Eat, Sleep, Ramble, Repeat: 30 Days on the Road in the Western U.S.

In North America by Daniel S. JohnsonLeave a Comment

In February 2016, I sat down to check my email and learned something exciting. GRiZ, an eminently entertaining “future funk” DJ and live saxophonist, had announced a show on October 1st at the Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver — the venue which had quickly summited my “must visit” list when I’d learned of its existence the past year.

Red Rocks Amphitheatre

Need I say more?

Something felt very right about that show. I decided that for once, I’d forego my standard logical assessment of the situation and trust my intuition. Thus, 90 seconds later, I received a confirmation email for the pre-sale ticket I’d just purchased.

All I had left to do was figure out how I’d get to Colorado in October. I looked up flight costs: $150 round trip from San Francisco. Not terrible, but a bit hard to justify for a one-night $50 show.

And then…I started thinking about all the national parks I hadn’t visited in the western U.S. And the conveniently central location of Colorado. And the next thing I knew 20 minutes had passed and my browser window looked something like this:

Western U.S. road trip mapping

I would have gotten even more granular, but Google Maps cut me off.

I set forth on that route on September 14th, 2016, and completed the loop back in the Bay Area on the 14th of October.

The intervening 30 days was an assumption-challenging self-discovery quest wrapped in outrageous natural beauty. With a hot coating of concentrated humility. And a garnish of Trader Joes ready-meals.

It was at this point in writing the post that the phrase “choose-your-own-adventure” popped into my head and I decided some experimental blogging would be neat. Stay with me — you have three options for digesting the fruits of my 4,500 miles behind the wheel…

Highway A: Watch the montage video below. For the lovers and fighters and ones who got an “F” on the Myers Briggs assessment. Appreciation for 90’s alt rock a plus.

Highway B: Purvey my written thoughts below the video. For the learned swashbucklers and armchair vagabonds.

Highway C: Watch the video and read the post. For the all-arounders. Really just a combination of Highway A and B, which I realize doesn’t make sense in the context of three separate paths. I didn’t say it was a perfect metaphor.

Highway A: The Video

Highway B: The Words

Let me start off with a quick clarification: I really appreciate my home state’s brand of nature. I think my fellow Californians and I got dealt a great hand with the sheer number of outdoor opportunities we have here — so much so, in fact, that it makes staying within our cozy borders all too easy to justify. Why bother with an interstate drive when we have the likes of Muir Woods, Yosemite, and Joshua Tree covering us from north to south?

Here are a couple reasons:

  1. Other Western states can more than compete with California in the nature department, be it in terms of wildlife (Wyoming), mountains (Colorado), canyons (Arizona), night skies (New Mexico), or crazy desert formations (Utah).
  2. The biodiversity of other Americans that you encounter in out-of-state parks is a worthy experience in and of itself.

I knew vaguely that the western U.S. featured impressive ecological and geological diversity, but seeing it firsthand was something else entirely. In one seven-day period, I explored a valley swarming with elk and bison, hiked through snow-capped mountains, and drove through a lightning storm in the desert. All within a one to two day drive of California.

By the end of the month, an energy inside me which had flatlined from lack of stimulation — my American pride — had actually regained a faint pulse.

And when it came to people, interactions with strangers produced memories that today are, in several cases, more vivid than the actual scenery I was there to visit.

Take my stay in Moab, Utah, which I used as my base for Arches National Park — I did a supply run at a grocery store in town and was reorganizing my car in the parking lot when I heard a gruff voice address me from a nearby picnic table.

“Been doing some camping?”

It belonged to a bearded middle-aged man with a weathered but friendly face. Next to him sat a dusty military-surplus camping backpack and a border collie.

I replied, “Yeah, I just came from Denver last night. Would you happen to know any free camping spots around here?”

“Oh sure, there’s some great ones down near the Colorado River. You just take a right at the McDonalds downtown and…”

Thus began one of the most enjoyable conversations of the trip. I sat down with my notebook to transcribe the man’s intel and he introduced himself.

“I’m Polar Bear.” He pointed to the border collie lounging placidly at his feet. “That’s Chunky.”

A self-proclaimed Deadhead from Montana, Polar Bear had spent the better part of two decades hitchhiking across America, picking up flooring work as needed and moving solely in accordance with boredom and the weather. When I told him my next stop was New Mexico, his eyes lit up.

“Oh, you gotta check out Taos, man. Real spiritual place. They have some killer hot springs which only the locals know about, and these huge Earthships that people live in made out of all recycled materials…you want some of this gin and tonic by the way? No? Anyway, I realllly recommend Taos, if you go there you gotta stop by this cafe called The Coffee Spot on the north side of town. I’m friends with the owner, great dude, his name’s…uhhh…Eric! Eric Tate. Tell him breakfast is on Polar Bear! I redid the tile floors there so it’s cool, I have a tab going.”

I was sold. Two days later I arrived in Taos, New Mexico (diverting from my original destination of the Chaco Culture Historical Park on the other side of the state). After some amicable chats with the staff and patrons of The Coffee Spot — Eric Tate unfortunately wasn’t in that day, but I told the barista to pass on Polar Bear’s regards — I ventured out in the evening to find the foretold hot springs. A half hour of pitch dark country road meandering later, I rolled up to what looked like a trailhead leading down to the river. Polar Bear’s directions had been spot-on.

Seconds later, a truck pulled up containing a charming couple from Albuquerque — Jaribo and Autumn — who confirmed I was in the right place. I grabbed my towel and followed them down the short trail to the natural pools. For the next two hours, we had the springs to ourselves as we shared travel stories and looked up at one of the most brilliant night skies I’ve ever seen.

View of the Rio Grande, just outside Taos, NM.

View of the Rio Grande, just outside Taos, NM.

Similarly spontaneous interactions became a theme throughout my trip. Of these varied encounters, 95% were positive in nature, and 100% revealed just how specific and isolated the bubbles are that each of us grow up in — and how inapplicable many of our assumptions are about ourselves and others once we’re removed from what’s familiar.

More than anything right now, I feel lucky — lucky for having checked my email that morning back in February. If I hadn’t gotten that concert notification, which set in motion this whole chain of events, I would almost certainly still be telling myself that all those amazing places just outside California’s backyard “aren’t going anywhere,” and that “the moment will be better once X or Y is true.”

If you’ve ever wanted to visit one of those places you saw on the Travel Channel or r/EarthPorn, or that you’ve marveled at since you were a kid, “waiting for the right moment” is one of the surest ways to guarantee it’ll never happen. The moment will never be right. At best, it will be slightly less inconvenient than other moments. My advice: ponder where you’d want to go, choose the FIRST place that comes to mind (no matter how improbable it may initially seem), and take 30 minutes to figure out how you’d get there — either by using Google Maps like I did, or, for more complicated adventures, by searching how other people have done it.

Finally — and this is the most important step — set a travel deadline TODAY.

The parks and cities and Lord of the Rings set locations may always be here, but we won’t be.

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