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So here we stand, tired and carrying our heavy luggage. It is only minutes to midnight at the car rental counter at Spokane Airport, Washington State. We arrived on the last flight in, our last flight on the very long trip to get here: including a stopover in Chicago, it took us a total of three days. But now we are ready. We finally get the keys to our rental car, which feels much like receiving the keys to our future – at least for the next three weeks.
It takes a few days to completely settle in. Luggage on the back seat, food storage at the very back, tent and hiking boots behind the driver’s seat, and beer and soda cans behind the passenger seat where they’ll stay cool. A pair of fishing rods reach from the very back to the front window, ready to go as soon as we decide to stop at one of the many well-marked roadside signs. The many stops we make at Safeway, Walmart, Bi-Mart and local general stores help us to stock up on the supplies we need and also double as a perfect tourist attraction. We spend hours walking through the aisles looking at things: camouflage clothing (also available for women with a light pink touch, among the greens, greys and browns), tons of fishing bait, camping equipment for happy campers and much, much more. Lots of cool things, none of them really necessary, but certainly very much desired. In a weak moment, I can’t resist the open-fire popcorn maker, likewise the bacon-bowl dish.
Ever since reading “The Horse Whisperer” and watching “A River Runs Through It” as a teenager, I knew that one day I had to go to Montana. I expected big blue skies, mountains and horses. Oh, and rivers filled with fish just waiting for the artificial flies to float by.
We spend three days in the north of Montana. Glacier National Park borders with Canada and offers great mountain views and remote hikes. Well prepared, I always carry my dear new friend – a can of “bear spray” – dangling from by belt. Just in case.
“There are about 750 grizzlies in the park and a lot more black bears,” Jack, one of the rangers, explains to us at a leisurely evening talk at the St. Mary campground. He describes himself as more of a wolf person, and is eager to explain the circle of life and why wolves are so important to the ecosystem. I love the talk and we make it a point to catch as many ranger talks in national parks along the way as possible.
Next up is Yellowstone, with two city breaks in between. Missoula is a lovely town with a lively student scene. On this hot summer night, we are lucky enough to catch the town as it comes together for the annual River City Roots Festival, with live bands, red paper cups and street food. Bozeman, the next urban stop, turns out to be a great surprise as well. We find awesome Mexican food, great shopping and the best museum I’ve ever been to: The Museum of the Rockies. The main attraction is a large dinosaur exhibit, but what I love the most is the trip into our galaxy at the Taylor Planetarium. Right outside the museum is a replica of an old 19th century farmhouse. Talking to one of the museum workers, who keeps the Tinsley House alive by tending to the garden and spinning the wool, etc., I feel as if I’ve stepped back in time. I catch myself building my own dream house based on this one. Wire it up with electricity and WiFi and I could see myself living there.
We reach Yellowstone at the end of the second week. Not having much time, we explore most of it the American way: from inside the car. We spot bison, an elk, mountain goats, chipmunks and ground squirrels. There is so much more waiting to be discovered, but we have set our minds on Oregon next.
But first, we have to cross Idaho. We see endless straight highways, stop at Denny’s for breakfast, have burgers at McDonalds for lunch, and count the miles down. Thus with a side of fries, we continue our all-American road trip. Much like the one most Americans take in their early twenties, when there’s “nowhere to go but everywhere,” as Sal Paradise put it in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”.
“It’s not usually this cold this time of year,” the lady at East Lake near Bend, Oregon, says to us. During the day, it is hot in the sun, but in the night we find ourselves waking up shivering in minus 5 degree Celsius! Never before have I appreciated heated seats in a car as much as now.
Luckily, the beautiful nature more than makes up for the cold. The Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway must be the most beautiful, set between volcanic mountains and stunning lakes. It is also only a few hours’ drive from the most well-known natural monument in Oregon, the deep blue Crater Lake, which also makes an appearance in the movie version of Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild”.
“It was extraordinary. It was the bluest water I’ve ever seen and there’s a tiny mountain in the middle of it. I think we were all just awe-struck.”
Reese Witherspoon about filming at Crater Lake
Escaping the cold of high altitude, we head for Oregon’s coast. Roaring seals, steep cliffs, windy beaches and heavenly fresh seafood welcome us. We feel like weekend travellers arriving back home when we get to our final stop – an apartment in Portland – 5,500 miles and 3 weeks later.
Portland is a creative city, with awesome farmer’s markets, small shops and friendly neighbourhoods. Sipping on locally brewed Stumptown Coffee, admiring hip Poler camping gear and snacking on off-the-chart food, life in Portland is good. Sadly, it is also the end of a long trip. Returning our rental car feels like leaving the road once and for all.
Waiting to board the plane home, I realise something important. The best thing about a road trip is getting to make as many stops as you like. Choosing what to take with you and what to leave behind is one of the many advantages of this kind of travel. For me, from Montana and Oregon, I gladly take with me only a “best of”.