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Day 83: Big Sky Country

August 21, 2010 10 comments

Location: Missoula, Montana

Miles Driven: 428

Total Miles: 20,628

I think it was around 6AM when I started driving this morning, and I didn’t feel tired at all.  I was excited that I would be crossing the border later that day.  My initial plan was to first hit Waterton Lakes National Park, just north of the border, and connected to America’s Glacier National Park.  However, I changed my mind after seeing the haze in the western skies.

So I was a bit worried that my views at Glacier would be obstructed by the haze.  But as I made my way towards the border, the skies started to clear up.

I thought I might be able to pass Customs relatively easily, given that I didn’t think I was on a major route that goes into Montana.  I was wrong.  There was a long queue of cars, and it took me about 40 minutes to get to the window.  But I was able to take advantage of that waiting period.  I reorganized my junk in the back seat, cleaned up the front a bit, and washed the windows.  While washing the windshield, I discovered a giant bug caught in one of my wiper blades.

R.I.P. big dragonfly

For the third (and last) time on this roadtrip, I crossed into American territory.  I was sped right through once again, and actually had a nice chat with the officer about my trip and future plans.

Soon I arrived at the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park.  The Going-to-the-Sun Road spans across the park about 50 miles, and I was going to take it the full way to the western side.  The last time I was here, I drove west->east, so it was cool to get another perspective of the park.  It wasn’t long before I was smiling, windows down, recognizing some of the most beautiful country in the U.S.

St. Mary Lake and Goose Island

It was a couple hours before I made my way to the other side.  There was a good amount of road construction, but those waits allowed more time to take in the views.  Here are a few more pictures from the drive:

Jackson Glacier

In Glacier, there a lot of waterfalls just coming down the mountains near the road

The familiar U-shape of glacially-formed valleys

Lake MacDonald

By early afternoon I had exited the park, and being a bit tired, I stopped at a cafe not far from Kalispell.  It was there I realized how very dirty the car was.  The Mazda hadn’t received a wash since Alaska, and over a week’s worth of dirt, bugs, and grime had taken their toll.  I was able to find one of those coin-operated car washes and spent a lot of extra quarters working to get the dead bugs off the front.  Here you can see the before and after:

Looking good as new, once again

Speaking of bugs, I’m not sure if it’s something about the northern U.S., but I don’t have to squeegee my windshield as often as I did in Canada.  In Canada, it seemed every 50 miles or so, the windshield would be covered with dead bugs.  I have witnessed the demise of so many of those little guys (and some big ones…ugh).  My brother Jon bought me a new squeegee when I was in Houston, and already it’s pretty filthy.  Here’s hoping the run-ins with the bugs continue to be limited.

Also, it seems bees are strongly attracted to bug guts.  In Canada, whenever I parked my car, within a few minutes I’d have near a dozen bees milling about the front of the vehicle, and behind the rear view mirrors where bug guts were plenty.  So washing the car offers more than just aesthetic values, I also reduce my chance of getting stung.

I was hoping I could find a park in Kalispell where I could get exercise.  As luck would have it, the first park I found had an empty basketball court.  I haven’t had a chance to play since I left Georgia, so I grabbed the ball from my trunk and got to it.  Since I had my camera, I figured I’d make a video and see how many shots in a row I could make:

Needless to say, I stopped filming video shortly after.  But it was good to get some exercise.

Around 9PM or so it started to get dark (what one might consider “normal” compared to Alaska sunsets), and it was a clear night, so I thought it might be a good night to pull out the camera and tripod.  But then I realized my old nemesis, the Moon, shone bright in the western sky.  It wasn’t full, but near full, and it would seriously hamper my night vision.  The moon wouldn’t set until after 3AM, so I decided I’d have to wait until another time to take some astrophotos.

I slept for a little bit, and then woke up around 3AM Saturday morning.  Not able to fall back asleep, I figured I make my way further south.  It was on this drive I realized the skies were still dark, and now moonless, so I took advantage of that and found a dirt road away from Hwy 93.

It's not often you see Orion in the summer night sky. But around 4AM in the summer, sure

Clouds came in fast, but they helped create some cool effects for the photos.

Eventually the cloud cover took over, and I packed up my equipment.  Great to take in some stars once again, especially against the backdrop of some Montanian mountains.

I made my way to Missoula, a place I’ve spent a night once before, but I won’t linger too long today.  I’d like to get close to the Billings area today, and from there I’ll head south towards Eastern Wyoming.  The over-arching goal is to arrive in Boulder, Colorado on Monday, where my friend John has kindly set me up at a hotel.  That will be a real nice treat after all this car-sleeping.

joe

20,000 miles and still going strong

August 19, 2010 15 comments

I thought hitting 20,000 miles on this trip was a fairly significant milestone that earned its own post. And now that I sit here writing this, I have little to say.

I did initially expect to drive in the neighborhood of 20,000 miles by the time this trip was over, but to actually sit behind the odometer and see the distance I’ve gone is pretty cool.  A bit tiring to think about, but very rewarding at the same time.  That being said, there’s still a lot of driving yet to do, but I haven’t gotten sick of it.

So I figured this was a good opportunity to posit a question to the readers of joesroadtrip.com.  See, I’ve been asked many times the past few months, “Joe, what’s been the highlight of your roadtrip?”  I can never name one thing.  I usually end up rattling off about 10 things or so, and that’s before I even start really thinking about it.

So, dear readers – What has been your favorite part of the trip?

I’m actually very curious what others might see as the highlights, and I wonder if responses will jive with mine or be totally different.  There’s now about 80 or so posts on this website, so feel free to review the archives (on the right hand side) if you need a refresher.  If you have time, leave your response in the comment section and let me know.

Thanks,

joe

Days 81 and 82: Calgary Glen Ross

August 19, 2010 4 comments

Location: Calgary, Alberta

Miles Driven: 709

Total Miles: 20,200 (holy crap!)

Once again I passed through a Northern Canadian city and felt at home.  This time, it was Dawson Creek.  I was able to hit up the “downtown” area I toured before, and stopped at the good ol’ Safeway (very cozy restroom, by the way).  I consider myself somewhat of an authority on these cities in Canada, since I have visited many of them twice, albeit for hours at a time each visit.

The drive into Alberta was uneventful, and actually a little bit anti-climatic at first, since I didn’t realize Northern Alberta was made up of plains.  Still a nice sight to behold.

But I initially a bit dismayed.  As I traveled further into Alberta, the familiar haze caused by neighboring forest fires hung in the air.  I asked clerks at a gas station if Alberta, like British Columbia, had been ravaged by summer fires.  They told me the haze in Alberta is the same haze I had witnessed in places like Watson Lake, BC.  Seems the wind can take this smoky air pretty far.  I was a bit concerned what the air quality would be like further south, near Jasper and Banff National Parks. Would it limit my views of the various peaks?  The clerks didn’t know what it was like down there, but mentioned the air quality could change daily.  I’d have to find out for myself, as I was still a few hours north of the parks.

By the time I reached the northern section of Jasper, the air was still hazy and mountains were just blue-ish outlines in the sky.  But oh well.  Not long after entering the park, I noticed some cars pulled over on the side of the road.  Turns out there was a giant elk just hanging out on the side of the road.

biggest elk I've ever seen

I made for the village of Jasper, which is right in the heart of the park.  There I wandered around a bit to stretch the legs.  Before I  knew it, it was 10PM, and I was pretty beat.  Had a good night’s rest (a lot less light to deal with than the prior night’s sleep), and then around 7AM I made my way to the Maligne (for those who know French – how would you pronounce that?  I have no idea) River Canyon to get an early-morning hike in.  The air was a little less hazy than the day before, and it was quiet – didn’t see anybody out until probably after an hour of walking.

Maligne River Canyon

such blue water

After spending some time in the canyon, I got back in the car and started the long journey towards Banff.  It doesn’t look like a long drive on the map, but it winds through the mountains so it would be a couple hours before I arrived.

Despite the haze, I was able to enjoy the Rockies while on the drive to Banff.

Spotted a bear on the side of the road, too.  Two animal sightings so far in Alberta.  There was a lady who stepped outside her car to get a picture of bear, and put herself in an obstacle-free path about 10 yards from the bear.  Not the wisest move.  I got out of there before I witnessed a scene from “When Animals Attack.”

Hey bear, look this way for the photo

I received a recommendation from Travis (back in Vancouver) to be sure to check out Peyto Lake, which is in the northern section of Banff.  I wasn’t paying attention very well to the signs on the road, but I luckily caught the sign for Peyto Lake and made the turn.  I parked the car in the over-flowing parking lot and headed out on the 300 meter path to the lake viewpoint.  I soon realized why this parking lot was stuffed.

I didn't alter this photo one bit. The water really looks like that. Amazing

What a place.  Thank you, Travis.  Another view:

And a closeup of the water:

My next stop was Lake Louise, probably the most famous lake in Banff.  I guess it was a bit anti-climatic for me, probably because it was so crowded.  But a very impressive lake, nonetheless.  I prefer Peyto, though.

My head was hurting a bit (I think due to the altitude), so I decided against going on any more hikes that afternoon.  I made my way slowly out of Banff and then it wasn’t long before I hit Calgary.  Calgary was also very hazy, but I didn’t know if that was forest fire-induced or maybe just Calgary is a polluted city.  Found out from the clerk at the coffeeshop I’m sitting at that no, Calgary is not often smoggy, it just has also seen a reduction in air quality from BC forest fires.

I’ll make Calgary my home for the night.  This will be my last night in Canada, as I’m less than five hours away from the border.  Tomorrow – Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada), and its sister in Montana – Glacier National Park (U.S.) – a park I’ve been lucky enough to visit once before, and one that is in my “top 3”.

Looking forward to being back on American soil, and reuniting with the familiar US Interstate system.

joe

Days 79 and 80: Return to the land of litres and kilometers

August 18, 2010 2 comments

Location: About 80 kilometers from Ft. St. John, British Columbia

Miles Driven: 1,180

Total Miles: 19,491

 

Early Monday morning I crossed Customs once again, heading back into Canada’s Yukon Territory.  This was my quickest passage yet – no car searches, no litany of questions…just a couple to answer and the nice officer sent me on my way.

Back in the Yukon, enjoying the early-morning views

I was soon back to my old ways of covering a lot of ground.  The spoiled days of traveling in Alaska, with maybe just 200 or so miles between destinations, were over.  But no problem.  I set myself a goal to cross the border into Montana by the end of the week, so I’d have to grind out a bit of driving these first few days back in Canada.  I was glad to have my satellite radio functioning again (in Alaska it stopped working, but learned that’s supposed to happen, and wasn’t an issue with my unit), and between that and some audiobooks (thank you, Elyse), the kilometers added up quickly.

It’s probably a psychological thing, but I think I prefer seeing distances to cities in kilometers as opposed to miles.  Even if I see a large amount, such as 400 kilometers, it still seems more visually appealing to me than 248 miles.

It was interesting traveling the opposite direction on the Alaska Highway.  I recalled all the little places I stopped to get gas, and the cafes I had visited to take advantage of free WiFi.  Once I made it back to Whitehorse, I felt like it was a return to a place I used to live, even though I only spent about a day and a half there before.

I had driven about 430 miles that day before deciding to call it quits.  I fell asleep early, and woke up shortly after midnight.  I had looked out my window and saw stars for the first time in…I don’t know…over 10 days?  Part of me wanted to get out and set up my tripod to take pictures, but that day I had been brutally attacked by bugs the second I stepped out of my car.  I decided to stay in the car, and quickly fell back asleep.

The next day, Tuesday, didn’t differ that much from Monday…had a lot of driving to do still.  The day was different in the fact I saw more bison than I ever saw before.  I must’ve seen at least three dozen bison in different spots along the road, most of them in little herds.

lots of bison butt

There were some stretches of driving where the air was smoky and hazy from forest hires (Watson Lake, noticeably), but it was to a lesser extent than on the drive up.  Incidentally, I stopped at the visitor center in Watson Lake (home of the Sign Post Forest), and saw that there are over 67,000 signs up there. Wow.

I passed Muncho Lake on the way, which I had seen before but my views were a bit obscured by haze from forest fires.  This time, it was a bit clearer.

I drove more than I intended on that Tuesday.  By 9PM or so I was ready to call it a night, after passing the city of Ft. St. Nelson, but I had a hell of a time finding a rest stop.  Prior to this stretch of driving, it seemed there was a rest stop every 50 km or so.  I had driven over 130 miles passed Ft. St. Nelson and hadn’t even found one.  Very surprised, and a bit annoyed, I continued driving in the dark.  I didn’t like it, as there were lots of signs regarding wildlife in the area.  It wasn’t until after 11PM I finally found a little place I could pull over and close my eyes for a bit. 

I ended up driving 747 miles that day – a new record, but not one I wish to challenge anytime soon.  I think the toughest haul of Canadian driving is over now.  Soon I’ll be in Dawson Creek, and from there the route will be entirely new to me as I go into Alberta.  Who knows, I might even make it to Jasper National Park before Wednesday is over.  Jasper and Banff National Parks are two of the “must-see” parks in Canada, and both are conveniently located on my route (well, I guess I somewhat planned it that way).

A side note – you’ll notice the Joe-tracker on the top right of the page still shows me in Palmer, Alaska.  Disregard that.  I think when I use the GPS on my phone, AT&T likes to charge me extra in Canada, so I’ve disabled it for the time being.

joe

Day 78: Departing the last frontier in style

August 16, 2010 8 comments

Location: 30 miles west of the Alaska/Canada border

Miles Driven: 346

Total Miles: 18,311

Around 2PM or so I was packed, the car was tidied up, and I was stocked up on some pb&js.  Definitely was tough to say goodbye to Vegas, as we had become pretty good friends in just a short period.  We got one last walk in around the neighborhood, and I got to tussle his furry head a bit before heading out the door.

The going was a bit slow getting out of the Palmer city limits, as there were some pull-offs to take in some of the nice views, and there was a Musk Ox farm on the way.  Unfortunately, the cost to see the musk oxen up close was $8, and the animals didn’t appeal enough to me to pay $8.  Also, I had felt some nausea and ready to puke (I suspect something was up with the grapes I had purchased the previous day).  But an hour napping off by a river helped alleviate that a bit.

I had mentioned the views, and you didn’t have to drive far out of Palmer to be astounded.

Spotted an eagle

The goal was to make it to the Canada/Alaska border (or close to it) before I was done driving for the day.  Eventually the route would take me to the Alaskan city of Tok, a place I passed through on the drive to Fairbanks.  From there, I’d take the Alaska Highway, just going the opposite way I originally came.

I passed the famous Matanuska Glacier on the way towards Tok.

More mountainous scenery

After a few hours driving, I came to the city of Glenallen.  From there, I could head north to Tok, or a bit south and explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – the largest National Park in the U.S.  But given that it was later in the day, and I wasn’t feeling all that great, I passed.  But I still was able to enjoy some of the park’s mountains from a distance.

I could be wrong, but I think that's a lenticular cloud on the right. Never saw one in person before

The Alaskan sky...around 10PM

A bit after 11PM I was ready to call it a day, and it worked out – I was just 30 miles west of the Canadian border.  Definitely was a bit sad to be leaving this gorgeous state, but what an amazing drive on the way out.

joe

An update

August 15, 2010 2 comments

As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s time for me to start making my way back home.  “Phase 3” of this trip was the journey to Alaska.  I actually made it here, got to visit a lot of amazing places, but it’s time for me to go.

Not that I feel rushed to go, it’s just fitting with my overall plan for this trip.  Recall I originally blocked off three months – June, July, August – for this trip.  Early on in this trip, I realized I probably would not arrive home until mid-September (so about 3.5 months), and that was OK, as long as the car was in good shape and I was still in check with my trip budget.

The only real constraint on me is my trip to Asia, which kicks off September 25.  Naturally, I’d like to be home more than a week before getting on a plane, so if I linger too long up in Alaska and Canada, I’ll be cutting it pretty short.  And what I didn’t realize until I started the drive north from Vancouver is that Canada is huge – it took me about 5 days of driving (around 400 miles each day) to make it to Alaska.  I’d prefer not to drive that much on the way back to the Lower 48, so it will be prudent of me to get started now.

So you’re probably saying to yourself, “Alaska to New York?  Joe, it’s not going to take another 30 days to get home.”  And you are right, except for the fact my route home is going to be a bit indirect.  In fact, a lot indirect.  Recall the original trip plan:

Yellow arrows indicate "phase 4", the final leg of the trip

I’m going to change things up a bit and take a little bit more of a roundabout drive home.  I’d like to see some of my friends at least one more time before I leave the country in January, so I figured, “What’s another 2,000 miles or so when you’ve driven 20,000?”  So I’ll be heading south all the way towards Texas, east to Georgia, then a final swing up the East Coast back home to NY.  I figure the time is there, so why not take advantage and see some friends one last time.

So that’s my route back when I’m in the Lower 48.  And what about the Canada portion of the route?  Like my initial plan above, I’ll be making my way to Montana via Alberta, home of Jasper and Banff National Parks.  The Canadian Rockies are not to be missed, I hear, and I look forward to exploring more of scenic Canada.

Now that’s my plan above, how about my actual trip route?  Here’s an update I finished just this morning, showing the drive from Vancouver to Seward.

Eventually a lot of these black lines are going to intersect, so I think I’ll have to use a different color to mark the journey home.

So here it is, Day 78, and it’s time to start turning back East.  It’s a sobering feeling, after spending all this time on the road, to know that the route I begin now will eventually bring me home.  But it’s exciting at the same time.  I’ll get to see new places along the way, and some familiar faces, as well.  As much as I am a self-proclaimed loner, I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with others along this trip.

joe

Day 77: A day of recovery

August 15, 2010 6 comments

Location: Palmer, AK

After sleeping in a bit, I had remembered there were a few items on the list that I had to take care of today.  First thing, I needed an oil change, and second, I wanted to buy some postcards.  Definitely not a hectic day by any means, but one that fit in nicely with the soreness that I experienced after yesterday’s hike.  My legs and arms were definitely feeling it,  especially my wrists from all the hanging on tree limbs when I was slipping on muddy downhill paths.

I took care of the oil change at a nearby Midas.  This is probably one of the last few oil changes I’ll be getting before this trip is over, and the mini-inspection that comes part of the oil change showed no issues with the car.  Not that I was expecting any, but after close to 18,000 miles driven thus far, I need to be prepared for regular issues that may come up after a year’s+ worth of driving.

I then hit up a local gift shop, then came home to walk Susan’s dog, Vegas.  I haven’t had the chance to walk a dog since I left Georgia, so it brought back some good memories of Sally and Marba.  Vegas is especially well-behaved and friendly; in fact, the dog insisted on sleeping next to me the prior night.  Hasn’t barked at me once, yet.

Vegas the dog

I spent the remainder of the evening laying low and relaxing on the couch.  Watched a couple movies (Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is a great film, by the way) and then got to bed early.

The plan for Sunday is to hit the road by early afternoon, and I’ll be making my way gradually East towards the Alaska/Canada border.  It’s a six hour drive from here, per GoogleMaps, but I’ll be making some stops along the way, so it’s up in the air even if I’ll make it to the border tonight.  In any case, the journey in Alaska has come to its end…the long journey home soon begins.

Thanks very much to Susan who offered me the use of her awesome home.  I had such a great stay hanging with Vegas, and am very grateful for a comfortable place to relax and sleep.

And big props to my brother Mike – it was through his connections I’ve had three places to stay – two friends in Alaska, and one in Vancouver.  Thanks Mike.

joe