Just over month ago I was on the trip of a lifetime. Now that’s not to say it was a magical, wonderful experience that I want to readily repeat; no, it was far from ideal. I call it that because circumstances allowed me to take it, and the chance to do something of that sort again may never come around.
Since my first time in Seattle I’d often dreamed of going back, but I wanted to see more. Not just the small area of downtown I was limited to, not even just the area around Puget Sound. I wanted to experience everything there was to see and do in the Northwest US and southern British Columbia: the rivers, the lakes, the mountains, the valleys, the seas, and the cities. Granted, that’s an absolutely massive area so I thought to limit myself to the regions west of the Cascade Mountains, the sometimes weird, ultra-liberal mega-region known as Cascadia. I thought perhaps I could take a train from Oakland all the way to Vancouver, hitting up Portland and the Columbia River valley, or Seattle and Puget Sound on the way. I thought about driving. In either case, I needed time I did not have.
Until July. At the end of June I was suddenly euthanized from the pitiful excuse I called a job. It was shocking in the manner of its execution, but the signs of its coming had been there since April and I was ready for anything. It’s no secret I was miserable there, and in the weeks since my last appearance in its barbed-wired premises, the poison that filled my veins has been slowly filtering out, the stress lifting off of my shoulders. Freedom never felt so good. However, the position I had expected to take at another company immediately afterward fell through in the early weeks of July. My future was suddenly an empty slate and time had become in surplus. Always in the back of my head, the prospect of a trip through the Pacific Northwest had shot to the front. I was going to do this and it was going to be amazing.
For two weeks I planned where I was going, what I wanted to see, where I would stay and how I would manage to survive on the road for an indefinite period of time. I plotted maps, bought equipment, saved destinations in my GPS and scoured the roads for rest stops and hotels. Early on in the planning stages, I decided that I would attempt to sleep in my car to save money and effort. After all, I had done it before. Besides, what kind of adventurer sleeps in a hotel? I left California on the morning of July 23rd, headed north for Oregon. My car was loaded with food, clothes, toiletries, camera equipment and chargers, my pillows and a warm blanket. The gas tank was half full.
I don’t much care for the North Bay/Northern Delta/Sacramento Valley portions of California. They’re brown for most of the year, mostly flat, and their population centers are rather nondescript. The faster I could get through them, the better. I headed north, going on I-680 across the Carquinez Strait to I-80, up to I-505 bypassing Sacramento, finally arriving at Interstate 5 maybe two hours into the trip. Between Fairfield and Redding, there is just about nothing but farmland. I’d never driven that stretch of I-5 before, but it was entirely too familiar. Thankfully, I had packed two days worth of music to keep me occupied and sooner than I expected, I was in Redding for lunch. Situated at the very north of the Sacramento Valley, Redding marks the beginning of the Cascade Foothills, with the southernmost Cascade Volcano, Lassen Peak, directly to the east. Nearby Shasta Lake and the dam from which it was created were my first destination. I hadn’t initially thought of stopping there, but it was on the way. It was also the first of several hydroelectric dams I would encounter on my travels.
Shasta Dam is big. I’d been atop the Hoover Dam several times, I’d seen less notable dams like the Roosevelt Dam in Arizona, or the Mt. Morris Dam in Letchworth State Park from afar, but I don’t believe I’d ever been on top of something so massive. Where Hoover Dam is tall and relatively narrow, Shasta is both tall and wide forming a strechted trapezoid shape inside the Sacramento River valley. I walked out to the middle, taking in the stunning views of the river valley below, the lake behind, and a hazy Mt Shasta in the distance. There were few people around; for a massive industrial structure, it was strikingly quiet. Only the gentle wash of the spillway below could be heard, and only when in direct view. The trip was off to a good start.
The remainder of my day was spent on I-5, winding north around the brilliantly large Mt. Shasta, cutting through canyons and forests across the Oregon border, and riding down into the Willamette River valley through the cities of Eugene and Salem. I stopped for dinner in Canyonville, a tiny town nestled in the southern mountains wherein I had my first experience with Oregon’s bizarre full-service gas station mandate. I also took note of signs pointing toward Crater Lake and decided perhaps that would be a good way-point for my return. The skies above southern and central Oregon were absolutely beautiful, in contrast to the blank blue that’s been standard around the central valleys of Northern California all summer. Upon crossing Siskiyou Summit, it rained ever so slightly, spawning clouds of varying textures through the canyons and across the setting sun. The sun set as I drove through Linn County, the self-described “Grass seed capital of the world.” On both sides of the freeway were fields of tall grass being plowed by large machinery, their headlights burning in the hazy dusk. For miles, a thin suspension of fog sat across the valley floor, and not convinced it wasn’t grass seed particles, I could feel my throat begin to swell. Soon it grew dark and I decided to end the drive at a rest area twenty miles south of Portland. I found a nice spot in the back parking lot near a glowing orange lamp, cleared out the back seat of my car, found a (somewhat) comfortable position to lay in, and went to sleep.
Sleeping in the back of a car that’s only five feet wide is a challenge. As someone who hovers around six feet, finding a comfortable position isn’t hard; staying comfortable for more than thirty minutes, that’s the tough part. Numerous times I would wake in the night and shift positions before falling asleep again. Often my limbs would be numb or my ears pinched from laying on one side all night. Being summer, the car remained relatively warm at night, and valuing some measure of security, I opted to leave the windows mostly closed, only a small sliver in each left open for fresh air to enter. It was insufficient, but I had several nights coming up with which to perfect my car-sleeping techniques. In addition to the summer heat, the sun rose every morning before six, which meant I did too. The first morning of the trip was an enlightening experience. I stepped out of the car in my pajamas, legs violently twitching as they stretched for the first time in hours, and hobbled to the rest area bathrooms. Having prepared to not have showers available for days, I “bathed” myself with no-rinse soap and dry shampoo, maintaining some visual evidence of cleanliness with facial wipes and hair gel. It worked surprisingly well. Fresh and ready for the day, I ate breakfast in the car and drove up to the first city on my itinerary, Portland, Oregon.