I spent two and a half months in the USA, working my way from the Pacific Northwest through to the Rockies, down to Colorado, Utah, and finally out through California. There was some great flights but overall there was a lot of smoke and weather issues. I always saw this as more of an adventure though, if I wanted more reliable flying I would have gone to Europe. The wing was an occasional bonus but more than anything it was meeting interesting people and catching up with friends while having a hitchhiking road trip through the American west.
I crossed overland by bus from Vancouver to Bellingham, WA, where I met up with 2017 X-Alps pilot Jesse Williams. He had me out flying one of the local sites the same afternoon. After beer and pizza it was quite late and the next day I had an early start before with another pilot Josh we went up to a high saddle wedged between two wilderness areas behind Mt Baker. Half of the carpark at 5000′ was covered by melting snow patches. We soared together for a time and finally I made a decision that ended up giving me probably the most memorable flight of the whole USA trip.
The next morning I felt it was too smoky to go anywhere, particularly with no apparent landing options on the way. I started hitching by a National Parks minded campground. Some people had said you’d never get a ride in the USA, but I found it similar but probably better than in Australia – a lot of people are afraid because of the media coverage and the stigma, but enough used to hitchhike themselves in the past. Most rides took about half an hour, on average.
The guy that gave me a lift – Rob – was a electrician in the next town, Mazama. He was really enthusiastic about my trip and invited me into his home. Not only that, but he got in touch with his buddy who happens to fly as well, and a few days later I met and stayed with him and his wife for a few nights. Good old fashioned American hospitality. Before that however, there was some weather coming through – which was needed to clear the smoke. I decided to do a few days of the long distance Pacific Crest Trail, nearby. Hitching there was even better, I got a lift before I’d even reached the road.
I really liked the mountains here and after this taste I wanted to fly them more. I also knew that it was the last chance I’d have to see serious glaciers in a while. With a group of paragliders from the Washington area (David and Janice, Matt, Kelly, Jesse, Brian…) we met up to go flying – and were really let down to see thick smoke. We’d assumed it would be limited to the eastern side of the Cascades. It was fun flying with mates but after looking away briefly I lost them in the murk – but no one went far.
After a bush walk where Matt (and I to a lesser extent) got attacked by killer wasps, we returned to Seattle defeated. The next morning we weren’t really motivated to do anything – but Matt watched a few old videos, and hatched a tentative plan. Luckily we ended up going because the two of us had an unexpectedly amazing overnight trip through the central Cascades. What made it really special is that it was wildly better than we ever expected.
On the other side of the Cascades Matt realized he had a van that needed a bit of work done over the winter, so we had an easy ride back to Seattle, visiting some of his mates on the way. There was more smoke and uncooperative winds on the way so Matt agreed to lend me his van and I thought I’d take a diversion and visit a few friends in Oregon.
The Seattle guys were top notch but the weather wasn’t cooperating and I’d given it time to sort itself out – it was time to move on. I caught an overnight bus through to Boise, Idaho. Another hitchhiking adventure began. A fellow brought me up to the Bogus Basin ski field, which I saw as the best chance of flying. As he was worried about my safety I exchanged phone numbers and rang him later on to confirm I’d survived. I didn’t get anywhere with my flight but the next day and in stable windy conditions again (perhaps slightly better), I wafted over the back but eventually had to walk back to the highway. In summary I went from a spa to a hot spring, before finally getting a bit more of a flight on the way to Sun Valley.
In Sun Valley I met up with a friend of Gavin McClurg, Willi Cannell. As I write this I am pleased to see that both of them are selected for the next X-Alps. (However I also know several great pilots who weren’t selected – I’d hate to have that job of choosing who will make the 32!)
I spent a few days there then took a ride with Scott from Oregon out to Black mountain, where we flew together a while then I continued over Idaho’s highest mountain.
Searching for a long time for a suitable landing, I finally settled for a tight spot which gave me a bit of a scare.
The next morning was also “interesting”. After launching I crossed a long valley, flying “flatlands” for a while, landing at the base of the next hill. I hiked up again and had a great little flight, not far but landing at the top of the next “Sheep mountain”. Here I camped the night but after giving the weather a chance in the morning I glided down to the highway and started hitchhiking towards Montana.
More interesting hitchhiking, and a bit of a change in scene – I had a good look around but didn’t manage a single flight in Montana. Someone suggested I need to write a book – yes I’d like to, but not today.
In Jackson Hole I talked a local pilot into taking me on his trip out to the Wind River range, which was a blast.
Direct from here I hitchhiked south. A short lift from a commuter followed by a long lift with a lovely young Colorado couple, who even cooked me delicious dinner (I think I made some modest token contribution). The next day they gave me a guest pass for a shower at a fitness gym, a handy little set up they have (I’d just like to point out that I did wash in a lake in the Wyoming mountain trip!). Next an interesting conversation with a man of the land and finally I met up with Mark, a kiwi expat, in Telluride.
One night I was with a fellow kiwi digging vegetables from the garden for dinner, the next I was treated to American hospitality with a couple I’d just met, landing my paraglider on the “other side of the hill”.
The next two nights I camped in the hills as I flew northeast, and then after a day of hitching I camped at the base of Colorado’s highest mountain.
And then I was in UTAH! Had a few flights here but mostly it was better weather for chatting to cowboys, in the last few days before I hitched into Salt Lake City for more hospitality with the local pilots before meeting up with my Mum, brother David, and Sophie.
There may have been a few odd chances to fly in Utah while I joined along with David and Sophie’s road trip, but winter was on its way, with grey skies, showers, flash floods, and snow. We headed to Moab and west, ticking off national parks – Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce canyon.
I explored a few canyons which were amazing, and I must look into doing more of this in Australia.
Bryce was the last stop before I diverged, to head to California for the last week of my trip.
It was my most ambition hitchhiking yet – out to the highway, past Las Vegas, and through Death Valley, which was the slowest of all, to the Sierra Nevada. Here again the weather was packing it in with low cloud base, but I managed a few flights. My final flight of the North America trip had me landing just outside Yosemite national park.
A full days hiking around Yosemite valley and then it was back to civilisation and being a tourist – public transport into San Francisco, more homeless people than I’ve ever seen and the most expensive hostel I’ve ever stayed at, and finally a flight to LAX and out to Fiji.
As usual this blog has been a rushed summary with mostly cuttings of instagram and facebook posts but hopefully it organises them to be slightly more coherent – over time I’ll add videos and so on but this serves to trigger some great memories of a huge trip through the American west.
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