Over two months have gone by and I’m still constantly day dreaming and talking about the experiences from my road trip. As inspiration or encouragement to anyone who has yet to explore the west, I offer my 5 on 5 favorites from the trip. Ah, to be on the road again…

Learning life lessons with my trusty Patagonia in tow

Learning life lessons with my trusty Patagonia in tow

5 Favorite Items:

  • Patagonia travel bag (didn’t do anything without it!)
  • Fleece blanket (made by Jennifer)
  • AAA TripTik map guide
  • Petzl headlamp
  • Nike Gortex jacket (best impulse buy ever)

A great run at Sugar House Park

A great run at Sugar House Park

5 Favorite Activites:

  • Tram ride to the summit and hike down to the lodge at Snowbird Ski Resort, UT
  • Fastest carousel ride in the west, Missoula, MT
  • Group night ride on cruiser bikes to party, Bozeman, MT
  • Ranger presentation on natural history, Glacier National Park, MT
  • Running at Sugar House Park, Salt Lake City, UT

A beautiful sunset at Lake McDonald, Grand Tetons

A beautiful sunset at Lake McDonald, Grand Tetons.

5 Favorite Places:

  • Paradise Valley, MT (Drive from Bozeman to Yellowstone)
  • Salt Lake City, UT (Holy canyons!)
  • Canyons along Colorado River, UT (Rte. 128 from Grand Junction to Moab)
  • Grand Tetons National Park, WY (Amazing glaciers)
  • Stanley National Forest, ID (Drive from Sun Valley to Wallowas)

Hot off the skillet!

Hot off the skillet!

5 Favorite Meals:

  • Scrambled eggs and salmon from the camp stove, solo by Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
  • Buffalo Burger and fries at the Garage with Kiefer, Bozeman, MT
  • Amazing appetizers at the Shallow Shaft with Mike, Alta, UT
  • Shrimp cocktail and fried bananas at Temple Square with Edna, Salt Lake City, UT
  • Eggs, fruit and muffin at Shade Cafe in Jackson Hole, WY

A whole different thermal world

A whole different thermal world

5 Favorite Insights:

  • Better to get gas now than stress out looking for a few cents cheaper.
  • “May my life provide how I desire…if it is in the best interests of all things in the universe.”
  • Time is irrelevant. Time does not tick in nature, it passes.
  • Life is not stressful – emotions are stressful. Don’t be attached.
  • Don’t think, just be present.
  • BONUS: Big rocks don’t get out of the way and driving over them makes dents. Go around!
who can resist giant stuff?

Like mother, like daughter: Little people love gigantic things.

Eighteen hundred miles into the trip, I was lost for the first time. The drive to Grand Junction, Colorado, was my first night ride and exiting the highway I found myself in the middle of strip mall no man’s land. Of course, I was nervous – the last week and a half had been leading up to tonight. I would come to find out that the last six months had likely been leading up to tonight. Or even the last five and half years. Or just maybe, my whole life.

As I mentioned before, the scent of destiny has been trailing me like sweet perfume this whole trip. Even the frustration of getting lost seemed somehow symbolic in order to disorient any expectations of control. I had set out to Colorado to find closure with my mother.

While my adolescence with my mother was tumultuous at best, something finally started to click between us when I took a leave from college at 19 and moved home. Everybody had always said we were carbon copies of each other, not just because we were both “chatty Cathy’s,” but our similar looks with fine, toffee-colored hair, hazel eyes, button noses and barely-able-to-ride-the-ferris-wheel height. Over the course of my semester off I came to see that we actually processed the world in very different ways, which created most of the conflict and challenges between us.

Right before the Christmas during my junior year of college, our family friends gathered together to celebrate the holidays. We sat in the living room, the 12 kids and four sets of parents snuggled onto couches, chairs and the carpet, and shared what we were grateful for and what we were looking forward to in the coming year. Through tears and sniffles, I sputtered out that I was grateful for my time off the previous spring and summer, allowing me to get to know my parents as adults, and very much looking forward to having a better relationship with my mom. Afterwards, I hugged her tiny, 5 foot frame and whispered, “I love you,” in her ear. This would be the last time I would ever hug her.

Three weeks later, she lay in the Intensive Care Unit, barely filling up half the twin hospital bed. I had dropped her off for a routine outpatient surgery to remove a tiny (annoying, but benign) growth on her reproductive system that morning, expecting to have dinner with her and my family later that evening. She was in a coma for three days, caused by an unexplained post-surgical respiratory arrest, until our family decided to “pull the plug.” After being without air for several minutes while she lay in the recovery room, her brain was all but dysfunctional and recovery was impossible.

I have openly published my experiences with my mom’s unexpected death in the past as I firmly believe that death and grief are not accepted enough in our society and need to be talked about. So many of us live with grief, just as we live with other conditions, for instance, allergies for me. It is not a weakness, simply a fact of life. Mostly dormant, but sometimes flares up. For some reason death and grief are cast to the shadows with the negative stigma of a lurking grim reaper in our Western life.

Whereas most societies around the world have joyful and/or sorrowful rituals and ceremonies that recognize, grieve and let go of their loved ones, America as a culture does not. And so, it becomes fairly easy to cry a lot and think you’ve grieved, but really have just pushed the feelings way deep inside. Which is what I did from 20- to 25-years-old, until the development of excema led me in search of a more holistic solution.

And so, a series of events lead me to sit with a Marakame (or “shaman”) in Grand Junction, Colorado, who practices healing arts and ceremonies of the native Mexican tribe, the Huichol, amongst other callings. This Marakame, Deanna, who’d been practicing for a dozen years, was not going to make my skin issues go away, but address the source of the stress – grief – the ultimate culprit. The death ritual she’d perform was meant to help both me and my mom come to resolution with her traumatic death.

I was surprised by how “normal” she was, tall and lean with curly salt and pepper hair and glasses, wearing a fleece pull-over, jeans and clogs. We went out into the backyard of her ranch-style home and she made a fire underneath a tree already starting to shed its leaves for the fall. We sat in camping chairs with a wheel barrow loaded up with seasoned, dry wood between us. This was nothing like the scene from one of my favorite movies and books, The Power of One, where a barely clothed shaman dances around a chicken to cure the little boy from his “night terrors.” But then, that was in the South African bush, we were in suburban Colorado, so it made sense we were dressed.

In appreciation for the sitting, I gave her some fine chocolate, Alder wood from Oregon, and the cigar from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For the most part we just sat and talked around her fire pit in the back yard until it was time for her to do her work around 10 p.m. We discussed my road trip thus far and my journey since college, including the cross roads I felt I was at in my budding career – go the corporate route or go the unconventional path. As we talked about the death, eventually tears trickled down my face like a stream apologetically cutting through the  woods. I shared the story of our long days in the hospital and the symptoms of my grief, including my inability to access many memories including my mother previous to the trauma of her death. I was in a foreign place with basically a stranger and yet I felt safe. That the grief would not engulf me if I let it out of its cage.

I fear I’ll only dilute the meaning of the experience by trying to describe it, because most of the ceremony was happening within her. Mainly, like so many other nights on the trip so far, I just sat by the fire adding logs as the heat died down, looking at the trillion stars across the night sky and thinking about random things.

Finally, we talked about the artifacts and mementos of my mom that I had brought along and then one-by-one I hesitantly added them to the flames. There was a lock of hair, a shirt she always wore around the house, some photographs, a CD of favorite music. The cloth, paper, plastic all flashed colors into the flames in their last brilliant moments and then turned to grey ashes indistinguishable from each other. I had brought these along from Oregon as requested in a little bag, expecting that they would help the Marakame “get a feel for” my mother. I had no idea they would disappear. There was one keepsake, a small heart-shaped container I felt strongly about keeping, since it had been a special gift from my mom.

In many other cultures, from the Egyptians to Mexicans, part of the death ceremony includes a person’s belongings either being buried or burned with them. In the truest form of this tradition, everything a person owned, even the dirt and dust of his home was swept up and added to the fire in order for the person to pass on completely. While my mother was cremated, there was not a room in my home that did not have something that used to be hers and strongly reminded me of her. These are the ways that we hold on – physically, emotionally, energetically. Interestingly, it struck me the sentimental difference between things that were my mother’s versus things that she had given me as gifts. The possessions reminded me of loss, while the gifts reminded me of love. What would the world be like if the only presence we left behind was our presents? Clearly, in life we would be more preoccupied with giving than accumulating.

While it was hard to let go of her/my treasures, I was truly amazed by the power of the fire to turn everything – a lock of her hair, polyester clothing, CDs, ceramics etc. – into ashes. Ashes to ashes, right? Six months ago, I attended a different fire back in Oregon, which coincidentally this healer attended too. It was a large gathering of some 100 people from around the country and world to hear a respected speaker in the Huichol tradition. At the end of the evening around one a.m., each person was able to offer a cigar to this man and ask a heartfelt question. After mulling over questions all weekend, I had decided to ask, “How do I let go of my mom?” After giving him my cigar, he opened one eye, looked at me and said, “You don’t need a question. You need a blessing.” He took a puff of his lit cigar, pulled the ashes off the end and dotted them on my forehead like Ash Wednesday.

Curious what the blessing meant, I asked around for interpretations and then eventually went on about my life. One suggestion was that it was for protection and safe travels. Here in Colorado, the fire was similarily over around one a.m. and then I was shown to the guest room for the night. In the morning, the Marakame and I met and talked to debrief the night before. We talked about how the ceremony had been a modification of the traditional one due to the long time lapse since death and lack of actual remains, but that it had also been more than just a death ritual.

We have lost almost all connection to ritual in our culture outside of organized religion. While we may have strong traditions or habits, we don’t necessarily know or understand their meaning. In many cultures, birthdays are not significant for the date, but the growth. Given the timing, having just turned 26 it made perfect sense for the Marakame to say that this ceremony was also about my own initiation into womanhood (celebrated by the Huichol between ages 15 and 26). Six months after asking the question and just one week after my birthday, I found the answer of how to let go of my mom. It was time to set out on my own and not live within the shadow of expectations cast by others. At a certain age, we must all be initiated into adulthood – we must have to courage to let go of our parents and independently become our own person.

Within just twelve hours of arrival, I left Grand Junction with peace of mind and a strong sense of direction.

NOTE: I enjoy the company of new and old friends at monthly fires in Portland as part of the Sacred Fire Community, which I have been attending as part of the Portland hamlet since 2006. The fires, which happen around the world, are a time for people to come together for heartfelt conversation as we so often forget to do these days. You can learn more about local fires at http://www.sacredfirecommunity.org/ and plant spirit medicine healing at http://bluedeer.org/.

Clearly, my internet connectivity has been intermittent throughout the trip, but upon reaching Salt Lake City I was able to log-in to civilization for a day and a half. I received an interesting chain email that I had never seen before from my friend, Katie, in Texas reporting six random things in her life. It was fascinating to me that for as well as you can know some people, there are still surprises. I had no idea she had joined her church’s women’s choir. If this life detail hadn’t come up in our frequent phone conversations, what exactly were we talking about all those unlimited minutes? Come to think of it, we’ve had hour-long conversations about the most effective ways to clean the bathroom. Fascinating. Clearly, our conversations need to get more random, as that seems to be where the meat is about our goings on. So, this post is dedicated to Katie for her random and faith-based inspiration.

Six Random Things (I did) in Salt Lake City:

Deluxe serivce at Gateway Mall in SLC

Deluxe serivce at Gateway Mall in SLC

1. While hanging out with Edna, my sister’s ma-in-law, at Gateway shopping center, we got a personal door-to-door escort via golf cart from Chico’s two blocks down to Anthropologie. For a minute there I thought we were on Rodeo Drive, not in Salt Lake City (given this is one of the new, flashy parts of the city developed for the Winter Olympics in 2002).

2. At Anthropologie, while cruising the sale racks I ran into two girls from my hometown high school, Erin and Abby, who I haven’t really seen since graduation (yes, eight years ago). Randomly, I had a dream that night before about being at our Grant High School reunion.

How glamorous, er, "Julious"

Who parked my car down here?

3. Down in the parking lot below Mormon central (a.k.a. Temple Square) I spotted my own personal license plate on someone else’s car. Apparently, there is a network of LDS-only tunnels down there from the Temple to the other buildings. Word is they have their own Mormon golf carts to get around (maybe the one at the shopping center just couldn’t handle all the rules here and escaped to the civilian life).

4. I rode the glass elevators at the Salt Lake City Public Library, which is now officially my favorite modern library. While I hold a deep love of traditional, hard wood, dimly lit libraries that make me sneeze, this one is truly impressive. The elevators glide through the open mezzanine that separates the stacks and the balconies of study spaces, and contains one of the most creative installation pieces I have seen in years. A cluster of butterflies perched “reading” mini open books all suspended from the ceiling in the form of a head. I even pushed through my new-found fear of standing on suspended structures to venture down the primarily glass stairs for a closer look.

5. I used the fanciest outhouse ever at Edna’s cabin. We’re talking framed pictures hanging on a white painted interior, even a latch to hold up the white seat for you! Jim, Edna, Daisy (some kind of four-pound lap dog) and I traveled the eight miles from their home above the city to the mountain cabin in the Mill Creek National Forest to roast nitrate-free sausages over an open fire pit for dinner.

International Mormon missionaries and Jesus

International Mormon missionaries and Jesus (no pants allowed)

6. The most random thing of all: there are no male Mormon missionaries at Temple Square. Yes, not only did I notice there was a disproportionate number of hand made skirts walking around, but I asked about it. The nicest missionary, Sister Choi from South Korea, told me that they tried having both genders back “then” (1950s?) and people were intimidated by the “security personnel-looking” young Mormon men in their uniform suits. Thus, there are only male Elders there. I appreciated the PR spin, but it still smelled a little fishy. While I can’t identify with their lifestyle specifically, I did find it incredibly impressive to be in the presence of people so very devout and very focused on their way of life. The acoustics of the Tabernacle meeting hall is pretty darn insane too – you can hear a pin drop. Seriously, during the tour a Sister dropped a pin on the podium and you could hear it from the back row of the hand-painted simulation Oak pews.

6 1/2. Speaking of painted pews and transporting tons of granite via wagon over 40 years to build the Temple – Mormons are industrious! Hence, its nickname as the “Beehive State,” which I inquired about due to the honey hives icon for all the highways. I guess, a Jell-o jiggler isn’t as obvious on a road sign. I’m sure you already know Utah consumes the most green Jell-o in the country. Clearly, too many random things in Utah to stick to six, good thing I’ll be passing back through after my next stop in Colorado.

I admit: I’m a late adopter. I am a bit old-fashioned and thus, skeptical of technology. I love hard-bound books, hand-written letters and impossibly folded maps. While I realize technology is necessary to make these, it is not inherent in their use. Most embarking on a road trip to new states/cities/the middle of nowhere would find comfort in a GPS system and a British female’s voice telling them what to do, but I wanted to follow the road.

My new BFF - the AAA TripTik

My new BFF - the AAA TripTik

Let me introduce you to my good friend, TripTik. How did we meet? A few weeks before the trip I stopped by AAA to pick up state guide books and learned of the greatest thing known to road tripping – the TripTik (though i-Trips and snacks are close behind). As a AAA member not only do I get free tour books, but apparently a free personalized map of my trip. Side note: No offense, AAA, but the tour books suck. The hotels and restaurants are not helpful – especially on a budget – and there is barely any information on local attractions. The camping book has somewhat complete listings, but the directions couldn’t get you around the block, none the less to obscure campsites.

But, the TripTik is sweet. It is a reporter-style flip book individually hand-created per your route with each page covering a chunk of the highway with mileage marked and icons for exits, rest stops, gas/food/lodging etc. Each page opens to a broader contextual map of the highlighted area. Best part about it is no-folding necessary, which is perfect for a solo pilot sans shotgun. And, of course, for those nostalgic folk like me, it is a great diary of the trip and pit stops.

If you are not a AAA member now, if not for the free towing and unlocking services, the *free* TripTik alone is worth joining!

I had my personal best today for the fastest campsite pack-up yet. I’m down from two hours to one. That may seem like a long time but includes my developing ritual of morning chat with the neighbors, hot cup of tea and saying good bye to the lake, river etc. It was a quick drive down to Jackson Hole for breakfast, where par for the course with the entire trip destiny seemed to be fueling my engine. As I parallel parked on main street (which becomes the main run of the ski slopes directly behind “downtown”) just two blocks from the center square, I looked up to see a breakfast restaurant AND a cigar shop across the street (cigar will come into play later in the trip and may very well be the determining factor to my ever present feeling of a destined journey).

Breakfast of Jackson Hole's "Tin Shed"

Breakfast at Jackson Hole's "Tin Shed"

Turned out third time was the charm for breakfast. In a quest for a shorter line, I asked a local for where to eat besides the two overflowing places on the main streets. I was directed to go down a side alley, where I walked into a strong feeling of deja vu. Wait, wasn’t I here last Sunday? Hipsters, new age techno music, scrambles, side patio…this place is eerily similar to North Portland’s Tin Shed (except that you get a quarter of the scramble for four times the price). While it’s known as Shades Cafe in Jackson Hole, henceforth I will think of it as the “Wood Shed.” I stayed for an hour eating and reading my book on life design. For a moment I actually forgot I was on a trip and just enjoyed Sunday morning brunch like a local. Now, that’s what I call transcendent tourism!

Tourist trap bear attack!

Tourist trap bear attack!

I continued the luxurious morning by satisfying my guilty pleasure for tourist junk shopping. I entered a store with more wildlife than Yellowstone: mountain lions, deer, bears, jackalopes! Well, I’m skeptical that last one is actually an animal, I mean, seriously, what evolutionary purpose would antlers serve for a rabbit? They don’t battle for mating – everybody knows rabbits are sluts. While I don’t necessarily think I’ve seen them in their natural habitat, it has been amazing the variety of wildlife I have seen from spitting distance on this trip. (If you don’t know, I’m actually a pretty accomplished distance spitter, so that’s about 15-25 feet away.) A black bear, elks, deer, crows, magpies, blue jays, bison, rabbit, chipmunk, pig and a baby billy goat, which I’d have to say was my favorite.

It’s too bad that I wasn’t destined to visit Jackson while my Willamette friend was still here, that being said I feel like this trip and visiting these places has been many years in the making. But, why now? Well, there are several specific reasons that spurred the trip, including a window of opportunity from commitments, i.e.: work, school etc., but that still doesn’t answer the question, why now? That I can’t answer. But there does seem to be some significance to the places I’m passing through: some blasts from the past, some new to the present and some alluding to the future. From what I can navigate, destiny’s map seems to only appear to us with a trail of the past leading to “you are here.” For now, I happen to know I’m destined for Salt Lake City, so I make a quick stop at the cigar shop and then steer the Subby down the long road south to Utah.

All the distractions of Yellowstone (I must’ve pulled off the side of the road for pictures 20 times) slowed my journey to Wyoming and the Grand Tetons, so that by the time I pulled into the Jenny Lake campsite it was full. I back-tracked up to Jackson Lake and quickly found a spot overlooking the lake next to a nice couple from Kansas City who informed me that as of a half-an-hour before Jenny Lake was still open. Damn it. The first disappointment of the trip. I promptly got over it considering that since I hadn’t made reservations anywhere it was bound to happen and I had been lucky so far. If anything, it gives me a reason to come back to this beautiful place!.

Without reservations, I had chosen freedom over security. This trip has reinforced how much of a gift freedom and independence are. While I think we all have access to freedom and independence, some of us take advantage of them more than others. Maybe because we take them for granted or associate them with tangible things, like having or lacking money. Honestly, it is hard for me to understand what it would be like not to feel empowered by either of them. Going out and doing something I’ve never done before or exploring something on my own seems so normal to me. It has been striking to me through out this trip to see the surprise on people’s faces  when I say I’m traveling alone. I don’t think it’s just because I am a woman or young, but because I am on my own. Honestly, it has made all the difference to do this trip independently with the freedom to pull off the road whenever I want, eat (or not) when I feel like it, be grumpy in the morning without guilt…

Post-swim at Jackson Lake by the Grand Tetons

Post-swim at Jackson Lake by the Grand Tetons

Feeling grimy and hungry, I brought leftovers down to the lake to sit and enjoy the view of the Grand Tetons in the distance. How amazing how far I had come from the morning when I had woken up on the “wrong side of the tent” from lack of sleep, wondering: Why am I doing this trip again? Has it only been a week? After so many miraculous sights and a little shopping today, I could sit by the lake and again marvel at the moment being presented to me. Since I was going to Jackson Hole in the morning (I spent all of 17 hours in the Grand Teton National Park) I decided to attempt a cleansing swim in the lake, not taking into account that the Tetons have glaciers = ice = ice water = lake. Even with goosebumps the size of the Tetons on my legs and arms it was a refreshing opportunity as the sun set on another day.

I took the scenic route to Yellowstone National Park by cruising from Bozeman down through Paradise Valley to the North entrance at Gardiner. This valley is exactly what I bet the pioneers were imagining in their quest West: a river rippling through the center of the luscious green valley speckled with ranches surrounded by rust colored rock canyons. I was amazed to enter the giant stone arch into the park and immediately be immersed in the old west with a deer crossing over the road. In someways it feels as if we are invading these animals’ habitat with our roads and campsites and lodges. But I guess that is the age old question (much older than this 130+ year old park): Where do humans fall in the hierarchy of the planet? Do we have a right to dominate (or just enjoy) the natural world?

Yellowstone hot springs south of Mammoth

Yellowstone hot springs south of Mammoth

I must say it would be a shame not to have access to these 50 million odd acres of nature, which is clearly why Yellowstone was the first national park. This has to be the most amazing natural environment I have ever been to…yet. The diversity is astounding. It’s as if God was experimenting with new ecosystem recipes, adding some mountains and prairies here, some deciduous forests there, and oh hell, let’s see what some micro bacterial hot springs will do (metaphorically speaking, of course, since I believe in evolution). Speaking of evolution, the animals there are enormous. This whole place, giant mountains and never ending valleys, puts you in perspective – we humans are each such a tiny part of this vast, living planet. While driving along the main highway going south through the park all the sudden traffic slowed to a halt and a group of elk moseyed across the road and directly in front of the hood of my car. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park. If I was to stand next to the female elk, I think I would’ve reached her shoulder – I can’t even imagine encountering a dinosaur!

That night I camped south of the Mammoth hot springs at Indian Creek. I was amazed to find that I felt alone as I hiked through the forest to sit by the creek in a likely Bison bed of matted down grasses and then made dinner and sat by the fire. It hit me that this was the first night of the trip that I was truly alone. The Californians at the next campsite didn’t get back until late and so I didn’t make any friends that night. I enjoyed the blessing of a warm and vibrant fire as I read Newsweek and then sorted through my thoughts from the last week. There is such a fine and fascinating line between solitude and loneliness. By the fire I had the peace and company of solitude, but then in my summer tent there was the void of loneliness that invites the unwanted bed mates: anxiety and fear. The Elk playing their mating flutes loud into the night along with intermittent rain showers kept me up most the night fearing God knows what.

Injured bison walking the highway

Injured bison walking the highway

The next day I tiredly explored the rest of the park playing tourist by taking pictures of the Paint Pots hot springs and Old Faithful blowing its top, gawking at the injured Bison hobbling down the highway and shopping at the Old Faithful Inn and General Store. I don’t know why, by I have always loved tourist traps. While I find most of it superfluous and wasteful, I love to see what people think up to put names on as souvenirs (and I must admit I have a weakness for “Julie” stuff). The junior park ranger gear was pretty dang cute, whereas most of the huckleberry concoctions looked questionable. To be safe I stuck to mostly buying the chocolate candies labeled as different kinds of animal poop. Who doesn’t want poop as a gift?

Montana is not what I expected. Glacier is practically Canada, so it’s no surprise that it’s cold and mountainous. But the mountain ranges didn’t stop all the way to Missoula and Bozeman. I was expecting Texas – brown, flat prairie nothingness. The only thing similar between Texas and Montana that I saw is that everything is BIG here. Big sky, big mountains, big lakes (Holy Flathead lake!!) and big letters. What is up with all the big letters? As I drove on I-90 into Missoula the first thing I saw in the middle of the rolling mountain range was a giant white “M.” I learned from my friends, Charlie and Rachael, who I stayed with that night that the M on Mount Sentinel marks the University of Montana, Missoula. The following day I hiked up to the M to see the Missoula Valley. Hardest mile I’ve ever hiked – straight up in the blazing sun. Can’t imagine that UofM students have been doing this since 1909. While I had to stop to catch my breath at every switchback (elevation or not running for a week or both?) it was a sweet view of Missoula.

Indie-Portland designers for sale in Montana

Missoula definitely didn’t feel like a city to me, especially since I drove from Charlie and Rachael’s cute house to go downtown which ended up being all of about eight blocks. The first shop I stopped at was Betty’s Divine. I was looking for some distinct “back to school” clothes (at least that’s how I justified shopping, wait, I don’t need justification – I’m on vacation!), but everything seemed like something I could buy at home at Urban Outfitters. I even came across a top from a Portland-based designer (talk about globalization) which definitely doesn’t count as something distinctly from Montana. I was this close to buying a yellow t-shirt with the state outline and an Elk that said: “Monfuckintana,” but then I realized I couldn’t handle walking around dropping the f-bomb everywhere. I continued to shop buying organic bubble bath for sore muscles at a cute herb shop, books to add to the “to-read” pile (such as “Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben who also wrote “The End of Nature”) at the funky Shakespeare and Co. book store and an awesome letterpress stationary store (where had the store clerk gone to college? Oh, Lewis and Clark in Portland, of course). It must be a small world, especially when Missoula is such a hip place

Merry-Go-Round Carousel at Missoula Riverfront

After many fun purchases on main street Missoula I ventured down to the river that cuts through the city/town. There’s a sweet man-made wave by the main street bridge where a kayaker was practicing in the rapids. I walked on the beautiful promenade along the riverfront and came across an old fashioned carousel which was hand crafted by volunteer community members 15 years ago and is allegedly the fastest carousel in the West. I bought some tokens and buckled up on my horse, Midnight Rose, joining the other three- to five-year-olds on an awesome five-minute, hair-blowing ride. When your face doesn’t know what else to do but smile – that is pure joy. Seriously, why do we seem to have less pure fun as we get older? Do we forget how to play because life is a serious matter

Is this what real firefighters use?

Well, I still like to play, even if 26 is supposed to be too old for that! After exploring Missoula and hiking the M, I got back in the car for a hot, stinky drive to Bozeman, passing a giant T and L on the way (they’re big-letter-crazy here!). Bozeman also has an M (Montana State Univ.), which I did not hike. One letter is enough for this trip. That night I had my first Bison burger, which really didn’t taste any different than a hamburger or mean a heck of a lot to me until seeing them in Yellowstone, but that’s another story. My friend from Willamette, Mike, did a consummate job as a tour guide. I’m pretty sure I saw every part of the city(?)/town, including the outlying areas when we ventured to his fire house and to hike to Grotto Falls in Gallatin National Forest. At the fire house I got to pretend to be a firewoman trying on all the gear (including gas mask!), “driving” the fire truck and pretending to put out fires. According to Mike, I’m a “big dork,” which may be true, but I’d rather be a dork than boring

The fun continued that night when we went to see Pineapple Express at the movie theater. I haven’t laughed that hard in months. While I’m not saying it’s Oscar worthy, it does makes reefer into a hilarious plot line. Afterwards, we had a flashback to college by going with Mike’s roommates to a house party complete with PBR and homemade Mojitos (when I say “homemade” I mean there was a variety of alcohols and whole mint leaves = yuck). It was a quick flashback, because after an eventful day this old lady was beat. We biked home through backwoods bike trails, which was quite the adventure avoiding hitting something because of no lights on the bike or the street. What is up with no street lights in Montana? People don’t need to see here or is it to make driving more “fun”? Maybe that’s why people swear, “Monfuckintana.”

DISCLAIMER: Considering I’m two weeks into the trip, clearly I’m not in Glacier anymore. Starting this travel blog I underestimated how much internet access I would have, how much energy I would have left after days of exploring and how much time it takes to upload and blog. Speaking of time..

Still a little shaken from the Swinging Bridge I made it back to my car with a growling stomach. No wonder I was hungry, my phone said it was 2 p.m. Curiously, I had left the camp site at 9:30 a.m. and had only traveled 50 miles. Surely, the three-quarter mile hike hadn’t taken 3 hours? Had it? Something was fishy, but since I was apparently behind schedule I hit the road and cruised to Glacier National Park. When I got into West Glacier, I stopped at the Montana Vortex to take pictures. Clearly, this was not the only vortex I had entered. How was time flying by? Checking my phone again it was 2 p.m. And then it hit me, time zones! My “satellite” oriented phone was futilely trying to keep up with time. Hence, I have come to rely upon my internal clock and asking locals.

With a snow advisory for the evening, I set up camp at Sprague Creek (a 20 tent site) and then took off to tour Going to the Sun Road and Logan Pass before any potential weather. If I had to describe the word immense in an image, it would be the glaciers that even dwarf 500 foot tall waterfalls that miraculously spring from their rock faces. While it’s summer, it is still shocking how little snow comprises these “glaciers” (I am still not clear if that term includes the ice or the ice and underlying rock). Glaciers are known to move achingly slow, yet their recession has been stealth. This is how global warming hits home, which was reinforced by the park ranger presentation I saw that night at Lake McDonald Lodge. Now, if we could only bring everyone here, so they could truly understand the immensity of the environmental shift/crisis we are undergoing.

A moment at Avalanche Lake in Glacier.

A moment at Avalanche Lake in Glacier.

I fully entered the vortex of the outdoors on my hike to Avalanche Lake. Nature truly is a different world. A world where time seems to become irrelevant. If it’s still light out, what does it matter if it’s 11 a.m. or 3 p.m.? I was easily sucked into the timelessness of the present moment along the trail. One moment paused to look for a place to take a leak. The next moment I’m staring at a mama-sized black bear 75 feet down the trail. Run? Photo? Stay? Talk? Shouldn’t I be more scared? Something is wrong when my immediate thought is to get closer for a photo of a WILD animal, when just yesterday a bridge scared my pants off!

We parted ways and I eventually made it to the serene lake. Now, this is what I picture Eden like. How could you not “be present” in this world? That is all there is – a series of moments – unlike my life at home. Isn’t it amazing that we let our lives be dictated by this abstract constriction we created, called time? It has been hard to turn off that calculated, proactive, “efficient” part of my brain on this trip. I could only spend 30 minutes at the lake before needing to head back, check out of the campsite by noon and head to Missoula. Unfortunately, my human, time-constrained schedule beckoned.

My first sunset - Priest River, Idaho

My first sunset - Priest River, Idaho

Reading the signs as I passed through Sand Point, Idaho, around 5 p.m. I learned that I still had a ways to go until Priest River. As I kept passing other camp sites along the winding lakeside road my mind was in knots…just pull off and settle for one of these sites or push through to my pre-decided destination which could very well be full for the night? Risky business, this push/pull of fear and faith. Things worked out – amazing well, in fact. A case of “chance follows design”? Not only did I get a camp site as soon as I pulled up, but I was able to set up camp, see the sunset over the river and make some friends with a neighboring family from Spokane in the first hour. After a great birthday dinner of salmon and sauteed veggies, salad, beer and Toberlone for dessert (a real b-day splurge!) I sat by the fire thinking about faith and fear. How easy it is to be scared and worry…and how testing it is to have faith that things will not only work out, but for the best. Turning off my headlamp after dinner it was amazing to see the difference that light makes. It is easy to be confident when you can see everything in front of you. Whereas in the darkness, with only the flickering light of the Alder burning fire, fear easily wraps around you.

As I sat by my dying fire, I was spontanesouly serenaded with the “Happy Birthday” song by my neighbors who then invited me over to spend the evening roasting marshmellows and makings Jiffy Pop over the fire. For all the safety concerns from family, friends and myself (a tiny bit) I couldn’t have felt more safe that I was not only staying next to friendly folks with a big dog, but the camp site gate locked down from 10 pm to 7 am. Rising early, I made eggs and then started to pack up camp. The Army Corps of Engineers do an incredible job of upkeep here – not only was there firewood, but a kitchen prep area and HOT showers, which I couldn’t resist. Best quarter I ever spent!

Swinging Bridge over Kootenai River, Idaho

Why do we get more fearful as we age? Is fear an offspring of knowledge? Not book knowledge, but knowledge of what getting life is worth and attachment to that life? On the road to Glacier, I made a pit stop along Highway 2 and ended up at the historic Kootenai River. Not planning to hike, I found my trusty Teva flip flops leaving the john and heading down the trail to the breathtaking Kootenai Falls. As I hiked over to the other sight – a Swinging Bridge across the river – a little voice kept fearfully nagging about all my gear in my car as sitting prey in the parking lot. Is this our protective instinct or just paranoia? I was surprised to be overwhelmed by fear going down the grating of the stairs crossing the railroad and then crossing the suspension bridge. Two 10-year-olds gleefully bounced across the bridge, which made me quiver as I looked down through the narrow wood slats into the rushing river beneath. I’ve never thought of my self as having a fear of heights, or really a fear of anything except scorpions, great white sharks and treading water in the bottomless ocean. Is this a fear of heights? or of falling? or of death? If I truly have faith, then isn’t any fear futile?

Swinging Bridge over Kootenai River, Idaho

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26 was a defining and adventurous year for Julie Williams, a Portland, Ore.-based communications consultant.

This blog chronicles Julie's crossing of the quarter-life threshold and coming of age on her solo road trip across seven Western states from Aug.-Sept. 2008.

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