Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Whitefish, MT - Spokane, WA... Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Rich packed up and headed back to life in the northeast. This meant I had to go back to making friends if I wanted to talk to anybody besides myself. California was my next destination where I'd be seeing familiar faces and that was still days away. And thus, the road was hit. Traveling from Whitefish, MT I would be heading through Idaho and towards Spokane, WA. Before this day would end, I would get myself involved in one of the weirder and more embarrassing scenarios of my trip. Be patient. (Or just skip to the part with the photos of tightrope walking.)

The drive was long and beautiful. If I ever make it back there again, I need to buy this...
Hours later, I found the longest train I will probably ever see.
For days, I had been eyeing these bales of hay on the side of the road and saying to myself, "These are going to make for a great picture." So eventually, you just pull over, get out of the car, and take some shots. And it turns out they don't make for great pictures. They make for boring pictures of hay. But at least I know that now. I'm learning so much out here.

Occasionally as I drive, I'll find a sign for some random monument, town, or god knows what else. Sometimes I ignore them, sometimes I go after them, can't find them and move on, and other times, I find places like Wallace, ID.

The town of Wallace - it belongs in a snowglobe. Without the snow. I wandered through quiet streets lined with mom and pop ice cream stores and antique shops. Upon reflection, I don't think there was a single retail location that offered anything other than that. I later find out that the town doesn't allow any chains or franchises to open shop here. Eventually I make my way to a once-gasoline-station-and-garage-and-now-ice-cream-parlor-and-cafe. As I'm inspecting, Jamie Baker (the man featured below, sporting boots, shorts, and an unfogettable gap toothed smile and bubbly personality) shows up on his four wheeler, loaded with several gallons of ice cream. I strike up conversation and find out that he moved here from Spokane with his wife years ago. They bought their first house in '92 for $4,000. He has since purchased several other properties - they restore them and rent them out - all historic. They purchased the gas station across the street and are working on that these days. Very friendly type who, even though working, made time to talk to me. he sat on the bench while holding two vats of ice cream. I had Huckleberry ice cream and, don't tell anyone in MT or WA, but it tastes just like black raspberry.

All good things must come to an end, and so did my time in Wallace. With a dripping ice cream cone in hand, I headed towards Spokane. Frustrated as to where to go upon arriving, I went to Auntie's bookstore, bought Adam Smith's "A Theory On Moral Sentiments" and the girl behind the counter gave more advice than I could handle on recommendations for a bite to eat and a glass of beer. I checked out some of the recommendations but it was still only 5pm on a Thursday and so the places were empty. And I hate sitting in an empty restaurant alone pretending to mind that I'm sitting in an empty restaurant alone. After checking a couple places out, (one of the places had a KISS cover band pantomiming unplugged instruments while KISS records blared through the speakers, all while a drunk softball team pretended Gene Simmons was actually there licking the air as Ace Frehley played a solo I'll never really care about).

I noticed the World's Fair sculpture and wandered into the park and towards the pavilion. On my way there, I passed a small group of guys slacklining (read: tight rope walking). I first walked by, but then came around and started asking them about it. Before long, I was on the line and we were all hanging out, joking around, and having a good ol' time. John, Tyler, and Kiel were all between 18-21. We ended up there for a few hours before going down to the river where the local power plant is.

But things didn't really start getting out of control until we were in Kiel's truck. It was explained to me that he knew several backroads where he could get his truck off the ground. So we spent the next 20 minutes bombing down random streets of Spokane, trying to reenact any Steve McQueen movie you've seen. I felt like the troublemaking kid I never took the time to be. Eventually we went back to slacklining where Tyler proceeded to attempt backflips while holding onto a cigarette in his mouth.

Things took a turn for the weird when, in the midst of slacklining in the Pavillion, a gay couple walked by us in the park. Kiel gets Tyler's attention with a whisphered, "Hey! Look at this sh-t!" He then turned to me and said, "I've never seen that before. Two guys... coupled together like that. It's like seeing a f-cking unicorn. And on top of that, it's just not safe. They're lucky they're noting getting attacked right now."

I said, "that's got to be tough" and they both looked at me, inquiring, "What do you mean?" I said, "Being gay in an area where it is so uncommon and not accepted has got to be tough for them..." They continued to stare at me. So I added, "assuming you believe it's something you're born with and not simply a choice." And while they didn't directly say it, they very clearly hinted at believing in the latter. When I said "You guys should visit New York. Gay couples are about as common as straight couples there" they simultaneously agreed aloud that they'd rather stay here in that case.

When 12:30am hit, I decided it was time to call it a night. I thanked the gang for schooling me on slacklining, took a quick photo of them, and headed back to my car. Only when I got there, it was gone.

All I could recall was Kiel's stories about the Russian mobs stealing cars all around the city. In a total panic, I called the cops to report a stolen vehicle. They said they would dispatch someone as soon as possible. I let them know that wasn't soon enough, as it was 12:30 in the am, and that I had nothing but a cell phone and a book, and nowhere to go. "Just sit put sir. I don't know what else to tell you."

Maybe I started to cry in a bit of a panic. Maybe I freaked out, trying to think of what I could possibly do besides, well... freak out. That's when I turned to my left and saw, no more than 15 feet away, my car. I had looked in the wrong spot.

Soooo, I called the cops back, told them a very apologetic story about how my friends took my keys and moved my car on me, and that everything was all set. I hung up, crawled into my car, and had one of the best nights of sleep yet.

(Kiel, who was the brains of the group, Facebooked me within 12 hours and added me to his "musical interest" portion of his page. Awww, what a sweetheart. I hope he's not reading this now.)

New York Parking Prices

Site of the '74 Spokane World Fair

The crew

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

I am usually drawn to fun/crazy/adventurous/dangerous/stupid activities and ideas. Anybody who knows me knows that. So when Rich proposed mountain biking, I was more than eager. Plus, my health insurance was in limbo, so why not fly teeth-first down an aggressively steep and rocky mountain on two wheels in the middle of Whitefish, MT.

We rented bikes and helmets ("Yeah, yeah, we've done this before." I lied to the guy at the counter of the rental office), took the ski lift to the top of the mountain, and tested our (lack of) skills on the terrain park. And I've never felt so unatheltic. And awkward.

But like any other part of this trip, I found my comfort zone after 10 or 15 minutes. What seemed like impossible hazards upon our arrival quickly settled into fun and routine feeling stunts. Rich had done this before, so his confidence in his own ability was legit. Mine, however, was a blatant lie. The teeter-totter was the most dangerous of the obstacles, so I made sure to test it until failure. Five or six times over it with no problem. "One last one - just to get a picture." That always ends the same way...

I don't know why, but I froze at the top. And that's not what you're supposed to do. And I know that. Especially now. A split second after the photo was taken, I fell off the bicycular-see-saw and collapsed into a pile, my bike tangled in my legs.

After making our way to the first aid station and getting my hands and arms bandaged up, we decided to head down the mountain. I had never realized that in many cases, mountain biking trails are no wider than a bike tire. That being said, the margin for error hovers somewhere around zero. Still, it was beautiful. And exciting. And terrifying.

With a camera around my neck and my sunglasses on, I uncontrollably navigated my way down the path, around less than comforting turns, over unforgiving rocks and logs, often veering off the dirt and into the grass. But then you hit a groove. And it feels right. And again, a false confidence buries itself in your heart and brain and you start to forget everything. You forget how to be smart. How to be careful. And you start going faster. And faster. And this goes on until you realize you're out of control. And in my case, this moment coincided with a bee flying under my helmet and into my ear. And without a thought, I took one hand off of my handlebars to swat at that wretched bee. Unfortunately it was my right hand. And in that fraction of a second that I took my hand away from steering, my remaining hand pulled the front wheel to a hard left, projecting me off the path, over my handlebars and down the side of the mountain.

While yelling a very emphatic "OHHH SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!" my bike and I completed our first summersault together and I landed on my back just in time to cushion the fall of my new worst enemy (read: bike.) For a second I thought I was paralyzed. Or dead. But somehow I didn't break anything: bones, camera, sunglasses, etc. This was the path I took:

After fighting to get the chain back on the bike and then suffer through the remainder of the eight mile suicide mission, we dropped off our bikes and hobbled back to the car, pleased that it was over. The rest of the day was spent at a lakeside bar, contemplating whether or not I'd have mobility the following day.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Glacier? I hardly know her.

I don't feel much like writing at the moment, so I'm not going to. Still I'd like to share a few photos... (as always, click to enlarge)

Starting off the our first full day in the park, Rich and I did a couple 1-2 mile hikes to get acclimated with the park. Big horn sheep and mountain goats would pop up here and there. An occasional marmot would make an appearance. Referencing our map and discussion from the previous night with our camp guide, we decided to pack for the hike to Grinnell Glacier. It was a quick boat ride, a four mile hike round trip, and we'd be back long before sunset.

We departed from the famous Many Glacier Hotel, an historic landmark built in 1914-15 as a series of chalets on Swiftcurrent Lake. It would be impossible to walk into or around the hotel without being reminded of The Overlook Hotel. A beautiful and purposely antiquated space, it seems a great place to sit for a beer or coffee, but feels too much like the Shining. ANYWAY, after a 20 minute or so boat ride, we reached our destination and faced the option of going with the group for a 1.5 mile hike or going on our own for a hike 2-3 times that distance. After being told that a group of four people or more have never been attacked by a grizzly at Glacier, we decided to go on our own.

After about an hour of nothing looking remotely familiar, we began to wonder. Several hours/miles/cliff bars/gallons of sweat later, we discovered that our trail was a solid six miles each way. Every hiker walking the opposite way would give us intel conflicting entirely with the previous passerby. "It's a another 20 minutes from here" followed by, "it's a good 45 minutes from here" and they would all check their watches as if they were positive about the figure. As if to say, "I've been timing this and I know the exact answer." Regardless of timing, they all agreed on the same thing otherwise: It's worth the hike.

And despite our fear of getting stuck in the bear country after sunset, we kept on. And (because we were so far north) the sun hung in the same place, not far off the horizon, for hours. And eventually we reached it - Grinnell Glacier. Just over six miles and another 1,600 feet in altitude, we were there. Seeing a group of weird European tourists stripping down and getting in up to their necks, I took of my shoes, stepped in, and felt nothing. For a few seconds. Then came the excruciating and nearly coronary-inducing pain associated with water below freezing. Painful and beautiful, it was all part of a memory I will never forget.

But now for the hike back.

Rich and I made friends with a couple who didn't value their lives at $50 (bear mace) and instead opted for the $1 bell you tie to your shoe to keep away bears and annoy people that hike alongside you. As we walked, jingling and constantly on the lookout for bears, Jess and Jordan gradually opened up to conversation, although I've got a sneaking suspicion they were using us for our mace, should we need it.

Eventually, we returned to our starting point. Add two more miles because we would miss the last fairy back and have to go on on foot the rest of the way back to camp. I'm not saying 12-14 miles on top of a day where we already hiked a good three or four makes me an ironman, but I don't hike much and we were pushing it.

Double waterfall.

The snowdrifts in the winter are high enough to allow this: years ago, this poor S.O.B. of a big horn sheep walked onto the roof, fell through a skylight and killed itself. It was thereafter stuffed and has remained in the lobby ever since.

That night, at the advice of my travel guru (hey, that's you Casey), we found the Cattle Baron, a steakhouse that nobody in the area could say enough nice things about. A weird and random trashy little joint, every single server/busboy/employee otherwise could not wait for us to see how good the food was. And they were right. It was delicious. And Danny, the busboy pictured below shared a story of living all over the country because his father was a drug dealer who for years now has been in prison for being caught possessing hundreds of pounds of marijuana. So it goes. Needless to say, he was stoned out of his mind.