When my friends and family realized I was, in fact, serious about making a series of road trips between LA and my new home in southwest Washington, I was offered much well-meaning (and not unwelcome) advice.
Stop every two hours, don’t drive in the fog, watch where you park, be careful through the Siskyous.
By late spring, I’d logged six separate trips, rolled over 5500 miles on two cars, and had my system down to a science.
Preparing for my road trips was no less difficult than preparing for a trip to India. Packing my car was like playing Jenga in reverse. I started every trip with healthy snacks — apples, nuts, kale chips — and a thoughtfully-curated playlist of Radiohead, Sirius’ The Bridge, and NPR. By day three it was chicken nuggets, potato chips and Sirius Raw Dawg comedy.
Best dining experience after 400 miles of highway.
And while 900 miles behind the wheel puts a body in great discomfort — no matter how often you stop to stretch — the space in which to dream, muse and meditate is limited only by your choice of road. You don’t have to go to India to discover something you’ve never seen (though I still encourage you to do so).
Have YOU ever seen a mylar wallpaper version of Robert Bly’s “Love Poem,” with a typo, in a gas station bathroom in Medford?
In the tail of winter, I made my second solo trip north, stopping to stay overnight in Ashland, Oregon.
Ashland Springs Hotel
Famous for its renowned Shakespeare Festival, and its more enticing Oregon CHOCOLATE Festival, Ashland epitomizes road trip nirvana — and quite possibly actual nirvana as well. Home to a thriving spiritual community, you can find no less than three Buddhist meditation centers in town, including the base camp for the Tashi Choling temple, which is nestled in the hills 30 minutes south of Ashland.
My moment of Zen occurred over a plate of fried oysters and a flute (or two) of bubbles at Larks restaurant, but I hope my future road trips will allow me to spend more meditative time in this little Shangri-la in the Rogue Valley of Oregon.
After a few winter months in Washington, I made a return trip to L.A. in April as the weather warmed.
Traveling down the I-5 in Oregon, I made an impulsive exit in Eugene onto OR 58, the Willamette Highway, which runs along the Middle Fork Willamette River. I whipped a U-turn when I caught sight of a broad, earthen dam spanning the river on the east side of the highway.
This was one of those “do I or don’t I?” moments you have when traveling alone.
Do I park my car by the side of the road, walk down a rickety metal stair, across a railroad track, up another rickety stair and a half mile across a windy and desolate earthen wall, just to get a picture?
Lookout Point Reservoir
Of course, it’s more than a picture. It’s feeling the power of solitude, the wind, and the earth holding back floods from waters sourced at the distant Diamond Peak. Still, I kept my pepper spray on hand and jogged pretty quickly back to the car.
This unplanned side trip also led me to one of the prettiest rest stops in the west, at Salmon Creek in Oakridge, OR.
Salmon Creek rest stop
I skirted the east side of Crater Lake, down US 97 for a meal and bed in Klamath Falls, a lumber boom town founded in 1867.
While the town has abundant examples of well-preserved period buildings (and some pretty good Chinese food), the eponymous “falls” are nowhere to be seen, apparently covered by a dam on the Link River. However, just north of the town you will find Upper Klamath Lake, a 25 mile long marvel of nature (the largest freshwater lake in Oregon) that induced a gasp followed by many sighs.
A National Park that gets overshadowed by its showier volcanic sisters, Crater Lake and Lassen Peak, it was one of the most quietly stunning places I’ve visited (sometimes in that “too quiet” kind of way).
Entering through the park’s “back door,” Hill Road off of CA-161, I was first stopped by the breathless sight of Tule Lake — or more accurately, the hundreds of geese and ducks bobbing on its surface.
There was an equal amount of flying insects, at least near the water, so I drove into the park to explore the black fields of basalt, “Fleener Chimneys,” and ominous spatter cones, evidence of the tumultuous activity of the ancient Medicine Lake Volcano (California’s largest). My only company was a pair of frisky pronghorn antelope; the only sounds, a high, sweet birdsong and the wind through the desert scrub.
The park is popular with cavers, with 25 lava tube caves available for exploration, but I limited myself to the one lighted cave near the visitor center.
I asked the Park Ranger for advice on my exit route and he recommended that, rather than backtrack to the I-5, I take the south road out of the park. That way I could see Burney Falls, one of the most voluminous cascades in the west. Never one to pass up a waterfall (or ignore the advice of a Park Ranger), I traveled Medicine Lake Road and Highway 89 through the desolate and lonely Modoc National Forest to finally arrive in the afternoon at McArthur-Burney Memorial State Park.
Fed by underground springs as well as Burney Creek, the falls have a lacey cascade that spills over and out of rock walls into a deep, teal pool before flowing downstream into Lake Britton.
After an overnight stay with brother Tom in San Jose, I decided to forego my usual 101 south route into LA and take the I-5 so I could make a stop at the California Poppy Preserve, as it was around peak time of its annual bloom.
While the intensity of the poppy display varies from year to year, the park is always worth visiting to witness the miracle of delicately beautiful wildflowers thriving in the extremes of desert wind and sun.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel to some exotic countries and enticing cities, but I’ve found that some of the most transformative beauty really is in our own vast back yard.
My journeys through the Pacific states I call home have given me a new appreciation for our state and national parks systems.
Visit them, support them, take care of them.
Next week, I wrap up my Tri-state road-trip journals with a couple of coastal cruises, some memorable beach hikes, and a visit to the “Green Triangle.”