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

OUR TIME IN NEW YORK

Every time I’m back in “the city” it feels familiar with a subtle air of difference. Although, it’s most likely I who has changed and not New York itself. Since I grew up in Connecticut, New York was always just “the city”, much like Sydney is back home. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been there. Five years ago on my last visit to the USA, I was 18 and NYC was very impressionable on me. No doubt people feel differently about it, but to me, New York forces you to dream big, feel alive and believe you’re capable of absolutely anything. It’s filled with 8 million different kinds of people and I think that’s where this whole lack of judgement among its citizens stems from. Everyone and anyone can find their niche in this city and that’s what makes it so great.

The Jane Hotel is over a 100 years old. I booked this hotel not just for it’s prime location along the Hudson, settled right into the West Village and not far from Chelsea, but for the atmosphere I knew it would have just from looking at the pictures. Total Wes Anderson vibes. Here’s some pics from their site itself, because I repeatedly forgot to take my own…

Lobby
Ballroom and Mezzanine
Rooftop Bar

 

Rooftop Bar Balcony (all images sourced from here)

The Jane Hotel is an old sailor’s cabin, men would come and retire here for the evening after long journeys at sea. Abel overheard one night at the bar, that back in 1912 when the Titanic sank, all of the survivors were sent to The Jane. They still host a remembrance night on the anniversary each year, apparently. I knew none of this, obviously, when booking, but these photos were enough to entice me and overlook the price. I booked us a sailor’s bunk (our cheapest option) and figured we would either enjoy the space away from each other, or I’d force Abel to squeeze into one bed together (we tried this one night and it only lasted a few hours). The cabin was a shoebox. Literally, we couldn’t lay any of our bags on the floor. One person was forced to sit on their bed and wait patiently while one of us dressed and readied for the day– then we would swap. The room also meant we shared a bathroom with others, but this didn’t phase me. I’ve done the whole hostel thing many a times (some nasty, some not) and these bathrooms were exceptionally clean (I knew they would be, take a look at more photos on the link).

Quickly after shuffling into our room for the first time, and stumbling over our bags, we deeply questioned an upgrade. Fuck it, we’re in New York baby! This idea deflated real fast when I checked and noticed a standard double suite would cost us an extra $200 a night. Not entirely in our budget. We wouldn’t be spending much time in the room anyway, so it didn’t really matter. And apart from the size issue (and the springy beds) the room was nice. We both had our own TV, fresh towels, robes and slippers each day– we really couldn’t complain. Besides, the allure of the hotel was in its public locations anyway. A ballroom, rooftop bar and restaurant all on site. The first few nights the ballroom was closed for private events, so we drank at the rooftop. All the while I was thinking, where is this grand room I was promised in the photos? After talking to the bartender, he told us it would be back in full swing by the weekend and he assured us it was a good time: “Literally there will be a line outside around the corner, it gets really busy. But you guys are guests so you get to come straight through and skip the whole line.” That made party-hunting a little easier, we didn’t have to go anywhere and no stress about late night subway or taxi rides.

Now I’ll talk a little less about our hotel and a bit more about the city itself and what we did while we were there. We pretty much ticked most of the stuff off the list. I’ve done a lot of the main tourist attractions, so this visit was more about fuelling Abel’s NYC desires. He’s a simple guy though and honestly wasn’t too fussed. A lot of pressure was taken off as well because we know for a fact we’ll be coming back here, and at Christmas time too (!!), which is just magical. I really can’t wait to see the tree all lit, starry and bright, towering over Rockefeller Centre. A favourite spectacle of mine.

Since there was no pressure, we didn’t get around to visiting the World Trade Centre (I’ve been twice), but we will certainly go when we are back. It really is a must for anyone seeing the city. It’s moving and eerie, but you just can’t avoid going. We also didn’t go to the top of any buildings, such as the Empire State. I hate heights, although my dear friend Claudia dragged me up there last visit and it wasn’t too frightening. The elevator was the worst part, but the twinkling view was rewarding.

Instead of The Met (I have also frequented) we visited The Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), mainly to experience Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Monet’s Water Lillies, both surrounded by plenty of other amazing artworks. Not that we really know much about art, but it’s nice knowing that despite the small amount of knowledge we might have on a topic or piece, it can still move you and make you feel a certain way. Often we don’t even know what that feeling is or what it means to us, but art is enthralling like that. It sparks something within you, allows it to burn for a few moments while you question yourself and everything around you and more often that not, we are left with more questions than answers. Answers are boring anyway, how we ask questions is what keeps life appealing. Here’s some of the works that did that for me:

I’m a fool for not remembering or taking note of this artist. Hopefully this isn’t illegal. Anyone who knows, let me know. Because I loved this.

Plus the two main attractions:

Claude Monet’s Water Lillies
Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night

Earlier this day we visited the Central Park Zoo and it’s not that I was disappointed– not at all, in fact– but Madagascar (the film), whilst it is a classic, is a total sham. There is not a single lion, zebra, hippo nor giraffe at the Central Park Zoo. The penguins and monkeys were definitely there though. The red pandas were the real highlight. Mischievous little cat-dog creatures, actually related to raccoons, constantly rummaging through the ground foliage and climbing tree branches. I wanted to take one home with me. It was like a boutique zoo, small in its overall size, but not in regards to the animals’ spaces or the quality. Walking all around were zoo workers offering facts and conversation with the visitors. It really was a sweet place.

Red Panda
Sweet sleeping grizzly. If the claws weren’t there, I could cuddle this thing forever.

One of the most exciting things we ticked off was a broadway show. I wasn’t too sure how I could drag Abel to one of these, since he’s not much a ‘musical’ guy. I don’t mind the simple breaking-out-into-song, I kind of wish life was like that, so musicals really do it for me. Not to mention there were some killer choices: Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, Frozen. Like honestly, any of those would have served me well. Not to worry though, on our first day I spotted a little advertisement perched on the top of a yellow-taxi. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Not a musical and pretty perfect for two die-hard HP fans.

We lucked out in the ticket department, because this show is actually a two-part act. Not your standard show with intermission, but two shows. I knew we couldn’t really see one and not the other, that just wouldn’t make a lot of sense, right? So I purchased the two-part tickets and damn, we got lucky. Orchestra seats booked the evening before. We had been mentally preparing to sit down for a good 5-6 hours of play-time. I thought that was pretty weird, but who was I to question these things. Part one ended and when everyone was up and leaving we asked the lady next to us when we would see part two, “Come back at 7:30. Your two part ticket gave you the matinee, part one, and the evening show, part two.” Now that made a lot more sense. A quick break for Chipotle and the whole time we were thinking, what will part two bring?! 

I had seriously questioned this play when it was first released. I remember flicking through it whilst in Kmart once and seeing names of deceased characters in speaking roles and I thought, well that’s just fucking stupidBut honestly, not only was it well-written, but the entire performance was top notch. I mean, we did watch it on broadway, but the acting, the music, the theatrics was all of such a high calibre. All that talent on display, while being back in the magical world of wizardry, was just sublime. Don’t question it, just go. And see both parts. I have no idea how someone could go to part one and that alone. You’d be left hanging in the middle of an epic tale… so that’s how they make the money!

The last big tourist thing we did was venture over to Ellis Island. Ellis Island is where, for years, immigrants came through for processing before entering the United States. I’d been here once before, in 5th grade on a field trip. It was nice to go back with a bit more appreciation for history. Our ferry over stopped at Liberty Island, but we didn’t get off. You can see the Statue of Liberty as you pull up, and to be honest, that’s the best view you’re gonna get of her. Out in the water while she stands tall in the distance.

Lady Liberty

Those were really the main things we experienced while in NY. I mean, we ticked plenty of other things off our list, most of them being food items. A good slice of New York pizza on more than one occasion. We frequented Village Pizza, a few blocks from The Jane. Serious authentic quality, the sauce was a treat to the taste buds. And on our first night we took full advantage of “the city that never sleeps”– we ordered pizza and hot cookies to our room, well past midnight, just because we could.

Village Pizza

I’ve been following a Chef (named Anthony, @chefanthony_ballatosnyc) who works at Emilio’s Ballato for over a year now on Instagram. I actually came across his page from, I believe it was Miley Cyrus. The photos he posts of their food is seriously mouth-watering. I used to scroll through his feed, starving for one of these authentic Italian meals. I knew it was of high quality, not only because of their patron Miley Cyrus, but the entire array of celebrities that go there. Obama included. They don’t take reservations, they operate on a first-come first-served basis, which made things a bit easier for us. I knew we’d have to arrive as soon as they opened to snag a table. Surely people in the city aren’t going to be feasting on their evening meal at 5pm, right? Luckily we got a table, because they were filling up fast. Not long after we were seated, a queue slowly started to form and snake its way onto the street. The food was exceptional. Simple, high-quality, fresh food. No wonder so many well-known people frequent there. Abel was seriously convinced that seated behind us was former vice-president Joe Biden. Any time we weren’t in silence from shovelling homemade pasta into our gobs, we were debating about the white-haired man. It was not Joe Biden. I repeat, it was not Joe Biden.

However, we did spot one ‘celebrity’, a man staying at our hotel. On our first night I saw him at the rooftop bar, turned to give a casual smile and probably held his eyes for a moment too long. I instantly recognised him, but for the life of me, I cannot tell you where from. I’m not crazy either, he’s definitely ‘known’, because a few moments later a young girl went up to chat with him and take a selfie. She shuffled out of there pretty quickly so I couldn’t catch his name. I spent a lot of my time in New York googling “actors with grey hair and scruffy beards”. One day I’ll spot him on the screen and squeal with pure relief.

It was really just nice to wonder the streets, ride the subway, and visit the hotspots (Washington Square Park, Times Square, the Chelsea Highline) like we were little live-ins. If you can get enough time to visit the city properly, you’ve kinda gotta pretend you’re a local. I mean, no doubt we gave off tourist vibes with the Aussie accents (although, fair warning, mine is becoming a pure hybrid at the moment), but you really have to do your best to live New York like a true New Yorker. Push through the crowds, walk fast, do whatever you want to do, how you want to do it.

But don’t worry, we still managed to stop and look up at the towering buildings in awe, and let the bright lights wash through us. Plus Abel got really excited about the squirrels in Central Park (way to blow our cover, man).

Squirrel! (He is still getting excited by them)
Central Park

Empire State

Chelsea Highline

Now we’re in my hometown of Fairfield, CT, staying at my Aunt Melissa and Uncle Michel’s place. This was always my second home while growing up, so it’s really nice to be back here. We have done… not a lot this whole week. Once again, we’ve been snoozing ’til about 10 or 11 am most mornings. But hey, why not? Most days consist of going for a stroll, starting a fire outside and reading by it for hours to warm up. The leaves are turning more orange and yellow with each day that passes. The air is fresh, a lot like our winter temperatures back home, but we’re slowly becoming acclimated. Abel has been wearing thermals under his clothes the past few days, but you do what you’ve got to do! It really is my favourite time of year around here. Halloween is creeping up and I forgot how much I loved that holiday. Just ask Abel, I can’t stop randomly chirping, “Happy Halloween!”, “Trick or treat!” Autumn brings so many things with it: the smell of pumpkin, cinnamon, apple cider and freshly fallen leaves. There’s nothing like it.

Though we won’t be experiencing it for too much longer. This week was meant to be our time to buy a van, but we’ve made slight alterations to our original plans. Since we’re going to have to register a car in the country, you need a permanent address, which my dad has in Florida. Buying a car down there, closer to him, makes more sense. Plus, there are a lot more options for vans/campers down there. Tomorrow, we fly to Tampa. This definitely changes our road-tripping route, but we don’t mind. I haven’t seen my Dad since January, so seeing him before Christmas is going to be really nice. Plus, there is a real funky vehicle we’re going to check out on Monday. Fingers crossed it all works out. Stay tuned, because I know y’all are gonna love it.

A