I confess that most of my obsession with “teasing” this trip out the full six months has been out of a sense of pride and bragging rights. I hear all the time about people who go backpacking for 6 months, 12 months, or even longer. Six months seemed like the least I could do. I now realize that this trip will not last very long at all – thanks mostly to the giant nuclear fusion reactor in the sky.
The Lingering Problem
I’ve discussed this before. I don’t like lingering. I never feel welcome in one spot. If I’m not illegally trespassing, then I’m made to feel like I am. Remy technically isn’t allowed anywhere. I make these travel plans with the assumption that when I arrive at a destination, I’m going to want to spend a full day there. In reality, I may never even park the truck.
Another part of the problem is that I’m no connoisseur. If you could actually drag my ass to an art gallery, I’m the guy who just walks up and down the aisles. “Okay. Seen it. I’m ready to go.” It’s not that I don’t like the art – but I’m not going to stand in front of a painting for hours analyzing brushstrokes and textures. That’s just not my thing. Same with travel – I want to see the world, but once I’ve seen it, I’m good to move on.
Giant Nuclear Fusion Reactor
But on this trip, I swear it’s not my fault. I’ve been driving by some truly beautiful places with every intention of stopping and hanging out for a few hours – if not days. But two external factors are preventing me from doing so.
First – the sun. I’ve never hated it as much as I do now. To be fair – it was my idiot decision to start this trip in July. But I never imagined that battling the heat would be so difficult. Every day on this trip so far – regardless of where I am – has had sustained daytime temperatures between 85°F and 95°F. Even in cooler temperatures, the sun turns this truck into a greenhouse in moments. As a result, we have had to keep moving during the daylight hours to run the A/C.
The forests out here are a joke. They’re not like back home, where our forests are dominated by tall, sun-eclipsing oak trees. Here, a collection of shrubs constitutes a forest, offering no shade or protection. Some of the designated rest areas out here aren’t more than a pair of port-a-pottys on the side of the road.
For the record – Day 4 began in Rochester, then on to Sioux Falls, the Badlands, Wall Drug, Rapid City, and Black Hills National Forest.
Day 5 began at Black Hills, then through Rapid City to Wind Cave National Park, Cheyenne, Ft. Collins, Denver, Boulder, the Stanley Hotel, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Roosevelt National Forest.
Day 6 began at Roosevelt, then through Silverthorne to Aspen, Colorado. I was en route to the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming when I made a split-second course correction (more on that later) just after I crossed the Colorado-Wyoming border. I went through Casper and Gillette to Spearfish South Dakota, where Zombie was waiting for me. We drove back to Wyoming camped out at a rest area in Moorcroft.
Day 7 began in Moorcroft, then Gillette, Casper, and Evanston. After that, I drove toward the Elk Refuge, cutting through Utah and Idaho along the way. I stopped short of Jackson by staying in Bridger National Forest.
Rocky Mountain National Park
I do not want to bash RMNP. It’s a perfectly respectable park in its own right, and I think everyone should take a drive through it. Unfortunately, I’ve already been to the Canadian Rockies – twice. In comparing the two – there’s no contest which areas is superior.
The first issue was the comparable lack of large mammals. I didn’t spot any until we were 20 miles into the park along US-36 westbound. Then there were a few, but nothing like you could see in the Canadian Rockies. In Canada, you’re literally tripping over wildlife and being very careful not to hit any of it with your vehicle.
Probably the reason for the lack of wildlife? Too many fucking people! In the Banff / Jasper areas, the tourist volume is much smaller. At RMNP, there were times I felt like I was on a city road during rush hour. Everyone was rushing through like they had some quarterly shareholder’s meeting with a herd of deer that they were late for.
And then there was the lack of good pullover spots. On steep areas, roads must necessarily be narrow. But in shallower or flat areas, there’s no reason not to make the road just wide enough for vehicles to pull over whenever and wherever they damn well feel like. To my recollection, you could pull over just about anywhere in the Canadian Rockies. Not so at RMNP. You get these small carved out pullover spots that you’ll blow right past if you drive too quick. Assuming it’s vacant, you can’t even be sure that it’s close to a good shot that you want. Slowing down or stopping in the middle of the road isn’t really an option because there is always a line of impatient traffic right behind you.
In other words, RMNP is – by comparison – difficult and even unsafe for frequent stops to take in the sights.
One advantage to RMNP is that the roads take you high up into the mountains. At one point, I noticed my elevation was well over 12,000′ MSL. That’s over 2.25 miles high. I’m not aware of any routes in Canada that go up that high.
Laws are really hostile to nomads. At first, I thought the biggest issue was with not having an address. I’m astonished at the number of times I’ve had to provide an address – for one reason or another – in the past week.
But the truly disappointing part are all the anti-vagrant rules and regulations posted at public places like national forests and parks. The “problems” these laws are designed to eliminate are over-exaggerated. The consequence being that they turn public recreational lands into an unwelcoming bureaucratic nightmare. Unless you’ve shelled out big bucks for the privilege of camping among hundreds of other tourists, there are few places to stay and feel safe.
It shouldn’t be that way. But it is. The more ornery people will tell us nomads to “get a job” and stop leeching off taxpayers. Others will complain of homeless people crowding public lands, creating a nuisance, and being an eyesore. I don’t know (yet) how to persuade others that nomads and drifters are harmless. The ones I’ve met or known are quiet, friendly, non-violent, and keep their campsites clean. If anything, they are great stewards of the outdoors. The public perception is an unfortunate over-reaction to a few bad examples.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Roosevelt campsite. It was a difficult road to drive to get in, and again, there weren’t many trees that could provide shelter. But I found a secluded spot – only a handful of cars passed us early in the morning. Else, we had about a mile in every direction to ourselves. No other human beings in sight or earshot. Remy could explore a large area off leash with no real danger. I cooked up a meal of canned potatoes, corn, and ham, plus a strong Captain and Coke. Fresh mountain air, a beautiful sunset and moonrise – it was bliss. That’s what this trip is all about.
Aspen, like Rocky Mountain National Park, was also very beautiful to drive toward and through. The altitudes get about as high as they do at RMNP. I recommend driving along CO-82 east of Aspen. Just be careful. The roads can – at times – be extremely treacherous and hazardous.
Bragging Rights, Part 2
So here’s where I stand. If you take away the 1,000 mile and two day false start at the beginning of this trip and don’t count the (approximately – I haven’t calculated it yet) 1,200 mile detour I just took, then I was about to cover the first full month’s itinerary – over 2,000 miles – in just four days.
There simply is no way this trip lasts 6 months. Not even 3 months. Probably not even 2.
This bothered me for a long time, but I had an epiphany in the last 24 hours. Time on the road is not an indicator of travel chops. I could say that I spent 12 months backpacking across Europe and Asia, but if I actually spent 12 months holed up in the same hostel – you wouldn’t call me a traveler.
It’s true that my breakneck pace is not of my own doing. But so what? This is what I’m good at. I’m good at traveling huge distances in short periods of time. Why not embrace that? Why not let that be my right to brag?
It’s not like I’m missing anything. I’m making all of my planned stops, and then some. I’ve already made three unplanned diversions. That’s nothing to hang my head about.
So the trip only lasts a month or two. Worst consequence? I’m available to be involved in the 2017 haunt season. Excuse me while I shed a tear over that tragedy.
Return of the Living Dead
Upon leaving Aspen, I headed north to Wyoming for the National Elk Refuge. When I crossed the border, I realized that I was very close to Evanston – Zombie’s current destination. I checked in with him to see how far he had hitched, figuring I could bring him the rest of the way if he was close. Turned out he was still in South Dakota. He got one ride over the course of two days that brought him 50 miles from Rapid City to Spearfish.
I didn’t even have to think about it. I immediately changed course to go back to South Dakota to pick him back up. Yes, it was a significant detour (I haven’t calculated it yet, but I’m estimating between 1,000 and 1,200 miles to retrieve him and bring him to Evanston). The only negative impact of this decision was the approximately three tanks of gas this diversion would cost me. But against the good reasons to do it – it was a no brainer.
First of all, I felt uneasy about dropping him off in Rapid City in the first place, knowing full well that I would be in western Wyoming shortly. But I was hoping to spend several days in Colorado, and figured he could thumb his way to Evanston faster than I could deliver him. Had I known that I would only spend one night in Colorado and that he would only get 50 miles in two days, I would have kept him with me in the first place.
There were other reasons to do it. First of all, I like Zombie’s company and it was nice to have him riding along again. Second, this was precisely the type of diversion I needed to slow down the progress of my itinerary. Third, this little side-quest gave me a sense of purpose. Fourth, this was precisely the type of spontaneous diversion I was hoping to indulge in during this trip.
But most importantly, I felt it was the right thing to do. Given the nasty heat – I could not have had a clear conscience had I left him in South Dakota like that.
Some people might not approve of the fact that I picked up a hitchhiker in the first place, let alone made a thousand mile-plus diversion to pick him up a second time. I’m going to have more to say in the future about hitchhikers, nomads, vagrants, etc., the stigmas attached to them, and the reality of who these people are. Suffice it to say that I trusted my judgment of Zombie, and he did not betray that trust. And because of that – I did not suspend my trip and travel an extra thousand miles to pick up a hitchhiker. I suspended my trip and traveled an extra thousand miles to pick up my friend.
I may not have known Zombie long. He and I are two different people with different beliefs. He is far more experienced and tougher at being a nomad than I am (or will probably ever be). But we are kindred spirits – I knew it almost immediately after I picked him up. So while our friendship may have been short-lived so far, I did not need additional time to determine that he was a friend.
Solo Travel vs Companion Travel
When we finally reached Evanston, Zombie was unable to hail the person he had been there to meet. I stuck around for well over an hour. I preferred not to leave him alone again, at least not until his friend called. But ultimately, that’s what I had to do. I know that Zombie was going to continue hitching his way throughout the western states, and that I couldn’t escort him the whole way. I had done my job – I got him to Evanston.
It is in my nature to care for people I consider to be my guests, and to be concerned for their safety and well-being. It was difficult saying goodbye in Rapid City, and even more difficult saying goodbye in Evanston. I am worried about him.
But as I was headed back toward the National Elk Refuge, I realized that there was another reason that saying goodbye was difficult. I was lonely without Zombie. His company was a welcome diversion. His presence has been the highlight of my trip so far.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of great aspects to solo travel. Solitude is good for everyone in the appropriate dosage. Some of us need more of it than others. Fending for yourself in a strange environment is an exciting adventure. And you’re more free to do what you want, go where you want to go, and do it on your own timeline if not tethered to a travel buddy.
And for shorter trips, like weekend road trips, I stand by the superiority of solo travel.
But on longer hauls like this one… I wish I had a travel companion. Someone to share these experiences with. Someone to bounce ideas off of and to solve problems with together. There is strength in numbers. I might feel more assertive and daring if I was not alone. And I would feel more motivated to try to pace myself if I had a travel buddy.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a friend who shares your zeal for travel and freedom from work and family obligations to accompany you on such a trip. There was nobody I knew who I could have asked to join me on this trip. Meeting Zombie has partially filled that void.
I do regret doing this trip on my own. However, I would say that even if I had a travel partner – I believe it’s important that both be independent and free to do their own thing from time to time. Especially on a long trip, I think it’s important to have some private time away from each other.