The rainy road to Buffalo

It is raining in Buffalo.

The whole world is grey as I drive through the final few miles of upstate New York to the Canadian border. I stayed in a motel the previous night - my first of the trip - and awoke to a flat grey sky and a surprisingly cold rain. It's July, but it feels like October would back down south. The rain has slowed to a drizzle when I pull into Niagara Falls State Park and walk down to Horseshoe Falls.

The water is kind of a light turquoise. And there's, like, a lot of it.

Horseshoe Falls

I stare off the edge of the falls, thinking, That's a lot of fucking water. I'm a little disappointed in my mind for its total lack of profundity. I take a few pictures, gawk the required amount of times, then wander back up to the restaurant at the top of the falls (called, imaginatively, the Top of the Falls restaurant), where I sit down with an adult beverage and crack open my laptop. "I BELIEVE I CAN FLY," blares the extremely unfortunate selection of music, and after a couple of minutes of this, I go outside.

"STAYIN ALIIIIIIIIIIVE," the Bee Gees shout down at me from the loudspeakers. "STAYIN ALIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE!!!!"

Somebody help me, cuz I'm goin nowhere.

The American falls

It was pouring rain by the time I made the short trek down to the American falls. It felt good to do a little bit of walking around, after the sedentary past few days. I took a few pictures, then reluctantly hopped back into the car again. I stopped and chatted with a gas station clerk on my way out of town. She was in her mid-thirties, and had that tough-as-leather outdoorsy look, but was pretty enough for all that. She assured me that it was not usually this cold or this rainy up here.

"My first time up here," I confided in her, as if my nearly incandescent aura of 'tourist' was not already blinding her.

The drive across the border into Canada was hassle-free (I celebrated July 4th by leaving the country...I'm so patriotic!), and I made good time along the QEW (which, I'm told, stands for Queen Elizabeth Way...the Canadian equivalent of the Interstate) across lower Ontario. Coming back into the U.S., I got stopped by customs. The border guard looked at my car, packed full of all my belongings, with a suspicious eye. He stared at my passport for a while. After another couple of minutes of hostile squinting directed alternately at my car and my passport, during which I wondered why U.S. customs was so much slower and more irritating than their Canadian counterparts, he told me they'd need to inspect my car. "Just a random check," he assured me, unhelpfully, and I stopped my car and went inside the inspection post. The customs official who ended up looking through my car was a good-natured older guy from Mobile, Alabama, and he seemed delighted when he discovered I was from Georgia. He left to rummage through my belongings.

When he came back, he handed me my keys with a smirk. "Nice machete," he remarked, grinning.

I left, and made it the rest of the way to Detroit without further incident. I noticed that there are 'INJURE OR KILL A HIGHWAY WORKER - $7500 FINE AND 15 YEARS' signs posted all over the Michigan freeways, which seems a little draconian. I wonder if that even applies if it's just an accident. After a bit of confusion with the strange road numbering system there (am I on 12 mile road? or 13 mile road?), I pulled up to James's tall, skinny townhouse in Novi, a boring, upper-middle-class-ish suburb of Detroit.

Brats, burgers, and miscellaneous grilling sundries in hand, me, James, and James's roommate Jason drove over to the park to grill out for July 4th.

James had the whole week of July 4th off, so the three of us spent the next five (I think it was five) days pretty much just lazing around. I got very familiar with James's (wonderful) couch, and took many a nap. We ate. We chilled. We went over to Ann Arbor and saw Transformers with James's friend Paris. We watched 10,000 episodes of Man vs Wild (Bear Grylls is my new hero, incidentally). I actually went running, twice! After so much time sitting around in the car, this was a real godsend. One night, we went Irish pubbing at a local place. I had a blast watching a woman who was at least 55 years old ruthlessly hit on Jason. James, of course, had 1 drink and turned bright red right away.

Irish pubbing in Novi

On Sunday, I pushed off again. I made good time, and zoned out at the wheel, watching the world fly past. The low hills flattened, and the forest turned to grasslands, the rich prairie of Minnesota and east South Dakota, and the landscape was farm after farm after farm. I set up camp on the east bank of the Missouri River, near a small South Dakota town called Chamberlain. If this wasn't the perfect spot to camp, it came pretty damn close:

Tent by the river

After setting up camp, I climbed down the rocks to the shore. I found a nice flat-topped boulder by the water's edge, took a few pictures, then sat there for maybe an hour, watching the sun set over the low hills on the river's west bank. The bugs started to bite at dusk, so I climbed back over the rocks to my campsite, and lay down on a picnic table by my tent. A couple hours later, the sun had fallen completely below the horizon, and I watched the faint silver-white traces of the Milky Way slowly reveal themselves.

It was late afternoon by the time I got down to Wind Cave National Park, in South Dakota's Black Hills. I managed to catch the last guided tour of the cave itself before the visitor center closed, which was pretty cool. The ranger who led the tour reminded me incongruously of Captain N, which actually made me enjoy the tour a lot more.

I camped out in the park that night, then set out the next day to do the Adventure Magazine-recommended Highland Creek Trail. It was a pretty cool hike, and would have been even cooler if I'd brought about 3 times as much water as I did. I figured I'd just hike until my water was about halfway gone, then turn around and hike back. But, as luck would have it, I ended up getting to the fateful halfway mark right near the intersection of the Highland Creek and Centennial Trails, so I figured, okay, I'll just hike back on Centennial, instead. It didn't look any longer, and I'd get to see some new stuff on the way back!

Funny thing about the backcountry trails at Wind Cave. I guess because the park itself isn't too well-trafficked, the backcountry trails are deserted. I didn't see a single other hiker the whole day. The upshot of this is that the trails are not as well-marked as they could be, and, sure enough, after clambering up a rocky hillside a little ways into the Centennial Trail, I lost the trail altogether. Or rather, I got on a trail...but not the right one. There were at least four different trails, leading in different directions, at the top of the hill. The funny thing about the prairie trails is that, when in doubt, you generally don't want to take the most well-marked path, because it's almost certainly just a game trail. The buffalo on the plains are great trail-makers...but there's absolutely no reason to think that they were going where I wanted to go. Plus, July is rutting season, when the two-thousand-pound beasts are notoriously unpredictable.

Buffalo can run at speeds up to 30 miles per hour, I recalled reading earlier. Do not approach. Many visitors have been gored to death. I'd actually encountered several along the trail already. One had been blocking the trail, so I walked around...giving it a very wide berth.

So I ended up getting on the wrong trail. It went nowhere, ended after four miles or so, and placed me somewhere in the big white blank on my map. This experience is, in part, why I bought USGS topo trail maps of places where I did big hikes from here on out. I did have a compass, though, and a rough idea of where I was, so I ended up wandering back onto the Highland Creek Trail...and I was almost out of water by the time I found it again. The remainder of the hike was a very thirsty trek across some very hot, very dry prairie. To say I was relieved to see the car again would be a gruesome understatement. I drove back to the previous night's campsite and joyfully stuck my head under the faucet there.

It was mid-to-late afternoon by the time I drove out of the park, and it was evening by the time I entered Wyoming. I found an awesome campground in a town called Buffalo that had a swimming pool, wireless internet, and free showers. The next day, I went to the town of Cody, right outside Yellowstone, and happened upon the Yellowstone Jazz Festival, which was a pretty good show.

Finally, Yellowstone. The good part: very pretty. The bad part: unbelievably freaking crowded. I did a few day hikes the day I got there, including a particularly scenic hike up the Elephant Back Trail, then drove to one of the park campsites for the night. I'd only planned to spend a couple of days in Yellowstone, since I wanted to spend more time in Grand Teton, so I spent the next day trying to cram in all the sightseeing I could. I saw Old Faithful and the rest of the geysers and springs (Morning Glory Pool was especially pretty), Grand Prismatic Spring, went through Mammoth Country and Roosevelt Country and all the rest. Did a short hike down to the brink of the lower falls.

By the time I drove south into Grand Teton national park, it was almost 8, and I didn't get to speak to a ranger that night about my planned Teton Crest Trail hike. This sucked, because I had no real sense of how practical what I was planning to do was. I could see a ranger telling me what a godawful idea it was to hike up to above 10,000 feet, alone, into occasionally snow-covered trails, in an area I was unfamiliar with, in grizzly bear country...or I could just as easily have seen him telling me Sure, no biggie. Have fun. I did meet a couple of other Georgians, randomly enough, working at the lodge. One told me that he thought my plan sounded fine, the other said I'd be crazy to go alone.

"You don't want to get mauled by a bear, do you?" she inquired, before rushing back into the kitchen.

Well, that seemed like a fair enough point.

So I was second-guessing myself all night as I lay in the tent. Now, I've done plenty of hiking in bear country (which includes pretty much all of North Georgia), so I'm pretty unconcerned about black bears. I've only actually seen one in all my hiking, and he seemed just as wary of me as I was of him. I understand they're pretty shy, and if you're reasonably careful about storing your food and to make a lot of noise as you walk, they'll almost always steer clear of you.

Grizzly bears, on the other hand, I had no experience with, and am quite a bit more scared of. They're much more aggressive than black bears. They're much larger. They weigh more than some cars. They can run as fast as a horse. In short, they are able and willing to tear you a new one.

I took some comfort in the fact that I'd bought some bear mace back in Minnesota, which is basically super-powerful pepper spray with a 30-foot range. I asked the clerk at the REI that I bought it from if this stuff really worked, or if it would just piss a bear off. The guy said he'd used it before and guaranteed, "This stuff will fuck a bear up." So I felt a bit better about the whole bear situation with a canister of it attached to my belt.

The next morning, I parked my car at the Granite Canyon trailhead, and hired a taxi to take me up to the String Lake trailhead. The ranger warned me that my planned route would be pretty grueling, since most people split this hike up into 4 or 5 days.

So I would travel from String Lake, up Paintbrush Canyon, and camp in the South Fork of the Cascade Canyon the first night. This was to be my most diffcult day: 14 miles. 14 miles with a heavy pack is no picnic even on flat ground, and, if you examine the topo map above and pay close attention to the elevation gain, you can see that my first day was absolute murder. The String Lake trailhead is at 6,500 feet, and Paintbrush Divide is at 10,700 feet. That means that the trail up the canyon is just one long, steep climb. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that I'd had to stop off at the camping supply store near the park to pick up a few extra small things I'd neglected to get at REI, so I didn't end up actually hitting the trail until 12:30 PM.

I was about an hour into the walk, just starting up the canyon, when it began pouring rain. Cursing, I set down my pack and tried to pull out my rain gear, which I'd stupidly packed near the bottom. By the time I'd gotten it out and covered everything, my gear was damp enough to cause headaches for the rest of the day. Thankfully, my two-plastic-bags strategy for my (down) sleeping bag worked, and it stayed dry!

The downpour slowed to a resentful drizzle after about ten minutes, and the rest of the way up the canyon was an on-and-off drizzle and mist, which got colder and colder the higher I went. By the time I passed the Holly Lake campgrounds, I was wishing I'd had the great good sense to split the hike into 4 days, and stared at the family behind me, hiking off to their high canyon campgrounds with not a little envy. Sighing, and eating a powerbar (bleh), plus two or three wedges of dried mango for morale that little burst of sugar energy, I hoisted my pack again and began trudging up the endless incline, towards Paintbrush Divide. At about 8,500 feet, the thinning forest gives way to rocky grasses, and soon the Paintbrush Canyon Trail becomes too rocky even for the grass to survive. The first snowfield I had to cross was a small dying patch, but the second, higher snowfield was 50 to 60 feet across, with a long, steep slide down to an icy mountain lake on the down side. I dug my hiking staff into the snow and slowly made my way across.

I found out the next day that the reason this part of the trail was so exceptionally treacherous was because there had been an avalanche and rockslide earlier, which had covered sections of the path. (The ranger had neglected to mention that little fact to me.) I actually lost the trail for about half a mile, during the steepest, nastiest section, right before you get to the Paintbrush Divide. The trail sort of looked like it went one way, so I followed it, and soon found myself having to do technical climbing up the rocky mountainside.

This can't be right, I thought, grimly turning over and making my way back down to near the second snowfield, where the trail had vanished. Climbing down a 'trail' that steep with a huge pack on is not much fun. Eventually, I spotted another vaguely flat-looking patch of rocks that turned out to be what was left of the Paintbrush Canyon trail, and dragged myself to the top of the Divide. I was puffing with exertion, but it was cold at the top, and the wind cut like a knife.

The path down into Cascade Canyon was a cakewalk by comparison, and the view of Lake Solitude was beautiful. I love the way high alpine lakes look, especially in the sunlight:

As I descended into Cascade, the rocks gave way to lush meadowlands. The wildflowers bloom in July, carpeting the meadows with their reds and yellows and purples. My walk down through the canyon's North Fork was gentle and swift, and the meadows turned to sparse, then thicker pine forest.

Nearing the central part of the canyon, I ran into another party of hikers. There were three of them, one of whom was a tall brunette with, I think, the most shapely legs I've ever seen, and they assured me that the South Fork was only a couple of miles away.

It made me very sad that the trail began to climb again about a half mile after that, and I dragged myself numbly through the last couple miles to the first open South Fork campground. I finally arrived at the site with about 45 minutes of daylight left to spare. I was camped out on a high ledge, and I could hear of the waterfall as I went to sleep.

The next day, my legs and shoulders hurt before I even began hiking, but, not having much of a choice, I strapped on my pack and hiked up the rest of Cascade Canyon. After a while, I settled into a nice rhythm, walking through the flowering alpine meadows.

It got pretty steep again for the last half-mile before Hurricane Pass, and, true to its name, there was a fierce, cold wind blowing across the top of the pass. I met a couple from Texas at the top, and we stopped and had lunch (meaning dried fruit and granola...) together. I hiked along with them for a while the second day, as we descended into the Alaska Basin.

These pictures of the Alaska Basin do not in any way do the place justice. The basin was probably the most beautiful place I'd ever seen in my life, bar none. I stopped for an hour or so to rest by Sunset Lake, and went for a short (very short) swim in its ice-cold waters. And then I got back on the trail, and promptly got lost.

I'm not 100% sure what happened, but I think I just somehow missed one turn, then another, and I ended up on the Alaska Basin Trail, instead of the Teton Crest Trail. I was headed for a place called the Death Canyon Shelf for the night, and needed to cross the Mount Meek Pass to get there. The reason that the second day was supposed to be my 'easy day' was because the walk from South Fork to the Shelf was only about 11 miles, and the elevation gains were not that severe. Unfortunately, the trails in the basin are not as well-marked as they could be, and after walking up a high, rocky trail for several hours, I finally saw a sign: the Static Peak Divide.

I took out my map, and scanned it for Static Peak. I groaned when I found it. I was completely on the other side of the basin's south end, and I would have to go all the way back down into the basin, cut across the South Teton Trail, then go back up to the Mount Meek Pass to get to the Shelf. According to the map, I'd gone 12 miles to get to where I was, and it was about 6 miles to the Death Canyon Trailhead...but it was almost all downhill, whereas going back to the shelf would be nearly that far, and down-and-up. Already tired, I decided to just hike to the trailhead and hope for the best.

The Static Peak Divide was amazing. It was the highest point of my trip, and the views down across the valley and down into Death Canyon were breathtaking. I began to get worried as I started down the long decline to the canyon floor. There were no camping areas in between where I was and the floor, and I hadn't planned to come this way, so no one would know that I was on this trail if something happened, and the trail was very narrow, with usually a hundred-foot drop off to the side. I needed to move relatively quickly if I was going to make the trailhead before sunset.

My shoulders, legs, hips, and feet were, by this point, actually pretty numb, but I was nonetheless on the verge of saying, Fuck this, bushwhacking my way into the woods, and setting up a nice little camp. But I did manage to make it to the Death Canyon trailhead, which presented me with a completely novel problem: I'd actually started at the Granite Canyon trailhead, which was about 5 miles down the road. I'd been aware of this up at Static Peak, but I just figured that I could hitch a ride with someone when I got there. As I surveyed the noticeably human-less parking lot, I grew less sure of myself.

I walked through the dirt parking lot for a few minutes, until I finally spied a person -- an attractive woman, no less -- walking in my direction. She looked at me skeptically as I asked her if she'd be willing to give me a lift.

She agreed, after a moment. "You're cool because you've got that backpack on," she explained, grinning at me as I hoisted my exhausted rear end up into her truck.

We actually ended up striking up a nice conversation. Her name was Sheena, and she was a cook from Phoenix, Arizona. We had a fair bit in common, not limited to a love of the outdoors and a general disdain for car-bound chubs who drive lazily through national parks to see animals. She had very green eyes. I remember that, because she had deep bronze skin, and the contrast was striking. I wonder if she was wearing colored contacts.

I ended up giving her my bear spray, since I was planning on heading south into the desert, and she mentioned that it was one thing she didn't have, and didn't want to spring for the $50 or so required to buy a can. I gave her my email address and she promised she'd look me up if she ever wanted to do some hiking in California.

So I finally found myself back in my car, but instead of camping that night, like a sensible person would have, I for some reason decided to drive down into Jackson, looking for a room. They were full up, and looked altogether too touristy and faux-old western for my budget, anyway. So I headed out in the pitch black on twisty mountain roads into Idaho, and, if you can believe this, every motel I came to in the city of Idaho Falls was full. So I drove down into Blackfoot. All full.

"Why's everything so full?" I demanded of the desk clerk of the Blackfoot Best Western, in frustration.

She shrugged apologetically. "Don't know. Everyone's headed to the park or from the park, I guess. I hear everything's booked solid down to the Utah border."

So I ended up saying, the hell with it, stopping off at a grocery store in Pocatello, Idaho, and buying:

- iced tea
- pickles
- V8
- bananas
- milk

...and a few other essentials, and I drove until 5 in the morning, when I pulled off onto a little country road in northern Utah and crashed for a few hours in my car. The next morning, I made it to Brigham City, Utah, where I finally found a room, checked in at noon, and pretty much just happily sat inside with the curtains drawn for the remainder of the day.

I slowly made my way down through Utah, and, a few days later, I was camped out at the rim of the Grand Canyon. I went for an 8-mile, fairly flat walk along the canyon rim...and it started raining. Now, rain in July in Arizona, you'd expect that to be fairly mild and warm...but in fact, it was absolutely freezing. My hands were numb by the time I made it back to the car. I checked the weather forecast...rain that night, rain the next day, rain the day after that.

Bleh.

So I figured, okay, I'll drive to Vegas, spend a few days gambling a bit. I set a firm $150 cap on my losses, and, between a disastrous slots session and a run of terrible poker luck (had a flush, and lost to a full house...how do you like that?), I lost all of it in one day. I dutifully set forth once more, to...well, somewhere, anyway. I stayed with my aunt in LA for a couple of days, and hung out with my friend Lisa. That was fun.

And then I had a full week left before I could move into my place at UCSF.

Not entirely sure what to do with myself, and my newfound lack of a plan, I figured I could spend a good chunk of the time just chilling on the beach and hiking in the hills along the coast. Unfortunately, because for some strange reason lots of people like to hang out along the California coast in the summer, I wasn't able to find any open campgrounds...at all. After spending a sad night in a fleabag motel north of LA, I decided to head inland for the next night. Since I'd spent most of the day puttering along the coast, I ended up having to motel it out that night, too, in good old Kettleman City, California. I pigged out a local In-And-Out, where I had possibly the world's worst tasting two hamburgers. That was really the only noteworthy thing about Kettleman City. Bad hamburgers.

The next day, I drove through Fresno. I have a peculiar affection for the city of Fresno. I'm not really sure why. It's not a particularly appealing place: it's in the central valley, so it's hot as hell there, bone-dry in the summer, and from what I've seen of it, it's basically one big strip mall. But I remember Isabel and I came here in 2004, en route to Yosemite, and ate a bunch of ice cream. I think that's why I liked the place: I associate it with ice cream. So, as you might expect, I dutifully stopped, and had ice cream at the same place Isabel and I had come to a few years ago. It turns out that ice cream, without a girlfriend to accompany it, really isn't quite the same.

I made it to a place called Millerton Lake that afternoon, which was not nearly as high up as I'd hoped...so it was blazing - BLAZING! - hot there. Every day I was there it got up to about 105 degrees, and not a bit of cloud to be found. The lake water was cool, though, and I went for a little day hike around the lake the first day I was there. Since I seem to be the world's worst trail follower, I somehow managed to end up on a dirt track, then found myself climbing up and over about a mile of huge boulders above the lakeshore. I would have turned back, but climbing over the rocks was actually a fairly interesting challenge, and the granite gives you such good traction that you can jump and land on some pretty unlikely looking surfaces, even wearing a pack loaded up with water. I climbed up the steepest trail I've ever climbed before (seriously...this thing was at least a 60 degree angle), then hiked back. And holy crud, it was hot. A ranger actually stopped by my campsite after I got back to express her amazement that I'd made it out there and back in the ridiculous heat.

After I departed Millerton, I spent two days in Yosemite, hiking, sightseeing, and starting to feel thoroughly gross from spending so many consecutive nights outside. I walked from Yosemite Valley up to Glacier Point, which had two fantastic views...but only those two, which I saw over and over and over again. Still a very nice walk, though. Plus there was a fast food sort of restaurant at the top, where I fueled up on a sandwich, root beer, and a hot dog, then, fortified, practically skipped all the way back down the trail to the valley floor. The second day I went for another hike, more in the backcountry, then left the park and drove down to the coast to San Francisco.

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