AN EPIC TWO WEEK ROAD TRIP HOME
It all started with a dream and a lot of spare time. Jobless and homeless - I sold my house in Houston just before leaving - I took what little belongings I had and packed them into my car and began what would be a 3673 mile journey through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and the home stretch of Colorado. The road trip would take 15 days in total, 10 of which I would be accompanied by my friend and co-pilot, Marisa. Her expertise - She was a great Airbnb booking agent, yoga instructor, and and gifted gabber. She would make it as far as Vegas before flying back to Houston. As much as she would want to move to Denver, Houston is still home for her. After dropping her off I would continue on for few more days until I reached my final destination Denver, Colorado - My new home. The whole purpose of this road trip was to move to Denver but not just make a beeline for the city. Rather explore and take in some of what the western United States has to offer, in the process.
After weeks of planning we were ready to roll out of Houston on May 16th, Marisa and I were only going 3 hours the first day, to CANYON LAKE to stay the night at my parents lake house. Uneventful, but fun, the drive was a good test as to whether Marisa and I would make good travel partners.
The next day would be our longest day of driving. We were going to put in a solid 8 hours from Canyon Lake to an off-the-grid home we rented on AirBnB, near Big Bend and Terlingua. On a recommendation from my dad, we stopped by the Gage Hotel in Marathon for a drink (pictured) at a table under the famous white bison shoulder mount (not pictured), struck up a conversation with an Australian couple who were on holiday, then meandered our way to the worlds smallest Target. They had no inventory, no employees, not even a door, but was a great photo-op.
At every turn, or rather along every mile of the hundreds of straight miles through WEST TEXAS, I was amazed at how little of Texas I have actually experienced in my life. I had never been in this area, and yet is probably the most beautiful and serene part of the state I had ever seen. So often we are in such a rush to travel somewhere far and "exotic" to take a picture in front of some tourist infested attraction, that we forget to see what is right in our own backyards, I'm just at guilty.
The evening of our second day we arrived at our off-the-grid house. I was a little nervous in part because this was the first time to use Airbnb and also there seemed to be a lot of rules associated with being off-the-grid. Three minute long showers, max, because the water is filtered rainwater that runs off the roof and into storage tanks and it doesn't rain much in the desert so there isn't much water. There is no plumbing so everything goes in a bucket - everything. And all those buckets had to be emptied before we left the next day, by yours truly. Also, the house is 100% solar powered so no using the A/C for more than a few hours a day which was fine because it was still cool in the evenings.
We hit BIG BEND on a perfect day, there was hardly anyone in the park and the weather turned out to beautiful. The day started off a bit foggy but it cleared up shortly after noon. We spent the day hiking and driving the scenic route through the park. On our last hike of the day before leaving Big Bend, we were stopped by park rangers a few hundred yards up the trail. Sadly, someone had fallen off the switchbacks that lead up the mountain and died. The person's friends were all separated in the trail parking lot filling out incident reports individually. We waited around for a while to see if the trail would open back up - I built cairns (stacked rock tower) in the Rio Grande River and Marisa did yoga stretches and talked to strangers . The trail never reopened, so we took off to Terlingua Ghostown.
TERLINGUA is southwest of Big Bend and 80 miles from the closest hospital. It is home to a murder mystery documentary called "Badlands, Texas" on NatGeo. It's based on the murder of our Portland neighbor’s, brother who was killed at his bar, La Kiva, in Terlingua. We visited the bar that evening for a drink and saw the group of women Marisa had been talking at Big Bend while we were waiting for the trail to open back up. There were five of them and they had all been friends since grade school. Now living all around the U.S. they try to get together yearly for a girls trip. We had so much fun with them. They invited us to join them for dinner at the Starlight, just down the street, that evening for live music and food. It's those kind of unforeseen encounters that make traveling so much fun. The paradise you find is created by the people you meet.
MARFA was the stop I was looking forward to the most on our road trip. For one, we booked the last available teepee for months at the El Cosmico. When Marisa and I started planning this trip, glamping (glamorous-camping) in Marfa was on the top of my "bucket" list. Marfa is a very unique town of 2000 people. It’s like most other small Texas towns - feed stores, town square and small boutiques - but what makes Marfa different is the heavy influence of contemporary art. People come from all over the world to visit the plethora of art exhibits and installations. Ultra modern, Swedish designed art galleries next to a tractor supply store is a common sight of the yin and yang that gives Marfa such character.
The town’s biggest draws are the Marfa Lights and Marfa Prada. The lights are small mysterious glowing orbs in the flats just east of the town. They shimmer and fade in and out. The night we went to the viewing center, the lights were active. It was a lot of fun to see and especially to speculate where they were coming from.
The following morning, on the way out of town, we stopped by the Marfa Prada to take photos. Its an art installation 30 minutes outside of town that doesn’t sell any product but is just fun to visit and explore. I got some of my favorite photos from the trip in front of it.
I'm a huge Breaking Bad fan, so when we were planning the road trip I had to make a stop in ALBUQUERQUE to visit Walter White’s house and the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant (where Walter met Gus for the first time) which is actually Twisters. Breaking bad was the inspiration for the label for the beer andrew and I brewed. We called the batch "Brewing Beer".
Have you ever thought to yourself "boy, I sure hope I get yelled at and harassed today"? If this sounds like something you would like to experience, dress up in a yellow hazmat suit and stand in front of the old Breaking Bad house, the owner is a real charmer. She knew the house she bought was the scene of a cult tv show, but she insists on sitting in a folding chair in her garage everyday and yell at people to "GET A LIFE!". I took a few pics, thanked her for peppering of insults and went on my way.
PAGE was our next stop, it's a small town located on the western side of Arizona on the Utah/Arizona border and served as our base camp for visiting the GRAND CANYON, HORSESHOE BEND, and the beautiful ANTELOPE CANYONS. Our drive from Albuquerque took us by FOUR CORNERS, where we busted our best yoga moves in an attempt to touch all four states at once - Utah/Colorado/Arizona/New Mexico - I call mine the sleepy starfish.
We spend the rest of that afternoon in MONUMENT VALLEY, which turned out to be my favorite scenic stop on the trip because it was so majestic. The three monuments have stood the test of time over thousands of years like stoic soldiers vigilantly watching over the valley. They were quite a site to see.
To get everything in that we wanted to around the Page area we spent two nights, minimum. The first day we spent hiking the Grand Canyon. The thing you don't realize about about hiking there is you descend into the canyon the first part of your hike - the easy part. The second part of the hike - back up - is where you hate yourself for being so confident and going so far down into the canyon in the first place.
That same evening Marisa and I tried making it back to catch Horseshoe Bend for sunset, but when I wasn't paying attention and took us in the wrong direction for 15 miles we ended up showing up after the sun had gone down. I was determined to get a sunset/sunrise photo of Horseshoe Bend, so the next morning we woke up at 4:15 am to make it out for the 5:00 am sunrise. Trekking in the dark to the edge of the canyon bend, I thought we would be the first people out, but there was already four people standing around as close to the ledge as possible, with their cameras set on tripods. The things photographers do to capture "that image"...
If you are ever in the area of Page, Arizona and can only do one thing, first off you're an idiot. Why did you only book enough time for one thing in Page, Arizona? Secondly, you want to go to Antelope Canyon. There is an Upper and Lower, they are near each other but are not the same tour. I hear Upper Antelope is stunning, but so is low, and lower is cheaper. There is roughly a billion people queued for tours of the canyon. It is quite crowded when you first descend into its depths, but soon after the different tour groups thin out and you can get some pretty amazing photos. The tour guides are all local Navajo teenagers for the most part and were very knowledgeable about the canyon and where to stand to get the best photos!
After Page, Arizona the original plan was to tent camp in ZION NATIONAL PARK in Utah for one night before heading to LAS VEGAS to see Marisa off on her flight back to Houston, but we had to cut it a day short so she could make it to an interview back home. She still wanted to drive through the park, and to keep her from throwing a fit in the cereal isle, figuratively speaking, I set our course northwest out of Page (Vegas is southwest), where we spent the afternoon sightseeing before ending her tenth and final day of life out on the road. I would be lying if I said we had a night similar to the movie "The Hangover". Vegas consisted of In-N-Out Burger - animal style - a drive down the strip and comatose sleep.
The next morning my wolf pack..it shrank by one. Ten days and 2500 miles into the road trip, I was going to be a loner for the first time. On the way to the airport we played a few of our favorite road tripin' songs - Roger Miller, Johnny Cash and John Denver - then said goodbye. Any skepticism I may have had as to whether we could tolerate being in close quarters together for that many miles had long gone out the window before we had ever arrived at Canyon Lake on our first day. Marisa and I made a great travel team.
The one man wolf pack made his way back to Zion where I tent camped for three nights in a site just outside the park. I applied for a permit to do a few backcountry hikes but didn't win the lottery. The park only lets a certain number of people on the backcountry hikes each day. Your name get put in a lottery and whoever wins get a permit to hike and camp in the wilderness of Zion.
Since I didn't win, I did a few unrestricted hikes like Angel's Landing. Which has you basically hanging off the side of a 1000 foot cliff holding onto a chain with a 1000 other people. All well worth it for the view at the top.
The last photo in this series below, may have you thinking I'm a wizard. Actually I was doing a hike called the Narrows. You hike up the middle of a river for about 4 miles before it get over head deep and impassable - that picture so happens to be on the only section of the hike that has a patch of dry land. The local outfitters just outside the park rent water hiking boots and wizard staffs to paying customers. I didn't come across any dragons so I repurpose the staff as a walking stick, which helped a lot with stability in the rushing waters.
On the second to last leg of my journey I found myself tent camping in the MOAB area and ARCHES NATIONAL PARK on Memorial weekend. I met up with one of my best and oldest friends - Jacob - and his crew to raft, hike, and mountain bike the holiday weekend. He brought down my new bike that I bought from him and we blazed a few trails.
Our campsite was along the Green River which wasn't so green as it was brown. We made a new friend we named Bertha - a dead cow that washed up near our campsite, coming to the conclusion that she died in a hand gliding accident off the top of one of the mesas in the area, she was our stinky camp guardian.
After an eventful weekend of trying everything to send Bertha on her maiden voyage down the river, rafting rapids, and trying to corner goats in a canyon, we all parted ways on Monday to head back to Denver. I stuck around the area for one more night to bike a few trails in Moab. One called the Whole Enchilada, which was an 18 mile ride that you caught a shuttle to the top of a high mesa for a 3 hour ride down. The ride took you along the edge of the mesa and offered amazing views of the surrounding area below. Halfway through the ride I had a flat and no repair kit. I waited around for about 20 minutes for another rider but no one came by, so I decided to carry my bike down the trail until someone, much wiser than me with a repair kit, came by. About 20 minutes into my walk with my bike slung over my shoulder an older dude came blazing down the trail and offered to help me out.
Inconveniences such as a flat tire and no repair kit or a smelly dead cow at camp are always scenarios that I want to avoid in life and especially while traveling, but they so often are the stories and memories you recall the most years down the line. I've come to embrace those mishaps and enjoy the moment. They always turn out for the better and often times not only do you get a story out of the situation but you end up better off than had it not happened.
My flat tire turned into a gathering of riders hanging out and talking bike stuff while I fixed a flat and made new friends. I will most likely never see those people again, but the time spent talking to strangers from other parts of the U.S. and bonding over a love for cycling is way more cool than had I rode my bike the entire 18 miles without mishap into town and packed up.
My last night on the road, I had another mishap that cost me a pretty penny. I left my campsite on my last evening to shoot sunset and night photography of Delicate Arch, in Arches National Park. It is probably one of the most famous landscapes in the United States and I think is even a default background for Windows PCs. I arrived in the parking lot and made the 45 minute, tourist infested hike to the natural amphitheater where the arch resided. The arch looks like it was placed on the edge of a cliff by magic, it defies gravity and yet has been around for thousands of years.
I walked around, shot a few photos and waited for the crowd thin as the sun began to make its descent behind the mesas. At one point I sat down and opened my bag to pull out my phone to check the time, when I did my 50mm lens jumped out of my bag and began its descent down the barren sandstone hill. Picking up speed and passing tourist as it descended, all I could do was watch. I heard someone yell "grab that" to the people below but no one got the message in time to react. I stood there in shock, not believing that was my camera lens making a run for it like an escaped convict on death row. As it neared the bottom it was catching more hang time than a skateboard at the X-Games and in an attempt to leave no mysteries as to whether is would be operable when I finally retrieved it, the lens made one more jump that would could have won an olympic gold in pole-vaulting and in slow motion as if to mock me even further, it blew up like fireworks before landing in the foliage below. I was stunned - in the back of my mind I heard a cash register cha-ching - this mishap was going to cost me.
I spent 15 minutes at the bottom looking for all the pieces, but was only able to locate about half. Once I got back topside I was the talk of the arch. I cut my losses made friends with fellow concerned photographers and captured some amazing photos with my other lens that evening. It's not how I expected my evening at Delicate Arch to pan out but I'll never forget the memory of my lens rolling down the hill every time I look at my photos from that night. Better it catching air and exploding, than me.
The day after my lens mishap, I packed up my campsite and started on the 6 hour home stretch to Denver. When I finally rolled into the driveway of my new house the trip odometer I had set in Houston rolled over to 3673 miles. My 15 day road trip was over, but the memories and mishaps will live on.
I'm fortunate to be in a place in my life where I could do such an amazing trip for 2 weeks right after having traveled Southeast Asia for a year, and blessed to have the opportunity to move to Denver and start the next chapter in my life. I'm excited for what the my new city has to offer and optimistic in my search for a new career!