A Western Adventure

Mount Rainier, Washington

One afternoon this past April, I was sitting in a coffeehouse downtown with my friend Joe. We were cramming for finals and chatting about future travels and our life aspirations, when suddenly we thought, why not now? Why should we wait to start experiencing the world? These questions fueled our imaginations, and before we knew it, we'd pushed aside our studies for the night, called Cody and Robert, and started planning what would soon be one of the greatest adventures of our lives. Over the next few months, we were saving up, booking flights and preparing for a two-week-long trip exploring the Western United States.

Since being under the age of 21 prevented us from being able to rent a car, Cody and I volunteered to make the 2,000- (you heard me–2,000) mile drive from home to Tucson, AZ, where Joe and Robert would fly out to join us. When it came to be the night before we left, Cody and I were so excited that sleep was almost impossible. Then finally, it was July 10th, and it was time to begin our journey. We were on the road by 7:00 AM and nothing shy of exhausted, but felt elated by the fact that the trip was finally here. We passed through Alabama and Mississippi, alternating driving shifts before stopping for dinner in New Orleans. Cody is a Nola veteran, but it was my first time, and I was instantly drawn in to this curious city full of eccentricity in both its atmosphere and people. We ate at the Market Café, where I had my first café au lait and po-boy, a type of sandwich native to the city. We were on a tight schedule, but we still made time to walk through Bourbon Street and Jackson Square and take a stroll by the Mississippi River. At sunset, we got back on the road for the last stretch of our drive for the day, which would take us to our destination in Houston, TX, and rack up an entertaining but tiring 18 hours in the car. We arrived just before midnight, and had probably never in our lives been so excited to see a bed. 7:00 AM came too soon, and once again we faced another 16 hours of driving–this time, the dreaded all-day drive through Texas. We stopped in Austin, where we went to Jo's Coffee for iced tea, which was incredibly refreshing in the Texas heat. Before leaving, we briefly roamed through the streets of this incredibly charming city, wishing we'd had more time to spare. The middle of the state had little to offer. Many, many hours were spent driving through completely desolate areas with no civilization in sight for hundreds of miles. The increasing elevation and gradual decrease of the color green was what kept us going; we were finally entering the desert. Crossing the Arizona state line was a feeling like no other, and the closer we got to Tucson, the longer each mile felt, knowing that our journey was almost complete. When I parked in my sister's driveway, we sat in silence for a few moments before bursting into laughter and high-fiving at the notion that we had just driven from one side of the U.S. to the other in under two days. Sleep welcomed us like an old friend, and in the morning we picked up Joe and Robert from the airport. I spent the day giving them a tour of Tucson, where Cody and Joe had their first In-N-Out burgers, followed by a trip to Saguaro National Park, one of my very favorite places. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying our last few hours of rest before our adventure began.

The next morning, we woke up at 5:00 to head to our first destination: the Grand Canyon. On the way, we stopped in Sedona, whose deep orangey-red rocks were just as beautiful as I'd heard. We continued our drive where the scenery soon changed; forests of pines surrounded us and the temperature quickly declined. We made a detour in Flagstaff for lunch and got to the entrance of the Canyon just before 4:00 PM, which unbeknownst to us, was apparently prime entry hour. We waited in line for about 30 minutes, at which point the guys' stir-craziness set in, as they rolled down the windows and sang obnoxiously to Linkin Park. I acted embarrassed, but in actuality I was thoroughly entertained (as were the dozens of other cars around us). It was raining when we first arrived, but it didn't take long to clear up. For Cody and Joe, this was their first time at the Canyon, so Robert and I walked them up to the lookout with hands over their eyes. Getting to be there for their first time was incredible. When they let go, they immediately became overwhelmed with the beauty in front of us. As was I. It was my second time, but a view like that will never cease to be amazing. Joe and Robert, being the adrenaline junkies they are, climbed all around, hiking to as many ledges as they could. After hours of exploring the Canyon, we decided it was time to make our drive to the next stop on our trip: Las Vegas.

The hilarity of our drive to Vegas most likely stemmed from extreme delirium, and I don't remember much of it, but at one point we were all completely in tears from laughing so hard. As the sky grew darker, we grew quieter. We got lost somewhere in Nevada and ended up on a road that added an hour to our drive, and with no upcoming exits in the near future, we pulled over on the side of the road to switch drivers. Since it wasn't a busy road except for an occasional semi every five minutes, we all decided to get out and stretch. When our eyes adjusted, we were caught off guard by the beautifully clear sky, entirely devoid of light pollution. Stars were freckled across, leaving not a single empty space and generously offering the sight of the Milky Way, completely unveiled before us. Robert and I laid on the roof of the car and photographed the sky while Cody and Joe stood below gazing in awe, absent-mindedly sharing a cigarette. This view plus the comfortably warm air made it difficult for us to want to leave, but the late hour was creeping in, and after about 20 minutes we decided to continue on with our drive. We arrived in Vegas just before 1:30 AM, excited to unwind after the busy day. We spent the next day exploring the city, browsing through its famous hotels, such as the Venetian, and Caesar's Palace. It was my second time visiting Sin City, and I had fun showing them around. We took our obligatory selfie in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign the following evening, and then brought Cody to the airport, where he unfortunately parted ways with us for the remainder of the trip. The next morning Joe, Robert and I made our way to the next location: Los Angeles.

Our arrival into LA was much different than I had expected. We made the mistake of going downtown first in search of food; it was incredibly gritty, there was nowhere to eat, and at one point we walked past three men getting handcuffed. Incredibly hungry and a little frustrated, we drove out of downtown and into an area of LA called Los Feliz, where we found a great place to eat. I wish I could remember the name of the place, but they had great coffee and delicious food, and the wait staff was more than welcoming. Suddenly it felt right being in Los Angeles. We walked down the Walk of Fame, which was slightly less glamorous than I'd imagined but still exciting nonetheless. In the early evening, we headed to Griffith Park for sunset. It was busy and the hike up to the observatory was more than we had anticipated, but the view was wonderful. We watched the sun go down as the city lit up and toured the inside of the observatory, then headed to our hotel in Anaheim.

In the morning, we backtracked a bit to drive through Beverly Hills (and may or may not have been listening to Weezer while doing so). After we were done being touristy, we drove into Malibu and our impressions of California changed entirely. Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway with mountains stacked with houses to our right and the ocean to our left, we felt immersed in the beauty and the lifestyle of Southern California. We ate at Moonshadows, a restaurant perched over the ocean with giant windows that revealed nothing but crystal blue water all around.

Our drive from Malibu to San Francisco was one of my favorites. We drove through mountains and hills of nothing but farmland all through the evening, playing music and laughing at anything and everything. We stopped once we finally hit a rest area and spent close to half an hour there for a break, while goofing around and taking selfies on my camera. After sundown, Joe fell into a deep sleep for the rest of our drive. We drove over a foggy bridge, and when it cleared, there it was: the glistening city of San Francisco. We excitedly shook Joe until he woke so that he wouldn't miss the view. The hotel we stayed at here was our absolute favorite of the trip. The Chancellor Hotel was its name; it was built in 1914 and was one of the most quaint and adorable hotels, with its abundance of green upholstery and gold finish. Our room had a fire escape outside the window, which we were incredibly excited for and spent a great deal of time on, thanks to the great view it gave us from above. After we got settled in our room, we walked up the street to a Thai restaurant and were surprised by the unexpectedly chilly air. That night, we fell asleep to the sounds of the city below.

We woke up bright and early, feeling really optimistic about what San Francisco had to offer. We walked a few blocks to Fisherman's Wharf; this is when we were introduced to the famously steep inclines of the city. It was easy to pick me out as the tourist in a crowd of locals… My legs were not up for the challenge! We ate at a restaurant on the water, which had floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed you to see Alcatraz across the way. We were never able to ride a streetcar because they were always full, but we still decided to take advantage of city transit and took a trolley bus to the Golden Gate Bridge. Seeing this structure in person was a surreal experience. We spent a few hours exploring the recreational area before heading back to get ready for dinner. We ate at Café Claude, a French restaurant a couple blocks from our hotel, where we had what would be our best meals of the entire trip. After dinner, we strolled through China Town (even though everything was closed) along with Union Square. We turned in for the night and woke up early for our next part of the adventure: Yosemite.

Photo by Robert Elbert

Almost the entire drive to Yosemite was through rural farmland. The hills in the road were intense and we found entertainment in feeling our stomachs drop as we weaved through them. We arrived at the park in the afternoon and waited in traffic for two hours to park, which was making me antsy; I couldn't wait to start exploring. When we finally got out, it was just a short walk off the road until we were transported into a different world, wandering through meadows and dipping our feet in perfectly clear streams. We hiked the Falls, which was actually more of a climb, since the only way you could get up there was by climbing up the rocks. Being the klutz that I am, I could only make it so far before I started to feel uncomfortable, so I gladly stayed behind with our stuff while the guys continued onward with the climb. In the meantime, I took photos of the Falls and watched the most beautiful sunset unfold before my eyes. By the time we got back to solid ground, it was completely dark. We ate at the lodge and then drove further into the park to photograph the stars. While Robert and I took photos, Joe took the car to go find the facilities, leaving us basically stranded in the wilderness in pure darkness. As time passed, the occasional rustle in the bushes and lack of peripheral vision made us paranoid, and there was no sign of Joe. Almost an hour had passed when Joe miraculously found signal and called us explaining that he was lost, which didn't surprise us too much. 20 minutes later he found us again, and the whole situation in further detail ended up becoming one of our favorite stories to tell and always gives us a good laugh. We left the park around 2:00 AM, and drove straight through the night to the Redwood Forest.

I slept all night on the way to the Redwoods. We arrived early in the morning, changing and freshening up in the bathrooms before entering the forest. It's hard to explain just how it feels to be surrounded by these giants, but it's nothing short of mesmerizing. We spent a few hours getting mentally lost in the magnificence of the forest before deciding to head to our next destination: Portland, Oregon. We came across a pull-off for the beach below, and decided to stop since we had yet to step foot in west coast water. It was too cold for the beach for us Floridians, but we frolicked around anyway. There were cliffs all around us as a reminder that we certainly were not in Daytona Beach anymore. We got to Portland late that night, where we were finally able to shower. After being in nature and living out of the car for two days straight, needless to say it was a rejuvenating moment.

The following day, we treated ourselves by sleeping in a little bit to recoup from the past couple days. We hadn't educated ourselves on Portland as much as we thought, so we drove into the city not really knowing where to go or what to do. We walked aimlessly through the streets, which were incredibly charming, and found a place called Deschutes Brewery where we grabbed a bite to eat. Knowing that Portland is famous for their coffee, the only request I had for the day was to have a cup at a local shop. We found a coffeehouse in the Pearl District called Barista, which is native to Portland. They had a lovely deck out front that overlooked the street, and we sat there for a while to chat and enjoy the environment. We left the city and headed for Cannon Beach, about two hours away. We knew this town was famous for its unique beach with towering rocks just offshore, but we didn't know just how quaint and cute it was. We ate at a seafood restaurant not far from the beach, and it took us longer to be seated than we anticipated. The sun was starting to set and we hadn't yet received our food, causing us to become anxious because we wanted–actually, needed–to take photos on the beach before the sun went down. When we finally got our plates, Joe and Robert scarfed down their meals and I got mine to-go, and we made a run for the beach. The temperature dropped from 90 degrees to 60 (maybe less), which caught us off guard, but we were too excited to care. The sunset that night went from a warm yellow to a vibrant lavender in a matter of minutes. We dipped our feet in the ice cold water, and after our toes were frozen, we hopped in the car once more and headed for Seattle, where we passed out as soon as we hit the sheets.

Photo by Robert Elbert

We woke up in Seattle without much of a plan. We visited Pike Place Market and had lunch on a terrace overlooking downtown. The afternoon was spent driving around and sightseeing, and then we headed to the Space Needle. The view from the top of the Needle was chilly to say the least, but we were greeted with another purple sunset, and after nightfall, the city twinkled as we listened to the hustle and bustle of the nightlife below. We spent a few hours up there before heading back to the hotel to get some rest for our next piece of the adventure: Mount Rainier.

Mount Rainier was on my traveling bucket list, and nothing had prepared me for how I was going to feel that morning. I felt everything between nervous and overjoyed, and although the drive was only two hours, it seemed like an eternity. When we reached the park, I was overwhelmed with excitement and anticipation. Where I had been only daydreaming about visiting for so long was going to be right under my feet, right in front of my eyes. The beginning hike was hard on me; it was reminiscent of the hills of San Francisco, times 100. This combined with the thinning air was making it hard for me to keep up, but I eventually made it to the top where the ground finally leveled out, and I sure was glad I did. I turned around and was amazed at what I saw: snowcapped mountains and towering pines as far as I could see. My heart was filled with joy in this moment. As we continued upward on our hike, I kept looking behind me, watching the view become more and more grand as we went up. We reached a point where we were in the clouds (literally… in actual clouds). They were so thick that we couldn't make out much of the scenery around us. We stopped and sat on some rocks up there for a while, and I took photos while the guys skipped pebbles. Robert and I were wearing shorts and it was an icy 30 degrees, so eventually we started back down the mountain. We took a different hike on the way back, where we found the wildflowers in Paradise. The bright magenta of the petals popped against the otherwise earthy tones, and I felt like I was in fairyland. When we reached the bottom, hunger crept in quickly, and we had dinner at the lodge in an adorably rustic and homey restaurant. Afterwards, it was time for a drive we hadn't exactly been looking forward to: 16 hours straight to Zion National Park, Utah.

Getting to Utah went by faster than we thought. After the first few hours on the road, I took over driving. Joe and Robert were sound asleep as I drove from Oregon to Idaho, which was surprisingly one of the most wonderful drives of the trip. I drove for a couple hours on a road wedged between a mountain range, at the end of which the sun began to rise. I drove just out of Boise when I felt like I couldn't go any further, so Joe took over and I went to sleep. I woke up in Utah and Robert showed us around Provo, a city he lived in for a couple months. We finally made it to Zion in the evening, and Robert took Joe and I on a hiking trail he had done previously. At the top of the hike we had a fantastic view overlooking the canyon. We each found our own spots nearby each other, and just laid down on the rocks to relax and enjoy the warm breeze as we waited for the sun to begin setting. Once the sun sank behind the canyon, we began taking photos. I asked Robert to climb up on a rock on the ledge for a photo, and he was nervous the entire time but I was excited by how the photos came out and knew he would be, too. We stayed the night in a nearby hotel, where we finally had the chance to wind down for the first time in almost two weeks. We vegetated in the room and watched movies on AMC for the remainder of the night. We had one extra day to spare, and we came to the group consensus that Vegas was calling our name once more.

We arrived in Vegas the next afternoon, and were surprised with an amazing hotel room at the Westgate. We were on the 29th floor, the only level with balconies, and from it we had a great view of the Stratosphere and the city below. We spent the rest of the day until 11:00 PM relaxing and touring the hotel before going out. On the strip, we hit all the resorts that we'd missed during our last visit, such as Mandalay Bay and the Luxor. We got back to our room late and fell asleep just before sunrise.

The following day was our very last day of the trip. We drove to our hotel in Phoenix that evening, where we enjoyed the pool and went to In-N-Out for celebratory milkshakes. We watched Harry Potter and joked and laughed so hard we cried, and before we fell asleep that night we laid in bed recalling our favorite moments of our adventure. The morning came much too quickly, and I took the guys to the airport where they were on their planes by 10:00 AM. My 1 1/2 hour drive to my sister's house in Tucson was both incredibly depressing and extremely rewarding. I had just traveled across the Western United States with my best friends, and although it was over, I couldn't have been happier to have experienced it and to be able to share those memories with them.

I encourage everyone to travel when they get the chance. Take every opportunity you can to explore the world. There is so much out there to see, and knowing I've only scratched the surface is so motivating. Nothing brings joy to my soul quite like traveling, and I cannot wait for all the adventures that await me in the future.

Here's a video I put together, highlighting some of our travels!

Thank You's:
Thank you to Alana and Justin for opening up your home so that Cody and I could have somewhere to rest for the night. Thank you to Jenn and Troy, my sister and my bro-in-law, for letting my friends and I give you a full house for a bit as we prepared for our journey. Thank you to my mom for helping us find hotels to book at the last minute when we had minimal cell service. Thank you so much to my best friends for being as crazy as I am and taking off from work for two weeks to travel the country with me with only months' notice. And finally, thank you to my parents and my family for always supporting and encouraging my ever-growing wanderlust.

Gabby HallComment