Maybe the Best Car Driving Road in the West is in Southern Washington

The RouteI have for so many years believed that the winding mountain roads in car commercials do not exist anywhere in the United States. Maybe they used to, but there are too many people now, too much traffic. The roads I drive in the West, mostly near popular climbing areas, are never without other cars. If you are a driver who likes to push the upper limits of your car’s handling abilities, barely making it around curves without skidding, tossing your passenger around and making them wish that they too had a steering wheel to hold onto, the roads I have driven will do nothing but piss you off during the daytime. Tourists in rental cars, motorcyclists, bicyclists, buses and cars and trucks carrying climbers and backpackers like me are everywhere. If you really want to open it up on the mountain roads I know, your bliss will be interrupted within three minutes, your freedom impeded by one of us going a little slower than as fast as our tires could handle.

But there is a road that exists, not only in the artificial creations of advertising agencies who sell us BMWs and Audis, but in the forests of southern Washington State.

If you have the occasion to drive between Mount Rainier National Park and a place called Indian Heaven in southern Washington, you will find it. National Forest Road 25 between Randle, Washington, and Swift Reservoir, Washington, just east of Mount St. Helens, is 45 miles of pure driving ecstasy, a goddamn rollercoaster of a road built by an engineer who was perhaps motivated by finding the most direct route possible for a road in these parts, but I like to think maybe more so to create something that would bring joy.

I don’t get excited about driving fast, for the most part. I’ve never souped up a car or drag raced anyone. I cautiously accelerate and brake slowly wherever I go. My car has 210,000 miles on it and has a 25-year-old engine. Right now, I live in it. But I found the joy in National Forest Road 25, driving north to south. I had a car-driving experience.

For almost an hour, I was 16 years old again, behind the wheel of my first car, in love with the freedom of moving myself at a speed faster than my mother would drive, smashing on the accelerator more excited than scared of what could happen, watching the speedometer needle shoot up 20, 30 miles per hour on the short straight-aways, punching it in the last half of curves and hoping I didn’t have to hit the brakes as I came out the other side. Everything slid around in the back of the car as I flew low around the bends in the road, 20 mph faster than advised on the yellow signs with the curved arrows on them. It was as if an invisible hand was pushing and steering my car faster down the road, skating on blacktop down a tunnel of green so thick you couldn’t see the sky through it.

Mount St. Helens from the car windowI ripped it wide open, seeing only a handful of other vehicles on the road the entire time. I imagined a highway engineer, laying out the route on maps, watching the asphalt poured, anticipating what it would be like to drive, and then finally getting a chance, driving this same stretch of road just like I was, smiling and laughing out loud the whole way. It’s possible that he or she or they were just doing there job, that this was the only logical course for this route between two places, but it’s just too good to believe that’s the reason.

This is the king, two lanes of speed, gravity, centripetal and centrifugal forces, a water slide and a bullet train ride with your hands are on the wheel and your own lead foot is on the gas. No Estes Park or Yosemite Valley at either end to draw thousands of tourists, no scenic pull-offs to slow you down. Pure, American driving for the love of driving. And some guy in a piece-of-shit, 4-cylinder, 2.5-liter Subaru Outback with bad tires and a million dents in it, a guy who thought it was over, that there was no joy in driving anymore, who could be in a BMW Z4 for all he knows.

 

How To Dump in the Woods, and How Not To

It was the night before my five-day backpacking trip with five tough teenagers from East Palo Alto when someone asked about toilet paper, and we discovered we hadn’t been issued any. This was most of the kids’ first time in any sort of backcountry outside the Bay Area, and each seemed to have a different solution to the problem.

“I’m just gonna hold it for five days,” Eric said. The kids all seemed to know another guy who had gone on a similar backpacking trip, and legendarily “held it” until he got back to a proper commode with some soft, fluffy white tissue paper.

“I bet that thing came out with a fist on the end of it,” I said. “You guys will just have to use rocks and sticks.” This suggestion was met with denial, disbelief and shock. Two minutes before, I was Friendly White Hippie Dude. Now the kids were looking at me like I was a creepy guy with a strange fetish they wished they didn’t know about.

That first shit in the woods is a pure rite of passage for any mountain person. Sure, you can be a casual day-hiker for years and avoid it, and maybe even last through a few overnight trips. But sooner or later, you’ll need to confront your ancestral self and drop one amongst the evergreens, without your favorite magazine, scented candle or plush bathroom rug under your toes.

Nowadays, we bury it under the ground when hiking in the backcountry. On raft trips, it goes in the groover, an ammo can fitted with a toilet seat. On the side of El Capitan, it goes in bags and gets stuffed in a PVC pipe with two screw caps — the “poop tube” — and hauled up the wall with the rest of the supplies. On some glaciers in Denali National Park, you go in a bear canister-esque Clean Mountain Can (try not to pee in it) that you carry out with you. On some boats and float houses, it’s heated in an incinerating toilet until it turns into ash (about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit), and then it’s dumped in the ocean. On Mount Shasta, the Forest Service issues poop bags complete with paper targets for aiming, and after the magic happens, you pick up the target, roll it up and bag it, and carry it down the mountain. In the Grand Canyon, mules carry it out after a couple of dudes in HazMat suits shovel it out of the pit toilets at Indian Gardens.

In the 1979 “Book of Strange Facts and Useless Information,” author Scot Morris writes: “Australian aborigines, who usually go naked and are unconcerned if a stranger sees them defecating, are deeply ashamed to be seen eating.” Our society is far from comfortable with it, requiring complete privacy, flushing the evidence out of sight as soon as possible, and covering our tracks with fans, sprays and matches. Some teenage boys maintain that women don’t do it at all. Parents of newborn babies will change an average of 2,800 “dirty diapers” in the baby’s first year, but we panic at the thought of having to squat in the forest. And we can’t imagine wiping our ass with anything other than toilet paper.

But it’s not so bad. A breeze blowing through the Ponderosa pines, maybe the noise of a creek trickling by at the speed of nature, and no constipated ad salesman grunting one out in the next stall, farts echoing off the inside of the toilet, squealing like angry ducks. We can take our time. Get away from the trail as far as you need to feel comfortable — at least two feet. Dig a hole at least six inches deep (this can sometimes be aided considerably if you can find a large rock embedded in soil, and you can pry it out, leaving a large hole). Pull your pants down to your ankles, line yourself up over the hole, squat, hug your knees and relax. Poop like the perfectly normal human you were 300 years ago, before we got all soft and had to drink bottled water and have someone else kill our food.

Some folks pack a roll of Charmin Ultra Soft, but I can’t bear to pack it out once it’s used. Some of us choose to use rocks, sticks or leaves, which have the advantages of a) leaving nothing to pack out and b) an unlimited supply of wiping material. The two criteria to keep in mind when hunting for potential rocks and sticks are a) smoothness and b) ability to fit the rock or stick between your butt cheeks. The best, of course, is a summer snowbank in the mountains, which provide infinite refreshing snowballs. When you’re finished, bury your rocks and sticks in the hole, and off you go down the trail.

You miss the comforts of civilized shitting when you’re in the backcountry, but also the discomforts. No filthy toilet seats, no public restroom doors that don’t lock, no senators from Idaho propositioning you with foot Morse code from the next stall, and no lines. Few things can go wrong in the woods, usually.

But things can, in fact, go horribly wrong. On Mount Rainier once, as the story goes as told to me by a friend who heard the story from a guide who at that time worked for Rainier Mountaineering Inc., a client left his team and guides to go take a dump. On Rainier, of course, climbers are required to “blue bag” it and pack it out with them (or toss it in one of the receptacles on the mountain, which are removed by helicopter once a year). Most folks unclip the leg loops of their harness, pull their pants down, plop one in the snow and pick it up with the blue bag, as you would do with your dog’s poop in a municipal park.

After a few minutes, the Rainier climber returned to the group, frantically repeating to the guide, “I can’t find my shit!” In the ensuing search, the poop was located in the man’s climbing helmet, still clipped to the back of his harness while he enjoyed one of the most scenic restroom views of his life, near Rainier’s summit crater. I was not told the rest of the story, but suffice it to say the guides didn’t let the man continue without wearing his helmet, and everyone else in the group retold the story to as many appropriate audiences as they could for the rest of their lives.

We can remove many of the historical discomforts of human life through science — air conditioning, pharmaceuticals, better/lighter/warmer/cooler outdoor gear and apparel — but when it comes down to taking a dump in the woods, we are back as our ancestors were. Except sometimes we have to put it in a blue bag and carry it around with us for a day or two.

Buy the Newest, Lightest, Shiniest Gear Today or You Could Die Out There

Buy the newest, lightest, shiniest gear today or you could die out there.

There’s a single paragraph in Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of A Reluctant Businessman in which he talks about solo expedition kayaker (and grandmother) Audrey Sutherland, who at that time had paddled more than 8,000 miles around the world. One of the quotes attributed to Sutherland is one of the main things I took from the book:

“Don’t spend money on gear. Spend it on plane tickets.”

Not that you shouldn’t buy a new climbing rope every few years, or ride your bike without a helmet because that would be “buying gear.” I think what Sutherland is saying is that you don’t need the latest, greatest stuff on the REI floor to have a good adventure.

A little over a year ago, I was rolling my bicycle into the Pacific Ocean after 3,000 miles of riding, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida. One of the big questions of the ride for me, besides “Do I have a saddle sore?” was “Is my bike going to make it?” I had bought my Raleigh Team USA from some guy in Broomfield for $100 after seeing it in a Craigslist ad. The bike was 25 years old when we started our ride. I had wanted to try riding that bike across the country in some sort of way of showing all the people we met that you didn’t need to be Lance Armstrong, or have his bike, to do something fun. Plus, I mean, it said “Team USA” on it.

In the end, nobody really cared about my bike besides me. But it made it, 3,000 miles, and when I got back to Denver, I put my old city tires back on it and rode it to work every day, just like I had all the days leading up to our two-month bike ride. Was the bike a little heavy for riding across the country? Maybe. Did I have to do a lot of work on it along the way? Yes. Did it make it? Yes.

Was the adventure way more memorable than the gear I bought for it? Absolutely.

This is America, and we’re constantly bombarded with ways to spend our disposable income. We need to replace our phone that’s four months old, or get a car that turns its windshield wipers on immediately when the windshield gets wet, or get a bigger, more defined television to slowly die in front of.

In the outdoors, you need gear, yes, but you don’t need all of it, all the time. A friend of mine who does about twice as much climbing and skiing as I do has about 2/3 of a reasonable rack for climbing, borrows ice tools, and has an avalanche beacon on a kind of permanent temporary loan from someone. He does have way nicer outdoor clothing than me. I am envious of his stories, not what he’s wearing in the photos I see from his trips.

When I worked at the REI store in Phoenix, we used to have a couple of guys who would come in without fail every single Saturday. Both of them knew more about gear than I did, and they would show up and engage anyone on the sales floor for hours about the materials in this tent, or this rain jacket, or this GPS. It was like they were coming to a class to learn more about gear than anyone. Some Saturdays, I would be pretty tired of giving up all my weekends (I had a full-time job on top of my part-time REI gig) to work at the store, and I just wanted to go up to them and shake them, and say, “Your gear is perfectly fine! Go use it! Some of us have to work Saturdays — you don’t! If you want to buy something, let me sell you a map so you can pack up a backpack and go do some cool shit somewhere.”

Sometimes I hear people say things like, “I’m kind of a gear junkie.” That’s fine, whatever floats your boat. But you really don’t need to know that much about gear to do most things in the outdoors — how to fix some basic things on your bike, sure; how to use rock and ice climbing gear in a fashion that doesn’t endanger you or your partner, yes; how to operate a stove without burning down the forest, yes. But if you’re not Steve House or Ueli Steck, you can probably go ahead and climb with the fifth- or sixth-lightest soft shell, and crampons from 2004. Really. And your tent can weigh six ounces more than its closest competitor.

For the record, you know what you can buy for the same price as an Arc’Teryx Alpha LT jacket? Flights to and from Jackson, Wyoming, from Chicago in August.