The Great American Road Trip: Arizona

// June 11th Las Vegas → 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. Luckily, 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 first he had to deal with the fact that 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 along Route 93. 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 across bridges suspended high above land. The landscape changed to open fields of scrub brush, accented occasionally by mountain passes and then 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 on the East Coast 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 embraced it 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. We laughed when we saw people hiking down 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 wondered if there are some people 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.

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