Saturday, June 25, 2011

How The West Was Won

Pocatello, ID

"So... why did you decide to come to Idaho Falls? Because you asked if there was anything interesting to do here, and there really isn't."

I've been pleasantly surprised with the last week or so, and I'm looking forward to the next week.  I did not expect that I would enjoy this portion of the trip as much as I have, and it's making me sad that I have deadlines to make and can't spend as much time as I want here. Here's why.

First, I wasn't really planning on going to a lot of the places I've ended up visiting here.  Casper was out of my way, but it was a place to stay in Wyoming, and a chance to see a friend from high school who I hadn't seen for a while.  So it was out of my way, but I figured I could get back on track pretty quickly.

From Casper, it wasn't that far to Denver.  I was kind of disappointed my original route didn't take me through Denver, but with it being pretty close to Casper and having a childhood friend there to stay with, I figured I could make the trip.  While in Denver, I ended up deciding to ride through the Rockies, which wasn't in my original plan for Denver either.  I pushed back my return to Casper by a day and rode through Rocky Mountain National Park and stayed a day, then rode back through Poudre Canyon.

Once I got back to Casper I started deciding where to head next, and didn't really want to miss Bighorn or Yellowstone, so I planned a route that went a little bit out of the way to hit both.  In between the two, I started planning the next leg of the route, and decided I didn't want to miss the Grand Tetons either, so that put me in Idaho Falls after riding through there.

And from Idaho Falls, it wasn't that far to Salt Lake City.  Since I'd already hit Colorado, hitting Utah now meant that I wouldn't have to go to the Four Corners, which opens up a lot more opportunities in Arizona and New Mexico.  And as someone told me on Facebook, "If you're making this trip, you might as well make the trip."  So here I am on my way to Utah.

Every place I've stopped seems to have led me to more places I want to stop.  Casper led to Denver led to the Rockies, Bighorn led to Yellowstone led to the Grand Tetons led to Idaho Falls led to Salt Lake City... my original route could have had me at Portland 3 days ago, and yet it will probably be a week and a half or two weeks before I get there.  And every side trip has been worth it.

The first surprise was South Dakota.  I knew that it would be boring going across the middle of the state (and it was), but when I got to the western end of the state, it was much cooler than I expected.  The scenery was amazing, the roads were really good riding, and I met up with some awesome people and spent a few days there.  I wasn't really planning on staying for more than a day near Rapid City, but ended up being there for 3 days.  And a lot of it was because the area was so nice looking that I could ride all day and not get bored.  Even though I slept in the same place for three nights in a row, I didn't ride less than 100 miles any single day there.

Colorado wasn't so much of a surprise - I knew the Rockies would have great scenery, and I wasn't disappointed at all.  It's a strange feeling to be riding a motorcycle up a hill and come over a ridge and see a scene that belongs on a postcard.  I think I took close to 200 pictures that day in the Rockies.

Western Wyoming was a surprise though.  I had ridden down the east side of the state, and it was absolutely desolate.  I left one town, drove 81 miles and saw nothing except for one (just one) crossroad.  No towns, no scenery, nothing.  It turned out to be much better than I expected, though. Yellowstone was a given, and I knew the Tetons would be kinda cool, but I wasn't prepared for them.  Seeing a mountain range come up of an otherwise empty plain was probably cooler than riding through the Rockies.

While I'm not a fan of national parks charging so much just to use their roads, I have to say that it's cool being in an area with so many of them.  There really aren't that many national parks in the northern Midwest, so being able to spend a weekend back and forth between a national forest and a national park, one day in one park, the next day in two others, and still have a few more planned in the next week is awesome.  The scenery definitely beats the cornfields of Illinois and Iowa.

There are so many cool roads out this way.  When I was riding through the midwest, a road was a way to get to the next city.  Out here, a road is a way to spend the day.  There are some boring roads as well - South Dakota and eastern Wyoming come to mind.  But almost everything else has been fun to ride.  The Black Hills are by far my favorite roads on this trip so far (we'll see how they match up against the Pacific Coast).  The Rockies were awesome when I wasn't behind some gawking tourist going 15mph under the speed limit and slowing down every time there was a view.  Yellowstone had tons of curvy roads and hills, despite suffering from rubber-necking tourists too.  And crossing from Wyoming to Idaho through the mountains was one of the few times when there were cars behind me that wanted to go faster around the curves than I felt comfortable with.

There are so many amazing roads out here for riding, it makes me realize how much I was missing back in Illinois.  I mean, yeah, there was one tiny section of road nearby that was kinda fun, but compared to out here where there are miles of road that are better than one tiny 1.5 mile stretch, it's nothing.  Almost every day over the past week has contained at least some fun roads, and the next week heading up into Montana to Glacier promises more of it.

While I look forward to visiting friends and couchsurfing, there's something... relaxing about camping out, spending the day on my own, and camping out the next night too.  I wouldn't want to camp out all the time (a warm shower is nice now and then), but there's something to be said for traveling alone some of the time.  And out here there plenty of nice places to camp, where you can wake up in the morning, unzip the tent and see a mountain.

The autonomy is nice as well.  On my last night in South Dakota we were dropping off one of the travelers at the bus station, and she mentioned to me that while it was fun, she was ready to leave, primarily because then she could decide where to go and what to do and when.  And I could sympathize - I was ready to leave too (and was going to, until I forgot my phone charger and ended up going back and staying there that night).  Basically from leaving Fort Collins Sunday morning until last night, I didn't have any deadlines except being in Casper one night.  Everything else has been free for whatever I want to do.

When I don't have to meet anyone's dates or expectations, I can stop whenever I want. I can sit at a coffeeshop for four hours and read. I can take a side-road that I wasn't planning, even though it'll take two hours longer, just because I want a more exciting road. I can pull over and take a picture of the mountains every 10 minutes because the view keeps getting better and better. I can spend an hour waiting for Old Faithful to go off and end up talking to a German couchsurfer and a Canadian family travelling for a month with their 1.5-year-old and 3-month-old kids. I've had so many good experiences that have come about just because I made a split second decision that I could only make because it didn't require consultation or agreement or requesting a later arrival or anything like that.

I still like traveling with others.. but there's a freedom of traveling alone that's hard to beat. Mix it with various stays with friends and couchsurfers, and it might be my ideal method of traveling.

What's Next
So the mountain time zone has been far more exciting than I expected overall, and I still have some left to do. Tonight Salt Lake City, tomorrow back to Idaho Falls to couchsurf with someone else, then up to Bozeman (surfing again), and then Glacier.  We'll see if Going-to-the-Sun road is opened back up by the time I get there, as it's currently closed due to snow.  Then to Missoula, and then off towards Seattle.  I've got a lot of good roads and cool parks ahead of me still.

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