Greyhound Buses don’t have the best reputation. They’re often late (even by an hour or more), they’re sometimes dirty (forgoing cleaning because they’re late) and the fleet used for shorter distances is usually quite uncomfortable.
But, they’re not all bad. Apart from anything else, they service a lot of popular and obscure destinations in Australia, Canada, the USA, Mexico and parts of the UK. I am writing this from a Greyhound bus travelling from Lake Louise, Alberta to Toronto, Ontario in Canada. The trip cost me CA$150 (approx. £90) and by the time I arrive, I will have been on board for 64 hours.
I also will have saved on three nights’ accommodation, received unlimited power usage and WiFi and travelled 2,226 miles. Value to money ratio equals “ker-ching!”
I’ve made a few mistakes since being on this journey, but I think I finally have it sussed; the perfect way to prepare for and enjoy your three days on a bus. Allow me to explain a few things…
Food & Drink
Don’t underestimate the power of boredom on these journeys. You may think, “Oh, how lovely it will be to look out the window for three days straight and be totally at one with nature…” Trust me, there are only so many mountains and fields you can look at before you get totally fed up of nature altogether.
Buy lots of food and drink. Start with $30’s worth. Yes, it sounds a lot, but you will end up buying more at a rest stop, I promise. Be sure to buy some sugary stuff to help with drowsiness in the mornings, too.
There are people who are squeamish about using public restrooms. I understand that, but I’m not one of them. However, the Trans-Canada Highway is full of potholes, and after being thrown around like a rag doll whilst sitting on the john and emerging with an arse not only tinged blue, but chemically deodorised, potentially forever, I’m going to make a suggestion.
Stops are frequent and timed. They may be anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes. There will always be a lavatory. Use that one, not the one taken straight out of the ’70s’ fun house used in Grease’s penultimate number.
This section is personal preference, as I travel with a large 80 litre backpack and a smaller day pack. Anything bigger or heavier than a day pack will be stored underneath the bus for the entirety of the journey. Even if you transfer, magical gloved hands will whisk your bag to the next bus without you ever seeing it.
Here are a few things you may want to add to your carry-on:
- Food and drink.
- A warm jacket or blanket – it does get cold at night.
- Some form of entertainment – iPad, iPhone, iPod, Kindle etc..
- One (and only one) travel adaptor and plug – there are two North American style outlets per pair of seats, but they are close together and you will only fit one of those horrid bulky adaptors in at once.
- Charging leads – I brought a 30-pin old-style Apple cable and a Lightning new-style Apple cable; these will charge my iPhone, iPad and iPod.
- Change of underwear/socks/T-shirt – especially if the bus is longer than 2 days.
- Money – you will run out of food and drink.
- Photo ID – if you chose to print your tickets at home, you’ll need your passport/driver’s license for every new bus you take.
- Tickets for all journeys – you won’t see your stowed luggage until you arrive at your destination, remember?
- Camera – you may see a moose. Or 5,000.
- Earplugs – screaming children do happen. It’s an inevitability.
- Cigarettes/recreational drugs, if you’re into that kind of thing.
This is, without question, the most important factor on any long journey. It will determine whether you sit next to a baby, a druggie, a hottie or, my personal favourite, no-one at all. Before I tell you how, though, here are a few tips:
- Be keen. This stuff only works if you are one of the first on the bus. Try and be waiting at the security table before anyone else, then hover at the boarding gate. Easy.
- Don’t sit in the back seats. Whether you haven’t gotten over that high school feeling of being the king of the bus if you sat at the back (you weren’t, by the way, you were a tit) or whether you just don’t want someone kicking the back of your seat the whole way to your destination, avoid the back seats at all costs. Simple explanation: they recline about 30% as much as all other seats on board, which will drive you nuts on a long journey.
- Don’t sit in the aisle. Lots of reasons for this one: you won’t have access to charging points, you’ll only have one arm rest (a lot of the aisle rests don’t stay put), you’ll have either drunkards or people losing their balance falling into you as they make their way to the lav and you won’t ever get a chance to smash that massive window with that impossibly tiny red hammer.
Also, you’ll get a nicer view in the window seat. Aww.
- Sit 5+ rows from the front. Whilst driving at night, there mustn’t be any reflections off the windscreen of any kind that may distract the driver. Ergo, no reading lights or electronic devices allowed in the first five rows. Understandable, I suppose.
- Pick your side. This may seem daft, but there’re good reasons to think about this one. Vehicles drive on the right in North America, so if you decide to sit on the left, you will have bright headlights zipping across your vision from oncoming traffic. This can be avoided by sitting on the right, but at the cost of having the sun glaring at you at some ungodly hour when it rises. This is especially severe when driving across the flats of Saskatchewan and Manitoba where there are no clouds to soften the blow. Obviously, this is only a tough decision if you’re travelling West to East.
I decided that I didn’t fancy developing epilepsy on this trip, so I picked the right. The sunrise is actually quite spectacular.
- Reserve a seat. Sounds obvious, huh? Well, think again. For only CA$5.25, it’s more than possible to cheat the system, especially seeing as the buses are never normally full:
- Reserve your seat at the ticket counter. For instance, 40W (4 seats to a row = 10 rows back. W = window.)
- When you board (hopefully first – this is why it helps to be keen), walk to your reserved seat. There should be a napkin or piece of paper with the word “Reserved” clearly marked. Now sit in the seat behind it.
- You will notice that all the seats are in the upright position. Recline the seat you are in and the aisle seat next to you as far as they will go.
- Place your carry-on luggage on the seat next to you.
- Feign sleep (optional).
Et voilà! No-one will sit in the seat in front of you because it’s reserved. No-one will sit next to the reserved seat because they’d have to get up again when the person (me – already seated) boards. No-one will wake up the adorable sleeping young man to ask him to move his carry-on luggage. And lastly, no-one will sit in the two seats behind me because they wouldn’t have a lot of legroom, due to my seats being fully reclined.
All that allows me, as I have at this very moment, ample legroom, two reclined seats to stretch out over and no-one kicking the small of my back for the next 28 hours. Simple!
After our twelve day road trip had come to and end, Marina left for three weeks galavanting across Europe, leaving Alex, Billy and me with her car to use as we pleased. I knew, as did they, that we were already booked to spend time in San Francisco, leaving only one major city on the west coast untouched.
We drove to Seattle in a little over two hours, arriving at 11am. We had drawn up a list of sights to see and attractions to visit. The first was the Fremont Troll, which is aptly located underneath the north end of the George Washington Memorial Bridge. The troll, made of concrete, with a hubcap for an eye, clutches a real Volkswagen Beetle as if it has just swiped it from the road above.
The sun had come out, so we headed on to Alki Beach, located next to the marina, to stretch our legs in the pebble-ridden sand and dip our toes into the freezing Pacific. One ice cream later and we drove on to the campus of the University of Washington, where I cheekily parked up in a loading bay (because it was free) and spent the next half hour wandering around the beautiful campus.
With the first semester about to start, there was a lot of activity at the university. New students were undergoing orientation in the quad, returning students were studying in the Suzzallo library and professors and lecturers were walking briskly, heads bowed with multiple lever arch files buried under their arms.
By about 4pm, we had gotten half way down our list of “must-sees” and, with the next being to watch sunset over downtown, we had a few hours to kill. While looking for places to eat cheaply, we came across a hidden gem and headed there straight away. Kate’s Bar is located close to campus and offers a happy hour menu to rival all others.
I ordered a burger complete with tomato, mushrooms, bacon, Swiss cheese, relish, guacamole, lettuce, avocado and a fried egg with French fries for $6. It was so good I was tempted to order another, but I held back. I’ve regretted that decision every day since.
We drove on to Kerry Park, a small patch of greenery that is elevated enough to give a spectacular view over the city. The sun was setting behind us, casting an orange glow over the skyscrapers and the famous Space Needle. Along with a hundred other tourists, we snapped pictures from all angles and when satisfied, left for downtown itself.
I had bought a ticket for the Space Needle earlier that day, knowing I would have kicked myself later if I didn’t do it, so at 9pm, Alex and Billy dropped me off at the base, I got in the elevator and started the 41 second ascent up the tower to a height of 518 feet. We were told on the way up that 20,000 people a day visit the Needle; at $17 a ticket, it would take all of three days to garner a million dollar revenue from ticket sales alone.
Out of the windows of the glass elevator, I experienced a reverse sunset; looking out over the park we had just come from, the sun came more into view the higher we were whisked, the sky changing from black to red to orange. It was slightly surreal and very beautiful.
Once at the top, it took all of ten minutes for the sky to become as black as it had looked from the ground and, making my way around the outside walkway of the observation deck, downtown was revealed in all its illuminated glory.
We spent the rest of the evening and most of the early hours of the next morning on Capitol Hill. There are some very quirky bars in the area and I grew particularly fond of “Unicorn”, a two-tiered bar with good music and cheap drinks.
The night was fun, but by 3am I was falling asleep, so we drove ten minutes into a residential area with no street lamps and pulled up to sleep. Billy and I reclined the front seats and Alex lowered the back seats, stretching out into the trunk. It was a sleepless night for all and by 8am I was ready to get moving.
Next up was Pike Place Market, where one can essentially get breakfast for free by walking down its length, accruing samples of salmon, orange yoghurt covered peanuts and blackberry jam. The fish, especially, is brilliantly fresh and tastes better than any I’ve eaten before and since.
Our last stop in Seattle was the Market Theatre Gum Wall. Situated just a two minute walk from the market, the wall, as the name suggests, is covered in hundreds of thousands of people’s chewed gum. Patrons of the theatre started the tradition in 1993 and the workers scraped it clean twice before giving up. The gum is now several inches thick, stretching fifteen feet high and fifty feet long.
Alex had a meeting that afternoon in Portland, so we said our farewells to the amazing city and started the drive home.
I can honestly say I would move to Seattle in a heartbeat. I am typically drawn to smaller cities, more the size of Portland than LA, and Seattle is the perfect example of a picturesque city that one can’t really get lost in. I really do look forward to returning one day.
I had one final week in Portland before moving on to my last US city on this leg of my journey: San Francisco…
There are three things you need to know before you read any further:
- I have been travelling solo for nearly four months at this point.
- I’m not poor, but I’m not loaded either. I’m on a budget.
- Today has been a shit day.
Now, I wasn’t expecting rainbows without rain and I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be sunny for my entire time abroad. There are always going to be latitudes the sun doesn’t grace with its presence as often as others. I see myself (as I think others do) as quite an outgoing and optimistic person; I don’t know too many people who would up and leave home on a month’s notice.
I try not to complain.
However, I am currently on a Greyhound Bus from Whistler to Calgary with a short stopover in Vancouver. I’m deathly cold because the bus was an hour and a half late and I had to wait in the foggy drizzle at the bus station. My right shoe decided that today was a great day to get a puncture from a particularly sharp stone, so the inside is filled with water; it’s drying on the floor in front of me. For the same reason, I’m also only wearing my left sock. The right one is clamped between the footrest and the seat in front.
My feet are wrapped in my gilet. I hope some of the feeling comes back soon.
These long journeys (this one is 21 hours – my next, Lake Louise to Toronto, will be 64 hours straight) can get particularly lonely. It’s great travelling solo, honest. Being completely independent and generally choosing my own route without hinderance is great fun. I’ve combatted loneliness by means of CouchSurfing or staying in hostels – meeting people – but these long journeys do get a bit tiresome when the most interesting thing sitting next to me is my backpack.
Although, I suppose I have met people less interesting than my backpack, so it could be worse.
I am on a budget. I have to remind myself of that sometimes. Especially when I see a sushi restaurant. So, will I buy a new pair of shoes? No. I’ll buy some duct tape and try and make them a bit more waterproof. That’ll save me 40 bucks. Will I write to Greyhound and try and get compensation for the tardiness of its service? Already have. Awaiting response. That might get me 20 bucks back.
Money-wise, there is only one thing I dread: having to sleep outdoors because I haven’t been able to find a host on CouchSurfing and can’t afford a local hotel. This, annoyingly, is looking like the outcome at Lake Louise, a popular tourist destination that hotels take advantage of. I’ll keep looking and hopefully it won’t come to that.
“You said ‘I try not to complain’, yet that’s all you’ve done…”
True, but there is a reason. Sometimes, it’s necessary for me to look at the negative aspects, so that when I look at the positive aspects, I can see how much of a twoffy knob I’m being.
There is a saying that has become popular in the last couple of years: “first world problems”. This couldn’t be truer, because, yes I’m cold, I’m pretty tired and all I have to tide me over until tomorrow at midday is a half-bottle of Coca Cola and a packet of honey roasted peanuts, but I’m also in good health. And, here’s the kicker: I’m writing this post on my iPad using the free on-board WiFi, whilst listening to Jools Holland and Ruby Turner on my iPod and getting the occasional WhatsApp message on my iPhone. In Canada. Where I’m spending two months. Without working.
When I think about it like that, I couldn’t give a flying fuck if the sun doesn’t come out for the next six months and my foot turns blue.
Perspective is important sometimes.
I can now feel my toes.
Compared to the other driving stretches we had undertaken, the 125 miles to Los Angeles was a relatively easy journey and we arrived on Friday afternoon at Moonpad Hostel, our residence for the next three nights. It was technically full, so we were offered a beanbags and a couch for a cheaper price, which we accepted without complaint.
The hostel was located around a ten minute drive from downtown and had an amazing view over the skyscrapers that mark the financial district of the city. The evening was spent driving down Sunset Boulevard, seeking out a couple of bars to get a feel for the area’s nightlife, before heading into the hills and negotiating the length of Mulholland Highway to find a spot to see downtown by night.
2am saw our return to the hostel and an uncomfortable night for me on a cylindrical leopard skin beanbag under the stairs. Like a camp Harry Potter.
Saturday arrived and the afternoon was given over to Hollywood; the glitz, glamour, upmarket shops, tourist spots and the hills that the rich and famous call their home. After a bit of research, I found that the best place to see the Hollywood sign from is at one end of Mullholland Highway (6108 Mulholland Highway if you’re typing it into Google Maps). Here, we were right below the landmark and managed to get some great photos.
Next was the Hollywood Walk of Fame leading up to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I found it particularly pleasing that musicians such as Duke Ellington and Isaac Stern are given pride of place amongst the Cruises and Schwarzeneggers of the movie world. Perhaps even more pleasing is the fact that I have the same size hands as Tom Hanks; determined, of course, by the indentations in the concrete outside the theatre. By the same measure, I was filled with glee that JC’s hands were the same size as Julie Andrews’.
A leisurely late afternoon drive saw us exploring Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, the settings of the famous Pretty Woman, before heading to our hostel to catch sunset over the city and an early night.
Sunday was to be our relaxation day. Arriving at Venice Beach at midday, we strolled down the boardwalk, drinking in the obscurity; rollerbladers, cyclists, tattoo and piercing parlours, open-air gyms, bikini contests and more “medical” marijuana shops that one can shake a stick at all fighting for space on the narrow stretch of concrete.
We sat on the beach, played frisbee and football, ate Martin’s freshly-cooked spaghetti bolognese and laughed all afternoon. As we were getting up to leave, sirens descended over the area, wailing louder and louder as no fewer than fifteen LAPD police cars and quad bikes raced down the beach. We would find out later that a man had driven his car at full throttle down the boardwalk, killing a woman and injuring eight other pedestrians. A lucky escape for us, I guess.
I drove up to the Hollywood Bowl Overlook that evening as the sun was setting. There was a concert happening right below at the Bowl which I would have given my right arm to be at: Gustavo Dudamel conducting Verdi’s Aïda.
A minute later, however, I wasn’t too fussed, as Ron Howard, director of one of my favourite films, A Beautiful Mind, came down from his house above the Overlook and greeted the gathered tourists. I shook his hand and thanked him for directing the film I find so humbling, and he replied, “I made it for you.”
What a dude.
The next morning marked the end of our adventure in the most daunting way: a 1,000 mile drive back to Portland, Oregon.
In all honesty, Los Angeles hadn’t blown me away. Out of everywhere we had stopped and spent time exploring, it would be the last on my list to revisit. I feel that tourists go to Los Angeles to look at other tourists and it took for me to witness it first hand to understand that.
I wonder what would happen if, one day, no tourists were in Los Angeles. Would all the attractions go bankrupt? All the streets be empty? Probably not, but Rodeo Drive would get a maximum of three customers and the residents of Mulholland Highway would notice the huge decrease in traffic…
The drive to San Diego was…well, if I’m being completely honest, a bit dull. 280 of the 327 mile journey is through desert, with the road stretching as far into the distance as the eye can see. Not that it’s not beautiful, but it starts to look a little “samey” after four hours.
We found our hostel at 5pm and met soon after with the five guys we had befriended in Vegas. The afternoon was spent catching up on lost sleep before heading to the famous Gaslamp Quarter for dinner. Because San Diego is so close to the Mexican border, it seemed that one in every three restaurants served their neighbour’s signature dishes.
A few drinks at the busiest bar in town later and we were all ready for some much-needed sleep. We had parked on the street outside the hostel and the meters would become active again the following morning, so with an alarm set, I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.
8am came far too quickly and I stumbled out of the hostel to feed the meter. Morning shocks are never pleasant, whatever form they come in, but that morning was particularly horrid; neither of our cars were where we had left them. Had we forgotten to lock them and become victims of theft? In short, no.
We had fallen victim to our own carelessness. The towing company had removed our cars because that particular section of the road becomes a commuter lane from 6:30am onwards. The morning was spent frantically making phone calls and pooling cash to pay the fines of $400 per car. To sprinkle a little salt on the wounds, the police had issued each car $100 worth of parking tickets for the same reason the cars had been towed.
With our pockets feeling lighter, we put our heads together to think of free activities and came up with the obvious answer: the beach. Ocean Beach, to be exact. It was overcast, so we walked the length of the pier (the longest on the west coast at nearly 2,000 feet) and ate lunch at a small café perched perilously over the water. It was here that I was cheered up immensely by the offer of unlimited maple syrup pancakes for $6. Challenge accepted.
The clouds still hadn’t parted by the time we were finished, so we drove five miles north to Pacific Beach, where the water was calmer and the conditions were acceptable enough to don our trunks, swim and play frisbee.
The rest of the afternoon was spent the same way, and at around 7pm, as the sun was gradually heading out of our day to give someone else theirs, Martin and I jumped in the car and set off for La Jolla, where a free classical music festival was starting that evening, presented by the La Jolla Music Society.
As a huge fan of classical music, this appealed to me very much and upon hearing the programme, I could hardly contain myself. On the agenda was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a Vivaldi Concerto for two violins and the real excitement, Octavio Brunetti and guests playing tango works by Piazzolla, including my favourite of his pieces: Adiós Nonino.
A video of Piazzolla playing this piece with commentary can be found here.
The evening also gave way to yet another stunning sunset over the ocean, similar to that at Shi Shi Beach in Washington a month previously. (Blog post here).
And that was San Diego; a brief stop in a beautiful city full of life, sports fans, Mexican food, cops with nothing better to do and a whole lot of culture. I could have spent a lot longer than a couple of days there, but we still had to see one more west coast city before making the long drive back to Portland.
I’m referring, of course, to the city of angels: Los Angeles…
After a bad night’s sleep, a trek up Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and a 165 mile drive to Vegas, arriving at 8pm, I was more tired than I thought possible. After consuming a rancid ready meal from the nearest 7-Eleven and sorting check-ins at our accommodation, Marina was ready to go out and I was ready for bed.
We were staying at a superb little hostel on Las Vegas Boulevard, Hostel Cat. With a huge courtyard surrounded by six-bed dorms and a common kitchen-cum-lounge area, it had a great vibe to it. Fair warning, however, I’d recommend it to the younger generation…the party in the courtyard often runs into the early hours.
On Sunday morning, I woke up early and wandered down the boulevard in the direction of the Fremont Street Experience, happening upon the famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop used in TV’s Pawn Stars along the way.
Fremont Street is home to casinos (such as the Golden Nugget), neon lights aplenty and the famous Vegas Vic cowboy, used in numerous movies and TV shows prior to the popularisation of the more modern Vegas Strip.
When the Fremont Street Experience was added, a huge barrel vault light canopy was constructed, 90 feet high and four blocks in length. After a recent upgrade, the canopy houses 12 million LED bulbs, giving the light shows a more high-definition look. These shows, of course, only run at night.
Once back at the hostel, we relaxed in the courtyard and sat out a flash flood warning. We had met two Danes and three twenty-somethings from Miami, Alan, Martin, Alex, Billy and JC, the previous evening and the decision was quickly made to head to Stratosphere to rid ourselves of our gambling virginities.
$20 wasted and a rather unexciting visit to the Mandalay Bay “beach” later and we returned to freshen up before leaving for the Strip to see the last couple of water shows at the Bellagio Fountains. 11.30pm brought with it Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” and fifteen minutes later, the slightly grating “Overture & All that Jazz” from the musical Chicago.
The fountains are incredibly majestic and I was unaware how high the 1,200 jets shoot into the sky. At the finale of each performance, the “extreme jets” propel columns of water 460ft/140m upwards; quite a spectacle.
At 1am, we arrived back at the Fremont Street Experience, where we ate horrible pizza and gambled in two of the casinos until 4am. After being $120 up at the blackjack table and subsequently losing it all, including my original $20 bet, I learnt a valuable lesson: if you’re up more than double what you originally placed down, walk away.
The next morning was a late one, but at midday we left the hostel parking lot for the Hoover Dam, situated on the Nevada-Arizona state border. Completed in 1936 and claiming over 100 lives throughout its five-year construction, it stands at over 700ft high and as a result, creates Lake Mead.
We carried on driving for another hour until we arrived at Lake Mohave, the 26,500 acre body of water between the Hoover Dam and the Davis Dam. This is a spot famed for its water sports, including scuba diving and kiteboarding. We were there, however, to cliff jump.
The jumps range in height from 40 to 75 feet, and with enough horizontal propulsion, can be free from the danger that rocks jutting from the cliff face present.
All was going very well, until, during the last photo opportunity of the excursion, Alex dislocated his shoulder upon entry into the water. He had undergone surgery on the area before and had mistakenly kept his arm aloft at the moment of impact, snapping it up and out of its socket.
Alex had a painful hike back to the bay, where I had gone ahead and asked a kind stranger if he wouldn’t mind driving us back to our car. He had readily agreed – just another example of how people in the States go out of their way to help with no hesitation.
When back at our cars, our new friends started their drive to San Diego, where we would be joining them the next afternoon, and we made our way back into the heart of Vegas. Donning our best garb, we drove to the Bellagio and had Marina’s car valet parked.
We caught the last two fountain shows – a revelation for me, as I heard a beautiful piece of music for the first time: Ayshe’s Awakening & Dance, the third movement of Khachaturian’s “Gayaneh Suite No. 1”. A video (not mine) of this particular show can be found by clicking here.
We gambled in The Bellagio for roughly an hour before wandering around Caesar’s Palace, Flamingo and the other highlights of the strip. At 4am, we called it a night and hit the hay.
I had been slightly concerned that the hype for Las Vegas was over-justified, but I needn’t have worried. It is legitimately an amazing place and I would very happily return and do it all over again.
But for the time being, it was time to get some sleep before the five hour drive to San Diego…
After an early start from Salt Lake City it was a three hour drive to our first major sightseeing stop: Arches National Park, just outside the city of Moab. The park houses over 2,000 naturally formed arches, with numerous trails branching vein-like from the 20 mile road that runs through the centre to reach those a little further afield.
Upon our arrival, we scouted the campground for somewhere to sleep that night, but with no availability, decided to park up, explore and find somewhere to sleep in Moab later in the day. The nearest attraction to the campground is Skyline Arch, only 100 metres away, and we used this as our first photo opportunity of the day.
A short hike down the petrified dunes later and we were able to complete a two mile loop back to the car, in which we drove to the Devil’s Garden Trailhead. The trail leads hikers to multiple structures, including the Tunnel Arch, Dark Angel and the rock fins. We decided to hike the four miles to the two most impressive sculptures: Landscape Arch and Double-O Arch.
Landscape Arch is extraordinary due to its physics-defying nature alone. It is nearly 100 metres long, and with sections collapsing from the thinnest part in the middle, the park has closed the path that used to run beneath it.
Another hike, another arch. The Double-O arch is fairly self explanatory; it consists of two arches, one atop another. It is an awesome sight, sitting sheltered in a cove surrounded by taller rock formations. I decided to climb into the higher arch, which required a certain amount of balance and an army crawl underneath a huge boulder sitting on a steep incline.
Once up, I had my photo taken and was delighted with the view. The problem, however, came when I had to get down. I couldn’t crawl back through the same space between the rocks due to the drop on the other side and my claustrophobia taking hold, nor could I jump for the height of the arch.
A half-hour later, a Dutch family made an appearance and, with the help of a Swiss teen, helped me down the steep face of the rock. I was starting to worry and am very grateful to all of them for their assistance. Not my proudest moment, and I can’t help but look back at pictures of the arch without a certain resistentialism.
A quick hike back to the car and a short drive later and we arrived at Balanced Rock; again, self-explanatory by name and impressive by sight. The rock that sits on the column is the size of three American school buses and used to have a smaller sibling “Chip Off the Old Block”, until 1975 when it collapsed.
The plan had been to watch sunset through Delicate Arch, but with matters not going to plan at Double-O, we were somewhat behind schedule, so opted to watch the sun go down from one of the highest points on the road. I count myself lucky to have travelled as much as I have, but it would seem that sunsets in the States outdo any others I’ve seen in the past.
We slept in a small, privately owned campsite in Moab that night, our first and last use of the tent, mostly because the air mattress I had brought along was a kingsize and filled all bar three cubic feet of the available space; a slight miscalculation on my part.
The next day was all about travel. We left early from Moab and completed the 350 miles to Zion National Park in a little over seven hours. The weather had gotten steadily worse along the way, even treating us to a lightning show as we entered Springdale, the town nearest the park.
We spent an uncomfortable night in the car which I had parked in a somewhat creepy parking lot with very little light. We were probably the only people for a mile in every direction, so when I was awoken at 3am by the sound of a footstep outside the window, I automatically assumed the worst, but, slowly lifting my head up to window level, I was stunned to see a huge stag standing mere feet from the car, illuminated fully by my headlamp.
A follower on Twitter had recommended we attempt the Angel’s Landing hike at Zion, but had warned us that it was dangerous, with constant 1,500 foot drops only two feet from the pathway for the last half-hour of the trek. Heights don’t phase me, nor Marina, so we decided to go for it.
We were dropped off at the Grotto at 11am and made our way along the sandy path that soon becomes paved as the incline steepens. The views all the way up are spectacular, but are suddenly hidden once the path disappears between Angel’s Landing and Zion Canyon. Walter’s Wiggles are a series of 21 steep switchbacks, after which one arrives at Scout’s Lookout.
This is where most people turn around, as it is the next half-mile to the summit that it very treacherous. Marina changed into climbing shoes and we ploughed on, holding the chains in one hand and our cameras in the other.
The drop-offs are incredibly daunting, even to someone who isn’t scared of heights, and with at least five deaths on this trail alone in the last year, we were being extra cautious. It is a strenuous climb, but there is nothing more rewarding than the view one can appreciate from the top. There is no cynosure, because quite literally everything one lays eyes on is stunning.
We stayed for roughly thirty minutes enjoying the view and taking on some water before making our way back down the chains to Scout’s Lookout. From there, we used the opportunity to run the two miles back to the Grotto, covering the distance in just over twenty minutes.
Given more time, I would have loved to have seen Bryce Canyon National Park, but no matter, that definitely isn’t the last time I will be visiting Utah. It is one of the most scenically stunning places I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
Once back at the car, it was time to continue onwards to the main attraction: Las Vegas!
It has been on my bucket list for many years to partake in a road trip across at least some of the USA. I didn’t, however, think it would happen this early on, until, as outlined in my last post, the opportunity arose, and a very rough plan was thrown together and a route sketched in Google Maps.
This inevitably changed as the days leading up to the trip wore on. We realised we were being a bit ambitious trying to get all the way up to Yellowstone National Park in Montana given the time constraints, so the decision was made to head east out of Oregon, south east through Idaho and enter Utah from the north west after a brief couple of hours in northern Nevada.
The Tuesday we were due to leave was plagued with problems, including bad traffic, wrong turns and a car breakdown. I am eternally grateful to the pickup driver who stopped to jump us out of that particular tricky spot.
At 5pm we finally departed Portland and onto the open road with the nice lady in my phone satnav declaring we “continue on Interstate 84 for 564 miles.” Unlucky as we had been that day, we were struck by some good fortune when we reached the highest point of our trip (30 miles west of La Grande) just as the sun was setting.
As darkness fell, we continued east towards Boise, the state capital of Idaho. Glancing over at Marina and seeing that she was out for the count in the passenger seat, I decided to drive another ninety miles before pulling over in a rest stop area in Bliss at 3am.
(Just as a side note, don’t let the name “Bliss” fool you. It’s utter crap.)
Five hours later and I was up and driving again to what would be our first real stop: Twin Falls, Idaho. I had been told by so many people that Idaho had absolutely nothing going for it, but we had stumbled across its redeeming feature. The landscape is stunning, with the sole 150-metre-high Perrine Bridge crossing the thousand-mile Snake River.
Twin Falls appeals to those who seek thrills. It always has. This is the place where, in 1974, Evil Knievel attempted his doomed canyon jump in a makeshift rocket; the mound of dirt used as a ramp is still on the canyon’s side. A local, who was there for the launch, recounted how the parachute had already deployed before take-off, calling the daredevil “nothing but a chicken-shit showman!”
Nowadays, the city holds the name of BASE jumping capital of the world. For those who don’t know, BASE jumping is the art of throwing oneself off an inanimate object and opening your parachute before you hit the ground. It is skydiving’s more extreme sibling. In Twin Falls’ case, the inanimate object comes in the form of the bridge.
In the two hours we spent there, we saw at least twenty jumpers make the leap of faith. After watching longingly, but not wanting to dip my hand in my pocket and spend $400, I settled for taking some pictures from the bridge. This should give you an idea of the view one has on their way down…
As the morning came to an end, we drove on through Idaho, northeast Nevada and into Utah, marvelling at some of the so-called cities we passed through along the way. A personal favourite of mine was Jackpot, sitting a hundred miles from nowhere, comprising of approximately three casinos, one hotel and a smattering of houses. It is the kind of place that is impossible to ever leave if one is unlucky enough to be born there.
Our first stop in Utah was a surprise to Marina. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, ever since watching “The World’s Fastest Indian” in fact. As we pulled off the freeway, one hundred miles from Salt Lake City, and crossed over the bridge, there they were, laid out in front of us. I am of course writing of the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Used for the last 99 years to break land speed records and, more recently, host events for motoring enthusiasts to push their cars to their limits, the flats offer ten miles of uninterrupted smooth surfaces, framed to the north by mountains and to the south by the freeway.
It is a public area, and visitors are permitted to drive on the salt. We decided against it, however, seeing as we had brought a Honda and didn’t want to pay for a car wash. So instead, we went for a run and took photos of each other doing silly jumps. It was amazing fun, and I am so glad I have managed to do it before the potash plant nearby decreases the flats’ size further.
As darkness fell, we drove onward to Salt Lake City. By another stroke of luck, we had arrived on Pioneer Day, a Utah state holiday celebrated on July 24th to mark the entry of the first Mormon settlers on the same day in 1847. We were treated to firework displays as we drove into the city and automatically assumed they must have known we were coming.
We parked up and realised fairly quickly that absolutely nothing was open due to the festivities, so we instead used the time to explore. We walked from the main shopping district to the Mormon Church, where we unashamedly waited for a security guard to pass by before stripping off and taking a free bath in the local fountain.
The night was warm, allowing us to dry off as we walked up to Capitol Hill, where it felt like we were suddenly transported to Washington, D.C. The 101-year-old Utah State Capitol is majestic, to say the least. It sits upon a grassy mound overlooking the city, and provided quite a view at 11pm; fireworks could be seen in every direction and there were close to fifty people on the steps enjoying the spectacle with us.
A half hour later and we were walking back into town to attempt to find food. Dairy Queens, McDonald’s, Taco Bells and Starbucks, most of which normally open late into the night, were all closed for the occasion.
At last, we found an urban coffee shop that was open until 1am and settled down with some food and a book. For the second night in a row, we found a quiet spot in a cul de sac in the hills that possessed no streetlights and, with our seats reclined as far as they would go, slept a solid seven hours.
At 8am, we were up and ready to keep driving to our first full-day stop on the trip: Arches National Park.
Three days from now I will be a month into my two year adventure. It’s gone very quickly; however, I’m not too worried – I have a huge amount more to see in the near and distant future. A good friend has suggested that over the last month I’ve been writing in a constant micro-style, focussing always on a span of a few days. And they are correct. It is very easy for one to lose sight and sense of time whilst travelling for such a lengthy period, so the aim of this post is to focus more on the macro aspect of my trip:
- What’s coming up in the next month?
- What does the end of 2013 hold in store?
- Will 2014 continue in the same fashion?
Short answers: lots, lots and yes/no. Not detailed enough? Allow me to explain…
I have spent nearly a month in Portland, Oregon with some of the most kind-hearted people one can ever hope to meet; especially Joaquin, who is giving over use of his home and car to me for free. Such altruism is rarely found, and I’m very lucky to have stumbled across it in droves whilst touring Southeast Asia.
I have been introduced to a friend of Joaquin’s, Marina, an Argentinian who has worked in Portland for the past year. She will soon be leaving her job at Nike and moving to Europe, but understandably wants to use up her holiday first. That’s where I come in. We have planned a road trip that will take us through eight states in around twelve days. The route is circular, 3,100 miles long and will pass through some of the most incredible scenery and natural beauty that the USA has to offer.
The graphic above shows the route, with each pin marking a destination that we wish to visit. Thus, in order:
- A: (Hidden behind F) The start: Portland
- B: Glacier National Park Conservancy, Montana
- C: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- Between C and D we will pass through Idaho and Salt Lake City, Utah
- D: Las Vegas, Nevada
- Before heading South West, we’ll make a quick detour to the Hoover Dam
- E: Los Angeles, California
- We’ll make a stop in Sacramento on the home stretch
- F: the end – Portland
And that’s that. Petrol, being as cheap as it is over here, will cost no more than $300 in total, and using tents and the car as sleeping vessels, expenditure should be kept to a minimum.
Macro, Zulu, macro…
When I eventually leave Portland (A) sometime in the second week of August, I will be spending between a week and ten days in San Francisco (B), Las Vegas (D) and Los Angeles (F), with shorter stopovers in Yosemite National Park (C) and San Diego (E).
This will bring me to mid-September, when I catch a 1,601 mile flight to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada via Phoenix Sky Harbour Airport in Arizona. I would have ideally liked to have stayed in the USA for longer and take in some of the more longitudinally central states: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas etc., but due to strict tourist entry rules allowing me to stay for only 90 days, my flight on day 89 is already cutting it a bit fine.
Once in Canada, I will stay a while in Vancouver (A) before heading to Whistler (at point B). The gruelling part of the journey comes in mid-October with a three-day coach journey along the Trans-Canada Highway from Vancouver to Toronto (F) with short stops in Calgary (C), Winnipeg (D) and Kapuskasing (E).
From here I’ll take approximately two weeks to explore Ottawa (G), Montreal (H) and Quebec City (I) before returning to Toronto in time for November 1st, when Vicki, a friend of mine for over nine years, will fly from London via Reykjavik to join me. Her brother, Dave, lives in Toronto and has been kind enough to offer us accommodation until we leave on the 12th.
From here, everything is pretty much planned to a T. We will take a coach to New York (marker B on the above map) on the 12th November, where my brother Sterling, his wife Jesslyn and my gorgeous niece Clover (who I’ll meet for the first time!) are kindly accommodating us. We stay with them for just under a week, leaving on the 18th for Washington, D.C. (C).
Three days later and we head to Miami (D) (on a 24 hour coach) for a couple of days on the beach after the inevitable cold of the north. I’ve been advised that it is near impossible to get anything done in Miami without the use of a car, and seeing as neither Vicki or I are old enough to hire one (the legal age is 25 in the USA), a taxi to the beach will have to suffice. Oh well. We’ll live.
On November 24th we will fly to Grand Bahama, where my Mum and her husband Russell live during the winter months. Two and a half weeks of good food and every affordable luxury later, we will be back on a plane to undertake the 5,350 mile journey to London via Lisbon, landing on the morning of the 13th December.
That, however, is not the end. Nowhere near. December 21st sees me fly back to the Bahamas from Birmingham Airport (this time via Charles de Gaulle and Miami – incidentally, a total mileage of exactly 5,000 miles) for Christmas and New Year celebrations, returning to the UK on January 5th 2014.
From then on out, I am 95% sure of what is happening, but will write more when our plans are cemented. Between July 21st 2013 and January 5th (168 days), I will cover no fewer than 37,539 miles. 2014 will more than triple that…
Independence Day: a federal holiday celebrating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence from the UK 237 years ago. It’s a huge deal in the US, with firework displays in every town and city, patriotic songs warbled by voices bearing too much vibrato and, rather awkwardly, the odd confederate flag fluttering here and there.
We decided to give all that pomp and circumstance a miss, however, and go camping. So at 8am on Fourth of July, with the car loaded to the brim with rucksacks, tents, sleeping bag and an unnecessary air mattress for the posher camper (not me), we set off for the Olympic Peninsula and my first venture into Washington State.
Our first stop was to be the Hoh Rainforest, situated in the Olympic National Park, a five hour drive from Portland. This is one of the largest rainforests in the US and runs along the Hoh River, which was sculpted by glaciers thousands of years ago. We started hiking at 2pm, and trekked along the Hoh River Trail for around three miles before turning back for the car.
We had completed a sixth of the full 18 mile hike to get to the glacier, where visitors camp overnight before walking back. The river is stunning, running milky blue and forcing its way roughly through and around trees that have long before fallen across the water.
If you are reading this and you are a die-hard Twilight fan, you will of course know that we would have to drive through Forks, the city used in Meyer’s horrible novels and their equally revolting film adaptations, to get to our destination. However much one dislikes this particular franchise, though, there is something satisfying about chuckling at every shop name (“Twilight Haircuts”, “Twilight Supermarket”, “Twilight Lighting” – you get the point) and having a picture under the famous sign to post on Facebook with a sarcy caption…
That afternoon we arrived at the Shi Shi Trail, a two-mile route that would bring us to one of the top ten ranked beaches on our planet. Shi Shi Beach is absolutely stunning; there is simply no other word for it. Driftwood lines the volcanic sand left by the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, rocks jut out of the sea at either end, hosting their own vegetation and smoke from the camp fires drifts up through the trees sitting on the steeply sloping bank.
With our tents up, sleeping bags unrolled and fire lit (with a magnesium strip and flint, I might add), we settled down with s’mores and the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The sun looked huge as it sunk through the clouds and sat on the ocean’s surface; the whole scene was indistinguishable from an oil painting.
With the aid of ear plugs, I slept well that night. Nearly ten hours in fact. I felt so good in the morning that I did something I haven’t done in many years: went for a five mile run on the beach. The air was so clean and invigorating that it would have been a waste not to.
We hiked back to the car and after scoffing some strawberry cream cheese bagels (that’s right, strawberry cream cheese. ‘Murica) we set off once more for Cape Flattery, the most northwesterly point in America save Alaska.
Everywhere I’ve seen in the US so far has been obscenely picturesque, and if you look past the fact that Joaquin is trying to throw me from the precipice, you’ll see that nothing makes for better scenery than bright blue water, a lovely sky and a lighthouse sitting on a quaint little island.
Another two hour drive and a camp set up at Klahowya later, and we arrived at Sol Duc, the suspiciously Vietnamese-sounding name for a collection of trails, waterfalls and the 78-mile river stemming from the Olympic Mountains. We hiked here for nearly three hours until close to darkness, making time for daring but beautiful photo opportunities and drinking from the mountain springs.
When it reached 9pm, we made the short drive back to our campsite and bedded down for the night.
It would turn out to be the most uncomfortable night’s sleep of my life to date. I hadn’t brought a sleeping mat with me; in hindsight a mistake, considering the number of pine cones scattering the forest floor. By 7.30am we were up and about to make the long car journey back to Portland.
Along the way, we had one more place to visit: Lake Crescent, which has water as clear as the Caribbean Sea and a landscape as luscious and green as anywhere I’ve seen. We swam that day, not only because it looked so appealing, but because we hadn’t showered in three days and wanted the car to smell a little less like humanity
The weekend was amazing fun, and the lack of fireworks didn’t bother me at all. Why would it when you have a sunset like that to look at?