I began my month long journey around the United States the same way I begin anything: overzealous, overcaffeinated, and on the wrong foot. I had originally planned to leave on the afternoon of March 8th, giving myself a night halfway to Texas to stop and recharge, but it wasn't meant to be. Luckily, my unsurprisingly delayed departure at 4 the next morning provided me with exactly what Day 1 of my adventure was missing: a real challenge. My new goal was to change the rest-stop dotted route to Texas into a 23 hour driving marathon, no stopping for rest until I reached Dallas, TX in time to get a beer at a downtown bar that night.
Two hours into my trip, I realized how little I had prepared, mentally and physically, for such an endeavor. It was dark, it was raining, and my GoPro that was attached to my dashboard had fallen off and hit me while I was driving FOR THE LAST TIME.
As the sun slowly inched its way into the sky, I pulled over in a Catholic school's baseball field parking lot to plan a better route, verbally abuse my camera equipment, and cook breakfast.
Speaking of cooking breakfast...
As part of my mission to save money and force adventure on myself, I bought the Jet Boil portable cooking machine to prepare my meals the old fashioned way: boiling water over a tiny flame powered by a gas canister. Adding to the fun, I had never cooked a meal with my new toy before leaving on the trip, so naturally the first attempt was a failure. I used boxes and the car to shield my tiny boiler from the wind and rain while it struggled for several minutes to reach a boil.
After pouring the semi-heated water from the boiler into a Simply Asia instant soup bowl and beginning to pack things away, a policeman pulls into the parking lot and asks me why I'm there. I wasn't sure if he saw me cooking or if lighting a fire was even legal in the parking lot of a school baseball field so I tried to smooth talk my way out of it.
Somehow it didn't work and he didn't leave...instead, he got back into his car, drove to a spot slightly further away, parked, and watched me from afar. No longer able to eat my soup bowl in peace, I left with a bowl of lukewarm soup in my lap to drive another 20 minutes down the road before finding a spot to finally pull over and eat.
The rest of the day, the weather reflected my mood. Gray skies and light rain paired well with the mind-numbingly long stretches of highway. The only exciting part of the drive today was when I caught a glimpse of the Gateway Arch as I passed through St. Louis, MO.
Snapchat definitely made the cities I passed through look more interesting than they were
It was a long and painful drive, and towards the end my body and brain gave up just an hour away from my destination. Instead of camping in my car, I treated myself to a hotel just off the interstate in Sherman, TX to get some rest at last and plan my next days travels.
I made sure to start my morning off right by loading up the hotel's complimentary breakfast supplies into my food box for later use. This not only made me feel better about spending the money on a hotel for the night, but the extra hot sauce packets and coffee creamers would totally reduce my food expenses later.
After checking out, I began my 65 mile trek down the tremendous Texas highways just in time to hit the final stretch of rush hour. I arrived frustrated, lost, and confused in the heart of the Historic District of Dallas just before 11am. Of course, it was raining.
Luckily, after about 5 minutes of staring up at the incredible skyscrapers, my bad mood succumbed to a glowing love for the city I was now in.
Best of all, the rain lightened up when I parked, and gave me all the encouragement I needed to go out and explore the urban jungle.
I found a parking spot near an enormous red castle, "The Old Red Museum" which I didn't go into but used as my main landmark to find my way back to my car.
The very first person who spoke to me was a kid named James (pictured below) who stopped me as I was getting out of my car and asked me to take his photo. I told him I had a wide angle lens on the camera so it wouldn't really get much of him in the shot, but he told me to go ahead anyway. After hearing I was going to post my photos to a travel blog, he asked me to add his to the site. I actually ran into him several more times throughout the day while I was wandering the city.
I also made friends with the local fowl, and seemed to be the only one interested in them despite the fact that they covered almost every surface in the entire city. And the pigeons have become so comfortable with humans that they didn't move when my lens was inches from their faces, or even when someone is walking towards them. I saw several pigeons nudged, sometimes literally kicked, out of the way of brisk-walking businessmen on their way back from a lunch break. Maybe Darwin's survival of the fittest just doesn't apply when your numbers almost rival that of the city's ant population. All I know is that I found the ridiculous quantity of extremely bird-brained birds very entertaining.
Note this is only a small fraction of the huge flock of pigeons that was taking over the bus station.
Besides the interesting people and wildlife that was abundant in the city, I also came across some very unusual statues and sculptures scattered throughout. One of which was an enormous unattached eyeball, set behind an iron fence, staring out at the public.
I started to play a game where I counted the American flags I saw as I searched for a spot to park, but lost interest quickly when I realized every building I passed had one hanging proudly.
The rain let up towards the end of the day, and the city life erupted with color. I obsessed over how reflective the buildings were, especially in the sun. It was like walking through a house of mirrors.
It was just before sunset when I had to say goodbye to the enormous and strangely eccentric city of Dallas and head towards the Fort Worth airport where I'd be picking up my friend Tian. She's joining me until I hit Los Angeles, and knows all the most beautiful routes in the Southwest for us to see along the way.
Today we chased the sun across the sky as we headed due West across the state of Texas. With a friend to make the drive with me from here on out, the long hours in the car went by much faster. See below for what our car set up was like (I was a bit overexcited about driving through a new place).
It also helps that Tian never gets lost, and knows what routes are most interesting to drive through.
My mind was blown when I started to see the desert-like landscape unfold with the dry grasses jutting up sporadically among the red rock. But all Tian would say is "just wait, today is like the least scenic day. It'll keep getting better." I realized later she was right, but I still took way too many pictures of what I saw along the barren Texas roads.
We stopped at the VW Beetle Ranch as we were passing through Panhandle, TX to check out some slug bugs stuck up on sticks and coated in graffiti that was inches thick.
I used to drive a Volkswagen Beetle that was famous for its faults ranging from the duct taped brake light to the multiple engine warning lights that were on since I bought the thing. It was weird to see a version of my car in worse shape for once.
Next to the cars was an abandoned building turned installation art, equally coated with graffiti and littered with ribbons and art paraphernalia on the inside.
The rest of the drive was a blur of long roads and gas station stops (80+ mph highways really seem to empty the gas tank quick).
As night fell, I made my little Kia Rio brave the precarious ascent to the top of the Taos Mountains, full of winding roads through thick forests without streetlights. The last 40 miles of the drive took about an hour and a half, and was painfully boring since we couldn't see the scenic mountain landscapes around us in the dark. Luckily, the absolute darkness allowed for incredible astrophotography. We were able to pause near the top of the mountain to take some pictures of the billions of stars cutting holes in the night sky.
By the time we finally arrived at Taos Pueblo, it was late and all we wanted was dinner and a place to sleep. We checked out a local bar that was pretty crowded, probably because it was the only one that was still open. Interestingly, it seemed to have an equal mix of both tourists and locals, and everyone was mingling together. After a drink, however, we were ready to end the adventure for the day and finally get some rest.
From Taos Pueblo, NM to Cortez, CO and everything in-between
12.03.2016 - 13.03.2016
We woke up early this morning so we could have enough time to explore Taos Pueblo before heading out.
Unfortunately, even after a complimentary breakfast at the hotel (made to order Mexican omelets!), we arrived downtown too early to get into any of the shops. We didn’t want to wait until 10am to look at some tourist-y Pueblo knick knacks, so we just snapped a few pictures of the town’s unique architecture and headed on our way.
Even the McDonalds was built like a Pueblo.
The first half of the drive was slow and winding just like the drive last evening, but this time we could appreciate the scenery around us so it was a thrill rather than tedious.
Unfortunately, we also noticed dozens of crosses with flowers set in memorial along the side of the road, acting as a reminder to drive carefully along the dangerous mountain roads.
We made sure to pull over often to photograph villages below us and other mountains miles in the distance.
We stopped in Española, NM to see the famously beautiful churches around the city. The area was mostly Hispanic and devoutly Catholic, and this was reflected in the town's stores and art galleries.
I stopped to talk to a local who was selling spice blends (mostly chili themed) at a stand outside an art gallery that also featured some of his pieces, made of recycled materials. His method for letting customers taste-test his spices was to break a pistachio nut, put a pinch of the spice blend into its shell, then have the person throw both the pinch of spices and the pistachio nut into their mouth together. The mix of salty and spicy flavors was surprisingly good, and I shamelessly tried almost all of them. Before I left, I made sure to pick up a bag of my favorite blend for my older brother who is a chef and would undoubtedly appreciate the flavor much more than I could.
We spent a long time shopping around and exploring the churches in the heart of the town.
Even better, the town's cherry trees were in full bloom and the white and pink trees were everywhere.
Even on the way out of the city and further down the mountain, we came across more churches with incredible architecture.
Then we were on our way to the Bandelier National Monument, which features preserved homes of the Ancestral Puebloans. Unfortunately, as pathetic as this sounds, there was no parking available at the monument and the closest spot outside the monument to put our car was miles away. Thus, after circling the parking lot for awhile, we gave up and headed onwards. Luckily, we found a lookout spot outside the Monument to take some pictures of the canyons below. Note the weather is starting to get a little dark and stormy!
We followed the winding road to the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a suddenly wide open flatland amongst the mountains we had been driving through.
We even saw a lonely hiker out in the fields, who appeared to be fishing despite the water in the area being about a foot deep.
We followed the one lane road to the visitor center along muddy dirt roads before we realized it was lightly snowing. We decided to get going quick so we could be out of the area before the storm made the roads more dangerous.
Unfortunately, we didn't move fast enough. Just beyond the flatlands, we hit an intense snowstorm so bad we couldn't see a few feet past the car. It was wildly beautiful and completely surreal since earlier that day we had been cruising through sunny and warm forests.
We were worried at first that we would never make it out of the storm. Yet somehow, after driving 20 more minutes down the road, the snow cleared and we entered a completely new landscape of red rocks and green grass. It was warm again, too!
We stopped at a historical site that featured old Native American housing buried deep underground and accessible only by ladder. A trail took us around the sites, and we were grateful to take a moment to catch our breath and enjoy being a tourist again after our blizzard adventure.
After that, we stopped for lunch at a taco stand owned by a friendly Native American couple. The husband came and sat with us, and together we all tore into our cheese fries smothered in green chilies while we traded stories about our trip and his life working for the tribe. We were beyond grateful for the food and the conversation.
When we hit the road again, it led us out of the mountains and towards the barren deserts of New Mexico.
We wanted to find a ghost town which was supposedly several miles down a dirt road off the highway, but it was getting dark fast and the location of the abandoned town wasn't on any of our maps. We drove for about an hour through treacherous pothole covered roads with huge dips so high you couldn't see over them to know what was coming next. We knew once it got dark the road would be too dangerous to drive on, and after struggling a bit longer to find the town we decided to give up and head towards a place to sleep for the night.
The sunset in the desert was breathtakingly beautiful and absolutely one of my favorite experiences of the trip. Sadly, we were in such a hurry to find the town we didn't stop very often to photograph the sunset colors that saturated the landscape.
We were extremely exhausted by the time we got on the long stretch of highway towards Cortez, CO. But even on a main highway, I had never seen so many stars! We even saw a shooting star as we reached our destination, the perfect end to a beautiful day.
Cortez, CO to the Mesa Verde National Monument, then looping around the Million Dollar Highway of Colorado to Farmington, NM
13.03.2016 - 14.03.2016
We woke up late this morning and had an eight hour scenic drive ahead of us, so we were a bit panicked as we headed towards Mesa Verde National Park a few miles down the road from where we slept last night.
Once we entered the park area, there was still a 20 minute long climb to the top of the Mesa. We were listening to NPR on the radio on the drive and since we were circling around and around a huge mound of land, each time we were on the left side of the Mesa we'd hear NPR's report for that area and on the right side we heard a different area's news. The soundtrack of the drive was a weird mix of whale song stories and conversation about racism in the short term job market, and it was great.
Once we finally go to the top, we were awestruck by how high we had climbed and the enormous valleys below us.
Even better, the Mesa was also a historical site for ancestral pueblo people who had lived in the area for over 700 years, and their homes carved into the cliffs around us were built between 550 and 1300 A.D.
It was a full day's hike to the cliff dwellings in the distance and we didn't have the time to spare, but fortunately we had zoom lenses to allow us to see the intricate and beautiful ancient cities made out of rock and clay.
There were also museum-like sections around the park that visitors could explore, featuring signs which explained how the buildings were constructed and what their purpose was.
On the way out of the park, we came across a pair of deer on the side of the road who were grazing alongside a wild horse.
After leaving Mesa Verde, we quickly stopped at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, CO to check out the museum of the Ancestral Puebloan (or Anasazi) Culture and other Native cultures in the Four Corners region. The visitor center featured an archaeological exhibit displaying information and pieces found in the area. Since my older brother graduated with a degree in archaeology and specialized in lithic tools, I was happy to realize I already knew a lot about what I was seeing from what he had told me.
Following the history lesson, we headed out on narrow roads through landscapes of thick forests and fast-moving rivers towards the Million Dollar Highway.
As we drove, the air quickly got thinner (we would eventually reach about 12,000 feet elevation) and colder. The higher up we got, the more we wanted to stop at the viewpoints along the way.
The signs warning drivers about crossing fauna finally made sense to us when we drove around a bend and almost hit a herd of mountain goats grazing right next to the road.
We eventually stopped to get gas and cook some lunch with our trusty Jet Boil while we admired the landscape around us. I was so excited about the views that I ran around the area each time we stopped and unfortunately soaked up more scenery with my eyes than my camera lens. However, I did manage to capture a few pictures before we reached the snowy mountain tops.
The roads we took were icy and full of treacherously tight turns on unguarded cliff edges. We could look straight down out the window and see only a few inches of icy road between the car and the ground miles below us. As frightening as it was to drive on, the dozens of other cars making the same climb up the mountain with us made it seem much more casual. And honestly, even though I had to pay close attention and hold tight to the wheel the entire length of the trip, it was the most fun drive I've ever experienced.
We stopped in Silverton, CO in the heart of the Rockies to check out the local culture and purchase some Colorado souvenirs. I immediately fell in love with the quaint mountain town. Everything about the place was colorful, inviting, and cozy, especially since it was nestled in the thickest part of the mountains.
From Silverton we finally got on US Route 550, which is known as the Million Dollar Highway, a stretch of road characterized by steep cliffs, narrow roads, and no guardrails (luckily no different than what we had experienced most of the drive already). The road's sheer existence and incredible condition despite being a challenging location to repair and upkeep was amazing, thanks Obama for the funding! It provided an absolutely breathtaking view of the landscape as the sun slowly fell and the area was bathed in the most beautiful sunset colors I've ever experienced.
There was no way for our cameras to capture the surreal colors and the magical feeling of being in that place at that moment. We gave up quickly and simply sat in reverent silence as we soaked up the experience until night fell.
It was pitch black outside after we paused for a quick meal in Durango, CO. With no streetlights guiding our path, we had to keep the car's brights on the entire drive to Farmington, NM where we planned to sleep for the night.
Farmington, NM to Canyon de Chelly, to Monument Valley, to camping at the Navajo National Monument
14.03.2016 - 15.03.2016
We started the day mingling with the local wildlife as we filled up our tank in preparation for a long drive ahead. The flock of turkeys was just a few feet from the gas station!
Our first destination was Ship Rock, a monadnock (or large single rock formation) that plays a significant role in the religion of the Navajo people and was the cultural center of ancient Anasazi people. We drove through an endless stretch of Native American reservation lands towards the rock and when it never seemed to get any closer, we realized just how huge the rock was. I found out after a quick Google search that the tip of the formation is almost 8,000 feet high.
Tian even climbed the "fins" of the formation, these natural rock walls that stretched on for miles in all directions.
On the way out, we passed by what came to be our trip mascot: a single llama standing alone in an enormous and empty field. We dubbed him Pensive Llama, and admired his bravery and perseverance before continuing on our way.
The landscapes we drove through were flat and barren until we hit a forested area where red rock formations began to surround us and the road became more steep. We paused to see the view of the land we had just driven through from the higher perspective and were excited to find we could see Ship Rock looming off in the distance.
A little further down the scenic byway was the perfect place to pull over and cook lunch while we photographed the area.
Next stop, Canyon de Chelly (only slightly less grand than the Grand Canyon).
The last leg of the drive was boring and slow, with no view until we reached the top of the canyon. But when we got there, it was definitely worth it. Spread out below us was the most enormous red rock formation I had ever seen, carved away by time to form the craggy canyon.
Some of my favorite signs were those that warned visitors about the several hundred foot fall they'd experience if they got too close to the edge.
The tall and thin formation was called "Spider Rock" and was one of the most famous at the park.
For a long time, we adventured along narrow paths put in place by the park to find the best lookout points. Some were a short distance from the parked car, others were a bit of a hike away. I think we were mostly just grateful for the chance to stretch our legs again.
There were even some similar cliff dwellings to those we had seen at the Mesa Verde site.
Then it was time to leave and head towards our next destination: Monument Valley. The way there took us through incredible red and yellow landscapes with enormous buttes in the distance, and we recognized many parts of the drive there as backgrounds in classic Western films. While unfortunately there were very few places to pull over and take photos along the way, it was definitely one of the most interesting drives of the trip.
We came across some mountain sheep on the road at one point, and had to stop for several minutes to wait for them all to cross so we could pass through.
Finally, we arrived in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. This park was famously used by director John Ford in many of his Westerns, and the five miles of land in the park seem to have defined the American West for moviegoers.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at 5pm (and already paid our fees!) the park had closed for the evening and we were unable to make the scenic drive through the park. Instead, we were forced to photograph the area from the visitor center before heading out, disappointed.
The drive as we neared sunset and nightfall was beautiful, which helped ease the tragic failure of attempting Monument Valley.
We stopped at the Navajo National Monument where we would be camping that night, but sadly arrived too late at night to really see the area around us. After setting up camp in a forested section for the night (and using the car headlights as lighting to see what we were doing) we were happy to finally get some sleep.
Navajo National Monument to Zion National Park to St. George, UT
15.03.2016 - 16.03.2016
Today we woke up around 3am after a failed attempt to camp in the car at the Navajo National Monument (it was dark, it was creepy, and mysterious noises were coming from all directions). Unable to go back to sleep, we decided to get a very early headstart on the day and drive towards Zion National Park in Utah. We took it slow, stopping for long breaks in gas station parking lots to bitterly chug coffee or eat a snack to fill the gaping holes in our sleep schedules.
It was around dawn when we pulled into a ghost town named Pahreah (or Paria) just outside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The town's wild west scenery evidently made it the ideal location for filming Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s, and Paria was featured in films like Buffalo Bill and Sergeants 3. The sunrise was absolutely beautiful (Tian couldn't stop gasping) but I was unfortunately too tired and angry to set up my camera for a shot. I regret that all I have of this location is a cellphone picture, see below.
After that brief detour, we were somewhat reenergized and able to make the rest of the drive to Zion without another break. We pulled in to the park early in the morning with the full day to explore the most unusual landscapes I have yet encountered.
The winding roads led us through prehistoric-looking canyons and valleys straight out of a Jurassic Park scene. I half expected to see a Brontosaurus grazing at the top of each rocky ridge or a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing us in my rearview mirror. Fortunately, this was our first wildlife-free day of the trip; we didn't even see deer, let alone a dinosaur.
Tian had been to Zion earlier in the year and had found an interesting part of the park that wasn't marked on the visitor map. She led me on a short hike down an unmarked trail, the path's terrain was a mix of strange diagonal stone slabs and powdery white sand, and ended at a small pond.
The best part? Carved into a rock wall in front of the pond were dozens of preserved petroglyphs. Seeing drawings made hundreds of years ago never ceases to amaze me.
After the brief history lesson we carried on towards the visitor center in the middle of the park. Unfortunately, one of the tunnels going through the mountains was a one-way road, meaning we were trapped behind a very long line of cars for around 30 minutes waiting for the road to clear up. Cheered up from the hike, we used the time to explore and take photos of the landscape around us.
By the time we finally arrived at the visitor center, there was literally nowhere to park (and they had hundreds of parking spots)! The only way to get to a famous hiking trail in the park was to take a bus from the visitor center and since we had nowhere to store our car, we were forced to skip the hike and make up our own adventure.
We drove to an area of Zion called Horseshoe Bend to visit Grafton, an infamous ghost town where the opening scenes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were filmed. The town had a sign declaring it as a national register historical site, but more interesting were the signs explaining how and why Grafton was chosen for these film scenes. As a recently graduated film student, it was surreal to be walking on the set of a film I once had to analyze for a class final.
We took out the Jet Boil and cooked lunch on the gravel path right next to the house where Butch Cassidy rode past on his bicycle decades back. While we ate, we chatted with an eccentric artist who was sketching the town and wildlife surrounding it with amazing detail. The site was actually very popular and we ended up talking with other adventurers from all over the country who were eager to comment on my Michigan license plate and our somewhat pathetic cooking set-up.
Tian had found a scenic route on our park map that seemed like it would be an interesting drive, and we eagerly cleaned up and headed in that direction. Unfortunately, the route was unpaved, muddy, and filled with potholes. We braved a large stretch of it before the road progressed into an incredibly steep incline. We watched a mini van struggle up the hill for a long time but, since it appeared to successfully make it to the top, we assumed my Kia Rio could handle the slope as well.
We were wrong. We slowly climbed up the road for almost 30 minutes before the wheels got caught in a pothole and spun uselessly, the poor car trapped on a dangerous incline with no way to move forward and no way to turn around. We decided that it was not worth it to risk the rental car at this point, and shoved the car out of its trap and tried to point it downhill again. The picture below was taken with my cellphone, because I was too afraid to take my foot off the brake for a moment to snap a real picture.
After an exhausting struggle, we finally got the car to turn around. Tian walked beside me and called out potholes while I drove at a steady 5mph down the hill, parking brake locked and ready. By the time we got to the bottom again, our adventuring spirit had worn thin and we agreed to leave the park.
We passed by some cheesy Western themed tourist areas on the way towards St. George, UT where we booked a motel for the night, but most things were out of business or closed as we moved further from Zion.
By the time we got to the motel, we were desperate for a hot shower and real beds to catch up on sleep for the night. But after relaxing for a bit, we decided it would be crazy to not take advantage of the beautiful weather and watch the sunset at a nearby park.
We cooked dinner outside on a park bench and watched while locals climbed the bluffs that looked over their city. The sun made its way down the sky slowly, bathing the area in magical glowing light and casting the other visitors in perfect silhouette against the red sky. Tian and I both fell in love with the area, and I swear I'd come back just to see the sunset against the red rock again. I must have taken 100 photos (and none do the moment justice) but I'll just share a few here:
I was a strange mix of utterly exhausted and deliriously happy the entire evening, and looking back I wouldn't have changed a thing about today.
St. George, UT to the Valley of Fire State Park to Las Vegas, NV
16.03.2016 - 17.03.2016
I've always loved sleeping in late, but I'd never appreciated it more than this morning when I woke up around 10am in a cozy motel bed, finally well-rested for the first time the whole trip. We took our time getting ready and heading out today, since our only planned stop was Las Vegas a few hours away (which wouldn't really be exciting until late evening).
The drive started off dull, an endless straight road through the desert with very little to look at along the way. Fortunately, we decided to take a minor detour and follow signs towards the Valley of Fire State Park which was supposedly a scenic hiking spot hidden somewhere along the barren landscape.
Suddenly, enormous and porous red sandstone formations began to rise up all around us. It was as if we had been transported to another planet, the natural red skyscrapers definitely didn't belong in the same area as the flat and unsaturated lands we had been driving through only minutes prior. We pulled over at the first picnic table area in the park to get a better look.
The rocks, we later learned were rare Aztec sandstone, were strangely smooth to the touch and the pores were large enough to use as handholds for a little rock climbing (although scaling the monstrous walls was definitely harder than it looked).
It was ridiculously hot today but, even with nothing to shade us from the glaring sun, we still spent hours hiking the sandy trails.
Vivid yellow wildflowers (my favorite) surrounded the visitor center and added a little life to the sandy desert. Even better, we came across dozens of small lizards basking in the sun around the park and took the opportunity to connect with nature by chasing them with our cameras.
We were shocked to find out that the infertile and dry area was once inhabited by the ancient Anasazi people. While they have long since relocated, their culture remains immortalized in petroglyph art carved into sandstone formations all over the park.
Most of the petroglyphs we saw were visible along the hiking trails, but we also found a staircase against an enormous rock structure which featured even more complex carvings at the very top.
After a long afternoon hiking in desert, we left the park satisfied with our spontaneous nature expedition and ready to explore an even more bizarre place: the Las Vegas strip.
The city was nothing more than an artificial oasis in the heart of a desert wasteland, but we eagerly watched it grow larger and more interesting as we approached. We had some time before nightfall and briefly toured the Vegas outlet mall before heading to our hotel room in the Palace Station casino resort. I decided to leave my camera in the hotel out of fear of losing it, so all photos from here on out will be low quality cellphone images (sorry!)
Tian, not really a city person, decided to stay in the hotel that night to catch up on rest and work instead of exploring the strip, turning my Vegas adventure into a solo trip. I washed the sand out of my hair and tried to make myself presentable, dressing in the only heels and skirt I had packed and cursing myself for forgetting to bring nicer clothes.
It was just before 10pm when I left the hotel; unfortunately, I didn't realize our hotel was a 1.5 mile walk from the strip, and the way there took me directly through an insanely sketchy part of town entirely uninhabited spare for the occasional car driving past, and every driver made sure to offer me a ride. Thanks to my speedy walking pace and pepper spray held high, I made it to the strip safely.
New to the Vegas thing, I went into the infamous Palazzo casino hotel to try to get a drink and mull over my options. I have never been in a more luxurious building; gorgeous fountains were in the center of enormous halls filled with people in formal attire chatting over glasses of champagne. I wandered through the casino hoping to find a bar to no avail. Lost and much too sober, I wandered down the strip a bit further before stopping in another casino where I could see the bar from the outside. I was happy to find that in Vegas it's legal to walk down the street with an open container of alcohol, so nothing inhibited me from spending the rest of the night wandering up and down the strip with my drink in hand, gazing up at the neon castles around me.
Sadly, I couldn't take too many photos in order to preserve battery life, but the night unfolded into something wild and beautiful. I met dozens of fascinating people, all of whom were eager to drink or smoke with me while I begged them to teach me the rules for the card games. I had a lucky habit of encountering other University of Michigan alumni, who looked out for me almost like I was a family member. Even though I was wandering the city alone, there was never a moment I felt lonely or threatened. Vegas was hands down the friendliest and most lively city I've ever been to, and I gladly spent most of my time exploring outside rather than in a bar or gambling the night away.
Men in club uniforms had been giving me wristbands to various nightclubs all night but I hadn't really paid attention to them until, after some desperate attempts to get to the top of Vegas' Eiffel Tower, I realized one of the dozens of bands around my wrist was for the nightclub on a platform halfway to the top. It would do. I ended the night in the most stereotypical Vegas way: at a Pitbull afterparty, on a fake Paris monument, drunk and badly dancing with a nerdy group of German tourists, bonding over our mutual Vegas culture shock.
I didn't get back to my hotel until early morning, hungover and exhausted...just in time to leave for Death Valley.
Las Vegas, NV to Death Valley National Park to Ridgecrest, CA
17.03.2016 - 18.03.2016
I practically drowned myself in caffeine this morning and swallowed maybe a few too many Tylenol in hopes it would kill my hangover (it didn't). Running on almost no sleep and exhausted from a night in Vegas, I felt as dried up as the desert landscape around me as I bitterly pointed the car towards the most lifeless and barren part of the country.
The roads that cut through the empty terrain were endlessly long and straight, something you'd see in an expensive car commercial. Too bad I was driving a Kia Rio! Then, I blinked and we were suddenly surrounded by thousands of bright yellow wildflowers stretching on for miles. Knowing this would be the last time we'd probably see plant life for the rest of the day, we dove out of the car and literally frolicked in the field of flowers. We even plucked some to decorate the dashboard and mirrors of the car.
On the way back to the car, we noticed the pickup truck that was in front of us had pulled over as well, and the driver was walking towards us. We panicked briefly since we hadn't seen any other cars for an hour and we didn't have cell signal. It'd be a bad time to come across someone dangerous. Fortunately, the man ended up being ridiculously friendly, and asked us for a ride back to his house which was just a few miles down the road. After some difficulty making a spot for him in the cluttered backseat, we set out on an adventure to explore the only town for hundreds of miles. Our hitchhiker explained that he had grown up in the tiny town, and we were surprised to find that he loved the place so much he came back to stay after an attempt to get out and see the world a bit more. The town didn't even have a gas station or grocery store, but he managed to make the simple life I've always avoided seem desirable after our quick conversation.
Then we left our flower fields behind and entered the park. Death Valley is enormous (an area of roughly 3000 square miles) and I already hated every inch of it. I think the car agreed, since we ran low on gas literally hundreds of miles from the next station on route. Unsure if AAA would rescue us in the middle of the desert, we didn't take the risk and ended up driving 45min in the opposite direction to fill up our tank. We made sure to photograph a gorgeous hotel on the way out (too bad the location probably isn't great for business).
Back on route and a couple more hours of uneventful driving later, we pulled over at a viewing spot to check out the scenery and stretch our legs. Our bodies must have been in shock, since just a few days after traveling through the mountains of Colorado 11,000 high, we were now walking along the lowest point in North America: Death Valley's "Badwater Basin," 282 feet below sea level.
And it wasn't just an enormous change in altitude that was shocking, the completely flat, salt-coated terrain stretched on for miles with not even a single tree interrupting the vast emptiness. We found out that the salts coating the land were highly toxic, explaining why nothing could grow there. I'd never seen a more lifeless place (and likely never will).
It was a sweltering 90 degrees, much too hot to make the several mile hike out to the next viewing spot (and honestly, what could really be there except a slightly different view of the same vast emptiness?) Instead, we justified our early departure from the infamous spot by using the remaining daylight hours to take a scenic drive.
We were glad to find another scenic viewpoint along the way, the best vantage point to check out a strange grouping of pastel-colored hills known as the Artist's Palette. This was also the very same place R2D2 famously sped across on his way to find Ben Kenobi's hut in Star Wars: A New Hope. In fact, much of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi were shot in Death Valley, evidently the closest thing we have on Earth to the fictional desert planet, Tatooine. After realizing this, I spent the rest of the day on the lookout for other parts of the desert that may have been featured in the films. Everything about this place definitely had an alien, other-worldly feel.
We passed a sign for winding roads ahead and thought nothing of it as we approached the one way path that vanished among the sandy hills. It ended up being one of the strangest drives I've ever taken that swerved and dipped through surreal scenery straight out of a science fiction film. The cellphone video below is a poor demonstration of the experience, but shows how tight the space was as we drove through.
After that wild ride, we got back on the main road towards the ghost town called Rhyolite at the edge of the park. We originally planned to camp here for the night, but were disappointed to find out that the ghost town was protected as a historical site and didn't allow overnight visitors. Nevertheless, we spent a long time exploring the crumbling town.
Amidst the rubble stood one fully preserved piece of history, a beautiful hut made entirely out of empty liquor bottles. This oddity was a welcome escape from a day of abandoned and lifeless landscapes. Even better, the area surrounding it was at a high enough elevation to allow for some welcome but equally bizarre flora: Joshua trees.
On our way out of Rhyolite, we noted some strange figures posed unmoving along the horizon. Intrigued, we went to see what was going on. When we pulled up, I realized they weren't people at all but strange statues meant to look like sheets covering human figures, but with no person underneath. As a scary movie fanatic, I recognized these creepy figures as the type of things that would come alive and partake in haunting visitors when night fell. Even after posing with one, I was was on alert and refused to keep my eyes off the things for too long.
Visible from the sheet statues was a strange cubism statue of a naked blonde woman posed on her knees. Even with a degree in the arts, I have no idea what this art piece was supposed to represent. I still photographed it though, because otherwise I don't think anyone would believe me when I said I found a pixelated naked woman statue in the middle of Death Valley.
The sun was setting and we made our way out of the park in hopes of finding a decent meal at one of the few towns along the park border. The landscape was admittedly beautiful as the sun dropped lower in the sky, even though I was still bitter about the place. However, with camera batteries low and stomachs empty, we only paused for a moment to snap photos of the washed out terrain temporarily painted a vivid and warm gold by the setting sun.
We luckily came across a family diner not too far away. While there, we gulped down water like we hadn't drank for days and I've never been more excited to see a restroom with running water. It was already dark out when we paid for our sandwiches and departed. Then, much to my exhausted body's dismay, Tian decided this would be a great opportunity for some astrophotography. Since the route to our motel in California took us back through the park, I agreed to stop briefly on the way for a couple pictures. Unfortunately for me, my less tired friend had the map and she instead led me on a wild adventure back to the same salt flats we had visited earlier today.
Tian wanted to make the long hike out to the viewing spot we'd skipped, but I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it on so little sleep. Luckily, another visitor came by with the same goal in mind, and the pair went off on an astrophotography adventure through the salt flats while I desperately waited in the dark car, in the creepiest spot in the nation, with no cell service. I don't think she realized how badly I wanted to leave, and ended up spending an hour and a half capturing the night sky with her fellow photographer. Her pictures actually turned out beautifully (I'll attach a link when she's done editing them) and I admit there's a part of me that regrets not making the hike. But as soon as she returned, my paranoia from waiting alone in the dark began to seep into her more comfortable state of mind until we were both terrified and desperate to get out of the park. It didn't help even with the brights on, we couldn't see more than a few feet ahead in any direction. The absolute darkness surrounding us only fed our fear. After a couple hours imagining all sorts of horrendous scenarios involving monsters and/or dangerous hitchhikers, we literally swerved into the parking lot that held salvation. It was past 4am.
Today was the first day my entire trip that I didn't end by saying "best day yet!" At least I can check the park off my bucket list (and never come back).
Ridgecrest, CA to the Hertz in LAX to the Hollywood District of Los Angeles, CA
18.03.2016 - 19.03.2016
After about four hours of sleep, I still wasn't quite recovered from the endless late nights and early mornings that made up the first half of the trip. However, for once it didn't seem like lack of sleep would be an issue, since today's itinerary was a bit different than our usual hours of scenic drives. Tomorrow morning, Tian and I will part ways so she can take a solo road trip along the Big Sur while I catch up with an old friend named Aaron who lives in LA. All we had to do today was pick up Tian's rental car and trade my car in for a new one (the engine was starting to act up and the oil light was on, figures after driving the thing several thousand miles). It seemed like the easiest day we've had yet and since Tian's pickup time wasn't until late afternoon, we assumed we'd have plenty of time to check out one last ghost town on the way into the city.
The town was called Randsburg, but turns out it was only "semi-abandoned" because the population still rests around 70 people despite most of the locals bailing on their dying mining town decades back.
I was just glad there were a few places still open in the town so we could grab some food before making our way to LA. We chose a general store/ice cream parlor and were happy to find the tourist-y cafe was filled with visitors and served incredible ice cream sodas. Not a bad experience for a "ghost town" stop.
After lunch, it was Los Angeles or bust. Too bad we didn't realize that on a Friday in LA, a solid wall of traffic blocks the highway from mid-afternoon until around 8pm. We just happened to get into the city around 3 and tried to get off at an earlier exit to avoid the 20 miles of traffic Google Maps had marked with a dark red all the way to the car rental location (I didn't even know traffic alerts could be that color). It was a mistake. We spent the longest portion of our drive just 1000 feet from the exit we got off at, literally immobile for 2 hours.
We arrived just before Tian's rental place closed, and for whatever reason the car she had requested wasn't available, so she ended up getting a free upgrade to a ridiculously cool off-roading vehicle. Score! Traffic had let up a bit by the time we got back on the road, and it was just after sunset when we arrived at LAX to trade in my car for a more functional one. While we waited for the paper work to be looked over, we were able to take some time to admire the planes landing and taking off just above our heads.
Then it was time to say goodbye to the faithful little Kia Rio (I called her Dolores) who had been my partner in crime all the way from Michigan to California and everywhere inbetween. I was legitimately emotional parting ways with the thing. But my teary eyes moved quickly to a burning glare when the car they replaced my Kia with was a much smaller, bright blue, Toyota Yaris. As it was harder to drive and had less features than my old car, there were no redeeming qualities for the thing. Worse, I had to learn how to drive it on the crazy Los Angeles highways at night with only a vague idea of where I was going.
It was a long trip to the Hollywood district (and a long time finding a place to park!) but my friend Aaron and I were finally reunited just in time to rush to the Griffith Observatory before they closed at 10pm. We were told the observatory is one of the best spots to see the city, especially when it's lit up at night. Unfortunately, the good view we were promised was hidden under a thick blanket of fog. All we could do was make the most of the limited view for the fifteen minutes we had before closing. I snapped a few blurry pictures of the view and of Aaron, the only one I managed to get of him during my entire visit.
Fortunately, Tian got a great picture of my friend and I at one of the lookout points with the city spread out in front of us (see below).
After the observatory, we spent the rest of the night exploring the heart of downtown LA on foot and adventuring through buildings to find the best views. It was late by the time we finally got back, giving us only a few hours to sleep before Tian had to leave in the morning.