“Damn does it feel good to be moving again…“
The warm California air whipped through the open windows of our camper and the orange jagged horizon unfolded endlessly before us as we rolled on down the empty highway. We both basked in the moment of freedom that a road trip brings, smirks stretched across our face, lungs filling with the desert air.
Beside me sat my Dutch friend Tijs (pronounced Tice) who I met last summer during my time sailing in the Mediterranean, and now my adventure comrade for this last minute unplanned road trip. He had his hand out the window, letting the air carry it up and down like riding waves, and bobbed his head to the music blaring from our speakers.
How cliché this moment was I thought.
Two dudes in a camper van listening to Eddie Vedder’s “Hard Sun” and driving into the unknown on a small American road trip in the wild west. Like something out of a movie.
I watched the hazy asphalt disappear beneath the car and melt into the distance in the rear-view mirror, into the past, with the road before us going into the unknown. It was liberating — gripping that wheel and escaping the city. I felt light and airy and free again on the move. Maybe I’m a fool to think I can ever stop moving because this feeling was the essence of the human spirit, and I’m addicted to it.
“How do other people spend most of their lives never doing this?” I mused.
No agenda. No ticking clock of an everyday schedule. Just the open road. Just the purity of breathing and exploring and adventuring and living. Happiness was in that crimson and gold sunset, in the heavy desert air filled with fables of the Universe, hidden within the fingerprints of the earth that are the cracks and crevices of the mountains following along our journey. It waits for all of us to find. We rolled on.
Our West Coast Road Trip
When I say last-minute and unplanned road trip, that’s exactly what it was. And that’s the way I like it.
Hello Lost Ones, I’ve just returned from this very trip that involved a week long adventure driving through sand and snow, up mountains and through valleys, sleeping under the stars and under parking garage lights, towns in wastelands and giant sculptures made of waste. Oh, and I cannot forget that sweet and delicious apple pie in a town known for, well, apple pies.
Ever since I watched Into the Wild, or read On the Road by Jack Kerouac, I’ve wanted to do a proper road trip across the United States. Like many others, the spirit captured in those works inspired me to travel, and I wanted to have an experience like those.
Last year, when I finished up my 5 months as a photographer on sailboats, I told the skippers all I wanted to do was go for a road trip in the States. After wintering in Washington DC, I didn’t think it would happen. But when my friend rang me up asking if I wanted to go on a small road trip, I was all game.
This trip was a quickie and a doozy…
To say it was a whirlwind of a trip would be a very light description of it. We were literally all over the west, to the point where my bank froze my card because of the sporadic spending in multiple states per day.
One day we were in California, the next in Nevada and Arizona. But, with some of the National parks spanning multiple states, that was inevitable. The road trip was a little rushed as well, given my Dutch buddy had only a week to travel around with and had some main points of interest he wanted to see.
So how did we do with time and points of interest?
With the handful of must-see places as our only plan, we let our GPS do the navigating and let random encounters or places on maps that caught our eye guide the trip. For most of the road trip, that worked out awesome. We found hidden places that I haven’t seen anyone else cover, experienced small town America where the kindness and hospitality actually beat out what you see in the movies (Well howdy do ya’ll!), and camped in some of the most beautiful national parks in the United States.
Sometimes not planning is good. Sometimes, it’s really bad.
On the other hand, not planning turned out to be a big mistake in the final neck of the journey when we attempted to drive into Yosemite National Park from the west. That became mission impossible, and it took us nearly 2 days to reach Yosemite.
With Google Maps and Waze not showing proper road conditions, and websites not being updated fast enough with road closures, we were forced to drive all the way north of the Sierra Mountains, and down back south to the only road open. And that was after driving through snow flurries and avalanche zones. Wew.
This road trip made me fall in love with the spirit of America.
When I say fall in love with the spirit of America, I don’t mean gun-totin’ yee-haw “Murica is the best!” xenophobic attitude it has been stamped with recently. I mean that spirit of exploration, the spirit of the natural beauty embodied in famous paintings and captured in the words of writers and poets.
That spirit of being on the open road, of filling your life with the simple joy of wandering, of the majestic natural diversity of this enormous country. That spirit I uncovered in this recent road trip. Something I didn’t discover on my first road trip across the United States, and only had a small taste of on various train journies across the country.
It made me want to explore more of the United States.
After years of leaving the United States thinking adventure only lived outside of the country, I’ve found there is plenty to be had here in America. And this small road trip made me eager to see more of the National Parks, and to drive more of those endless highways.
Here is a small taste of each location we hit on this week-long road trip, and there is plenty more to write about that I’ll feature in articles soon. For now, come relive this trip getting lost in the wild west of the United States.
West Coast Road Trip Highlights
We kicked off the road trip in Los Angeles for a night. Even though I’ve been in Los Angeles now for a month or two and I’ve been making it a point to wander the city photographing it, I still don’t know what to do when a friend shows up. Of course, there are some staples most want to see, so we stuck to that. Hollywood sign hike, Venice beach in all of its quirkiness, and all you can eat tacos on Tuesdays. The essentials. Since we only had a night in Los Angeles and both were saving our funds for the trip, we kept the itinerary small.
Day 1 took us to San Diego, one of my favorite cities on the west coast. Though it was again a big city and we were eager to get out into the National Parks, San Diego was fun nonetheless. I love it for the food and the beaches and the nightlife. I really had no clue what to show my friend, so we did a lot of wandering around the harbor. The famous monumental smooch from the end of WWII stands near the retired USS Midway battleship which was pretty cool to see.
Super cheesy but one of my favorite spots in San Diego is the Old Town. Made up to be like the old west, it has touristy written all over it, but I can’t help myself. I go there for the old school rootbeer and Tijs found his much prized Dutch licorice inside a shop here. You know the Dutch and their licorice. Good for a wander around, great for chips and margaritas at sunset.
While in San Diego, we wandered around Balboa Park which is another hotspot, and then met up with a friend to hit the San Diego nightlife in the Gaslamp district. Gaslamp has to be one of my favorite places for a night out, the area is packed with different bars and restaurants and was a good way to enjoy our reunion before hitting the road.
What can I say about Julian town? It’s basically one street long and tucked into the mountains on the way to Las Vegas. But, I will admit, it has some of the best damn apple pie I’ve ever had. That’s what this town is known for if it’s known at all really. On a previous road trip, we accidentally found this town, and I loved the old and classic vibes so much I had to take Tijs here.
I’m glad we visited again. Besides a couple locals telling us about a unique spot to check out nearby, we both had the chance to stop for lunch and have some homemade apple pie. Worth it. I mean, when you roll into a town and they have pies and caramel apples cooling in the window, you can’t go wrong.
I also stocked up on some 35mm film rolls I found in an antique shop since I was running out on the trip already. Hopefully, they turn out even if they were expired!
Galleta Meadows was an absolute gem of a discovery, and only because of some super kind (and extremely talkative) locals in an antique store in Julian insisted we go. Out in the middle of the desert in Borrego Springs stand more than 100 metal sculptures of all shapes and size — from dinosaurs to massive birds to offroading jeeps. I’ll be featuring this in a separate article, but talk about quirky and weird huh? Only in California…
Jurassic Park anyone? Ricardo Breceda, the artist of these fantastical and fascinating sculptures, was enlisted by Dennis Avery to fill his massive and barren desert estate with sculptures. We couldn’t drive around to see all of them, given that would take an afternoon, but we had some time to explore. And pose…
Kiss of the dragon?
I think Tijs will need to work on his raptor skills. But it’s close eh?
Salvation Mountain has a special meaning to me. Back in 2012 after taking the Amtrak across America, Salvation Mountain was a part of a small road trip precursor to a new and exciting adventure abroad. It also came after one of the darkest periods of my life, when a year before I was nearly swallowed whole by a deepening depression.
One of the movies that inspired me to travel, Into the Wild, featured this amazing and colorful monument in the middle of the desert, and I knew I had to visit. Though I’m not religious, it was meaningful for me to visit it then and leave a memento for my parents who had passed away for wherever they were now. And given this last-minute road trip was so like the Into the Wild route, and we were constantly blasting its soundtrack, it was a fitting place to show my friend that not many people see.
Unfortunately, my memento was no longer there, but the memory still was.
To give my friend a unique perspective of the west from the glitz and glam, and to show him a bit of an anomaly on a road trip, we went to Salton Sea. Once an area of abundance and hailed as a new resort destination for the rich in the 1950’s, an engineering disaster flooded the lake with pollutants and agricultural runoff and froze everything in time.
Now, the surrounding towns are either abandoned and destroyed, salt crusted, or impoverished. Wandering the lake you see skeletons of old houses and piles of fish bones that washed up from the massive lake. It’s surreal and gives you a feeling that this is what a post-apocalyptic world would look like.
Nothing to show really. We arrived late, drank expensive drinks, Tijs gambed (and won!) and we slept in a casino parking lot. I still don’t like Vegas.
I’ve always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon ever since I was little. Once upon a time I did, years ago when I was very young, but I don’t remember it. And the last time I drove across the United States, I somehow completely drove past the damn Grand Canyon! This time I finally made it.
We all know the Grand Canyon, but it’s really different to experience it, to hike it, and to camp there. One of the most popular destinations and national parks to visit in the United States, it’ll be busy most of the season, but there’s still plenty of reason to visit. And luckily we got the last available walk-in spot when we showed up.
Talk about lucky.
We only spent an evening and a morning there, but even in that short period of time, it became one of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve had. At night we ate by the fire and I taught Tijs how to make s’mores for the first time, and the next morning we hiked down into the canyon.
It really does feel like you’re standing at the edge of the world when you see the Grand Canyon, especially for someone afriad of heights.
Want More Grand Canyon?
Come check out this photo series from the Grand Canyon South Rim!Read it
After a grueling 12+ mile hike down and up the Grand Canyon, we had a long drive ahead of us. We wanted to drive straight from the Grand Canyon to Yosemite, but that’d take us an entire day, so we opted to stop back in Mojave for the night.
A few days before, we drove through the Mojave National Park on our way to Vegas, so both of us wanted to get a good night sleep and see it in the daytime. We stopped in Hole in the Wall campground named for the portion of a mountain in the distance that looks as though a chunk had been eaten out of it, and wow do you get a view of the stars there!
In the morning, we woke up to a beautiful sunrise in the desert, surrounded by odd looking plants and cacti, and wildly unique rock formations. Since it was Easter, my travel companion showed me a Dutch tradition.
Lake Delores Abandoned Waterpark
Out in the middle of the Nevada desert, someone thought it’d be smart to make a water park. It kinda’ makes sense, I mean I’d want to hit a water park often given the heat out there. Being that it is surrounded by a whole lot of nothingness on a hard-to-reach stretch of freeway, and the closest towns aren’t tourist destinations, it was destined to fail.
On my various trips from Vegas to California (no, I’m not a gambling addict — unfortunately I lived in vegas once) I passed by this park and always wanted to explore it. I’m also a bit of an urban and rural exploring junky and am always looking to find abandoned places so this was a must for both of us. It took a bit of offroading to get there, but it’s no longer surrounded by fences and there was no security preventing us from wandering.
Apparently, it was open until 2005, but much of the park rides and water slides were sold off to other amusement parks. It was fascinating to walk around the place imagining it once bustling with people, with kids frolicking about in the attractions, and there actually being life in such a desolate place.
When asked what my favorite part of the trip was, it’s hard to decide. But one of the favorites was definitely Death Valley. The entire day was packed with road trip adventures already, from waking up in Mojave to the abandoned water park, could have been a good day alone. Somehow, we managed to fit in stops along the barren stretches of highway for cool photos, hiked in a canyon, chilled on some sand dunes, went swimming, and made chili under the desert stars.
Death Valley itself is a profound place. One of the lowest, dryest, and hottest places on earth, you really get an appreciation for the cycle of life and death out there. And the stark beauty of the desert itself and changing landscape is wild. Highways seem to stretch forever into an orange horizon. The beating sun creates mirages on the road as you drive.
The campgrounds in Death Valley are pretty freakin’ great. And was the best we had the entire trip, but not the most wild. Luckily they had enough space for us even though we arrived late. At $18 it wasn’t expensive at all for the amenities we had in that little oasis of a campground. Cafés, restaurants, a pool (oh that was so glorious after a long hike), showers, and toilets. The little things that are so glorious after dirty days of long hikes and no showers.
We managed to squeeze in a hike even though it was late, and the Mosaic Canyon hike was short enough for us to tackle before sundown. It also allowed us to make it to the insanely awesome sand dunes Death Valley is known for.
One of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. The hot white sand turned purple as the sun fell behind the mountains, and the wind kicked up small sandstorms in the distance. After a while, the whipping sand was too much to handle and we had to leave, but the experience of seeing the sunset while sitting on desert dunes will forever be ingrained in memory.
Oh Yosemite. The end of our road trip, and the most difficult to get to. That’s putting it lightly, it was damn hard to get to! After leaving Death Valley, we drove north following our directions from Google, only to find every road through the Sierra Nevada range closed. I have to say, it was pretty wild of a contrast to drive from desert sand dunes to snow covered mountains in one day.
As we pushed north, we realized we would have to drive all the way around the northern tip of the Sierras, and ended staying at a motel in South Tahoe for the night. South Tahoe wasn’t too much of a highlight, it was pouring rain so we had a relaxing night drinking beers, doing some much-needed laundry, and getting some quality rest. When we woke in the morning, we found our van covered in snow, and the entire day of driving would be through thick flurries of snow.
Yes, this bit of the trip was adventurous to say the least, but the fact that we drove a camper through flurries and avalanche zones (I freaked when I saw snow tumbling down the hill side) is pretty crazy in hindsight. We saw multiple car crashes and people stranded, but somehow we managed to clear the snow, only to be turned around for another road closure.
Another 2.5 hours driving back the way we came trying not to slide off the mountainside, we FINALLY made it to Yosemite by nightfall. I was so so relieved to get out of the snow safely, even though I still don’t know how we did, and we followed the winding cliff-lined roads into the campgrounds.
Even after we made it onto the only freeway open into Yosemite, it was still a trial to make it inside the park. From more car crashes to construction detours, it felt like the 10+ hours of driving that day had been completely made up of turnarounds. I never want to hear the word detour again.
We only had about an hour of two of daylight left after arriving and finding a camping spot, so we wandered a couple of miles around the campgrounds and visitor center to see something at least. A day filled with snow and scares and storms had a glorious ending as the sun came out and painted the skies over Yosemite pastel colors. Surrounding you from all angles are enormous and uniquely shaped mountains and rock formations, and all of it was unbelievably beautiful. I wish we had more time, I could have explored Yosemite for a week at least.
The following morning before ending the road trip, we woke up early to hit a big hike up to the top of Yosemite falls. Given I was still sore from the Grand Canyon hike, I knew it’d be brutal. We trudged our way up the winding steep path 2,600 feet high, and with searing muscles, we made it to the top. And all of that work was well worth it. The views from the top of Upper Yosemite Falls are incredible to behold. Everywhere you look there were waterfalls or some famous peak. We had lunch on the side of the waterfall looking down over the entire park and snuck in a nap before hiking back down.
Though there was a quick stop in San Francisco for a couple of days, it wasn’t too eventful. My first time there and I didn’t see the main sights! Instead, we caught up with Tijs’s friends, went out for drinks, and sang karaoke. Fun times either way, and at that point I think we just needed a break. So I will say the official end to the crazy road trip would be in Santa Cruz.
So I will declare the official end to the crazy road trip is Santa Cruz a couple days after returning the van.
I forgot just how beautiful it is to drive along the coast of California. It’s just…special. Endless coastline with a silver ocean crashing on the cliffs and rocks below as you snake along the coastal highway through small beach towns. Santa Cruz is where I parted ways with Tijs, who was continuing on to Monterey, but low funds meant I needed to head back to Los Angeles.
Santa Cruz really made me want to see more of California, especially these small coastal towns. Surfers hitting waves on a golden day. Sea lions playing under the pier. People relaxing on the beaches basking in the sun and reading. I haven’t seen much of California, but this small experience has me addicted and wanting to see more. It’s no wonder fellow bloggers like Kristen have told of their love for California. I’m not a native to the state like her and others, but I do think I could call it home someday.