We left Colorado on a weekday. 490 miles through back roads and mountains, and we arrive in Bryce Canyon 8 hours later. The spring day is good to us. It knows we’re coming to see the endless rows of hoodoos in this giant natural amphitheater on the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. I skip around, jaw to the floor, totally and unapologetically screaming the praises of the most attractive place I’ve witnessed.
It’s not until later on, after we’ve made camp and are cooking instant mashed potatoes over a single serve camp stove, that I remember the day was overcast and snowing. My hours walking though the masterful columns of sedimentary rock were plagued with awe and silence. While they usually do, the elements had no undesirable effect on me.
The next morning we awake in a snow globe. The midnight clouds dumped a fine layer of crystal white snow on our frozen tent. We shake off the melting flurries and pack up. The drive from Bryce to Zion is one quiet, twisting road after another. The flurries continue, and I begin to count the number of snow days I’d had this year, the tally shocking for my Florida beach baby bones.
When we arrive in Zion – I’m not going to romanticize this for you – it is a mad house. There are endless rows of people, generators and traffic. If you go to Zion, please for your sanity, don’t go during peak season. However, if your only option is to go April through October, do it, this landscape shouldn’t be missed.
Zion’s beauty is holy. It is spiritual. It is important. Because the Narrows is closed, we opt for one of the parks more rigorous hikes, Angels Landing, a 2.4-mile trail originally cut in 1926. We follow a trail along the Virgin River and dive into the assent of Walters Wiggles, a series of 21 switchbacks. The air is thick and sticky and the mornings snow is a far off distant dream. We arrive at Scouts Lookout sweat stained. This is it, our final half mile until we reach the summit. I can taste it. I want it so bad. We watch a couple with a baby turn around, as well as a few parents nervously eyeballing their rowdy young boys. We are 5,000 feet above sea level, our lifeline is a single chain hold on the slippery rock of a narrow winding path with drop-offs on both sides. With over five deaths reported, this trail is not for the faint. Fear dissipates on the summit, replaced by a tranquil sea of mighty stillness and exultation. We stay a while and enjoy the delicious nectar of our steadfast work, hiking down in the late evening glow.
We spend a few days in Zion, riding our bikes into town for cheap, delicious Mexican food. We spend way too much money on delightfully refreshing coffee shop cold brew, and take long walks and drives through the parts of the park that are open to vehicles. I shower once. When we say our farewell to Zion, we note that we’ve been on the road for nine days.
Our last stop on the way to San Diego is Joshua Tree. The landscape is that of my childhood dreams. When I was young, before I’d ever seen a photograph of the desert, I had already pictured it. I imagined endless miles of naked valleys and distant mountain ranges. I felt the dry heat. I tasted the warm air. Law enforcement stops us outside of Joshua Tree. A train was robbed three hours before. The thieves had taken off by foot with stolen TVs, and police were checking if we had seen anyone suspicious. I am living out my very own 21st century western.
We make it to Joshua Tree in the late evening. It’s raining again. Matt and I spent four months on the road in 2014 circumnavigating the country and were only rained on twice. Ten days into this trip and we’ve tallied 7 days of drizzle. Sometimes that’s just how it goes. I take in as much of the 700,000 acres of National Park as I can. This area is my favorite spot of all spots in the United States. I have been back many times since I was first moved by its wonder in 2014.
After free climbing boulders, watching a lightening storm from the tallest peak we could find, and photographing my preferred plant, the Teddy Bear Cholla, we kiss the ground and drive our last 150 miles to San Diego in silence, in reverence.
The most beautiful places on Earth are behind us and in front of us. Each speaking to us intimately, in a language we only pretend to understand. These are the things I learn along the way. They come to me in the moments, and minutes, and months, and moons that follow my days on the road. This is the American dream. And you can have it too, and you should have it. Because it’s important, and you deserve to taste its deliciousness with your own tongue.
Tips we live by to make our road trips successful
1. Don’t pay for water. We are fortunate to live in a country where water is everywhere and free. When filling our tank at a gas station we bring in our canteens and refill on water.
2. Download podcasts. I am particularly found of Radiolab, Dear Sugar and Reverberation Radio.
3. Get gas whenever you have the opportunity. There are many miles, especially in the southwest, where you could go for what feels like days without seeing a soul, let alone a pump station.
4. Pack light. Bring only the necessities – water, food, coffee, cameras/film, stove, first aid, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, headlamp, knife, axe, duck tape, extra batters, practical clothes (layers/raincoat), sturdy hiking boots and books… lots of books.
5. Map your route. If you see something you just can’t miss, defer from the route but do your research first.
6. Get naked in nature. Because why not? And also, who cares.
7. Respect the land your inhabiting. When you’re camping, TAKE YOUR TRASH. Don’t leave it. Pack in, pack out. Stay on trails. Keep in mind that everything around you is alive and honor its presence by respecting it.
8. Sleep outside, at least once. Try it. See if you like it.
Words by: Kristen Blanton
Photo Credit: Kristen Blanton & Matt Jozwiak of Hello America