USA road trip

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.

In Wyoming, 14 Sep 2018

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.

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North Cascades wilderness. Jesse (of #redbullxalps fame) and other local pilots welcomed me to the USA with post flight beers, pizza, and a late night chat, I managed to stock up on food but still had a list of things to do (like getting a map!) but the sun was out so consumerism was put on hold while we soared a saddle between Mt Baker (10781' ie 3286m, a heavily glaciated volcano) and Mt Shuksan (9131', below me in the photo, I flew the way I'm facing). Jesse had to sort some things out and went to land, I thought I better at least try the Shuksan ridge, even though it was smoky and stable… I guess you could say one thing led to another, I found myself negotiating Eddie Vedder's backyard, no toddlers with guns, cheerleaders, or fries-with-that out here! Last stop on the west coast line, just south of the northern border… I'm just doing the miles, every once in a while I get a ride.. The elements they speak to me #pearljam

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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.

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Northern end of the Sawtooth range. Thanks to the people of Idaho for getting me here. First the lift up to the ski field, then the lift with Red the larrakin with his Aussie impersonations, then the ride in the back of the pick up truck to the cafe where bystanders came to chat and even brought me beers, opposite natural hot springs which got me out of bed the next morning before two girlfriends out for a hike dropped me at the bottom of this hill. A calm morning became gusty as I set up to launch. In the air it was windy and after finally getting enough height to commit to following the ridge I ended up letting myself get blown into the flats (left in picture). The flying was a bit more relaxing there. Topped out at 12500' and landed by the highway where I got a lift all the way to Sun valley. https://www.xcontest.org/world/en/flights/detail:nneynens/1.9.2018/20:09

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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.

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Just came back from an overnight traverse through Glacier national park sans wing – swapped it for a bike! Some more memorable hitching since the Lost River range vol biv: The old rancher, once he'd figured out how to unlock the door and put the handbrake on, The guys in the pub who asked for my photo after enthusiastically hearing my paragliding stories, The young guy heading to town to get a permit to shoot a black bear that had been causing problems, A local who couldn't decide which was his favourite time of year (near Salmon and the Continental divide trail), A truck driver, a Sikh living in Santa Barbara, who asked me to summarize meteorology in two words, and gave me a tour of the coca cola depot, A gentleman at the gas station who asked if I had a gun (three times?), told me to use soap (fair call?) and warned me of the liberals in Seattle, A Vietnam vet / ex forest service worker (Dave) who went out of his way to show me a bison in the flesh (right next to the car) at a nearby reserve, A chap on his way to his weekender cabin on Flathead lake, the largest (non hydro) west of the Mississippi, Cody, another young Californian expat, happy that I wasn't preaching to him (except about flying of course) Josh, who I went camping a few nights with and met several of the locals he's recently come to know around the Park, and who relieved me of my wing in exchange for his bike – we'll meet again in a few days when he drives to California. God bless America 😉

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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.

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UTAH! Bit of a story to get here… From the Colorado vol biv I spent a day hitching, finally with Bill on his 68th birthday who took me out to the base of Colorado's highest mountain (via Leadville and the pub for dinner). We climbed it the next morning, I climbed ahead through fall colour and fresh snow. After climbing it I flew over the top but didn't make it out – had to hike up another 1000' before flying again and being blown out to Twin lake. A couple from Atlanta brought me back to the trail head then I travelled to upmarket Aspen in style in a convertible with a young Russian couple. Seeing several paragliders soaring the sunset I found out from the bus drivers where the landing field was and went to say hello. I met a young local couple who offered me a lift to Utah for the flying meet, that night! After visiting the local 100 miler legend I'd met about a decade ago we drove into the night. The next morning we sat on launch waiting for hours then I had a early landing at the hot springs, then yesterday I flew the higher mountain and flew down wind to find a camp (above cliffs pictured) at 9500'.

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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.

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If I did nothing else productive today… at least I helped this cowboy stack his firewood. Brian (a retired serviceman and truck driver with a bad back) is living off the land, with two permits for elk he'll have meat, and with fur bounties for coyote, and maybe bobcat or mountain lion, he'll have extra cash for the winter. After a few years of this he's planning to do the same… in Alaska. I never got to Alaska this trip (or ever!) but my impression is that there's a lot like him up there, living out their boyhood fantasies. My little loop walk took me past this and one other pick up truck and neither had any water! Luckily back with my wing etc a geologist and his wife on a quad bike stopped by and gave me the best part of a gallon – with hot stable weather, rolling slopes of sage brush, and more wind than I was expecting, it was a long walk out. #utah

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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.

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Arches National Park, Utah. On our first day trip in the Moab area we went to Arches National Park. Americans love a good “drive-thru”, something not limited to just fast food stores, but also pharmacies, ATMs and in Las Vegas they have drive-through wedding chapels too! National parks are no different, with the roads typically taking you to all the highlights- something especially nice in the desert, although we did end up spurning the Air Conditioning during the hottest part of the day to go for a walk amongst the arches. The arches were a real treat to see, and it is amazing to think they are all transient- all 2000 of the arches in the park are doomed to collapse at some stage, something you try and avoid thinking about as you walk beneath them! (Shout out to Nick for taking the photo of us with delicate arch in the background!)🤠

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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.

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El Capitan: Another epic string of hitchhiking makes a story in itself but to summarize; I crossed from Utah, past Las Vegas, Death valley, and to the Sierra Nevada. A friend had blessed the journey, "I wish you interesting rides across the American west, and should you be the recipient of forced buggery, I do hope they treat you to wine and dinner first!!" A few short flights and longer rides and finally the most noteworthy flight I've had in the last fortnight (there hasn't been many) took me to a dry meadow at 10000' adjacent to the road leading to Yosemite. My previously stated wish to not be too high over hazy peaks far beneath was delivered in spades – in three days I was not even able to fly over any mountains, but had to scud along their flanks (passing at least one aircraft wreckage). I enjoyed a much anticipated dip in an alpine lake before taking a choice of lifts down into the valley. A fellow pilot with twenty years climbing experience introduced me to an old friend of his, who regaled us with stories of ice climbing and Patagonia as we dined at the SAR enclave in Camp 4, a place intimately known by famous climbers the world over. Today we fly the western side of the Sierra Nevada. From there I'll be concluding the North American adventure in San Francisco.

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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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About sharemyjoys

Nick Neynens
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One Response to USA road trip

  1. Pingback: Spring in New Zealand | Flying paragliders in the mountains

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