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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!

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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