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Crown of the Continent

In the northern part of Montana hugging the Canadian border lies Glacier National Park.  The park actually has a Canadian counterpart, and together they form Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park — a Northern Rockies gem.  I have wanted to hike here for years under encouragement of my friend Hayley whose parents live in nearby Kalispell.  Hayley’s engagement party was the perfect excuse to start an extended stay in the area.

I visited various parts of the park, some more touristy than others, and while everyone should (and will) visit the Going to the Sun Road, I was directed to the East side of the park by Hayley’s mom (and Glacier Park expert) Velinda for the prize hikes in the park.  The longest and most beautiful hike I did was a double header totaling a breathtaking 16 miles.  The trail I took — Iceberg lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel — takes the hiker along Glacial valleys, lakes, alpine meadows, and wildlife habitat home to Grizzly bears, Moose, Bald Eagles, Black Bear, Rocky Mountain Goats, Bighorn sheep, you name it.  I did the hike in brand new shoes, resulting in my feet being out of commission for two weeks due to heavy blistering on my heels, making me wish I ‘had’ worn my Vibram five Fingers instead…

One of my more precious memories was paddling with the SUP board on Lake St. Mary following two Bald Eagles around, and later watching a large Black bear feed on some shrubs.  Surrounded by this majestic landscape and wildlife it is hard not feel humbled and fortunate.  There’s a gorgeous French film from the eighties with fantastic cinematography that was filmed in this area: L’Ours, or “The Bear”.  Check it out.   “The Crown of The Continent” moniker comes from the fact that Glacier feeds three major North American watersheds: The Columbia, The Missouri/Mississippi, and the Saskatchewan thereby contributing water to The Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Hudson Bay.

Lewis and Clark

When traveling through the Oregon-Idaho-Montana corridor I believe it is imperative one reads at least part of the Lewis and Clark journals.  This expedition — brainchild of Thomas Jefferson and executed by the two dapper captains — is one of the great American Tales.  Mr. Bielicki, my high school history teacher,  told our class the stories of the wilderness and Sacajawea with such enthusiasm as if he were there himself, and I was always curious to see this part of the country for myself.

Finding the right book isn’t easy as there are many abbreviated and interpreted versions of the journals.  I ended up getting the Bernard DeVoto edited version written in the fifties.  This edition does not include the entire journals, but close enough to feel as if you are along for the expedition on a day by day account.  Devoto garnered some respect as evidenced by a patch of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area bearing his name.  L&C’s chronicles are impressive, hilarious, and quite accessible even in the original writing.  With some regularity there are encounters with Native Americans, Grizzly Bears, and other interesting features.  They really didn’t have many dull moments.  The men, in particular Clark were  misspellers of fantastical proportions finding seemingly endless ways to spell thing like “Seouex”, Sacajawea or “brackfast” etc. etc. and proving you don’t have to know how to spell to write a great work.  Pick up a copy for yourself when you travel their path.

Along the Oregon trail and through Hell’s Canyon

Heading out of Hood River was heartbreaking.  The wind was cranking, my friends were staying for a good while longer, and when I shipped my kite gear to Florida, a tear may have started to form in my eye.  On my final day, Curt and I constructed a roof rack for my honey bee (new moniker for the bus). Felix came by and offered a software coder’s point of view on the subject, and between the three of us (i.e me) the job turned out road- and bus-worthy.  The total sum for the materials (one 2 by 4 and four eyebolts, two beers) was less than $10 and the project was completed in one afternoon.  That included picking up my new Stand Up Paddle (SUP) board that the rack was built for.  We ended up going out for my send-off in town enjoying some of Oregon’s finest live Bluegrass.  When we stared out the window of the bar about 2am, we realized the trees were moving…hmm it’s windy.  May have to do a little final session!  On borrowed gear and under the cover of darkness (new moon)  We proceeded to kite out of the familiar event site, and managed to return to shore without injury or death.

I set out the next day with four hours of sleep and drove straight to Hells Canyon where the Snake river North and eventually joins the Columbia.  It is dammed in several spots and provides power for both Idaho and Oregon.  I took advantage of the smooth water between the Oxbow and Hells Canyon Dams to go for a paddle with my new toy, going for swims, watching the fish jump, and taking in the view.  Further down past the Hells Canyon Dam, the river is left to run its course, and the resulting rapids draws kayakers, river rafters, and they even run a jet boat for part of the river.  I did a short hike along the river , and swam in some of the milder currents.  I made a note to come back for the spring melt some time and float down the rapids — seems like it would be fun…

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Hood River

Ah, at last, the promised land of milk and honey, complex IPAs, and Elysian winds.  I had been trying to reach this place the entire summer, and by beginning of August finally achieved my goal.  Summer in Hood River is pure bliss with warm days, cool nights, and a beautiful strong breeze blowing most days.  There are lots of outdoors activities to partake in:  The Dirty Fingers Bicycle Repair Shop Thursday group ride (with free keg of quality brew after), kiting off the sandbar with your friends, or paddling around on a SUP board — the fun just doesn’t stop.  I have to admit I didn’t take all that many photos, as I was too busy doing other things…

There is also a whole sub-culture of van dwellers, and I have to thank my friend Tanya for showing me the ropes of the lifestyle when I first arrived.  On several occasions locals told me they first arrived in HR in their windsurf or kite van and never ended up leaving…Let’s see if I make it out 🙂

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California Gold

Some final preparations over Fourth of July weekend had me ready to hit the road at last.  I set out northbound on PCH, hoping to catch some wind along the way.  I didn’t find too much wind to kite with, but a steady headwind seemed to be there cutting down the gas mileage of my breadbox to below 18 mpg.  I visited friends in the Pismo/SLO area and continued on, taking my time, but trying to reach San Francisco with some expedience.  Four days later I arrived in this marvelous city, and got to enjoy all the bay area has to offer for a wondering, wind-loving hobo.  Lots of time with friends, good coffee, heaps of wind, and a thorough check-up of the local green tech scene.  It was neat living on the Haight (in a bus man!) and cruising around the Castro, Berkeley, Panhandle…So many places to explore! I never thought it before, but this is a place I could end up living!

Here is a drawing one talented fellow made of the scene near my friend Tony’s house at Buena Vista Park: 

I continued on and met my friend Chris at Sherman Island, a kite spot everybody said I should check out on the Sacramento River Delta.  Sherman did not disappoint.  Chris and I ended up spending a week there with the wind building from steady to nuking through the week.  I was also dog sitting Kodai for this week, and it felt like a blessing to get to spend some more precious time with my old friend (14.5 years old).

I continued on, and spent some amazing days among the Redwoods vibing in with these magnificent trees, the tall ones standing near 400 ft tall, and up to 600 years old.  I visited both Humboldt Redwoods State Park along HWy 101 and Redwood NP near the Oregon border.  Both parks are spectacular, with the latter being more humid and oceanic, and therefore having more undergrowth etc.  I enjoyed some great mountain biking in both parks.  In Redwood NP, I nearly ran over a black bear on a downhill run, and stopped to watch him scamper up a large redwood.  Those guys can climb!  In seconds he was 30 feet up.  Do not try to climb a tree to get away from a bear.  Bribe them with Huckleberry pie instead…

Continuing on I visited several spots on the Oregon coast, but for some reason didn’t take much photos (though kited several spots).  One of the spectacular spots where I did not spend enough time was Pistol River — I vow to return.

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Back to the US!

Remember Kevin and Kristine‘s rig?  This gem made a lasting memory, and when I knew I was homebound somewhere in February I started researching getting my own rig like it.

The concept seemed reasonable: so as not to shock myself with immediate reintegration into Western society I would get one of these and hobo around some more, and finally do the road trip to Southern Utah and other gorgeous scenery in the Western US I always wanted to do, but never had time (damn you successful career).  It eventually could serve as a most excellent Baja mobile as well.  Such was the concept, and I started researching from the Far East, so I would hit the ground well-prepared when returning to SoCal.

The choices of VW Campers seemed abundant in the Southern California area when I was investigating from the Philippines, but by the time I got to LA, pickings were slim.  I ended up buying a pretty beat up bus from a young guy who didn’t seem to know more about cars than to put gas in them and turn the key, but, hey, I found  a running bus albeit with a minor oil leak.

Of course, where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there’s a minor oil leak, there can be a massive oil leak.  The story is long, but the engine was blown, the transmission was whining, and I was pretty much ready to douse her in some gasoline and bid her adieu.  The exit strategies were limited though, and the cheerful plaid interior and commingled layers of orange paint on her dented exterior would melt even the staunchest car-hater’s heart.  So, with moral and facility support of my good friends Dan, Holden, Jason, Karen, Chase, Peter,… I set out to fix her up and now have a reliable classic to show for it.  I stil went ahead and got the AAA Platinum membership, just in case 😉

One of the key features installed:

Boracay — kite paradise

Boy, the heat and dust of Cambodia really wore me down, and the longing for smooth winds and tropical waters was unbearable.  A name of a kite spot in the Philippines had come up several times, and when my British kite crew from Mui Ne said they were going there next, I decided I would check it out as well and commence the Pacific island hop back home to California.

Boracay is somewhat buried in the Philippine islands.  From Manila it’s an airplane, bus, and ferry ride away, but once you get there you don’t really need to move.  I ended up accosting a fellow kiteboarder in the terminal at Kalibo international, and we hitched a ride together to the ferry spot in Caticlan.  The ferry over to the cay is a hoot — riding in wooden trimarans with bamboo outriggers.  The ratty lifejacket everyone is handed when boarding made me think of the steady flow of deadly  ferry accidents in this part of the world (2009 , 2008, …).  The crossing is not very long though, and possibly swimmable 🙂  On Boracay, I ended up staying at the same place where my fellow kiter Birgit and her sister had reservations (I don’t do reservations) — Surfer’s Home on Bulabog beach about 20 meters form the water.  The next morning waking up in my new digs, I couldn’t help but be ecstatic.  The wind was cranking, the sun bright, and kiters were slicing through gorgeous blue water.  Time to pump up!

Boracay has an interesting split personality for an island.  The east side of this skinny cay has a coral-reef-protected beach called Bulabog.  It is a kitespot and offers nothing for the typical beach goer — the beach is narrow, and the wind is strong.  The west side of the island sports White Sands beach, and as the name implies it has a gorgeous, broad white sand beach of postcard quality, but it also sports a tourist as grave as you can imagine with even an air-conditioned Starbucks on the sand beach path.  There are also lots of clubs with DJs suffering from AVCD (Asian Volume Control Disorder).  This disease is serious, and I noticed it in all SE Asian countries I visited where evidently people don’t realize there are volume gradations between ‘1’ and ’11’.  Anyway, White Sands Beach is a must-do for a sunset cocktail, but I only ventured over there a handful of times during my three-week stay.

The diurnal wind pattern is somewhat unusual in Boracay: it’s windy in the morning, dies down around noon, and then picks up again in the afternoon.  Being a morning person, this pattern suited me fine, and accommodated a mid-day nap and afternoon/sunset session — Paradise indeed.  Besides making pals with Birgit, we ended up having a fun and very international crew to kite and party with.  I also finally ended got to do a full-moon session — awesome fun and an adrenaline rush to be sure.

Back to Saigon

It seemed a little ironic, but the cheapest way for me to get from Phnom Penh to the Philippines was back through Saigon.  Vietnam would also be the easiest place to sell my beloved Minsk, as the market for a smokey two-stroke is limited in Phnom Penh…I had kind of a fun time cruising around  the city, getting some errands done and hanging out on the đường Bùi Viện or Bui Vien street — a backpacker street with lots of hustle and bustle to observe while sipping a cold Tiger beer.  Cold was key here because the heat in late February was no joke.

Besides selling the Minsk one of my top priorities was acquiring an authentic car horn for my future car project when back in the US.  There is a veritable plethora of horn sounds in Vietnam, but I had a specific one in mind that I particularly enjoy — it goes sort of: Bow-wow-wow-wow-wow-ow (fading in volume).  I found the perfect one after going to several stores and audio testing them — unthinkable in the US, but the sales person gladly hooks them up really quickly to blast the neighborhood.  I ended up spending a hefty 600,000 VND (negotiated down only 50,000 VND) or ~$30 for my Dasearon Magic Digital Horn, but I had buyer’s satisfaction for sure:

The other purchase I needed to make was a golf bag for all my kite gear.  The one I originally bought in the US had given up the ghost somewhere around Mui Ne, so I went on a quest with the Minsk.  I located some golf stores on the outskirts of town, but spending $150 on a golfbag in Vietnam (that’s 3 Million Dong!) seemed ludicrous.  On my horn hunt I noticed some vinyl awning shops, so with the help of Google Translate, a friendly Vietnamese girl who spoke some English, and my isometric drawing skills, I commissioned a bag to be made.  The lady of the house was very friendly, and thought it was cute I was trying to talk her down on the price, and she pinched my cheak and smiled as she agreed to 800,000 VND ($40) to make my bag (one day turn around time).  The end result was great, though I had designed the bag too large — it could have fit about three people’s worth of kite gear!  Oh well — my flight was leaving that night, and too big is better than too small…

I was able to sell the Minsk handily for $300 — $50 more than I had paid, but I did put new tires and overhauled the wheel bearings on it.  Not a bad deal — my little Minsk had served me well for 3000km of riding!

For the rest I got out fine.  My cab driver hit a couple on a moped on the way to the airport, and got a flat tire as we pulled up to the terminal, but, hey, that’s just a regular day in Saigon.

So Long Viet Nam — thank you for your unparalleled hospitality!

Here are some photos I took on a full moon night on Bui Vien

Musings on riding through Cambodia

Cambodia is mostly hot and flat.  Riding on my vintage, two-stroke, Soviet monster for hundreds of kilometers on end was less enjoyable than some of the other riding I had enjoyed in the region, and that is when Dylan proposed we go back to Phnom Penh via pickup I readily agreed.  No shenanigans though, that was my only requirement.  “Let’s pay a premium, so we get a truck all to ourselves”, I said.  We agreed and found a guy who worked at our hotel (or at least hung out at our hotel) to arrange a truck.  The very beat-up toyota showed about two hours late and a gang of Cambodians proceeded to lash our bikes on the bed.  The truck was pretty cramped, but what the heck — we’d make it for the 300 km drive that would hopefully take around 4 hours.  Our main aim was to be in Phnom Penh before sunset mostly for safety concerns brought on by some stories Dylan had heard in Thailand…something to the effect of “lots of AK 47’s still floating around”…

That didn’t end up working out.  We proceeded to cruise around Siem Reap for the remainder of the day loading more stuff onto the pickup truck including enough lumber to build a house, various pieces of  heavy machinery, an ice cream merchant’s cart (he was evidently seeking better opportunities in the capital), and a young Cambodian mother with a few of her kids. Initially I had grabbed the passenger front seat, and Dylan had the bench seat –well the seat was actually missing, but that general area at least.  Alas, this was not to last.  The driver explained in his best English that normally he gets three to four Cambodians in the backseat alone, and we hadn’t paid that much, so both of us needed to fit in the bench seat (general area).  We grudginly cooperated.  I tried to raise a stink, but that was going nowhere, and our bikes were firmly committed and underneath a metric ton of junk.  Oh well — here we go.  Two more guys squeezed in the front seat bringing the total number of passengers to about ten, and right at dusk we set of for Phnom Penh.

The ride went smoothly enough except for early on a near collision with a pedestrian. I had visions of the young mother and her offspring seated on top of the pile of junk to come flying over the front of the car during the resulting swerve at 80 km/hr.  During our first food break, the driver explained he only drove at night to avoid the police.  I guess there was after all something illegal about his rig, and there are less bribes to pay after dark.  We did make several stops in seemingly random places just to hand some cash to a police “officer” standing by the side of the road.  Our final bribe we paid as we rolled into Phnom Penh around 3 am collected by a young boy working for the police officer standing by the side of the road.  I learned during the trip that about half of what we paid to travel had actually been commission to our truck broker, and between the gasoline and the bribes, I guess the truck guy runs his business on a tight margin.

It was kinda neat rambling along the Cambodian countryside at night in slight physical discomfort, paying off cops, glimpsing into the Cambodian households lit up by the family’s solitary CFL bulb, and eating the truckstop food.  Both Dylan and I were a little apprehensive the whole time about being robbed by our friendly transporter, but in the end we got to sigh in relief when we got back on our familiar bikes near the Psar Thmey Market.

Angkor Wat

The main draw for Cambodia tourists is the Angkor Wat temple complex.   The complex is huge and covers more area than the nearby town of Siem Reap.  It’s impossible to do it all in a day, but that didn’t stop Dylan and I from trying.  The more recommended route would be to take a three or four day pass, and take a day off halfway through.  The whole experience can be a little overwhelming, and after touring for a few hours it is easy to become “templed out”.

That said, it is an amazing place and a must-see when touring SE Asia.  Dylan and I did a pretty good job beating the tourist, starting our visit the first day by visiting Ta Prohm at sunset, right before the park closes.  The following day we did a marathon run broken up by a nap in the heat of the day.  The place is photogenic beyond words, and it’s certainly not difficult to take a postcard photograph.

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