This story appears in my first book, A Casual Traveler
The Way Back
Usually, going somewhere is more fun than coming back. Whenever I plan a trip I try to take that into account. I don’t know how everyone else feels, but I hate covering the same ground twice. I’d much rather make a loop and go out of my way, than drive down the same road more than once. Unless something is worth seeing again, from a different perspective.
Cathryn and I had a great ride getting to Vancouver, but I knew I had my work cut out for me, trying to find an eventful and scenic way back home. The whole idea of the trip was to cover new ground, since both of us had been out west before. Seattle came to mind. Although I’d been there twice, I never had time to see more than a few token attractions on the waterfront.
I loved what I’d seen in the city before, and I knew it had a lot more to offer. Cathryn had not been there. From Surrey, my sister and her boyfriend suggested taking the truck route south, across the border to the states. Seattle was only a couple hours from their home, depending on traffic at the border and on the highway.
On Tuesday, July 19th, we crossed back into the states of Washington. Our Nexus cards made the border a breeze, and we enjoyed about thirty miles of quiet roads, before being dumped on Interstate 5 South. I’d called ahead to our hotel for an early check-in, figuring we’d arrive around noon.
Merging to the right, put us on Highway 99, which parallels the Interstate, and is an express route to downtown Seattle. Our motel was right on the highway, and it soon showed up on the GPS. Sometimes the machines are a pain in the ass—this was one of those times. There was a cement barrier down the middle of the highway, leaving us no access to the opposite side of the road where our motel was.
Cathryn got a bird’s eye view of downtown from the elevated highway, because I couldn’t turn around for a couple of miles. Turn’s out there was a way to do it earlier, but it was cleverly hidden under the highway. Live and learn. Checking in at the Marco Polo Motel was a hoot. The Chinese owner/operator should have been a comedian, kind of an Asian Gary Shandling.
The man loudly repeated everything I said, and even though I’d called ahead and was promised an early check-in, our room wasn’t ready. He yelled at another Chinese man to get it ready. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I’d made arrangements to meet an old friend downtown for lunch, at 1:30. It was noon.
After showering and changing clothes, I asked the manager if he could call us a cab. He suggested Uber. I got frustrated fiddling around and trying to download the app. I asked him again for a taxi.
He said one would be there in ten minutes. After waiting twenty, I went back into the office to ask him if he could check on our cab. He was on the phone with someone who called to reserve a room. He yelled back to them, telling the caller it was first come, first served. He repeated that at least three times without taking a breath. He nodded yes and waved me back out the door.
When the cab finally pulled up, Chinese Gary came out into the lot. He held the phone to his ear and yelled at someone from the cab company. We laughed and waved, and went on our way. Even with the delays, we walked into the restaurant right on time. My friend was impressed at how we drove across the whole country and managed to be so punctual.
Sipping in Seattle
Taking a cab downtown was part of the master plan. I didn’t want the bother of looking for parking, and more importantly, not to worry about drinking and driving. We planned to do more of the former and none of the latter. After lunching and catching up with my friend, Donna, we headed for the waterfront. It wasn’t hard to find, we just had to walk downhill.
The steep street we walked could rival any in San Francisco. Obviously, they don’t get snow and ice like we do. At the bottom of the hill we walked into the northern end of Pike’s Place, the public market on the downtown waterfront. The place is world-famous, known for the seafood stall where the guys throw fresh fish over the counter and through the air, when someone places an order.
The market area is also home to the original Starbuck’s coffee shop. The mob of tourists jockeying for position out front made me think they were giving away the stuff for free, but I knew better. I love the flower stalls on the street and inside the market—the vivid colors and floral scents draws your eyes and nose. The fruit stands are a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors.
To get away from the crowded main isle in the market, I took Cathryn downstairs, where a maze of narrow hallways lead to unique little shops and stalls. Unfortunately, the Pike Brewery was closed for a private party, and we weren’t invited. There are a few great restaurants on the second floor that offer a view of the bay, but we were looking for something else.
Seeing the Brewery closed made us thirsty, so went across the street to an Irish Pub. We weren’t hungry enough for a sit down lunch, but we wanted to sample the double-smoked salmon that Cathryn bought at the market. She was afraid to ask the bartender for a plate and knife, but once he saw our snack he got excited and said he’d been hoping to buy some for himself.
Sharing our treat with him not only got us utensils, he conveniently forgot to charge us for a round of beers. Sharing, and making new friends always pays off. From the pub, we headed back to the waterfront. Cutting through the market, we walked through Gum Alley, where thousands of wads of chewing gum have been stuck to the walls on both sides. The colourful gumfiti walls looked like a candy machine had blown up there. The air smelled of mint.
The wharf and boardwalk had a carnival atmosphere, stretching from the Aquarium to the giant Ferris Wheel. A large fountain seemed to be a gathering spot for passengers who waited for the sightseeing cruises that toured the harbour. The crowds and scorching heat drove us indoors at Red Robin, where we sampled a couple more craft beers, and succumbed to the temptation of their smaller version of the onion ring tower.
Cathryn and I made a joint decision that sampling food and drinks would be our mission for the evening, so I asked the bartender where we could find the type of action we were seeking. She answered with my favourite line, “I don’t know, I’m not from here.” A friendly waitress overheard the conversation and pointed us in the right direction.
It was only one block uphill, to First Avenue and the Triangle Pub, which is in a building of the same geometric shape. I ordered a couple beers at the tiny bar inside, but it was like standing in a blast furnace. We found standing room on the patio, which was much cooler and twice the size of the bar. The place was bustling with baseball fans, the Mariners were playing at home, just a few blocks away.
Trying to learn a bit of history, I asked one of the locals how old the bar was. Another guy got in the conversation, which turned into a debate over which Seattle bar was the oldest. I looked at Cathryn and we both smiled. Our itinerary was set for the night.
Working our way down First Avenue, we found the J & M and Central bars, two that call themselves the oldest. The latter had a sign out front that said 1892. That’s old. We tried both places, having some awesome wings at J & M. There was a German place a few doors down where we enjoyed a warm pretzel on the patio, and listened to a street musician pluck away, playing the blues on his guitar.
Wandering further uptown, near the Seahawks football stadium, we found a brewpub called Elysian Fields. The one hundred and twenty foot granite-top bar, and row of shiny beer taps was a perfect place to sample some more of Seattle’s goodies. I could never name all the other places we tried, but somehow we ended up back at the J & M for a nightcap, a little dancing to the live band, and one more order of crispy wings for the road.
Although I think we visited more bars in one night than most locals would in a year, we had a great experience in downtown Seattle. I’m sure things are normally quieter on a Tuesday night, when there’s no ball game, but the city welcomed us with open arms, and delivered us a fun time.
Navigating the old fashioned way, using a map, I was a bit confused driving west out of Seattle. The Interstate offered pristine lake views, with fancy villas planted on the hillsides. I 90 was a necessity to get out of the city, then I found the smaller roads I wanted to get to State Road 410, marked a scenic route. Those last two words were an understatement.
I knew the route would take us through some wilderness areas and Mount Rainier National Park, but I overlooked the fact that we’d travel through the Cayuse Pass, at almost five thousand feet above sea level. The big blue sky and a few puffy clouds were the backdrop for Washington’s tallest mountain. We felt the drop in temperature in the pass, and stopped along the road so Cathryn could make snowballs in a huge drift.
The steeply banked and curvy roads, with switchbacks, were a little unnerving, but they made for an amazing morning ride. A biker’s and traveler’s dream come true. The remainder of the afternoon was divided up on I 82 and US 12, to Walla Walla, where we called it a day.
If anyone reading this has ever heard of Walla Walla, in the state of Washington, give yourself a pat on the back. A biker from California who stayed in the room next to us said he’d heard of the area being famous for its onions. We were surprised to see miles and miles of grape vines coming into town, and then fancy winery/restaurants downtown. You learn something new every day when you travel.
Lewis & Clark
On July 21st, we continued east on US 12, finding ourselves immersed in gentle hills that were covered with golden fields, as far as the eye could see. The engulfing baby blue sky and shimmering wheat were only interrupted by the ribbon of road that we were on. When we stopped to take a few pictures, I told Cathryn to listen for a moment. The silence was deafening.
Upon crossing the Washington/Idaho border, we drove through the towns of Clarkston and Lewiston, each on their own side of the Snake River. The towns were named after the famous explorers, US 12 follows part of their overland route. I thought about their exploits, while comfortably cruising on my iron horse at sixty mile per hour. I had a hard time imagining such an undertaking—exploring the great unknown by animal or canoe or foot, with no maps or GPS. Mind boggling.
Heading east along 12, the explorers’ scenic route took us through the upper part of Idaho, along winding riverbed roads. The day was hot. We stopped in a town called Orofino, and instead of eating fast food, we chose a sit down Mexican restaurant. We were the only white people in the restaurant, and in the whole town for that matter. The food was delicious and the decor was wild. The walls and ceilings were painted bright red. The wood tables and chairs were carved with Mexican scenes, then painted in every bright color imaginable. It was a cross between eclectic and gaudy.
The afternoon sun was relentless, but the road narrowed in spots along the riverbed, allowing intermittent shade from huge tree canopies. We followed the same river for about two hundred miles, to the Montana border. I can’t remember ever traveling along the any one river’s banks for so long.
The Lochsa River ended in the mountains, below Lolo Pass. The ride was a nice finish to the day, but in our opinion, not even close to the Mount Rainier pass in Washington. Other bikers we’d met on the road had bragged Lolo up to us, so maybe we were expecting too much. Just another windy, curvy, scenic mountain pass.
Approaching Missoula, we rode along another river. This one was littered with people floating downstream on inner tubes and air mattresses—a cool way to beat the heat. We stayed in town for the night and ate a casino/restaurant across from our motel. It seems that every state has casinos now.
Faithful to Yellowstone
From Missoula, Montana, we did a half-day jaunt to the town of West Yellowstone, which is about thirty minutes from the west gate of the national park. We stayed about fifteen miles out of town, in a shoebox sized cabin on Lake Hebgen. The idea was to be near the park, so we could get an early start and beat the heavy tourist traffic.
I thought the plan worked, until we saw the hoard of vehicles lined up at the gate. Once inside the gate the traffic thinned and dispersed into the wilderness that’s larger than the state’s of Rhode Island and Delaware. About twenty minutes into the park we hit our first traffic jam. It was caused by gawkers who stopped to look at a couple of buffalo that were grazing along-side the road.
Now matter what the park rangers and road signs tell people about stopping on the roadway, every animal sighting warrants a traffic jam. Unfortunately, some tourists treat the park like a huge petting zoo, they try to see how close they can get to the wild animals for that perfect phone picture. According to the local media, a few knot heads have managed to get themselves gored by bison who were protecting their young.
Our first stop was the geyser basin where Old Faithful resides. We were early for her next scheduled eruption, so we walked the boardwalk loop around the other smaller geysers. The colourful, steaming caldrons scar the landscape, leaking nasty chemicals like sulphuric acid. I noted several new fences and warning signs since my last visit. They’re posted to keep stupid people away from the death traps. Apparently more than one idiot thought the pools were hot tubs, they took dips, and were scalded to death.
While we waited for Old Faithful, we were treated to a surprise eruption of the Beehive Geyser. It is irregular, going off once or twice a day. Tourists who were standing nearby admiring it, got a wet surprise. Old Faithful blew her cork on time, but to us, it wasn’t as impressive as the Beehive when it spewed water a hundred feet into the air.
There’s not a straight road in the park. They weave and wind their way through forests that were lush and green, and others that were heavily scarred by past fires. Geysers and caldrons are scattered throughout the geologically unstable area. About half way through the park, we climbed and crossed over the continental divide. It runs down the center of the Rocky Mountains.
The scenery in the park is ever-changing. Just outside the eastern gate, while we climbed and rode one of the ridges on Sleeping Giant Mountain, a buffalo the size of a VW Beetle appeared from the shrubs and entered the roadway near us. The beast startled us and I think we startled him—he paused at the edge of the opposite lane as we cruised by him. Cathryn shrieked something like, “Don’t stop,” but she managed to snap a picture to prove our close encounter.
Previously, I’d only seen buffalo grazing at lower altitudes, in the grass. Apparently the big guy was on a walkabout in the mountains. So much for keeping a hundred yards away from the wildlife. We were almost close enough to see our reflection in his big eyes. Aside from the amazing alpine scenery, it was our highlight of the day.
The Other Bill
I chose Cody, Wyoming as our next stop, after Yellowstone. It is only a couple hours out of the park, and it looked like a good place to get off the bike for a day. It is also the hometown of Buffalo Bill Cody, famous buffalo hunter and founder of the wild west show in his name. The local dam, the town, and museums there are all named in his honour.
Checking in early, we were able to catch up on some laundry, have a swim and take a little cat nap. We were only a ten minute walk from downtown, so we strolled that way to check it out. Wouldn’t you know it? One of the first places we saw was a micro brewery. We stopped and sampled, but weren’t all that impressed with the beer or service.
We walked around the historic downtown, deciding that the bar at The Irma Hotel was the best place to hang out. The place was built by Buffalo Bill, and named after his daughter. It opened in 1902. The collection of photos and memorabilia on the walls is outstanding. The cherry wood used on the bar was a gift to Buffalo Bill from Queen Victoria. Some of the drunken regulars in the bar were as colourful as the hotel’s past.
Our hotel was next door to one of Cody’s western museum’s—there’s a couple that are reportedly top notch, but we’re not really the museum kind of folks. On our second day there, after a leisurely breakfast, we went to the Old Trail Town. It’s a collection of historic old wooden buildings that have been relocated on the site where William Cody first laid out his town. The buildings, furnishings and artifacts are all genuine.
One cabin that was relocated there was used by Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-wall gang. The replica frontier town has a saloon where the gang frequented, a blacksmith’s shop, and stables where vintage wagons and a hearse are on display. A small museum houses various weapons from both the cowboys and the Indians.
On the edge of the old town lies its founder, William (Buffalo Bill) Cody. His grave is there along with others, like Jeremiah Johnson, who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie of the same name. The town is authentic, right down to the tumbleweeds that grow in the dirt street.
A lazy afternoon by the pool finished our day, and we walked back downtown for dinner at The Chophouse. The place was packed and the food excellent.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
In an attempt to linger a while longer in the old west, we chose Buffalo, Wyoming, as our next town to bed down in for the night. I’d been through there once, years prior on a solo bike trip, and knew Cathryn would like the town and it’s Occidental Hotel. It’s another famous landmark and watering hole, where the good: Teddy Roosevelt, William Cody, Phil Sheridan, the bad: Butch, Sundance, Tom Horn, and the ugly: Calamity Jane, hung out at one time or another. One wall still shows bullet holes from the wild west days.
Although the building has undergone restorations during its hundred years of existence, rooms like the saloon and bar and have been meticulously preserved. If you want the celebrity experience, you can stay in hotel rooms where famous people have slept.
The huge wooden and mirrored bar is exquisite, in a room adorned by authentic photos, and overlooked by the mounted trophies of elk, cougar, and buffalo. At some tables you can enjoy a seat that has been previously polished by the butt of a dead president.
Our only negative experience at the Occidental was the bartender, who happened to be the owner’s sister. She was miserable and stressed out—something we couldn’t understand, since there was only a handful of customers in the bar. We chose to move on after a quick beer and bite, in fear of that the woman would have a break down. Unfortunately for us, it was Monday, and we found many other places in town closed for the day.
Another reason we chose Buffalo, was its proximity to the Devil’s Tower National Monument. We planned to take in the unique site on our way east, and home. From Buffalo, it was only a couple hours to the film location used for the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From miles away, we saw the tower thrusting itself up from the baron landscape. It looked unworldly, like it didn’t belong there.
The access road offered views from different angles, and the closer we got, the more detail we saw in the rock. Think of Richard Dreyfuss carving his mashed potatoes. We got a baked by the sun while waiting in line to get into the park, but it was worthwhile. The entrance road weaves half-way around the monument, then gets up close and personal, depositing you in a parking lot at the base.
I would have loved to walk the three kilometre trail around the big hunk of rock, but I was afraid I’d melt in the heat. We enjoyed the view nicely from under a shady tree, with our picnic lunch and a cold beer. Our collapsible cooler was a life saver that day. Having done the tourist thing for the day, we drove east to Spearfish, a town near Sturgis, just over the border of South Dakota. It’s in the same neighbourhood we were in a couple weeks earlier.
Steerfish in Spearfish
The highlight of our stay in Spearfish was a restaurant called, Steerfish Steak and Smoke. Recommended by our motel’s manager, we checked out the menu online. It was a short walk from our place, and a chance for Cathryn to show off her cowboy boots that she’d bought in Cody.
There are some beautiful old buildings in Spearfish, many of which seemed to house cafes or coffee shops. The Steerfish is in an 1893 pink stone building, the Mercantile, that’s been completely restored. Painted wood trim and stained glass windows make the restaurant’s entrance inviting.
I opened the front door for Cathryn and she strutted her stuff, humming Uptown Girl to herself, looking all cute in her short dress and new boots. I love the warmth and look of natural wood—one of the first things I noticed was the shiny hardwood floor. The next thing I noticed was Cathryn going down—first doing the splits, and then gracefully plopping down on her ass.
Like an Olympic gymnast, who knows she just blew her routine, she quickly got to her feet, gave her hair a little toss to the side, and acted like nothing happened. As soon as we got to our table, she excused herself and went to the ladies room to regain her composure. I was still laughing, but the rest of the packed restaurant’s attention had returned to their conversation and dinner . There were no requests for an encore.
Our excellent meal was highlighted by a free round of drinks and dessert from the manager, who had heard about Cathryn’s grand entrance, and was probably concerned about a law suit.
On July 27th, with nothing left on our list of places to see or things to do, we continued east, heading home. The stereo on our bike had crapped out days earlier, so we stopped at the Harley dealership in Rapid City to replace it. They took us in without appointment, drove us to a restaurant for breakfast, and had us back on the road in about two hours. Way better service than the Canadian dealer in Langley B.C., where they made me wait three days to get in, and they didn’t even wash my filthy bike after servicing it. They offered to wash it if I came back the next day.
From Rapid City, we followed the scenic route 44 half way across Dakota, to a place called, Winner. The town was nothing to speak of, but Hotels.com wished us luck in trying to find a place to stay. All the main players were booked. The sky looked like it would explode any minute, and we’d had enough of the road for the day. We found a room at the Warrior Inn.
Ready to eat, we watched the buckets of rain coming down outside. The front desk told us there was no taxi service in the area, and only one descent place to eat nearby. We lucked out when a pizza delivery woman showed up in the lobby. We mooched a ride from her, and I slipped her six bucks for her trouble. She was driving a Cadillac.
The Holiday House was recommended and touted as a sports bar—probably because they had a television behind the bar showing a soccer game. On the way back from the bathroom I asked a woman at the bar how her chicken dinner was. She raved about it, so we both ordered the broasted meal. Amazingly, the salad bar was fresh and well-stocked, and our chicken was delicious. We had to have two cocktails after dinner, while we waited for the rain to stop, and we could walk home.
The next morning found us on US 20, where we finished off Dakota, and crossed the Missouri River into Iowa. The road was as straight as an arrow, all the way to a city called, Fort Dodge. We stayed the night. There was a movie theatre downtown, so we grabbed a big bucket of popcorn and watched the new Jason Bourne movie on a screen slightly larger than the one in our living room.
US 20 became painful the next day. Literally. The road was rough, with potholes and dips, that jarred my back several times. Then for miles the westbound lanes were ripped out, and the road was under construction. As we got closer to the Illinois border, and the Mississippi river, the overcast sky grew darker.
Up ahead of us I saw a grey wall, it was rain. There was no place to take cover, so I stopped on the corner of an intersection where it was still dry. As we suited up we could see that the rain was only a hundred yards away, but it wasn’t moving. Donning our rain suits, we drove into the storm, only to have the rain stop two minutes later.
Things really heated up after that and we were about to peel off, when the sky opened up again. It came down so hard, my glasses fogged up and I couldn’t see where I was going. We were able to take shelter under an old gas station roof, and waited out the storm. At the Mississippi, we took US 52, which skirts the west bank of the mighty river. It’s a very scenic route. Too bad it rained intermittently, obscuring our view.
US 52 crosses the river into Illinois and turns south, the way we wanted to go. A town called Mendota, in Illinois, was where we spent our last night on the road. I was tired of motels and living out or our suitcases by that point. Our hotel was near I 39, our escape route for the morning.
On Saturday, July 30th, after almost a month on the road, we did the final leg of our tour, using the Interstates to get home. I 90 took us through Illinois, and a bit of Indiana, then to I 94 through Michigan to the Ambassador Bridge, and home. 6,620 miles or about 10,000 Kanadian miles. We got home just in time to see my sister Bonnie, from B.C., who was no visiting our family in Windsor.
A few people have inquired about the condition of my butt, after a trip like that. Honestly, it’s all about the seat. The one on my previous bike left me in pain all the time. My current seat finds both Cathryn and I comfortable throughout the day. We averaged six or seven hours per day on the road. Some days more, some less. It helps to stop about every hour and a half to get the kinks out. With age comes more kinks.
Regardless of aches and pains and traffic and weather, we had a blast!
For our blog posts on this trip, check “foodtravelmovies.wordpress.com”