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Ryan’s Great Adventures

Volume 22: Thur Nov 7, 2002

Amanda and I are taking a road trip from Seattle to Yellowstone. This is our story....

It was time for a road trip, so Amanda and I packed up my car and started driving east on I-90 out of the congested streets of Seattle. I offered to stop at a Krispy Kreme along the way, but Amanda said she could do without. Ha! I think she'd shrivel up and died if Krispy Kreme ever went out of buisness! =) But she passed up the opportunity and we were on our way to Grand Coulee Dam.

We stopped for lunch along the way—Dairy Queen, I believe—and stopped at what was claimed to be the world's largest waterfall known to have ever existed: Dry Falls. As it's name suggests, it's dry now. But during the last ice age, a huge body of water located in present day Montana broke through an ice dam and surged in a gigantic river toward the Pacific Ocean hurtling over Dry Falls, a 3.5 mile long cliff 400 ft high. In comparison, Niagra Falls is a measly one mile wide with a 165-foot drop. It was a flood so large (so it says at the Interpretive Center overlooking the place), that more water flowed over these cliffs for several months than all the rivers in the rest of the world combined. It must have been a grand sight, but I couldn't help but think that the cliffs didn't look all that impressive compared to others I've seen over the years. Now if the water was still flowing, now THAT would have been a sight!

Then we winded our way towards the Grand Coulee Dam. We found a nice, deserted campsite nearby and set up camp. Strangely, the place actually had covered car ports to park under. I've never seen a campground with car ports before, but I wasn't complaining. If it started to rain, I'd just move the tent under it! There weren't any other campers anywhere in sight, which was rather nice. I guess not many people like to go camping when it drops below freezing at night in the middle of freakin' nowhere.

One of the more prominent sights in downtown Spokane

Which might make you wonder what we were doing out there in the middle of nowhere. Our goal, ultimately, was Yellowstone. Amanda had never been there, and it had been years since I last visited the place and I was anxious to visit it again. But it's a long drive out there, and Amanda and I decided to stop at whatever interesting places we found along the way. And one of my guidebooks described the Grand Coulee Dam as having a "cheesy" laser light show. AND it was free! That was good enough for us! =)

As sunset approached, we drove out to the dam under the visitor center there, picked out a picnic table and played cards while waiting for it to get dark enough for the laser light show. Over the next hour or so, more and more people started showing up—I guess the lure of a cheesy laser light show was too much for them as well. Amanda and I also noticed a strange phenomena: All these other people were like, really OLD. As we discovered throughout our journeys, everywhere we were surrounded by really old people traveling in RVs and such. Which really wasn't all that surprising given the fact it was the off season and most younger people would be in school, the middle-aged folks at work, and only a bunch of retired and unemployed bozos such as myself would have time for road trips. =)

And finally, darkness descended and the laser light show began. And we weren't disappointed: The cheese was up to our necks! Amanda and I joked about drowning in cheese, but what a great way to die. =) We joked about what an obituary would look like: "Ryan and Amanda, drowned in molten cheese" and how one would explain such a bizarre death to friends and family. Loud speakers set up around the area provided commentary on the laser light show, about the Columbia River being the 'River of Life', and how the Native Americans used to fish there and now the river (and the dam) provides water and electricity for millions of people across several states turning a barren desert into a vast, productive farmland. All choreographed with appropriate, patriotic music like America by Neil Diamond as the laser flashed the American flag across the dam's face. (At which point, I got to remind Amanda once again that I got to see Neil Diamond play the song LIVE! in Portland last year. She wasn't impressed.)

The show lasted for a half-hour or so, our cheesiest dreams fulfilled, and we headed back to our campsite for the night.

This wagon is allegedly the world's largest Radio Flyer. The handle is a slide that kids (and Amanda) could slide down.

The next morning, we packed up the car once again and headed off to Spokane, Washington, the second largest city in the state of Washington. Which is really amazing when you consider the fact that it's out in the middle of nowhere. We rolled into town around lunchtime, and we stopped by a local eatery to, well, eat. =) Stopped to look for a letterbox in a nearby park. My goal on this stopover was to find a gigantic wagon. There was a picture of it in my guidebook, and I wanted to see the thing in person. All we knew was that it was somewhere near "downtown".

As it turned out, we parked a couple of blocks from it and found it almost immediately without even trying, and it lived up to my highest expectations. The thing was HUGE! At least ten feet tall! There was a ladder up the back of it, and the handle of the wagon was a slide for kids (and Amanda, as the case may be) to slide down. Someday, I want to get one of those for my backyard. After I actually get a backyard, of course.

Amanda and I took our necessary pictures, then continued wandering around without so much as a map to guide our way. We admired the nearby waterfalls. The town—or at least this particular area of it—was remarkably pretty. The buildings were neat, the waterfront park was nice, and I just liked this place. We wandered through various stores, including a bookstore where we picked up a small booklet of poems by Robert Service. Somewhere along the way, we had gotten it into our heads to memorize The Cremation of Sam McGee while sitting around the campfire, and that's exactly what we intended to do.

Amanda stops to admire the view of glaciers that give this park its name

And eventually we said goodbye to Spokane and continued into Idaho. Which was mostly just a blur, since the panhandle is so darned narrow it seemed like it took all of about five minutes to pass through before we hit Montana. Somewhere in the middle of that five minutes in Idaho, though, I suggested an idea to Amanda: Let's visit Glacier National Park!

Neither of us had ever been there before, but the place didn't seem TOO far out of the way (it's just a little north of Yellowstone!) and the pictures I've seen of it are just beautiful. So naturally I explained how it would be CRIMINAL to come all this way, be so close, and never actually stop to visit the park! When would such an opportunity come again?! Amanda was reluctant because she hadn't read anything of the park and wasn't "prepared" for it, but eventually I talked her into it. =)

Waterfalls are common in Glacier NP, and I named the falls on the left Ryan’s Falls while Amanda named the falls on the right Amanda Falls, but you won't find those on any maps of the area

And that became our next destination. We drove out to a campground just outside the national park and set up camp in the dark of night, since it was pretty late by the time we arrived. We whipped up dinner and went straight to sleep.

Day Three: We woke up bright and early since we only planned to stay one day in Glacier. It probably wasn't enough time, but at least we could see the highlights and do the "been there, done that" scenario. Amanda was on the lookout for bears—she'd still never seen in the wild before. I was on the lookout for grizzlies. I've seen bears in the wild, but I've never seen a grizzly before!

We drove along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the most scenic drives in America if you want my opinion, stopping every few miles to read one of those roadside signs or do a short mile or two hike. The place was amazing, no two ways about it, and like I suspected, a single day wasn't nearly enough for my tastes. I'd definitely have to return another day.

This historic structure used to be where park rangers lived

Shortly after leaving the east entrance of the park, blissfully driving down the nearly deserted road, events conspired to create a spectacular crash. We were on a two-lane road, with a Y-ish-intersection quickly approaching. "Amanda, which way?" (She was my navigator.) So she was peering down at her map when my mind vaguely comprehended that two vehicles, coming out of seemingly nowhere, had collided and they were both traveling down the highway in my direction, one vehicle in each lane! This seemed like a bad thing since it appeared I was about to go into a head-on collision. I naturally slammed on my brakes pretty hard, startling Amanda to say the least.

When the proverbial dust settled, the car coming at me in my lane had stopped before we collided, and the truck pulling a camper had jackknifed behind me, blocking both lanes of the road. And we sat there for a moment, in a stunned silence, thinking, "Woah." Amanda asked what happened, and I said I didn't know. Just that two cars started coming at me, one in each lane, and I slammed on my breaks in the hopes of avoiding the head-on collision.

This my attempt at an 'artsy' photo of the cabin

By now, a group had started running out of a nearby store or bar or something to make sure everyone was okay and such. Or maybe just to admire the wrecked vehicles, of which I was thankful mine came out without a scratch. Well, at least not any NEW scratches. =)

Fortunately, nobody was hurt. The story we figured must have happened was that the smaller car coming at me must have run through a stop sign, and the truck with the camper tried to swerve to avoid hitting it. He didn't succeed (as evidenced by the crunched-up little car), but it swung the little car into my lane. The truck continued barreling down the highway out of control until it jackknifed just after passing my car. Had I slammed on my brakes a little quicker, he'd have run right into me as he jackknifed. Had I slammed on my brakes a little slower, I'd have been in a head-on collision with the smaller car. That was definitely a close call!

One of the bystanders had called 911, and we admired the damage to the truck and camper. It was impressive, to say the least. One of the tires completely sheered-off and dug a pretty massive pit into the road. The camper was at an impossible angle to the truck. The little car was pretty beat up, but it was still driveable from the looks of it.

We found this giant cow in Montana, and when I saw a car coming down the road from the other direction, I nabbed a picture of it since it looked the two were charging and I'm easily amused. =)

Another bystander started directing what little traffic there was around the wreck along the road's shoulder—at least those with cars small enough to squeak through.

And eventually, Amanda and I continued our journey a little more somber than before. We had one more stop we wanted to make before heading back to camp, which was at a "goat's lick" just off the highway. It was a cliff where there were naturally high contents of salt, which bighorn sheep frequently visit to lick the salt. And we weren't disappointed. We saw half-a-dozen of those creatures bounding up and down impossibly steep slopes for a lick at the salt.

And at last we made it back to camp where we built a campfire and started memorizing The Cremation of Sam McGee.

Day four: We woke up bright and early and discovered in the local paper that there was a grizzly sighting on a major trail within Glacier National Park the previous day—the day we were there. What a disappointment! We were actually in the park, but on the wrong trail! I kept insisting to Amanda that bears really did exist out there, and at least I had the proof even if we didn't get to see them ourselves.

No crapping at this rest area!

We packed up my car and started driving south towards Yellowstone. It was mostly an uneventful day of driving, with the occasional stop at rest areas for lunch or bathroom breaks. At one rest area I got a wonderful picture of a "no crapping" sign, a sign for dog owners that that particular spot wasn't where dogs should be doing their thing.

And we ended the day near the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Amanda is a real Lewis and Clark fan and is hiding a mystery letterbox series about the duo, so naturally we had to stop. Anyhow, the tour of the caverns looked kind of neat to boot. I drove—probably faster than I should have up the narrow, windy road—to arrive at the cave with minutes to spare before the last tour of the day began.

Cave formations in Lewis and Clark Caverns

The cave is absolutely marvelous, one of the reasons it was the first state park for Montana. Strangely enough, Lewis and Clark never knew of the cave's existence. They had traveled through the area and even around the mountain the cave was in, but missed this particular cave. Our tour guide even explained where Lewis had killed a deer not too far away. The reason the cave was named after these explorers that never explored the cave was because at the time, a hundred years after the Lewis and Clark expedition, nothing in the country had been named after their grand trek, and Teddy Roosevelt felt that the time had come to name something after them. Since the explorers had traveled through the area, that was good enough to name the cave—and the state park—after them.

The tour guide was excellent, and the formations were fantastic. This is definitely a place worth stopping by if you're in the area, and I'll just leave it at that.

Then we found a nearby campground and set up camp. Unfortunately, it started to rain on and off all evening long. Amanda's waterproof matches proved to be a challenge to great for either of us to master in order to start the stove for dinner, so I secretly snuck off to the front office where I could by a Montana lighter. (It says so, right on the side!) Then I amazed and dazzled her with my performance in lighting in the stove. At least until she realized I was really using a lighter. =)

Amanda admires the view from the entrance to Lewis and Clark Caverns while waiting for our tour to start.

There was only one other campsite being used as far as we could tell, and as soon as it started to rain they all got in the car and drove off. We suspected they were wimps and drove off to Pizza Hut or someplace to eat dinner instead of bearing the cold, wet rain. Not a bad idea, really, but we had meat and such in the ice chest that really needed cooking before it went bad.

Our neighbors came back ten or fifteen minutes later and started taking down their tent. Hmmm, they are bigger wimps than we suspected—they must have snuck off and got themselves a hotel room! We could tell that there was a definite tension between the couple, as the guy said something about if she had her keys and she snapped back as if that was the stupidest question on the face of the planet he could have possibly asked. Amanda and I had no idea we'd get to watch a soap from our very own campsite! =) This is just conjecture on my part, but I strongly suspect it was the guy's idea that "Hey, let's go camping! It'll be fun!" And when it started raining, the girl didn't think he was the brightest blub in the closet. I don't know what they were expecting, though, since sinister-looking clouds had been out all day long and the weather forecast a high chance of rain.

After our neighbors moved out, we watched the lightning streak across the sky and the thunder roar across our campground. It was great.

But when it came time to go to sleep, there was the problem of Amanda's claustrophobia in the tent. I told Amanda that leaving the front door of the tent wide open during a rain storm probably wasn't a good idea, and we seemed to find a consensus in leaving it mostly zipped up, but leaving the side of the door unzipped so she could peek out when necessary.

Day five: It stopped raining during the night, and we opened up the front door to admire the sunrise. Shortly thereafter, it started to sprinkle again, not stopping for the rest of the day. We packed up all our wet gear and were on the road again, this time with the destination of Virginia City, Montana.

Amanda rests alongside a soothing river

Amanda had never been to a real, honest-to-goodness ghosttown, and Virginia City looked interesting enough. It was an old gold-rush era town that's now a major commercial business with a little railroad you can ride around in, antique stores, and such stuff all over the place. Except that it was the off-season, and just about everything was closed.

We wandered around the town, visiting the few businesses that were still open. One shopkeeper was thrilled to death to see us—probably her first potential customers all day. We bought some postcards and had a good time looking around, but that was about it. It's an interesting little town, but take it from us: If you have the choice, don't visit it during the off-season. Go when everything is actually open!

We headed back to my car and continued on our way to Yellowstone. We briefly stopped at the 45th parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the equator, to pick up a letterbox hidden there. And admired some of the damaged caused by a large earthquake a few decades back. Earthquake Lake was created during this time when a large earthquake caused a landslide to dam a river, flooding everything from trees to roads behind it. You can still see the drowned trees peaking up over the water from the bottom of the lake. It's a very fascinating place that neither Amanda nor I had known about until we stopped at one of those roadside "points of interest" signs.

And at long last, we made it to Yellowstone. As it turns out, they were doing construction work on one of the main roads through the park and closed it down for most of the day, so we sat around for an hour or so for the road to open up again. During this time, Amanda went out chasing after elk and whatever other creatures she could find roaming around.

When the road opened, we drove through and nabbed a spot at Norris campground. Unlike all the others we've stopped at, this place was packed! And by evening, every single spot was full. Yellowstone was still hopping with tourists, even if the rest of the country wasn't!

And you'll have to read all about Yellowstone and the rest of our road trip in my next installment, since this one is just becoming way too long!

— Ryan

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