Road Trip Highlights So Far: Westward Bound

Since updating as I travel hasn’t worked out too well, please enjoy the highlights below!

Pleasant Prairie, WI, 10/4/16

R and I crashed with one of my favorite former roommates and her partner and met her dog named Dragon!  Driving through Chicago sucked.

Hancock, IA, 10/5/16

Crashed with a friend of a Buffalo friend who runs a small organic farm.  He was an amazingly generous host who cooked us a delicious dinner of farm-fresh veggies.  Slept under a bunk bed with a SLIDE attached!


Hancock, IA Soybean Field

Denver, CO, 10/6-10/8/16

Drove the entire length of Nebraska, which was all corn and soybean fields as far as the eye could see.  The rain that accompanied us turned to snow, and the temperature plummeted.  As soon as we crossed the border into Colorado, the farm fields disappeared and were replaced by pasture full of brush.  We stayed in a super swanky AirBnB in the RiNo neighborhood for three nights while R attended the Great American Beer Festival with his coworkers.  Went to Rocky Mountain National Park for a day and saw elk—and they saw us!  They walked right in front of my car.  Also swung through Boulder.  R and I parted ways in Denver on October 9 so he could return to work, and I continued the journey alone.


Bull Elk, Rocky Mtn. National Park

Taos, NM, 10/9/16

I took the scenic route through the Rockies down to Taos and stopped frequently at “vista points,” designated or not.  Passed many beautiful abandoned ranches.  The whole drive was insanely picturesque.


Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Spent some time looking for coffee after 5pm on a Sunday and finally found it in Salida, CO.  The sun went down, the views disappeared, and I skipped around radio stations trying to catch Presidential Debate #2.  Got quite lost at the end and had to drive back into cell phone range to call the hostel and get directions, but I finally made it to Taos.  Got very little sleep due to the bed bug siege.  Finally gave up on any prospect of sleep and got up around 6:00 a.m.  Went to Black Rock Hot Springs on the Rio Grande, in the process of which I got quite lost again, drove down a seven-mile rut-ridden dirt road and thoroughly messed up my car’s shocks.


Should have rented a Jeep.

Albuquerque, NM, 10/10/16

Stayed at a cool hostel in an old adobe mansion.  Hung out on the porch in the evening sharing beers and chatting with hostel staff and other guests.  This hostel had mattress encasements and forbade guests from bringing their own bedding inside: smart.  Explored Albuquerque Old Town in the morning and asked a local whether anyone calls it “Albuquirky.”  The answer was no.


Albuquerque Old Town

Flagstaff, AZ, 10/11-10/12/16

Since I don’t have a smart phone, before I left, I meticulously hand-wrote directions on how to drive the old Route 66 from Albuquerque to Flagstaff.  (Yes, I learned about Route 66 from the movie Cars.)  I managed to stay on it basically until the Arizona border when the sun went down, because a) the speed limit is much slower than on I-40, and b) I stopped a lot to take pictures.  Route 66 is an urban explorer’s paradise, full of modern ruins.  They are perhaps a little TOO ruined for some people’s taste because you can just walk into most of them.  In Arizona I drove through the Navajo reservation, where I stopped at a “rest stop” that was just a couple picnic tables and a fire pit.  I was able to catch a Navajo language radio station for a while.  The Flagstaff hostel, called the Grand Canyon International Hostel, was a converted motor lodge from the 1930s, which I got a big kick out of.  I’ve wanted to stay in a motor lodge since I started reading Stephen King’s short stories.  This wasn’t quite the same, but it was fun nevertheless.


Worn down by 80 years of travelers’ footsteps.

I chose it because it was the closest hostel to the Petrified Forest National Park, which I explored on my second day there.


Petrified Forest National Park – “The Tepees.”

Two Guns, AZ, 10/12/16

I spent hours exploring this I-40 exit that is entirely abandoned.  You can find a lot of information about it online.  I came first to the abandoned KOA Kamp and gas station; then I followed a dirt road toward some cobblestone buildings in the distance that it turned out were an abandoned zoo.  Everything has been deserted since the 80s, I gather.  I read that there was a caretaker living in a mobile home on the property for a while to keep trespassers and vandals away, but he committed suicide in 2000.  The mobile home is still there in ruins.  There were other tourists exploring the place as well: a young woman with her dog, a couple of guys in pickup trucks, a man with a camper, and family from Illinois with two little kids where the dad was giving them a tour based on a guidebook he brought.


Abandoned KOA, Two Guns, AZ


Abandoned Zoo, Two Guns, AZ

Sedona, AZ, 10/13/16

Before I left Flagstaff, I hiked the Aspen Loop Trail in the San Francisco Peaks.  The aspens were in their full autumn glory, and it was a wonderful hike.  (My favorite part of this trip has been any time I’ve been near mountains!)  I went through Sedona between Flagstaff and Tucson mainly because of the Houndmouth song.  I was again fascinated by the landscape changes.  I drove through Coconino National Forest and Oak Creek Canyon, full of deciduous broadleaf trees—even sycamores!  When I came out of the canyon, traffic slowed to a snail slither approaching Sedona, and I was awed by the crazy rock formations rising out of the forest.  South of Sedona, the trees abruptly gave way to saguaros—then the sun went down.  I played with the radio until I ended up on an AM station with some racist radio hosts, then switched to my audiobook.

Tucson, AZ, 10/13-10/14/16

This was my only Couchsurfing stay so far, and it was very nice.  My host was an interesting and kind woman who liked to garden and told me about desert plants.  I met another visitor/tenant from Virginia who was familiar with one of my favorite bands (Carbon Leaf!), and the second night I met a lovely couple from Ontario, Canada who took me out for tacos and traded travel stories.  I had wanted to go to Tucson mostly because I’ve been a Barbara Kingsolver fan since I read The Bean Trees in the 10th grade, but it seems like Tucson has changed a lot since the 1980s.  I was kind of underwhelmed.  I saw a lot of strip malls and (non-native) palm trees, but it was hard to find an interesting city center.  I eventually consulted my Slingshot organizer and found myself at a radical bookstore where I chatted with the owner and her daughter and picked up a Slingshot for next year.  The highlight of my Tucson stay was Saguaro National Park, where I learned SO MUCH about saguaro cactuses and had to stop myself from trying to take a portrait of every saguaro in the park because they’re all so unique!  In a place with few trees, I guess I just fall in love with the tallest plant around.


Saguaro National Park

Slab City, CA, 10/15/16

I enjoyed driving across southern Arizona, admiring the desert vistas and skipping around Spanish-language radio stations, some of which were actually broadcasting from Mexico.  The California border was a bridge over the Colorado River and marked another sudden transition, from Sonoran Desert to huge sand dunes.  Drove through two Border Patrol checkpoints.  I then found myself driving between the biggest agricultural fields I’d ever seen, stretching almost to the horizon.  I’d originally wanted to spend a night in Slab City, but I was nervous about it as I didn’t know what to expect.  Most of my expectations were based on Into the Wild, and I know better than to base too much on what I see in movies—so I just stopped by for an hour or so.  It turns out Salvation Mountain is actually a pretty major tourist destination.  There were people there speaking all different languages climbing the mountain and taking pictures, and one Slab City resident sitting under a tent taking donations and enforcing the signs that told you where not to walk.  I had been worried that it would be weird for a random tourist to show up at this off-grid camp, but not so.


Salvation Mountain, Slab City, CA

Big Bear Lake, CA, 10/15-10/16/16

I only had this one on my list because I found a cool hostel there through (without which I’d never have been able to plan this trip), but I’m so glad I went.  I drove past Joshua Tree National Park, through the Mojave Desert, and up into the San Bernardino Mountains—as I climbed the desert dissolved, and the higher I went the more wooded it became.  The hostel was called the Mountain Adventure Lodge, and it included breakfast and had a fire built in the common space every night.  I met lots of Workawayers there from other countries, a couple staying there via Groupon after attending Oktoberfest, and a couple of college students from L.A. trying to catch a bit of fall on their school break.  I hiked the Pineknot Trail to Grand View Point in the San Bernardino National Forest and met one of my new favorite trees, the Jeffrey Pine.  A park ranger told me that they’re nicknamed “Gentle Jeffries” because you can cup a pine cone in your hands and it won’t prickle your skin.  They’re tall and majestic, and their bark smells like butterscotch.  Seriously.


Closeup of a wildfire scar and bark regrowth on a Jeffrey Pine.

San Luis Obispo, CA, 10/17/16
The next phase of my plan was to drive up Highway 1 to San Francisco, but I needed to split it up, so I picked SLO as a midpoint to spend a night.  California driving is my least favorite thing.  I spent hours crossing the state in aggravating traffic but was finally rewarded with the Pacific Ocean.  For some reason it hadn’t crossed my mind that I’d be seeing the ocean that day, since I was saving Big Sur for the next day.  I smelled it before I saw it: the moist salty air and the unfortunate gym-socks scent of eucalyptus.  I missed the first exit labeled “beach access” and took the next one, which had some (intentionally?) misleading signs but ended at a small beach with only three parking spaces.  I took off my shoes and ran through the surf.  There was one other person there, a middle-aged woman walking her dogs, and when I returned to my car she asked me if I’d really driven from New York.  I told her about my trip before I continued on to SLO.

First Pacific Ocean sighting!  (On this trip, anyway.)

San Luis Obispo is a cute little city that has good taste in street trees and gives the impression of wealth.  (Its main drag is full of shiny new mall-type stores.)  I only spent a night there so I don’t have much more than passing impressions.  The hostel I stayed in had the best sense of community: everyone hung out and shared drinks and played music in the common space until we all trouped down to a bar for open mic night.

Music Room in SLO Hostel

Highway 1 and Big Sur, 10/18/16

Driving Highway 1 takes FOREVER, but you are rewarded with incredible scenic vistas.  I stopped at one labeled “elephant seal viewing area,” thinking, “Yeah, right, how do they know there are seals there right now?”—but they were!  Got lots of good photos.  If anyone but me had been driving I would have been incredibly motion sick.


Highway 1, California, Bixby Bridge, completed 1932

I also greeted my favorite California coastal plant, whose name I finally learned: coyote brush!  It smells like lemon and mustard and dill and I can’t stop crushing little leaves between my fingers to sniff every time I see it.


Coyote Brush – Baccharis pilularis

And on October 18th I made it to San Francisco, where I’ve been hanging out for three weeks—and that will be another post.