The next morning started off wobbly. We replenished the ice in the coolers and packed them in the pickup, along with our overnight bags and laptops, but just when I thought we were ready to hit the road, Jill began rigourously reorganizing the contents of the cab. I stared, startled, for a moment, because to me, everything looked just fine. I made a lunge for my laptop when I saw it about to disappear precariously under bags behind the seat. I had a bucket load of photos on my hard drive that I really didn’t fancy losing to an unfortunate whack should something fall on it. While Jill moved bags around in the back of the cab, I looked around for something to make me feel useful, and ended up busying myself with some wire management up front – we had cellphone chargers and I’d picked up an inverter to plug into the cigarette lighter, so we could charge our laptops as we drove on those days when we were camping at spots without power. This was twenty-first century car camping at its finest, and by finest I mean least unplugged, which is not necessarily fine at all. We have swapped maps for GPS systems that bark directions with strangely dislocated voices, we have swapped books for readers that light up the night sky and we have swapped letter-writing for emails and try as you might, you can’t scent an email with perfume. But I digress. When Jill was done with her reorganization, I put my laptop case out of harm’s way and slipped back into the passenger seat. The air was fraught with tension but we switched on the radio, pumped up the volume and let the raw vocals of Roger Daltry blasting “Who Are You?” sweep us away.
Just outside of Twin Falls, we stopped by the Perrine Bridge for a dazzling view of the Snake River. The water shimmered metallic green and I spotted the slightest tumble of waterfall in the distance. A speedboat traced a curve down the river and I remembered seeing old television footage of another disturbance of the waters not too far from here. In 1974 daredevil Evil Knievel famously didn’t jump Snake River Canyon with his rocket-powered motorbike. Instead, he shot 1,000 feet in the air and then plummeted into the canyon below. From where I stood today, it looked like an awfully long plummet.
We got back on I-84 going east, past fields of crops being irrigated to withstand the heat of the summer. The sprays of water caught the light and momentary rainbows appeared and disappeared as we drove past them. The road up ahead shimmered hazily in the heat. Just past Burley, Snake River lived up to its name, snaking under the freeway, and then I-84 veered off to the right, cutting a southeast line towards the Utah border.
Southern Idaho surprised me; delighted me, actually. My only experience with Idaho to date had been the paltry stretch of I-90 that crosses Idaho on the way from Washington to Montana. It spans all of 90 miles, passing through the rather unremarkable city of Post Falls and then through Couer d’Alene, Idaho’s second largest metropolitan area. Coeur d’Alene, abbreviated to CdA and pronounced, with gross disregard to its French origin, as Corduh Lane, is a booming tourist spot boasting nearby ski resorts, a pristine golf course and of course, the beautiful Lake Couer d’Alene. I witnessed my very first Fourth of July fireworks display from the shores of that lake. But writing this paragraph has taken me almost the same length of time it would take you to drive along I-90 into Idaho and out the other side. It is gone in the blink of an eye, so it’s understandable why one might think of Idaho as being on the small side. The thin strip of Idaho that reaches up to the Canadian border measures a mere 45 miles east to west at points, but that is deceptive. Further south, the state broadens dramatically, expanding to a width of 310 miles along the Utah border. From north to south, it spans the length of both Washington and Oregon states. It is huge; a fact that was becoming more apparent the further south we drove. Ireland’s landmass could fit quite easily within its borders; so easily, that Iceland could move in too, and there would still be enough space left to allow Denmark to sleep on the sofa once in a while.
Mountain ranges now vied for attention, for we were leaving the Snake River Plain, a curious depression that cuts an east-west arc across the southern part of Idaho. Its geologic history remains a mystery and looking at topographical maps of the area, you would swear someone was trying to draw a smiley face across the Rockies. Out my window, the Cotterell and Jim Sage Mountains put on a distant display of grandeur, followed by an in-your-face view of the Black Pine Mountains as we neared the Utah border.
Salt Lake City whipped by without so much as a “by your leave”. I strained for a view of the Great Salt Lake but it was mostly hidden from view by telephone poles, wires, concrete walls and metal girders, which, coupled with the inconsiderate banking of the road that dipped down low and angled away at every available opportunity, afforded just a few short bursts of strangely pale blue water, too quick for my camera. Never mind, we were in Utah. I felt a mounting sense of excitement; it felt like we were starting to arrive somewhere, for we had pledged to spend time exploring this state, rather than rush through. Adventure beckoned.
As it turns out, we didn’t have to wait too long. Not far past Salt Lake City the skies darkened and ominous clouds drifted into view. Then the heavens opened their floodgates and refused to close them again. The rain got heavier, thick fog descended and visibility was dreadful, but the rain kept coming and at one point got so heavy we had to pull off to the side of the road and stop altogether. Water was flowing in waves down the highway and the windscreen looked as if we were underwater. We sat there, bewildered, for a good ten minutes until the frantically flapping windshield wipers started to win the battle against the deluge and we could see the road again.
We pulled off at the next rest stop to take stock of the situation. This was definitely not what we had expected in the middle of the Utah desert in summer. We watched the fog swirling around distant rocky outcrops and spotted the telltale black streaks of heavy rain moving in. There was another major storm up ahead and it was moving our way. We jumped back in the truck and drove as quickly as we could to Moab. It was dark by the time we pulled onto Main Street and it was wet and cold to boot. Jill suggested a motel, but we had budgeted for camping and besides, I had already psyched myself up to spend the night in the great outdoors. It was late and we wanted to stop as soon as possible to get set up before the storm kicked off, so we abandoned our plan to camp on the dry site we had looked at before. We pulled into the very first camp site we spotted, drove around for a few minutes and found a site with no one else around. There were facilities – showers and a toilet – and each tent site had a corrugated plastic cover overhead. My heart lightened, happy in the knowledge that should the storm hit, we had substantial cover, and thrilled that I wouldn’t have to cop a squat in the bushes.
Jill got started on the tent while I prepped a chickpea, onion and red pepper curry with rice and a generous amount of wine. We had an interesting time figuring out the camping stove – the stove itself was easy enough to assemble, but the propane cannister proved tricky. Should we take the cap off or not? What about the nozzle on the side? We got it figured out, but not before both of us took turns running for cover, fearing a sinister explosion. Thankfully, it didn’t explode and soon the smell of curry filled the air.
I’m of the mind that you’re not really camping unless you have a campfire, so I went looking for kindling and downed branches. When the food was ready, I lit the pile of scraggly twigs I’d heaped into the fire pit and watched as it blazed for about 30 seconds before sputtering out. It was a bit anticlimactic, I’ll admit, but the embers glowed brightly for a little longer and the delicious smell of wood smoke lingered for hours. We ate the curry and sipped wine and then we sat down at the picnic table and fired up our laptops. Jill worked on her resume and I wrote something for my travelogue, and there we sat, in silence, working into the night. I cleaned the dishes in a little sink over by the bathrooms while Jill packed the food into the back of the cab, so there wouldn’t be anything around to “attract animals”, as she put it.
“Except people”, I thought. Campers go to great pains to lock food in cars and stash garbage behind animal-proof grids but happily lie out in the open with nothing but a thin layer of canvas between them and wildlife foraging around with a dose of the munchies. To make life easier for the animals, campers thoughtfully truss themselves up in snugly-fitted sleeping bags that make fighting back impossible. Mountain lions have been spotted wandering the streets of Moab, blocks from where we were now camped. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see a mountain lion; but the operative word in that sentence is ‘see’, because it implies that I am awake, conscious and able to react appropriately to perceived danger should it arise.
I have trekked through the jungle at night, explored the subterranean depths of caves half-submerged in water and climbed active volcanoes, so can justifiably lay claim to a healthy sense of adventure, but it is tempered by an equally healthy spirit of survival. I seek out opportunities to see animals in the wild; there truly is no thrill quite like it, but I respect the fact that they are wild, keep a safe distance and study their behaviour for warnings. Much as I love animals, I have no desire to be their lunch.
So you see, I don’t have a problem with a certain amount of risk, and I don’t have a problem with camping; in fact it’s quite fun. It’s the sleeping part that is problematic. I don’t understand why a perfectly reasonable human being would go to a place where he knows there are things that can kill him, then lay down and fall asleep. Why would you do that? It’s the equivalent of a mouse taking a nap in the cat box. Honestly, if the cat came along and bit off the mouse’s head, you’d probably think, well, it was a stupid place to take a nap. Which is presumably what the unnamed camper from Marin was thinking on July 1st of this year when he awoke from a dead sleep on the banks of the Yuba River to find a mountain lion standing on his face. I wonder if he kept his name out of the paper because he felt a bit silly for not having booked a motel?
I couldn’t put if off any longer; it was time for bed. Convinced I would not sleep a wink, I grabbed my copy of Travels with Charley and a reading light to while away the hours. Jill insisted we leave our shoes outside so I feigned compliance, but when she wasn’t looking I grabbed my shoes and smuggled them inside the tent. I didn’t want scorpions taking up residence in them overnight, and if a mountain lion did attack tonight, I could bang it in the face with them before it bit off my head. As I turned the pages of my book, I was happy to discover that John Steinbeck had fallen in love with Montana just as I had. Despite my best intentions, and without realising it, I drifted off to sleep.
Here’s a quick video of my travels today