THE BIG SOUTHWEST

We made it through the dirty South and out into the wild West, thinking we’d escaped Winter’s treacherous bite. Not quite.

Western Louisiana and into Texas were both pleasant, temperature wise. I wore a dress without a jacket to the Fleetwood Mac concert, for goodness sake. How naive we were.

First of all, Texas is huge and after Houston and Austin, there wasn’t much we cared to see. I was surprised at the landscape, though. I had envisioned wide, flat and brown. Not the occasional rolling hill, scattered deep-green shrubbery and thousands of wind turbines. A rather pretty, but lengthy to journey through and out of.

In Houston, we really just had dinner— tex mex with 6 or 7 cocktails—got serenaded by Stevie and Neil Fin, and left.

We would have stayed longer in Austin, but the sleeping options weren’t plentiful. We found a parking lot in the city park that others had checked-in at on our app. At around 9:30pm a security officer knocked on the door to let us know we had to kick it by 10pm. We headed back to the Planet Fitness we’d visited earlier and spent the night in the parking lot. As we were stirring the following morning, we got another knock on the door. The security woman said, “Sorry, I can’t have people sleeping here.” Like OK, but we sort of already have…

Austin was pretty and funky, as I’d come to expect from what so many people have told me in the past few years: “Austin is really cool”. Even though we just spent the day roaming before heading off. Lots of trendy bars and restaurants— it’s insane how many cities across this country are coming into their own (I mean, lots of them have been nice places for a while, but you can tell there’s plenty that are really on the brink of their stardom). Bustling with youngsters and new, thriving businesses that please the masses.

Our budget has gotten a little tighter over the past month or so and we’re trying our absolute best to be careful and only spend when necessary. Usually we do an enormous grocery haul so we can cook most meals. If we want to eat out, we must choose wisely.  So every time we’re in a quirky city, jam-packed with trendy bars that feature unique cocktails and tasty tapas plates, we’re tempted beyond belief. Unless there’s something specific and touristy to do in that city— entertainment wise, museums or walking trails— what else can you do but walk around and enjoy different beverages depending on the time?

First stop: large, double-shot oat milk latte and a large double-shot regular latte (not really that strong, Abel reckons his tasted like warm milk), at around 10:30am.

Next stop: Two schooners of cider. 12:00pm on the dot.

Lastly: Two burgers and fries. One a double with bacon, sweet potato fries. The other with hot peppers and regular fries. 1:00pm

From Austin we headed to a small, privately-owned campground. Basically an elder couple had an enormous property with a few ponds, sparkling and picturesque, and they sectioned off some campsites— electrical and water hook-ups for RVs on one side, primitive on the other. The bathhouse was a tin shed. The toilets and showers were separated with thin pieces of plywood, shower curtains for doors. On their front porch, hung a crooked sign: “GOD MADE. JESUS SAVED. TEXAS RAISED.” I couldn’t stop saying it the whole time, in my exceptional southern drawl.

Then we hustled out of Texas.

I can’t remember if we stopped anywhere before Santa Fe, New Mexico, but if we did, it mustn’t have been very memorable.

Arriving in Santa Fe was like leaving one country and entering another— I suppose with the size of Texas, it may as well have been. It was the architecture that struck me, sienna coloured Spanish-style clay homes, painted alongside the shifting landscape. All of a sudden, the desert we’d been weaving through in North-Western Texas gained a new richness— the sand turned to burnt cinnamon, the shrubbery grew a few inches and deepened its emerald hue, and icy mountains rose on the horizon. It was certainly colder while at the campground— scattered snow flurries—but we had climbed around 7,000 ft since then, so the temperature dropped significantly.

Santa Fe became our home for the next week, for a few various reasons.

1. We found ideal, free camping. Just twenty minutes outside the town, up in the hills, looking out at the mountains. Quiet as anything, with a fire ring and bathrooms.

2. There was a Planet Fitness in town.

3. It was unlike anywhere we’d been so far. I finally felt like I was out in the West, somewhere I’ve never properly seen or known, but always dreamed of. The buildings made this place too interesting to rush through– there was no shift in style. All clay, all beautiful.

 

On Valentine’s day we treated ourselves to a day out. We explored through downtown, window-shopped at the Native American art stores and sat at a rooftop brewery for a few hours. Here I had one of the best vegetarian pizzas ever, made on a blue corn base, loaded with roasted veggies and goats cheese. I have dreams about it.

That afternoon we went to an interactive art gallery called Meow Wolf that my cousin had told me about. This was an experience unlike any other. I don’t even know what I expected, but this exceeded any expectations. We were told at the ticket desk that we could touch any of the art, encouraged to, and there was no specific order you had to journey through. The only way to describe it is a bunch of different “worlds” all connected through doorways and crawl spaces. Some were basic– like the house. I crawled through a hole and came out of a fireplace into a living room. I exited this particular “world” via the refrigerator. Some worlds weren’t as simple– giant dinosaur skeletons that’s bones played sweet tunes when whacked with another bone. It was like a huge, acid-induced, adult playground.

 

From Santa Fe we headed across into Arizona, but things were looking grim and frigid. Nights with a temperature of -19 C. Having our short-lived experience with warmer weather, I had gone off the cold altogether and wanted nothing to do with it. Coming through, we decided we wouldn’t stay too long and would head further South-West instead, on into California.

Since there’s so much time to kill before Coachella at the end of April, we’re planning on doing a loop and hitting up the Grand Canyon properly when the snow melts a bit more. Let’s hope.

We still got smothered in a fat, white blanket. I can’t quite remember where this particular campground was, it could’ve been back in New Mexico, but I left the ambulance for the shower house and when I’d finished my cleaning and pampering, I walked outside to a transformed campground: red, rocky and dusty turned to thick, frosty, snow.

We drove down through Sedona. A steep, winding road between large, maroon rock-mountains, scattered naked pines and snow. Log cabins down on a river bed. More snow. One of the most beautiful scenes we have witnessed so far.

After spending two nights in a nearby town with a Planet Fitness (always a selling point) we continued West. We journeyed to Joshua Tree National Park via Lake Havasu, a stunning summer vacation spot, littered with other RVs.

On this little leg of travel, we happened to come across a town up in the mountains called Jerome. This was the sweetest, quirkiest little place and Abel and I both reckon we could live there. It felt like something out of The Grand Budapest Hotel, mainly because there was an abandoned-looking hotel sitting on the edge of a mountain, surrounded by cliff and snow. We stopped to take photos, grab a coffee for the road and a few slices of home-made fudge.

(All in Jerome)

(All on our drive through Joshua Tree National Park)

We don’t know how to take photos…

We stayed in LA for three our four nights, near Venice Beach and Santa Monica. We walked the beach and the pier, witnessed sights we’d seen in hundreds of films, and drove through Beverly Hills and Bel Air, gaping at the mansions. Being in Hollywood makes you think of everything that is Hollywood. We drive past Rodeo Drive and I couldn’t help but say “Rodeo Drive, baby” like Kit from Pretty Woman.

The only tourist type thing we did was the Runyon Canyon trail that looks over the whole city, the Hollywood sign watching you climb and sweat from far behind in the next cluster of hills. Since we’re going to be spending a bit of time roaming around California before our weekend at Coachella, we figured we’ll be back to see anything we missed.

We spent a night in Miami and then in Santa Barbara, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. It reeked with the character I had always envisioned and here we allowed ourselves a cocktail and bites session. That’s the main thing that gets me when we’re saving money and somewhere oozing with local atmosphere. I just want a drink and a nibble. Happy hour is the key here, especially when it’s midweek. This allowed us several fancy drinks and tasty plates at a reasonable expense.

 

Since being on this side of the country, I am in constant awe of the changing, varied landscape. Desert, mountains, water— in all different forms. Rivers turn to lakes, snowy mountains shift to enormous hills that seem to be made up of thousands of little rocks. Cacti becomes striped eucalypts and we are hit with a sudden wave of longing for the Australian landscape.

Luckily we came across something similar to home after our stint camping on the outskirts of Joshua Tree.

Highway 1 goes up the California coastline, through Big Sur and into Monterey Bay— yes, the town from the Big Little Lies TV series. We witnessed the most wildlife on this stretch since our time in Florida.

When we woke up in Morrow, the first town we stopped in, we were parked right against the docks and could hear seals barking (do seals bark?) as we stretched in our beds, ready to begin the day. Although they were nowhere in sight, Abel pointed in the distance and we had our second otter sighting. This time, a sea otter. Fluffy as hell, floating calmly on his back up stream, waiting to be carried out for a fishy meal.

Along highway 1 we saw piles of elephant seals lounging on the sand, nudging each other in what seemed like affection. The males sat on the outskirts of groups of females, protecting them. One pretty much told another one to fuck off, and off he went, sucked under the next crashing wave.

Monterey Bay was a cool little harbour-side town, and here we saw maybe four to five more otters, floating 50 metres off the jetty, swirling around each other and holding hands, as otters often do. It was a sight to behold.

All along Highway 1 and through Big Sur. It was super foggy this whole drive.

 

Since then we headed up towards San Francisco, picked my mum up from the airport and have spent the past week with her, visiting at my aunt Lauren’s place. It’s funny coming back here, five months on from when we first arrived, with our ambulance and whole different understanding of our trip. As Abel said, “I was just a newbie last time we were here, I knew nothing about what the country was going to be like.” 21 states later, now he’s more seasoned in the landscape than most Americans.

Now, we are on vacation from vacation from our vacation. Being back at my aunt and uncle’s place felt like a little vacation from our otherwise large vacation. Since my mum has left, Abel and I have driven up to the Napa Valley for two nights before we had back to Lafayette where we’ll house/dog/cat sit for my aunt while her and the family go skiing in Lake Tahoe. So we’re on a triple-removed holiday from our main one, if you get me.

And it’s damn nice. Today we went one a long trail through the hills surrounding our campground and it honestly felt like we had stepped either back in time, or into The Hobbit. Winding trails through rolling green hills, splattered with redwoods, eagles, and creeks running this way and that.

And here’s the “glory hole” (actually called that) that Abel drove out of the way for on our way back– worth it. Although I was expecting a natural phenomenon, not a dam hahaha. You could honestly stare at it for hours.

 

This state really is spectacular and I’m itching to see more of it. Good thing we’ve got lots of time here. I think Coachella might creep up before we know it, though.

‘Til next time. As always.

 

A

LIL BIT OF SAN FRANCISCO

We finally made it to the mainland and reunited with some of my family–hooray!

It was so nice to feel “at home” and be able to relax a little without feeling completely guilty for not getting out, doing and seeing things.

My aunt Lauren, uncle Kurt and their kids Max (11) and Natasha (5) live just outside of the city in Lafayette. I visited last time I was in the states, but the kids were real young then. It was nice to “re-meet” my cousins and spend time with the family. Max is sweet and quiet and definitely turning into a very smart cookie. Natasha was exuding excitement about meeting us. She arrived home from school, grinning ear to ear as she gave me a little cuddle, then she watched me attentively, her head pressed against the window, while I sat outside and read. It wasn’t long before she started climbing all over Abel, begging us to play tag and Peppa Pig with her.

To be honest, most mornings in Lafayette Abel and I arose at around 10 or 11 am. We had done a red-eye from Honolulu. I passed out for the whole flight, experiencing weird dreams about sleeping on a plane. It’s damn strange how our brains do that. I was in a deep sleep, but I was very aware of where I was and what I was doing. Abel took a sleeping pill too, and just like our first flight, barely slept a wink. I don’t know how he managed to fight off the drug-induced hallucinations as well, but he had a decent 6-hour nap our first day in Cali.

We really only had three main touristy days. The first was a visit to Stinson Beach and the Redwoods. We drove in my aunt’s Ford Explorer–a little beast– around winding roads, with huge escarpments banked to the right, and a steep drop with no railing or fence to our left. Our mission was completed, we’d made it to the park entrance, only to be told we were required to reserve parking and wouldn’t be able to return for another hour and 30 minutes. No problem, Lauren had told us Stinson beach was a cute little town, so we journeyed back up the climbing roads and down some more towards the coastline. Time ticked away pretty quickly as we drove, so our visit to to Stinson was a mere stroll along the beach, a quick coffee and stop in the cutest little bookshop.

Seeing beaches that are so vastly different from the ones back home is always interesting. At Stinson, there are houses built directly on the sand, with metre high walls to stop the tides from causing any damage. I thought living a street back from the beach was enough create to worry about tsunamis, but these guys would be toast.


This is the little literature shop I dragged Abel into (and subtly hinted at the card section for my upcoming birthday haha). The owner had a vast but nicely curated selection of books. Working for the past six or so months in a bookshop has taught me a lot about the industry (on top of my organic adoration for books and writing) and I immediately want to talk and ask questions upon questions. It wasn’t really needed, because the owner muttered to herself behind the counter, apologised and went on to tell me about issues she was having with arriving shipments from her publishers. I could wander (or loiter) in a bookshop for hours and not even buy anything. Looking at the different stories and texts that are out there, breathing in the distinct scent of ink and fresh paper, is more than enough for me.

The Redwoods had a few different trail options. We decided to take the “middle” one, meaning not the shortest nor the longest. Turns out it was a lot longer than we had realised, starting with an incline that took us up through the woods and out into an open space, with a valley falling out far below us. Huge hills sat cuddled close together and you could just vaguely see the ocean in the distance (always a sigh of relief and comfort for me). The Bay Area is foggy as hell so the strip of ocean almost felt like a mirage. We struggled to get high quality photos, especially since we’re learning photographers.

After making our way up and out of the valley, the trail circled back through the forest and the trees slowly became more mammoth like. I questioned Abel on the possibility of mountain lines, but figured there weren’t any warning signs at the beginning of the trail, so surely we were safe. Maybe two minutes later Abel stopped dead in his tracks, grabbed me and told me to look to my left. A furry, brown blob appeared in my peripherals and I screamed at an intense decibel. It was just a stag.

Two days later was my 24th birthday and it just didn’t feel like it all. I mean, I had such a wonderful day and entire weekend (Lauren bought me cute pressies, cooked us a wonderful dinner on the Sunday and ordered a selection of delectable cupcakes), but all day, I kept forgetting it was my birthday– I guess that’s the burden of ageing. That was the first day Abel and I ventured into the city, an easy 40 minute (if that) train ride from Lafayette. The day was spent walking along the pier, gorging on In-N-Out, visiting Reformation and buying myself a classic black dress, cocktails, wine, more gorging, more wine.

In-N-Out has a huge reputation around it and there was no disappointment for us. While the place was packed–the line snaking around and out of the front doors– the food was fresh, cheap and came out within a matter of 15-20 minutes. We visited again two days later.

During my last visit in San Francisco, my cousin Elise took me on a mission across the city so we could shop at her favourite store. Literally, I think she said “just two more blocks” about 10 times. I ended up with blisters from my jelly sandals (what was I thinking?) and had to walk barefoot in the city. Abel and I had a good laugh because I pretty much did that exact same thing to him on this visit. I believed Reformation was a matter of a few blocks away and led Abel far up Fillmore Street (known for it’s steep hills and steps). Totally worth it, in my opinion– the dress is gorgeous and I’ll have it forever.

All the walking meant we were ready to start drinking and we pretty much bar-hopped around the Marina District for the rest of the evening. We went to the Tipsy Pig twice. In the late afternoon it was packed with young people enjoying early cocktails in the beer garden. When we returned later in the evening, it had calmed down considerably, but the heaters and fairy lights were in full swing, and we had planked ourselves right next to an Aussie! Hearing that familiar accent was beyond comforting for us. Something about being with someone from home just means you can sit back and relax– you’re all on the “same level” in a way. Regardless that he was a bit of dickhead, it was still just lovely.


Our third and final tourist event we ticked off was our visit to Alcatraz Island, where there was once a maximum security prison. We didn’t walk around the entire island, even though there’s much more to see, we were mainly interested in the prison. The free audio tour was spectacular. Voices from the officers and surviving prisoners took us through the prison depicting what life had been like there. A few of them had tried to escape, some successfully and others not. I use “successfully” lightly– they made it out, but were never seen again. Whether they drowned or went to South America, no one knows. One of the quotes plastered on a big sign said that when you broke the rules, you went to prison, but when you broke prison rules, you went to Alcatraz.

Some families of the guards even lived on the island, in this house:

Prisoners could sometimes see the San Francisco skyline, depending on where their cell was located. They talked of hearing party sounds on New Years Eve from boats on the water. Imagine being so isolated from freedom but so close to it? You’d rather be in a prison settled into the middle of nowhere, so you can’t remember the sounds and smells of the free world.

Balancing the relaxing with the exploring was key for our time in Lafayette and SF. The nice thing was knowing we’ll probably be back there at some point and we can do even more. We’ll be in California by April (Coachella baby) so another visit with the fam will definitely be on the cards.

New York City is over now too and we’re back with more family, East Coast this time. I’ll be back to tell y’all about it soon.

A