We met almost two years ago now, and are probably one of those really annoying couples that are always together. We finished university and worked as “gardeners” though I’d say glorified shit-shifting and manual labour. But we got to do it together. Outside all day, dreaming of all the places we could go explore once the summer was over. We’d been stuck in the city studying for three years and needed to escape and forget everything we had learnt. Where better to do that than in the wilds of the American West?
Don’t get me wrong. It took a week to get to this point. Our back windscreen got smashed to smithereens from kamikaze hickory nuts. $500 dollars later…we got an oil change from some good ol’ gun-toting country boys in Earle, Arkansas. Gate crashed a pumpkin carving party where a guy straight out of Cheech and Chong made pot pumpkin pie and then proceeded to carve a pumpkin helmet and let a dog eat it straight off his head. We flew down the highway at 80mph towards the setting sun, which just made it last forever.
After a few days in Denver and Boulder, we spent a week with the family of some friends in Grand Junction, which kisses the boarder of Utah too. Colorado seemed like our kind of alright. A guy called Jeff took us four wheeling over the same mountains from that Coors Light commercial where Jean-Claude Van Damme wears a denim vest and cracks open a cool one like a boss. We met a dude called The Rooster, who earned his nickname for “getting caught in too many hen houses”. Colorado National Monument, Canyonlands, Grand Mesa, Ouray, Dead Horse Point. We went to Arches National Park in Utah, which is possibly one of the craziest and best places my eyes will ever see in their lifetime.
Even if you weren’t comparing it to bed bug lunch spots, it has got to be one of the best hotels in the world. You stay there for the location.
On our way into the park we passed a herd of bison and I cried and Craig laughed. We climbed the Angles Landing hike and I cried and this time Craig didn’t laugh. Who decided to put a sign at the end of the climb casually letting you know about the people that have died falling down the cliff from a path that is like 2 inches (feet but still) wide with only a sketchy metal chain in some parts to bare-knuckle cling to? We met a humble painter on the side of the road, working on a watercolour that blew our minds. Little did we know until we got back that night and Googled him; Buffalo Kaplinski (no shit, his name was Buffalo) was the king of watercolours.
We thought we had seen it all, but Bryce is just about one of the weirdest places I could imagine. Craig chatted to a little old lady who told us about a hike that goes deep down in the canyon, rather than around the outskirts with all the middle-aged tourists.
Next was the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. When people say they go to the Grand Canyon, they probably mean the South Rim. The Grand Canyon really is so freaking massive you would never believe, but to be honest it was just filled with smog. We didn’t hang around and we drove for hours through the desert and onto Nevada and into Las Vegas, 2here we didn’t hang around either. We stayed in our $19 a night casino hotel and drank overpriced cocktails and walked down the strip and laughed at the naked men and women with duct tape nipple covers and won $2.25 at The Bellagio. Staying in Vegas is staying in a sticky bubble of sex and money and heck did it feel good to pop out of the other side and be back in the desert again.
We had finally made it to California. When you are used to tiny British country roads, and the sat-nav tells you to continue along the SAME road for 411 miles, that’s a whole lotta land to drive.
Death Valley’s Badlands aren’t really all as dead as you would think. It was so hot, even in November your icecream melts before you can get the wrapper off, and after a couple nights in the tent you’ll wake up with sweet, sticky skin. There’s one part called “Artists Palette” and it really does look like piles of coloured chalk. Greens and purples. Avoid the snooty photographers that fester around the car park like flies and climb down across the dry river bed and up into the colours, oh boy, into another world.
I’d say pretty much anybody that explores in the forests up in California would put seeing a bear at the top of their list. Well, we did too. As we drove through the redwoods of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, we practically had our faces glued to the windows. There is a tree out there known as the General Sherman who is worth saying hello to. We found our bear. I got out of the car to try and get a picture while Craig died and kept the door open and the engine running.
I’d say pretty much anybody that explores in the forests up in California would put seeing a bear at the top of their list. Well, we did too.
LA is as crazy as they say, with a mood to match, busy city or calm nature. We drove down Hollywood Boulevard and wondered what the big deal was. We went up to Runyon Canyon Park; our jaws dropped at the houses and we got what the big deal was. The Griffith Observatory gave us one of the best, longest and brightest sunsets of the trip, worth the crowd a million times over. Craig drooled over a French dipped sandwich from Philippe’s. We stayed in a little motel next to a gas station that sold dollar slices and washed our undies in the bath with us.
We spent the next day driving around the mountains and playing on the beach in shorts and bikinis pretending it was 15 degrees warmer than it was, and that we weren’t getting whipped by the flying sand in the strong winds.
We were definitely cutting it fine to think one day in Joshua Tree would be enough, should have learnt our lesson from Zion! When you think about Joshua Tree, you picture the cacti, the Joshua Tree’s themselves, and the funny looking piles of rocks. Nobody mentions just how bloody massive it is. That you can drive and hike and climb, for hours without retracing your steps. It struck me as the sort of place people would go if they became a tree in the afterlife. Long, awkward limbs, frozen in time.
They say the best place to hang out for sunset in Joshua Tree is the Cholla Gardens, so that’s where we went. You wind through the desert, round a corner and pop out in a massive expanse of crazy cacti. Craig got too excited. He lasted about 45 seconds before one was stuck in the side of his leg – those little buggers have hooks on the end of their spikes that latch into your skin like a torture device. So ensued an overly dramatic ordeal using many, many, many expletives and screams and rocks to finally pry it out.
My advice: visit the Cholla Cactus Garden any time of day, but go to the Skull Rock car park and climb around and up high on the rocks on the opposite side of the road. Nobody else is there and you get a 360-degree view of the sunset. We spent two days climbing around the boulders. Picking out our favourite, wonky tree. Eating turkey wraps on a pile of rocks 60 feet high for Thanksgiving lunch. Finding the spot to pee with the best view. And we left with raw fingertips, scraped knees and magic in our hearts.
My advice: visit the Cholla Cactus Garden any time of day, but go to the Skull Rock car park and climb around and up high on the rocks on the opposite side of the road. Nobody else is there and you get a 360-degree view of the sunset.
We spent a whole day driving out towards Slab City, where the infamous magic dreamland Salvation Mountain lies. The mountain is a hand-built creation by pure genius Leonard Knight, devoted to love and to god. It’s ok if you aren’t religious; it’s a place for love first and foremost. I don’t think anyone could ever be anything other than happy there. Seemed like the perfect place to get stranded after failing to find a place to sleep, so we ate hotel breakfast leftovers for dinner and camped out in the car.
Before we started our journey, I made a stupid fast trip to NYC for a few shoots, and managed to make it to Ryan McGinley’s Yearbook exhibition. I read there that his favourite place to visit, somewhere he went on every single road trip, was White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. I was excited as a kid in a candy store on the three-mile hike through the sand dunes to our camping spot in the middle of nowhere. After pitching our tent, we did the only thing we could, stripped off and whirled around the dunes like plastic bags caught in the wind. Thanks Ryan.
From the top of the highest sand dune we watched the sun disappear beyond the mountains and we slowly piled on every single item of clothing we had brought from the car. Even just five minutes of that day would have been worth waking up to frost forming on our sleeping bags. No wonder we were the only campers in the park that night.
A small path leads you through the dripping stalagmites and illuminated stalactites. It was like being transported to another planet…
We had once watched a documentary about all these crazy UFO fanatics who seemed to think it was a right of passage to visit Roswell, New Mexico, where supposedly an unidentified object once fell. Craig was dying to go see what all the drama was about. It’s an odd little town, with a MacDonald’s in the shape of a flying saucer thing, and shop windows stacked head to toe with alien merchandise. We paid 5 bucks each to go to the museum. Inside, eccentric artifacts, reenactments of secret US Military work on Aliens from Area 51, a whole library dedicated to alien literature. They even have a wall where you basically have to guess whether it’s a picture of a space ship or a hat thrown in the air.
Carlsbad Caverns was the main last checkpoint on our list. A cute ranger chats to you if you are having a lazy day like we were and get the elevator down, rather than hike. A small path leads you through the dripping stalagmites and illuminated stalactites. It was like being transported to another planet, we couldn’t believe all of this was really happening underneath those Ansel Adams posters and the magnets and the stickers up on the surface
The quiet of the caves was sure to prove as a shock – we were finally heading to Texas.
First thing I remember about Texas was the huge RV with a portrait of George Bush and the slogan “Miss Me Yet?” alongside it. Boy, were we in for a ride.
Up in that northwesterly corner, and to be honest pretty much until we made it to Austin, crazy oil dudes in their big ass trucks own the road. Our little roadrunner looked like an ant next to those bad boys. We pulled over in a little town for lunch; Fredericksburg seemed oddly obsessed with Germany, lots of red, yellow and black, and frankfurters and ornate shop fronts and all that jazz. A couple nearby in the diner heard our accents and asked if we had ever been to “Actual Germany” and if this place looked the same. They looked at us like we had said we murdered puppies for fun when we said, as politely as possible, “No”.
We decided to stop in Austin for a little bit; having been told it’s a patch of liberal heaven in the middle of more conservative lands. It was awesome. And even more awesome than Austin itself is the Hamilton Pools dripping springs that are about half an hour from the city. Heard some people talking about swimming in the water until we saw a water moccasin hanging about. That was the end of that.
After our time with poisonous snakes, we pretty much hauled ass home. In two days we made it through the rest of Texas, on through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and finally across the panhandle of Florida. We ate our last few fast food meals. We sang our last songs. We spent our last night in a fancy hotel, thanks to my dad’s points about to expire. We didn’t even get lost. We got back to the real south and smelt the swamps and felt the sticky air and realised we had missed where we had started after all, the nest of my sister and her husband in Florida. After adding 9000 miles to their pedometer they still opened their door with open hearts and our favourite butternut squash soup on the stove.
Eight weeks rumbling down the road in a tiny tin can with the same person day in day out was definitely the most challenging and biggest adventure of our lives so far. But after it all, all I know is I have to run away again as soon as humanly possible. Just the two of us again. What’s the point of a road trip if you can’t get your boyfriend to learn all the words to that all-about-that-bass song? Or to teach your girlfriend all the legends come and gone from your favourite football team? I would go through all the bickering, the getting really lost, the running out of money, the not showering for days, a cactus in the leg, gas stations with pet tigers, a pimp’s approach, driving by wild pony road kill, just for that first day all over again.
Just next time I’ll take twice as long to do it.