Published: October 8th 2011September 1st 2011
top up the propane, we're about to hit the road
Three years in the planning, but somehow still without a plan, the most epic road trip in the history of the United States of America begins. And where should this great trip across the Land of the Free begin? Well, Canada, of course... But first, some introductions:
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Lola, our trustworthy 1988 Chevrolet G20 Pacemaker van who packs 5.7L of propane-powered American V8 engineering. Named from The Kinks' song about a transvestite ('Lola... she walks like a woman but talks like a man'), Lola sure gives a mighty growl, but put her propane powered soul at the bottom of a steep hill and well... you get the point. Lola was converted to run on low-emission and low-cost propane (LPG) back when she was just a babe, and has two oversized BBQ tanks installed, one 100L and the other 60L (or 26.something and 15.something gallons as we've had to figure out in the US). Step inside Lola, and you're instantly in heaven. Four super comfy 'captain' chairs and a rear bench seat which folds down and serves as our double bed for the entire trip. Add an upholstered roof, blinds and curtains and some mood-lights
the inside (minus all our junk!)
down the trim on each side of the cabin and you have what is called in the delightful Australian vernacular, a real 'Shaggin-Wagon.'
Next on the roll call, is Gerry (as in Gerry and the Pacemakers), Jen's plush toy which her friend Ush gave her before we left Sydney. Gerry sits in front of the cassette deck - thats right, cassette deck - enjoying the ride at all times and getting spontaneous hi-5s from Jen and I whenever we see anything awesome along the way, or when crossing a new state border.
And so, with Jen having brought all our worldly possessions (minus those stored in our respective parents' houses) over from Toronto, we pack the van up nice and tight in Edmonton and started heading south. At first we had my two lovely workmates, Claire and Chelsea, on board as we headed down to Calgary, where those ladies got their own rental car and headed out west to the tall trees of California. As soon as we dropped them off the heavens opened, we hit horrendous Calgary traffic and all of the sudden our indicators stopped working, and the rest of the electronics were doing wierd things...
all on the first day of the trip! The epic journey that is a 23 year old vehicle begins we thought. But, next morning, all was fine. It turns out we were just finding out about our Lola and her intriguing personality.
We crossed into the US state of Montana
in the morning, with Jen taking control of Lola for the first time. At the always scary border office, Jen went straight through the red light, which was there to tell us that no, the border lady does not want us up at the window. So she reversed, somewhat dangerously, back. Then it was our turn. The lady asked a few questions, everything was going okay, until, for some completely unknown reason Jen started telling half-truths, and then all out lies! Yes, she still worked in Toronto she said (lie), would be going back to work there (lie), would just be driving down to Texas (lie).. lie lie lie... And so we were called inside. Thankfully to a different officer, where I did my best to take over the answering, and we got our stamps and off we went, wondering why on earth Jen just made things so interesting!
Jeff likes waterfalls
Our first stop of Glacier National Park
was somewhat disappointing purely because of the miserable weather. The forecast wasn't great either so rather than waiting a couple of days to let it clear, we pushed on, up and over the poorly named Going-To-The-Sun Road and through heavy fog at Logan's Pass. What was impressive was Lola's first climb and descent over the continental divide. Many more of those to come. Also, we were able to enjoy some great short walks at lower elevations before leaving Glacier.
Next we drove south through Montana
, a state which derives its name from the Spanish word for a mountain, montaña – ‘ooooooooooooooohh’ says Jen, ‘I never realised’. And yes folks, she has spent quite some time studying Spanish. But anyway, the point here is that this is a state full of mountains and rolling hills, and everywhere - as the licence plates here attest – is big sky country. A stop in the small country town of Deer Lodge, was extremely rewarding. Not only were there multiple options for filling up propane (an instant hit), but the picturesque wide streets of town were full of saloons and churches. We were in real
one of the most spectacular views in the USA, apparently
cowboy country in Deer Lodge. Add to that our first stop in the relative luxury of the Indian-run RV park, complete with lovely hot showers, power hook up and wifi (yay, uni work for Jen, job-searching for me). In the morning we stepped across the road to visit the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, which from the outside looked a little like Ye-Olde-Pissweak-World (for any ABC Late Show fans out there), but thankfully proved to be a fascinating recreation of the life and times of the westward-bound pioneers and ranchers around the Oregon Trail. Wyoming
is supposed to be the least densely populated of all the US states. This certainly didn’t appear to be the case in the first town we visited, as we hit traffic, and there were people all along the sidewalks looking at souvenirs and buying overpriced food. We were in West Yellowstone
, gateway to America’s most famous, and the world’s oldest, national park. At the entrance gate we showed off our recently purchased annual pass, got a map and continued into the park. We hadn’t been driving long before we were saying, “look, a deer on the left “, “woah, an elk on the right”,
big sky and big horse country
and “watch out... bison in the middle of the road!!!” So I slammed on the brakes, and there it was, two tonnes of wild bovine staring down Lola for right of way on the road. Jen quickly snapped up some photos while the cars piled up behind us, and the bison moved over onto the grass and then there was a ranger calling over a megaphone, ‘Sir, you CAN continue driving, there is a clear lane in front of you.’ Onward and upward we went. As we headed into the Lamar Valley we stopped once or twice, along with every other vehicle heading our way for the occasional lone or duo of bison. I couldn’t help but notice that all the vehicles coming in the opposite direction were merely looking out the window, not particularly impressed by this mighty beast of an animal, and rarely pulling over. As we drove further into the valley we saw why. Herd after herd, hundreds – no, thousands – of bison across the grassy plains. Some were fighting, some were chasing each other, but mostly, they were busying themselves eating grass. A bit like cows in a field really, until you remember that these
old mate Chuck taught us all about pioneer life in a Chuck Wagon
are wild animals, back from the brink of extinction.
Yellowstone NP is most famous for its geysers. In fact it has the greatest density of these steaming and spurting volcanic features in the world, beating out Chile’s Atacama region (been there!) and New Zealand’s Rotarua (haven’t been there. Mum... Dad…). And indeed they are amazing. We walked numerous short trails and boardwalks which showed us an array of different types and colours of steamers, mudpools, hot springs and geysers. The unexpected activity of Riverside Geyser was a real highlight, as was watching the crowds gather (whilst eating giant ice cream cones) for the scheduled showing of Old Faithful, which delivered spectacularly, and right on time.
Wildlife – check; geysers – check; now for Yellowstone’s third wonder, canyon country. A long drive through the middle of the park brought us to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Here we drove to one of the more distant overlooks for the chance to give our legs a proper workout walking along the canyon rim back towards the popular Lower Falls. The canyon, with its amazing array of colours (both from the usual geologic composition factors) but also thanks to the activity of sulfurous vents
coming out of the canyon walls was nothing short of breathtaking. Whilst it may not have been as grand as the other famous canyon, it was just as inspiring, thanks to the more friendly scale and great trails. The view from Lower Falls was phenomenal – definitely one of the more impressive sites we’ve seen throughout all of the Americas!
Directly south of Yellowstone is Grand Teton NP
, named after the spectacularly sharp granite mountain range within. When the clouds cleared we were able to enjoy the breathtaking view. The undoubted highlight here was a day hike from Jenny Lake up Cascade Canyon. The hike began with a steep climb, but flattened out for the next couple of hours following a lush willow-lined river valley. The views up into the Tetons was even better here and the wildlife phenomenal. At first we were excited to see a couple of Pikas - one of the cutest small mammals around - running around on the scree slopes, then a yellow-bellied marmot. We had almost finished our lunch break by the stream when a fellow hiker commented how great a spot we had chosen - 'right by the stream' he said,
'just across from that bear'.... 'Bear???' Sure enough, across the stream in the bushes was a black bear, deeply involved in his own lunch of berries upon berries. Soon a crowd gathered around us, so we felt obliged to show off our great lunch spot, and we all went 'oooooh' and 'ahhhh' in unison as the bear would poke up its head, and then nuzzle back down into the berry-filled bushes. A little further on I surprised even myself when I very casually spotted a female moose and calf hidden down in the willow shrubs. I had to get quite descriptive to try and get Jen to see it, and then she did the same for the next hikers through, and so on and so forth. Yep, they're MY moose, I thought.
Further up the trail still there became word of a bull moose hanging about. The hiking group in front of us seemed to know where they were going, so we ran after them, bush-bashing a bit until we came to a creek, and low and behold, a bull moose with its full antlers was there, gracefully crossing the creek, and finding some shrubs to munch on. More
collective 'ooohs' and 'ahhhs' were had! Back down the trail a massive afternoon storm complete with small hail stones was a fine way to wrap up a phenomenal day-hike and highlight that Jen needed a new rain jacket.
With the big mid-West trio of national parks behind us, it was time to head to a city..but where??? How about Boulder, Colorado
. Someone had told us that they had heard that it's a cool small city. Sure, lets do it!
We drove east across the entirety of Wyoming, which showed us that indeed, it is the least densely populated state, and down into Colorado. As we crossed the state line Jen tried to make up for lost points by declaring 'did you know that Colorado is the Spanish word for ...' 'Yes Jen, it means colourful' I quickly replied. And once again, it turns out that the Spanish knew what they were talking about. All the rocks in Colorado are brilliantly coloured from red to yellow, but mostly red. We hurried on down to Boulder, where we had lined up our first CouchSurfing date of the roadtrip - a trivia meet up at a pub downtown with a bunch
of community-minded people that we had never met. Lola put in a strong effort and we made it just in time to meet a whole bunch of fun people, come in a respectable third place (it was no Magic Sausage) and get a whole lot of tips of what to see and do in town. One CSer, Jamie, was even kind enough to write down his friend's address for us, where we would be sure to find a rocking party the following night. And so we saw some sights during the day, and in the evening rocked up to the given address, not knowing anybody (Jamie had assured us he would be there, but didn't know what time). So we walked around into the backyard where some people were milling about, and I jumped upon the first person who glanced at us and asked 'are you Ashwin?' Surprisingly, he said 'yes', and we told him who we were and soon enough we were friends with everybody. It was at this party in Boulder, that we discovered what a hit our story of traveling around the states in a propane-powered van was. Everybody was genuinely interested and super impressed, and some
shared stories of their own alternative-fuel vehicles, and soon enough we were talking environmentalism and politics and social issues. It became pretty evident that Boulder is an oasis for the progressive and liberal, in the otherwise deeply conservative mid-West. We also got a load of tips on where else to go in the mid-West. And for good measure, as the party was dieing down one of the guys jumped up, and everyone started calling out 'keg stand!' And so, this nice gentleman proceeded to do a handstand on the top of the beer keg, and then chug beer straight from the hose - just as they do it on those American frat-boy movies. We thought this was funny enough, but when the crowd started chanting 'U-S-A!, U-S-A!' well, we almost lost it. We thought they must have been putting this on just for us. They weren't. Thank you Boulder, thank you CouchSurfing - you were great fun!
And so the next day we took advice from a fellow partygoer of the previous evening and headed out west to Utah, heading straight for a place named Moab. This had been little more than a recommendation from a relative stranger, but
what a great move it was! Up and over the continental divide we drove once again, then along the famous Colorado River, and its brilliant red canyons and gorges. We camped right along the river and watched the sun set across the canyon, and then the moon follow its path by night. This was a truly memorable campsite, if not for the beauty, but for the next morning's wake-up call. Around 6am, Jen jumped up, and said 'was that you?' 'Was what me?' I replied... Jen had hoped I was giving her a nice little pat on the leg in the dawn hours. I wasn't. There was a pack rat in the van! I sat up to see this gorgeous little rodent scamper across the bed, along the window sill and down under one of the seats. Jen, normally fine around animals, and usually extremely subdued at 6am, was up, alert and alarmed. And so up we got, cleared out the van and went pack rat hunting. We searched everywhere to no avail. Either it scampered back out through wherever it had come in, or Lola, Gerry, Jen and I had a new addition to the crew.
early morning walk up a gorge to see a natural bridge formation we headed in to Arches NP, to show off our annual pass once more and be amazed by the crazy geology of Utah's eastern desert region. Here lay hundreds of bizarre sandstone formations - mostly arches (as the park name suggests) and mesas (think Monument Valley!) and bridges. Lots of short walks explained to us the formation of these crazy shapes, caused by underground salt flats (from when it was a sea) which have expanded, and thrust up the sandstone in weird and wonderful ways. Great sights.
Here concludes part one of our journey. We have made it from the snow-capped mountains of Montana, chanted 'U-S-A' with college kids and found ourselves out in the middle of the scorching Utah desert. Best of all, Lola has been in fine form, and Gerry has been getting plenty of hi-5s at each of the amazing places we have seen. Next up we get freaked out by guns in the deep south, hit the Gulf of Mexico like a hurricane, and swing the night away down in New Orleans!
There are more photos below