Road Trip 2019
June 24, 2019
Summary: Photos and stories from my June 2019 road trip across the American Southwest.
To celebrate 30 years of successfully avoiding death I took a month off and explored California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon. During the long drives I had a lot of time to realize how privileged I am to be able to do a trip like this. The main reason I did the trip was to reflect on my life up to this point and think about what I want to accomplish in the next decade. The main goal I'm going to pursue is to increase the world's wealth and to share that wealth more equitably so that more people can do trips like this, if they so choose. But that's a topic for another day.
Road trips are an amazing form of vacation. If you've never done one, I highly recommend it. But I do feel guilty about all of the carbon emissions. I'm looking into ways to offset my pollution. If you know of a non-scammy one, please send me an email at email@example.com.
I rented a Ford EcoSport from National. The total cost was around $1300 without insurance, or $2400 with. $1100 for 4 weeks of insurance. Classic. I searched for workarounds and discovered that if you have car insurance, your insurance usually covers rentals. Only problem is I don't own a car. I stopped into my local AAA to see if they could do anything for me. They set me up with a NaNO policy, short for Named Non-Owner. For $300 I got very comprehensive coverage for a whole year. Aside from the insurance racket, National seems to be a quality operation. Another way I saved a little cash was by booking the car in weekly increments. At first I booked for 3 weeks and 3 days, and the total was about $1600. Then I tried booking for 4 weeks exactly and the total was around $1300. More time for less money. Weird.
I started off my road trip with 2 nights of dispersed camping at Loon Lake in El Dorado Forest. Dispersed camping is just a fancy name for old-school camping: go wherever you want, camp wherever you want.
The initial trail that I had planned on taking was completely snowed in, so I wandered up the eastern side of the lake. On the second day I found my way onto the huge peninsula that rests in the middle of Loon Lake and set up camp there.
One thing I love about hiking in the Sierra is the granite. Sometimes you walk across granite for hundreds of meters. Maybe even miles in some places.
I did take a dip in the lake. It was shocking. Literally. When I submersed, my body went rigid and my mind went into a blank panic. But it was worth it once I got out and laid on the warm granite and let the sun dry my body.
After Loon I started my drive down to Mammoth. Before this trip I've never had the idea to drive down the Sierra, north to south. It's amazing. You drive through valleys 6000 feet above sea level, flanked by towering mountains on both sides.
I rested for a night at an adorable little spot called Toiyabe Motel. I chatted up the owner, Sam, and learned about his life. Sam had worked as a printer for the Contra Costa Times for 24 years. When the owner died he didn't feel much allegiance to the paper any more so he bought a rundown old motel and has been improving it for the last 24 years. I'm inspired by stories like Sam's. I love to see people stake out a little plot of land and really take responsibility for it. Sam's a testament to what happens when you live by the credo "leave things better than you found them." With patience and discipline, it's amazing what kinds of transformations you can achieve over the years.
On the road to Mammoth I stumbled on Mono Lake, a saltwater wildlife refuge. The water is 3 times as salty as the Pacific, or something like that. 80% of California Gulls nest at Mono every year. As I approached, there seemed to be small puffs of cotton floating everywhere. I'm pretty sure it was actually down from the Gulls. The keystone species is brine shrimp. The Mono Lake species of brine shrimp is found nowhere else in the world. It sounds like a lot of locals have fought hard to preserve Mono. For many years water was being diverted from Mono to Los Angeles. There's an island in the middle of Mono, where the birds traditionally nested. The water got so low that the island turned into a peninsula. Coyotes crossed the peninsula and feasted on bird eggs, almost decimating the populations. Luckily there's another island that the birds could use as a backup. The conservationists have successfully lobbied to raise the lake's water level back up, and the peninsula is now an island again, but the birds haven't moved back to it. I guess it'll take a while before they trust it again.
Those other-worldly rock formations sticking up out of the lake are called Tufas. Calcium-rich springs flow up through the lake bottom. The Tufas form when the calcium bonds to carbonate in the water. The Tufas are only exposed when the lake level drops. So the Tufas also give you a sense of how high the lake used to be.
In Mammoth I car-camped at Convict Lake. A huge mountain towers over the campground. The sunsets were gorgeous. Didn't see any old-timey chain gangs.
There's a strenuous trail that starts at Convict Lake and ends 10+ miles away at another lake. I got about 3 or 4 miles and then had to turn around because the trail was completely snowed in. On my lunch break I cut off slices of salami with Old Timer, a knife that my uncle gave my brother, which I in turn took from my brother because he didn't seem to be using it. As I was slicing the salami I remembered all of the "DON'T FEED OUR BEARS!" bumper stickers that I had seen on cars around Mammoth. It was only at that point that I realized that it might not be smart of me to be 4 miles out from civilization, by myself, waving a slab of meat around on a windy day. Didn't see any bears, but I definitely jumped many times on the walk back whenever a bush rustled or a twig snapped.
After Mammoth I high-tailed it to Pahranagat Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. One of the amazing things about road tripping across the States are all of the well-maintained, 2-lane highways. Whenever I saw something cool, like the rocky hills below, I could just pull over and explore. There's something very cool about standing in the middle of a highway, with no other cars around for miles.
On this leg of the trip I stumbled across something called the Extraterrestrial Highway. Apparently Area 51 is around here. What's funny is that the highway felt surreal even before I knew its name. It's completely straight for a long time, maybe 100 miles. There's cows scattered about, grazing on little patches of grass surrounded by dirt. There's a town called Rachel with alien-themed tourist attractions.
The camping at Pahranagat sucked, but it was free, so beggars can't be choosers, I guess. The wildlife was amazing. Pahranagat is a natural freshwater oasis. Rain seeps into the ground thousands of miles away, travels underground, and re-emerges at Pahranagat. It's designated as a wildlife refuge because a bunch of migratory birds stop here each season. The types of birds visiting Pahranagat changes each season. There's trails all around the Refuge. It was cool to go from green oasis, to desert, back to oasis.
I had the bright idea to try a night hike through the Pahranagat desert. It was horrifying. It felt like living through a survival horror game. Watch the video with sound on to get the full effect.
At Pahranagat I learned the importance of setting up my tent's guy lines and not sleeping under widowmakers. At 3AM I woke up to a strong wind. My tent was pretty much collapsed sideways, the wind was pushing it so hard. For 15 minutes I stood outside like a jackass trying to figure out if I should just risk it and go back to sleep in the tent, or sleep in the car. In the end my paranoia got the best of me and I retreated into the car. When I woke the wind was still going. I'm pretty sure it was non-stop, 25 MPH wind the whole night through.
After Pahranagat I spent a few days in Zion. This is another one of those terrains that you've got to experience in person. Huge red mountains surround you on all sides.
I did an 11-mile hike, from the Lee Pass to Hop Valley. I've done 11 miles before. I was expecting it to take a half-day. Wrong. It took all day. There were lots of elevation changes, and long stretches of deep sand. It was like hiking across the dry sand of a beach. Also, my pack didn't get any lighter as the hike progressed. Usually when hiking your pack gets lighter, because you eat the food and drink the water in your pack, and leave your pee and poo on the trail. But Zion's "leave no trace" policy is so strict that you can't even leave your pee and poo on the trail. You've got to pack it out with you. Which sounds gross, but is actually not that bad thanks to WAG bags.
The stretch along La Verkin Creek was the highlight of the hike, by far. Here's a video of where I rested.
After Zion I drove 8 hours to Santa Fe.
I passed through Navajo territory and checked out their Visitor Center.
It's funny how photos usually don't do experiences justice. After driving hours I spotted this enormous rock launching out of the flatness. Even though I didn't go any closer to it, there was something magical about the experience. Turns out the rock is famous and is called Shiprock.
In Santa Fe I visited the New Mexico Museum of Art. The museum was surprisingly small. My favorite piece was Dwelling for Imaginary Civilization of Little People by Charles Simonds.
Here's part of the museum's description of the piece:
Charles Simonds' miniature dwelling is in the museum's permanent collection, a donation made by the artist and cultural critic and writer Lucy Lippard. The piece was made specifically for this niche in the patio. It is intended to deteriorate over time, due to the elements and "purposeful neglect," through a process that can be likened to the disappearance of various civilizations over the course of history. The village seems deserted, except for the spiders and the occasional bird, and that is how the artist wishes it to be.
I'm definitely a sucker for the adobe aesthetic.
There's a national park an hour from Santa Fe called Tent Rocks that's worth a visit. It's popular and crowd-controlled, though. If the park reaches capacity they don't let anyone in until someone leaves. I got there in the morning, right before the park opened, and didn't have to wait.
From Santa Fe I drove to Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park. It's called Petrified Forest because there are fossilized ancient tree trunks everywhere. When the trees originally floated down the prehistoric rivers they got filled with silicate, and the silicate fossilized. Some of the trunks reveal fabulous coloration when you polish them.
I did 2 nights of dispersed camping. Aside from the usual "leave no trace" policy the only rule was that you had to camp at least 1 mile from the parking lot. This was some proper wilderness camping. No trails. I picked a mountain in the northeast corner of the park as my destination. I saw no people.
The terrain changes kept things interesting.
Some deserts are full of life. This one felt barren. It was so quiet out there that my ears were often ringing. I did see a pronghorn, though. I was scanning the landscape with my binoculars, looking for a landmark, when all of a sudden I saw this deer-like creature just grazing and staring at me. I also pissed off a hawk.
I broke up the ride from Painted Desert to Joshua Tree with pit stops in Sedona and Phoenix. Sedona has a stunning natural backdrop like Zion. Phoenix has a surprisingly strong craft beer, coffee, and food scene. Seeing all of the grass lawns pissed me off. It takes an absurd amount of water to maintain a grassy lawn in a place that would otherwise be a desert.
My girlfriend, Stephanie, met me in Joshua Tree. We stayed at a great AirBnb in Yucca Valley called the Rusty Rabbit Ranch. It was here that I finally started to appreciate the beauty of Joshua Trees. There were jackrabbits and quail everywhere.
We also drove through Joshua Tree National Park.
Stephanie is all about sound baths. I enjoy them but don't actively seek them out. One cool thing about them is that they're usually hosted in interesting venues. We went to one at a place called the Integratron.
The Integratron was built by an aeronautical engineer in the 1950s, George Van Tassel, and financed in part by Howard Hughes. GVT claimed that the blueprints for the Integratron came directly from aliens from Venus. They told him that humans could be a great species, but each human didn't live long enough to achieve wisdom. The Integratron was supposed to harness magnetic and electric energy and direct it to a certain spot within the Integratron. When you stood on that spot the energy supposedly rejuvenated your cells and helped you live longer.
The architecture of the Integratron is fascinating. It's all wood and glue. The wood is the same old-growth Douglas Fir that was used on the Spruce Goose. No metal used for structural purposes. Supposedly the design is extremely stable. The acoustics of the sound bath were indeed amazing.
After Joshua Tree I hauled back to San Francisco. I went up the coast but it was foggy most of the time, which defeated the purpose of taking the long way home. After a few days of rest I joined my buddies Jeff, Adam, and Jayce (my brother) for our annual car camping trip, the Puma Prowl. We call it the Puma Prowl because one year we heard pumas --- AKA mountain lions --- screaming less than 100 yards away from our campsite. This year we went to Crater Lake because it's roughly halfway between here and Seattle, where my brother lives. We mainly just goof around, drink a lot of beer, cook ridiculously greasy food over the campfire, walk nature trails, and take a dip in whatever freezing body of water is nearby.
That's about it!