I spent five months deployed: January, February, March, May, and June. It seems like a lot of time when spelled out like that, but for the most part it was easy and went by quickly. I got fully qualified and my aircrew wings. Best of all, though, I got to be in Hawaii for my birthday and I got to go home for a friend’s wedding and for Christmas too! I feel lucky. For all my worrying, things turned out okay.
I went on a trip to Alaska. I saw Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords. Now I have a truer understanding of what constitutes a wilderness. Alaska is sprawling and untamed and beautiful. I admire it and fear it. I would love to go back someday.
I got to spend some time with a friend in Washington as well. I’m proud of these videos.
I ran my first half-marathon! It was fun and challenging, but I don’t think I’ll do it again.
I started going to therapy again. It would be dishonest to say I’ve made a lot of progress – sometimes you don’t know how junked up you are on the inside until a professional calls you out on your own bullshit – but I’m at least becoming aware of what the path ahead of me looks like. The biggest difference between the start and the end of this year is that I now see the journey as worthwhile.
I started volunteering regularly. On Wednesdays I help out at the library on base. I really like the librarians and the work, too: re-shelving, helping out with programs, cleaning, cataloging. The place is always super busy and the time goes by fast.
I read my most books ever – 75 in a year! Thanks, deployment! Even if you take out the comics and graphic novels and novellas, I went way beyond what I was aiming for. A book per week has become a reliably attainable goal. I will stick to it for next year. You can find all the books I read this year here.
My recurring resolution to write a blog post every month frustrates the hell out of me. I wish I would stop doing this to myself. But I’m in the habit of doing it by now, and I know if I drop it, I will probably never find the motivation to write anything at all. I need something that will force me to, even only once a month.
BOOK OF THE YEAR
I think we all harbor some sort of secret fantasy about the life we wish we could live. If I wasn’t such a coward, my dream is to move to some remote wilderness and stake out a solitary, sustainable life for myself. Whiskey When We’re Dry takes that daydream and shakes it up with my favorite fantasy life: a nineteenth-century, wild-wild-west story of a trick-shooting, cross-dressing young woman on a quest to redeem her family name. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Jessilyn has the authentically Western voice that I’ve been craving since reading True Grit and her integrity and tenacity left me feeling breathless, inspired, a little bit in love. I devoured every word of this story. I can’t wait to reread it.
2018 Runners-Up Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples (volume #9 ruined my will to live) The Witch Elm by Tana French Circe by Madeline Miller
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Jonna Lee’s music has been making a huge impact on my life for almost a decade. Her entire iamamiwhoami project deserves a long write-up of its own. But her music and videos are so dear to me that anything I write feels so incomplete, so inadequate. I have been trying and failing for years to express how much I love what she does.
Think about the art that you appreciate the most. Try to describe it in such a way that conveys its significance in your life and encourages others to make room in their own hearts for it. I see this all the time when people recommend TV shows. You just have to watch it, they say.
For her three iamamiwhoami albums (bounty, 2011; kin, 2012; blue, 2014), Lee released the music and videos simultaneously. It was almost impossible to separate the visuals from the audio. The secrecy behind the project also made the release of each new video feel like a dispatch from the beyond, a clue that might reveal more of the machinations behind the creators.
Jonna Lee is a performer, though – she wants to interact with the audience behind the screens, take the audiovisual show to the real world. There was only so long that she could continue as iamamiwhoami. Though Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten is her first venture beyond iamamiwhoami, it retains enough of the project’s visual motifs and audio samples that it feels like an authentic transition between the two.
Much to my relief, it stands spectacularly on its own two feet.
In Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten, every song, separately, is memorable. The more upbeat synth tracks that Lee has become known for – SAMARITAN (with excellent costuming by COMME des GARÇONS) and NOT HUMAN, for example – contrasts in sound but not in tone with her slower, echoing dirges (LIKE HELL, HERE IS A WARNING). The haunting live recording of DUNES OF SAND in Jonna Lee’s hometown church provides some of the dopest acoustics your ears will ever be blessed with.
But where Jonna Lee really excels is audiovisual thematic unity. Linking the music with the videos is what makes Lee’s audiovisual storytelling so compelling and unforgettable. So the first time I watched the album’s movie accompaniment, I was actually a little underwhelmed. It felt like there was something missing.
There is just something about the way she produces a short video, contained to one song, that is perfect. No one else is doing what she does. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
2018 Runners-Up By the Way, I Forgive You (Brandi Carlile) Be the Cowboy (Mitski) Dirty Computer (Janelle Monáe)
MOVIE OF THE YEAR
Look, this one isn’t deep. I like these women and I love a good heist. Ocean’s 8 is light-hearted, fast-paced, and fun. It doesn’t take itself seriously. I liked it when I watched it the first time and I was surprised when I really enjoyed watching it a second time.
2018 Runners-Up Black Panther Crazy Rich Asians Bird Box
TV SHOW OF THE YEAR
During my first deployment this year, I was on a lot of overnight watches. It wasn’t a real watch, though, because I got to watch a lot of TV. And I watched the entirety of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in an embarrassingly short amount of time.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop. This show is pretty close to perfect. It is hilarious at no one’s expense, my favorite type of humor. Many of the episodes convey substantial moral messages. All of the characters have substance and depth – most of all, in this year’s season, Rosa. Her coming out was portrayed so perfectly that it stayed with me all year long. It was honest, it was authentic, and it gave me hope. It made me feel less alone during a time when I was very lonely. I’ll always be grateful for that.
2018 Runners-Up Terrace House: Opening New Doors The Great British Baking Show
GAME OF THE YEAR
2018 was the year of beautiful indie games that made me cry. It started with Monument Valley – both, though neither are 2018 games – and then there was Florence and later Gris. What all of these games had in common was they felt like playable works of art.
Just on the surface, there is a lot to like about Celeste (by Matt Makes Games, also creator of TowerFall). The music is some of the best I’ve ever heard; seriously, ask anyone I work with: I have been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for months. If you’ve taken the time to read all of these words (thank you) and you get nothing else from this post, put on some good headphones and listen to the music* from Celeste. The pixel art is also gorgeous. The game controls are so simple and tight that there is zero room for error. As a 2D platformer, Celeste belongs to a genre that is notoriously brutal and unforgiving. From the very start of the game, though, Celeste sets an encouraging tone for the player: “You can do this,” the protagonist tells herself. “Just breathe.”
“Celeste gives me the tools and guidance to succeed so that every death is my own fault,” writes Emily Heller for Polygon. “I find this oddly comforting, since I know every stage can be bested; I just have to keep trying.”
There are going to be many times during this game where you want to give up. I can’t count how many times I rage-quit (though I can say exactly how many times I died, since the game keeps track). But after some time away, I would resume the game and beat that seemingly impossible puzzle almost effortlessly. Why was it so hard before?
Celeste Mountain makes manifest the climbers’ deepest fears. For Madeline, a physical embodiment of her anxiety discourages her from continuing her journey. Madeline first tries to outrun this part of herself, then musters up her courage to confront her head-on. I don’t need you, Madeline tells the negative part of herself. You’re holding me back. This pushing-away has terrible consequences, though, and Madeline hits rock bottom – literally the deepest depths of the mountain. There, she realizes that she can’t conquer Celeste without accepting herself in her totality, fears and all. Madeline’s contrition and reconciliation with the negative part of herself moved me to tears. Together, supporting one another, they summit the mountain.
Through some challenging gameplay (just want to emphasize that again: this game is very hard), Celeste teaches the player that progress isn’t always linear. Through Madeline’s experience, the game reveals that the only way to conquer your fears is through self-love. It is the starting place for true change.
If you play Celeste (and I really, really hope you do), remember that the effort is what makes it rewarding. It is supposed to be hard. But you’ll get better, and you’ll return to earlier levels and wonder how in the world you found them difficult at all. Facing your fears and accepting yourself sometimes demands an intense inner struggle, too, but you’re going to come out on the other side – or on the top of the mountain – better for it.
* Lena Raine, the composer for Celeste‘s music, wrote a really interesting blog post about her creative process using as an example one of the game’s most popular tracks. As someone who knows nothing about music, this sort of thing is super interesting to me, and maybe it will be for you too.
FOR NEXT YEAR
I am still trying to stop swearing. I was doing pretty well at this for a while, but inevitably we are influenced by the people around us. I’m going to keep trying.
I have to stop using my phone while driving. This is a terrible habit. Even with my phone mounted to my dashboard, I don’t need to keep changing my music while I’m driving, and definitely I don’t need to read a text or check my Neko Atsume cats “real quick” at a stop light. If you’re in the car with me, please keep me accountable.
I want to – need to – write more. It’s a shame that the only writing I do anymore is for work and for this blog. I have to find some way to stay inspired. Someone please start a creative project with me to maintain my motivation.
Some undefined fitness goal? I focused a lot on running and swimming this year with an appalling collection of tan lines to show for it. Maybe 2019 is the year I come back to the church of iron? Maybe it will be the year I find the balance between the two? Maybe I will give up and be fat in peace at last?
Finally, I am turning 30 soon. I thought this would scare me. With the exception of things that are the result of trauma, as I get older, I feel less afraid, less frantic, less rushed. A family friend once told me that, in his head, he doesn’t feel any older than he was in his twenties; it’s his body that betrays him. I think I’m starting to understand what he meant.
According to the Navy, it takes seven days to drive from Pensacola to Spokane. 2500 miles across seven days, at my slow pace and having to stop and pee every hour or two, means about 6-8 hours on the road per day. Not bad. But what if I wanted to go even slower than that? What could I see along the way? This desire led to an idea: could I turn this into something fun and still get to my next school in time?
I left as soon as I was able. I took 10 extra days of leave. Here is what I did.
Day 1: Pensacola to Memphis
I left in the morning on Thursday, April 20. The schoolhouse in its entirety had been before 0600 for a vague and nonspecific chewing-out. I packed up my car and was on the road shortly after colors.
On the drive through Alabama and Mississippi, I saw more churches than I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I was surprised by how many abandoned buildings and homes there seemed to be. With so much empty space, maybe it makes the most sense to leave them alone. Almost everyone in Mississippi seems to have a small pond on their property, too.
Memphis is more or less exactly in between Pensacola and Kansas City. The motel that I stayed at was a short walk from historic Beale Street, which was alive with tourists and students with the Grizzlies postseason game nearby.
Day 2: Memphis to Kansas City
I really, really wanted to spend time in the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, but it didn’t open until mid-morning and I had someplace to be in Kansas City that night. I stopped by the Lorraine Hotel anyway, which has been preserved in time since Dr. King’s assassination there in 1968. It was here that I remembered that some of the most important American history happened in the past several decades, not centuries.
Coffee in hand, I drove through a bit of Arkansas (lots of armadillos dead on the roadside) and northwest into Missouri, where the temperature dropped and it started to rain. I arrived in Kansas City and checked in to one of the grimiest motels I’ve ever visited, but it was only for one night, and it put everything I needed in walking distance. After dinner and a quick drink at an upbeat gay bar called Hamburger Mary’s, I went to the Uptown Theater to see Welcome to Night Vale live (“All Hail”), which was great. On the walk back into the theater from a bathroom break, I also ran into someone who had been on my ship but had since gotten out of the Navy. Small world!
Day 3: Kansas City to Denver
This day was driving the entire width of Kansas. I stopped briefly at the Combat Air Museum in Topeka just to break things up, but it was mostly a lot of driving past oil wells and windmills and rolling farmland. I got to Denver late in the evening, ate dinner, and checked in to a hostel downtown, where I would stay for a few nights.
Day 4: Denver It is really hard to ignore the homelessness problem in Denver. It’s not that the homeless are a nuisance – they’re not – it’s that they’re everywhere, all over the city. Maybe other cities have more places for them to go, so they’re not quite so visible? I’m ignorant on this issue.
This day was a Sunday, so I went to Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It was having major renovation work done on the facade, which was a shame, but the interior was beautiful, particularly the rose window above the organ. From there, I went to the History Colorado Center, which gives free admission to the military – thanks! My favorite aspect of this museum is the attention it gives to the more problematic parts of the state’s history, particularly the treatment of the Japanese during World War II and black people, well, always. I got a strong “let’s learn from these mistakes” vibe.
But the big attraction on this day was that Coheed and Cambria was in town on their “Neverender – GAIBSIV” tour, which is my favorite music from them. The show was fantastic. I know they – or at least Claudio – are sort of “over” that era of music, but they brought the energy all the same. I was unusually self-conscious about not having the outward appearance of the typical C&C fan, but as soon as the music came on and I could sing all the words, it didn’t matter. Plus, the folks around me on the floor were really considerate about keeping the mosh pit away from the smaller-statured people, which I appreciated. (The Dear Hunter opened for the show.)
Day 5: Rocky Mountain National Park
One of the girls staying in the hostel room was not especially considerate, so this adventure was fueled by lack of sleep and a single Voodoo donut.
It was a beautiful drive to Rocky Mountain National Park, where I was given a free National Parks annual pass for being in the military. This ended up saving me a bunch of money over the next two weeks. I’m really grateful that the NPS offers this deal.
I hiked from the Bierstadt Trailhead, which offered some really amazing views of the mountains, through to Bierstadt Lake, still covered in snow and ice. (I did not bring hiking boots to Pensacola, like a dummy, and did this hike in sneakers.) I circled around to Bear Lake and followed the road as the sky became grey and the wind picked up. Sure enough, as I rounded a turn and laid eyes on the trailhead where I had parked, it began to snow. Good and lucky timing.
Day 6: Pagosa Hot Springs to Chaco Canyon
Another night of lousy sleep at the hostel in Denver. I finished up making reservations for the rest of the trip, resolving to stay in private accommodations even if it cost more. I was on the road at 0430 and, very sleepy, drove south through the mountains in the dark. I began to notice the lovely little mountain towns along the way as the sun came up, and they reminded me of the vacations my family would go on during February school break to Mount Snow in Vermont.
Pagosa Springs was about halfway between Denver and my next destination, so it made for a perfect rest stop. I could smell the sulfur as soon as I entered the town. It was chilly and rainy, but the contrast made the hot springs more enjoyable, I think, just like using the onsen in Hokkaido in the winter. It was quiet at the resort, too, since it was the offseason, and all there was to listen to was the sound of the river rushing by.
It is over 150 miles from Pagosa to Chaco Canyon, but the last 25 miles took an hour by itself. It had rained there too, and the road into the canyon was, in better conditions, unpaved and rocky, but in these conditions was slippery as well. The drive in and out did a number on the underside of my front bumper. My car was almost completely covered in mud by the time I made it into Chaco Culture National Park.
It was raining and very windy as I located the campsite and set up my tent. Miraculously, it stayed dry on the inside, though I was drenched and shivering, my hands too cold to do a great job tying down the guy-lines. I threw some rocks on top of the stakes (which could only be set in sand) and got in my car to warm up and drive the loop around the park. Luckily, the weather cleared up briefly as I made it to some of the historical sites.
One of the most fascinating aspects of an ancestral puebloan site is the mystery of it; architectural practices of the early twentieth century allowed excavators to remove (and sell) artifacts from the site. But, the Rangers explained, once something goes missing from the site, even something apparently without significance or value, that a small piece of the ancient story go with it. It removes context that can never be replaced. For this reason (and others), there are still so many questions remaining about the people who lived in Chaco Canyon. They built tremendous structures that were able to house numbers far greater than those who lived there permanently. Was it a seasonal trading post, where inhabitants moved on to someplace else when the weather turned cold and blustery? Were they forced to abandon the canyon after a catastrophe, from famine or from enemies? There is so little evidence left behind. It made me think a lot about the sort of things we are leaving behind today, and what sort of conclusions people will draw about us a thousand years from now. The physical setting of the canyon, too, leads one to feel very small and introspective: massive cliffs ring a sprawling plains littered with sagebrush, where the wind howls in forceful, sporadic bursts. You can walk and walk and feel like you’re not going anywhere because the canyons seem simultaneously so close and so far away.
The Chacoan people did leave evidence of their understanding of astronomy, though, with their buildings’ structural alignment to solar and lunar cycles and the “sun dagger” on the Fajada Butte, which seems to have been designed to predict the equinoxes and solstices. The canyon itself maintains a gold-tier “dark sky” designation, meaning there is very little light pollution in the area and it is ideal for stargazing. That night, the rangers gave a lecture on astronomy, then we all bundled up and went out to look at the night sky. The weather had been lousy earlier but the sky was totally clear by then. The rangers, who really impressed me with their encyclopedic knowledge of astronomy, pointed out the well-known constellations to us. We used telescopes to get a good look at Jupiter and the Messier 3 star cluster. There wasn’t much to see of the Milky Way due to the season, but we could see the very edge of it. The edge of our galaxy! It was dazzling and overwhelming; in every direction, we were surrounded by stars. I thought that the night sky at sea was unbeatable, but this experience was very special.
When I returned, my tent was surrounded by hail but, mercifully, still standing intact and dry on the inside. The temperature had dropped below freezing and, between shivering and the loud snoring at the camp site next to me, I had a very, very restless night. It was my first camping experience. Despite less than ideal conditions, it went all right. Of everything I got to see and do on this trip, I think this was my favorite place.
Day 7: Chaco Canyon to Tusayan
I packed up my tent and spent a little more time among the ruins. It was still very cold and windy, but it felt good as the sun came up. There was no phone reception in the canyon and I had gone off the grid without telling my mom that I had gotten to New Mexico safely. I worried that she was worried. So I made the slow, bumpy drive out of the park and headed west for the Grand Canyon. (The original plan was to camp out there, too, but temperatures were dropping below freezing there too, so I canceled and stayed at the Holiday Inn in Tusayan instead, right outside the park.)
The first time I drove around a bend and got a glimpse of the Grand Canyon, I was hit with a wave of vertigo. Everyone knows that the Grand Canyon is big. I knew that aircraft carriers are big, too, but I couldn’t understand how big they are until I saw one in person. It was like that. It seemed inconceivably immense – as in, beyond what I could actually comprehend – and it took a while for me to get used to looking at it. I parked the car and did a short, easy hike around the rim. I wouldn’t go within several feet of the edge. Terrible mishaps kept running through my head, accompanied by the voice of Lester Holt: “US Navy sailor falls to her death in Grand Canyon while on vacation.” I watched the sun go down and cast huge shadows across the canyon below. I would be a little braver the next day.
Day 8: Grand Canyon, South Rim
After a delicious, complimentary Holiday Inn breakfast, I headed back into the park. I began with the steep but well-maintained and popularly traveled South Kaibab trail, which led down into the canyon itself. It was cold and blustery while walking in the shadow of the cliff, but as the sun climbed up higher, it became a warm and cloudless day, perfect for hiking and photos. I went as far as Cedar Ridge, stopping to rest and eat a snack, then went back up. I was expecting the return trip to be extremely arduous, since it was all upwards, but it wasn’t too bad. I still had a lot of energy when I was done.
I visited the Tusayan Ruins and museum, which had some ancient puebloan kivas as well, but these were remnants of foundations. Next, I went to the desert watchtower, where I climbed to the top and paid a quarter to get a better look at the blue-green Colorado River. From up high, the river looks like a little trickle, but the magnification revealed that it moves through the canyon pretty aggressively.
My last adventure was the Grandview trail. This one was really scary. There were several moments were I stopped and considered whether or not I ought to continue. The path was very steep and narrow with the sharpest drop-offs I’d ever seen. A wrong step and there would be nothing in between me and a long fall into the canyon below. At one point, I stopped for a break and was considering turning around and going back up when a couple edged their way passed me. The woman was holding a blanket around her shoulders and wearing sandals and seemed completely at ease. I – carrying a backpack containing two survival packs, spare clothes, and enough food and water to last 48 hours or more – was in awe. (In my defense, I had just gotten out of a survival school, and might have been in a very particular mindset.) I carried on a little longer, stopping often, worrying always, until I got to a point where I was just too scared to continue. Going up was much easier than going down; now my momentum was upward instead of downward, and I worried more about a misstep causing a chipped tooth instead of a plunge to my early death. I was exhausted by the time I got back to the top – not from the exercise, but from the fear.
Day 9: South Rim to St. George, Utah
I had planned on spending a few hours at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on my way up to Utah, but the roads in weren’t open yet. So I drove from Tusayan to Glen Canyon Dam, where I stopped for photos and to use the car wash at a nearby gas station to get the mud from Chaco Canyon off my car. (I had never used an automated car wash before and the employee there was unusually kind and patient with me. Thank you, car wash man!)
The drive in to Zion National Park from the east was unbelievable. My jaw was hanging open the entire time. The massive layers of colorful sediment rise up all around and contrast beautifully with the green trees and a cloudless blue sky (I got really lucky when it came to the weather, with a few notable exceptions). I made a brief visit to the Human History Museum, which had to close early due to the federal hiring freeze leaving rangers short-staffed (hmm). I did a short hike on the Watchman trail, which followed the Virgin River up into the bluffs overlooking the visitor center and the green, green valley beyond. From that vantage point, Zion truly looks like a desert oasis. I checked in to the Days Inn at nearby St. George, which was really nice as far as two-star accommodations go, and planned out all the hiking I wanted to do the next day. There was a lot of it.
Day 10: Zion National Park
Most people want to hike up to Angels Landing when they come to Zion, but after the Grandview experience at the Grand Canyon only two days before, I was okay with passing on the hikes with severe drop-offs. I was ready for easy trails and seeing as much as possible in one day. This day was also my mom’s birthday. It would have been super rude to die in Utah on my mom’s birthday.
The park prohibits POVs past a certain point, which is great for cutting down traffic and carbon emissions. Park shuttles run up and down the length of the canyon at frequent intervals. I don’t think I waited more than 10 minutes to hop on, even in the busiest hours. To start, I rode the shuttle to its final stop, which was an easy riverside walk. This hike is supposed to turn into the famous Narrows, where you can walk through the river to the narrowest point of the canyon. As the canyon began to close in over me and it got darker and cooler, I came to a sign that said that the Narrows were closed due to snowmelt. Huge bummer. So I walked back to the shuttle and did the Weeping Rock trail (beautiful hanging vines and water trickling down the rocks), the Kayenta trail to the Emerald Pools (not the color advertised, but the upper pool was pretty neat), then the Grotto trail, which led me back to the Lodge where I could sit and eat my lunch. Then I got back on the shuttle for Canyon Junction, where I took the Pa’rus trail along the Virgin River (you could hear the sound of running water almost the entire walk, which was very pleasant) back to the visitor center.
Zion National Park is not just a beautiful place, it is also a well-run and maintained park. It is proactive about accessibility and concerned with public education. All of the trails are well-marked and maps are easy to follow. Of all the parks I visited on my trip, this is the one I recommended most strongly to my parents as being visitor-friendly. I got the feeling that the rangers took pride in helping people learn about and enjoy their park.
On the way back to St. George, I visited a ghost town in Grafton. This led to a lot of research on my part about what constitutes a “ghost town,” exactly, since these were just some abandoned (and well preserved) nineteenth century prairie homes. It is hard for anything to seem eerie on a bright, sunny day, with cattle moo-ing happily in a nearby pasture, a man in a cowboy hat holding his children up on the fence to look at the animals, and an older man with a small wooden easel set up near one of the homes. On the drive away from Grafton, I spotted another man in a cowboy hat and boots, only this one was wearing daisy dukes with his t-shirt tucked in to the waistband. He was out walking his dog, no leash. He waved cheerfully at the cars that gave him space on the narrow unpaved road. I thought, that man is standing in his truth. Good for him.
Day 11: St. George to Salt Lake City
I did a short hike in Kolob Canyon (the Mormons renamed everything around here, it seems) in the northwestern area of Zion National Park. The Timber Creek Overlook Trail led to an outcrop that overlooked the wilderness below. It was quiet and sunny and I sat there for while, thinking about how the canyons seem permanent and eternal from my perspective but are actually products of cataclysm and the slow march of time. It was a peaceful realization that things that seem like the end of the world might one day turn into something very beautiful.
The drive north to Salt Lake City was one freeway the entire way, speed limit 80. I checked in to the hostel with some help from another guest (the place was unstaffed and everything was confusingly automated). It was Sunday, so I went to Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, which had a visiting priest whose upbeat and charitable character I admired. I ate dinner downtown and then went back to my tiny room with no window. You get what you pay for.
Day 12: Salt Lake City I started off the day with a visit to the Family History Museum, where one of the nice elders helped me begin compiling a digital family tree. I was blown away by the amount of information freely available there. I thought that my grandparents had all been first-generation Americans, but I was wrong: my paternal grandpa emigrated from Quebec when he was a child. Doing the research was a lot of fun, but I also realized that there is just as much that I can learn from my parents anecdotally. I would really like to sit down with them one day to learn as much as I can about my grandparents’ lives.
Next, I visited the Church History Museum, which helped fill in some of my knowledge gaps about Mormonism.
I had to leave Temple Square after that to find a coffee place, where the man who was behind me in line made a big show of forgetting his wallet and asking me to cover his lunch. I did, but it wasn’t out of altruism; he had made a scene and I felt uncomfortable and wanted to end it as quickly as possible. He caught up with me as I was trying to escape and revealed that it had been some kind of hidden camera prank and offered to pay me back. But that made me feel worse, like I had been preyed upon and only narrowly passed some half-assed social experiment.
After that, I stopped by the convention center, where a very sweet and very old woman gave me a tour. She, like all of the volunteers around Temple Square, was uncommonly patient and knowledgeable. I got to hear a little bit of the huge organ as the organist was practicing. My guide showed me all of the art around the building as we went up each floor, finally leading to the roof, which had a very clever garden where each corner resembled the trees and flowers found on the mountains or plains in that direction. There was a part for wildflowers, too, that was allowed to grow freely and naturally.
Finally, I went on a tour of the Beehive House. With me in the group was one very rude man and his friend who spent the tour trying to defuse his remarks. Every other comment out of his mouth was a smart-assed criticism of the LDS church. And, sure, they have a problematic history. Which faith doesn’t? At the same time, though, he was in their space. Why was he even there if he had so many hard feelings toward the church? The women who led the tour (one was from Kanagawa!), for their part, were extremely patient and understanding and probably deal with this sort of thing a lot. I did my best to keep the conversation focused on Joseph Smith and his story, and after the tour I chatted with the women a little more. They were both so kind and enthusiastic. They gave me a Book of Mormon to keep, which hopefully I will read one day.
I did some shopping. One of the employees at LUSH was from Massachusetts (“Everyone here is so nice. I hate it!” she said about Salt Lake City). I treated myself to some chocolate-covered strawberries from Godiva. As I was leaving the downtown area, a panhandler got really angry with me after I turned him down. (There are signs all over Salt Lake City imploring visitors not to support panhandling, and underneath those signs are often old parking meters which allow someone to donate money to a charitable organization instead.) I was surprised and spooked by his aggressiveness and was ready to go back to the hostel after that.
Day 13: Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole, Wyoming
I stopped by Antelope Island State Park on my way north from Salt Lake City. I saw the Great Salt Lake and bison for the first time. On my walk back from the beach, though, I was descended upon by a plague of gnats. They swarmed around my face and followed me all the way to the car and I sped away with the windows open to get them out. After driving some distance, I stopped someplace else for photos and the gnats were on me again! I could see them in hovering clouds, like patches of TV static, along the roadside. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was awful.
I drove up to Teton Village in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The Village is a collection of hotels and stores nestled at the base of a ski mountain. It was the offseason, though, so most of the businesses were closed – and I got accommodations for pretty cheap. I liked The Hostel at Teton Village immediately upon seeing a beautiful black cat sprawled out on the check-in desk. I spent the rest of the day driving around Grand Teton National Park, seeing the Chapel of the Transfiguration and the structural remains of some early settlers. I had dinner at a busy family restaurant where it seemed like everyone knew each other’s names. That was nice.
Day 14: Grand Teton National Park
Up until this point, I had been doing pretty well hiking around on my own. None of the parks I had visited had aggressive wildlife, and my biggest concern had been not falling to my death. But Grand Teton National Park is absolutely bear country, and at the time of my visit they were just coming out of hibernation. Hikers in this area are frequently warned to not hike alone and to keep their food sealed and/or in their cars. It’s also worth mentioning that I’m scared of literally everything and bears are especially terrifying. I was eager to hike around this unbelievably beautiful park, but I was also very apprehensive about being on my own.
I started with Taggert Lake with the intention of seeing Bradley Lake first and then circling around back to the trailhead, but the way toward Bradley Lake was still covered in snow with no discernible trail markers. The Taggert Lake trail can be done in a loop as well, and after taking some photos of the thawing lake, I teamed up with a retired lawyer from San Francisco to finish the hike. We each had a moment of falling into the snow up to our waists and I think we both were glad for the company. We realized after some time that we weren’t totally certain that we were still on the trail (not well marked with snow cover), which was confirmed when a family from the Netherlands was spotted slogging towards us. They had given up trying to find the trail and were heading back to Taggert Lake. Together, the five of us went back the way we came.
Most of the area around Jenny Lake is under construction, but the northern overlook was still open, so I stopped there for some photos. The cathedral peaks nearby looked like they were shining as the ice melted in the afternoon sun. I saw a ton of elk at the Elk Preserve area and bison grazing and butting heads. I think my favorite stop on this day was one of the boat launch areas onto the Snake River, where the marshes were home to boreal chorus frogs. I really like frog sounds. The river was audible in this area, too, so the combination of frogs and river water sounds was very relaxing. I recorded it on my phone to listen to later.
Day 15: Yellowstone National Park
If I had to have one “bad” day on this whole adventure, it would have been this one. The direct road between Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks was still not open for the season, so I drove almost four hours to the western entrance instead. That was fine, but my long life of traffic crime finally caught up to me and I got pulled over for speeding on the way there. With all that’s going on nowadays involving law enforcement, it was truly a privilege that my principle emotion was shame rather than fear. The cop was nice enough but it left me feeling angry at myself all day.
The exhibits in the visitor center near Old Faithful were really well done, both fun and informative. I got to spend some time looking at them before the geyser’s next scheduled eruption. I actually got to see Old Faithful erupt twice: once from near the visitor center, and once from an overlook, totally by coincidence.
I walked around the upper geyser basin. There are so many geysers in this area alone. Old Faithful is the most popular, but there are several that were more memorable to me: the Castle Geyser, which bubbled and steamed like a pot on the stove; the Solitary Geyser, which was a placid hot spring until a pipe was installed, turning it permanently into a regularly erupting geyser even after the pipe was removed; the Spasmodic Geyser, which is a spot-on name (erupts often and from different places along the pool); the Giant Geyser, which last erupted in 2015 and, before that, 2010 (it must be great to be there by coincidence and see it erupt); and the Grotto Geyser, which looks more like a curved fountain than a cone.
All of the “hikes” in this area are along boardwalks due to the delicate and unpredictable nature of the thermal land. I walked up to Biscuit Basin to see the Sapphire Pool and the other thermal pools. They had some of the most striking and unique natural colors I’ve ever seen: the waters were a deep aquamarine ringed by minerals and algae-like bacteria of all colors (many white, but some yellow, black, copper, yellow, and teal). The Morning Glory pool was especially interesting: its coloration used to be even more vivid, but visitors throwing objects into the water clogged the natural vent below and changed the bacterial composition of the pool.
I could have spent another day in Yellowstone easily. In particular, I wanted to see the Mammoth Hot Springs in the northern part of the park, but I had spent all day by the geysers and pools. I didn’t want to make the eight-hour round-trip drive again the following day. I decided to stay in the Teton area instead.
Day 16: Grand Teton National Park
Coming back to Grand Teton National Park turned out to be a great idea. It was a warm and cloudless day. My first stop was Schwabacher Landing, which has some of the most iconic views of the Tetons with the Snake River serpentining below. Next, I went to Jackson Lake and dam, which are overlooked by Mount Moran. These were some of my favorite photos from the whole trip. I went back to Jenny Lake and got some great photos there too. Mostly, I took it easy on this day, walking on the bike path around the park and enjoying the sun and fresh mountain air. I had been going, going, going for more than two weeks by this point, and it was starting to catch up to me.
Day 17: Jackson Hole to Missoula, Montana
It is more than nine hours from Jackson Hole to Spokane. I could have done it in one day. But I had extra time, and I found a nice hostel in Missoula, so I decided to take it slow.
I’ve been using my journal to recollect daily events on this trip, and I laughed at what I wrote for this day: “I really like Jackson Hole. It seems to pride itself on its wild-wild-westernness. I picked up a coffee and a sandwich before hitting the road, and today the road hit back.” There was a shredded tire, still mostly intact, in the middle of the freeway, and, not wanting to swerve into adjacent traffic, I ran over it. It dislodged part of the plastic under my front bumper but that, thankfully, was the worst of it.
I spent the rest of the drive playing tag with these huge black stormclouds. Eventually, it caught up to me, and the rain quickly turned into hail the size of golfballs. I pulled off to the side of the highway and waited. To be truthful, I was very scared that the hail was going to damage my windshield; it was hitting my car so hard and loud. It lasted only ten minutes or so, and my car held up.
I checked in to the Shady Spruce hostel in downtown Missoula, which was a really nice repurposed home. It was my favorite of all the places I stayed.
I got my hair cut and ate dinner and walked around the downtown area. Missoula is definitely a college town, but also family-friendly. Everyone was uncommonly polite. I spent less than 18 hours there, but it left a positive impression on me.
Day 18: Missoula to Spokane For the first time in more than two weeks, I woke up and put on a uniform. I went to church at St. Francis Xavier, which was just a short walk from the hostel. The priest there was enthusiastic and funny and joyful, and the congregation was genuinely kind. I really enjoyed the Mass there. After that, I was on the road for the last time.
It was a beautiful, rainy drive through the mountains. I would have enjoyed being a passenger on this leg of the trip so I could spend more time looking at the mountains rising through the mist and less time looking at the road. I stopped for lunch, then arrived at my ultimate destination, Fairchild Air Force Base, around 2PM on May 7, where I would spend the afternoon wandering around, trying to find where to check in. (No command quarterdecks in the Air Force. Even the instructors in my school admitted that their branch is “military-light.”)
In total, I put 4,875 miles on my car. I drove through 15 states. I saw six national parks and six new cities. I saw two live shows. I went camping for the first time! It was also my first experience with driving more than a few hours on my own. It was a very exciting 18 days, but the way I knew it was a great trip was when I was ready to go back to doing the Navy thing again at the end of it.
I hope the rest of the year brings even more adventures!