San Diego, CA –> Boston, MA
My original flight was cancelled so I got to rebook on an earlier flight with my favorite route: layover in Austin, TX! So, of course, I did what one must do there and got Tacodeli and Amy’s ice cream. What joy.
Ben picked me up at the airport and… that’s it! The end of a truly wonderful trip. So many people have been saying “wow, what a once-in-a-lifetime trip” – to which my response is “hopefully not.” Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, apart from the definitive fact that I do indeed get hangry, it’s that there’s still so much more to see.
San Diego, CA
Spent the morning catching up on internet things, made my annual pilgrimage to the burrito place next to my parents’ house for lunch, got the car washed, and bought some anti-scratch stuff for it.
Got back home and marveled at the magic of Scratch X 2.0: I’d run into a lot of tree branches in my dirt road excursions, so the car looked like the entire passenger side had been thoroughly keyed. But the stuff magically took it off! SHEW!
More Mexican food for dinner (where the server asked if I was 18… -__-), finished up packing, and a last sleep on this adventure.
Big Sur, CA –> San Diego, CA
It’s the end of an era! Today’s plan was just the long drive back to San Diego. Turns out it was quite cloudy at the top of the mountain, so I’m glad I hadn’t gone all the way to the ridge because I doubt there would have been a view. After getting down the mountain, which had spectacular views of the cloud line, I pulled into the nearest picnic area to have my last breakfast feast:
So the crappy thing about Highway 1 is that every single developed area has a day-use fee of like $10. A ranger guy came into the picnic area right as I was packing up, and I saw him ask the other couple hanging out there to pay the fee. I avoided eye contact as best as I could, but he came up and asked me if I was just about to leave. I said yes, and he said that was fine so I quickly wrapped up my packing up and headed out fast fast. I really needed to use the restroom, though, so I stopped at the next pull-out, parked on the side of the road, walked into the day-use fee to use their restroom, and got back on the road.
Highway 1 is really spectacular. The road goes right along the coast, with lots of windy turns and amazing views of the ocean. I’d say between Monterey and San Simeon was the most beautiful part, but the whole thing was pretty fun. I started hitting LA traffic a little after that, and then it was just coasting all the way back to San Diego. Definitely the shittiest day of driving on this entire trip, if only because I had to focus for so long – my other very long days of driving tended to be on long, flat highways without too much traffic. Anyway, a bittersweet ending – even if it’s sad that this is over, at least I was super glad to make it home. :)
Mountain View, CA –> Big Sur, CA
I met up with Shawn and Santi (and Carolyn in tow) for brunch. Apparently brunch options in the South Bay are depressingly few: we had what I would consider a solidly mediocre brunch, but which was on a list of the top N brunches in the South Bay. Womp. After that, I hung out with Carolyn for a bit in her hometown, including a jaunt down to her high school to throw for a bit. Then it was off to start the final leg of my trip: Highway 1 all the way down to San Diego. I was hoping to get to a camp after stopping to see McWay falls, hopefully around sunsent, but I kept stopping at almost every pull out because the road and view were so spectacular.
But I did make it to McWay falls right around dusk, which was actually not the most spectacular view on the whole thing imo. My plan for dinner (Big Sur Bakery, recommended by Jeremy) was closed for a private event, so I made quick ramen (delicious) and fancy add-water one-bowl Indian food (not delicious) for dinner at the falls picnic area.
Then, it was another hour or so drive to the campsite Felix had recommended, up in the Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur. The drive up the mountain was pretty treacherous, windy roads with pretty intense fog at times. But when I got above the clouds and saw the stars – wow. I made it about halfway down the dirt road that goes to the ridge where I’d planned to camp, but was tired of the slow going and didn’t want to go too far for tomorrow morning, so just pulled into the next spot I found. Caught up on some writing, at first sitting outside but then I kept hearing noises (bears?? mountain lions?!) so I retreated to my house mansion.
Oakland, CA –> Mountain View, CA
Jeremy and I made delicious waffles before I headed out to meet Dr. Nathaniel for lunch and catch up. So glad our trips to SF intersected by a day, otherwise I would have been so sad.
Next, I drove to Mountain View to the Duvallet outpost where both my brothers and my sister-in-law live. Caught up a bit, and then went to get dinner with them, where Carolyn joined us. Yet another wonderful, unexpected meetup in the Bay. Ended the day with beers in Palo Alto, and a glorious sleep on a BED.
Today was a pretty chill hanging out day. Jeremy and I drove all over the bay, first with an overlook of East Bay, then brunch at a delicious Jewish deli (zomg corned beef hash), seeing some bison in the SF park (unimpressed, lol), stopping by to see to ocean (officially made it to the other coast!!), and joined him for an appointment.
Got back home for a Luce Scholar dinner - Jeremy lives with Eryn, another former Lucer, and Gennie lives in SF. Always so fun to catch up with these cool cats. Except that almost every time we do we fail at getting a photo. D’oh!
Susanville, CA –> Oakland, CA
Woke up early to say goodbye to Janyne, Andrew, and the gaggle of other visitors before they headed off to work (or their respective next destinations) and went to a coffee shop in nearby Janesville to get some internet and work done. Then, it was off to San Francisco.
I felt pretty bummed most of the day – after a delicious breakfast burrito I confirmed it wasn’t just a sleepy hangover bummed-ness but the realization that it’s the start of the end. It’s a similar sort of feeling as the end of the Luce year: wistful about the end of an era of adventuring, seeing all the other potential types of adventures that it could have been but wasn’t, and recognizing that while I could continue doing this for a while, I’m actively choosing a different sort of life. It’s not quite regret, it’s just the acute realization that there are so many potential life paths and we only get to walk one.
Anyway. First stop in SF: Oakland, to see Jeremy and some other former Luce Scholars! This is the one sleeping spot I forgot to take a photo of, so for penance here’s a Google street view photo of the house (complete with porta-potty, womp womp):
Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, NV –> Susanville, CA
One more delicious dinner (enchilada casserole with fried egg on top omg), some fun with paper bags, and a handful of $1 Keystone Lights later, we headed out the next morning to get back to Susanville. A large part of the drive was on dirt roads, including some pretty gnarly switchbacks down a wet mountainside dirt road – thank god for X mode!
Got the grand tour of Janyne and Andrew’s new house, took a much-needed shower, and then headed to Inspiration Point for the sunset.
Got to sleep in a bed (!!), and woke up the next day to go join Janyne on some field work. The mosquitoes were swarming and counting plants gets boring after about forty minutes, so it wasn’t the most fun I’ve had all trip but it was really good to get a better sense of what field work in that domain is like.
That night, there were a bunch of people randomly coming through Susanville who Janyne and Andrew had invited over: one of their friends who’s a musician, another former Susanville friend also on a road trip just driving through, and a group of four seasonal workers sort of working with Andrew at the BLM. It was fun eating delicious dinner and hanging out meeting new people and exchanging stories. We had a bonfire in the backyard and her friend, Bart Budwig, played us some of his songs. Made me pretty wistful about the end of my trip, and the end of these sorts of experiences (and also how few of them there actually were on this trip…) I think also there’s some wistfulness about how short this trip was – if it had been longer, I think I would have sought out these sorts of social interactions with strangers much more. It’s a different kind of trip though.
Sheldon Wildlife Refuge
Had a lovely Memorial Day weekend in the wilderness with Janyne and her friends. On Saturday we hiked around pretty randomly, walking to places we thought looked cool – the right way to use public lands! It’s a lot more fun to do this when you’re with a group of people rather than alone. I’ll have to let the BLM officer from Kanab know that “there are no trails go anywhere you want” is a better suggestion for groups of travelers :P
One of Janyne’s friends had brought a wall tent, which is basically the sort of heavy-duty canvas tent that hunters use – with walls. This one is extra awesome because it also has a wood stove in it that heats the whole thing. The weather wasn’t great this weekend, so it was awesome to have the wall tent to retreat to when it rained and at night. That said, we did a really good job overall of missing the rain. Like we got back from our hike on the first day right as it started pouring. Score!
A few other Susanville friends arrived Saturday night, just in time for delicious curry dinner. After a lazy (and delicious) breakfast – as they only know how to do – we headed to the eastern part of the park to do a hike and find some hot springs. The hike ended up being through a pretty cool canyon, sometimes with a marked trail but also with a lot of scrambling. Very fun, plus it ended with lunch in the mountain lion’s cave ooooo.
Then we went to check out some nearby hot springs, which was basically a really hot river that’s got small dams throughout which create pools. Very relaxing, very fun. This is the sort of hidden spots I’m glad I was with people in the know to find, but I wonder how I’d get to know about them if I were traveling alone (and for longer).
Boise, ID –> Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, NV
Woke up to wonderful 60 degree weather, had breakfast outside without even being cold, and then headed into Boise to run some errands.
Ended up leaving Boise/Nampa around 3:30 pm, after which it was just a long drive to Catnip Reservoir where I’m meeting Janyne and her crew (which, to my surprise, went through Oregon!).
Got here just in time for an amazing sunset, and now I’m killing time waiting for them to get here so I can make them tacos for dinner. Friendship!
Grand Teton National Park, WY –> Boise, ID
I let myself sleep in a bit, made breakfast (which I hadn’t done in a while because it’s been cold or bison-y!), and then headed out. The plan is to meet Janyne and her friends in Nevada on Friday night, so I was hoping to get at least half of the way there today. I drove through Grand Tetons National Park and was pretty bummed that it was foggy. Still, though, the mountains look amazing. I wanna get all up in those Tetons – I wasn’t 100% convinced that this area is somewhere I need to come back to, but now that I’ve added hiking through this park to the list it definitely makes the bucket list.
After going through Jackson Hole and going over a couple of mountain passes, I arrived at a town just inside the Idaho border and saw a sign for a brewery. screech I turned into the place, and got some six packs of Grand Teton brewing beer. I also grabbed lunch, because I was starting to get quite hungry but really couldn’t bring myself to have yet another avocado or dried sausage sandwich. After that, made it to the BLM office in Idaho Falls just before closing only to get the same not-super-useful maps I’d found online. I decided to skip Twin Falls and just go straight to Boise, since I’d get to Shoshone Falls too late to visit but I still had a good three to fours hours of driving in me.
Idaho is another state I don’t think about often (though I do think about it more often than Nebraska or Arkansas, thanks to potatoes). It’s also not a state I’m particularly struck by, even though some of my friends told me I’d be surprised by it. Idaho Falls was a super weird town, with mostly farm equipment and truck dealerships in a sprawly suburban area. In general, it’s the most farming state I’ve driven through so far – even in the “suburbs”, the residential areas are punctuated by farm fields. Addendum: everyone I subsequently met and shared my “meh” feeling about Idaho with told me I’m wrong and that Idaho is actually one of the most amazing states for wilderness. Guess I went to the wrong part, and I’ll have to come again. That said I believe them, because there were some pretty stupendous views for part of the drive:
Found a campsite on the side of the road near the Swan Falls dam, where there were other primitive campsites but down a canyon and without cell service. Talked to Ben for a bit, had another in-car dinner to hide from the rain, drank some of my Grand Teton beer, and went to sleep to gear up for another long day of driving.
Yellowstone National Park –> Grand Teton National Park, WY
Woke up to OMG BISON IN THE CAMPGROUND TWO CAMPSITES OVER!!!
Decided to procure coffee and hot water for my oatmeal at the nearby hotel, given the wandering wildlife. I decided not to attempt any hikes today because of time and bears, so then I was off for my drive through Yellowstone to see some geysers! But first: bears.
I saw three on the first part of my drive! An interesting side note: we watch animals, but I bet animals would also have fun watching us. There’s a strange carmaraderie in wildlife spotting. And there’s also a strange sense of checkboxing – I talked to one foreign man when I was pulled over looking at a very far away bear, who when he learned it was a black bear kind of shrugged it off as uninteresting because he had just seen one ten minutes ago. lulz.
I was hoping to make it back to service-land in time for Ashvin’s defense, but that plan failed miserably – I had barely gotten to the cell service dead spot around the time it started. So I gave up on “making time” and instead just enjoyed the hot springs and geysers. There are so many. Have I mentioned yet how amazing it is that the earth is so visibly active here?!
Made my way down to the spot I was most excited about: Grand Prismatic Spring. Even though I haven’t taken any actual microbiology classes (jk I’ve taken one), I know that this spring is super famous because it’s the cover of basically every microbiology textbook. It was amazing to see in real life. So many colors, just. So amazing.
And then for more amazing, I headed to Old Faithful. After a delicious huckleberry ice cream float, I headed to the viewing area. I lucked out on my timing, because the next eruption was only in twenty minutes or so (Old Faithful erupts every ~90 minutes). I waited around, make some jokes with the people around me about whether or not it was gonna go off, persevered through the weird snow-hail storm (little balls of snow, like hail but still definitely just snow), a few false alarms, and then… it erupted. Wow. I actually found myself tearing up, in a way that I haven’t ever experienced before. I think it was the combination of relief that I hadn’t been waiting in the cold for nothing and that Old Faithful really delivered, and just awe at the majestic power of the Earth right in front of me. I’ve rarely felt so connected to and aware of all the commotion that’s happening beneath our feet, and so witnessing a hole that goes directly to it communicate back and forth is just awe-some.
Then I went for a short jaunt across the nearby geyser basin, which is one of the largest concentrations of geysers in the world. SO MANY. So cool. And then I came back, killed a bit of time trying to figure out my camping plan (it was past 7 pm at this time, I had expected to be out of the park by early evening oops), and then headed to watch Old Faithful erupt again. It was actually way less whelming, which is good to know – next time I come, I’ll make sure to plan time to see at least two or three eruptions just to make sure we get a good one.
Luckily, there aren’t too many stops or overlooks between Old Faithful and the southern end of the park, so I was able to make good time to get to the national forest just outside of Grand Teton National Park for the night.
Thermopolis, WY –> Yellowstone National Park, WY
Woke up to some earnest rain, grabbed some coffee in Thermopolis and ate a banana in the car, and headed straight to Cody, WY – about an hour and a half from Thermopolis and about an hour from the East entrance to Yellowstone. Went to a coffee shop for coffee, catch up phone call with Nathaniel, and internet to figure out my camping plans for tonight. The coffee shop was super lovely, everyone seemed to know each other, and it seems to employ a large proportion of the college-aged women who wear hip hats in the town.
Got hit by a bit of the blues, I think partially due to the gray skies and partially to homesickness. So I decided to give up on everything I was doing, buy some candy, and get a move on and start driving to Yellowstone. (Side note: there’s a state park right before Yellowstone. Poor park, I bet no one ever goes to it lulz)
I drove through a ~10000 foot elevation pass going into the park, and it was rain turning to rain-and-snow turning to pretty hard snow. And through it I thought: wow this weather is absolute trash. And I’m still happy I’m here – it’s that beautiful, wow.
Some other Yellowstone thoughts for you:
- AHH THIS WATER IS BUBBLING UP FROM THE CENTER OF THE EARTH WHAT IS HAPPENING
- Holy shit we are all going to die when this whole place erupts.
- Did you know Yellowstone has an ocean in the middle of it?! (It’s actually a lake, but it’s so big I had no idea!)
- OMG BISON
- Meh bison.
- OMG BISON IN THE TOWN!
- zomg BACTERIA! They’re so amazing they can do anything.
- Here microbes are centered in all the informational signs – I’m so happy for them!
On my drive in I stopped to see the Mud Volcano area, which had crazy bubbling muddy springs coming up and steaming and spewing. SO COOL. There was also the most acidic spring in the park nearby, which was cool to see from a distance.
All the signs tell you not to walk on the ground because you never know when it’s going to boil and swallow you up, and the hikes are mostly on elevated boardwalks. So funny to me to think that the ground is unsafe to walk on, when it looks just like normal dirt… Anyway, I made it to the visitor center right around 5 pm, and headed to Mammoth in the very north of the park to hopefully find a campsite. I rocked up and snagged the last site SHEW! By this point the weather had cleared significantly, and since I still had some daylight left I went to see the terrace springs. SO COOL.
Tomorrow I’ll be hitting all the lookouts, eyeing some geysers, and hopefully seeing some animals before heading south to meet up with Janyne and co in Nevada for the weekend.
Black Hills Forest (Sundance, WY) –> Devil’s Tower –> Thermopolis, WY
After making breakfast on my snow-covered picnic table, I headed off to check out Devil’s Tower, which a couple had recommended to me but is apparently quite famous (and was the first national monument, even before Yellowstone! I’d seen pictures but wow – seeing it in person was something else. It really does look like it’s coming from the depths of hell. Did the short and easy hike around the bottom, and decided to move along since the fog was moving in.
After a lot of back-and-forthing, I decided to stick with my original plan from yesterday of heading to Thermopolis, WY for some hot springs before braving the disgustingly cold and wet weather awaiting me at Yellowstone. Listened to a heart-wrenching episode of Ear Hustle talking about one Cambodian prisoner’s story (which is basically every Cambodian prisoner’s story in the US…) Got some pretty intense fog for a while (at least an hour), which then unexpectedly cleared up to a jaw-dropping view of the snow-covered forested mountains:
Kept driving a bit and the scenery changed to stunning forested cliffs – what?! This was in the Southwestern part of Big Horn forest, gotta come back and explore! Pretty sure this is my favorite drive so far, though maybe it was also partially because I was so glad to be out of the fog and definitely only expecting rain and snow from here until I got to Nevada.
Kept going even more, and then the scenery changed to rolling green jaggedy hills. I think if I had to give Wyoming an advertising slogan, it’d be something like: “Just like Utah, now comes in green!” :P
Got to Thermopolis and checked out the Hot Springs State Park, which was super weird and underwhelming. A boardwalk that goes around some steaming hot pools, a free state-run bathhouse (that was closed by the time I got there), a handful of not-free bathhouses and pools, and a pedestrian suspension bridge. The formations leading from the pools to the river were pretty cool, though – I’ll give it that.
Headed off to my RV park, which I’d selected because when I asked the lady if they had some sort of common space or other indoor place to stay warm, she said “no, but we have a mineral pool!” Spent quite a while soaking in the hot springs-fueled mineral pooled and chatting up a couple, then made a late dinner and am now catching up on the blog sitting outside of my car because the weather is 50 degrees!! Yeah, definitely glad my back-and-forth led me to keep to this plan…
Badlands National Park, SD –> Black Hills Forest (Sundance, WY)
Woke up safe and sound from the rain and snow of the night before, had breakfast in the comfort of my car, and turned on the air conditioner a bit to get a head start on de-fogging the windshield (ominous music starts playing). Packed up the car, excited to get an early start to get to a coffee shop the next town over to call Kunal from a warm spot. But. The car wouldn’t start. (ominous music crescendos). Luckily, I’d parked very close to the main road so I grabbed the jumper cables (thanks again, dad) and flagged down the first car that came by – another Subaru! Made sure they had all-wheel drive, watched them struggle through the dirt part to get off of the road, and chatted them up as we got the juices flowing between our batteries. They were a dad and a daughter road tripping and testing out her new car – glad I gave them an excuse to try the all wheel drive! ;) Tried to jump start the car, it worked! But then. (Ominous music peaks). Check engine light is on. Oh no.
I’d planned to get to the Black Hills pretty early so that I could wander through the scenic drives and maybe get a hike in. Instead, I headed straight to the nearest “big city” to find some help for my car. I didn’t realize how compartmentalized car care is – I went to the Walmart first but they said they don’t do that. Turns out auto parts stores can diagnose the cause of your check engine light, which seems weird to me. But anyway, I went to the AutoZone and got a weird non-informative error message. The very nice man helping me ended up just resetting the computer and telling me “if it lights up again, you’re definitely screwed.” (In different words, obviously). Wild to me that that’s our state of the art technology. I wonder if self-driving cars will be able to do better than have one light that indicates any and all potential problems. I was pretty stressed out not knowing what was going on for my hour and a half drive to Rapid City…
Anyway, called Kunal and got some clarity and perspective on my job situation, and then headed off to the forest. The sense of relief in my body was tangible, it was amazing. The Black Hills are also amazing – so beautiful! I would love to come back here and play for much longer, preferably when the temperature is above freezing. I stopped by Crazy Horse Memorial, which seemed like a total scam at first but after the movie made me conclude that it’s almost certainly not a scam, but it does center the white sculptor way more than makes me comfortable.
At this point it was pretty late, so I just headed to my campsite in the part of the Black Hills near Devil’s tomorrow, where I’m going tomorrow. Obviously, though, I took the scenic routes!
Got to my campsite near Sundance, WY, which was super lovely and was just below the cloud line so I could see a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and cows. Made a delicious cheesy scrambled eggs for dinner, and even had time and temperature fortitude to make tea!!
Unfortunately, by the morning the fog had rolled in and you couldn’t see any of the beautiful view anymore. So this is the camp photo you get for this one:
Badlands National Park
Started the day with avocado at my cold, wet campsite and coffee in the warm, comfy lodge. Luckily the rain from last night had stopped and the day was pretty clear, though still quite gray. I headed to the Saddle Pass trail, which I had driven by yesterday and which made me really want to scramble all over the badlands formations. Which I did! Lots of slippery clay on the way up, but then amazing views of the Badlands, a fun hike through the prairie and back through some more fun rock/dirt formations, and then back down the now-dried-up trail. These formations are really interesting because they’re mostly made of sediment and silt, so they’re mostly clay but also the size of large stone mountains. Pretty wonky.
I headed to another trail that AllTrails recommended, Notch Trail. At this point it was getting colder and windier, and I was still feeling sick and pretty pooped. But! This is likely the nicest weather I’m going to have for the next week, and probably my last chance to actually hike, so I got off my lazy butt and went off. Notch trail was cool, after climbing up into the “valley” it was cool to just wander through the formation until I found a cool spot.
Came back to the trailhead, kept wandering a bit, and found another trail which seemed super lame from the description (a short boardwalk) but was actually really cool, going into the desert area where the Badlands really are bad. This park is funny, though – all of the hikes are super short and are estimated to take at least twice as long as they actually take. Like this last hike had lots of warnings about being extremely strenuous, but as far as I’m concerned it was basically flat! I guess things are dramatically different in the summer when it’s boiling hot…?
After this hike, it really was starting to rain so I called it a day. The plan was to drive through the park, stop at the farthest picnic area to make dinner and prepare hot water for tea, and then camp at the primitive campsite the ranger had recommended. I got to the picnic area but it was way too windy and miserable to attempt to cook so I kept going. I found the road which the ranger had recommended, and which he had told me was a gravel road. Narrator: it was not a gravel road. (Second narrator, with the benefit of additional information: it may in fact have been a gravel road if she had just continued to the other road outlet just a small distance away.) In fact, it was a very muddy road which I slipped and slided through all the way to the top, where a few other cars were camping. It was pretty scary though, I had very little control over the car because the tires are coated in the clay mud, and at the top the road turns and goes parallel to a canyon dropoff like 15 feet away. Since it’s going to keep raining all night, I decided to give up on this site and head back down now before things got worse. Drove as much as I could on grass, slipped and slided my way back out, and got back to the main road incredibly grateful for my dad’s car’s fancy all-wheel drive (X-mode woo!)
I drove another half mile to the next forest service road which was nice and flat, and pulled over less than 100 feet from the highway. I hope it doesn’t rain so much that the car gets stuck in the ground, though we’ll see tomorrow morning…
Fort Robinson State Park, NE –> Badlands National Park, SD
Woke up pretty late today, partially because I went to bed quite late, partially because I was feeling sick, and partially because this is what was awaiting me when I opened my eyes:
Blerg. Kept being a blerg day as I drove the ~4 hours to Badlands National Park. Nebraska really is not a state I ever think about, and unlike Arkansas, I’m not convinced that’s incorrect. Anyway, even in this rain and fog Badlands looks SO COOL and I hope I can explore tomorrow.
Luckily, campsites here are quite cheap and there were spots so I grabbed one, and headed to do a bit of the scenice drive. I still wasn’t feeling great and the views weren’t awesome, so I didn’t drive that long and instead went back to the lodge to get dinner, warmth, and internet.
Now I’m in my car-mansion catching up on this blog and sniffling away, hoping that it’s clear enough to hike a bit tomorrow and that I don’t die in Yellowstone in a few days. (Srsly. Check out the weather. But do me a favor and record your reaction when you look at it!! XD)
Pawnee Grasslands, CO –> Fort Robinson State Park, NE
TODAY WAS NATHANIEL’S DEFENSE AHHH!!!!
I got up and headed to Fort Collins where I figured I could find a coffee shop with reliable internet. Headed to my first coffee shop, Mugs, where the internet was actually not really working. That’s ok, because I had time and headed to a second coffee shop for lunch, Alleycat. Called in to his defense, worked a bit, called in to the party, worked a bit more, and then finally headed off around 6:30 pm (!!). The plan is to drive part of the way to Badlands tonight and the rest of the way tomorrow, hopefully with some time to do a hike in the afternoon after I get there.
There’s a couple of national forests near-ish to Badlands, so I downloaded the MVUM maps and figured I’d just figure it out when I got there. I found my national forest campground on google maps, but it turned out to have the same name but not be the same camp: this one was in a state park, which required an entry and camping fee. It was already around midnight, though, so I decided to just find a spot and figure it out in the morning. In general, I’m happy to pay camping fees, but not super down to pay a vehicular entry fee if all I’m doing is staying the night. I didn’t see any obvious pay stations on my way out in the morning, so decided to just not pay eeeek. This is the first time I’ve done this on my trip though!!
Denver, CO –> Pawnee Grasslands
Slept in a little (with a lot of starfishing) in the glorious bed, and then headed to Rosenberg’s for bagels. (They ship in NYC water to make their bagels, lulz). I’m consistently so relieved and happy about how easy it is to find parking in Denver! Normally the thought of parking my car in a city gets me super anxious… Anyway, after bagels I headed to a coffee shop recommended by Ben which is both a bike shop, bar, and coffee shop - so hip, so Denver. It was really nice!
I got to catch up on some work, re-submitting my donor selection paper (which was rejected from both PLOS Medicine and bioRxiv, lol wut damnit) and finalizing a few more things for the aspiration paper. Also had a call and got some bad news on the job front, which put a damper on the rest of the day. Not to worry, though, Denver has Torchy’s Tacos! Here’s my consolation meal:
After tacos and a few errands (where I told the cashier I was living out of my car and he 100% thought I was homeless), I headed to the nearest public lands to Denver I could find that aren’t in the cold mountain forest: Pawnee National Grasslands. First dirt road I planned to camp at was closed (uh oh!), but the second one was open. Drove past some cows until I got to a spot I decided was good enough to pull over and “camp.” Again, the whole “try to see the whole campground before picking a spot” is truly not feasible when “the campground” is just “the prairie” and “the campsites” is just “anywhere.”
May 9 - 15
Denver, CO and Grand Lake, CO
Ben met me in Denver, where we had fun exploring hip brunch spots, breweries, and bars. In true Claire fashion, I took zero pictures of our first day in Denver.
After dinner with his uncle, we drove to Grand Lake, Colorado, which is a town right at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. His uncle has a cabin in Grand Lake, and he graciously let us spend the weekend there!
We had a lot of fun staying in, watching movies, and making delicious food, including an amazing pizzaaaa and an egg-in-a-hole brunch – stay tuned for our pizza and open-faced sandwich shop, which we will be opening in case neither of our careers pan out! :P
We also managed to get out of the cabin for a lovely hike – I had to get at least one in so that I can say I’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park! ;)
Some other highlights: we saw SO MANY moose and also crashed the ultra-exclusive community center to go play in the pool and sauna, despite the extreme skepticism of our belongingness from the man at the desk.
Then back to Denver for a pub crawl through Ben’s old haunts – why on earth can’t Boston have nice, low-key dive bars?! Ugh. Got much drunker than I anticipated based on what we drank, I guess the elevation really got me this time. Needless to say, the next morning was a bit rough so we slept in for a while in the beautiful AirBnB that Ben found.
After delicious burgers for “breakfast”, we headed to the park to hang out and … RIDE LYFT SCOOTERS! Turns out they’re amazingly fun and a great hangover cure. Great times.
Then I drove Ben to the airport, got myself Thai food for dinner (including mango sticky rice!), and reviewed a paper in the comfort of a real home with a real roof, a real couch, and real internet. Life is good.
Moab, UT –> Arches National Park –> Rabbit Valley, CO
Ah, today was such a great success it totally makes up for yesterday! Woke up early and packed up camp quickly to head to Arches ASAP in order to avoid any potential for parking woes (again, blown away that parking is the limiting factor in experiencing nature). In exchange for the early wake up, I treated myself to real coffee from a drive-thru coffee place in Moab on the way to the park.
Entered the park before 9 am and got to the trailhead around 9:20 am. Whoa!! I was recommended the primitive trail by my couple friends from the slot canyons, who said then “oh yeah if you like this you should just do that trail.” And they were right: it was a super fun trail! It goes by seven different arches and includes some scrambling over rocks and walking high on top of fins and just generally hanging out away from the crowds and well in nature. Very fun, but also very tiring because I have hiked a lot in the past week and also decided not to bring lunch on this hike so ended up quite hungry.
After glorious avocado toast in the picnic area, I headed into town to work for a bit and find my next camp. I finalized the data upload for the aspiration paper - my first ever SRA submission d’awwww! As someone who has downloaded many datasets from the SRA, this feels like a big deal to me – finally contributing data that others can use!! :D
Then, I took the scenic route along the Colorado to my campsite in the Rabbit Valley recreation area right by the Colorado border (rather than risking very cold weather by going any farther…). And! The first campground I went to had an open site! Even better: I was able to park in a way that I can sleep in my car (it’s so windy. I hate camping in my tent in the wind so. much.). Oh and I made the same dinner as last night (leftover beans with scrambled eggs), but this time I didn’t mess the eggs up and it was delicous. All in all a great day.
Goblin Valley, UT –> Canyonlands National Park –> Moab, UT
Oof, what a rollercoaster of a day!! I started with a slow breakfast in my “camp,” where I was trying to eavesdrop on my neighbor ranting about someone (a man) treating a woman (I’m assuming his daughter?) poorly and unprofessionally. I was struck by a realization that, as far as I know, I’ve mostly met liberals while traveling – even the old, white couples with thick Southern accents who you might expect would be more conservative. Granted, most of the people I’ve chatted with have tended to be from Seattle or Colorado, or other liberal-leaning places like that, but still: I wonder how many of the senior RV-ers that live off of public lands and enjoy National Parks like it’s their job are conservative. I guess I’ll have to send my parents on a data-gathering mission once they buy their RV and join that life!
I’d been recommended the Little Wild Horse slot canyon by the man at the visitor center and two women I chatted with at the top of Cassidy Arch, so that was my plan for the morning. (Some background for the story that follows: flash floods are deadly in slot canyons. They come fast, and you have nowhere to go. Yesterday in Capitol Reef a woman told me a story of getting caught in one and clinging onto the canyon wall overnight to avoid drowning. Very very scary, and nothing to mess around with. Also the BLM has signs everywhere saying “your safety is YOUR responsibility!” “Do not enter if storm threatening!” etc etc)
In the parking lot, I realized that it was actually a loop that went through two canyons – sold! However, I knew there was rain in the forecast and on my way in some hikers told me there was a flash flood warning for that afternoon, so I was really booking it. About a third of the way through the loop, I crossed an older man who had started about an hour before me that morning and had come from the other way. When I asked him about the weather, he responded skeptically with a worried look up at the sky and two comments along the lines of “those clouds are gathering up” and “I’m booking it.” I decided I’d continue for a bit, but after about five minutes of walking along a wash and looking up at the sky where the clouds were indeed gathering, I decided that yet another hike through a cool canyon was not worth any risk to my life.
So I turned around and, with a worried eye to the sky, also started booking it back. I ended up crossing that man too, and we chatted most of our way out of the canyon. By the time we got out, the sky behind us had darkened significantly, and we were genuinely worried for the two families that had seemed reluctant to GTFO of there. Moral of the story: always trust the man with the incredible calves booking it out of the slot canyon. Other moral of the story: see, loved ones?! - I do make safe choices when I’m traveling alone!! :P
Since that hike ended up being a few hours shorter than I’d planned, I decided to head to Canyonlands and see what there was to see. On the way, I stopped to fill up the tire that had started to look a little flat after all the dirt roads in Grand Escalante. But the gast station didn’t have a pressure meter and I didn’t think to check if I had one, so I just filled it by eye. Bad idea. A few minutes onto the highway, and my tire indicator light started blinking and then stayed lit. I pulled into a rest stop a few miles later and remembered that my dad had a pressure gauge in the glove compartment. As I expected, I had way overinflated the tire. So I sat in the rest area slowly letting air out until it got back to the right pressure – but alas, the indicator light was still blinking! Thankfully I had service, so I called a random garage in Moab and told them my problem. The nice man on the line reminded me what the manual had said, which is that Subarus reset the indicator after getting up to a certain speed. So I did a lap around the rest area and – HALLELUJAH – the light turned off! SHEW Moral of the story: thanks, dad, for your preparedness and thanks, nice man at Crump Reese Chevy for your help.
After that short and terrifying detour, I continued on to Canyonlands. By the time I got there, I realized I was pretty pooped and decided just to do a short ~1 mile hike out to a viewpoint of the Colorado and Green River. Such great memories from last summer’s canoe trips, and I can confirm that canoeing along the Green River for 10 days is almost certainly a way better experience than hiking around the park. Seems like it’d be super hot and pretty monotonous on land, which was sort of the case in canoes but also with beer and immediate heat relief by jumping into the river. :D
After my lazy “hike,” I headed into Moab to try to find a campsite. I knew it’d be tough to find one, but I hadn’t actually gone all the way to identify specific sites and Plans B, C, D, and E. I headed to a bunch of BLM campgrounds along the Colorado river, but they were all full. Then I looked at the BLM map some more and went to Sand Flats above Moab, thinking that large campground might have space. No go. I thought “maybe I’ll just stay in an RV park,” called a couple of places, looked up the prices and realized it’d probably be over forty bucks just for a campsite – LAME. I’m too stubborn for that shit. So I kept doing a mix of googling and looking at my BLM map and as a sort of Hail Mary headed south of Moab to Ken’s Lake campground – where I found a campsite!! $20 for a site where I had to set up my tent (the parking spot was too crooked), which wasn’t great because it ended up raining and being windy. But better than continuing to go in circles around Moab for hours looking for a place to stay! Still went to bed pretty grumpy though, partially because I’d been super hangry for a few hours, the dinner I made wasn’t that good, and I knew I was gonna have to wake up super early the next day…
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument –> Capitol Reef National Park –> (near) Goblin Valley State Park, UT
As much as I wanted to stay longer, I had to keep moving. Today, I headed up to Capitol Reef National Park via the Scenic Byway 12, which is an amazing road that cuts through incredibly rugged terrain and has a couple of really vertigo-inducing spots. There was a short stretch where it seems like they just piled a bunch of sand and rocks up to the elevation needed to bridge two peaks, and the road is just at the tip of that pile, with steep dropoffs on both sides. It’s true that I can imagine this landscape being incredibly difficult to get through back in the pioneer days – unexpected canyons, no shade, blistering heat, no water. But as a traveller it just makes me dream of un-trailed scrambling and adventure. Again, I want to come back here some day and stay on some of the BLM roads off of the 12, and see what there is to see.
Right before the turn toward Capitol Reef, I stopped at the visitor center for what might be the most informative conversation I’ve had yet: I told the guy how many days I had and what kind of camping I was looking for, and he basically made my itinerary for the next few days. Also gave me more recommendations than I have time for, so hopefully I make in time to Denver to pick Ben up! :P I made it to Capitol Reef around midday, and after some lunch where I chatted up a group of people traveling with a Sierra Club organized outing, I headed to do the Grand Wash trail. This trail was okay, just flat along a river bed. If I hadn’t just come from my favorite spot, maybe it would have been better but today it was mostly meh.
I then headed up to Cassidy Arch, which was actually pretty cool. Took me a bit to realize that you don’t actually get under the arch, you’re looking from above into it. But once you’re up there on those rocks, you can just wander all over without a trail and getting quite close to some very tall dropoffs!
Even though I only spent a few hours here, this is actually not a place I’m super keen to come back to. I think it’s a strange mix of all the different landscapes I’ve seen in this region, including canyons and dry washes and arches, but so none of them individually are that striking. The cliffs are really amazing, and I was blown away by some of the desert landscape on the road out of the park. So there is definitely still some exploring to do! I had actually been recommended Cedar Falls trail and rec area, which was on the way to Capitol Reef, multiple times, but decided to skip it in favor of Capitol Reef because I only had time for one of them. I do regret not doing that hike, but I also think that if I had done the hike and skipped here I would have regretted that also. So all in all, glad with my decision!
A bit of a drive more and now I’m camping at a “developed BLM campground” near Goblin Valley State Park. I put the “developed BLM campground” in quotes because it’s basically just a large parking lot with two bathrooms. But hey, I wanted a bathroom nearby and it’s too windy to set up a tent anyway so I’m good!
Also, the Capitol Reef area was apparently a Mormon pioneer settlement where they grew fruit trees, and there’s still a couple of orchards there. Which means there was also a store that sold apple pie, which I obviously bought and got to enjoy with dinner!
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Oh my gosh today was so fun I want to come back and spend so much longer here!!
The main plan for the day was to go to the Dry Forks trailhead to hike three slot canyons right next to each other. I started with Spooky Gulch, which gets suuuuper tight and went all the way to a small opening where you can imagine a spiral waterfall going during rain or floods. Apparently there’s a loop you can take that goes down this spiral which starts from the other canyon, Peek-a-boo. That was my next stop so I decided I would try the loop. Oh, I also had fun chatting with a group of French people at this canyon - slot canyons are a good way to make friends, it turns out!
But - Peek-a-boo requires a 12 foot climb to get up into it. When I’d walked past it in the morning to get to Spooky, there was a large group but now I was alone. I couldn’t quite figure out the right way, and I was a bit scared to fall and twist my ankle, so I decided to camp out and have lunch while I waited to see if anyone else came by and showed me how they did it.
An older man ended up coming by, and he’d heard there was a trail that went around the canyon such that you could drop in from the top/end of it. “I’ve only got one life” was his response when I asked if he wanted to at least try the climb, and so around we went. We found a way down into the canyon and walked back to the entrance. Such a cool canyon, with twists and turns and amazing formations. I can only imagine how awesome of a water park this would be if we were like 6 inches tall. When we got back to the entrance, there was a whole gaggle of people coming up, including kids and dogs. Ouch.
Then I went off to the third canyon, which is the first one that most people do. I was at first unimpressed - Spooky was awesome and then Peek-a-boo really blew (or should I say … bloo?) it out of the water, and this one was pretty wide and easy to hike through so I was like meh. But it got interesting, with a couple of water hops required and some narrower parts. So I decided: still really awesome, though in a different way than the other two. Here on this hike, I started chatting with a couple that were also hiking through. They were fun so I stuck with them the whole canyon (also, remember - there isn’t really anywhere to go in a slot canyon…). I ended up re-doing Peek-a-boo with them as well, partially because I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually get up and partially because it was a lot of fun. As a side note: it’s interesting how differently I behave when I’m hiking with others than when I’m alone. I definitely take more risks and am less scared of, for example, climbing things. Anyway, the canyon was just as fun the second time around, and the couple gave me a ride back to the first parking lot where I’d left the car (rather than risk a high-clearance road, see dad I’m being responsible!)
There was still daylight left and I was planning to stay in the monument again, so I continued down the dirt road to see if I could find any other short hikes. I had a few brief minutes of data at the trailhead and was able to get a hint that Willow Gulch might have some nice stuff in a short distance, so I headed there. I hiked down for about half an hour and then back up, and it was so amazing. It mostly follows a riverbed, but there was a bit of canyon, a bit of slick rocks, a bit of river bed with trees, basically a bit of everything. There’s apparently an arch two miles into the trail, and also I think a lot of people do a longer loop overnight or for a few nights. It was super beautiful and I can only imagine staying longer and doing the whole trail. Gotta come back!!
In general, actually, this area has been my favorite so far. It’s just so easy to imagine spending a couple of weeks here, doing a handful of overnight trips or spending a day playing around the Devil’s Gardens, or even just hanging out at your campsite and exploring the surroundings. I’d want to come back with someone, and also preferably a dog. I also think this area would be really fun to come with younger kids – lots of opportunity for them to scramble and run around, without too too much danger of death and very few other people for them to bother. Noted!
Bryce Canyon –> Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Another great road trip day! Started off the day by waking up early and heading into the park for breakfast, “treating” myself to some general store coffee (which, it turns out, may actually be worse than my starbucks instant womp womp). Then, used the fact that I have a car and freedom to drive to a handful of scenic viewpoints all along the park. Bryce’s scenery really is stunning. Those pillar-like things are actually called hoodoos, which, yes, is a real word! I went all the way to the end of the park, Rainbow Point, and it was totally worth it. You can see the whole canyon at once, so cool! All the trails were closed and still semi-snowy, but it makes me really want to come back and hike around this area.
After a couple of hours pit stop at the Bryce Canyon Coffee Co to update my figures for PLOS and my blog for you all, I headed off to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, via the Hole in the Wall road. The plan is to hike some slot canyons here tomorrow, but I had a bit of time to kill so I stopped at the Devil’s Gardens to scramble around, over, and through some really sweet rock formations.
Got pretty close to tomorrow’s trail head, took a right turn onto a dirt road, followed it one campsite past one that I thought looked great, and found an even better one! (This is that whole “want to check out the whole campground before choosing a spot” thing at play again, but this time it worked out for me!) Got to the camp early and it’s much warmer here than up in Dixie forest, so I set up my tent!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Small but lovely day! Headed into Bryce Canyon after a lazy breakfast in the forest, and hiked down to the Peek-a-boo loop trail via Queens Gardens. Stunning scenery here, such amazing sights.
After my hike, headed back to the forest to finish up some figure re-formatting, drink so beer, and make delicious pasta dinner.
St George, UT –> Zion National Park –> Dixie National Forest (by Bryce Canyon)
What a great, full day! I set an alarm to make sure I didn’t dawdle too much, though the noise of the RV park and the town woke me up pretty early regardless. (Confirmed: way less awesome than camping in nature). Did a bit more internetting before heading out, including talking to Carolyn and submitting my last PhD paper WOOP! If you’re interested, the preprint will be up soon…
Then I headed off to Zion National Park, about an hour’s drive away. Even the parking lot was full, drove around a bit until someone was pulling out. Two thoughts here: (1) it’s so wild to me that the limiting factor for experiencing nature is parking. (2) This is another moment I’m super glad to be alone. No one to add to the stress or impatience of looking for a parking spot, just me and my playlists.
I hiked Angel’s Landing, which would actually be a fairly short hike except for the scramble to get to the tippy top, where there are lots of people so you have to wait and let others pass. So worth it though, both for the experience of having straight cliff drops on both sides of you and for the view at the top.
I hopped on the shuttle bus to speed-walk the riverside trail that leads to the Narrows, which is apparently a hike through the river into narrow slot canyons. The water’s super high right now, so the trail is closed and it seems unfathomable to me how people hike it.
Then it was off to Bryce Canyon! Wow the drive out of Zion was amazing: makes me really want to go back and hike through the rest of the park beyond just the main canyon. Before this drive, my impression of Zion was that it was a pretty cool canyon, but way too busy to be worth a second look. After this drive, my impression of Zion is that I haven’t even scratched the surface of the coolest parts. (Well, I hope – I imagine there are trails through the wilderness, but I”m not sure.)
I had planned to stay at a campground near Bryce Canyon and was totally prepared to pay and everything, but it turns out it’s closed so I headed to the forest instead. Unlike the Grand Canyon, this forest has far fewer people in it – but I’m still not alone, which is always comforting!
Badger Canyon, AZ –> St George, UT
I had originally planned to get up super early to get to the Kanab BLM office to apply for a permit to hike The Wave, but I was up pretty late talking with Ben last night so decided to sleep in instead and see if there would be another hike I could do today. Turns out that was a great decision, because I forgot that Utah is an hour ahead of Arizona (bc Arizona, quite sensibly, doesn’t do daylight savings) and so I would have definitely arrived too late.
After a lovely conversation with a man at the BLM visitor center, I headed to the local library to get a bit of work and trip planning done. I realized at this point that I probably didn’t have time today to do a hike, so I just headed straight to St. George. Ben is meeting me in Denver on May 9, so I’m actually also realizing that I don’t have too much time left to wander through this part of Utah! That’s a bummer, because I really enjoyed yesterday’s meandering through my decisions.
I was actually pretty grumpy most of the day, in large part because I’ve been listening to the podcast Slow Burn, covering the Bill Clinton impeachment process. Note to self: only listen to depressing podcasts while on hikes through the grandeur of nature. Listening on the drive to St. George was not distracting enough to cheer me up. That, plus being a bit tired of the constant planning, difficulty of finding information on public lands, and uncertainty about where I’ll actually be able to stay… I think that this trip is actually just the wrong length for this: it’s too short for me to have time to meander through my decision-making without consequences, but it’s too long to have been plannable far into the future. I also wouldn’t have wanted to plan it more than I have, I just wish it were easier to figure out useful information. Rangers saying, “it’s all BLM land, there are no trails just go wherever your heart tells you, camp anywhere” isn’t actually helpful when you don’t have unlimited time to explore and make mistakes. Anyway the point is that someone should make an app with BLM and forest service land, roads, and semi-established campgrounds that can be crowd-sourced for people to add where they’ve stayed and hiked. Like Waze, but for public lands.
Ok enough ranting. Tonight I splurged and am staying at an RV park (jk it’s not actually that much more expensive than some campgrounds) where I got to shower.
Lees Ferry, AZ
As usual, I got the day started pretty slowly today. But great news – my calf wasn’t hurting anymore! (For a second there I thought I’d strained it or something, no good!) After my lazy breakfast, I headed over to Lees Ferry nearby for what seemed like an awesome trail: Cathedral Wash.
And it was! Lots of scrambling down a dry river bed all the way to the Colorado.
On the way back, I linked up with a group of four women in their late 60s on a trip together. I helped them figure out the best way to get back, and at the end of the hike they thanked me for my help: “your generation inspires us,” to which I replied: “no, it’s y’all who inspire me!” And it’s true: one of my favorite parts of this trip has been meeting and seeing so many older people out there living life to the fullest. Sure, they’re not sleeping in the back of their parents’ car but rather in much more comfortable RV’s or gasp hotels, but still! They’re out there enjoying nature and being active. It’s really inspiring, and something to look forward to doing myself.
Rather than try to find some random BLM land, I decided to head back to Badger Canyon and get some work done to a stunning sunset.
Grand Canyon –> Badger Canyon campground, near Marble Canyon, AZ
Fairly uneventful day today. Woke up to rain, bought myself coffee (!!) at one of the Grand Canyon lodges and sneakily ate my breakfast in the dining room, and then headed to the Grand Canyon community library to get some work done on the accepted paper. Yes that’s right, Grand Canyon has a library! In fact, it seems like quite a few people live here, since I also saw signs for a school and there must be an incredible number of people involved in keeping the entire park running. Can you imagine being a kid and growing up literally in the Grand Canyon? So cool.
After some annoying work and frustrating attempts to figure out the BLM land in this area, I headed out for one last goodbye to the Canyon and then off to my campground for the night, near Marble Canyon.
I was already in a pretty funky mood most of the day – lots of FOMO and feeling bad that I’m missing so many thesis defenses – and then add to that not being totally sure I could access the camp or that there’d be space (and not having a great Plan B), plus the lightning storm lighting up the sky the last hour of my drive… very intense feelings.
All is well, however – made it to the campground no problem and there is space! It started pouring about five minutes after I arrived, great timing, shew! Also means I was trapped in my housecar for a while and had Babybel, chips, and nutella for dinner oops. Oh also I was worried for a bit about flash flooding, because since I arrived after dark I have no idea how close the water is. But after a quick Google image search of the camp, we good.
Grand Canyon National Park
Despite being exhausted from my hike, I surprisingly didn’t sleep that well and woke up pretty early. I had a leisurely breakfast and headed back to the Backcountry Office for more info on trails. Pro-tip: the Backcountry Office is the place to go at Grand Canyon. Flush toilets, water, really friendly rangers, and basically no one else around! Such a nice change from the overwhelming visitor center area… I ended up talking to the ranger and another visitor for a while, asking about trails and camps for my upcoming areas.
Finally got moving around lunchtime for a very short, flat hike through the forest to an awesome overlook (where my ranger friend apparently got married!).
Then I headed to the other side of the park to refill on water and attempt to hike the Tanner trail. My calves and ankles were not having it, so I decided to call it rather than risk injury so early in my trip. I ended up talking to Ben for a while, it’s been pretty wild how much service I get in the Grand Canyon! (And, actually, I get the best service when I’m camping in the forest…)
Then I went back over to the other side of the park to try to catch sunset. Rather than wait for the bus, I booked it along the Rim Trail to the first great sunset viewpoint. Literally chasing sunset. It was amazing!! Beautiful sky, and awe-inspiring canyon. Water did that!!
On my way back to, you guessed it, the other side of the park, I stopped at a picnic area to make dinner. Chili migas, AKA scrambled eggs with whatever leftovers I have from the day before – my go-to, and actually a pretty delicious way to reheat leftovers. Also, I think the post-sunset picnic table dinner is the play: much nicer to make dinner on a table than on the uneven ground at my “campsite” in the forest.
Grand Canyon National Park
Today, I set out to hike into the Grand Canyon! After breakfast, I headed to the Visitor Center to refill my water and get some info. Wow. So many people, so overwhelming. This was actually one of the lonelier moments I’ve experienced on this trip - something about the combination of lots of people with other poeple (families, couples, friends) and how so many of those people are not at all on the same type of trip that I am. Felt pretty alone in that crowd. Also, it’s really annoying to wait in line for the bathroom. Gr.
I decided to do the Bright Angel hike, Grand Canyon’s most popular one down, and so drove to the other side of the park closer to the trailhead. Almost didn’t find parking – that’s another thing that doesn’t jive, how can a park be full?! Dumb cars. (Jk I love you car please love me back all the way to San Diego <3 <3 <3). I did a terrible job of being speedy getting ready for the hike, so ended up hitting the trail after noon.
Hiked to the third stop, which was definitely worth it – not that much additional effort after the second stop, and it came with amazing views from deeper in the canyon and a water refill. Overall, hiked about 10 miles and ~300 flights of stairs in about 4 hours (5-6 counting stops). It’s amazing what the human body can do, I could barely believe where I’d come from when I looked up. If I were to do it again, though, I’d leave a bit earlier and hike all the way to the Plateau point for what I imagine is an amazing view.
After the hike, I went to the tavern for a well-deserved beer where I made friends with a tour bus driver also sitting at the bar. (Side note: the dude had an opportunity to make a move and he didn’t good job woohoo! [Side side note: the bar is so low for men’s human decency. Wromp.]) Anyway, something I can’t really wrap my head around with this park is that there are so many different ways to experience it. I think some people just come, drive to all the viewpoints, and leave. Others are on a party bus and probably too hungover to do any serious hiking. And yet others hike rim-to-rim in one day. Just wild.
Flagstaff, AZ –> Grand Canyon National Park
I did some more internetting in the morning, then stopped by NAU to say goodbye. It was so great catching up with everyone and seeing them in person!
My plan was to head to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (as recommended by Matt), but I found it was closed from the highway signs. Change of plans, headed to the South Rim instead. Got there in the early evening, in time for my first view of the canyon!!
As expected, all campgrounds are full so I head to the Kaibab National Forest right outside the park to find a spot. Turns out it’s a super popular place to camp and I am definitely not alone. Usually, when I arrive at a campground I’ll do a first pass through the whole thing to scope it out, and then I go back around and choose my campsite. Except I can’t do this here, since my campground is the entire forest. Paradox of choice ahhh!
But I find a spot and am pretty excited to have some time to kill, unlike most nights when I get to my camp pretty late. Except…
I proceed to lock myself out of my car. OH NO!
Actually, I knew this would happen at some point on this trip and I’m really glad it happened here, because the national forest has really good cell reception. I call Geico, they can’t really help me and tell me to call the local police instead. So I do that, am so grateful none of them laugh at or make fun of me for my silly predicament. (Also, interestingly, the two people I talked to were both women!) They find a service, Randle from Grand Canyon towing calls me and comes to save me after about an hour of waiting. His toolkit is basically a bunch of differently-bent coat hangers and some wedges to crack open doors. He also barely takes any interest in me or my story, you can tell he’s seen way crazier shit. My gratitude, in descending order: great cell phone service, Randle, and my dad’s fancy insurance which means this will get reimbursed. I still feel pretty dumb though, and put this incident in my “it’s good to have things to keep you humble” drawer.
Usually, I post a photo of my camp in the morning so you can see the surroundings. But not tonight! So happy to be back in my car:
Today was pretty boring, as far as travel blogs go. Spent the morning catching up on internet, updating Facebook photos and this blog. Then headed to Northern Arizona University to meet the guys and see the office where all the magic happens. We got delicious lunch in town and then I spent most of the afternoon fighting with conda to update my packages and plugins. In the evening, Matt, Evan, and I got beers and mused about the paradox of open source and improving microbiome science.
I’m terrible and took zero photos of my time in Flagstaff except this one of NAU and the building their lab is in:
Not even a selfie, Claire?! Come on.
El Malpais, NM –> Flagstaff, AZ
Started out today with a lovely hike through the old lava flows that make up the “badlands” (which is why the area was called El Malpais by the Spaniards who came). Super fun to scramble through lava, following the cairns the whole way.
Then I was off to Flagstaff. I stopped for some chicken mcnuggets in Gallup (wasn’t gonna out myself but then a story happened so now I gotta…), and as I was getting myself back to I-40 I was stopped at a light and noticed the car behind me holding up a white piece of paper with the words “FU CALI” scratched into it. Interestingly, they were holding it in front of their face so I couldn’t see them – obviously aware that this isn’t a nice thing to do but not so aware that they chose not to do it. Didn’t have much time to react because the light turned green, but what a big ol’ bummer! Really bums me out that there are people out there who will judge based on one assumption, and not need to know anything else about a person to let the hate leave their bodies. I’m not even from California!
Two other thoughts from the drive: (1) wow, a huge downside of driving west is that you end up going STRAIGHT into the sunset. Not a fan. (2) wow, I am so thankful for cruise control. My sore leg muscles are even more so!
In Flagstaff, I’m staying with a colleague from the QIIME 2 microbiome software suite I’ve contributed to. Looking forward to catching up in person with these guys, and maybe even doing some of the work on my plugin that I’ve been putting off for months!
El Malpais –> El Morro –> El Malpais, NM
Ah, today was another sort-of casualty of my lack of planning. I went to the Malpais visitor center first thing in the morning, only to head right back past my camp to hike the Narrows Rim trail. The trail was amazing, with beautiful views and perfect weather. Also service and data, which means I found out my paper got accepted during my lunch break! Woohoo!
I decided not to hike the whole trail, partially because I was a bit bored and partially because I thought I might want to try another hike today. But turns out things are all very far apart and it was starting to rain, so no other hike for me. I headed instead to El Morro campground, about an hour’s drive away, where I was planning to sleep tonight. Alas, all the sites were full and I didn’t feel like making friends, so I headed back to my original Malpais BLM campground. El Morro seemed beautiful, but I wanted to get some lava hiking in before leaving this area. Plus, I needed the covered picnic table to make quesadillas from my leftover fajitas! On my drive back there was snow on the ground WAT! I was kind of annoyed with myself and the weather that I did all that driving for nothing, but salvaged the evening by scrambling up the hill behind my camp site to catch the sunset.
Man, I am truly so thankful for public lands in America. National Forest and BLM campsites are so nice and so free!! What treasures. (Can you spot my car in this photo?)
Great Sand Dunes –> El Malpais, NM
I was originally planning to stay two nights in Great Sand Dunes, but since I got there early enough to hike to the top the day before (and I had no desire to do that hike again – hiking in sand is so hard!!), I decided to head out today. My original plan was to go to the Manzano Mountains tonight and El Malpais on my way to Flagstaff, but the weather looked pretty bad at Manzano so I decided just to go to Malpais directly. Rain wasn’t really something I thought about when I was “planning” this trip: hanging out in the car isn’t super comfortable, so I don’t have too many options when it’s not nice outside… Ah, well.
I felt kinda gloomy most of the drive, maybe it was the bad weather but also I think some amount of homesickness. But that’s ok, that’s part of traveling. I made it to the free BLM campground for the night!
Lake Clayton State Park –> Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO
This road trip is really cooking! Another great road trip day. Started with some super comfy car camping sleeping in and excellent avocado toast, what more could you ask for. (Instead of taking photos of where I slept each night, maybe I should have made this an album of “avocado toast in cool places” :P)
Last night while planning my next stop and looking at my (paper!) map, I realize that Great Sand Dunes, which had been heartily recommended to me by multiple people, was not that far away from me and not on any other path in my tentative itinerary. Turns out it was even closer than I expected, so I got here in the mid-afternoon. Found a campsite, met my neighbor, and went off to the dunes for a hike!
Hiking in sand is hard and lots of fun. It’s especially wild to me that you just wander freely over the entire dune area – there are no trails (because it’s sand), and there are also no off limits areas. Lots of fun! (Though I will say this is definitely a place which would be more fun with more people). After some grueling hiking and with huges thanks to my calves and glutes, I made it to the top! I took about a million selfies attempting to recreate my iconic New Zealand selfie and also just loving the landscape of the sand dunes in front of the beautiful Colorado mountains.
Fajitas for dinner, and then off to sleep!
Black Kettle Grasslands, OK –> Pampa, TX –> Lake Clayton State Park, NM
Three states in one day (and not on the east coast) woohoo!! Had a very lazy morning, taking my time as one should on a road trip before heading out. My goal for today was to find a place to get my oil changed, since it’s about due and tomorrow is Easter so everywhere will be closed, and after that I’ll be in fun lands without really wanting to stop for errands.
After stopping in a few places in Pampa, TX, I finally found a Walmart to do it. Bonus: they were selling hamburger meals for $3.50, there was picnic table nearby to hang out at, and there was free wifi! What luxury.
Now I’m in Lake Clayton State Park which is super nice - I wish I’d gotten a photo of the landscape leading up to it because it is all flat prairie grasses. But surprise! There’s a lake! (Though apparently this lake is manmade, from damming up a creek. Ah well). And guess what! There’s dinosaur tracks here!!
The real reason I came here though is because it’s apparently an internationally rated dark sky area, so the star gazing is supposed to be great. Unfortunately the moon has been big and bright the past few days so I don’t think I’ll see much…
Ouachita Forest –> Black Kettle National Grasslands, OK
Woke up to the wind pulling my tent out of the ground, so packed up and headed on the road. No breakfast migas by the lake, so sad. But that’s ok because the donut shop I stopped at for coffee was closing and gave me some free cinnamon twists woohoo! Interesting to realize, however, that coffee shops are actually not common at all for these small towns. The one I stopped at in New Waverly on my first part of the road trip was apparently a huge anomaly!
Big driving day today: spent the morning getting out of Arkansas driving through the forest. Really loving not taking the major highways, these smaller roads have almost just as high of speed limits but way less traffic and way better views. Super nice!
I stopped to have lunch in a small town and then back on the road with Lizzo’s new album. Her song “Soulmate” speaks to my core being and might just be the new anthem of this road trip.
True love ain’t something you can buy yourself / True love finally happens when you by yourself / So if you by yourself, then go and buy yourself / Another round from the bottle on the higher shelf
Before I knew it, forested Arkansas turned into flat grassy Oklahoma (I think it happened after I passed Oklahoma City), and I made it to my camp for tonight. I met a lovely young couple from Tennessee driving back home and an older woman named Patty doing basically what I’m doing, minus California, and with a much nicer car set up. And! I got to make my migas!
Ozarks –> Hot Springs, AR –> Ouachita Forest
Today was an excellent solo road trip day. I got up and had a delicious and lazy breakfast (upgraded my peanut butter and banana by adding blueberries – game changer). I had to cross a creek to get in, and as I’d feared the water level had risen quite a bit with the rain overnight and in the morning. Went ahead and drove (very slowly and very carefully) across it, SO SCARY but I made it! Super terrifying though, definitely not going back to that campground after a whole day of more rain…
The rain is shitty so I give up on trying to hike and instead turn around and go find some hot springs, inspiration courtesy of my awesome National Geographic road atlas that also has info on national parks. It’s a bit of detour from my route, but that’s the point of a road trip no?? I splurge on some hot baths - I love me some thermally heated pools. I meet a woman named Maisy who seems very cool and nice and who offers me a place to stay. I end up declining, partially because I want to get a head start on my long drive tomorrow, and partially because I’m not quite tapped out of solitude yet. It’s actually something I’m struggling a bit with: on the one hand, I want this trip to be full of solitude and I don’t feel like I’m going to get as much of it as I’d like; on the other hand, I want to say yes to adventure and go with the flow as opportunities arise. Still trying to figure out where to strike the balance…
Anyway it’s probably fine because the campground she recommended is yet another that tentacles out into a lake and it is beautiful here. I made quesadillas out of my leftover taco filling and tomorrow I think I’ll make migas for breakfast. Life is good.
St. Francis –> Little Rock, AR –> Ozarks National Forest
Man, Arkansas is not a state I’ve given a lot of thought to. Which I might be wrong about: it seems really pretty and fairly lovely here! I had a phone call scheduled so I headed to Little Rock and set up shop at a lovely cafe with coffee, internet, and bagels (the holdover Sonic coffee was so bad, noted). Stock up on groceries and camping gas, and I’m off to the Ozarks!
Slept at Haw Creek Falls campground, a really beautiful site with a creek nearby and also lots of flash flood warnings. It’s supposed to rain all night and all day tomorrow, we’ll see how it goes…
The camp itself is exactly what I want: only one other RV there (with no sign of life – I don’t understand what these RV campers do all day and night), feels like I have the whole forest to myself.
Ithaca –> Nashville and Nashville –> Memphis –> St. Francis National Forest
After a much needed rest day, I take a Lyft to the airport in Syracuse to catch my flight. The Lyft driver isn’t fazed at all that I’m asking him to drive me an hour away, he says he does it all the time. I guess in these more rural areas, Lyft drivers are more regional than in a denser city like Boston?
My second flight is delayed (obvs), but I finally make it back to Nashville around 4 or 5 pm. My car is still there!
I drive to Memphis for dinner, and Memphis is exactly everything I wanted Nashville to be which it wasn’t. I only walked around Beale St, but still: the street was closed to traffic, there was copious live music that all sounded good, and it wasn’t just a basement frat party. Really wanna go back with some friends to get down and really appreciate the funky music that was playing everywhere.
It’s about another hour to St. Francis National Forest, which is also called Mississipi River State Park. It’s also in the same National Forest system as the Ozarks, which makes no sense to me because the Ozarks forest is very far away. My camp is amazing though, at the very tip of some tentacling land that goes into the lake. Amazing!
Part 2 begins!!
Part 2 of my road trip officially begins!! (Boston to Nashville was the prelude to part 2, this is the real deal now). Here’s the “plan”:
April 13 - April 15: Ithaca
Ilana, a former postdoc in the Alm lab and current rockstar new professor at Cornell, invited me to give a talk at a microbiome hackathon she hosted. It was a really fun weekend catching up with her, her twin baaaabies, and my friends Scott and Georgia (Scott was also invited to give a talk). The talk was fine, though it would have been much better with more time to prep (oh well, so it goes). If you want to see it, it’s available on my website. Beyond work, we also got a quick hike through Ithaca’s gorges in – GORGEous!!
Oh and did I mention baaaaabies? (I don’t want to put pictures of Ilana’s babies on the internet so here’s one of me with the baby cropped out).
A side note that 3 out 4 of my flights to and from Ithaca didn’t work out as planned: my flight from Nashville to Philly was delayed, which made me miss my connection to Ithaca. So I stayed the night in Philly and took the next morning’s flight to Ithaca (which was on time). But then my flight back to Philly was canceled because of weather, so I ended up staying a whole extra day in Ithaca (mostly catching up on sleep and internet, lol) before leaving out of Syracuse to DC. That flight was delayed, and so was my DC to Nashville one. It’s amazing to me how airlines are so uncommitted to delivering the services they’ve promised! Gr. But oh well, I was glad to have the option to take this silly detour and I think I actually really needed that extra day chilling in Ithaca.
April 8 - April 12: Boston to Great Smoky Mountains to Nashville
After a brisk ~19 hours back in Boston, I was off again to the prelude for part 2 of my cross-country road trip! Ben joined me for this part, and we stopped at his sister’s place in Philly on the way down (much later than we would have liked, my bad…) Our goal was to get to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which ended up taking us more than a day of driving given errands and other random stops. We attempted to go to a campground that was closed, and so just camped at the trailhead “next door” instead.
The next day was again a lot of driving, but since we were making good time we decided to stop at some whiskey distilleries on our way to the park. Turns out Tennessee whiskey is actually just moonshine, and that you can get super creative with creamer in your cocktails who knew. Not a super huge fan, but it does make me want to try the Kentucky bourbon trail a lot more! Hopefully it’s more than gaudy distilleries in parking lots selling moonshine. XD
After driving through a regurgitated amusement park known as Sieverville, we made it to the park! It turns out Dollywood is right there, and it was so amazing how quickly the gaudy restaurants and attractions immediately switched to the park. We found a lovely secluded campsite at the campground and proceeded to drink the Gentleman Jack we had picked up in Sieverville (which just tastes like regular Jack, but slightly less bad…)
The next day was pretty perfect, and is the day I count as my birthday in my heart. We got up, had a vending machine feast (including terrible coffee, decent hot chocolate + instant coffee, and amazing Tim Tam slams), and went for a hike!
Then we were off to Nashville, where Ben found an amazing airbnb that was a garage converted into a super lovely studio apartment. After a quick shower, we hit the town, which was … so disappointing. The first area we went to had one bar with live music that was pretty decent (and which also introduced us to spiked Capri Suns – brilliant!) But then we went downtown to Broadway and it was just bar after bar of The Hong Kong but worse. Multiple stories of bad music, bad drinks, and a bad atmosphere. It was like an entire strip of frat parties for adults. Really didn’t love the place, but we managed to have a great time anyway. :)
March 31 - April 7: New York
My first stop after returning from Malaysia was to New York, “for a conference”. I technically helped organize this conference, but my main contribution to it was definitely live-tweeting it while there. This conference was especially fun because it (1) is a group of people I’ve gotten to know through various parts of my PhD (including my favorite postdoc-now-professor Sean Gibbons!) talking about a topic that I think is fun to think about (statistics wooo) and (2) was my last “official” thing as part of Eric’s lab and also technically no longer my field (I’m much more interested in talking about sewage than the microbiome, tbh) so there was absolutely no pressure to read any follow-up papers or make lasting contacts, I was just there to enjoy it and be present in the moment! A no-strings-attached conference, what a wonderful experience!
After the conference, I stayed for the rest of the week and weekend to hang out with friends. I stayed with Megan during the week, in her lovely new apartment in Brooklyn and then with Jacob and Chantal in their lovely apartment in Brooklyn over the weekend. An aside: all of my New York friends are moving into mansions in Brooklyn, it’s amazing.
I took basically zero pictures while in New York so you’ll have to trust me at my word that it was a lot of fun, filled with delicious food and tea and a craft beer festival and brunch and friends. :D
March 10 - 27: Malaysia
For this part of my “road trip,” I’m in Malaysia on a sampling trip with the Global Microbiome Conservancy, a really cool project started by two postdocs in Eric’s lab (and some others) which aims to preserve global microbial diversity by sampling stool from people all around the world, including indigenous communities often left out of traditional microbiome research. Scientifically, it’s also fascinating: industrialization and sanitation have radically changed our human-associated microbes, and many of the gut bacteria in people living traditional lifestyles have disappeared from the microbiomes of people living more industrialized lifestyles (like me!). I encourage you to take a look through their website, because their model is actually pretty cool and they’re actively trying to de-colonize the way they’re doing this science as much as possible.
You should also check out the project’s Instagram and Twitter pages for more info on the trip and some really beautiful photos.
I’m on this trip with Mathilde and Mathieu, two postdocs in the lab; Chris, a former postdoc and the photographer for this trip; and Eric, my advisor (but just for a week).
I’ll continue with my theme of writing the most recent post on top (which I’m just now realizing is nice to keep up with the latest, but must be very annoying to read. Sry.)
Kuala Lumpur: March 22-27
After a very long drive from Tasik Banding back to Kuala Lumpur, we got one rest day and then three days of urban sampling and outreach talks.
Our rest day started with a bit of “glandouillier” in the morning, and then we headed to the Petronas towers for some required photos and then Chow Kit market for a wander and some lunch. Next, we went to the National Mosque and walked about 10 minutes to a butterfly garden - so lovely! (Except for the insect exhibit with very active millipedes NIGHTMARE)
If you know me, you know how much I love market lunch… happy Claire!
The next few days will consist of us mostly processing stool from already-recruited participants and giving a couple of talks to the general community and to the university we’re collaborating with. (The overall project setup is that we get two rural/traditional lifestyle sites and one urban site per country). I’ll spare you the photos of the poop, it’s super gross. And, just, a terrible juxtaposition when I’m processing samples while also hungry. THE WORST.
Tasik Banding: March 18-21
Our second field site was near Tasik Banding, another four hours’ drive from Gua Musang and in the Royal Belum State Park. Here, we’re visiting the Jahai people. The village is about an hour or two’s boat ride from the jetty. We’re staying on a houseboat about 25 minutes from the village and taking speed boats to and from there.
Here, our sampling was organized a bit differently. After a few short setbacks, we set out to the village in the middle of the day to do a short talk about the project, give out lunch to the whole village, and provide donation bowls for interested potential participants. Luckily, we got about 9 samples returned to us on this first day, which is really exciting!
Yesterday was another sampling day, starting out pretty quick but dwindling in the afternoon. Rather than lug the dry shipper and processing materials in and out of the speed boat, we’re bringing back the samples and processing them on the houseboat. Truly a poop deck.
Photo courtesy of Chris, our “official” photographer.
Today was our last full sampling day, with an unfortunately small number of samples. Got a break from the long waiting near the end of the day, when we colored with lots of the village kids in the coloring books we brought. Two fascinating observations: (1) the kids knew that the Frozen and Mickey Mouse books were for the girls and the Spiderman and Hulk books were for the boys. I don’t think this was as engrained in the earlier village we visited, which was far more remote. These kids were super young, probably around 3 or 4. Amazing how infused these things are everywhere… (2) Almost all of the girls gave their princesses black hair. Refreshing! The crayons we had weren’t great, so verdict is still out on what skin color they were attempting to give these princesses… We definitely did our best at showing them how to think outside the box with our versions of the superheroes! Or should I say that we showed them how to color outside the lines? ;)
Since I’ve been mostly focusing on work, let me make sure to also talk about life: the food here is amazing and the weather is freaking perfect. Even in the days when we’ve done nothing, I’ve frequently caught myself thinking “man I’m so glad to just be existing.” I was not made for the Boston cold, it’s true.
Gua Musang: March 14-17
Our first sampling site was in Gua Musang, about a four hours’ drive away, to visit the Batek people.
We met with the local JAKOA officers when we arrived. JAKOA is the Malaysian organization charged with overseeing the affairs of the Orang Asli, the term used to refer to the indigenous peoples of Malaysia. Orang Asli itself means “original people.”
There were two main villages identified for sampling, and we set out to visit the first one the next day. We had to drive through a palm plantation to get to the villages, which was at first beautiful (palm trees look pretty good) but eventually quite depressing (monocultures are not good for the world).
The first village we sampled is still nomadic, and so even though a local team member had visited two weeks prior, the village had moved since then and we had trouble finding it!
After meeting with the village chief, we spent the first day here giving out questionnaires and buckets for people to poop in. And by “we”, I mean our team of local collaborators. Eric and I did pretty much nothing most of the day. (Not sure if it’s a bonus or a downside, but I think I spent as many hours with Eric in the last few weeks as I did during my entire PhD… XD)
The next day we came back to collect the samples, but found that very few people had donated. Some back-and-forth and a lot of waiting later, and we managed to get about 10 samples from this village.
The next day was also a lot of waiting, first at this village and then at another one closer to the paved road from the palm plantation. Still not as many samples as we’d hoped, but not to worry we kept ourselves busy:
This village obviously has a lot more outsider influence, and while there we saw two different groups coming to play with the children, give basic first aid “medical clinic” services, and give out food and clothes. Both of these groups were Muslim. It seems that many of the Orang Asli villages in Malaysia are being converted to Islam, so it’s pretty fascinating to have witnessed some of this firsthand and have some pretty nuanced conversations about it. Happy to discuss more offline, in a non-public non-internet forum.
Finally, our third day of sampling was again a lot of waiting around for samples. As a last-ditch effort, we also headed to a third village, even more developed than the other two and led by a local JAKOA collaborator, sort of a representative for the Orang Asli in the area (I think). We got a few more samples and got to walk around this village, even getting to see blowguns being made! (Which we bought and you will be able to see if you visit the Alm lab).
Kuala Lumpur: March 10-13
We arrived on March 10 to Kuala Lumpur and immediately headed to a mall to take care of some errands. There was an official signing ceremony on March 11, and we then spent the next few days finalizing logistics and getting things prepped for sampling. For this trip, there’s a pretty large team of local collaborators (three PIs total, and a field team of four grad students, one postdoc, and one research associate).
Kuala Lumpur seems like a super cool city, and I’m struck by how futuristic it feels: it builds vertically so that you never really know which is the ground floor, there are elevated highways weaving in and out of each other, and through it all there’s lush greenery and palm trees. I really dig it.
I also got to meet up with a former colleague from Cambodia who’s now working in KL for delicious dinner on a (touristy) street with lots of street restaurants. We got grilled sting ray, which was delicious!
March 5, 2019
After some much-needed (but still insufficient) rest, we got delicious vegan tacos in Philly and headed back out. Great music, conversations, and rest stops made it a very enjoyable experience, even though the temperature more than halved by the time we made it back to Boston.
March 4, 2019
Ben’s flight was supposed to leave today, but given Boston’s big snowstorm we woke up and got tea while waiting for updates on his flight. Turns out it was delayed, so we got lunch and decided that we could just drive to Charlotte together where he could hop on a later flight to Boston there. Here he is telling the Jet Blue agent to re-book him on a flight in a city 6 hours away from his original flight:
Got on the road, and in South Carolina found out his Charlotte flight was canceled. (OBVIOUSLY – of course a 3 am delayed flight out of Charlotte isn’t gonna happen! XD) “We could just drive back.”
Ben’s sister lives in Philly and has a heart of gold, so we were able to crash with her when we got there at 4 am.
March 3, 2019
Our final stop, Atlanta! Got amazing crepes when we arrived, checked into our airbnb (which was in an art gallery!), fell in love with the neighborhood we’re staying in (so much street art!), and headed to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library (omg I know nothing about Jimmy Carter!). What an amazing man, so committed to peace. Reminded me that in an alternate life, maybe I would have liked to be a professional mediator. Can you imagine facilitating peace talks? What an amazing contribution to the world, so impactful and yet so invisible.
We then proceeded to go from amazing bar to amazing bar – Atlanta is so cool. First, great cocktails at the bar next door to our art gallery (did I mention we were staying in an art gallery?!) Next, a restaurant in an old warehouse converted into an upscale food court. Finally, sandwiches, amazing cocktails, and great people watching at Victory Sandwich bar (highly recommend!) Verdict: Atlanta is super nice, and definitely someplace that could be cool to live.
March 2, 2019
Explored what Talladega National Forest had to offer, which is mostly a lovely hike along a nice river to a weird swampy lake. We encountered two women, probably in their 60s, one of whom was training for her dream of doing part of the Appalachian Trail. One thing I’ve loved on this trip is getting to talk with older people who are out living their lives to its fullest. #goals
Arrived back at camp to an army of FSU EAPS students, putting up their tents and immediately proceeding to make a ruckus. No idea what they were there for (they didn’t seem to all know each other), but they were hilariously oblivious to our existence and very efficient at getting up and leaving early the next morning.
March 1, 2019
Woke up pretty late, so today was mostly driving to Talladega National Forest in Alabama, which is about 2 hours away from Atlanta.
Not much to report, except that we saw more accidents on this drive than I’ve seen in my entire trip so far, including multiple cars that ran off the highway into the grassy median separating the two highway directions. wtf Alabama.
Stayed at a nice campground, on the first open day of the season!
February 28, 2019
Started the day with beignets at Cafe du Monde, obviously.
We spent most of the rest of the day wandering the French Quarter, intermittently hiding from the rain.
Turns out Mardi Gras is on Tuesday so the festivities are already starting. Walked a lot of the parade route, with our Peet’s Coffee to-go daiquiri in hand (obvs), and saw the Knights of Babylon parade. Got lots of beads but somehow failed to take any photos of the parade!
Then, headed to Frenchmen Street, where every single bar had no cover live music: my heaven! Started with a great brass band (with a very effective “I feel like tippin’ the band” song), then a jazz band with an amazing drummer (with white lipstick and heart-shaped sunglasses), and finally a generic rock band in a cozy bar. Would recommend!
February 27, 2019
Another mostly driving day, which felt like a time warp: Google started out saying it would be about 6 hours, but 4 hours later I still had 4 hours left. Maybe my brain is bad at rounding or too optimistic, or maybe I’ve found an alternate dimension.
Today was the first day I got bored driving, which is pretty notable. (AKA - send me more playlists, y’all!)
Most exciting thing today was getting coffee at Honey’s Coffee in New Waverly, Texas – with the light pink Mary Kate car parked outside, and two professional-looking Southern women having a conversation I would have loved to eavesdrop on inside.
Picked up Ben at the airport (it’s our third date (!)), had a beer at the nearby beer garden (sitting outside (!!)), and spent the night at an airbnb (a real bed (!!!)).
February 26, 2019
And we’re back on the road!
Ran some more errands this morning, chopped off all my hair, squeezed a last trip to Amy’s, and went back on the road to get a head start to New Orleans.
Not much more to report than that. Tonight I’m in Sam Houston National Forest, my first national forest stop!
February 24 and 25, 2019
Miss this place, grateful for my longtime friends, and so happy anytime I get to come by.
Februrary 23, 2019
Big Bend National Park –> Austin, TX
Another long driving day today. Managed to stay off of I-10 for a while though, got to see some excellent Texas countryside.
Three excellent things happened today:
I had lunch at the Oasis Cafe, where the staff talked to everybody like they knew each other so well. And where the border patrol lady from the checkpoint nearby (where I did stop this time!) came to pick up her milk shakes.
Drove right through Fredericksburg without even once thinking about stopping in antique shops. Felt so good. (As a kid, we were often dragged to Fredericksburg to go antique shopping and it was SO BORING OMG)
Had a Fast Dryer reunion because Lauren was also in town tonight! Lots of fun reminiscing about high school, realizing all the people (but not names!) that we’ve forgotten, and being fiercely reminded by Shelby that even if we weren’t the greatest musicians, being in an all-girl punk rock band in 8th grade was awesome and brave and we should be proud.
February 22, 2019
Big Bend National Park
I’m actually writing this on the 23rd, and I’m glad I waited a day to do so because now I can paint you a full landscape of solitude.
Most of the day was full of excellent solo hiking. Big Bend is weird because there’s a lot of driving to lots of different short hikes, which is especially nice to do alone because it avoids decision fatigue. You just do what you want.
Hiked to the Santa Elena canyon, which my friend-with-the-two-thumbs-up from the other day told me about and added, with a scoff, “build a wall”.
Did a few other hikes as well on the drive back, loved the feeling of going at exactly my own pace at every moment. Nobody but me and the desert.
Got back to camp, my head hurt and I was feeling very lazy so I decided not to cook a full-on dinner and instead just ate some leftover pasta. Picture the scene: one girl sitting next to her car in the desert in the dark, slicing of some swiss cheese and putting it in her mouth at the same time as cold pasta to make like she was eating pasta with cheese, alone and doing exactly what she felt like doing even if some part of her felt like she should be less lazy and make real food, or like this scene should somehow be sad. In the experience of it: just neutral.
Then I headed to sleep fairly early because of the headache and the long drive ahead of me. It was super windy, so after an hour of feeling like the tent was going to fly away, I decided to pack up and just sleep in my car. Turns out the wind had slid my phone under my mattress and I shattered the screen (big ol’ bummer). It was also pretty difficult and nerve-wrecking to pack up the tent in gale force winds without it flying away. Not the greatest. Also not the worst.
February 21, 2019
Big Bend National Park
Did two hikes today in Big Bend, both were supposed to be 3 hours but ended up being more like 1 or 1.5 – I think Big Bend is tailored more toward the RV crowd than the live-out-of-your-car crowd!
So far, pros of traveling alone:
- You can sleep in exactly how much you want.
- Packing up camp or moving onto something new can be super fast.
- You can say your internal monologue out loud and no one has to know.
Cons of traveling alone:
- No one to help you navigate, change the playlist, or look stuff up on the drive.
- Don’t have anyone to outsource making decisions to.
- Sometimes you can’t open your cayenne pepper to remove the protective seal for your avocado toast.
BUT THAT’S OKAY I don’t need no man I’m an independent woman and I figure it out!
Had a good chat with a Polish man at the top of Lost Mines trail (so beautiful!) and then headed to my new campsite for a stupendous sunset.
Sitting in the back of the car, warm weather and beer in hand – life doesn’t get better than this.
February 20, 2019
Madera Canyon Trail –> Big Bend National Park!
Attention everybody, we have had our first bluebonnet sighting!!!
We are indeed truly in Texas.
I drove the ~3 hours left to Big Bend today, and was lucky to find a camping spot in the backcountry for the next few days. I thought Big Bend was supposed to be quiet, but it’s basically all full right now - partly due to the nice weather, partly due to the shutdown.
The reason I’m here is that (1) I grew up in Texas and never came here, which is a shame and (2) when people asked me where I wanted to go on my post-PhD roadtrip Big Bend was the first thing that came to mind, and so after a while of repeating it I figured I might as well go for it. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, I suppose.
Hung out at some hot springs, got two thumbs up from a retired guy when I told him I was traveling by myself, did a very short hike, and made it to my campsite before dark (for the first time this trip)! Also pretty pumped to be sleeping in my tent, where I can actually sit up straight and starfish all I want! :D
Feburary 19, 2019
Indian Bread Rocks –> El Paso, TX –> somewhere between El Paso and Big Bend (Madera Canyon Trail roadside camp)
Today was a big driving day.
Today’s thoughts: I-10 is an amazing beast, New Mexico is amazingly way less amazing than Arizona, highway signs don’t fuck around. I now know what to do in case of a dust storm (pull over, turn off car, foot off brake pedal, wait till dust settles). New Mexico does not mess with dust storms. A bit bummed I didn’t experience one, tbh.
My favorite highway sign so far: there’s a prison in the area, “please” don’t pick up hitchhikers. It’s the only one that’s not yelling at you, like it’s reasoning with you and making sure you’re both on the same side of the issue.
Turns out Big Bend is really far from things. Also turns out there isn’t much BLM land in Texas. Given my lack of preparation, ended the day a bit earlier than the past few days (i.e. around 8 pm instead of 10) at one of the few campgrounds I saw on the app I’m using (FreeRoam) between here and there.
Tomorrow, off to Big Bend!
February 18, 2019
Sonoran Desert –> Mesa, AZ –> Indian Bread Rocks camp
Spent most of today in an extremely suburban coffee shop in Mesa, AZ getting some work done. I thought I was in an apartment complex (I might have been).
Paid homage to my birthplace before leaving:
Some thoughts. Wow Mesa is so flat and expansive. I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents, two Frenchies with two kids, to move here from France. The desert is beautiful though, and I love when Arizona looks like its license plate (which is not that infrequently, as far as I can tell). Must be in my blood.
Had dinner in Tucson, where I realized that it takes an accumulation of 3-4 independent things to get my sketchiness/poverty alarm bells ringing. Today, this was:
- A man and a woman in a fight on the street, the man yelling after her, as she’s walking away from him.
- The security guard at the gas station, right by the entrance.
- The two security guards at the grocery store, right by the entrance.
- There being more Dollar Generals than actual grocery stores. (This was the one that clinched it for me)
Am trying to get to Big Bend soon, but my timing isn’t great and there doesn’t seem to be too many BLM campsites between here and there that aren’t huge detours.
Because I left Mesa so late, just made it to Indian Bread Rocks BLM campsite tonight, a bit over two hours outside of Tucson. It started raining/snowing on the drive; driving into oncoming rain with your headlights on in the dark feels like being in a wormhole.
February 17, 2019
San Diego, CA –> Sonoran Desert National Monument
I flew to San Diego on Wednesday. I finished up some reviewer comments, got everything I need for my trip (except all the things I forgot), and now I’m off.
To catch everybody up: I’m borrowing my parents’ car (Subaru Forester XT, 4-wheel drive woop woop) and road tripping around the US.
The plan so far:
- February: Leave from San Diego, head straight to Big Bend. Then Austin, New Orleans, and anywhere else on the way back to Boston that’s interesting and warm-ish in February.
- March: Go to Malaysia on a sampling trip with the Global Microbiome Conservancy.
- Early April: Head to New York for the Microbiome Center’s workshop and spend a week there visiting friends. Go back to Boston for my Lasik appointment on April 7th.
- April – May: Drive back to San Diego, this time via Nashville, Memphis, maybe St. Louis, and all the Southwestern and Western parks I can do. Definitely on the list are Badlands, Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone. (Are those even possible to do all on the same trip? No idea. Haven’t gotten that far yet). Also Seattle and SF, of course.
- June: Be back in Boston in time for Commencement. Then, probably head off to Europe to see Carolyn, my family, and my friends’ wedding in Greece!
I’m hoping to keep this updated during my road trip parts, at least with a photo of where I slept the night before. Maybe I’ll also include a selection of thoughts I’ve had on the road or experiences I had that day. We’ll see.
For today, one lulz for you: I accidentally “blew right through” a stop sign at a border patrol checkpoint. Thought it was like at the Mexican border where you just slowly inch your way through but nope, the dude thought I was legit trying to get away from them. “Good thing you stopped,” he said, “or there would have been a chase.” Good thing I’m a harmless-looking white girl, I thought, though I probably shouldn’t push it by taking this moment to put more eye drops in my eyeballs.
Here’s where I slept tonight: