Monday, August 22, 2016

The Return

The final leg of my trip east begins in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, my mother's hometown. Unlike my mother and five other siblings, my Aunt Peg never never left Johnstown. Even so, she was the linchpin of the family. She died in 2008 but I still have cousins Gretchen James and Michael Seifert there whom I had not seen in years. My visit was also an opportunity to prepare for the trip west. On the way to Johnstown from Virginia I stopped for an afternoon at Antietam National Battlefield and a full day in Cumberland, Maryland with Pamela McCormick, a friend from my days on the Rez.

Thursday June 16 is overcast, wet and occasionally foggy as I snake my way northwest out of Johnstown early and into the hills of western Pennsylvania. I make a long detour around a massive, stand-still traffic jam on the PA turnpike and finally cross into Ohio on toll roads I-76 and I-80. Weather is on-and-off rainy much of the day. Once through Cleveland my route follows US 2 along the Lake Erie coast from Lorain to Maumee Bay State Park.

The park is very high end. In addition to the usual camping, hiking and other outdoor activities on the Lake Erie shore, park facilities include a resort lodge and golf course. The camping pads are all paved. I find a site with good vegetation between other sites and mine and settle in for a relaxed evening after a long day's drive.

Next morning I check out a few of the park's features before setting out through Toledo and into southeast Michigan following US 223 through the countryside. Breakfast is in Blissfield before passing through Cement City about 10 miles south of Jackson where I pick up I-94 to turn west. Day is sunny and hot. Turning north at Kalamazoo I finally get away from freeway traffic in Ostego where I follow Michigan Routes 89 and 40 and US 31 to Muskegon. It's a Friday afternoon and plenty of traffic is on the road, large sections of which are under construction. Traffic in Muskegon is heavy and it seems like forever getting to my friends' place.

My friends, Jill Farkas and Scott Majetich, are also acquaintances from my Rez days. They both taught in Window Rock schools. Jill was also a photographer and one of the regulars with me in the Thursday night open darkroom at UNM Gallup. They are retired and living in Jill's hometown. My time with them is a whirlwind. Friday evening starts with dinner followed by a small neighborhood gathering and an event at Hackley Park downtown where two family members are performing in a local band and end at a bar where one of those family members is playing a set with another musician. Saturday is equally busy—farmers' market, kayaking on Lake Muskegon, dinner, lighthouse tour and back to the late night bar. 


Sunset in Muskegon

Sunday morning I headi north on US 31. North of Manistee I cut over to Michigan 22 following Michigan's west coast and stopping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for a short visit. Turning east from Sleeping Bear, I head to Traverse City and continue on to Petoskey State Park on Little Traverse Bay. I'm very tired by the time I pull in.

Monday morning dawns windy with the threat of thunder storms. I manage a quick breakfast in camp and am ready to roll when the first storm hits. Continuing north, I soon reach the suspension bridge over Mackinac Straights. With a carrier on top of the camper shell, my truck is a high profile vehicle so I am required to cross in a convoy behind a pilot vehicle with the tractor-trailers and RV's. The wind is blowing hard. Any harder and the white caps would be breaking over rather than against the causeway. Gulls can hover in one place by simply riding the current.

On the Upper Peninsula now, I follow US 2 along the northern shore of Lake Michigan. After a late breakfast in Naubinway I turn north on Michigan 77 at Blarney Park heading to Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore on Lake Superior at Grand Marais. The visitor center there is not open (as in for the season, it appears) so I follow County Road H 58 through the park to the Upper Hurricane River Campground which is largely empty at mid-day. I claim a space and head down to the lake shore where the lower campground looks pretty full.

At the shore, I hike out to the Au Sable Lighthouse along what is essentially a closed road. Interpretive signs provide information about shipwrecks and lures me down to the shore where I am supposed to find the skeleton of one wreak. I don't find the skeleton. I'm too busy making sure not to fall The route at shoreline is rocky and I wish I was wearing stiffer footwear. The rocks end soon enough and I find a route up the sandy bluff to the lighthouse. After walking around the site and reading the exhibits, I head back along the road.


Au Sable Lighthouse

The day has been especially windy and even though my campsite is well up from the shore I can hear the roar of the surf. Weather here is decidedly cooler than farther south. Muskegon was hot. Tonight on the Summer Solstice I am dressed for warmth.

Tuesday morning I continue along H 58 through the park, much of which I recall as forest with the occasional lakeshore access. I make a few stops along the way but reach my planned stop by noon even after spending time in Munising to take care of some chores. I decide to push on following Route 28 through Marquette and a countryside dotted with lakes and rivers. The day ends at Curry Park Municipal Campground in Ironwood, Michigan. The feel of trip is changing--I decided against a second night on Lake Superior because it was 10 miles out of my way. I'm beginning to feel like I need to start making miles toward home rather than wandering so I end up camping in the middle of town. Hardly pristine but shaded and reasonably quiet despite traffic on US 2.

Breakfast the next morning is in a nearby restaurant, one of the benefits of camping in town. Two miles out of Ironwood on US 2 I cross into Wisconsin and zip across the northern part of the state to Duluth, Minnesota. Leaving Duluth I mistakenly follow US 2 north instead of taking a somewhat more southerly route west across Minnesota. I discover my error in time to follow Minnesota Routes 200 and 34 through a less populated area. I cross the Mississippi River at Jacobson. The river is substantial even this far north but not as wide as it will become. I pass Leech Lake which is also home to the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. Late Dinner in Park Rapids is surprisingly inventive and good. The day ends at Buffalo River State Park which includes and adjoins “one of the finest and largest prairie tracts in Minnesota.” The park is very pleasant and relaxing. 


Mississippi River at Jacobson, Minnesota

The next day begins my long miles of interstate driving. I pick up I-94 in Fargo, North Dakota shortly after leaving Buffalo River. The Fargo-Moorehead Visitors Center has the wood chipper from “Fargo” on display. The day is hot. North Dakota from the interstate is pleasantly pretty and definitely not flat. The topography is rolling and looks soft to me. Occasionally, I can see what seems like forever—green, verdant undulating fields stretching out before me. Above, a great blue sky encompasses this infinity. Climbing out of the Missouri River basin west of Bismark the terrain becomes more rugged, but even here subdued. No rocky outcroppings. No sharp peaks.

The day ends at an extended stay motel in Dickinson, North Dakota. The motel is housing for workers in the North Dakota oil boom. It has a full refrigerator, stove top, and a full size sink. I'm not in for an extended stay but this is all convenient for freezing water bottles for my cooler and washing dishes after a week on the road.

Friday morning I discover that I left my gas cap on the pump when I filled up in Jamestown yesterday. I find an auto parts store nearby for a replacement, grab a breakfast burrito at Taco Bell and blast off for Theodore Roosevelt National Park about 30 miles away. My plan is to arrive as last night's campers are pulling out. It's a Friday in June at a national park so the campground will fill fast in the afternoon.

The drive to the park goes quickly and I am in the campground by 11:00. It's about half-full. I select a site that appears to have the best shade on this very hot day and sign up for two nights. After a quick lunch, I head out to explore the 36 mile scenic loop drive. I'm slathered in sunscreen, have lots of ice water in the cooler. The park is part of the North Dakota Badlands/Little Missouri National Grassland. The park is cut by the Little Missouri River and peaks rise about 1,000 to 1,500 feet above its wide floodplain. Eroded sandstone cliffs underlain by harder rock create, isolated peaks and hoodoos. Between the heights are extensive areas of open range, the sparse vegetation standing out in green contrast against the gray-brown earth. Tributary streams create their own open ranges. I am surprised to see water flowing in any of the tributaries in this heat.

By the time I complete the scenic loop I am totally wiped out by the heat so I bail into the visitor center to watch the orientation video in a cool, dark theater. My campsite has a little but not much shade when I return. I cook dinner in the heat, hunkering in a sliver of shade afforded by a tree trunk. The heat breaks as the sun heads toward the horizon around 8:00 pm. After dark, I watch lightning flashes light up the southern sky.

Saturday morning is cool and pleasant. I lounge in the shade until the sun climbs higher before heading out to the park's north unit 85 miles away via I-94 and US 85. The wind is blowing fiercely hard from the west and keeping the truck steady in the cross wind is difficult. The day is much cooler than yesterday. The topography is much the same as what I saw yesterday except the elevations are higher and includes much grassland. A bit of rain falls but not for long. Back in camp the dinner challenge is keeping things from blowing away. After dark I spot Jupiter and Mars in the night sky. I also see bats circulating in the evening sky. They look fairly large, with maybe a 12 inch wingspan. 


Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt NP

Next morning I soon cross into Montana. After breakfast at the Paradise Café in Wibaux I begin the 700 plus mile drive across the Big Sky State. The day is hot and traffic is heavy on this summer Sunday, especially after I-94 merges into I-90 at Billings. The landscape gradually morphs from badlands to rolling terrain where the freeway follows the Yellowstone River. I pull off at Big Timber, Montana and turn south on Route 298 looking for a national forest campground. It's farther than I expected but I finally find the Falls Creek campground about 30 miles south. It's a fairly primitive site in a steep canyon and charges no fee. The sites are walk-in so I am camping in the parking area to sleep in the truck. Even in the truck I can hear the music of water falling over rocks as I fall asleep. Sometime during the night I look out the window to see the most brilliant dark sky of the trip, a seemingly infinite array of stars splayed out against a black dome..

On the final Monday of the trip I roll into Big Timber for breakfast and begin another long driving day. I finally leave the Yellowstone River at Livingston and push on through Bozeman and Butte. After Butte, I get off the freeway to follow Montana Route 1 to through Anaconda to Drummond. Back on the freeway I am now following the Clark Fork River which parallels the road all the way to Superior where I will stop for the night. It's a damn big river that I've never heard of. I make a quick stop at the Nine Mile Remount Depot, a working Forest Service ranch in Hudson, Montana. Back on the freeway I find dinner in Superior before heading south to the Trout Creek national forest campground. The campground is in a poor state of repair but it's everything I need at the end of a hot day.

The night is surprisingly cold after the day's head. I started out sleeping in my light summer bag but switched to my down bag sometime during the night. Morning is the coldest I felt since the first days of trip in Yellowstone National Park in late April. I pack and roll out quickly for breakfast in Superior. The day's drive is a short one to my cousin Kathy Bonner-Walsh's place in Nine Mile Falls northwest of Spokane. I am almost home now.

I take a zero day at Kathy's and take time to catch up with family news with her and husband Mike. Their place fronts on Long Lake and I get out on Kathy's kayak both evenings to enjoy the quiet and watch ospreys soaring overhead and occasionally diving for food. The stopover also gives me a chance to wash the truck and remove the vast collection of splattered insects that I've accumulated since April.

On Thursday June 30, I roll out of Nine Mile Falls through Spokane and on to I-90. This is a familiar drive. I've done it numerous times but it feels different on this day. I have something like 8,000 plus miles behind me. I've seen many friends and familiar places while also seeing and experiencing new places. All of those friends and places come to mind as I make my way across a very hot eastern Washington. Crossing the Cascades at Snoqualmie Pass brings me into very familiar territory. I-5 traffic is heavy but not yet at rush hour congestion so I make good time.

Exiting the freeway on to Pacific Avenue in Olympia, everything looks the same but somehow feels different after two months. I pull into the parking space at my apartment and by the time I get out of the truck Maggie is waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

I am home.

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