I love a road trip. I’ve been on dozens of them around the world and in 46 states. The American road is a bit over-romanticized. That Kerouacian idea of finding yourself is overplayed, but there’s something out there in the mountains, deserts, plains, and cities that I can’t explain. It’s in a dive bar in Chicago over a conversation with a stranger and some shots of whiskey, that crazy quiet in the middle of the desert where the only light is provided from the stars, the mountain winds and snowcapped peaks out of reach of cell service or any human contact aside from other weary road warriors on late night caffeine infused driveathons.
That Kerouacian idea of finding yourself is overplayed, but there’s something out there in the mountains, deserts, plains, and cities that I can’t explain.
There is a lot of pride in this country. Perhaps at times, it’s too much (just ask the rest of the world). There is something about traversing a state and seeing farmers markets, organic everything, the last gasp of the 60’s movement in little hippy communes and then finding fast food chains, “Make American Great Again” bumper stickers, giant gass guzzling SUVs in open carry gun states where you see men in little roadside cafes with pistols strapped to their belts. America is where you find those roads that don’t seem to have an end in sight. There aren’t any turns either. It just cuts right through the desert into nothingness and then out of nowhere snow capped mountain ranges appear. This is the kind of stuff that I live for. This is exactly what we were seeking.
It all began in Vegas
The trip started in Las Vegas. Sandra and I opted for a cheap room in a casino hotel because we were spending the next 10 days in a camper van. Other than a 5$ NBA bet, we didn’t do any gambling. We sought out the elusive 5$ buffets off the strip and had a few drinks on the strip. I was happy to leave Vegas. I can only handle fake Eiffel Towers and artificial Venetian causeways for a day before I have a breakdown.
We picked up our Jucy RV on the outskirts of town and drove into the night. This thing is our home for the next week and a half. Two beds a kitchen, a stove, and a fridge. First stop Death Valley. You can’t camp on the main roads, so Sandra made some inquiries and we found a private spot to ourselves off the beaten path and passed around a bottle of wine under the stars before we opened the roof tent and hit the hay.
Our reason for visiting the park was to hike into “Artist’s Palette”, a volcanic canyon colored from the oxidation of metal compounds seeping through the rocks that allow the canyon to encompass every color of the rainbow.
Sometimes a bit of luck comes your way while traveling. We made it in time to see something aptly called the superbloom that only occurs every decade or so under absolutely perfect weather conditions. The result is the valley’s floor completely blanketed by wild flowers as far as the eyes can see in every direction. I wasn’t expecting to see so much life in a place they call Death Valley known as the lowest, driest, and hottest place in North America where temperatures max out at 134 °F (56.7 °C). Our reason for visiting the park was to hike into “Artist’s Palette”, a volcanic canyon colored from the oxidation of metal compounds seeping through the rocks that allow the canyon to encompass every color of the rainbow. You don’t need drugs to trip out about how crazy this park can be.
It snowed… heavily
Sandra and I choose to take advantage of the superbloom and cooked some food and had a picnic in the wildflowers. When the dishes were done, we made our way west into the Sierras. The heat of the valley gave way to the icy blasts of wind from the endless mountain ranges and big blue skies that hug the Nevada and California border. Intense rain morphed into whiteout blizzard conditions as we entered Mammoth Lakes. You could hardly see your own hand in front of your face, so we turned around and did our best not to slide off the mountain peaks and die in a ravine somewhere. We made it safely to Benton where we built a fire with all the dry wood we could find and relaxed in the Hot Springs and passed around a bottle of bourbon before we called it a night.
You could hardly see your own hand in front of your face, so we turned around and did our best not to slide off the mountain peaks and die in a ravine somewhere.
Our luck ran out in Yosemite Valley outside of the park. A sign appeared abruptly that the road was closed due to weather. We made it to Mono Lake and gale winds tossed us off the path before pelting us with hail. We came across a lot of closed roads and a lot of dangerously empty gas tanks that could have easily left us on the side of the road hitching to the next town in a storm. Thanks to all the road closures and blizzards, we decided to ditch the Sierras and head for the city. We were forced to drive the main road through Lake Tahoe. The skies threw everything they had at us. It felt like an evacuation from the peak of the mountain rather than a leisurely drive through some incredible scenery. Rainy Sacramento was a welcome stop for us to get some sleep and put a new plan in motion for the rest of our trip.
We fled to San Francisco and enjoyed the city sampling some of the best coffee in the world with a quick stop to my favorite sandwich spot in the Mission district before people watching in Delores Park. We caught up with some friends in Oakland and talked about old times over a few beers before we scrambled to make a last minute entrance into our camping spot for the night. Sandra found a spot an hour north of the bay where the Redwoods grow like skyscrapers and made it into the park with minutes to spare before they closed the park and left us stranded outside the gates
We spent the next day bumbling around San Francisco and finished our day at the Sutro baths before making our way south. We stopped for pizza in Santa Cruz and made the long walk down the wharf with sea lions barking at us in the distance before pulling over in a town named Carmel to sleep. We awoke in a rich city where they have little shops or “shoppes” and sell things like fudge and toffees. These weird places harken back to a time in America that never even really existed on the West Coast. We’d had enough of the Californian pseudo colonialism for the day and made a break for HWY 1 down the coast towards Big Sur.
We found the ocean
I’ve spent a lot of time in this area of the country and it never ceases to shock me. It’s an assault on your senses. All at once you notice the beautiful rocky ravines towering over the pacific ocean and the bright blue waters, you hear the waves crash against the rocks and sea birds looming in the distance, you smell the mixture of fresh flowers, grass, and salt water. It’s a really special place and I was happy to share it with Sandra for her first time on the coast. Sandra found a spot for camping in Morro Bay where the sky turned into a bright pink and we made a bonfire with damp wood that never came to fruition as we mapped out our route back to Vegas.
Back to the desert
Our last stop was Joshua Tree. And on our way from the California coast to the park I saw a memorial for James Dean. I started to google “where” and the search engine finished my thought with “did James Dean die?” Location technology is getting pretty terrifying. I guess a lot of people ask that same question when they see the roadside memorial.
They say there is an energy here in the desert. Something about vortexes. I don’t really believe in that stuff, but I would never deny that it’s truly an amazing and special spot.
We made it into the Joshua Tree with plenty of time to spare and went on a short hike. We found a spot off the main road to park, cook, and set up the van. This park is important to so many people. They say there is an energy here in the desert. Something about vortexes. I don’t really believe in that stuff, but I would never deny that it’s truly an amazing and special spot.
The Mojave desert was the last gasp of incredible scenery before the casinos started sprouting along the Nevada border and we were back in Vegas. We hit Freemont street for a couple beers back in civilization and crashed in a cheap motel off the strip. We washed the desert off of us and tried to catch some sleep before an early flight back to Austin. Sandra fell asleep and I sat on the stoop in front of my room wishing our trip was just beginning. This country is far too big. A week and a half doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I wanted to see. I looked for the stars but couldn’t see them through the bright lights of Las Vegas. Road trips like this are always so fulfilling, but in the end they always manage to leave me wanting more.
Story and images by Matt Lief Anderson for AHB.
Special thanks JUCY for hooking us up with our adventuremobile. Check them out in Australia, the US or New Zealand for your next road trip.