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9,000 Miles & Counting

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In the summer of 2023, I embarked on a 9,000-mile road trip that took me across six states and two Canadian provinces. The vehicle that made this possible was my 2018 Dodge Durango, which I had fitted with a refrigerator, cooking supplies, a bed and emergency equipment. I left my home in Central California and drove 750 miles north to Hermiston, Oregon. There, I met up with my uncle and my father, and we set off for a week-long ATVing camping trip.

We set up camp in the beautiful Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, near the town of Meacham. Our camp consisted of my ATV, a Polaris Sportsman 800 that I had towed up from California, my uncles ATV and his travel trailer. We drove hundreds of miles on trails, going through gorgeous pine forests and clean rivers. The only drawback was the dust. That part of Oregon hadn’t seen rain in a while, which caused the trails to be insanely dusty.

We came across two abandoned hunting cabins, which we were able to find old artifacts and mining equipment in. The three of us spent the evenings by the campfire, sharing camping and hunting stories. My uncle had been a part of multiple hunting expeditions to Africa, where he bagged a leopard, an elephant and an assortment of other animals. I recall a story he told us where a golden orb spider had made its way into his tent, and he ran out screaming like a little girl.

Wallowa Lake in Oregon

Back in Oregon, when we weren’t ATVing, sharing stories or swimming in the river, we were target shooting. My uncle had an array of different rifles and pistols we were able to use, and we used cantaloupe and cabbage as our targets, which made it very entertaining. After seven days in the Oregon backcountry, it was time to head back to Hermiston. My dad drove back home to California and my uncle left for a trip to New York. It was time for me to start my 25-day solo journey.

I left the comfort of a house, and more importantly a bed, and began the drive to my first national park of the trip, Grand Teton in Wyoming. On the way I stopped at Wallowa Lake, a place I like to call “Little Switzerland”, as the Wallowa Mountain range reflects on the crystal clear waters of the lake, much like the Alps in Switzerland. After stopping at Shoshone Falls in Idaho, and encountering a massive hailstorm and numerous rockslides, I made it to camp at Colter Bay in the Tetons.

It didn’t take long for me to see my first bear. The bear, as I found out from fellow tourists that were watching her from afar, was known as 399, the most famous grizzly in the world. She was accompanied by her cub, and they were making their way across the wildflower covered field to the creek. I was fortunate enough to see her and her cub seven times over the duration of my trip, as well as a total of 12 bears and 17 cubs. It was truly an incredible experience to interact with God’s creatures in their wild habitat. I met so many amazing people, such as a couple from Germany named Bjarne and Anna. We met while watching 399 in the Tetons and met back up in Glacier later in the trip. The people I made shaped the trip, and I made friends from all around the world.

After being eaten alive by mosquitoes while watching a postcard worthy sunset, I turned north to America’s first national park, Yellowstone. Driving past the geysers at night was a unique experience, one I’m sure not to forget. I walked miles of boardwalks that traversed around geysers and hot springs dating back thousands of years. I recall seeing a lone bison peeking through the clouds of sulfur, it seemed like something straight out of a movie. Watching the bison was a very moving experience, knowing that these animals once dominated the West, and were almost killed due to extinction, but have made a comeback.

One of the days I was in Yellowstone, I decided to drive the Beartooth Highway. The Beartooth is an incredible mountain road spanning nearly 70 miles across the Rocky Mountains of Montana. I encountered a woman whose car had gotten stuck in the snow at the top of the pass. With the help of another bystander, we were able to get her back on the road. It was a memorable experience.

Back in Yellowstone, I had been searching for wolves the entire time with no luck. However, on my last day in the park, my dreams came true. There it was, all alone on the hillside, a lone black wolf. The other tourists that had stopped were in just as much shock as I was. Later that day, I found a pack of wolves that were chasing a herd of bison in Lamar Valley. The pack, known as the Junction Butte pack, has lost multiple members due to hunting outside the park, which is legal in the state of Montana. It was an amazing last day.

Tetons in Wyoming

I once again found myself driving north, this time to Bannack Ghost Town in Montana. Bannack was once the capital of Montana and was home to a man named Henry Plummer. Plummer was a sheriff turned outlaw who stole millions of dollars’ worth of gold. He was convicted of theft and murder, however, before he could be hanged, he said that he hid his fortune in the mountains somewhere in sight from his jail cell, on the edge of Bannack. He refused to give an exact location and was in turn hung for his actions. Treasure hunters have been looking for his loot for decades, and it was even featured in Josh Gates’ tv show Expedition Unknown. It was an amazing experience walking through the old, spooky halls of the abandoned homes and churches.

My next stop was the Chief Joseph Ranch, better known as the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, from the famous tv show Yellowstone. Although I couldn’t walk on the ranch itself, I was still able to see the barn and house from the road that was featured in the show. I was like a kid in a candy store.

Once I made my way around a good old Montana traffic jam (a herd of about 250 bison), I arrived at my third national park of the trip, Glacier. Whilst in Glacier, I met back up with my friends from Germany, and we made the hike up to Hidden Lake. The conditions were basically white out at times, it felt like being in Antarctica. My hands and face were numb, but the memories I made were well worth it. I ended up driving the Going-to-the-sun road, (the main road in Glacier), nearly ten times. It is one of the most amazing roads ever constructed in my opinion. I often saw bighorn sheep and foxes along the roadway, not to mention the waterfalls and dramatic canyon formed by the Rockies.

Iceberg Lake in Glacier

The Iceberg Lake hike was something I had been dreading and looking forward to the entire time I was there. On one of my last days, I decided to do it. The hike was ten miles long, up to an alpine lake nestled in a spectacular steep-walled cirque. I encountered yet another hailstorm, a bear and a moose on the hike. When I made it to the lake, I met a family from Tennessee. I ended up hiking the entire way back with them, they were truly amazing people and made the trek back much easier.

My biggest setback came on a remote dirt road on my way to the town of Polebridge. The town is home to the Polebridge Mercantile, which has some of the best pastries, especially their huckleberry bear claws. However, while I was on route, my tire sensor displayed that my front left tire was extremely low. When I got out to investigate, I noticed I had a large hole in the tire, probably caused by a metal hook from a tow strap that I had accidentally run over. Thankfully, an amazing guy, with his family in the car, stopped and helped me. We patched the tire and re-inflated it using my air compressor. When I was about to leave, I noticed that my back right tire had also been punctured. Now, we were out of patching equipment, and all we had was the air compressor. Mind you, there was no cell service, and we were in the heart of bear country. It took me nearly five hours to drive 24 miles, since I had to stop every three minutes to refill my tires. But thankfully I made it to Les Schwab in nearby Columbia Falls. $2,500 later, I had four working tires. I gifted myself with a steak and chocolate cake from a steakhouse in town, and God gifted me with one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen. Although the day did not go as planned, it ended up being one of the most memorable of the trip.

Moraine Lake in Banff, Canada

With my car now a different color from all the mud and bugs I had accumulated, I faced my eyes north for the last time on the trip, to my final location, Canada. I had a bit of a rocky border crossing, since it was my first time out of the US. Canadian customs fully gutted my car, searching for illegal items, which of course they found none of. With that behind me, I made it to the jaw dropping place that is the Canadian Rockies. I camped inside Kootenay National Park, in the province of British Columbia, at a spot right by the river. I took a shuttle bus to what could be the most beautiful place in the world, Moraine Lake. The blue hues of the water burn your eyes, and with the Rockies and pine trees as a backdrop, it honestly couldn’t get any better.

In a spur of the moment thing, I drove to the northernmost point on my trip, Jasper National Park, roughly 1,500 miles from home. There, I hiked to the top of Athabasca Glacier in a t-shirt, shorts, and crocs. The winds exceeded 60mph, and on top of that, it was beginning to hail. That experience was something I will never forget and made me realize what the human body is capable of. Although my time in Canada was short, it opened my eyes to a new country, and a whole new place to explore.

After spending the fourth of July in Oregon with my uncle, I drove back home to California. I was shocked that, when I got home, a new truck was sitting in the driveway with a ribbon on it. My parents had surprised me with my new adventure rig, a 2019 Ram Rebel. I am extremely fortunate and grateful for the opportunities my parents have given me and the freedom they have given me to make these trips possible. My next big adventure will hopefully take me to the tip of North America, to the end of the Pan-American highway, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, a dream of mine since I was a child.

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About the Contributor
Alex Gray, Travel Lead
Alex Gray was born on March 13, 2006, and is currently a senior at Tracy High School. He enjoys taking road trips, ATVing and exploring new places. This past June he spent 42 days driving across six states and two provinces. During this 9,000-mile road trip, Gray encountered over twenty bears, mostly grizzlies, and was fortunate enough to see five wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. Wyoming was his favorite state on the trip, with Montana being a close second. He also enjoys doing animal rescue, which his family has been doing his entire life. Gray is a huge basketball fan, and expresses his support for the Minnesota Timberwolves, even after a lackluster season. Alex Gray aspires to be a game warden in Wyoming and plans on going to Oregon State University to reach these goals.  

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