigate with my camera. Alaskan wildflowers are gorgeous, and so I set off down the highway I had so recently traveled this time at a much slower, less expensive, and much more enjoyable pace.
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The bike was dark green, of a mountain variety. It was missing its front brake, needed some oil and tapped out a six count rhythm for every three rotations of the pedals. “TAP, tap, tap, tap, tap, TAP…TAP, tap, tap, tap, tap, TAP.” The front wheel was slightly oblong and losing some air, but outside of that, she was cherry. I didn’t mind, and set out down the road, tapping my way to freedom.
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I stopped to admire some lupines that were out along side the road. I love lupines and perhaps they might be my favorite Alaskan flower of mid-summer. Moving along, I found a wet meadow full of what I believe are Alaskan cotton, but I‘m going to call them “Thom Heads.” It was in these plants that I found a kinship. I used to think that dandelions were my kin, but even with their fuzzy white heads, they don’t compare to Thom Heads. The heads of the cotton were soft, shaggy and blond. They reminded me of a sheepdog, and if I grew my hair out, it would look eerily similar to these plants.
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I enjoyed my bike ride. It was cool out, perfect temperature for a ride. It was overcast, but the clouds offered no rain. I pedaled on in a pleasant mood, happy to be free of the ship, happy to be biking along a deserted road through a beautiful forest.

One really great thing about biking on Gustavus roads is the fact that everyone waves at you, and it was fun to wave back. I immediately felt like part of the community, and I blended in perfectly with my classic Alaskan ensemble. Those three words were probably never put in the same sentence before, and I want to take credit for it.
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Anyway, I made it into town and stopped once again at The Crossroads. I stopped into the gallery to get a mocha and called up my brother. It was nice to sit in the shade at a small table and talk with him. Staying connected on a ship is hard, and it was good to chat with one of my people for awhile.
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I moseyed down to the beach and found a likeable bench to lie around on and read my book. I’m currently reading, “As Told at the Explorer’s Club” Edited by George Plimpton. A fascinating read about all varieties of adventure. Then my phone rang, and it was my girlfriend. What luck! I spent the next hour catching up with her, and making up for lost conversations. She works on The Sea Lion’s sister ship, The Sea Bird, and so while we might pass each other in the night, I haven’t seen her since May. Such is the life of a sailor.
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After my long siesta on the beach, I went to the library to surf on the ‘information super highway.” My favorite part of the library was the fact they made you take your shoes off, and everyone walked around in socks. At closing time, I was “socked” out, and made my way to The Crossroads and the Homeshore Café. I had been told they sold pizzas and beer, a combination I had been looking forward to all day. I was not disappointed, and they served up a great pizza using fresh ingredients and lots of love.
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Fully satiated on carbs, I was really looking forward to my nine mile bike ride back to the lodge. It was really more of a slog than a bike ride, but fortunately I had my six count rhythm to keep me company. I was entertained by waving at everyone who passed me, however, and they both seemed like nice people.
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I stopped in my field full of Thom Heads for a break. They were brightly lit up with the afternoon sun, and it was a welcome break from my toil. I continued on, running different bear scenarios through my head. I was blinded by the bright sunlight I was biking directly into, and the deep shadows of the forest were black in contrast. If a bear took a dislike to me, and decided to press the situation there was very little I could do about it. I was stuffed on pizza, and was not moving fast. I needed a bed, not a bike, and I decided I was probably a tasty looking long ravioli on wheels.

After an eternity, I finally hit the only downhill stretch of my ride and coasted back down to the lodge. It was a very welcome sight, and I was happy to get my saddle sore ass off that bike seat.
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I spent the remainder of my day off reading down by the water on the dock. A couple passed by talking excitedly of a moose swimming by. I looked out at the water, and sure enough, it was a moose! I grabbed my camera and ran down to the end of the dock to get a very close look at it as it swam by. Moose are very good swimmers and this one had crossed from an island well over a mile away. Impressive. It reached the far shore, climbed out and ran off into the woods.
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Weary with my efforts of the day, and quite satisfied. I settled into my comfortable bunk for an uninterrupted slumber.

Posted by Rhombus 11:26 Archived in USA Tagged bikes towns roads alaska oceans moose photography wildflowers gustavus Comments (0)

San Javier and Swimming With Sharks

Mexican Road Thoughts, A Cow's Perspective, San Javier, Whale Sharks

sunny 75 °F

I had finally gotten to bed at about 3 am. I had given two tarot readings after getting of work at 1 am. I woke up to the mirror rattling in the door, then the bow thruster of the ship turned on, which sounds like a cross between an industrial sized blender/chainsaw. It was almost impossible to sleep through. Then my alarm went off with my own voice whispering at me, “PSSSSST HEY BUDDY….” It was time to get up, and get ready for the field trip. I had gotten 5 hours of sleep.

We climbed into the van, slammed the doors, and pulled into last position of a caravan of vans that were stretched into a long white train. Our destination was the three hundred year old mission in the sleepy village of San Javier. It was a long drive of about an hour and a half through the beautiful mountain desert that climbed high into the Sierra De la Giganta, the coastal mountains on the east side of Baja California Sur.

The roads at first started out very good; smooth and narrow asphalt, on highway 1 that was a main thoroughfare between La Paz and Loreto. Our driver drove fast, but everyone else drove faster, and we quickly lost the lead cars of our caravan. No matter, we turned west just south of Loreto, and began our long drive into the gorgeous mountains that make up this region of Baja Sur.

Mexican Road Thoughts:

It was good to be traveling by van again. I missed having the wind through my hair while traveling down roads, I had never been on before. As an added bonus, I wasn’t driving, so I could look off into the desert for as long as I wanted.
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The landscape was amazing. As we drove up switch backs up into the mountains, I was surprised to see a copse of palm trees growing in the low areas nearest to the water. The green dread locks of the top of the palms made a nice contrast to the rest of the desert full of the usual suspects of Cardon, cholla, ocotillo, pin cushion cactus, among many others. At the bottom of the shady side of the ravines, only the very tips of the branches of the trees and cactus were caressed by the low sunlight. The mountains were jagged, and appealing. Giant rock spires of ragged rock stuck up in numerous spots, and the dry arroyos were calling me to come and explore them, as they most certainly led to desert wilderness. There’s grandeur in these mountains. I’ve started reading Steinbeck’s “The Log From The Sea of Cortez.” It’s his actual account from a trip he made to this region in 1940.

The road began to deteriorate as we climbed. It changed into a ragged asphalt, to a gravel road, to a rough gravel road, and finally to a washboard hell that we bounced and jounced along for the rest of the way to San Javier. We couldn’t keep the windows open, as we would’ve ended up eating dust, and we couldn’t use the AC because it would’ve clogged the air filter. So we suffered in silence, bouncing along and baking slowly in the sun. I read a bit, stared out at the desert, and wrote in my journal. My hand written journal looks as though a second grader was writing on top a spinning washer during an earthquake.

I saw a small ragged group of cows staring dumbly on the roadside in some shade. What the hell do cows eat in a desert? Every plant and animal has a sharp spine attached to it. I can’t imagine being the first cow in this prickly environment. “I wonder if I can eat that (to speak cow correctly, you need to draw out and deepen your voice in a very slow cadence)? OUCH! That’s sharp! How about that thing? Yowch! Nope…” Soon enough, the cow had tried everything, and she figured out that there was nothing to eat. Her tongue was pierced completely through, like a gothic punk rocker. And that’s how the cows looked--emaciated, hungry, hot, and pondering their fate in life.

I thought about this, and tried to put myself in a cow’s perspective. These ragged, hungry looking and isolated cows probably never heard of the fields of the Midwest, where a cow could probably find plenty of grass to eat, shade trees to lie under, and a stream or two to quench the thirst. A cow paradise? Who knows? The point being (I‘m hoping eventually I‘ll have one) that if a Mexican desert cow did know of these things, how would it react? Would it be jealous of its northerly cousins living in the land of plenty? Or would it take a live and let live approach, and try to make the best of a stacked deck. Long rides over bumpy roads tend to bring out weird topics of contemplation in me.

I also realized my choice of footwear (flip-flops) was a bad one, especially if the van broke down. Walking on gravel roads in flip-flops is bad, and it would’ve been a long road to walk to get anywhere. Luckily, our vans held true.
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The mission was set on the far end of the small village of San Javier. Sleepy is the right way to describe San Javier. The town has one small main boulevard, a collection of small comfortable haciendas, a few shops, a two room police station, and a couple of small restaurants. It was charming. We stepped out into the bright mid-morning sun, and we headed towards the mission for a brief introduction.
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I skipped out on the introduction, choosing my own path and getting away from the large group of guests to which the tour was for. I sat in the cobblestone square in the shade of one of the many orange trees, and took it all in. San Javier is set in a beautiful mountain valley in the middle of the mountains. It is a true oasis, with a good river to provide water for the small population. There were small farms on the outskirts of town, palm trees, orange trees, dates, figs, and even a gnarled old olive tree. The buildings were well lived in and comfortable. A black chicken was pecking contentedly at the cobblestone. I made the acquaintance of three healthy looking dogs, two of which stayed around for a good scratch behind the ears (good karma). The dogs seemed to be on a mission (ha! Get it?) roaming around searching for something, but for what will remain unknown.
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I’m not a religious man, so the story of the mission and its religious effect on the region was lost on me. I enjoyed the old architecture of the place. The high arched ceiling of the main alter area were impressive, and I was surprised at how narrow it was. From the outside, it looks a lot bigger. There was very old art, and artifacts upon the walls and on display, and by all accounts it was considered beautiful.
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I was more into wandering around the small village, petting the dogs, looking at the birds, and napping in the shade of the vibrant flower beds, and taking pictures of the fickle butterflies and bees that fluttered and buzzed around. I’ve one regret, that being not getting something to eat from the small restaurant. I wasn’t hungry at the time, but I should’ve gone for it anyway. Our field trip was over, and we loaded back into the vans to head back the ship, and back to work.

Swimming with Sharks

Have I told you why I really like this job? One of the biggest reasons why I like it so much, is the fact that the company encourages you to go out and play as often as you can. In this case, a dozen of us had loaded up into two of the zodiacs at 8:30 in the morning and were headed north across the bay just north of La Paz in search of whale sharks. We hoped to swim with them. This might sound dangerous and a bit of a fool’s errand at first glance, but in reality, it was quite all right.

The reason being is that whale sharks aren’t like their meat hungry cousins. They eat plankton, and other tiny invertebrates. While their mouth is full of shark teeth, they are tiny, and not meant for ripping flesh off of bone. In fact, they don’t even use them, whale sharks gulp in huge amounts of water, filtering the water through their gills, entrapping the plankton.

We searched for about forty minutes before we spied them. The only way to really see where they are is to notice their small dorsal fin break the surface of the water. The sea was calm, and so spying the dorsal was easy. We were told by our naturalist that there are two rules to swimming with whale sharks: No. 1. Don’t touch the sharks. No. 2. Don’t touch the sharks. The reason being, that if you touch them, they will most likely swim away, to deeper waters, not to be seen again. With this in mind, I jumped overboard and experienced one of the more amazing mornings of my life.

The visibility was pretty good under the water, but not excellent. I expected to see the sharks from a distance, but as it turned out, the gentle giants just sort of appeared out of the gloom less than 8 feet away. It kind of catches you off guard, when you see a massive fish swim straight towards you from out of nowhere.

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It was magical to swim next to these amazing creatures. Under the water their skin is blue/gray with light colored spots all over their back. In Mexico they are also known as “pez dama” or “domino” due to the spots. The whales we swam with weren’t full size, the largest being about 25 feet long. Full size adults can reach forty feet long.

Even with all the knowledge I had about their docility, to actually swim with a shark that size was still a rush. My favorite moment occurred when I was swimming along side of the larger shark. To keep up, I had to kick fairly hard with my flippers. I was watching it just in front of me when it suddenly turned and completely crossed directly in front of me, not 4 feet away. I had to tuck my feet in order not to touch it. As it passed, I saw its beautiful markings from head to tail. After it passed I swam after it again, until it dove down deep. I love seeing those huge fish simply disappear into the depths. Like magicians, they melt into the depths leaving you wondering if they were ever there.

After a while, another boat showed up, a tour boat offering snorkeling with whale sharks. A couple jumped into the water, and began what I would call spastic motions intending to mimic swimming towards the whale shark. The first thing the guy did when he “swam” close, was to reach out and touch the shark. Like that, the shark was gone, swimming fast, and as hard as it could away from us. Whale sharks don’t swim fast, but a lot faster than any of us could swim. Apparently, the guy never heard about rule no. 1, or 2. Jack Ass. Ah well, he deserved it, I hope he paid a lot of money for his moment in the sun.

As it was, I had an excellent morning, and one I won’t soon forget. I swam with whale sharks! Long Live Whale Sharks!

Posted by Rhombus 16:46 Archived in Mexico Tagged mountains snorkelling oasis flowers mexico roads deserts baja sharks photography cows missions Comments (2)

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