// June 10th, San Francisco → Las Vegas //
This morning we woke up and enjoyed the San Francisco cityscape from our bedroom window in the Castro one last time before smushing duffel bags and squeezing zippers shut as we packed up the car. With every trip down the stairs, I worried we might be stuck driving with luggage on our laps. Luckily, the hatch closed and we bid farewell to our housemates as we took off on the 101.
The day before was my last day as a Territory Sales Manager, leaving a position I’d had for a few years both on the East Coast and West Coast. I passed my sales binder to my protege and sighed with relief at the thought that I never had to go into another convenience store in my life. On the flip side, I’ve really loved the past few years and am going to miss my teammates dearly. Byron also left his tech startup position this week as part of our decision to make a big career and location change.
After being enamored with the travel industry due to Semester at Sea and our independent backpacking trip, we’ve decided to revert back to our passions and make it our full time work. Our sales, marketing, and management experience is something we’re hoping to leverage in order to dip our toes into the travel industry and absorb as much as we can. Specifically, we’re both interested in hostels, since we’ve had many great experiences and love the unique way hostels are able to bring travelers together.
Our first adventure outside of corporate life is a Great American Roadtrip. It’s been on my bucket list since I was little and the cards lined up perfectly for us to embark on this journey now. We’ll be staying at a mix of hostels and campgrounds all along the way and are sitting down with hostel owners and managers to soak up their wisdom.
For this first day of driving, I started out early in the morning, drove over the Bay Bridge and waved goodbye to our favorite city. The drive was canvassed with rolling hills, scrub brush dotted desert, and acres of farmland. Past Bakersfield, past the Mojave Desert, and on to Las Vegas.
We pulled over amid the desert and scrub brush to take a photo next to the “Welcome to Nevada” sign next to the rundown looking town of Primm, where Whiskey Pete’s seemed to be the biggest point of pride. Onwards into Las Vegas, we arrived around 4:30 and attempted to check into our hostel but couldn’t find the receptionist anywhere. Ten minutes later, a six foot tall blonde German girl rushed in the door in a tight party dress and stillettos, explaining that she didn’t get a chance to change since last night’s festivities. This was our receptionist. We got dressed for the strip and headed to Margaritaville inside the Flamingo to watch my cousin Zach play a gig.
When we got back to the hostel, a BBQ was in full swing and we were handed cheeseburgers and margaritas as we joined in the fun. A rousing game of Jenga was going on, so we joined in and met some backpackers from Central and South America and talked for hours. There was this one character from Oklahoma who was dipping and when asked what brand he used, he explained he made his own by sourcing tobacco leaves and soaking and aging it himself. He was here working on a weapons contract to sell firearms. We heard all about his back-country way of life, including how to cap an outhouse in cement, “noodling”, which is fishing for catfish by using your hands, and how to build a truck with 18 gears. He told us to dress down while traveling through the south since they don’t like the yuppie types.
// June 11th LV → Flagstaff, AZ //
I could not get to sleep. Maybe because it was our first night of the trip, or maybe because I kept tossing around, despite the brand new bunk beds and having the entire dorm room to ourselves. That didn’t stop me from jumping out of bed at 6am to go for a run around Fremont St with Byron. We’re trying this whole “staying active” thing while we’re traveling…we’ll see how long this lasts. It was already pretty hot at this hour, and I was struggling pretty hard.
Soon after we got back, we met the hostel manager, Jason, but the assistant manager was a no show and there was a girl that was sleeping on the doorstep that wanted to be checked in. Once that was dealt with, we hopped in his car and left the hostel chaos so we could have an uninterrupted conversation with him about his hostel and his views on the industry. Two and a half hours later, and two lavender lattes later, we piled back into the car with a ton of content to think about and continued on the trip through Nevada and into Arizona.
This stretch of road was such an incredible drive on Route 93 since it took us right past the deep blue water of Lake Mead, held back by the one and only Hoover Dam. The road twisted along dry mountains of dirt and windy corridors along high bridges. The landscape changed to open fields of scrub brush, accented by mountain passes and cactus lined stretches. The entire day was a battle against the wind as I fought to keep the car between the lines. I saw motorcyclists sway with the wind and was grateful for our luggage-laden heavyweight car.
Eventually we climbed out of the dry landscape and into evergreen swathed land as we got closer and closer to Flagstaff. It felt like back home with the towering pine trees and quaint train cars chugging along the hills. The tranquility was broken as we pulled into the local Goodwill in a Oregon Trail-esque dump of our belongings to make space and keep our sanity when trying to search for something in our bags.
We pulled into the Grand Canyon International Hostel parking lot and found my friend Lyndsey, who drove up from Tucson to meet us for a leg of our journey. The hostel was an old cowboy bunkhouse, and looked like it probably hadn’t been changed too much since those days. Despite this being her first time at a hostel, Lyndsey full heartedly accepted it in all its glory and we headed out to walk to the downtown breweries. Flagstaff is somewhat of a hippie town, but also a college town with Northern Arizona University, which provided the perfect home to many trendy breweries and “noshing” options. It was great catching up with Lyndsey and enjoying the Flagstaff food scene, but we decided to turn in early since tomorrow was our big Grand Canyon day.
// June 12th Flagstaff, AZ → Grand Canyon //
I slept surprising well, maybe because the bunk beds were made from some seriously solid slabs of wood, or because I was exhausted. We even got up early and went for a brisk run around the Northern Arizona University campus and the graveyard next door. It looked exactly like UConn’s campus, but you could probably say the same about a ton of large colleges. We helped ourselves to peanut butter toast back at the hostel and waited for the owners of the hostel to meet with us while Lyndsey hit the road to get a camping spot for us at the canyon.
The owners were typical of a husband/wife business duo, with the wife as the organizer and implementer while the husband was the storyteller and dreamer. Aside from the business details we learned from them, they spun some great stories about how, back in the day, the hostel was home to outrageous hippie parties and bong-ripping fun. There’s a ton of hostels that used to operate under this commune party persona, but the industry has changed a lot and veers much closer to a boutique hotel atmosphere.
After the interview, we drove around trying to find firewood, a lighter, and an air pump while rushing to meet Lyndsey, who successfully snagged one of the last spots. The drive uneventful right until we got to the park and started winding up through the hills and past glimpses of the canyon starting below. The street was lined with native craft booths selling their goods and a few scattered homes, seemingly disconnected from the outside world entirely. We drove past the “Camp Full” sign and found Lyndsey napping at our cozy little spot. Setting up the tent was a small victory after battling the ferocious wind, threatening to swoop up our home with every gust. We got it somewhat staked down and threw some boulders inside for good measure before driving around to the first viewpoint of the canyon. There’s really no way to describe The Grand Canyon and do it proper justice, but believe me when I say it is big. Like, really really big. And humbling and vast and looks like it’s a fake backdrop from a movie set. You can really see the way that the water that used to be there had cut and carved the landscape. It makes you wonder what the geography looks like that lies underneath our current bodies of water.
We took our fair share of selfies and headed along to the trailhead of the South Kaibab path. We took note of the poster tacked at the start that depicted a very sunburned cartoon man bent over a river vomiting into the stream with a caption stating “This is Victor. He didn’t wear sunscreen. Don’t be like Victor.” With that cheery image in our heads, we carried on down the steep switchbacks and stone steps into the canyon. It was dry and dusty, but lined with vivid cacti and yucca plants. After an hour, we hit the aptly named “Ooh Ahh” Point with sweeping views for miles to the left and right, and over a mile down to the bottom where the seemingly small Colorado River flowed along. Somehow we arrived right before a huge crowd of people clustered at the point, so we enjoyed taking all the photos we wanted and looked on as the crowd vied for their few seconds in the spot. An overly friendly squirrel was the star of the moment and crawled on people’s backpacks and photobombed the hikers’ snaps.
Lyndsey was such a trooper since she’s had severe back pain ever since she was in a car accident, and was probably in excruciating pain on the hike, but she made it back up with us in one piece still smiling. I laughed when I saw people hiking down there in flip flops or even the miniest of all mini skirts. Although less than 1% of people that visit the canyon actually hike in it, I wonder if there are some that should’ve stayed at the rim.
We celebrated our successful hike once back at the campsite by cracking open some canned chili, squished wheat bread, and canned green beans. One of our fancy Napa bottles of wine was leaking in the back, so we figured we should just drink it, if only to class up our meal a bit. The sun went down and so did the temperature. Soon we were shivering as we kept digging through our suitcases to find more layers to fight the chill. Without any fire or heat source, we chatted up the Canadians camping at the site next door and came with wine and s’mores materials in hand in exchange for heat. The two girls were more than happy to have us join and soon we were all eating and drinking around the fire swapping camping stories, gathering firewood in the dark, and enjoying each other’s company until late in the night. It was hard pulling away from the dying fire and into the 30 degree air, but somehow we survived the night.
// June 13th Grand Canyon → Tucson, AZ //
I somehow managed to fall asleep a few times, bundled up in three shirts, a quilted vest, and a sweatshirt, clinging on to Byron to use as a furnace. The wind was whipping the tent around, but luckily my earplugs helped me pretend I was surrounded by four sturdy walls. Last night everyone talked about getting up early for sunrise and then were like, “Nah, that’ll never happen, I’m not waking up at 5am”, but, I secretly set my alarm because there was NO WAY I was going to miss seeing sunrise in the Grand Canyon. Besides, it’s not like I was going to get a good night’s sleep anyway. As per every morning, I woke up ten minutes before the alarm and to Byron’s horror I started getting up and took all my body heat with me. With no intention of getting up, Byron reluctantly decided to come with me since otherwise he’d lose his heat source. It was chilly, but I think growing up in New England hardens you a bit. I immediately felt warmer as I recalled winters waiting for the bus when my hair would freeze. This was nothing.
We tiptoed along the path, past little tents with sleeping campers inside, until we started to see the glow of the sun light up swathes of the canyon down below. A family of deer meandered across the path and looked at us like we were intruding their space. We crept past them and out to the lookout tower where a handful of early risers were awaiting the sun’s arrival. Every few minutes, you could visually see the progress the sun’s light was making as it cast a line of light on the first parts of the rocky landscape. The onlookers got bored, or perhaps impatient with the sun’s slow speed, and walked away. We stayed for many minutes later soaking in the warmth of the sun and admiring the vastness of the canyon.
Back at the campsite, people were starting to stir and take down their gear and gather firewood to cook breakfast. Again, our incredible Canadian friends came to the rescue and invited us to their fire for pancakes and coffee. They even brought syrup and creamer! Somehow we got the tent back in the pack and headed off to the Rim Trail and Visitor’s Center to join the masses clamoring off of their tour buses and out to the ledge to take a photo before their tour guide urges them along. The three of us had our fill after about half an hour of the walk and agreed we were so lucky to have actually hiked into the canyon the day before.
On the road again, we headed south to Sedona to see all the red rocks, avoiding all the routes that were closed off due to uncontrollable fires. Apparently the fires happen every year, but most of them have been caused by humans doing stupid things, like firing guns or starting campfires, or dragging chains from the bottom of their car. The rocks in Sedona were deep red, as promised, and if we had more time I would definitely go back and hop in the river that ran along the route through the woods. The town of Sedona was not that spectacular, aside from it’s views, and the tourist shops started to blur together as we walked down the main drag. Lyndsey headed down to Tucson and Byron and I continued to Phoenix to meet up with our Semester at Sea friend, Dylan. This stretch of the drive was made eventful by the constant need to dodge and swerve around tire scraps littering the highway lanes. Apparently a lot of people here use cheap retreads on their tires, which, in the 100 degree weather, separate and tear off in massive pieces. It felt like I mastered a level of Frogger as I pulled into the Piestewa Peak parking lot.
I turned off all the electronics in the car, slathered my face in sunscreen, and chugged the hot water in my bottle before trudging up the incline in the unbearably hot 98 degree weather. Yes, it was a dry heat, and no, that did not help the situation. However, the view was amazing and we could see all the urban sprawl that is Phoenix. I came back to life after a delicious taco salad and horchata at Filiberto’s before hitting the road south to Tucson to meet Lyndsey and Byron’s childhood friend Ben at a local tap and wine place. Apparently this is big in Tucson, but I’d never seen a venue like it in San Francisco, where the front is a performance space, the middle is the bar, and the back is a store where you can buy bottles of beer and wine. After a round or two, we tried the local cuisine at the insistence of Lyndsey and Ben and indulged in an Eegee. If anyone else has no freaking clue what that is, you’re not alone. It’s a Tucson-only specialty and is basically a mix between an italian ice and a slushie, with real fruit shavings.
We followed Lyndsey along the back roads of Tucson to her house where we were greeted by her two lovable pups. It wasn’t more than five minutes of stepping in the door before I was in the shower and under the covers, feeling like the cleanest and comfiest girl on the planet.
// June 14th Tucson, AZ → Guadalupe Mountains, TX //
After one of the most-needed sleeps of my life, Lyndsey and her mom treated us to homemade breakfast burritos bright and early at 7am. They even went out to get us deli meat and fruit so we could have a hearty meal on the road. It felt like I was at home, like when my mom used to pack my lunch for school. This was a great feeling for being constantly on the road in new places.
We gave big hugs goodbye and hit the road again, off to New Mexico and Texas. But first, I had to stop along the side of the road to get a photo with one of the giant cacti that seemed so foreign to me, probably to the neighbor’s confusion. The drive was pretty uneventful; the landscape gradually changed from dry desert peaks to slightly more vegetated in New Mexico, which was covered in a dull plains grass. We were so excited to see the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign right across the highway from the “Welcome to Arizona” sign since we were on a mission to collect selfies with all the signs from every state, but had missed the Arizona one. We waited for a pause in the traffic (of which there were many…pretty slow road), and ran across the freeway and climbed up the sandy hill to get the other sign. It was an adrenaline rush as we hopped back into the car and got it up to match the speed as we reentered the highway.
Texas was also somewhat uneventful and we passed plenty of small scattered towns that seemed to only serve the purpose of providing a rest stop for the highway drivers. During our trip, we tried to cut down on the number of stops we made, so we created a mini pantry in the back of the car with canned food and snacks. Whenever lunchtime rolled around, whoever wasn’t driving reached into the back and pulled out a “tin meat” (tuna, chicken, etc.), a loaf of bread, and some peanut butter crackers. They then delicately opened the can, careful not to spill, and then spooned out portions of the meat onto the bread in bite sized amounts for whoever was driving. It wasn’t gourmet, but it worked and saved time.
We knew the Carlsbad Caverns accepted their last entry to the cave at 4pm, but we also knew that our campsite was first-come-first-serve and we were afraid if we waited until after the caverns, we wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep that night. As the Guadalupe Mountains came into view over the desolate highway, we started to debate what our next move should be, as the clock said 3:15. We pulled into a ranger station and they told us the campsite we were going to (Dog’s Canyon) was over two hours away, past the Carlsbad Caverns. Somehow we had missed that on the map. However, there was a perfectly fine campsite right at the station in the Guadalupe Mountains, and it was only half an hour away from the caverns. We pulled into the campsite and struggled to interpret their antiquated system of claiming and paying for a spot. It involved an orange traffic cone, slipping money in an envelope, and popping it into a drop box. We figured it out and hit the road to Carlsbad Caverns, back over the border to New Mexico (and a different timezone), just three minutes before they stopped accepting people into the cave.
Once inside the cave, we could relax and take in the atmosphere with all our senses. As you start your descent, a pungent smell attacks your nostrils and you look up and try to make out the black figures flying around. The bat guano was strong. It’s amazing how valuable this stuff used to be back when the US harvested it for fertilizer. It felt like walking into an industrial cooler, with a constant temperature of 56 degrees–a welcome change from the 102 degree heat outside. It took at least ten minutes until I could actually see the path in front of me as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Walking down into the cavern reminded me of when Byron and I visited Jenolan Caves with his family in Australia, with similar limestone rock formations in folds and delicate icicle shapes, caused by sulfuric acid. However, this cavern was enormous and just kept going down and down and then opening into massive rooms with ceilings hundreds of feet high. It was moist and eerie and every time a drop of water dripped from the ceiling onto my bare shoulder, I jumped.
Eventually, the descent evened out at about 1,000 ft underground into the Big Room, which is the largest cavernous room in the world. The path took us around a range of formations, like the “draperies”, “fairy land”, “caveman”, “dolls theatre”, “totem pole” and the bottomless pit. It felt like when you look at clouds and try to make out various shapes–very much open to personal interpretation. There were small pools of water collecting drips, and we saw one of the largest continuously growing formations, meaning the drips cause a rock mound to grow ever so slightly. I was fascinated with the early exploration narratives, and cringed when I saw an old broken ladder, lashed together with some sticks and a few metal chains, leading down into a dark bottomless pit. I admired the bravery of the early explorers. Apparently, instead of a nice shiny elevator, they used to be lowered down in a metal bucket. Yikes.
Emerging from the depths below into the gift shop above was a bit disorienting. The miserable heat was actually welcome as we were hit with a blast of warmth on our way to the car. Back on the Texas side, we attacked mosquitoes while setting up the tent on the white gravel nestled among yucca plants, scraggly trees, and other desert flora and fauna with the massive peak of Guadalupe Mountains (the highest point in TX) towering over us. Our dinner of canned beans and pork counted as sustenance , and that’s about it. The campsite was filled with couples, families, boy scout groups, a couple from CT on a road trip, and a couple from Florida, who also quit their jobs in search of adventure. The sun dropped down and we finally had relief from the heat. The atmosphere was mellow as a calm breeze ruffled over all the nylon tent flaps and the couple next to us strummed some acoustic guitar chords. It was too hot for the rain cover, so we had just the mesh material covering us, leaving a clear view up to the starry sky. We fell asleep with one of the most incredible views, almost as if we were sleeping under the stars without the tent at all.
// June 15th Guadalupe → Austin TX //
I woke up with the sun streaming into the tent and a cool breeze ruffling the flaps. Everything was calm and still, as if everyone else in the campground was also savoring this tranquil moment before collapsing the tents and preparing breakfast. The mountain rose to my left as the light illuminated one peak at a time. The pure white stones crunched under our feet as we packed the car up, ate some granola bars, and headed out on the Devil’s Hall trail.
The path wound through desert scrub brushes and scrawny trees. I was careful to look down constantly to avoid cactus spikes and potential snake encounters. We didn’t see any other hikers, even as the trail took us into an old washed up river bed littered with massive white stones. We got an hour into the hike but decided to bail since the rocks were getting harder and harder to traverse and we still had a long day of driving ahead of us. Back at the car, we realized that the low tire pressure light was on in one of the tires. We were in the middle of a national park, surrounded by nothingness, so even the park ranger couldn’t point us in the direction of the closest gas station. By some miracle, across the street from the campground, there was an industrial looking building that just happened to be a branch of the Texas Department of Transportation. Byron pulled in through the gates and asked politely if we could use their air hose that was conveniently located out front. With air in our tires, we were good to go again and headed on to a monotonous drive, past oil field after oil field. Our SUV felt out of place amongst the massive tractor trailers and oil equipment-toting vehicles that we had to pass every few miles.
The only part of our drive that stood out was a stop at Buc-ees, the Walmart-sized gas station that falls under the “you need to see it to believe it” category. We looked at our gas pump number and were shocked. #222. It was massive. Inside, the bathrooms were luxuriously clean and abundant, and the store shelves were stocked with a range of Texas spices, hunting gear, Buc-ees Fan Gear with the crazed looking beaver logo, and more. We ordered food to go from the electronic kiosks and hit the road again.
Once in Austin, we pulled up to Firehouse Hostel and were immediately impressed. Every inch of the lobby was carefully designed with distressed wood, vintage artwork, and curated literature to create a hipster-meets-southwest vibe. The rest of the hostel was immaculate too, and so well designed that it felt more like a boutique hotel than a hostel. We socialized with some Australians and Kiwis down in the kitchen while we made pasta and canned veggies, but decided to stay in for the night after the long day of driving. We got some work done on the laptops in our cozy private room that the owners were so kind to provide. Being in the hospitality industry definitely has its perks.
// June 16th Austin, TX //
Breakfast was a pleasant surprise of coffee and egg and vegan chorizo scramble (just adding to the hipster vibe), so we started our day off well and felt prepared for our meetings with hostel owners. With our spare time before the meeting, we braved the 95 degree heat and humidity and visited the State Capitol building. From the heart of the building, we looked up to ceiling and saw the underside of the massive dome filtering in natural light. On the floor below was a series of seals that gave tribute to Texas under many different authorities. In addition to Texas under the US, there’s also seals for Texas under Spain, France, Mexico, and the Confederacy. Apparently Congress is only in session for a maximum of 140 days of the year. The rest of the time, the building is used for tours and other purposes. Today there was a Model UN event in the Chamber Room.
Back at the hostel, we talked with the owners for over an hour about their huge success and their decision to expand to Houston for a second hostel. It was inspiring to see in just five years they started with the empty shell of the city firehouse building to one of the most popular hostels and bars in Austin. Back out in the heat, we drove to Barton Springs Pool, inside of Zilker Park, to beat the heat in local style. It was packed and even the overflow parking lot was filled. The pool was more of a lake, with natural water, but enclosed by cement and garnished with a diving board. I realized it had been over a year and a half since the last time I went swimming, which was an utterly unacceptable thought to bear. It reminded me of the finicky weather in San Francisco that makes the beach virtually un-swimmable. It was so relaxing there, so we hung out for a while and watched the line of divers show their stuff on the diving board.
After heading back to town for another hostel interview at a different location, Drifter Jacks, we met up with our Semester at Sea friend Natalie. She picked us up and drove us through the city to Terry Black’s BBQ for a true southern meal. It was cafeteria style, so we waited in line and grabbed our sides of potato salad, mac n cheese, and corn bread and stepped up to the meat counter to order ¼ lb each of brisket, rib, shredded beef, and sausage to share. The beer was cheaper than the iced tea, so we helped ourselves to some Lone Star brews. I’d say Byron was pretty much not a member of our table conversation as he reveled in the juicy bites of beef, zoning out on all his surroundings. It was incredible, and not too expensive either. We both waddled out of there for less than $35 total. It was great hearing what Natalie’s been up to while exploring Austin and how excited she is to head back to her home of San Diego in the near future.
We walked off our meal along the river bank with a view of the city skyline. Crowds of tourists were gathered underneath one of the bridges in anticipation for the infamous bats of Austin. Every night, just as dusk falls, thousands of black bats swoop out from under the bridge and into the night sky. Byron and I decided to wait with all the crowds to experience this, which seemed like an eternity because it was stiflingly hot and humid and the salty meat made my mouth feel like a desert. A few bats started trickling out and the crowds went crazy, getting their phones ready for the grand moment. Those must’ve been some early risers because their crew didn’t follow until a good five minutes later. Kayakers and tour boats eagerly awaited the magic from the river. Soon, the sky around us was covered in little black spots moving in sync with each other, as if this were a choreographed dance the bats rehearsed all their lives for. It just kept going and going and finally I couldn’t bear my thirst anymore and ran into the Marriott to steal some refreshing cucumber water from the lobby.
We walked back downtown, over the bridge, and met up with some of Byron’s UConn friends that moved down to Austin after graduating. We started the night at the bar underneath Firehouse Hostel, which was a speakeasy you entered through the hostel lobby bookshelf. It was like stepping back in time with classy ornate booths and brass light fixtures and velvety accents. We took it up a notch for a rowdier experience by walking through “Dirty 6th” street. Every weekend the street is closed off to cars and instead, drunken college students take over, enticed by cheap neon drinks, drinking games, and electronic music. If only UConn had a street like this when I was in college.
We didn’t pause to join the crowds, but kept walking to Rainy St, which is the post-college crowd favorite. The street is lined with residential houses that have been renovated on the inside to accommodate bars, dance clubs, and restaurants. The street still has a neighborhood vibe with picket fences and cornhole in the backyard, so it feels like you’re just walking down a street filled with house parties. It was low key but so crowded. The “houses” continued for blocks and blocks, each one with a different theme or decor. We hung out for a while but realized that we had to leave Austin early in the morning and said goodnight. Our Lyft home to Drifter Jack’s was impossible to find among the crowds, but I had a lovely life chat with the woman that stumbled into the car after us. She claimed to be in the “Entertainment Industry” and congratulated me on not having children. Austin certainly knows how to throw a good party.
// June 17th Austin, TX → New Orleans, LA //
The alarm went off way too early, but I rolled out of bed into the stuffy hostel room and attempted to put in my contacts and do my makeup in the dark without disturbing the snoozing guests. Sadly, this hostel didn’t have breakfast, so we ate oatmeal packets from our car stash and hit the road. Whenever I have my own hostel, I will FOR SURE have breakfast, even if it’s just toast and peanut butter. Otherwise, I start my day disappointed.
The drive was long, passing along the Louisiana coastline, and pretty uneventful right until we got about an hour outside of New Orleans. Traffic piled up for as far as I could see and the GPS announced there was a twenty minute delay. All types of cop cars and ambulances rushed ahead. As we inched past the center of the action, we saw a car completely smushed into the barrier, to the point that the drivers side door was touching the passenger side. We carried on, even more conscious of the road.
The freeway narrowed to two lanes in each direction as we entered miles and miles of suspended bridgeway above the bayou. There was murky water on either side of the highway and dark green mysterious looking trees hanging their feathery branches close to the water. The New Orleans skyline came into view, including the massive sports arenas, and the road dipped into urban street blocks as we navigated through the neighborhood to a street parking spot right in front of the hostel. We were greeted by two girls working the front desk in the parlor, one named Meg who had worked at the Las Vegas hostels too. The hostel was an old mansion with a grand staircase leading upstairs and enormously high ceilings. We dropped our bags down in our four-bed room, greeted our roommate and chilled for a bit while settling in.
The sun went down and we wandered outside to the patio for the nightly pre-game party. The hostel staff guided our hodgepodge group of Aussies, Brits, and Americans through a game of King’s Cup while more and more guests joined in the festivities. Soon we were debating over Australian gun regulations, wanderlusting over a Canadian riding his motorcycle from Toronto to New Orleans, and cheering on a girl from Tasmania every time she lost Never Have I Ever. We were all joking around and enjoying each other’s company as if we’d known each other for years.
Eventually, the staff led our rowdy group out of the hostel and to the streetcar, which was had been in operation since the early 1900s. Our party continued on the street car and along the city blocks around Frenchmen St, where each bar had a different live jazz band blasting music to the street. Our large group broke off into smaller groups with each bar we went to. We ended up at a fantastic bar with a live big band screaming into their instruments and dancing on stage and throughout the crowd. It was exactly what I wanted to experience for a New Orleans night out. After the crowd-shaking performance, we separated from the group and walked around to Bourbon street to witness the madness. We wandered through the sleepy dark neighborhoods in between Frenchman and Bourbon St and imagined the lives of the people that inhabit these quaint, tree surrounded, balcony porch-adorned homes with stately columns. The smell of vomit started to waft through the air, the shouts grew louder, and soon our quiet neighborhood stroll turned into blocks and blocks of rowdy bars and beverages sold by the fishbowl. Shiny plastic beads were everywhere–in the street, hanging from trees, swinging around the necks of men and women drunkenly swaying from bar balconies. People were everywhere, stumbling around the barricaded street. We took in all the carnage and drunken debauchery, and hopped on the streetcar back to the hostel in the wee hours.
// June 18th NOLA //
Morning came all too soon as we rolled out of bed and met with the hostel owner, Robert, for a morning interview out on the patio. Beer cans and red plastic cups surrounded our table, as a tribute to the festivities of the night before. We talked for hours in the hot sun about his hostel and the inspiration he’s gotten from his mother, who opened up a motel in Montana all by herself. His passion brought him back to New Orleans to create one of the best hostels in the United States. His perspective about sharing information and helping all hostels for the sake of the industry was refreshing. After our chat, he invited us out to lunch to experience the local cuisine. We continued our conversation over traditional greasy and delicious Po’boys. I ordered an incredible sweet potato fry sandwich with meat gravy and fried pickles. Oh and sweet tea, of course.
Robert took us on a tour of his city, around the massive reservoir, past his favorite park, and through the charming historic houses of the Garden District. We hopped out at the Lafayette Cemetery to stroll through the crowded rows of mausoleums. They use these instead of gravestones, since the city deals with large amounts of flooding. Our stroll took us back through the quaint neighborhood and out to the trolley tracks, lined with plastic beads hanging from trees, poles, and all other possible surfaces.
After some laundry and chilling at the hostel, we took the streetcar for a joy ride around the city–the lazy way to take in the sites. Our route passed under the tree canopy by Tulane and Loyola and row after row of balcony adorned houses. On our way back in the other direction, we looked down a street and witnessed a huge commotion with crowds of people. We hopped off the train at the next stop and went to explore and find out what the fuss was about. We followed the sound of shouts and brass instruments until we found ourselves among a crowd watching a parade with floats loaded with men and women dressed in all their Sunday best, sipping on drinks and dancing to the music blasting from their speakers. Music was coming from every direction, interrupted only by the cheering crowd, the roar of a badass female motorcycle crew, and the rolling wheels of coolers as people set up makeshift bars out of their Igloos and truck beds. Despite the fact that we stuck out as the only white people there, we joined in the festivities and danced along with the rest of the crowd next to the floats for blocks and blocks. I saw a father get up on a building overhang and do a dance routine with his little son, dressed in matching outfits. Apparently this is a weekly thing, and every Sunday after church, the neighborhood organizations get together and celebrate.
After the parade ended, we headed back to the hostel for round two of drinking games on the back patio. This time, we led the games because the new hostel staff had no control over the group and was trying to play Cards Against Humanity, which doesn’t work with a group of twenty backpackers trying to get drunk. Kings Cup was much more our speed and soon enough everyone was laughing and cheering like the night before. The hostel staff led everyone out to a local venue for some live music, but it was in a sketchy area and miles away from the hostel, so we were content with eating savory cheddar and bacon beignets and walking back to the hostel.
// June 19th NOLA → Kingsland, Georgia //
We had another long day on the road ahead of us, so we had an early breakfast, snapped some photos of the hostel, chatted with the owner and said our goodbyes. But, we didn’t leave New Orleans without trying their famous “chicory coffee” at a local cafe on St Charles.
For some reason, whenever I took the wheel it was POURING rain, especially when we crossed into Florida, after passing through Mississippi and Alabama. The windshield wipers did their best to frantically keep up, but visibility was no more than five feet ahead. Even with the hazard lights on, it felt safer to move at a snail’s pace than to pull over on the side of the road and risk not being seen. The sky was dark and ominous as we pulled into a rural Walmart to replenish our supply of canned veggies, chili, and bread. We treated ourselves to fresh prepared salads, which felt like a feast compared to our tinned meals. This whole time we were stressing about the idea of setting up the tent in the pouring rain and sleeping in the miserable dampness. The rain let up to a drizzle for half an hour as we rolled up to the KOA and raced to put up the tent and battle the ravenous mosquitos during the quick respite. We wandered around our new surroundings and discovered we were the only tent on the property.
As if the weather didn’t make the day depressing enough, this campsite was in sad shape. The “petting zoo” was populated with caged chickens and a feisty goat. The residents of the property seemed to have been living in the RV park for way too many years. The rundown outdoor lounge reeked of fish, because someone had left a decaying skinned fish in the sink. The “game room” was a terrifying wood paneled room that smelled like there were dead bodies hidden under the warped pool table or inside the pixelly arcade games. The mosquitos were unrelenting in their attack, so we gave up and ate our pre-made salads inside the stuffy sweltering car, picking the lesser of evils. I braved the showers because I couldn’t stand the stickiness and then ran to the tent to avoid getting even more bug bites. So hot. so sticky. Rained overnight. Bleh.
// June 20th Georgia → Charleston, SC //
After a miserably sticky, wet, and itchy night, we packed up the soaked tent and tried to reorganize the car. The complimentary waffle breakfast lifted our spirits and soon we were off to The Hostel in the Forest. I thought the GPS had totally messed up when it told me to turn off the main road onto an unmarked pothole-ridden dirt path that winded through the trees. I was so skeptical to see what this hostel was going to be like and prayed that every puddle we hit on the road was shallow. The car crept through the terrible road, and miles later a sign welcomed us saying “Welcome Home”. We walked up to the wooden geo domes that housed the common areas and office and were greeted by an English man named Murray. He probably had no trouble finding us since we had a look of confusion on our faces, and weren’t wearing tie-dye. He took us on a wonderful tour of the property, including a demonstration of the hand-crank composting toilet system and a stop at the staff-built tree houses with handmade stoves and such. Some hippies were out and about as we wandered amongst the vegetable garden, massage hut and “hot tub”. We talked for a long time with Murray and his handsome rugged woodsman manager. We exited on the same road we entered, and felt as if we had spent the last two hours in a different universe and were just now returning to reality.
Our drive to Charleston, South Carolina was short. No one was at the hostel when we arrived, so we strolled downtown. To be completely honest, I wasn’t too impressed with Charleston and thought it was full of bougie white people shopping at designer boutique shops. We escaped the shopping and walked along the water. We had made it to the Atlantic Ocean!!! All the way coast to coast. We carried along the waterfront to the Grand Market and found a BBQ restaurant to indulge in pork barbecue and mint juleps.
Back at the hostel we bugged the front desk girl to get ahold of the hostel owner, since we scheduled a meeting with her weeks ago and hadn’t heard anything since. She wasn’t very helpful so we took matters into our own hands and knocked on Vikki’s door in the back (we knew this was her house since we read her book. I know, full-on creeper status.) Luckily, she opened the door and promised to meet later that night after the baby was asleep. We chatted for an hour or so, but were totally underwhelmed with her and the hostel after the book set such high expectations. But, on the bright side, it gave us hope that maybe we could write our own and that it didn’t take genius and outstanding accommodation in order to write a book.
// June 21st Charleston → Williamsburg, VA //
The hostel offered instant oatmeal, and we had peanut butter in the car, so we made a concoction of both for a protein-filled breakfast. We hit the road and were off to see Poppy and Kenu (my grandparents) in Williamsburg!! We passed through North Carolina and only stopped for delicious Cook Out and a gas fill at South of the Border. For those that haven’t experienced Cook Out, it’s an incredible fast food joint with cheap burgers and the creamiest milkshakes. I was introduced to these first on a road trip with college friends down to South Carolina and have been hooked ever since. Sadly, they only exist in the South.
We drove down the familiar roads of Poppy and Kenu’s neighborhood and were greeted with hugs and gummy worms on our pillows (as tradition calls for). We set up the damp tent in the backyard to dry (probably to the horror of the neighbors) and caught up over wine and espresso coated cheese (also tradition). After we walked Byron through the wall of childhood family photos, we went out to a local favorite called Paul’s and feasted on calamari, great food, and mini cannolis for dessert (as always). Back at the house, we got the tour of the elaborate train set in the den and got to hear about new discoveries to add to our family tree. Poppy and Kenu have done a ton of work tracing back our ancestry and have gotten to the point of identifying several war veterans, including a man that fought in the Revolutionary War. We said our goodnights and slept so soundly in the comfort of a real bed, in a house I’d known for years, happy to have the chance to spend time with my grandparents.
// June 22nd Williamsburg → Philadelphia, PA //
In true family tradition, we indulged in the famous Poppy Breakfast, which comprises of scrambled eggs, english muffins with jam, sausages, and hot coffee. We were stuffed full as we loaded up the car, filled the tires with air and hugged goodbye. We had a busy day ahead of us and we rushed to Washington DC for a meeting with the head of Hostel Development at Hostelling International. On our way, we stopped at the envy of all convenience store owners, Sheetz. This chain is only in the south and offers a premium experience with beautiful bathrooms, delicious food, and consistent customer service. It’s a tobacco rep’s dream and all my coworkers and I wished we had them as our clients.
We felt extremely official as we were presented with badges for entering the massive office building and were escorted to the headquarter doors of Hostelling International USA. We admired the antique memorabilia from the days when the organization went under the YHA title. Soon we were ushered into a large conference room and were given prepared packets with information about the organization. Even though to them we were probably just two young adults who didn’t have anything to offer, the execs gave us over an hour of time and graciously answered all of our questions and gave us wise career advice. We left feeling excited for the future and happy that they took us seriously.
Back on the road to Philly, the highways became dense and began criss crossing through clustered cities and suburbs. Even though I’d lived my whole life navigating the chaotic highways of the eastern seaboard, it was a stark contrast to the wide open rolling freeways of the south. We crested the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and descended into the narrow cobblestoned streets of Philadelphia. After circling the block multiple times and trying to decipher the street cleaning rules on a quest for parking, we decided to say, screw it we’ll park in a garage and be done with it. We dropped off our bags at the hostel and headed out for some beers with Dennis from HostelTrends.com for a long chat about the industry at an irish bar, literally called the Irish Bar.
After our chat, we still hadn’t had dinner, but all the restaurants were starting to close their doors. Luckily, Ishkabibble, a walk-up Philly Cheesesteak stand was still serving up warm delicious sandwiches. We sat on a stoop on the way back to the hostel and enjoyed the gooey cheesy bites while groups of people wandered back from the bars along the cobblestoned streets lined by quaint New England-like brick buildings. Satiated and satisfied with our night, we crawled into our bunks, along with 22 other backpackers sharing the room.
// June 23rd Philadelphia → East Hampton, CT //
Our tourist time in Philly was limited to a half an hour speed walk to the old town square and a peek at the line snaking around the viewing platform of the liberty bell. The rest of our time was spent getting a tour around the hostel renovation and chatting with the owner of the hostel. We hit the road again, rushing to make it back in time for my orthodontist appointment back in Connecticut, which I’d miraculously scheduled back in San Francisco for the only day and only hour I’d be in Connecticut during business hours. Through Pennsylvania, through Jersey, past the NYC skyline, over the George Washington bridge, past New Rochelle where I dropped Byron off to his dad’s, and onwards to Conroy Orthodontics in Wethersfield, only 4 minutes late. Not bad for coming from over 3,000 miles away ?.
With a new set of shiny new Invisalign trays in hand, I headed on home to Dad and Chris’ house for dinner with Shan and Dave and the fam. It was so bizarre driving my car with my California plates along the winding local roads of East Hampton, so very far away, as I pulled into the Tavern parking lot. For the next few hours I got to hang out with the old crew of Kyle, Kayla, Brittney, Ben, and Ryan, where we caught up and laughed over beers on the patio. I slept solidly in the comfort of the massive Garagemahal, the recent three-level addition to the house.
// June 24th East Hampton, CT //
My Eggo waffle breakfast tasted like home, especially after realizing it had been over a year since I’d indulged in the fluffy yet crisp morning treat. With a jam-packed day, I was off to my mom’s storage unit early to drop off all the things I had transported with me from San Francisco. About 60 pounds lighter, I drove the car to a quaint cafe in East Haddam called Two Wrasslin Cats to meet with Shannon and Mom, a fitting place for future potential cat ladies. We caught up over sandwiches and coffees for a few hours, until Shan and I left to go off to my aunt’s house. It was a good feeling being able to say goodbye to my mom knowing that I was going to see her in two weeks after flying back from the West Coast when the road trip was over.
The sun was shining bright as we cruised around the lake in my uncle’s boat, spending time chatting with my aunts about the trip and future plans. I’m grateful for the fact that my family has been completely supportive on the whole quitting my job thing, and are pretty open to me following my passions wherever in the world it takes me. I know not everyone has that luxury.
Again, I said my goodbyes knowing I could see them again soon, and then drove to West Hartford to meet up with Kayla to celebrate her birthday. I had some time beforehand, so I opened up my work computer for their first time on the trip and weeded through the flood of emails. It felt great knowing I only had to deal with these emails for a few more days before I never had to think about tobacco or sales again. At World of Beer, Kayla, Natalie and I gossiped and caught up until I left to spend the night in Madison.
// June 25th CT → Cleveland, OH //
We said our goodbyes in Connecticut and started our return journey to San Francisco, first through New York and then past hundreds of crazy reckless motorcyclists on sports bikes racing along the New Jersey highways. The racing stopped as soon as we crossed into Pennsylvania and the surrounds turned into peaceful rolling hills and farmland. We rolled into Cleveland around 4pm, checked into the hostel, and were immediately underwhelmed. The stains on the sheets and pillows and lack of atmosphere made me appreciate all the great hostels we’d stayed at up until this one. Instead of spending time in our dingy room, we drove around the edge of Lake Erie and found ourselves in an up and coming repurposed industrial neighborhood with luxury apartments, breweries, and millennial-geared bars under the bridges. Once over the bridge into the downtown area, we saw skyscrapers, fountains and lots of cute restaurants and beautiful architecture. I don’t know why Cleveland gets such a bad reputation when it’s actually a nice place to be. It started getting dark, so we walked around our neighborhood, past an abundance of breweries, and back to the hostel for canned veggies and chili for dinner.
// June 26th Cleveland → Chicago, IL //
I was so proud of us for getting up early enough to go for a run. We jogged around the surrounding neighborhood, down to the water, along graffiti murals, past the market and back to the hostel before our meeting with the hostel owner. I held my tongue about the stained pillowcases, but didn’t linger too long since the interview was just as dull as the hostel’s atmosphere. The drive to Chicago was easy, only five hours through the northern part of Indiana. The traffic only started to build as the Chicago skyline came into view. I was immediately struck by how massive this city was. Sleek modern skyscrapers dominated the view, many of them a dark onyx color that gave you a feeling that some seriously important business went down there. Lake Michigan snaked in between the buildings, creating gorgeous canal walks for all the professionals on their afternoon strolls.
The hostel, Fieldhouse Jones, was in the north side neighborhood. We checked in, dropped the car off at Midas for an oil change, and walked back to the hostel, taking the scenic route through the neighborhood. This hostel was such a drastic comparison to the dingy one in Cleveland. Instead of questionable stains and crusty pots and pans, this one was professionally designed to look like gym and had luxurious marble countertops and stainless steel appliances. Never before had I seen double bed bunks with memory foam mattresses and floor to ceiling locker space. It was pure luxury.
Our instant rice and canned chili seemed out of place in the face of such luxury, but we made use of the sparkling kitchen and made our way to Millennium Park for the evening. The cloud bridge was everything I expected, except for the name. I naively thought this mirror sculpture was called the Bean, but the artist named it the Cloud Bridge as the mirror gives the viewer the feeling that they’re looking into another dimension. After taking our obligatory selfie in the mirror, we hopped over to the Walgreens across the street for some beers to bring over to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion for a live jazz performance. Instead of the scheduled performance, they swapped in some bizarre Swedish techno trance band. Maybe the beer helped, but we stayed for the whole show, partially just to see what strange thing the band would do next.
// June 27th – Chicago //
For the second day in a row, we woke up early enough to go for a run, which was a great way to explore the city, block by block and be amongst the crowds making their way to the office. We made it to the edge of the lake, through the skyscrapers and along the waterfront sidewalk, passing a number of other runners and bikers. At the beach and along the Milton Lee Olive park, we turned around and headed back through the Gold Coast and Old Town neighborhoods to the hostel for a breakfast feast of bagels, cream cheese, fruits, cereals, and real coffee. The kitchen area was filled with a mix of a few backpackers like us, families, and even a woman from Kenya who was here for her citizenship interview. We pigged out and walked over to Freehand Hotel for an interview with their general manager. The Freehand brand is really interesting to us because they’re owned by a massive hotel company, but offer luxury shared accommodation, merging elements from both hotels and hostels. It seems like this is a design that will be popping up more and more as big hotels realize that they can appeal to more millennials through this layout. As far as shared accommodation goes, this one was the swankiest, with beautiful dark wood, and well designed rooms with unique furniture.
After hearing the manager’s perspective and getting a tour of the property, we walked around the upscale Magnificent Mile shopping district and along the sun soaked canals. Back at Fieldhouse Jones, we had another meeting with the owners of the property and then went back out to walk along the canals in the opposite direction, towards Navy Pier. The pier reminded me of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco with the big chain establishments, like Bubba Gump Shrimp and TGI Friday’s and tourists weaving in and out on Segways and bicycles.
One of the girls I lived with in San Francisco on Haight Street had moved to Chicago with her fiance, so Byron and I met Hannah and Jason at their favorite Chicago Deep Dish pizza place, Lou Malnati’s. We reminisced about our time in San Francisco but acknowledged that we were both happy to be saving in rent after leaving! Stuffed full of gooey cheese and pepperoni, we said our goodbyes and took the local commuter ferry along the river at a fraction of the price that the tourist boats charged for the same experience. We passed underneath countless bridges with the skyscrapers towering above us and hopped off in Chinatown.
The road to the main drag weaved through apartment buildings and through an indoor/outdoor mall, similar to the ones I’d seen in Hong Kong or Southeast Asia. As everyone knows, you can’t walk through Chinatown without buying bubble tea, so we indulged in a hazelnut flavored tea and strolled underneath the Asian-styled gate, past jewelry stores, electronic shops, and noodle restaurants. A long line of non-Asians stemmed out from an ice cream restaurant and as we got closer we discovered this wasn’t just any ice cream shop, but it was “rolled” ice cream, which had recently become the newest food trend. We fed into the craze and took our place in the line, snapchatting the experience as the girl behind the counter poured liquid ice cream onto a stone, set to a below-freezing temperature. As the liquid made contact with the stone, the consistency thickened until she scraped off the ice cream in rolls and placed it in a cup with tongs. It was thicker and creamier than normal ice cream, but as with most novelty foods, it’s more of a try-it-once kind of deal. Tired and full of sweets, we Ubered back to the hostel for bed.
// June 28th Chicago → Sioux Falls, SD //
Third morning run in a row! We were killing it! We went along the water’s edge again, but this time a different route to the north. Again, our run was rewarded with a hearty hostel breakfast and conversation with some other backpackers. The Canadian and German that sat across from us were roadtripping all the way from Whistler to Montreal, through the northern part of the USA.
After some frustration with the car not being ready at Midas (even though I gave them two days to do a freaking oil change), we were back on the road. Our route took us through Wisconsin, so naturally, we stopped at a local shop off the highway for some cheese. Because, what else do you do in Wisconsin, right? I drove through the farmland as Byron fed me pepperjack and “bread cheese” on slices of white bread. We rolled onwards through Minnesota for hours and hours of grassy plains interrupted only by farm houses and giant wind turbines. It sounds weird, but the rows of giant white blades spinning around looked majestic and kind of beautiful in the late afternoon sun.
After hours of little to no signs of human civilization, we were relieved to see the signs for Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The KOA campsite had a peacefulness to it, with a light breeze flowing through the leaves on the trees while we set up our tent. The sun dipped lower and other campers pulled in and started up their grills for dinnertime. We walked around the circle to “window shop” for which camper we thought we’d like to live in most, eyeing the silver chrome Airstream in particular. We probably looked like camping amateurs as we pulled open tin lids from our green bean and soup cans for dinner. If we were making this a lifestyle, we’d definitely invest in some serious Coleman level gear, but for one month, we figured we would rough it. We played cards until it was too dark to see the numbers and prepared for the cold to set in. We realized that ditching our blanket in CT was a terrible horrible decision that we would pay for dearly as we shivered and pulled on every possible layer of clothing we packed, just to get warm enough to let our bodies fall asleep. Also at this point I had developed a bladder infection and was wondering what I was possibly going to do to get medicine in the middle of nowhere rural America.
// June 29th Sioux Falls → Badlands National Park //
Needless to say, I slept terribly in the cold and decided at 4:30am I should take matters into my own hands and walked over to the bathhouse to try to get some heat from a warm shower. Sadly, I picked the shower with only a trickle of water, so although it was hot, I had to strategically rotate around in order to get my entire body warm. Someone came into the stall next to me and, of course, her shower had a full blast of water.
I started to regain feeling in my hands and toes and the sun eventually rose to warm the tent up, just as it was time to pack it all up. This town miraculously had a Walmart, so we bought some groceries and I was able to call my doctor to coordinate sending medication to some Walgreens in nowheresville South Dakota since it was the last Walgreens we’d hit over the next several days of national parks and farmland. While waiting for the prescription to be ready, we killed time in Mitchell at the infamous Corn Palace, which really isn’t made entirely of corn, only the front facade. Mitchell also had a Walmart, which we went to again since we forgot to buy a blanket at the first one, hoping that our next night in the tent wouldn’t be quite as miserable. Finally with medication and warmth, we hit the road again for more rolling plains and fields until the land got drier and mounds of dirt pointed through the green grass. We pulled into Badlands National Park in the afternoon with dark ominous clouds threatening rain. The canyons and spikes were a light tan dirt color, and looked like the entrance to some fictional Lord of the Rings Mordor type environment where there most certainly was a Dark Lord ruling over the barren land. The spikes looked kind of pretty, or at least interesting from a distance, but when we got out of the car for a walk up close to the formations, they simply looked like run of the mill crusty dirt mounds.
Even if they weren’t the prettiest dirt mounds, they were fun to climb on, so instead of going on a lengthy hike, we climbed up and down the mini mountains, taking our jackets on and off depending on which part of the cloud passed overhead. We were pretty tired from the day and lack of sleep, so we drove down to our campsite and set up the tent. The site was in the middle of the plains, with the spiky mountains corralling us in from a distance. Fellow campers set up their tents, including a couple from Canada road tripping by motorcycle, and a family from Larchmont, NY grilling while their kids played tag with other camping families. The atmosphere was mellow and quiet as we watched the sunset from the comfort of the tent, with the flap open all the way to maximize the view of the mountains.
Byron cracked open a can of sardines while I enjoyed Spaghettios, wanting nothing to do with the little fish. We played cards again until it got too dark and bundled up in our new Walmart blanket, trying to prepare for another cold night.
// June 30th Badlands → West Yellowstone, WY //
I still woke up cold, but not as bad as the night before without the blanket. Today was our longest day of driving, around 11 hours, so we didn’t take long packing up the tent and heading on out on the small highway–the mountains in the rearview mirror and open plains in front. It was miles until we reached true civilization in Rapid City, with housing developments, schools, and a Walmart, which was a stark contrast to the open fields and run down farms. We drove up steep hills, and plunged back down into a quaint downtown valley where all the hotels were gathered below Mount Rushmore. I could see the little stone faces as we pulled into the Mount Rushmore parking lot and walked through the flags to the base of the monument. It was just as cool as I expected and definitely did not disappoint. The most impressive part of it to me was Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses. The way the artist was able to carve the stone created an illusion that the stone figure was wearing wire rimmed glasses–it was incredible. Also, back when they made the sculpture, the tools and equipment they had were primitive compared to the tools of today.
We walked along the path through the evergreens and pines in the peaceful forest surrounding the monument, and it made us nostalgic for New Hampshire hikes when we lived back East. We talked about how we hoped someday we could take our families here, and to all the places we’d seen along our road trip. Since we still had a whole day of driving left, we hopped back in the car, back down through the valley and Rapid City, past rolling plains and rural farm towns and on to Bozeman Montana. As soon as we drove down the main street and saw the cute collegetown shops and restaurants, we wished we were spending the night here instead. It reminded me a lot of Flagstaff, another college town, with all the breweries and craft beer scene and people sitting out at tables enjoying the afternoon sun. We parked and walked along the main street and had the most delicious burgers and beer. I’m sure they would’ve been phenomenal on any other night but I especially enjoyed every juicy delicious bite after having nonstop meals of canned food for the past few days.
We headed back to the car and drove the last hour on one of the most beautiful roads of the trip yet. The route from Bozeman to West Yellowstone takes you past lush green fields that run up to rocky banks that contain a deep blue river that meanders through evergreen trees underneath the bases of mountains. The road was windy and every turn had a breathtaking view of pure, stunning wilderness. We arrived in West Yellowstone and checked into the Madison Lodge, an establishment that seems frozen in time from the early 1900s with old iron stoves, wooden everything, and hunted animals hanging on the walls. The shared room had three beds, and a charming rustic feel–maybe a bit tired, but clean, at least. My roommate turned out to also be named Erin, but she was crazy–I think in a good way. She was bicycling by herself and talked about all the ditches and places she’d slept outside on her own, even in “griz” land. She told one story about being on the road and it started getting dark, so she found a rock ledge on the side of the road to sleep under. A few hours later she realized she had stopped right in the middle of coyote land and heard them all night, only a few meters away. She was entertaining to say the least. I cuddled up under the cozy quilted bed after a steaming hot shower and slept extremely well.
// July 1st West Yellowstone, WY → Jackson Hole, WY //
Not only did I sleep better than I had all week, but the hostel also had vouchers for free breakfast at the cafe next door. I don’t think a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich has ever tasted so heavenly.
We got in line with all the other cars entering Yellowstone and proudly waved our National Parks Pass to gain entrance into the park. Immediately, we were surrounded by evergreens flanking the road and glimpses of mountains in the distance. The brochure from the Ranger Station contained at least ten bolded warnings about bear attacks. There were stickers exclaiming the danger, pamphlets explaining how to use bear spray (NOT a repellant, as some people mistakenly thought), and flash cards with the appropriate movements to take in the event of a bear encounter. When I finished reading all the material, I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to play dead with the “curious” bear or get big with the “interested” bear. I just prayed I wouldn’t see any type of bear.
In the distance, wisps of steam floated above the treeline and into the sky, almost as if something was on fire down below. As we got closer, the puffs grew thicker until we could spot the source–large yellow and white crusted pits of water that gurgled and belched great billows of steam. We pulled over and walked along the boardwalk through the swampy pits, mindful of the signs that described the horrible suffering and death you’d experience if you were to stray from the boardwalk into the 212 degree pools. The geothermal activity looked unearthly and foreign and the bright blue color of the pools surrounded by crusty neon orange dirt was unlike any other color found in nature. The blackened trees scattered around the marshy area looked like they had survived a nuclear bombing, and were only a few moments from death themselves. It was fascinating, but maybe a bit unnerving too.
We continued down the road, along with the hundreds of other tourists enjoying this Independence Day weekend, and stopped at the Grand Prismatic Spring, which ended up being my favorite stop at the park. We walked along a trail that continued over a wooden bridge over a wide stream, with a sheet of steaming water spilling over from the river bank above. The walkway brought us to the top of the bank where there was an open expanse of gurgling orange gooey land, interrupted by electric blue pools of water. One of these pools was the size of an Olympic swimming pool, and the steam that drifted from the top of the liquid was also a neon blue color. It looked like a mad scientist’s dream.
Further down the road was Old Faithful, where we saw crowds of people gathered alongside a dirt mound, staring intently at the gaping hole at the top. Given the size of the crowd, we knew we must have arrived close to the hour and a half mark that the geyser spews hot liquid and steam. I guess it’s slowed down a bit over the years and is a bit less predictable, so even fifteen minutes after the expected eruption time, Old Faithful was quietl, except for a few wimpy spits that got the whole crowd excited enough to take out their selfie sticks prematurely. Finally, the little splashes turned into a mighty stream of steamy water that sprayed dozens of feet high in a glorious display of American iconography. It continued for at least five minutes, but we carried on to West Thumb Lake and Grant Village to hike on the Lake Overlook trail.
After all the bear warnings, we felt hopelessly inadequately prepared to face a grizzly (gosh, how did we possibly not pack the bear spray??) and did our best to get awkwardly close to the couple in front of us for safety in numbers. We also talked about absolutely nothing at an irritating volume just to make sure any bears out there were aware of our presence. It wa a relief to get to the top and have a high vantage viewing point of the surrounding area (and potentially lurking wildlife). The lake was beautiful and extending out of sight to the base of the snow capped mountains in the distance. Our descent back to the car was a fast paced, equally as loud experience until we got back to the car and continued on to the Continental Divide. My dad has an old photo of himself during his cross-country bicycle trip, standing next to one of the Continental Divide signs. I felt a bit like I was following in his adventurous footsteps as I posed next to the wooden sign with lily pads and evergreens in the background.
At the point that Yellowstone National Park ends in the south, Grand Teton National Park begins, and as soon as we entered into our second park of the day, the crowds dwindled. The road into the park offered glimpses of the massive steep mountains that made up the Grand Tetons. It was breathtaking to get closer and closer to them to feel the enormity of them and imagine what it was like in the entirely different snowy climate at the top. We made our way along Jackson Lake and passed by signs for kayaking on the lake at Signal Mountain Lodge. With the fear of bears fresh in our minds, we decided that paddling around a sparkling blue lake with the mountains in view was much preferred to crawling through bushes and trees fearing getting mauled, only to be rewarded with a quick glimpse of the mountains at the top. It was an easy decision and we were grateful to snag the last two person kayak. This ended up being my favorite moment from the whole road trip and there was nowhere else in the world I would rather be than floating around that tranquil lake, sunshine warming my back with a view of the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen. I couldn’t stop looking at them, as if they’d disappear suddenly and I would be left without them. I hoped I could burn that image into my mind and never forget the moment.
After taking photos to preserve the moment and trying hopelessly to coordinate our paddling technique, we turned in the kayak and bought two Grand Teton Brewing Company beers to enjoy out in an open plain. The label on my bottle was an identical image of the peaks that loomed ahead of me. I took a moment to appreciate how awesome the day had been, but also to decide that despite all the hype that Yellowstone and Old Faithful get, I enjoyed myself much more in the lesser known Grand Teton National Park. Maybe it was because I didn’t know what to expect, or maybe it was because it truly is incredible, but Grand Tetons is something not to miss.
We left the park in the late afternoon sun and drove around stopping here and there for the beautiful views, feeling so in awe of our surrounds. On our way to Jackson Hole, we drove through the town of Moose. Along the narrow road a line of cars were stopped on the side of the road, preventing anyone from passing by. We got out to see what all the fuss was about and were shocked to see an actual moose, wading through the shallow stream only thirty feet away. Guess that’s how the town got it’s name.
In Teton Village, or Jackson Hole (still not sure the difference), we checked into our hostel, which was really more of a rundown ski lodge. The “kitchen” was a laundry room with two rusted hot plates placed on top of a wobbly card table. The four person shared room had wood paneling on every surface and was set up so that your head was directly next to your roommate’s smelly toes. It wasn’t ideal, so we spent as little time as possible in the room and headed out to the free gondola that took guests up the mountain to the top, right to the front door of their fancy restaurant. Instead of dining, we took in the view of the entire town, now tiny like a miniature toy set, and played in the snow that covered the ground. We hadn’t felt snow in years, so we had a proper snowball fight while the sun went down and the temperature dropped.
At least the couple that was sharing the room with us were nice and we swapped stories of camping and road tripping. I didn’t know whether to think they were super prepared or just suckers for bringing their bear spray, but I hoped they wouldn’t have to use it during their trip.
// July 2nd Jackson Hole → Salt Lake City, UT //
Despite the dingy room and the paperthin ceilings that carried every stomp and wail from the children above us, I got a decent enough amount of sleep to get up and go for a run. Jackson Hole is pretty tiny, mostly occupied by hotels and a few residential streets, so it didn’t take long to circle around. We scored some free leftover food from other backpackers and hit the road to Salt Lake City. The route took us through the farmland of Idaho, which went on for miles and miles, and then some more miles. Some of it looked idyllic and pleasant, but a lot of the towns we passed through were depressingly dull and had little more than a gas station and a general store. Our podcasts entertained us for most of the trip while we searched for a place to try true Idaho potatoes. I would’ve even settled for Mcdonald’s french fries, but I didn’t even see that. If there are people from Idaho reading this, I’d encourage you to open a potato stand on the side of the road to sell mounds of fries, baked potatoes, and hash browns to tourists.
Over the border into Utah, the green rolling land turned into dramatic peaks of brown and orange dirt. It reminded me of the mountains I’d seen from the hotel room in Las Vegas during previous trips. We intentionally drove past Salt Lake City, up a big mountain pass and onwards to Park City Hostel. We met with the young owner and he took us on a tour of the property, despite the fact that the hostel was occupied by a family reunion that looked at us quizzically as we wandered through their celebration. It was hard to get more than a few words at a time out of the owner, so sitting by the firepit in the blazing heat was not the most comfortable experience. When we got tired of prodding answers from him, we wrapped up, toured boutique-y downtown Park City for a hot sec and headed on to Salt Lake City.
The traffic piled up unexpectedly on the mountain pass and we spotted billows of smoke emanating from something around the bend. No one was moving, so we ate some canned soup for dinner and watched as we neared a tractor trailer engulfed in flames. We took a detour off the highway and carried on to Byron’s cousin’s apartment, where we were greeted by his roommate splayed out on the couch playing video games. It was reminiscent of my old college dorm, but we were really grateful we got to crash here for the night. We didn’t really see much of Salt Lake, but we did manage to squeeze in a visit to the Mormon HQ and Temple Square. The museum detailed their account of history, full of lessons and teachings to follow. Putting aside my lack of religious beliefs, I could appreciate the strong sense of community.
// July 3rd SLC → Bryce Canyon, UT //
Because the trip was coming to an end shortly, Byron and I had begun planning for our future by researching opportunities to work in hostels. Our connection at Hostelling International introduced us to a hostel in Massachusetts that was looking for a couple to manage their property. We had an early morning skype interview with them to talk about the potential opportunity. We answered their questions as best we could, while trying to stay quiet and not wake up the roommates. It turns out the roommate was still asleep on the couch downstairs in front of his video games anyway. Unfortunately, the job ended up requiring being in New England during the dead winter in an isolated town, so we decided to pass.
We lost track of the time and realized that our lodging for the night was a first-come-first-serve campsite over an hour away, so we microwaved oatmeal packets and ran out the door. We passed multiple RV car parks on our way with “No Vacancy” signs and our anxiety grew as we brainstormed alternative options. Luckily, despite it being the third of July, we made it past the red canyon walls and into the campsite with plenty of spots left in the North Campground. By now, we were pros at the whole claiming-your-spot thing and found a beautiful plot of land under an evergreen and just close enough to the bathrooms. The powdery white dirt swirled around us as we tagged our spot, set up the tent, and headed out to hike in the canyon.
The park had a shuttle bus to transport hikers from point to point, so we hopped on and hopped off at an incredible overlook called Sunset Point. The vast canyon opened up underneath the viewing platform and revealed bright orange and rich red rock that reached up in pointy spires and crumbly pillar formations. Apparently the name for these spires is a “hoodoo”, which I’ll let WIkipedia explain:
“A hoodoo (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney or earth pyramid) is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland. Hoodoos, which may range from 1.5 to 45 metres (4.9 to 147.6 ft), typically consist of relatively soft rock topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements. They generally form within sedimentary rock and volcanic rock formations.”
The dusty Navajo trail snaked its way down into the foreign looking canyon and was filled with hikers exploring their way down each switchback. The evergreens that dotted the path gave a lush green contrast to the parched orange land and it felt as if we were in some other country, perhaps a middle eastern desert or something. Eventually the exposed dry path dipped into a forest with pine needles carpeting the ground and scraggly pine trees hugging the Queen’s Garden Trail. The elevation started to climb again and soon we were back out of the basin and straining our calf muscles up to the hoodoos, underneath rock arches, and through narrow rocky passes.
Back at the top, at Sunrise Point, we walked the rim trail along crowds of tourists that had opted not to explore down into the canyon. We followed the trail all the way to Inspiration Point, which was an outcropping of rock that dropped hundreds of feet on either side of the ledge. If you could get over that fact, the view was amazing and you could see the entire basin of hoodoos and the mountains way way in the distance. Truly inspiring.
We were exhausted from our hike, so we took the shuttle bus to the general store and splurged on craft beer and tortilla chips to enhance our canned veggie dinner. We feasted on our treats and played cards and talked to the Canadian couple next to us who had bought an old van and built an entire living space inside, complete with a mattress, rugs, and drawers.
// July 4th Bryce Canyon → Zion National Park, UT //
The sun warmed the tent early today, so we woke up excited for another day of hiking, this time at Zion National Park a few miles away. It was the Fourth of July so the park was PACKED. The drive was beautiful though, with sweeping drops, rising rock cliffs and mountains dotted with sparse trees. The stone wasn’t as red as Bryce, but instead was white and tan with striations distinguishing the layers. The weaving road took us through a tunnel that lasted for miles. The RVs actually needed an escort to block the tunnel in the opposite direction because the tunnel was too narrow to accommodate two at once. The looping switchbacks brought us deep into the valley, down to our campsite with modern and clean facilities and a great view of the mountains.
It was stiflingly hot as we set up the tent and lined up as if we were at an amusement park, just to get on the shuttle bus. The heat fatigue was clear on everyone’s faces, looking drained before they even started their hike. We finally got on the bus and headed to The Grotto, chugged as much water as possible and refilled (there was a sign stating there would be no water on the whole trail). The trail was directly in the sun, with only knee-high shrubs for shade all the way until we reached a series of switchbacks that snaked up the side of a steep cliff. I was struggling in the heat and relished every second of shade whenever I walked underneath the cliff above. At the top of the cliff, the path continued in between two massive rock walls on either side, and chipmunks scurried around everywhere you looked. The rock walls soon gave way to more steep switchbacks in the direct sun and, by this point, every step was miserable. We trudged onwards and made it to the top of this peak, only to be met with the view of the next peak and the final path of Angel’s Landing with large chains bolted into the rock for climbers to use. It looked impossibly high up and the slabs of rock looked so narrow. My legs turned to jelly just watching the other hikers.
I grabbed on to the burning hot metal chain and continued on, just putting one leg in front of the other, not looking at the drop below and hoisting myself up. I clung to that chain with every ounce of strength and prayed the bolts were in deep. I got to one point and realized the chain ended, and then began again, leaving about twenty feet of un-chained distance to cross. I felt like my legs couldn’t be trusted, but I inched along and felt a wave of relief when I clutched the chain on the other side. Hand over hand, step by step, focus on moving forward, don’t look down. Okay, look down, holy crap, okay don’t look down.
We made it to the top and saw the tic-tac sized buses moving on the thin line that was actually the road below. We were 1,765 feet above that road, and I felt every foot of distance. We were on top of Angel’s Landing and the view was incredible and stretched out across the entire park.
I was eager to head back down to stable ground, but I think going down was even scarier. Again, I clung to the nasty hot chain until my hands burned. I took the last step down to the solid ground landing and sighed with relief. Those switchbacks that I despised earlier felt better on the way down, but by now I ran out of water. All that was keeping me going was the promise of cool water down below. I started thinking about swimming in pools, rivers, oceans, drinking slurpees, basically anything cold. Every step was a thirsty struggle, but I was encouraged when I first saw the river below, then heard the sweet gush of the water, and then got close enough to sprint off the path and splat down in the middle of the steam, clothes and all. It felt amazing and I didn’t move for a good long time.
Back at the water spout, I chugged and chugged and finally felt like a human again. I only felt slightly embarrassed when I walked onto the shuttle bus dripping wet. We road the shuttle around to the other stops and saw the entrance to The Narrows, a famous hike that requires wading upstream in a river. Back at the campsite, we had some canned food, played cards, and walked around a bit. We fell asleep while enjoying the songs of Led Zeppelin blaring from the RV next door and the moon shining right above the cliff peaks.
// July 5th Zion → Las Vegas, NV //
For our last night of camping, it was mellow and actually somewhat warm, which was a welcome change. However, the wind was fierce and the walls of the tent kept whipping back and forth and smacking us. I woke up late in the night to a figure standing over me with a massive rock held in their hands above my head and wiggled away in fear. Then I realized it was just Byron weighing down the tent by putting rocks in the corners. All good.
The sun warmed the tent and the orange cliffs surrounding us as the campsite began to stir with morning activity. We packed up, had some peanut butter and bread, and drove out of the national park and along the dry desert roads to VEGAS!! We had almost made an entire circle of the whole United States!!! We were headed back to our original first stop, about a month after setting out on our journey. It was amazing to think about how far we’d travelled and everything we’d seen since that day. The tiny towns and towering rocks bordering the road whizzed by and soon we glimpsed the glittery outline of hotels and casinos on the Strip. We laughed as we saw a camping site advertised along the highway, as if people would actually stay in a tent while staying in Las Vegas. Not only that, but camping in 100 degree heat sounded like a death wish. The temperature gauge said 111 as we pulled into the Hostel Cat parking lot.
After camping out in the parks and not showering for a few days, I insisted on checking in early and was happy to pay the extra $6 fee. I didn’t even socialize with the people in my room and just went directly to the bathroom for a gloriously refreshing shower. The clean feeling lasted for about ten minutes until I walked back into the desert heat and began to sweat again.
The car needed some routine work, so we dropped it off at the Firestone and ubered to the Strip for a walk around. Our favorite resort is the Wynn and I’ve had a special place in my heart for it ever since Byron surprised me with a 21st birthday trip here a few years ago. You feel like you’ve entered the most luxurious place on earth when you walk in the doors and are surrounded by flower sculptures, decadent shops, and the intoxicating scent of their signature fragrance, Asian Rain. Last time I was here, I bought their essential oil and used it as a perfume, and figured I should stock up while I was there. I admitted that I used their air freshener as perfume and the sales lady confessed she did the same, or even added it to her hair. Every time I smell it, it brings me back to Las Vegas and the memories associated with it.
We left the magic of the Wynn and strolled along the connected sidewalks and bridges over to the Shoppes on the Canal at the Venetian. I looked down in sympathy at the gondolier (drivers? paddlers?) out in the hot sun guiding tourists around the man made rivers and fountains.
In addition to great gambling and accommodation, Las Vegas has a plethora of gut busting buffets to choose from. In the past, we’ve splurged on the one at the Wynn, but today we decided to check out the one at Harrah’s since there was a Groupon. I figured after eating all the canned food, my standards were lowered and anything hot and fresh would be appetizing. Also, since I had Groupon credit saved, we only ended up spending $7 each for all you can drink and all you can eat, AND VIP line-cutting status. We paced ourselves and strategically went after the expensive items first, like shrimp and sushi and then made our way to the kielbasa, taco salad, sausage, fried chicken, mac n cheese and then dessert of whipped cream and strawberries, carrot cake cupcakes and chocolate brownies. We sat for at least thirty minutes after the meal just to digest and prepare our bodies for walking.
Stuffed full, we walked to Caesar’s Palace and wandered around the whole casino. We found one entrance that didn’t check for room keys, so we snuck outside to the pool area. The outdoor lounge was extremely decadently designed, with Grecian statues spouting water from the center of the pool, massive columns supporting elegant stone archways, and cushy lounge chairs lined up in rows around the edge of the water. We played cornhole on the terrace until the car was ready to be picked up.
Back at Hostel Cat, we chilled for a bit, met the owner, Chandler, and joined him at a local Sushi buffet to talk about his hostel and the industry in general. He had a very candid attitude about the business and you could tell he did this for the love of hanging out with travellers, not because it was a lucrative business. He loves what he does so much that he brings guests out to Las Vegas nightlife eight times a week, and this night was no different.
Chandler got the party going, we ran to 7-11 for some Steel Reserve, and we hopped on the party bus (Chandler’s van) with the hostel staff to Light, Mandalay Bay’s nightclub. Luckily we passed the dress code (in our backpacker attire), were granted free entry (Chandler worked something out), and headed inside for a great night of dancing. At one point there was a dude creeping on the girls in our group, and even though we didn’t know each other, us girls stuck to the unspoken Girl Code and rescued each other every time he came around. The DJ played exactly what I wanted to hear and kept the party going until we all agreed it was time to call it a night and head back to the hostel.
// July 6th Las Vegas → San Francisco, CA //
Even though we were tired from our night out, and the 102 degree weather didn’t help, we still sprung out of bed energized by the fact that it was our last and final day of the road trip!! Back to San Francisco!! We hopped out of the car on the side of the road and took our last photo from the trip in front of the Welcome to California sign, smiling widely and incredulously at the fact that here we were again, all those miles later. Every mile of the long journey was a step closer to reaching our destination and it felt great. I mean, it’s not that hard to just put your foot to the pedal and drive each day, but it still felt like a great accomplishment.
The scrubby desert brush turned to the farmland outside Bakersfield, then to the dry desert and nut trees and wind turbines that had become familiar to us after traveling this highway on our trips to LA and San Diego. We pulled off in Livermore to a gas station to get the car back in good order, with a car wash and a vacuum. We also wanted to return the tent to our friend in good condition, so, in the gas station parking lot, we popped open the tent to vacuum it clean. I think the gas station patrons thought we were setting up camp, but we did what we needed to do.
The final miles were smooth until we hit the ever-present traffic on the Bay Bridge. I didn’t mind the traffic one bit since I was tearing up just taking in the sight of my favorite beautiful city skyline. It was a glorious coming home moment crossing over that bridge, and it marked the end to an incredible journey and the start of another chapter in our lives. It was bittersweet being back in San Francisco, seeing Paul the dog at our old apartment, enjoying Mission tacos for the last time, and walking along our favorite streets. San Francisco had grown on me over the past year or so and it was sad to leave it behind. However, I left knowing that I’d be back some day. I was grateful for the memories I’d made, the friends I’d met, and the experiences this great city had given me, but it was time to pursue some other dreams, explore other places, and take on new adventures. ‘Till next time, SF.