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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

The Valley of Fire

I've been to a lot of national parks so far but I haven't had much time to check out the state parks along the way. Through pure random chance, it was recommended to me that I check out the Valley of Fire State Park on my way from Las Vegas to Zion. Boy am I glad I did -- if it was just bigger, I'm sure it'd be up for a national park designation. I figured I was just going to ride right through the park, which is in the middle of the desert and just a little over an hour outside of Vegas. I ended up sticking around for hours to ride, climb and photograph throughout its boundaries.

The first thing that struck me about the ride in were the rocks. I had yet to make it through Utah's red rocks country, so this was my first sighting of anything of that kind. Valley of Fire looks like some fiendish hand forced the bones of the desert up through the ground, leaving behind scarred formations of boulders and dirt colored somewhere between a deep rust and vibrant tangerine.


Death Valley to Las Vegas

The ride from Bishop, CA to Death Valley National Park began with a long, slow descent through a hilly valley flanked by tall, sharp mountains. When I got started at around 8am, it was cold enough outside for a neck warmer and a heavy fleece. An hour later, I had to stop to strip off some layers. The mercury had begun to rise.

The terrain was pretty desolate. Towns were few and far between and tended to cluster around the little creeks and washes that meandered their way down from the mountains to either side. The descent continued and the heat continued to rise. When I was already forced to soak my shirt at each stop and it was still over 3000 feet of elevation, I started to worry about the heat on the valley floor. Blasts of it occasionally fanned across the road, giving me goosebumps and causing me to blink dryly.


Yosemite National Park

I got a nice taste of life in San Francisco during my visit there and it took a lot of miles to bring myself back from Planning Mode to Exploration Mode. It didn't help that the last morning in the Bay Area involved an early-AM trip to the airport, a last-minute post office run, a car swap, and even some bike luggage repair. I think my hands were clenched a little too tightly on the handlebars (and only partially due to the terrible California drivers) almost all the way back to the the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I finally began to settle back in my seat and breathe easy once I was again amidst the idyllic yellow hills and perfectly rounded trees of rt 120 heading towards Yosemite.


Initial Impressions of San Francisco

It would have been difficult to have had a less favorable impression of the city of San Francisco than my girlfriend and I did on our first excursion into town. We headed in looking for lunch and decided to stop off in the Mission, the first point of interest on our list of things to see. We started somewhere near 21st and Van Ness and walked up Mission Street looking for a nice cafe to sit down and grab some food but it became quickly apparent that we weren't in the right location for that. We wandered through several sketchy blocks and grabbed a hasty meal at an overpriced and underwhelming Mexican restaurant before jumping back into the car to see if we could find the awesome San Francisco that we'd heard about.

We drove for three hours, covering neighborhoods from the Marina to Sunset to Height. Every time, we managed to miss all the interesting stuff and only drive by the low rent or completely residential areas. I realized after a while that all I wanted to see were some bars to give some indication of life in a city that otherwise appeared to consist of nothing but homeless people or sterile rows of townhouses. I counted four bars in three hours. Needless to say, we were pretty discouraged by the end of it.


California Bound

I first rode through California on my 2010 trip to explore the Pacific coast from San Diego to Seattle. This time it felt a lot different. I guess knowing that I'll be moving there in a couple of months really shifted my perspective from just being an explorer to sort of taking ownership of the countryside. It went from "that's really beautiful, I need a picture" to "I'm definitely hiking that, when can I make that happen..?"

The ride into the Sierra Nevada Mountains began in Reno and looped south on 395 through Carson City. Where everything east of Reno was pretty much desert, heading southwest almost immediately revealed a much greener countryside. I was glad to finally get into the Sierras if only to avoid all the casinos, which were absolutely pervasive along the road from Reno to that point.


The Longest Ride Down The Loneliest Road

The first bit of my ride from Irwin, ID to Salt Lake City covered familiar territory (which I usually hate to do) along the Palisade Reservoir but I found virgin road on 89s soon enough. That part of the ride passed little subsistence farms and decrepit farms amidst gently rolling hills. Then the hills gave way to hot flat expanses of parched plains cupped by mountains. Once I turned onto 16, the land again began to rise and I started seeing hints of the jutting red rocks that I'd come to Utah to experience.

More unexpected were the smells of New England that accompanied the birch forest which hugged the side of the mountain as the climb continued. Eventually this gave way to evergreen as the highway twisted along the pass. Forest fires again kept visibility limited until I got into Salt Lake City.


Idaho From Top to Bottom

Idaho was always a wildcard in my book; I just didn't know what to expect. There aren't really any feature destinations like national parks yet there are dozens of well known motorcycling routes that criss-cross the state and the region is full of winding rivers and deep forests. Our route back to Irwin, ID (where my girlfriend had left her car) gave us three full days to explore Idaho all the way from the Canadian border to where its southern edge hits Utah.

The ride south from West Glacier, MT took us past the long and scenic Flathead Lake. The air smells like apples and there are roadside stands selling sweet cherries by the pound every quarter mile or so (some of the best I've ever had). The air wasn't warm but we were well bundled up so it actually felt quite refreshing.


Glacier National Park

The morning after our hellish ride through the gale dawned cloudy and cold but mercifully without rain. Our fears of having to cancel our trip through Glacier National Park weren't realized and we thankfully rode north through the tough scrubland that we hadn't been able to see the prior evening.

Glacier National Park straddles the border between the US and Canada, crossing the Rocky Mountains and encompassing over 1,000,000 acres of land. It is a maze of backcountry trails through the mountains and is home to a healthy population of grizzly bears, black bears, lynx, wolverines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and all manner of other interesting large mammals (some which you'd like to see and others that you'd rather avoid). We entered with high hopes.

Despite some major and obvious differences, the Going to the Sun road through Glacier Park reminded me a lot of the Pacific Coast Highway in California. It ascends to dizzying heights above the valleys below and crawls along narrow ridges that quickly drop off for thousands of feet. The views are breathtaking and rapid-fire. It is a beautiful sight to behold. There are even old-style red buses that still give tours.


The Road to Glacier

The ride up to Glacier National Park included the most dangerous situation I've ever ridden through. It started uneventfully enough, though, with miles upon miles of gentle yellow hills dotted with erratic boulders and tough teal shrubs. A dusty sort of hay smell was generally dominant but for a mile or two, the air was softened with the smells of wild lavender.

At one point, descended from a low mountain pass and came upon a picturesque but entirely unexpected canyon:


Yellowstone National Park

After a poor night's sleep in a freezing teepee in West Yellowstone and a misadventure with some hydrogen peroxide, we set out to find a better experience in the park itself. We got as far as the parking lot before the next bit of poor luck hit -- the frigid night had killed the bike battery and we had to wait for a jump start off of a staff member's truck. By that point, though, the sun was well out and, beneath blue skies, we pushed into the park at last.

We retraced some of our route from the previous evening, heading more or less straight for Old Faithful. It was good to actually get a chance to see the landscape in the daytime. We passed beautiful river views, meadows, and gentle forested hills until their beauty was difficult not to take for granted. My girlfriend seemed to tire of the many photo-op stops before I did: