Journal: 8/19-8/22

Continuation of my road trip journal. Disclaimer still applies: these entries are raw and unedited.

August 19th

I woke up to unbearable heat, and clawed my way out of the tent into the cool morning air. The tent had been turned into a demonstration of the greenhouse effect.

I gave myself a nice slow morning. I made some instant coffee and instant oat meal for breakfast, then sat down to write (most of the previous days’ entries were written this morning). At around 11, I finished packing up, made a couple of sandwiches for lunch, then hit the road, continuing back West.

One of the fun things about going on a road trip without any particular plan, is that you make serendipitous discoveries. This trip has been no exception, for instance, stumbling upon Fort Robinson was purely accidental. Today’s discovery was Scott’s Bluff. A towering geological curiosity that also happened to be a landmark on the Oregon Trail. The bluff is actually a cousin of the Badlands, in that geologically, they were formed in a similar manner. Once upon a time, the Great Plains were at a much higher altitude than now. Wind and water eroded those plains, down to the level they’re at now, but at places like Scott’s Bluff or the Badlands, one can still see the old plains eroding into the new plains today.

About half an hour West from Scott’s Bluff was Fort Laramie. I decided to make a stop there as well, since I’d read about it at Fort Robinson. Fort Laramie was a major re-supply station on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, and also played a key role in the conflict between whites and Native Americans. Many treaties were signed there, and of course, when they were broken (mostly by the whites) it was also from there the army rode out to suppress the Native American “rebellion” (or on rare occasions, to enforce treaties that weren’t yet broken).

Before the wagons arrived in the area though, the first whites to venture that far west were fur traders. At first, they were beaver fur traders, mostly independent. Apparently relations with Native Americans for these solitary fur traders were mostly amicable. It wasn’t until the fur trading corporations arrived that the trouble started. Interestingly enough, demand for beaver fell when beaver fur hats fell out of fashion in favor of silk. The next fad, though, was buffalo fur coats. In other words, to some degree, Westward expansion of the US was driven by fashion fads. And that still hasn’t changed much. In Silicon Valley, whenever there’s a successful startup, people wonder if it’s just a fad. Is Facebook a fad? Is Twitter a fad? The irony, of course, is that everything out there is a fad. In 50 years, a hundred years, how many of these tech companies will people remember? How many Hollywood stars will be remembered? In the East, I think people have more of a sense of permanence, whether they’re into banking or politics. Say what you will about politicians, but they all know that what they say and do will be recorded and, if successful, be memorialized for ever. Although, technically, the Silicon Valley mentality might be closer to that held by gold miners. Success is measured in millions of dollars, but I don’t think anybody really thinks, or cares, about whether or not they, or their work, will be remembered a century from now.

I stopped for the night in Eastern Wyoming, in a State Park just outside a little town called Gurney. Hidden behind some hills is a river, a dam, and a lake. There were a number of campsites along the lake, but, with the sun setting quickly beyond the canyon walls, I chose the campsite closes to the entrance. Yet again, I had a whole campground all to myself.

August 20th

I slept in, on the account of having left my only clock, my iPhone, in my car overnight. When I’m camping, the sun usually wakes me up long before my intended wake up time, though I usually snooze for a while. This morning was no different. Eventually, I stuck my head out of the tent, looked at some shadows, and guessed it to be around 9am, and crawled out of the tent for good. My mornings are so much more pleasant when I’m camping, than when I’m living in an apartment. In an apartment, it doesn’t really seem to matter how late I sleep in or how many hours of sleep I get, it’s about equally difficult to haul myself out of bed. When I sleep out, I have no problems getting up at a reasonable hour. I think it’s just that I need sunlight to wake up. Next time I get an apartment, I should make sure the bedroom faces the East.

Since I had a big dinner last night, I skipped breakfast tea/coffee, and packed up quickly to hit the road. I was barely out of the State Park when I realized that I hadn’t taken a picture of my campsite. I’ve been trying to take a picture every place I stop, and this was a particularly beautiful site too. The thought gnawed on me, until I turned around. Turning around only cost me half an hour; not doing so might’ve tainted my memory of the site for good, or at least, bugged me for the rest of the day. I have a tendency to mull on such things. I wish I didn’t, but I do, and sometimes the best recourse for me is to right whatever wrong happens to be tormenting me. The easier cases are the ones that are as simple as turning a car around and driving a few extra miles…

With a picture of my site taken, I decided to head back East briefly to check out some site purporting to contain visible remnants of the Actual Oregon Trail. I figured I might regret it if I don’t check it out, and again, a little detour was a low cost to pay, even if just to rest my mind. The site turned out to be nothing more than wagon-width grooves cut into stone. Sure enough, it looked like a wagon trail. Whelps, at least I can claim to have seen (and stood in) the Actual Oregon Trail, in Real Life.

To be honest, though, I was more intrigued by a couple of bullet holes in a nearby sign. Since there’s a military base close by, I thought maybe the holes were caused by stray bullets from the base. Unlikely, but it wouldn’t be unheard of for soldiers at the range to shoot in random directions. But by looking through the holes, I determined that someone had sat on a nearby bench and shot at the signs. The holes looked pretty big though, maybe .45 caliber.

The rest of the day was spent covering mileage in a North Westerly direction. The only major stop of the day was in Casper. I got an oil change, and got online at a Safeway to take care of some stuff (mostly checking on the status of orders gear to take to my land). Conveniently enough, my dad called me while I was in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and we talked briefly about their visit next month.

Speaking of Wal-Mart, I’ve been stopping at every Wal-Mart I see. I’ve lost count of how many, but I’ve stopped at at least half a dozen just on this trip (and a few more on my DC trip). I’m not a big Wal-Mart fan or anything, but they happen to have the best deals on ammo, if they have any in stock. So far I’ve scored plenty of .22, but I haven’t seen a single Wal-Mart that stocked 9mm ammo in the last several months. That dry streak was finally broken today in Cody, where I scored a 250-round value pack for about $50.

The drive from Casper to Cody was quite beautiful, though not the kind of beauty that stirs my heart the way Nebraska did. In the intervening miles since Nebraska, it’s gotten much drier, and the terrain has more of a blondish hue, with an occasional green tint. It was definitely the green grass in Nebraska that captured my heart. Wyoming is also much rockier, with nice canyons and buttes punctuating the landscape.

Driving through scarcely populated and undeveloped landscapes fills me with happiness. There were places in today’s drive, where if I ignored the telephone poles, electric lines, and the road, I could imagine what the place might’ve looked like before we showed up. I don’t know why this appeals to me so much. I’m human. Yet I love the wilderness with minimal human impact. Is it self loathing? I don’t know. I’m also fully aware of the hypocrisy. There I am, in a one-ton metal and plastic machine, burning processed fossil fuels, traveling at unnatural speeds on an unnatural surface, marveling at the relatively untouched natural beauty. But, nonetheless, it fills me with happiness that I can do this. I have the technological, financial, and social ability to roam the entire continent as if it were my backyard. I wonder what those pioneers in their ox-drawn carts would think about that. They’d probably think it was pretty cool. I think it’s pretty cool too.

August 21st

Last night, I camped by a lake right outside Cody. Buffalo Bill Reservoir, I think is what it’s called. If you’re around Cody and you’re not sure what it’s called, just tack on “Buffalo Bill” and you’ll probably be right. Buffalo Bill Dam. Buffalo Bill State Park. It was dark by the time I pulled into the campground, and it was quite full, mostly with RVs. After having spent several nights in a row in practically empty campgrounds, it felt a little crowded, especially when my neighbor was running his generator. It was a Honda 2000i.

After a slowish morning, I headed back towards Cody again. I got a shitty car wash, which left most of my car about as dirty as it was. Then I made another stop at Wal-Mart to buy some supplies, and by supplies, I mean ammo and alfalfa sprouts. I’ve been eating turkey and alfalfa sprouts for lunch every day, and had finally run out of the alfalfa that I’d bought at Hyde Park Produce.

Just out of town is Buffalo Bill Dam. The “Buffalo Bill” in this case supposedly isn’t completely frivolous; apparently Buffalo Bill Cody played an active role in brining irrigation to the area. Who knew. The dam, built in the early 1900s, was also the tallest at the time, and at 200 or so feet tall, the view down from the bridge atop the dam is quite disorienting.

There’s a squirrel yelling at me from a nearby branch. It’s going “chirp! chirp!” and when it does so, its entire body shakes. It’s as if it’s mustering all the energy in its little body to make the loudest chirp possible. I hope whatever it’s doing that for is worth the energy expenditure. That reminds me of a beast pretty common around here, that makes this rattling, clicking sound. It took me a while to figure out what was making the sound, but it turned out to be a moth or similarly winged insect, which appears to be clapping its wings with sufficient force to make these loud clicking noises as it flies. It seems like a huge waste of energy, but I’m sure it serves some kind of purpose; likely to either scare predators away, or to attract mates.

Let me back up. I’m currently at Yellowstone. After a short visit at the dam, I drove the 50 miles or so West into Yellowstone. Yellowstone was the first National Park, designated as such by Roosevelt (I think) when he established the National Park system (Edit: see comment below). It is of course home to Old Faithful, the geyser, and that’s what I was here to see. I checked into a campsite since the park seemed pretty busy, then headed to Ol’ Faithful.

Contrary to how the pictures you’ve seen might make it appear, Ol’ Faithful is in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. Ok, not really, but there are a couple of huge parking lots nearby, along with a couple of large buildings with hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, gift shops, and tons of people. There’s a paved ring that goes all the way around the periodically erupting cavity, and rangers put up signs predicting the next one. I was there about an hour early, so I got an ice cream cone, and walked around some of the smaller geysers nearby. They’re mostly holes in the grounds with water bubbling out of them, and judging by the smell, apparently filled with rotten eggs (actually it’s sulfur, I think).

At 4:38, almost to the second, Old Faithful blew her load as the rangers had predicted. It was impressive and disappointing at the same time, which I guess applies for just about any famous tourist attraction. I think that’s why I prefer the less well known and serendipitously discovered spots I’ve stopped along the way.

Back at my campsite, I invented a new dish for dinner, or rather a re-creation of a Japanese dish. Basically, you cook some rice, but instead of just rice and water, you put other stuff in the pot as well. I put some chicken, onions, and mushrooms, along with soy sauce, salt, and sugar for seasoning. The rest is the same as if you’re cooking rice. Bring the whole concoction to a boil, after some time (depending on the type of rice), lower the heat and let simmer for another 10-15 minutes, and let sit for another 5-10 minutes with the heat off after that, according to preference. Open the pot, and eat its contents, if edible.

August 22nd

Today’s goal was mostly to cove mileage. The last of my supplies should be arriving in Sunnyvale on Monday, so I’m hoping to get back to the Bay Area around then as well. The route I picked took me out of Yellowstone from the South entrance, through Grand Teton National Park. From there, I continued in a South-Westerly direction, cutting across the South-Eastern corner of Idaho, skirting Bear Lake, then into Utah. All in all, a very beautiful route.

Something I saw in one of the forts I stopped in has stuck in my mind. It was about the conflict between Indians and white Americans, and how it was a cultural conflict as much as a fight for resources. The Native Americans, nomadic hunters unfamiliar with property ownership, clashing with whites who are all about sedentary lifestyles and property ownership. Today, we recognize that the US Government’s actions destroyed the way of life for an entire people, but back then, I’m sure at least some whites saw the government’s action as a more or less benevolent one. The government was simply trying to upgrade the Native Americans, you see. Teach them how to farm like modern people. Teach their kids to dress and act like white kids, speak English, learn the Good Book. Undoubtedly, some people scratched their heads when the Native Americans rebelled against assimilation.

I can’t help but see numerous parallels between the conflict with Native Americans, and our conflict with the Muslim world today. Like then, our involvement in the middle east is at least partially about territory and resources (gold and fur then, oil today). But, perhaps more so than that, it is a war of ideas and cultures. What are we trying to achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why, we’re trying to upgrade them. Teach them about Capitalism and Democracy. We’re trying to show them how to be a Good Modern Nation. Yet they keep trying to blow us up. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that we’re meddling. We’re trying to “improve” a culture that hasn’t necessarily asked to be “improved.” At least, they don’t want to become like us, and that’s what they’re telling us with their bullets and bombs. If I understand correctly, Osama Bin Laden’s original beef with the US was our presence on their holy lands. I don’t think he wants to destroy America; he just wants us out of there. What do Iraqi insurgents want? They probably just want us out of there. What do the Afghan insurgents want? Probably the same thing.

It’s not surprising that Democracy is struggling in Iraq and Afghanistan. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Democracy, a bottom-up approach to governance, fails to work when it is introduced in a top-down fashion. But that’s what we’re doing. We went in, toppled pre-existing regimes, and said, “here, you are now a Democracy.” And then we scratch our heads when it doesn’t work, and when some people resist our attempts to tell them how to run their country.

Campgrounds in Utah are filled with crazy people. In every other state I’ve driven through, public campgrounds are mostly empty, and the few occupants are friendly campers from afar. But in Utah, the campgrounds are filled, swarming, with locals. There are at least 3 cars in each camp site, in addition to an RV, and at least 18 kids, running around a roaring fire that shoots devilish flames 8ft high. I drove through a couple of campgrounds looking for a site for the night, but the look these people gave me as I drove by made me fear for my safety, should I be foolish enough to stop the car and step out of my vehicle.

I gave up on camping in Utah, and drove on. Unfortunately, my route put me on an Interstate, after dark, which is not a happy place to be, especially after getting used to the leisurely pace on two-lane highways. I thought about staying in a motel, but after spending between $10-20 a night to sleep in the woods, the thought of spending $50-70 a night in a crappy motel didn’t appeal to me.

So I decided to spend a night in a Wal-Mart parking lot instead. I’d heard for some time that Wal-Mart, unlike many other retail stores, let people spend the night in their parking lots. I decided to give this a shot, mostly as an experiment.

The experiment really was comprised of two components. Experiment 1 was spending the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Experiment 2 was spending a night in my car; something I’d never done before. Of the two, the former experiment turned out to be the less challenging. The bright lights in the lot certainly were annoying, and getting attacked by shopping carts in the middle of the night was unexpected, but it was the discomfort of being cramped in my car that kept me up longer. I foolishly assumed that sleeping in my car wouldn’t be all that different to sleeping in an economy class airplane seat. But, it is. I’m not sure how or why, but I just couldn’t get comfortable. Eventually, it occurred to me that the stuff piled in the back of my car almost offered a flat surface, so I crawled back there. My body spanned a cardboard box, a plastic container, and an assortment of soft stuff crammed in between. My head was inches from the rear window, and my feet dangled in the space between the two front seats, but at least I wasn’t folded up like a shrimp. I fell asleep in this configuration, and slept until well past 8am.

Another night survived.

7 thoughts on “Journal: 8/19-8/22

  1. On the establishment of Yellowstone, it was March 1, 1872, when TR was a teenager and Grant was president.

    Also FYI, Roosevelt didn’t establish the national park system (though I saw that myth perpetrated even in national media publications in recent weeks). The National Park Service was established when Woodrow Wilson was president.


  2. Again, a pleasure to read, Ryo. I enjoy your ability to look at yourself and the world around you critically. Like how you enjoy being in untouched nature, and see the irony of looking at it from the comfort of your (very touched and unnatural!) car.
    A propos democracy: I read ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ (an excellent book), which is a novel about missionaries in the Congo. The one child of the family describes how our democracy was incomprehensible to the locals. They were used to talking about everything until a conclusion that was amicable to all could be reached. The idea that an arbitrary majority would decide did not make sense to them. So, is Western-style democracy always progress? As you say, imposing it from the top down seems juxtaposed to the very concept of democracy.
    Safe journey!

  3. Let’s me honest, like a lot of us, your fascination with the Oregon Trail is all because of a past experience of hiking it in all it’s green tinted, monochromatic 8 bit glory.

    Always a great read, and I hope to get a little farther with it shortly.

  4. Democracy=demogoguery

    Even the Romans screwed it up!

    You’re correct (top down). Top down is only good in a Saab Convertible, or perhaps a beamer.

    Our ‘missionaries’ shoulda left Iraq the day Saddam was found.

    Thanks Ryo. And watch out for those crazy Mormon campers! lol

  5. Sorry you got a crazy vibe from us in Utah. I bet there will be plenty of us following your blog.

    Happy trails and I am loving what you’re sharing.

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