Finding the Ocean – Chapter 12

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning


After spending a few hours hours walking the beach and admiring the views at Crissy Field, Zoey and I headed back to our hotel room. I was looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep, then getting up early and seeing more spectacular views of the Pacific Coast as I drove north toward Oregon on US 101.

We made it back to the Hotel del Sol around 7 PM and I immediately slipped into my pajamas, excited beyond words to finally sleep in a REAL BED and not in the back of my Ford Explorer. I turned on the TV, plugged in my iPhone and decided to check-in and see what was shaking with the rest of the world.

I texted my friend Stacey (Stephanie’s mom from Chapter 6) and sent her a few videos of Zoey playing on the beach. She asked me where I was heading next, so I told her I was heading north on the Pacific Coast Highway into Oregon, then cutting across through Idaho, and up into Montana so I could meet Ross in Whitefish on Thursday. I was planning to go to bed early so I could wake up and get out of town before rush hour started. It would be the Tuesday after Labor Day… a work day… and I had seen enough of the crazy traffic in this town to know I wanted to avoid that scenario at all cost.

Stacey texted back:

They evacuated the other side of the lake where Mitch lives and then sent him and two other guys to the evacuated area to protect the boats.

What??

Stacey’s youngest son, Mitch, lives in Montana and works for Glacier Park Boats on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. After telling her my plans, she gave me an update on the Sprague Fire that was devastating Glacier National Park at the time. By that evening (September 4, 2017), the fire had spread to over 13,000 acres and was only 35 percent contained.

I asked Stacey how in the world Mitch was supposed to protect the boats. Shouldn’t he be evacuating, too??

Mitch had told her the plan was to take all the boats into the middle of the lake and stay with them, swabbing them down to make sure the sparks and ashes didn’t start the boats on fire. Included in the fleet were at least 3-4 historic wooden tour boats that were each over 100 years old. Mitch was in charge of guarding the DeSmet, the flagship vessel in the company’s wooden boat fleet.

Here’s a very cool picture Stacey sent me of Mitch guarding the DeSmet. It may look very tranquil and peaceful, but it wasn’t. Normally, there would be beautiful views of the mountains and glaciers behind him, but the smoke was so thick you could see none of that.

Good Lord. I asked Stacey if she was a nervous wreck.

“Yep,” she replied. “Maybe you should skip Montana on your way home.”

She sent me one other photo that Mitch had sent to her. How incredibly amazing is this?

The Northern Lights and Sprague Wildfire from the shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park Montana. The Sprague fire was started on August 10th 2017 by a lightning strike. This shot was taken in late August just days before this wildfire burned the historic Sperry Chalet. Photo credit heavenspeakphotography.com.

OK. Wow. Perhaps it was time to reevaluate my plan. By now, I had caught a few news updates on TV that told me Montana wasn’t the only state experiencing wildfires. In fact, the reason the sun was so hazy over San Francisco Bay was because of the wildfires burning throughout northern California and Oregon.

Crap.

That’s exactly where I had been planning on going. I got out of bed, pulled out my laptop and started searching for more details about these wildfires. I learned that the wildfires in Oregon had shut down several roads, and I worried there would be no way to cut across the state without driving right into the thick of it. Even worse, I worried I might find myself trapped as the winds were constantly changing and whipping up the intensity and direction of the fires.

Here’s a map from September 5, 2017 that shows the smoke forecast from the wildfires. As I studied the wildfire map and compared it to all my route options on Google Maps, I realized there was no way I could get to Whitefish, Montana by going up the Pacific Coast Highway through Oregon. It was time for a new plan.

Photo credit: wildfiretoday.com

Wine Country!!

I took another look at Google Maps and figured out I could still follow US 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge and get to Napa in about an hour. From there, I could cut back across Nevada, then head north into Wyoming and maybe drop in on my friend Inger in Jackson Hole (which just so happens to be one of my very favorite places on earth). Perfect! It was about as good of a Plan B as a person could hope for.

I set my alarm for 4:30 AM and was up, showered, and ready to hit the road by 5 AM. I fed Zoey, took her out for a quick walk (it was still dark), then packed all our belongings back in the Explorer and prepared to hit the road. Before pulling out, I entered “Napa” on my car’s GPS and started on my way.

By 5:30 AM, downtown San Francisco was already a madhouse. I was happy I’d made the decision to leave extra early, but even still, I marveled at the crazy amount of traffic in this town. It was still dark, but I was hopeful I’d be able to snap a few photos of the Golden Gate Bridge as I was going over it. I continued to follow my car’s GPS, completely oblivious to where I was or which direction I was heading. And then… there I was… going back over the BAY BRIDGE instead of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Noooo!!! How did THAT happen?

I was so mad. I thought about turning back and trying again, but the line of cars heading into San Francisco on the Bay Bridge from the other direction was at a complete standstill. There was no way I was going to try and navigate that fracas, so I decided to just keep driving.

So, again, here’s what I missed.

Upon arriving home, I was told by countless people that the scenery on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge is absolutely stunning. This is the site of Muir Woods National Monument, and home to the coastal redwood trees… the tallest living things on the planet. The tallest one in Muir Woods is 258 feet, which is almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. And I missed it.

Photo credit: nps.gov/goga

I also missed the Muir Beach Overlook which provides expansive views of the Pacific Coast…

Photo credit: nps.gov/goga

…and I missed the Marin Headlands, with their beautiful hiking trails and spectacular views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Photo credit: nps.gov/goga

Ah, well… next time I promised myself I would do this trip better. For now though, I was off to wine country. Napa, baby!

It only took me about an hour to get to Napa from San Francisco, so there I was at 7 AM. Everything was closed and it was too early to tour any wineries, so the best I could do was just drive around for a while. It was still hazy because of all the smoke from the wildfires, but I imagined this place would be absolutely gorgeous on a clear sunny day with the sun rising over those beautiful vine-covered hills. I tried taking a picture out my driver-side window, but it’s not pretty. This is not the beautiful Napa Valley I had envisioned in my head for most of my adult life.

Once again, I felt like I was zigging when I should have been zagging. I figured it would be at least noon until any of the wineries opened, but I wasn’t willing to just wait around for five hours. The drive to Jackson Hole was at least 10 hours from here (not including stops) and I wanted to make it as far as I could before having to stop for the night. A five hour delay just was not in the cards. But, by God, I would not be leaving wine country without any wine.

I started Googling again. The best I could find was a Safeway grocery store about 10 miles away that was open 24 hours. Good enough. I hit “start” on the GPS and found my way there.

I spent the next half hour wandering the “Spirits” aisle at Safeway, studying the wine labels and trying to decide which ones I wanted to buy for gifts. This is one of my favorite things to do, and while most people probably pay more attention to things like vintages and critical reviews, I spend the majority of my time looking at the labels. I love the ones with a creative name, a cool design, or an intriguing backstory.

In particular, I wanted to bring back a bottle of California wine for Patty, so I narrowed it down to six labels that reminded me of her. In the end, I couldn’t decide on just one, so I bought them all… along with a few others to help fill the case.

As I got back in the car, I promised myself I would return to wine country one day and do this place justice. I would have a plan, an itinerary, reservations, discretionary income, friends, and no dog. In the meantime, I was grateful for a 24/7 Safeway and a full case of wine in my backseat.

Now then… on to Jackson Hole.

(Incidentally, there was a terrible wildfire that hit wine country about a month after I returned home. It started northwest of where I was, near Calistoga, and moved quickly south, propelled by dry conditions and high winds. The worst area hit was Santa Rosa, where several people lost their lives after being trapped by the flames. As of October 31, 2017, the Tubbs Fire had burned 36,807 acres and had a death toll of 22. Altogether, there were at least 43 fatalities in the 2017 fires in northern California.)

I drove back the way I had come… over Donner Pass and across Nevada on I-80. When I reached Wells, I hung a left on U.S. 93 and continued north until I reached Twin Falls, Idaho. It was dark and I didn’t want to drive the pass into Jackson Hole at night, so I decided to stop and find a hotel. I figured I would get a good night’s sleep and be able to take a shower in the morning before heading to Inger’s house. I hadn’t told her I was coming yet and wasn’t even sure if she’d be around, but I figured I’d email her in the morning and see if it worked out.

I found a pet-friendly Super 8 in Twin Falls, so Zoey and I stopped for the night and took a much-needed break. I had been driving for over 11 hours and had covered 700 miles. That was a lot. I was happy to stop driving.

As I got into bed, I opened my laptop to plot my route and see how long it would take me to get to Jackson Hole. I opened a browser window and noticed a bold red “Breaking News” banner running across the top of my default home page… the West Central Tribune… my local newspaper in Willmar, Minnesota.

Jasmine Block had been found.

She was the 15 year old girl from Alexandria, Minnesota who had gone missing on August 8th. I’d seen a “Missing” poster for her at a rest area in Lusk, Wyoming, back when I had first started my road trip. Now, she’d been found alive and was finally home safe.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. She’d been kidnapped by a 32 year old man, Thomas Barker, who lived in a nearby town and was an acquaintance of the family. Jasmine was held captive and sexually abused by Barker and two other men for almost a month. She was kept in the back part of a house, often in a closet with her hands zip-tied, and was transported in a duffel bag whenever the men moved her from place to place. They’d even tried to kill her on several occasions, but she managed to survive. Finally, after almost a month, she was able to escape after being left alone for the first time in the suspects’ truck. She ran from door to door looking for help and then swam part way across a small lake until a local farmer found her and brought her to safety.

Read the story here…

I had been thinking about Jasmine a lot on this trip and had been praying she’d be found alive. Now that she had, I was all sorts of happy/sad/confused/angry. Who are these people? Who does this to children? Why hadn’t investigators been able to find her sooner? Why does this keep happening? How can we do better?

As I write this, I’m also thinking of Jayme Closs, the 13 year old girl from Barron, Wisconsin who disappeared (presumably kidnapped) on October 15, 2018… the same night her parents were found shot and murdered in their home. Why? What happened? Where’s Jayme? What are we missing? How can we do better?

Next time… facing September 6th and that horrible day in the courtroom…

Read More