Driving across America is one of those things which you have to try at least once in your lifetime. Our trip started in Orlando. After three months’ work in Disney World, five of us were sick of Mickey Mouse and decided to go west.
After we had decided where to go, the trip budget became the biggest worry. To cut the cost we rented just one car (but big to fit the five of us, our luggage and all the shopping bought at Disney). To cut costs even more we decided not to stay in motels but to camp instead. We bought two of the cheapest tents, and five thin foam mattresses (even cheaper) in Wal-Mart.
After fitting all this stuff in the car (not an easy task) we finally started our journey on a beautiful September morning. The first day we just drove on and on and on all the way to Louisiana. It took us the most part of this first day to find the best configuration of people, luggage and food in the car. We also found what the best sitting position is if you spend 10 hours in a car. They were all very useful discoveries for the future. The first evening we also learned how to open our too small, too thin tents and how uncomfortable the foam mattresses were. On the other hand, we also discovered that it doesn’t really matter if you are tired.
On the next day, after a short drive, we reached New Orleans; The Big Easy. It wasn’t really on my list of priorities, but I was positively surprised. The city centre is very compact and the best way to explore it is simply by walking. The French Quarter still has a strong European feel: French street names, tables on the sidewalks opposite the cafés, horse carriages for tourists, and generally the atmosphere. But to me, the best thing was the architecture. New Orleans is full of one- or two-storey buildings with beautiful wrought-iron balconies. They look great, even if some of them are not really in the best condition. In fact the shabby ones look even better. And they look absolutely fantastic on a rainy day. We had to hide under one of these balconies, from the afternoon thunderstorm. It was one of those small and quiet side streets and we had an amazing time watching the rain.
Unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to enjoy the legendary nightlife of New Orleans as the west coast was still far away. We left the city early in the evening and took the Interstate 10. During the entire trip we never planned where to stop for the night, we just looked out for campsite signs. That evening we couldn’t find any. So, in an act of desperation we stopped by the sheriff’s office to ask for directions to the nearest campground. Folks over there were really friendly, though they didn’t know any campground around (by that time, looking at their faces, we knew that camping wasn’t very popular in Louisiana), so they recommended us simply to stop on the rest area alongside a highway. At the same time they also told us it is illegal to camp overnight on the rest areas in Louisiana. Hmm. Fortunately one of the deputies knew that it is legal in Texas. So we kept on driving west. Finally, around midnight or so, we reached the first rest area in the Lonely Star State, Texas.
Texas is big, very big. The first thing that struck us, in the morning, was the large amount of pickup trucks on the roads; it seemed like everyone, even mothers driving kids to schools, drove trucks. Then there are the roads; enormous, multi-lane rivers of concrete, especially around the big cities. But it is just part of the Texas experience. An even bigger part of the Texas experience is the landscape. When you move from east to west you notice a gradual change from the lush, green, flat landscape of marshes and forests, through hilly and green pastures to prairies and, finally, deserts. It took us more than a day to cross Texas, without even much stopping. We started in the early (kind of) morning from this first rest area in Texas and by night we were somewhere in the middle of the desert in western Texas. There we spent the night at a very remote and small campground. It was an amazing experience - as the evening was warm we didn’t use our “fantastic” tents - instead we decided to sleep under the open sky. I have never seen so many stars before, thanks to the remoteness of the campground (no light pollution) and dry desert air.
The next day we stopped in El Paso, a relatively big city isolated from the rest of Texas by hundreds of miles of deserts and mountains. We would never nornally have stopped there but we wanted to visit Mexico, and El Paso is a good place for a short visit. Its bigger counterpart is Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican side of the border. We left the car on the US side and walked across the border bridge. But I have to admit it was a bit of a depressing experience - the border was heavily guarded, especially because it was just two days after September 11, and beyond the border everyone tried to sell us absolutely anything, mostly rubbish, at ridiculous prices. So we came back after just two hours. Probably further from the border things get better but we couldn’t drive our rented car into Mexico. Anyway, it is better to avoid Ciudad Juarez as it is now a battlefield between the Mexican police and the drug cartels.
After El Paso we entered New Mexico, another state alongside our route, and the following day was another full of desert driving. We left New Mexico and entered Arizona. It is a truly remote corner of the US - a desert crossed by the highway. Only few small towns exist between Las Cruces (New Mexico state capital just 40 miles from El Paso) and Tucson in Arizona. Some might say it must be such a boring, long drive. No way!! The landscape around is absolutely jaw-dropping; it is a geology lesson without the need for books or maps. There is also this almost transcendental feel of going west towards the setting sun. A bit annoying from the driver’s perspective, but just a minor problem.
After Phoenix we turned north towards the Grand Canyon. Due to the high elevation, you drive through dense pine forest and are not aware of the Canyon until the very last moment when the road ends, and there it is. Massive, enormous, colourful – simply amazing. Nothing prepares you for its sheer size. You could see it many times on TV, you can know all its statistics, and you might even say you are completely not interested in nature, it simply doesn’t matter – once you stand on its edge and look down, you can’t help but be impressed. And you will remember this moment for many, many years.
After a cold night (due to the elevation) spent at a campground not far from the Canyon we decided to hike down. Our choice was the popular Bright Angel Trail. The whole thing is a bit weird - usually when you go to any mountain, first you climb and then you go down, but obviously with the Grand Canyon it is the opposite. You start the day with an easy hike down, in a nice morning breezy air, and the real fun starts when you have to claim back. By the time we decided to go back, sometime in the afternoon, the temperature had reached 35°C or even more. Especially at low elevations (the bottom of the Canyon is a good 1,500m below the rim), the temperature is much higher than closer to the rim. Even though we didn’t go all the way down, we still had good 1,000m to climb back up and it took us quite a few hours to reach the top. We were exhausted but satisfied; hiking is the best way to experience the Canyon. Views from the rim are amazing but you have to share them with millions of people. Going down, you leave 90 percent of the people behind you.
Time. Time was our limitation. The same evening, after quick showers, we left Grand Canyon heading west of course. It took us four-and-a-half hours of desert driving to get to our next destination: Las Vegas. It was a great drive, the highway was almost empty and the sky was full of stars. Some good hours before Las Vegas we spotted some brightness on the horizon. It got bigger and shinier with every minute. At the beginning we didn’t know what it was - some small town, factory, or maybe a prison? Then we figured it out, they were the lights of Las Vegas. It is astonishing how far away you can see them across the dark and empty Arizona and Nevada deserts, and despite Vegas itself being hidden behind the mountains.
For the proper “Wow” effect, you have to arrive at Vegas by night. Believe me, I’ve seen it in the daylight and it doesn’t look so good, but come darkness, there is nothing like Vegas. It is one great show of neon, dancing fountains, fireworks, big cars and fast cars. Pure fun. We arrived at Sin City at about 11pm and stayed for just a few hours, enough to loose a few bucks in a casino.
We hunted for hours for a campground. We were so tired that we didn’t even realize how dodgy the campground we finally spotted at around 3am was - it had been a very, very long day. We hoped to wake up late to recover, but a strong desert sun made our tents hot as ovens. By 8am we were almost suffocating, and wide awake. We also realized that the campground was right next to the fence of the Air Force base, part of the famous area 51 (remember the X-Files?)
Another day, another desert. But this time it was the famous Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on earth. The record temperature was recorded in 1913, at a brain melting 134°F (56.6°C). By comparison we experienced quite a chilly day, just a miserable 47°C. But it is enough to make your eyes dry after you leave the car for more than a few minutes; you really feel like you’re drying out. But it is not all about meteorological records - Death Valley National Park is full of unique scenery - sand dunes, colourful rock formations and salt pans. And all this 85m below sea level. I highly recommend it!
After leaving Death Valley NP we drove west again towards Sierra Nevada, really an impressive mountain range, especially when you approach it from the east. Mountains rise to 4,000m above sea level in very short distance. It is, basically, a massive wall rising straight from flat desert. Very few mountain passes (usually closed in winter for heavy snowfall) cross them. We chose Tioga Pass (3,031m) which leads to the famous Yosemite. Before reaching the pass we passed lovely small towns like Lone Pine, Bishop, Independence or Big Pine. They are like oases surrounded by barren land. They are all full of friendly folks, and life there goes slowly, all of which makes these places the antithesis of stereotypical Californian towns. They are great places to stop, whether just for meal or for whole week.
We spent the night just before reaching the pass. At elevation around 2,000m it was another short and uncomfortable sleep - this time the reason was not the heat, like last night, but the very low temperature - our rubbish tents were completely inadequate for those conditions; I wore all of my clothes and it still didn’t help. So another day started early (everyone wanted to warm up a bit inside the car). Next time I go camping I’ll take a proper tent and sleeping bag.
We crossed Tioga Pass and entered Yosemite National Park. In my opinion it is the best national park in the US. The famous Yosemite Valley (the heart of the park) is more impressive than the Grand Canyon (at least for me). True, it is a busy place, and best to avoid it in mid summer, but the scenery is awesome. Walls of granite rocks, some of them more than a kilometre high, tower above the valley floor. Among them is the magnificent El Capitan, the ultimate place for rock climbers. Even if you don’t climb you feel how small we are compared with nature. You can spot small figures of climbers high in the wall; these people are completely crazy. Yosemite is also famous for its waterfalls which unfortunately almost disappear at the end of a dry summer (we were there in mid September), so the best time to see them is during the spring when snows are melting in higher elevations.
It was pity we couldn’t spend more time in the park (just a few short hours), but time was running out. We still had to reach the Pacific and then drive all the way back to Florida. So we left Yosemite in the afternoon and just before dusk we were approaching San Francisco. It was my first visit there, and the most memorable one. Merely crossing the Bay Bridge is a great experience. From this 14km double-deck suspension bridge, the view of downtown is truly amazing. Just before night we also crossed the famous Golden Gate Bridge. And that was it; finally my dream of seeing Golden Gate was fulfilled. Maybe it is not the highest or longest bridge, maybe views are better somewhere else, but for me this is the place I always wanted to see. It was the real climax of our trip.
We spent the following night in Muir Woods National Monument. We knew there was a free campground, but before we got there, we got lost in a network of small, narrow, curvy country roads. But on the plus side, this meant we got to explore Marin County. It is a great place, houses are hidden in dense forest, little towns are full of cool cafes, and all this in commuting distance from San Francisco. The only problem is the high prices of everything (it is, after all, one of the richest and most expensive counties in America).
After spending one day in San Francisco (itself a destination worth a separate story) we finally started going back east.
We had five days until our flight from Miami, and 5,022km to drive, and we actually did it quite easily. Driving 10-11 hours a day, we still had some spare time to say goodbye to friends in Orlando and to get refunds for our tents (Wal-Mart isn’t that bad after all!).
It was the best trip of my life so far, and I’m not exaggerating. It was tiring, it was crazy but it was great. So if you have two weeks to spare, if you are willing to sleep in the middle of nowhere, if you don’t mind sleeping in the cheapest tents in freezing conditions or in the desert heat, if you survive on the cheapest food from the cheapest supermarkets and if your bum can take 12 hours a day seating in the car, this is trip for you. But the most important thing, you need bunch of great friends which won’t drive you mad if you stay together 24 hours a day in a small space for two weeks. Fortunately we made a great team.
The essential thing to take is good road atlas. I recommend the atlas published by Rand McNally covering all 50 states. To read I recommend Moon guides as usual. Particularly the Moon Guide to New Orleans, Moon Guide to Texas, Moon Guide to New Mexico, Moon Guide to Arizona and Moon Guide to Northern California. If you need more details just about the national parks, Moon also publishes separate guides to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.
Author: Gregor Swiderek
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