CALI AND ARIZONA LOOPIN’

I haven’t been writing about our recent whereabouts, but only because we’ve just done an enormous loop over territory that we’ve already seen…. Pretty much. There’s been some new locations. I’ll tell you about those ones.

After our vacation-stay at my aunt and uncle’s outside of San Francisco, we headed straight for Yosemite. The mighty national park that lingered with expectation. Expectation that was met in ways I didn’t know possible. I had this envision that when we’d be going through major national parks, there would be endless walking and it would take a week to experience the whole nature it encapsulated— not quite. These bad boys are, while preserved, structured for the lazy tourist. Rightly so, they’re generally rather large and not everyone is partial to long hikes through the wilderness. I thought I would be, I enjoy a bush-trek, but the day we came to Yosemite was fresh, misty and grey. When you journey through these massive parks, you drive along winding roads, pull over at different view points to breathe the scenery into your soul, snap a few photos and move along. We looked around for free wilderness camping and some spots showed up on the app, but they happened to be further up the mountain, buried deep in the trees, under layers of impacted snow. After we’d seen what we wanted to see, accepted the fact we wouldn’t be able to sleep amongst it, we drove out and into the nearest town with a Planet Fitness— always promising us a warm shower.

(All taken at mighty Yosemite)

 

Of course, the snow is what drove me away, mostly. My relationship with the cold is everchanging— I love the idea of it: snuggled in my jammies, a hot beverage nestled in my palms, snow falling on my windowsill and wrapping itself around the trees. Experiencing it in a van with no heat and no insulation is not my idea of a winter wonderland. Being up in the mountains, meant frigid temperatures and lots of snow. Once again, I thought we had escaped it all.

After our stint back in civilisation, we made our way back East through the Sequoia National Park and the surrounding parks and forests. Snow mountains again and the world’s largest trees, one in sheer mass and the other in width. That was something we had both been itching to experience— trees so wide and tall they force you to question your minuscule existence. Nature overpowering humanity.

 

 

We nearly spent the night in this campground, at 8,000 ft altitude, surrounded by piles of snow, paying $18 for nothing but a pit toilet. Not my cup of tea. I think it’s only worth our while to pay money for a campground if it has a shower (and we’re not close to a Planet Fitness) and running water, otherwise, what the fuck are you paying for? Maybe I sound stingy but I wasn’t paying a fee to sit huddled up in my van all night, freezing my ass off.

We drove down the mountain, a steep road with hairpin turns and came to a lake’s edge, a campground nestled in the green hills around the pool of water. The temperature rose significantly, the sun came out from behind the mountain peaks, the shrubbery wore shades of yellow and violet. This place sits in the top five best campgrounds we’ve stayed at so far.

 

Las Vegas was our next destination, with a pit stop in Death Valley, the world’s hottest place. We stayed at a bleak campground in the middle of the desert— literally a large parking lot with RVs and campers, a general store, gas station and saloon nearby. Other than that: flat, dry land reaching towards rocky mountains in the distance.

 

“Did we even go to Las Vegas?” Abel and I ask each other this often. We lasted one night. At first, we weren’t even sure if we’d make it out the first night— we were tired, driving does that to a person. Then it hit late afternoon and as per usual, we were craving a beverage. People told us downtown Las Vegas was better than the main strip and this worked well for us, since our “accomodation” was an ambulance parked at Walmart. I’ve always been under the impression that in order to experience the version of Las Vegas we all see in the movies, you need to stay at one of the big hotels in that area. Though, we were quite happy to hit up downtown— more low key, in some ways.

After indulging in an early dinner and a couple of cocktails (coral pink with floating flowers, just stunning), we went straight for one bar and didn’t leave. Their happy hour was going until 10pm when the real party gets started. Gladly, we sipped on cheap drinks as the place began to crowd with people. As it often does for us, things got a little hazy from here. On the rooftop, all lounge areas had been sectioned off for private bookings. The one across from us held three young men and a whole lot of empty space. I asked if we could sit down until their friends arrived (Abel was not pleased with my forthrightness), they told us their friends, who were a couple, had broken up that evening and wouldn’t be coming out— so we could sit down. I want to say we made good friends with these boys, but we never exchanged details and I cannot remember their names for the life of me. But they were a good time, they shouted us drinks and we laughed for hours until one of the boys got kicked out, forcing one of them to run to his rescue, and Abel was chained to the toilet, not feeling his best. I called for an uber and escorted Abel safely to the ambulance.

 

Waking up, sweaty and stuffy, in a Walmart parking lot is not ideal. No hangover wants that. As soon as we could, we fed our hollow bellies and seeked out nature, somewhere we could laze around with the doors open wide. Lake Meade, in a state park about 30 minutes from Vegas. We waved the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign goodbye, not stopping for a photo because there were just hoards of tourists nudging each other out of the way for the perfect Insta and rest was required.

I can’t remember exactly but we spent about 2-3 nights at this free site, overlooking the water, only 15 minutes from a Planet Fitness.

 

After a pit stop at the Hoover Dam (because why not) we headed for the mother of all sites: The Grand Canyon. I feel like, even as we drove towards this beauty, we didn’t really expect to see and experience it so soon. Like, we arrived, and I kind of thought well, we won’t see it until tomorrow but then we did. There she was. How do you even describe something like that? Abel said he looked at it and thought to himself: “Who am I?” Here he was, looking at arguably the world’s greatest wonder, and so many people had stood in that exact spot, witnessing the same site and felt just as small and insignificant as he did.

To me, it was so big that it looked small. It expanded and touched every corner that I could see, which is enormous in itself, but then to think how far it goes beyond that. You can’t help but shake your head in sheer amazement and get all existential.

 

 

We camped nearby, then drove through the entire park, witnessing the canyon at every angle possible and spent one more night before heading down to Flagstaff.

Flagstaff was somewhere we drove through last time, but snow was hitting and we chose to journey out of the mountains and down a few thousand feet. This time, however, we stayed for a couple nights. My good friend Lex who I met while she was studying abroad at UOW lives their with her boyfriend Cam. Lex and I had poetry together, truly laughable, and I’ll never forget the first day of class when I sat next to her, in her sunflower-yellow t-shirt, and she asked me my name, in her thick US accent, and we instantly had a topic to bond over. From then we hung out numerous times, me taking her all around the south coast, and now it was her turn to host me back in the mother country.

Flagstaff is funky and crunchy, as lots of university towns tend to be. Plenty of places to eat, drink and shop— dangerous territory for two reckless souls on a budget.

After Flagstaff we came back down through Sedona, we never actually stopped last time, just drove through and made a mental note to see it properly when we returned. The road between Flagstaff and Sedona is incredible, more tight turns hugging alongside red rock cliffs, little pines pinned to every escarpment.

 

Sedona and Jerome were the two places in Arizona we knew we wanted to see again. Just funky little towns nestled into beautiful scenery (I need to remember to take photos of actual townships, I never do). We spent one night in Sedona, and the following day walking around Jerome. There was a little boutique winery overlooking the open mountains that we did some tastings at before moving into the national forest to sleep for a few nights.

From there we pretty much hustled down the mountains and across back West into California. This time, we took the southern-most route, right along the border of Mexico and headed for San Diego. Once again, California blew us away. The landscape is so varied, and while we had seen some parts of the desert, we hadn’t seen the sandy desert. Unlike the dry, cracked ground with hobbles of rocks, the highway was flanked with soft sand dunes, billowing in streams across the road before me.

This particular stretch of driving had been a long one. Normally we don’t do much more than three hours at a time, but this drive all up was around six and half hours in one day. Long stints in a vehicle do something to a person, especially when the road is endlessly straight and you’re driving on cruise control (so basically doing nothing)— it takes all you can to stay focused and alert, which is an energy suck in itself.

San Diego was way nicer than I expected— not that I envisioned trash, I just had no previous expectations of the place. While we didn’t really venture into the CBD, we spent two or three nights around the Marina and explored some of the shops and dining in that area. Something about sail boats parked in the water makes me happy, they add a bit of character to the sea and you know that each one has an incredibly unique story attached to it. Boats see more than we do.

Since then it was more looping over old tracks to kill time before Coachella. We camped back outside Joshua Tree National Park in the week leading up to the festival. Then it was upon us.

Camping at the festival was funny for us, because that’s our every day lifestyle anyway. It was weird being surrounded by hundreds of other people camping, yet boasting a different type of set up. We had all the normal, every day tools we need, so our meals and lifestyle was a little more casual and advanced than theirs. Yet, most people brought things we didn’t really think to bring— festival necessities we had overlooked.

Driving into the festival was overwhelming and completely lax at the same time. Like all other vehicles entering the campground, we had to step out and let the workers have a look inside our car. First, they gave us the go-ahead. Then, I noticed two security guards running towards us, shaking their heads and telling us to hold on. “The boss saw the ambulance and radioed us over to check it out.” Fair enough, we have nearly 50 different compartments in that van, it’s worth getting suspicious over. But the security guards really didn’t do any digging. They opened the doors, saw hoards of canned goods, fruit, spices, food, toiletries, and clothes all crammed in the cupboards and realised, ok these people live in this thing and they looked no further. They gave us the thumbs up to move forward. Then an even bigger man came trudge-jogging towards the ambulance, “Hold on,” he said, “they want the big boss to take another look.” They never ended up coming closer, just a bit more talking on their walkie-talkies before deciding they couldn’t be bothered, and waved us through to camping.

The ambulance had quite a stage in the campground. The sites were sectioned off and organised into streets, clad with road signs and everything. We were parked on a corner, so Rambo stood out even more than usual. Constant dialogues in the background, “is than an ambulance?”, “Check out that old ambulance”, “That is so cool” and my personal favourite, “Is than an ambulance? A wambulance? A coach-ambulance?” Yes sirs and madams, she is an old ambulance, but now she is our home.

I guess I’ll give a brief low-down on Coachella because it’s one of those things that is publicised beyond belief and sometimes you want to hear from someone who went, who’s not an influencer. The set up was incredible. Aside from being super organised, there were just mountains of enormous art, making the entire grounds feel like an adult playground. When the sun went down, fluorescent lights shifted all around, painting the ground a deeper shade of green and the palm trees magenta and violet. It was a sight to behold. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a music festival surrounded by such natural beauty. Often Abel and I would stop in our tracks and look beyond the festival walls, at the mountains towering around us, with strings of dainty palms sticking up from the ground. Not to mention the full moon was in session, adding a whole other luminescent layer.

Besides the beautiful scenery and stunning acts (Tame Impala, Fisher, Maggie Rogers, Weezer), the vibe was very different to an Aussie festival. Maybe that’s just because this is Coachella aka influencer olympics and literally every second person was posing for the gram and not really present. We did make friends with our neighbours and some other guys in the festival, but most people weren’t that friendly and stuck to their own little groups. Fair enough, most people go to festivals with their friends, not to make friends. But I’ve found from all the festivals back home, that Aussies just want everyone else to have a bloody good time. Sure, there’s dickheads and loads of inconsiderate people back home too, but there’s something about a group of Australians coming together for a party. Everyone just lights each other on fire. Often the person you accidentally whack across the head while dancing becomes your best friend for the next few hours. We didn’t experience much of this at Coachella. Plus, like nearly no one was drinking alcohol. Which is fine, and I’m pretty sure there designated over 21 areas anyway and the rest of the festival is clean for those underage, but back home, every single person has at least one or two vodka red bulls in their hands and the drink lines are insane. Just different.

Since Coachella we have been recovering, back along the California coast, reliving Morro Bay, Big Sur and every bit of beauty it has to offer. As I finish this, we are back at my aunt Lauren’s and uncle Kurt’s (they are way too good to us) for a pit stop before we head north through the rest of California and on into Oregon then Washington.

This state has been quite the ride, beauty hidden in every corner, but we’re ready to get north and see what else this land has in store for us.

’Til then.

A

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