Ethan and I spent a lot of time in 2014 thinking about where we wanted to spend our lives after he finished grad school. He was quite certain that Indiana was not the answer, and I was quite certain that I’d follow him wherever he went. I don’t recall how the city of Seattle became a destination of interest to us, but once it popped into our minds, we couldn’t get it out. We were constantly watching travel documentaries set in the northwest and making trips to Barnes and Nobel so we could flip through picture books where Washington state was the subject.
It didn’t take me very long to conspire a road trip scheme. That summer, Ethan had a two-week break between gross anatomy ending and the fall semester beginning. We would be celebrating our first anniversary of marriage. We were 18 and 21, and hungry for adventure. We were totally broke and totally young enough to evade that fact from our minds as we traced interstate lines on a paper atlas.
One Thursday afternoon in August, we packed up our Mazda3 with a tent, sleeping bags, what little hiking gear we owned, a cooler full of lunch meat, and some trail mix, and set off on our 10 day, 5,500 mile trek from Evansville, Indiana to Seattle, Washington and back.
We headed west, passing the St. Louis arch at sunset and riding through Kansas City’s lights near midnight. I’d been the one driving, and by the time I realized I was exhausted, it was too late to find a campsite where we could set up our tent. Instead, I found a Wal-Mart just west of Topeka, and called it quits.
The next morning, it was a first for me to brush my teeth and freshen-up in a supermarket bathroom.
That afternoon, while passing through Colby, Kansas, I concluded, again, in agreement with anyone else who has driven directly through Kansas, that it is the most uneventful piece of land in the United States. I always forget, however, that the east side of Colorado is practically unvaried from the entire state of Kansas. But, wow, once you catch sight of a mountain range in the distance…that’s what keeps you going.
Our “campground” in Colorado Springs wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined it to be. Right in the middle of town, our site sat at the corner of a busy intersection. The ground was made of tiny pebbles, rather than dirt, and fires were prohibited. Traffic was the noise we heard versus the silence of typical campgrounds that we were expecting. We pitched our tent, nonetheless, and eagerly took showers in the facilities there. After settling in, we drove around downtown and ate dinner at Mackenzie’s Chop House. It was declared fancy by us because the lights were dimmed and we were offered wine samples. Who knows if it was a renowned place to dine whatsoever.
After dinner, I wanted to check out Garden of the Gods. It was a tourist attraction that popped up during my research for this trip. I assumed it was a simple garden, perhaps with a butterfly sanctuary, similar to ones we’ve visited throughout cities in Indiana. Today, I would never, ever go anywhere without looking up pictures and reviews first. But back then, I deemed a place worthy to be visited based only on the consideration that it was near where I wanted to be.
Much to our surprise, Garden of the Gods was an astonishment. It’s a 1,367 acre natural national landmark park of red rock formations that will blow your mind. I’m sure my jaw actually dropped as we walked the grounds. I was shocked to find a place like this existed, where we could jump from God-sculpted masterpiece to wondrous beauty with no guardrails holding us back. This was a divine area of open exploration. I felt wild.
Sleep did not come easy for us in our tent on top of pebbles. Still, once morning arrived, we packed up the things we figured we’d need on our planned hike, and set off for the Barr Trail.
With everything that is in me, I do not know what made us think we were anywhere near prepared for a fourteen mile hike up a mountain with a summit of 14,000 ft. Maybe it was just part of being 18 and 21: the whole invincibility belief or whatnot.
The base of the trial begins in Manitou Springs, and my goodness, it does not start slowly. We began gaining elevation immediately by way of switchbacks. It didn’t take me ten minutes to gather that I would not be finishing this trail. But with Ethan ahead of me as my fearless leader, I wasn’t about to voice this thought. He would discover my weakness eventually. We started stopping for water about every fifteen minutes. Within the fist hour, we’d already eaten one of the three meals I’d packed.
Despite my lapsing body, now is when I started to see a side to Ethan I’d never seen before. He hiked up the mountain courageously, never doubting his own ability. As quick as his pace was, he was totally taking in the views, scents, and entirety of what surrounded us. He was at home. This is where he belonged, and my heart ached to stay on this trail with this version of Ethan for as long as I could.
Driving to the summit wound up being the much more realistic option. I’d been to the top of Pike’s Peak before, as a kid. I was around eight years old. I remember not being able to breathe at all. I recall panicking and wanting to go back down. Luckily, by now, I’d aged out of fearing breathlessness. Atop the peak, I truly believe I was willing to faint due to lack of oxygen before I cut my time of looking at the horizon short. I felt real standing in what seemed to be a cloud. This is what it meant to be alive, I thought.
Back at our campsite, since we’d gotten up so early to hit the trails, a nap seemed to be in place. Ethan started snoring seconds after laying down, as usual. I tried to rest, I really did; but I can’t sit still, especially on trips. I woke Ethan, and convinced him to pack everything back into the car so we could keep moving.
I drove us north.
Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest was supposed to be a detour, a break from interstate driving. Again, we were met by a treasure of a destination. Tall, skinny pines lined our route. We drove through dark rocky mountains, passing alpine lakes and snow ledges. I think it was the element of surprise that had us so captivated by our surroundings. I had no idea that this national forest would offer us such wonderment. It was too dark when we were driving to take pictures. I kind of like how we have no photographic reminder of what we saw in Medicine Bow. It keeps it mystical and bewildering in our memories.
It’s an interesting thing to wake up on the side of the road. It feels harmlessly reckless, bold, and venturesome. I remember starting the car that morning with a smile on my face and a freedom in my heart to have nothing on my to-do list for the day other than to drive.
I had high hopes for The Great Salt Lake. Maybe only because of its name and status of the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere. I figured you couldn’t hold that high of a title and not be glorious to some degree.
Unfortunately, we apparently went during a dry time. Lord, it was hot. So much of the lake seemed to be evaporated. The air smelled like mud and salt. The ground was mud and salt. We couldn’t take a step without landing on a crowd of flies. It was just gross. The heat made the air smell so much worse.
In the middle of the lake, there’s this piece of land called Antelope Island. Some animals live there, such as antelope and American bison. It didn’t smell as bad on the island and there was a bit vegetation that almost made us forget how gross the dried up lake was.
I hate to say that a waterfall is ever underwhelming, but that’s just what Shoshone Falls was for us. We’d visited Niagara Falls the summer prior to this one, so I guess we had that expectation in our minds unintentionally. I tried to be awe-inspired. But after a couple minutes of gazing at little water streams on rocks, it became more important to go find a restaurant that would serve me a plate of ribs the size of my body. Perhaps one day we will return.
I was tired of being in the car. I was an amateur in road trip planning; I hadn’t allowed us nearly enough time at each destination to get satisfaction before jumping back in a vehicle. The locations started to blend together and I felt removed from it all despite being in the midst of it.
I started skipping some of the pull-offs I’d originally planned. I just wanted to be somewhere for more than one night. Oh, and sleeping in a bed would be great. Even our tent would be better than sleeping upright in our tiny, unair-conditioned car.
The east side of Washington is very Kansas-esque. This brought me real anger, at the time. I needed mountains and snow and inspiration. Near mid-northern Washington, I realized I was driving next to a river. Eventually, we started traveling upward and that river went up with us, though it flowed down, of course. It flowed so quickly I couldn’t fathom it. It was more the speed of a waterfall.
Mt. Rainier will always remain somewhat of a dream to me. The fog was thick; it was as if we were swimming through the air. The drizzle of rain was constant, not dissimilar to the way Seattle is regularly portrayed. We drove around the park in hopes to catch glimpse of the mountain.
There were signs near our campsite for a natural hot springs trail close by. That sounded amazing to us, so we decided to take it. The trail ran next to the quickly flowing river that we followed up here. It was enthralling to me, horrifying, even. It was the kind of river that you don’t want to be near out of pure fear of falling into it. I believe if I’d even dipped my toe in the water, I’d have been swept miles away before Ethan would have time to notice I was gone. Watching that river gave me the same feeling you have when you dream of falling. Terror. Adrenaline. I loved it.
We’d hilariously brought some random board game from home, and attempted to play it as a way to wind down in our tent. It was then that we realized water was pooling in the corners of the tent. We figured it hopeless to try to waterproof ourselves or stay clear of the water in a place literally named RAINIER. Deciding we had no other options, and being rather tired, we crumpled up our tent and threw it in the nearest dumpster. In the dark, we drove out of the park and headed west, stopping at the first hotel we passed.
We woke up, still exhausted, in our hotel room. Check out was at 11am. Without having set an alarm, we woke up at 10:40am. Right next to the hotel, there was a breakfast diner. I cannot find a hotel or a restaurant on any map near the road I was sure we took to get there. Anyways, inside this place, there were pictures of the supposed Big Foot all over the walls. There was also a wall of personalized coffee mugs designated to the regular customers. One large window in the establishment was dedicated to the viewing of Mt. Rainier, but it was still too foggy for us to see anything.
Traffic in Seattle was unbelievable, but it was ok because there were plenty of things to keep our eyes busy. I couldn’t keep track of how many skyscrapers we passed. Somehow, they made me feel just as alive as stranding on the top of Pike’s Peak had. It was the presence of newness and difference from my considered norm that made me feel, like, really feel.
As I mentioned earlier, we were broke college kids on this trip. We had enough money to put gas in our car, replenish our supply of lunch meat and peanuts, and pay for a couple of campsites or hotels along the way. We could afford to walk by the art installments and city museums throughout Seattle; we could not afford to go to them. Even with the Space Needle: we walked inside the building, bought our souvenir magnet, and kept it moving.
Walking and gazing were the only desires we had, though. Disappointment was not a feeling that came across either of us. We looked at every building we passed and pondered the notion that it was a condo or an apartment, and we would try to guess its cost based on location, views, and estimated size of the inside. We enjoyed not knowing much about this city and this city not knowing much about us. We were anonymous. We were new and everything to us was new. I mean, we were on vacation, so this “free” element that was present at the time likely wouldn’t have been permanent, but hey, we were 18 and 21. We were in a dreamland and no one was about to pull us out of it.
We walked down the streets for hours. We could’ve walked and talked the entire night. We saw fire dancers performing on the roads and found an unbeatable view of the city from Gas Works Park.
I talked Ethan into having breakfast at a cute coffee shop called Citizen the next morning. I ordered a coffee that I hated and a goat cheese crêpe that I wasn’t very into either. But, I was in Seattle and I wasn’t about to not be a hipster while I was there.
On our second day in the city, We went to Pike Place Market to buy some snacks. People sold anything consumable from fish to peanuts to peaches to brownies. It was amazing.
Continuing west, we visited Discovery Park. Wild berries lined the trail that took us from the parking lot to the lighthouse. I’d read in my research that Seattle’s wild berries are safe to eat, and to prove this fact to Ethan, I ate several.
Ethan and I think back on Discovery Park often and with fondness. We learned a lot about each other’s ability to explore a new place. Ethan interacts with the things he sees. He was stabbing anemones and trying to catch the tiny crabs that crawled near us. I observe and take more mental notes than I can ever remember. I take in scenes, physically. It’s difficult to explain. It’s like I try to take a full-body picture of how a certain location makes me feel. That’s what I want to remember when I go places: the feelings I had there.
Who knows what it was that made Sequim, Washington so special to us. It was a simple little town with a few restaurants and businesses. It bordered the water between Washington and British Columbia, but it was far too foggy to see more than a few feet out into the water. I suppose that made us feel like we were on the edge of the world, and I suppose that gave us more of the wild, free, and adventurous feelings that we were searching for. Also, we ate at the best calamari of our lives at Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim.
By this day, I don’t even know if I was still putting on makeup or brushing my hair. We drove into Olympic National Park, but again, weren’t quite prepared enough to hike much of the area.
The entire purpose of going to Olympic Park was to visit the Hoh Rainforest. But once we reached the entrance to that part of the park, we learned that there would be another entrance fee, on top of what we’d already paid to get into Olympic, probably something around $25. Then, that amount of money stopped us from entering, which is hilarious, looking back. We’d driven across the country to see something, now here we were, mere feet from seeing it, and $25 kept us out? Ugh. Stupid 18 and 21 year-olds.
The Pacific Ocean is different from the Atlantic, even if only as a feeling. It’s mysterious, and that draws me into it with a curiousity I cannot control. It was 55 degrees outside, but I was at the ocean, and I’ll be damned if I don’t take every opportunity I ever have to jump in the ocean. Ethan stayed about 50 yards back from the water, watching me as I ran straight into a wave, screaming. The water was brutal and merciless. The rugged stacks of rocks that sat hundreds of yards in the distance begged to be conquered. I’m sure they’re rarely touched by humankind. I could’ve stayed our entire trip on this one beach. It hurt to leave.
This trip taught us a lot about ourselves. I learned that I don’t need vacations; I need adventures. I don’t need to relax; I need to expand. I must have a screw loose or something to believe that it’s ok to pee in cups in the backseat of a car or to sleep on the side of the road or to brush my teeth while driving down the interstate. Or maybe I just like the stories that those actions conceive.
I discovered the way to quench this thirst inside myself that I’d never even identified before, but so much more importantly, I discovered the person I married. It’s so impossible to think I’d been with someone for six years and I’d never seen him how I did on the mountains of Colorado or on the coast of Washington. I had never seen the best side of him.
We were both so present in these moments. We were exploring and growing and deepening the fields of our minds in a way that we had never done together. It was simple and complex and graspable and obscure all at the same time. I knew we had to go back to Indiana, but I knew we wouldn’t be returning as the same people who left. And I knew we wouldn’t be there forever.
Liv – Authentically