In late July, my sister moved from California to Washington State to start a new life. As a long-time fan of interstitial opportunities for goofing off, I proposed making a van trip out of it. I usually make a beeline towards Seattle or Squamish when I do this drive and miss most of the Pacific Northwest, only stopping at Bend/Smith Rock to climb.

Our roadtrip vibes this time was different: we wanted to go with the flow, see what we could see, and let serendipity take the wheel. It was a heat wave, so the cooling rivers, waterfalls, and lakes were much more appealing than my usual desire to be on a rock or peak.

>Did you know you can just drive into a watermelon patch?

True to our mission of spontaneity, I was already detouring off the 5 just 1.5 hours out of the Bay Area to follow a series of watermelon emoji signs, which is not what you do if you want to get to Seattle as fast as possible.

Traffic at the u-pick watermelon truck scale?

In a big open lot, the person at the kiosk waved me onto a truck scale (!!) and weighted the van, then gave verbal instructions on how to get to the watermelon patch, which you drive your entire car into! There was a little Prius there, and a gloved person furiously tossing melons into the trunk, clearly an expert. It was nearly 100f with a dry breeze. This is a class of fruit I never considered recreationally harvesting.

"How did I get here?"

We googled “how to pick a watermelon”, walked around the patch in flip flops, and selected one (1) juicy boy.

Back at the truck scale, the kiosk person was shocked that a vehicle of such massive watermelon capacity only weighted one (1) watermelon more than before. She said it was common for Bay Area folk to load up and resell at farmer’s markets.

We’re supposed to rinse these real good before eating, so we bathed it in a nearby rest stop. It was actually the most flavourful and juicy watermelon I have ever tasted, and all grocery store watermelon since have turned to ash in my mouth, so be aware of the consequences if you want to pick your own watermelon.

>Fire comes early to NorCal

As a seasoned Californian, I’m well aware of the phenomenon where fire season doesn’t exist until oh fuck oh fuck your personal sky zone goes dark with smoke. The Dixie fire had been going on for a week and a half already but we were surprised to descend into a thick smog at Shasta Lake, the forested hills barely visible along the winding highway. We woke up at Lake Siskiyou in a plume, the famous views of Mount Shasta casually wiped from the sky.

Smoke and orange light at Lake Siskiyou. Welcome to summer in California.

That didn’t put us in the mood to paddle like we’d planned, but it was hot and we drove out east towards McCloud, hoping to be enticed to splash around under waterfalls. It was still hazy at the trailhead, but the stoke was rising. I packed sourdough avocado sandwiches, and we made the quick stroll down to Upper McCloud Falls, skied down the steep dirt slope, and took a VERY cold snow-melt dip! My butt went numb as I swam to the other side of the pool but it felt AMAZING. We scrambled around to the base of the falls where it was powerfully loud, felt the air rushing out, observed the hanging garden of greens clinging to the cracks and ledges in the basalt wall. Sat on a rock and ate a sandwich.

Upper McCloud Falls, cold and refreshing.

Heading back through McCloud to get back on the 5 North, we stopped in town for coffee. It was unexpectedly empty, and the barista was surprised we didn’t know about the world-famous 74th Annual Lumberjack Fiesta that was going on down the street at Hoo Hoo Park.

>A three-watersport day in Central Oregon

It was approaching 100f on the highway. The fire smoke was thickening, and the AC was working hard. Fun mini game: Mercedes makes a “safety feature” that automatically switches off internal air circulation, so I had to catch the sharp inhalation sound of the van trying to take a big gulp of smoke air and mash the internal circulation button every dozen of minutes.

I wanted to make a detour to visit the famously clear water of Crater Lake, but after seeing this webcam footage we decided against it.

I kept driving until the air cleared up, so we were already in the Deschutes in Central Oregon that night. We caught up on our respective PT exercises before bed, so I was doing crabwalks with a resistance band to the sound of screaming ducks and water birds.

An otherwise quiet camp spot, minus the screaming birds.

Waking up early, I started driving up the scenic loop through the Deschutes, turning off at a sign for Osprey Point Interpretive Site. We were excited for opportunistic birdwatching and I wanted to see an osprey, but were defeated by a sudden and impenetrable wall of mosquitos that slapped us in a solid wave by the water. Right, this is Oregon. Nursing our bites and wounds, we try again at Lava Lake and found it significantly less bugful.

Lava Lake, calm with a bit of drizzle. Peaks left to right: South Sister, Broken Top, Mt Bachelor.

It quietly rained a bit while we were paddling on the water, which for a Californian was a mystical experience. By the afternoon it was hot again, and we were feeling a swim. Oregon is like a waterpark and there are infinite lakes, but I thought it’d be nice to find a smaller one that didn’t have a road sticking out of it. We did a little trek out to Blow Lake. That water was so clear! and there was shockingly no one else there. Even more surprising, it was apoparently late-season enough that there were no mosquitos. We had the whole lake to ourselves. It felt amazing. I sat on a rock and dried off in the sun. I want to live this day every week.

Blow Lake, like a dream.

Heading to town, we rolled into Bend with enough time to do a float! I didn’t want to mess around with the bus shuttle with COVID, so I made my own shuttle: I dropped the paddleboard and my sister off at the south end of the float (Riverbend Park), parked the car in the middle (Bend Whitewater Park), and jogged back to my sister (less than a mile, which took 10 minutes). I don’t have a photo I want to share but it was as nice as I had remembered from my last float in 2019, there’s a reason it’s a classic (:

Found a corral of vans outside of town and watched the sunset with the other campers.

>Smith Rock

This is the first time I’ve been out to Smith Rock and didn’t climb. It was actually pouring rain that morning in Bend, so we drove north after eating an Ocean Roll at Sparrow Bakery, which was covered in unapologetically desperate hiring flyers like every food business in 2021. It was still raining on and off as we hiked the Misery Ridge in Smith, which was made actually pleasant by the cold breeze. Rounding the river, I saw some folks toproping on moderate routes, so perhaps the locals are less shy about wet rock than me.

This looks so much more like a Monkey Face from the hiker’s angle than when you’re climbing up the long snakey neck.

>Mt Hood

Continuing north, the road carves up Utah-like tablelands and then the forest thickens. I spy Mt Hood, and I realise this might be the first time I looked at it on purpose, and somehow all the other times it must have been too dark or I was asleep in the passenger seat. It’s a pretty striking volcano! We find a camp spot at Trillium Lake with a view of the big boy.

Dinner under Mt Hood

Breakfast under Mt Hood

Watching Mt Hood while eating a pasta dinner, we see some ospreys flying by, completing our failed Osprey Point sidequest from earlier. A neighboring van traveller was excited to see us with crash pads, but we were just using it in couch mode to picnic on :^)

We went forth onto Hood itself, and from Timberline Lodge, we hike a bit north on the PCT. I was in running shorts and a tank top. People geared up in goggles, buff, and waterproof pants booted past me with skis and snowboards on their shoulders. There was a line to descend the dirty patch of ice sitting on the slopes in late July. Surreal AF.

I wouldn't want to ski that??

The hike down to Zigzag river was nice, but there was an increasing amount of flies that wanted to land and hang out on my body and I found that to be a uniquely unpleasant experience! I didn’t even know it was possible to have an emotional reaction to flies overload, maybe it’s a Pacific Northwest thing?

Representative sourdough avocado sando that we've been packing every day for lunch. Zigzag river in the back.

Heading north again, I turned off the highway at the town of Mt Hood when I saw a farmer’s market sign. We scored a hand pie, heirloom tomatoes, cherries, and peaches.

Front row seat at the Farmer's Market.

We drove through Hood River, still days away from learning that it’s a meca for windsurfing, heading west along the Columbia River Gorge. There’s some interesting geological stuff going on here, it is a hotspot for waterfalls. Before leaving Oregon, we wanted to check out one more. We took an evening hike to Devil’s Punchbowl as the sun was setting, but it was VERY hot. An older person on a bike rolled by picking up trash with a little claw as I got ready in the parking lot. She said she was the host of the campgrounds up the street. We couldn’t figure out how to get inside the punchbowl, just looked at it from above, then went for a very glorious swim/bath in the river at Lower Punchbowl.

Devil's Punchbowl

A little via ferrata on the way.

I was too tired to find a van bivvy so we went to those nearby campgrounds, where I cooked a soba dinner while my sister counted out $15 of camping fee in mostly quarters (had spent our paper cash at the farmer’s market!)

The best part of traveling in a van is the freezer. We had daily ice cream

The next day we were already going all the way to Seattle. When I drove back home through Oregon the following week, I couldn’t see Mt Hood through the fire smoke, and it was too smoggy in Bend to bag a volcano. We were lucky to have had our trip the week before.