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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.

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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.

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.”

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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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