Wednesday, March 30, 2011

6145 miles later...

After 6145 miles, 34 days, 215 gallons of gas, 14 states, 8 major cities, 6 state parks, 5 national parks, 4 tires, 3 national forests, 2 national preserves, 2 fuel pumps, 1 robbery and 1 new window I am officially on the west coast.”

As I sat on Bradley Beach, on the coarse brown sand that sparkles like it is filled with miniscule diamonds, looking out upon the Pacific Ocean, I was content. Mike had walked on ahead, but I had done enough hiking for the time being. When I watched him walk away towards the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, I knew that our trip had come to the end. Wind came in from the Pacific, calling me to its foreign shores, and I inhaled deeply.

I do not know where to begin describing the differences of this place and the one from where I came, seemingly so long ago, and I know that will never be able to fully describe it adequately. Just as you can’t know the taste of something without actually tasting it, you cannot understand the feeling of some places until you arrive.

Since our arrival to the Bay area, we have been staying at hostels, which are places unlike any other lodgings. In hotels and motels, you are boxed in your own private and personal, yet boring, rooms. Sure, you can go out from there and experience your surroundings, but you are certainly not part of the hotel community. At campgrounds, each campsite is usually it’s own self-sufficient social environment, with rarely more than limited communication between parties. At hostels, people hold conversations and share food, they make plans together and become fast friends, while the whole time everyone is sure to lock up their bags. Although we also stayed at a hostel in New Orleans, I have not felt this international travelers vibe since I was in Guatemala seven summers ago. The conversations held at different at places like this, and held in a variety of languages.

After we passed through the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain pass, which had destroyed Mike’s brakes, we still had a long way up I-5 to get into San Francisco. While doing so, because I didn’t have to drive I was reading and fiddling with my phone. While my Hemmingway book was interesting, I was much more interested in a Facebook post made Seth, by a buddy of mine from New Jersey. His post said, “Just landed in San Francisco, party time.” We hadn’t cut lose in quite some time, and I was happy to hear about a party where we could celebrate our arrival.

Since I had met him a few years back, I always knew that Seth was serious about music. After all, I mostly knew him through my buddy Marc, and, for the most part, he was in his room making music whenever I saw him. I did not know that was to the point where he has a record deal and is currently touring the country with his music, but was happy to receive the news. Suddenly we had definite plans for the night.

Since he was always going by a different alias, I had to do a little bit of research to find out exactly what show I was looking for. I got in touch with him, got my name on the guest list, and I downloaded some of his music for the ride. I booked us two beds in the International Hostel in downtown San Fran, just a few blocks away from the venue, and we drove hours through California listening to music well into the evening.

I had a great time at the show.  My friend Seth, aka Com Truise, had quite a bit of followers and the whole club got into the groove. I dug all the music they were playing, and was buying over priced drinks. So much so that I got up and started dancing with some girl until I had missed the chance to shake my friend’s hand and congratulate him on his record deal. Being drunker than planned, I wound up losing my grey hoody.  After a while I met back up with Mike and we walked through the pouring rain back up to the hostel.

Our meeting wasn’t long, though, because somehow I didn’t notice him walk into the hostel, and I walked right on into the night by myself. Subconsciously, I may have just wanted to walk through the pouring rain to wash myself of the constant journey. After a day in the car it felt good to walk, and when I got back to the hostel I was soaked to the bone. Mike was hanging out with these two Italian guys, and I joined them for about an hour interesting conversation before we all called it a night.

I didn’t sleep too much quality sleep after getting to bed so late and quite drunk. It also didn’t help that the hostel had the absurdly early checkout time of 10am. Regardless, we still got up in the morning and went about our plan. Mike was going to drop me off at my aunt and uncle’s apartment in the city while he drove around on his own checking out potential places to live. My Uncle Onyx had open-heart surgery on Thursday, and there were complications, and the surgery went on for 12-13 hours. I wanted to go spend time with my aunt, and to see him and send him my love, even though he was still heavily sedated.

My aunt and uncle live in a wonderful apartment building in a great quiet neighborhood of the city called Potrero Hills. Their neighborhood is exactly what I always imagined when I picture this city, complete with the steep hilly streets and the unique architecture. The apartment’s common area is something like an art gallery, with paintings from the residents hung on every wall. My uncle’s loft was really cool, and while small it was packed with art, books, and love. I am sure that I could spend several days there just leafing through their books and looking at their art.

However, I only spent a little time there before we went to the hospital to see my uncle. The Intensive Cardiac Unit, just as it’s name implies, is an intense place. There were only four hospital rooms in thw wing, and each one had a bunch of equipment likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, there were always two nurses continually attending to just one or two patients. It made me feel good to know that my uncle was being watched so closely, and the staff was very friendly and informative.

As a result, I now know more about cardiac life support than I ever had, and have another career option to explore. Heart surgeon? No. Out of the blue, I asked the nurse how flexible the hospital was in regards to unpaid leave. She asked me if I was considering nursing as a career, but I had to admit that I had never thought of it before I had even asked the question. However, what she told me is making me seriously consider pursuit of that option. She said that it was common for nurses to take several months off to go and travel the world. In fact, she said that if I wanted to make traveling a part of my lifestyle that, in her opinion, nursing was the ideal careers. She said that it is always easy for an American educated nurse to find work abroad. The pay is relatively good as well, not to mention it is a career helping people.

While I enjoy writing I don’t like the prospect of being a starving artist. For me, my creative expression and my career don’t necessarily have to be one and the same. In fact, I think I enjoy writing, drawing, and music, more when I am doing them for myself, and to do any of that as a job would take away some of it’s pleasure. Pursuing the path of nursing would certainly still leave me time to write. While I recently heard the news that I had been accepted into a program at Virginia Tech, it is now unlikely that I will attend. I am perfectly content traveling on through Asia and Europe until my money runs out, and by hopefully delaying that by picking up some English teaching gigs along the way. I have until I get back to decide which path I want to take.

After spending some time at the hospital, my aunt Anahid offered to take me to the nearby Golden Gate Park. She told me that they were avid hikers, and I was glad to hear that their life style was quite healthy. She had came to the very same place the day before after visiting my uncle, who was much paler at the time. It was good to be out in nature and we were definitely able to enjoy the walk in spite of the nerve-racking circumstances back at the hospital. I did not know this, but everything in the park was planted. Back in 1893 there was nothing but sand dunes, but dirt and trees and plants were brought in and it is now a beautiful place full of wildlife. My aunt mentioned that man couldn’t even take credit for creating that place, because after all, all they did was plant what was already growing somewhere else. The lush diverse greenery on the steep hills, which obscured completely the surrounding city, with the vine-covered trees growing out of the slopes at various odd angles, and it was all reminiscent of my personal picture of the mythical Shangri-la.

After my hike with Anahid, we returned to the hospital to see Onyx again. While it was still a scary experience, after a while I found out that they had been successfully weaning them off a machine that took some of the workload off of his heart. That machine, whose technical name escapes me, was operating at half the power that it had been that same morning, which was great news. In addition, we saw his heart beat return to a sinus rhythm, which, despite it’s nasal name, is the heart’s proper rhythm. He certainly is not out of the woods yet, but I am feeling confident that he will fight his way through this, and I hope to see him awake before I leave the area.

After all, it’s not like I’m in a rush to get to LA. I am enjoying the culture of the city, and I fear that the metropolis to the south will be exactly what I expect it to be. Besides, after all that time on the road, it is nice to be somewhat sedentary, even if it is just for a week. Unfortunately staying in the city is more expensive than camping in the country, but with the rain and the fog in the area, I am glad to be under a roof.

We left the hospital for the second time, and Anahid took the long way home so that I might get to see some of the more interesting parts of the city, rather than her self-described “boring-shortcut.” My cell phone had died much earlier in the day, so when I got back to their apartment I used their phone to touch base with Mike. After handing the phone off to Anahid for directions, he was on his way. We ate a small but very good dinner and Mike and I were back on the road, once again. Fortunately, we weren’t going far. We stayed at Fort Mason Hostel at Golden Gate Park, right there, in San Francisco.

The next day Mike was supposed to drop off his deposit for the room he had found on Treasure Island, a developed land fill right smack in the middle of the Bay Bridge, but he got a call from his new roommates and it got pushed back to the next day. Instead, we went to see our friend from High School who had moved out to the west coast a few years back. He was working at a co-op bakery and we went in for lunch. He got a delicious pizza that had been made strictly with fresh produce grown by local farmers.  Only one type of pizza was made a day, but the cauliflower and caramelized onion pizza of that day was very good. It was certainly the best pizza I had the pleasure of eating, at least since I had left the northeast.

We then went back to his place in the East Bay to hang out for a little while, and I was impressed by both his lifestyle and living arrangements. In California, the cities seem to be much better planned than in the northeast. There is a great deal more biodiversity here, and parks are much more abundant. We had a glass, talked about life, and then we walked five minutes to the ever-present local park. It was good to hear that he was doing well, and before he had to leave for his dinner plans he told us several places that we should check out.

We drove up through Berkley and across the bay to Marin Country, where there is a hostel in the Marin Headlands section of Golden Gate Park. I got my first taste of the San Francisco fog as we drove over into Marin County. Visibility was extremely low, and both sides of the bridge were completed shrouded in white mist. The drive through the Marin Headlands was absolutely gorgeous, for the roads wound around steep green hills filled with exotic looking plants and flowers.

The Marin Headlands hostel had a much different feel than the one downtown from the night before. It was a much sleepier hostel; with hardly any boarders and no wireless internet. We decided to stay for two nights, partially because it was Mike’s turn to pay for two nights, but also because he wanted to have a base to come back to after getting his brakes fixed and running his errands.  While playing ping-pong on the first night my jeans ripped from my crotch to my knee, so I gues I need another pair before I go. I took Mike’s errands as an opportunity to get a ride into Sausalito the next day, and spent it the morning exploring the town. The town itself was a little rich and touristy for my taste, and after some stolen internet, an overpriced lunch and a few used books purchased from the local library, I was ready to hike back to the hostel. Climbing a very steep 900ft in elevation half mile with my big bag on my back took quite a lot out of me, and I stopped at the top for a good rest.

As I sat, I saw another hiker coming up the hill behind me. Somehow we wound up walking and talking, and my new friend Aaron from Portland told me to take the left path for better views. He hiked along the left path with me, but when we reached another crossroads he turned around and headed back. I still had a few miles to go to get to the hostel, and I wasn’t about to hike back just to hop on the recommended trail. The trail I did take was much more arduous than I expected, climbing up and down hills for miles across the coast. It offered stunning views of the entire bay area as well as the Pacific Ocean, and I did not regret the challenge. However, the whole ordeal did net me one tick, which I had to remove when I finally made it back.

That night, I met several more cool people who were also in the midst of some travels. One guy, a dance instructor from Minneapolis named Aaron, told me all about a website called Couchsurfing. I checked it out, and it definitely seems like an excellent way to travel for cheaply while meeting good people. I created an account and have sent out some requests to folks in LA to see if I can stay with them for a few days before my flight. I also met a woman who was about to travel to Vietnam, who had been all around southeast Asia in the past, and she gave me tips on traveling in the area, and I reminded her to tie off a few loose ends as well.

The next morning she and I hiked around the lagoon and up to the beach before heading back to the hostel where Mike was in the basement using the pay-computer. Addicted to the internet, we are. I went with Mike to lunch, then out to Treasure Island so that he could finally pay for his new room, and finally back to the Fort Mason hostel where we had stayed several nights before. Again, the hostel experience led to some interesting conversations with some interesting people.

We had shopped and Mike was busy cooking dinner, and as per usual he was not interested in my help. While waiting, and because I had just finished my book, I sat with another group of people that were finishing up a dinner of their own. I had heard one woman mention her education in several different languages, and I wanted to ask her if she had any experience with teaching English. With her was an Australian guy to whom I recommended he skip Austin and spend the time in New Orleans on his American vacation, and a beautiful Mexican girl named Isabel.

I got to practice my Spanish very little when I sat with her after I ate, but shortly thereafter Petra, the German woman living in England who had spoke all the languages, sat down with us and we switched to English. I had wanted to spend more time speaking Spanish to the exotic beauty with a light scar on her forehead like I have, but they had been traveling around San Francisco and were better acquainted with each other than with me. Isabel seemed to think I was a fool for following the news, and I had a hard time articulating why keeping up with foreign affairs was important to me. She said that if I can’t do anything to fix the problems I read about, why bother worrying myself with them? I protested that I did not worry about them but still wanted to know, until finally able to be the smallest bit articulate and blabber out that it enjoyed doing it and that should be a good enough reason.

As I sat and read and typed, I thought about how I wanted to spend the rest of my time in the bay area. Definitely, I wanted to get back to see my uncle. Additionally, Adrienne, the woman I met who had been to Thailand, convinced me to go to the travel clinic to get certain shots, even though they were not required. She had been sick abroad before and made a compelling case for the shots. I also thought about my torn jeans, and my need to get another pair before I left for the airport. After all these practical thoughts, I once again how nice it was to not need definite plans, to see what doors will open before me, and the freedom to do whatever it is that my heart desires.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

From the Silver State to the Golden One

Fortunately, we made it out of Flagstaff with relative ease. We chose a local repair shop that had nothing but glowing reviews, and while the repair took several hours, a movie theater was less than a block away. The entertainment provided was well worth the five-minute walk in the snow. Two tickets at the theater was approximately the cost of one movie ticket in North Jersey, which was a welcome surprise.  We saw the movie “Limitless,” which, despite it’s shortcomings, was very entertaining. Shortly after we returned to the repair shop, the car’s alignment had been fixed and we were once again headed west. The proprietor of the garage recommended that we check out Laughlin, NV, saying that it was a much more laid back version of Vegas. Based on his advice, and due to our desire to avoid night driving, we opted to spend a night in Laughlin, which was roughly an hour closer to Flagstaff than Vegas.

We arrived in Laughlin just as the sun had set, and got a good view of the town as we descended from the mountains. We stayed at a casino called “The Aquarius” which offered some low minimum gambling and many friendly people. Sure, we were well under the median age of the average Laughlin visitor, but had quite a good time. Mike, who is not a big gambler, enjoying playing blackjack with me and a very nice older couple. They were big Mariners fans who had been in Arizona to catch some of spring training. We talked baseball, and even won a little money. The same could not be said about Las Vegas! Our biggest complaint was in regard to the wireless internet: $12.99 for 24 hours of access, what a rip-off! The same could be said about Vegas, apparently the casinos don't want you spending anytime online!

The next day we headed into Sin City. While I had avoided my self-predicted disgust with civilization in Laughlin, I was unable to do so in Vegas. After spending weeks out of the northeast, I had finally grown accustomed to smiling and greeting the folks you passed by as you walked down the streets. In Las Vegas, it was right back to avoiding eye contact and mistrusting my fellow man. Additionally, the opulence of the whole place, with it's marble and artificial lake in the middle of the desert, seemed wasteful. Despite the impersonal nature of the city, I still had quite a good time.

I gambled quite a bit, and despite some ups and downs, I eventually lost everything I was willing to gamble with. I did most of my gambling at the Imperial Palace, the casino where we were staying. They had celebrity look-alike dealers at the blackjack table, and Stevie Wonder was very entertaining, singing whilst he dealt. I also had quite a good time playing craps, my favorite casino game, but it did not compare to the epic craps run that I once had in Atlantic City. My buddy Marc can vouch for that legendary night, where we both made money and met girls as a result of a few hot hands of dice. Mike made it out of the city without gambling at all, so I made some new friends at the tables.

After a few hours of gambling, I met up with Mike back up in the room. Unfortunately, he was having quite a bit of pain in his ankles, and was not feeling up to going out. So, I walked around up the strip by myself, turning down more than a reasonable amount of prostitution solicitations, and taking in the sights. It was more or less exactly what I was expected, and I regret to inform you that the town did not impress me. That is not to say I didn’t have a good time, it was just exactly what I expected, and didn't offer me any surprises.

I went into a few bars and what not, and talked with both locals and tourists. I was considerably underdressed, being how I left all of my suits and nice clothes back in Jersey. After walking quite a bit, I headed back to the room to try and cajole Mike in to joining me. However, he was still not up for it, and because I didn’t want to get too drunk flying solo, I called it a night myself.

The next day held more gambling, but with the same results: fun, but not profitable. I had a delicious BBBLT, which had so much bacon on it I had to leave some on the table. When I told Mike that I didn’t finish all my bacon, he was shocked. Over the course of the trip, he has become well acquainted with my love for the bacon! I might even venture to say that it has rubbed off a little bit, based on a few statements he made about “inexplicable cravings for bacon.” I am taking some liberty paraphrasing, and probably over-playing my influences on his palate, but I think it’s fun to joke about. I also joked with him this morning about my interest in a career as a bacon lobbyist, if such a thing existed.

That night, Mike and I hit the town. However, his preference for dive bars and distain for nightclubs, paired with our non-fancy attire, limited our options somewhat. We checked out a few places, the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, among others, but the excessive lifestyle epitomized by the city did not appeal to me in the same way it once had. Even though we didn’t get back to the room until after 2am, it did not seem late at all. While they say that New York is the city that never sleeps, I think that Vegas may sleep even less. After all the walking and the drinking, I, on the other hand, slept like a log.

Aside from the predictable Sin City activities, I also have a few more updates to make. First of all, after someone told me I looked like I was 38 years old, I decided to shave my beard. While I asked several other people how old I looked, and got much more accurate estimates, I still felt compelled to make some sort of change. I had just spoken with my mother on the telephone, and when I mentioned it she implored me to have a before and after picture taken. Mike volunteered to take a picture with his fancy camera and here they are for your review.

You may or may not be able to tell, but I also gave myself a haircut. Shaving my own head with a beard trimmer was a little more difficult than I had expected, and eventually needed to enlist Mike’s help to help me even out the back. To be honest, I miss my beard. The close cropped scalp hair looks much better with a little bit of facial hair, I think. After doing this, I hardly recognized myself in the mirror!

Aside from that, we are now making a little more haste towards the coast. Not only do I fly out of LA in less than two weeks, but Mike is also looking to make it to San Francisco around the 1st of the month so that he may have a better time looking for a place to live. He has already been in contact with several people interested in renting out rooms, and he would like to meet with them and secure his residence fairly soon. Unfortunately, all this may mean that I will be forced to travel south to LA on my own, but I don’t mind so terribly much. Bus fare from city to city is not so bad.

As a result of our newly found sense of urgency, we decided to skip the hour's ride east to check out the Hoover Dam, just outside of Las Vegas. Instead, we are headed out of Nevada and into the Golden State, California. After reading Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the state has taken on a different personal significance. Now, it is end of American lands, the place where we can drive no further. Sure, I will be continuing my journey west, but the Pacific definitely marks the end the this portion of my journey.

Currently, we are headed to Death Valley National Park. I am looking forward to seeing the Californian wilderness, as well as the west coast cities.


Into the Golden State

When we passed from Nevada into California, we didn’t even notice. However, I saw that the road signs had changed, and that gas was over five dollars a gallon, and we knew we had arrived. Of course, that absurd gas price was due to the fact we were in the middle of a remote desert, and not simply because we had crossed into Cali. In fact, everything in Death Valley was much more expensive than it should have been, but I guess that is understandable. After all, they know that they are the only game in town.

Death Valley offered some of the best scenery that I had seen to date. While very reminiscent of Big Bend Nat'l Park in Texas, with the desert butting up against some mountains, it certainly had it’s own unique appeal. For example, I saw a sand storm blowing over the dunes, a lot of interesting and unique rock formations, and salt flats that stretched on for miles. Additionally, the hike we took here was most likely the coolest hike we had taken so far. It’s easy for me to make that qualified statement because Mike had missed the Grand Canyon, but nonetheless, I’m telling you it was something else.

After stopping by the visitor’s center and getting our campsite set up, we headed down a dirt road to hike through Mosiac Canyon. This narrow canyon had a wide variety of rock types, including some very smooth, seemingly polished, marble. We scrambled up and into the canyon until the sun began to set, and then hightailed out of there, so that we wouldn’t get caught in the dark.

Speaking of the dark, Death Valley offers very little light pollution, so the view of the stars is supposed to be phenomenal, nebulous even. Despite the scattered cloud cover, the few patches of stars that were visible held more visible stars than the entire sky on a clear night in New Jersey. In one patch of the sky, we could even see the band of the Milky Way. Also, I have never seen clouds at night look so dark. It was as if the night sky was a dark blue, rather than black, when contrasted with the pitch blackness of the clouds in the foreground.

It was nice to get away from the impersonality of a big city once again, and we met several nice people at the campsite. One old Canadian couple had more to say than we wanted to hear, but I will take that over the callousness of the urban stranger any day. Funny tidbit of that conversation, he made a comment about how if we could go to the moon, we should be able to do anything. He then corrected himself, saying that if we Americans had made it to the moon. That night I had some incredibly strange and vivid dreams, but was rudely woken up by someone running their big diesel pickup truck for no apparent reason nearby in the campsite. After getting all of our things in order, and reorganizing the chaos that had resulted from our hasty retreat from the Grand Canyon, we were on our way.

I believe that I have seen some of the best sights that nature has to offer. However, the drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountains was truly amazing, rivaling even the majesty of the Grand Canyon.  First of all, as we crossed the salt flats of the Death Valley, we had an amazing view of the snow-covered mountains in the distance. We had to turn south to pass over by the steepest parts of the range, and I was more impressed by these peaks than I had been by any mountains I had ever seen. Secondly, CA-178, the road that took us through the mountain pass, was simply astounding. The drive was full of twists and turns, and the steep mountains on either side of us effectively blocked any attempts at cell phone communication. The road wound along a mountain river that flowed quickly over many rocks and boulders, making any attempt to navigate that river seem like a death wish to me.  Additionally, right in the midst of the mountain range was the beautiful Lake Isabella. We had spend so much time in these arid places that the sight of flowing water and greenery was all the more welcome. The one thing that really resonated for me was the green life of the place. We had seen bigger mountains and deeper valley, but none was so rich and full of life. Hands down, it was the most scenic drive of my life, and would like to do it again some time.

(Disclaimer: I took this picture off the web)

After quite a bit of driving through California, we arrived in San Francisco. Despite having been here for two days already, the update regarding that will just have to wait. It is time to check out of the hostel and I haven't written anything about my friends show on the first night, or my time in the hospital with my uncle on the second. I will say one thing, however, that this city has some serious character. I can see why Mike chose to live here, and why my Uncle Mike never left.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Grand Canyon

Sometimes plans change. When we left Marfa, we had every intention of going on to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns. By the time we got the Van Horn, Tx, where we would have had to stop going west and turn for the north, we had completely changed our minds. For one, we wanted to get out of Texas already. Additionally, it felt good to be getting some miles behind us.

We got on I-10 and made a bee line for Texas’s western border. We heeded some advice that we had picked up along the way and did not stop in El Paso. It felt good to be in New Mexico, after spending over two weeks in Texas. As has become our standard procedure, we stopped just over the border at the visitors center. It was nowhere nearly as large as the Texan visitor center, but that was to be expected.

Aside from the visitor’s center, a tank of gas and a full belly, we didn’t take New Mexico up on anything it had to offer. We had caught the travel bug and decided to head right for the Grand Canyon. As you’ll recall, the truck’s headlights don’t do too well in the dark, so we decided to stop for the night in Tuscon. Not only was it just  the right distance from Marfa for a full day’s ride, but it also is the home of Saguaro National Park, home of more than 50 species of cacti.

Yes, that's me standing under that cactus.

We drove round the park, frequently stopping to take pictures. I got bored with this endevour much more quickly than Mike, of course, and began walking ahead of the car. When he was finished snapping shots he would just continue driving around the loop and pick me up. All in all, it was really cool to see all of those cacti. I am a little disappointed that we were unable to see the visitor’s center, as we got there after 5pm when it closed. I started buying patches for my backpack from the national parks that we've visited. I am planning on looking online to see if I can’t pick up patches for the parks i've missed: one for Hot Springs, and another one for Saguaro as well. I also want to get patches for all the national flags of all the countries I visit. I figure all that should give my backpack a good deal of personality.

We bit the bullet and paid for a hotel room in Tucson, the first time we had stayed in doors since Austin. It was nice to be in a proper bed and everything, but at four times the cost of a campground, I didn't think it was four times as nice. In the past, I think I would have appreciated sleeping indoors more, but after so much camping it almost seemed like a frivolous expense. However, it was dark by the time we got out of Saguaro Park and we were happy to be able to settle down without the usual setup that is required when camping.

The next day, we helped ourselves to a subpar continental breakfast, which was really just cereal, danishes, and coffee. We got a good early start and headed north to Phoenix. Once there, we stopped at a used book store for me, and a camera store for Mike. I traded in most of the books that I had brought with me, for a whopping grand total of $6.25 in store credit, but left well stocked with reading material. Mike was able to replace the tripod that had been stolen in Austin, and we were on our way. Another few hours north we stopped again, this time in Flagstaff for coffee. Once there, we also made a pit stop so Mike could buy another air mattress (his was deflating in the night.)

From Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon was only an hour or so away, so we pressed on. I was surprised to see how many people were at the canyon, especially this early in the season. Then again, it is the nation's most visited park. During our time there, I saw lots of different types of folks, and heard many languages being spoken. I don’t think I had seen such culturally diversity represented since the last time I was in New York City. We got a brief look at the Canyon, and headed to the campsite.

When the ranger asked us how long we were staying, we briefly discussed it and decided upon three nights. When we told the ranger, she raised her eyebrow at us, asking if we had seen the weather report. We knew it was going to be cold, and we told her that we were prepared. After setting up camp, Mike headed to the general store to pick up a few supplies, and I asked him to pick up some whiskey due to its warming qualities. I was pleasantly surprised when he returned with Maker’s Mark. He said that a beautiful drink was appropriate at such a beautiful place, and I had no complaints what so ever.

The next day, we went to the visitor’s center, which had been closed by the time we arrived the night before. I had decided on the trail that I wanted to hike, and Mike said that he was going to come with me. However, when we were at the visitor’s center he told me that he was getting sick. Apparently he had not been able to get warm all morning, despite his layers of clothing and spending time indoors. I decided to go on my hike anyway, and Mike spent his day indoors doing laundry and trying to stay warm.

The hike itself offered some beautiful views, which I tried to capture with my camera to no avail. Each picture I took paled in comparison to the actual sights I was seeing. I hiked down the canyon quite a bit, and, of course, the way back up proved to be much more challenging. I had to strip a few of my layers and carry them in my hand, and was still hot. Shortly after I got back to the top, I once again needed their warmth, and quickly redressed. I took the bus to a few viewpoints, and eventually headed back to the campsite. Once there, Mike went to bed quite early in the afternoon, leaving me to finish one of the books I had picked up in Phoenix.

That night, the wind howled furiously. The tent did a surprisingly good job shielding us from the weather, but the noise of our overhead tarp blowing in the wind kept me up for a bit. The weather report was now calling for snow, and quite a bit of it. When I got up in the morning, it had already begun. When Mike got up a half an hour after me, feeling much better by the way, we decided to high tail it out of there. It seems as if the ranger’s raised eye-brow was right on the money, as we ultimately decided to stay only two nights. We hastily and with no regard for organization threw all of our stuff into the truck and drove off.

I mentioned to Mike that I would like to see the canyon in the midst of all this snow, and he agreed. So, before leaving, we stopped by one of the viewpoints. All we saw was a wall of white. It is between 8-10 miles across to the northern rim, and the snow was just too thick to see across. I guess the 100% humidity didn't help either!

We are now headed back into Flagstaff, which is more or less on the way back to anything of interest anyway. We are not sure where we are going to stay tonight. The next logical place is Las Vegas, only 4-5 hours away according to Google Maps, but the conditions may prove to be too treacherous for us to press that far. The visibility is quite low, and the snow accumulation is much greater than I had anticipated. Just now, as we were climbing a hill, Mike fishtailed several times. I gave him some advice that I had picked up at UPS, and told him to use a higher gear than he would have normally used. While he had to chug up the hill with almost no torque, at least it put an end to the fishtailing.

One this trip, we drove out of winter and into the spring on our way to Arkansas. From there, we hit perfect weather in New Orleans, and eventually got to the desert in western Texas where it was downright hot. Now, it appears as if we have driven right back into the heart of winter. Fortunately, this time the snowy driving is in the light of day, and while the going is slow, I am not at all scared for my life like I was driving down I-66 in Virginia.

I checked the weather for Vegas, and it is partly cloudy and in the 40’s.  However, to get there, I’m under the impression that we have to cross over a few mountains. I’m not sure if this truck is up to quite a task in such a weather. Furthermore, even though he had his alignment fixed 800 miles ago in Texas, it appears as if it needs to be worked on again. So, we are headed to Flagstaff to fix up the truck, and from there we plan on making a decision whether to stay or to go. I imagine we will go, but not make it all the way to Nevada until tomorrow. Besides, I’d like to go across the Hoover Dam during the day so I can check it out. I have to admit, I am hoping for a National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation style tour of the dam. We shall see.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Desert Living

Well, I haven’t made it out of Texas yet.  I have been here since the 1st of the month, which makes today my 16th day in the state.  However, I don’t want to give the impression that I have been stuck in the same place. Remember, Texas is a big place, with a lot of different things to do and see. I am currently in west Texas, which I have been told is Texas at its best. Honestly, I have to agree with that statement.

While Mike says he could never live out here, I have to beg to differ. It is so peaceful and quiet out here, and the people are so nice.  We are currently staying at a unique place called “El Cosmico.” It is just south of a little desert town called Marfa, which is more or less a town build up around artists. There are plenty of galleries here, as well as large permanent art installations out in the desert. One of this town's heroes is this guy named Donald Judd, who some time ago led a movement against the conventional art world. I even saw a bumper sticker, WWDJD? (What would Donald Judd do?) He felt that art being moved from museum to museum, seen out of its original context, was losing some of what the artist was trying to convey. Here, the art structures are set against the desert sky, and it is hard to imagine them as art. and not construction, anywhere else.

I know it's not a very good picture, but the only light in the entire town is a flashing red light.

El Cosmico itself is a pretty cool place. In addition to having a bunch of campsites, they also have a few “alternate” lodging options. They have old trailers and RVs that have been renovated, and are apparently really cool because they are all booked months in advance. In addition, they also have a giant teepee and several “safari tents”  which offer a unique camping experience without any of the hassle of bringing your own gear.  I met one Pennsylvanian who was staying in one of El Cosmico’s tent, and he told us that it was just like a regular tent, only that it was set up and had a proper bed inside. After all these weeks of camping, our tent suited us just fine.

El Cosmico Trailer

Time spent out here is much different than the hustle and bustle of the northeast, but I guess that goes without saying. For me, it has been particularly refreshing. Life is simpler out here, at least for me. I am going to try and bring this simplicity with me everywhere I go. After all, what is really worth worrying about? As long as I have clothes on my back, food in my belly and a good book to read, I don’t really need much else. Obviously, I enjoy having the laptop to keep up with the happenings of the world, as well to write (I hate writing by hand.) Additionally, access to a vehicle certainly makes things easier, and I think that I would eventually go stir crazy if I was trapped here. Finally, I don't think i'd my life would be too fulfilling without some good company, but enough with the stipulations. For now, it is wonderful.

I have really been enjoying the vagabond lifestyle. To tell you the truth, when I left, I had no intention of “finding myself” on the road. However, after being on the road for a month, I have found out a lot more about myself than I had ever hoped. I know have a better idea of where I’d like to be, and what I’d like to be doing. One of the girls we met at Big Bend was a painter, and she called Marfa her personal version of utopia.  That got me thinking, what would be my ideal situation? It is certainly not running around cities; always busy trying to make a buck. It is also not out in the middle of nowhere, living like some hermit. For now, my ideal life is on the road, and I am extremely happy to be doing just that.


So- headed out of Marfa today, but not Texas. We are about to break camp and head up to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is on the border with New Mexico. Tomorrow we will likely visit Carlsbad Caverns. Our plans were unclear for a while, because Mike's friend in Bisbee had to fly back to the east coast due to a death in the family. We were considering skipping Bisbee all together and hightailing it up to the Grand Canyon, however the weather doesn't look ideal. Not only will it be below freezing at night, but it will also be raining. Instead, we are going to occupy ourselves in southern New Mexico and Arizona until Mike's friend gets back, then head up to the canyon afterwards. While we won't have nearly as much time in southern Utah as we had wanted, thats just fine because the weather up there is mighty cold as well. I look at it this way, if it gets uncomfortably cold at night in the desert, which it does, I don't want to spend too many nights shivering in Utah!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Big Bend National Park


I work up this morning a stone’s throw from Mexico. To prove it, Mike and I both threw stones over the Rio Grande and into Mexico. So far, it hasn’t started a war. We are currently in Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas. After full days drive through the desert, passing by beautiful mountain vistas, we arrived at the park. A full thirty miles after the park entrance, we arrived at the headquarters. However, all of the developed campsites were full, and we were therefore forced to do some backcountry camping. After waiting in line for a permit, we eventually sat down with a park ranger. To my surprise, even the majority of these remote, undeveloped campsites were also full.  After a minute or two of flipping through the reservation book, the ranger finally told us that there was a backcountry site available. Unfortunately, the site was approximately 3 hours away. My heart sank at the news; after all, I didn’t want to be in the car for another minute, but we drove on.

All things considered, the drive from the park headquarters to the campsite was certainly memorable. After about 30 miles on a paved road, we turned onto an unimproved dirt road. Steep hills, sandy terrain and a multitude of rocks all combined to pose quite a challenge for Mike’s 1992 pickup truck. To make matters worse, the sun began to set just as we turned away from the pavement.  I got to watch the sunset as Mike swerved back and forth to avoid the many boulder-like rocks, which lay on roadway. Soon enough the sun was down entirely, and we were winding through the pitch-black wilderness on our way to our campsite. The mountains and desert views surrounding us were quite breathtaking, and several times we both gasped at the scenery as reached the crest of a hill.

We made it to the site without incident, but it was quite dark by the time we arrived.  We were able to see the river from our location, but there wasn’t enough visibility to do any sort of sight seeing. We were tired, and did not want to go through the hassle of cooking, so we set up the tent, ate some chips with salsa, and turned in for the night. When I finally lay down in our tent, the gurgling sound of the Rio Grande River lulled me to sleep.

In the morning, we decided to pack up immediately and to head to one of the developed campsites. After we threw our stones, we quickly loaded the truck and were on our way.  Unfortunately, the way out was not quite as easy as the way in. A few miles from the campsite, the truck got stuck in the sand. I walked up to the top of a hill to find some cell phone service and call for help, but there is no service out here. After a half hour of digging, but to no avail, I put on my hat, grabbed a bottle of water, and started walking down the road in search of help.

Luckily, after a bit of walking, miles and miles less than I was prepared for, I found another campsite just off the road. There were about 8 college kids from Austin there, just finishing up their breakfast. I approached them and told them the story. I was told that I had come to the right place, and within minutes I was in a monster of a truck, a Chevy Tahoe, and we headed back to pull Mike out. After hooking up the tow-strap, our new friend from Austin pulled Mike’s truck out of the sand., as if it were a toy. After leaving Austin with such a bad taste in our mouth from the robbery, their good deeds made a solid case that the city wasn’t as bad as our experience led us to believe. We filled in the hole that Mike’s truck had dug for it self, so that the next person would not get stuck, and we were on our way once again.

The developed campsites are first come, first serve. We figured that because today is Sunday, and most of the world has to work tomorrow, we would likely be able to get a spot. Now, I sit and write from the table at such a developed campsite. Let me tell you, the developed sites and the backcountry sites are like night and day. Last night, there was no one for miles, no bathroom, no water, nothing. Here, I can count nine other tents from where I sit, and I am facing the back of the camp!

The relative crowdedness of a few tents seems like a bustling metropolis in comparison to the wilderness of last night. There are these pig-like animals called ‘javelinas’ here, and they are walking all over the place in their aggressive food hunting. There was about ten of them right were I wanted to set up our tent, but thankfully the sound of me shaking out our tarp sent them scurrying out of site.

The main benefit of this site, as compared to the last, is its accessibility. From here, we can drive anywhere in the park for a day hike. Out there, the two hours on the dirt road make any venture in or out quite the ordeal, as we have come to know first hand. Additionally, we kicked up so much dust along the way that it got into everything. There was dirt under the bed cover, into the cab, and all over us. Furthermore, because water is scarce out here, there are no free showers. Instead of wallowing in filth for our stay here, I’m sure we’ll have to bite the bullet and use the coin-operated shower. Before that, however, we want to get in a good day of hiking, and I’m going to do just that.


Today is likely to be our last day in Big Bend. While there are enough trails here to keep us busy for weeks, we are ready to move on. To a certain extent, we are becoming accustomed to the landscape. I fear that upon returning to civilization that I will be disgusted by mankind’s crushing footprint on the landscape. Thankfully, we won’t be going to any large cities for a few more days. After leaving here, we will probably head into New Mexico to see Carlsbad Canyons and White Sands National Monument. From there, it’s on to Bisbee, Arizona, where we’ll stay with Mike’s friend who had moved from Philly a few months back.

Yesterday, we drove for about three hours across the park to Rio Grande Village, which was more of a single building than a village. There, we were able to do some much needed laundry, and take a much needed shower. Water is scarce here, so for the first time, I saw a coin operated shower. I gladly paid the $1.50 for the five minute shower, and we were on our way. While we were headed back to the center of the park, we saw a checkpoint ahead in the road. The brigade of park rangers stopped the motorcycles ahead of us, and we saw them confiscate a walking stick. Apparently, they had purchased it illegally from river merchants from Mexico.  We were only stopped briefly, and after they confirmed that we were in the park legally, they let us pass.

Mike needed to make a few phone calls, and he heard that there was AT&T service at the top of Grapevine Hill, so, that’s just where we went. Unfortunately, he was never able to find service. My Verizon phone, however, was getting several bars of service, further adding to my anecdotal evidence that Verizon’s service is far superior, even out here in the middle of nowhere. Speaking of the middle of nowhere, my suspicions about radio service were confirmed when we went to Rio Grande Village. I asked the cashier at the general store if the music in the store was from the radio, and he told me that there was no viable signal out here. Interestingly, however, he told me that at night one might catch one or two AM stations, because apparently the AM signal travels better at night. The two radio stations were a conspiracy theorist’s talk show from Del Rio, a city about 75 miles to the east, and an illegal Mexican pirate broadcast, which generally plays Mariachi music.

There is also a short trail at Grapevine Hill, so we decided to make the most of our trip up the dirt road and to go for a hike. However, while we were still in the truck messing with the phones, another car came up and asked us if we would move the truck over a little so that they could park. Mike was happy to oblige and as a result, we met a few new friends.

I must admit, my interest was piqued when I noticed that there were two girls in the car. We talked briefly before starting along the trail, and we found out that they were unable to get a campsite for the night. After spending three weeks with Mike, I was welcome to the idea of some alternate company, and I mentioned that we had plenty of room at our site.

After that, Mike and I went ahead and hiked through a desert valley with beautiful rock formations all around us. Eventually, the trail led up the rocks and culminated at a breathtaking rock structure called ‘balanced rock,’ just like the one in Hot Springs. However, this rock structure was much cooler than the one in Arkansas, and I will post a picture of it later on. I pressed on a bit further past the trail just for the fun and scrambling up the rocks, but soon enough came back to lounge in the shade of a giant boulder.

We saw the girls on our way back down, and they told us that they were going to take us up on our offer to share the site. After talking briefly and giving them directions, we headed back to the car. I had wanted to get in another short hike, but we decided to come back to the campsite instead. When we arrived, we made our preparations for dinner and had a few drinks.

Initially, we didn’t think it was legal to drink in the National Park, and were very discreet in doing so. However, that morning a park ranger had stopped by and we talked for a few minutes. I told him that we were planning on trying to get a different campsite in the Chiso Basin, from where most of the best hikes began. He told me that the site was full, that many of the sites were reserved for the entire week, and that there were people already there waiting to grab a site should one turn up. He said that we should just stay were we were and have a few beers. This, of course, prompted me to ask him about the legality of such an act.  His response was that if we were of 21 years of age, and did not drive after drinking, that it was perfectly legal.

While we were hanging out that night, the same ranger, this time in street clothes, stopped by again to chat. Apparently he lives just up the hill inside the park. He told us several interesting stories about the life of a park ranger, how he liked to harass the border patrol, and, upon Mike’s prompt, what it took to get a job like his. After some time, the girls we had met at the trail showed up and we all had a few drinks. Shortly thereafter, the ranger left while the four of us remaining continued to drink. I think that Mike and I were likely the most inebriated of the bunch, as we had started earlier and were drinking stiff gin drinks as opposed to beer. The girls turned out to be from Austin and very cool, further repairing my perception of their city.

After a leisurely morning hanging out with our new friends, they were on their way while Mike and I planned on hiking to the top of Emory Peak, the highest point in Big Bend. Mike, however, was feeling somewhat sickly in the stomach, and was not quite ready to embark. Instead, he headed back to Saint Elena Canyon, where we had hiked before. Our friend the park ranger had told him that he would get reception for his phone there. I stayed behind so that I might read and write a little while sitting in the shade. Hopefully when he gets back, he will feel up to the challenge that Emory Peak has to offer. However, it is quarter after two already, and the ranger told us that the hike would take us upwards of six hours. Even after daylights savings time, which would put us on the trail after the sun had set. I, for one, am not too keen on the prospect of a mountain hike in the dark. However, I don’t want to let our last day here pass without another hike. Maybe we will have to settle for a shorter hike, but only time will tell.


Well, a lot of time certainly passed before I saw Mike again. Several hours later, the same park ranger that we had met before came by the campsite. He came over to tell me that Mike had broken down again. Apparently, he got a flat tire and the spare-tire compartment was rusted shut. So, Mike was stuck on the road, waiting for Triple-A. He told the rangers that I was at the campsite without food, so our new buddy brought down a backpack that Mike had backed with food. When he arrived, I was both relieved to hear that he was safe, and grateful for the food. After all, it was dinnertime and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast!

The ranger came back after a while, and asked if I wanted to take a ride up to the truck breakdown to see if Mike’s tow had ever arrived. When I got into the truck, I was surprised to see both an assault riffle and a shotgun harnessed into the middle seat. I joked around about the need for such firepower, but he told me that sometimes some seriously bad folks try to cross through the park into the States from Mexico.

After confirmed that Mike was in fact on his way, we headed back down to the south end of the park. He lived on the park about ½ mile from our campsite, and he welcomed me into his house to watch TV and have a few beers. I was thankful for the offer, because I had been getting quite bored at the campsite by myself. I had already finished the book I was reading, my laptop was out of battery, and all the booze was in the truck with Mike, so I happily accepted his invitation. Besides, I imagine living out in the middle of nowhere can get lonely, so I figure it was mutually beneficial. After a couple of beers and a bunch of interesting stories, he took me back to the campsite. I was worried that Mike was going to be stuck for the night out wherever he his car had gotten towed, but 15 minutes after I got to the campsite, Mike pulled up in the truck.

Now, we are headed out of Texas, into New Mexico. Actually, we were just stopped by a border patrol checkpoint. Of course, we aren’t stupid enough to give them any reason to hassle us, so after a few questions we were on our way. We are planning on stopping in Alpine, Texas in a few minutes so Mike can the trucks alignment worked on. Tonight, we’ll probably go to Marfa, TX, at a place called El Cosmico, which was recommended by the girls we met in Big Bend. Although, any stories from there will have to be another part of the story, and y’all will have to wait until the next post to hear about all that.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Stalled in Texas

Here I am, back at Guadalupe State Park on Thursday afternoon. Yesterday, when I posted, we were heading out of San Antonio. We made it about an hour out, too. Unfortunately, the car wasn’t actually fixed, and began acting up once again. We had already considered our repair options further west, and Mike turned the car around. We took it back to the Toyota dealership that had “fixed” the loose wires the day before, and after an hour or so we headed back to the same campsite where we had already stayed two nights. After spending the day shopping around town, driving an hour west, then driving all the way back dealership and back to our site, it felt like returning home.

Now, I’m left alone once again. Mike is back in town, probably sitting in the dealership’s waiting room. This time, however, they are dropping out the fuel tank and looking at the fuel pump, which, by the way, Mike had fixed back in Jersey right before we left. We are anxious to get back on the road. We are still hopeful that we can resume by tomorrow.

I remind myself that it’s still about the journey, and not the destination. While we are eager to see the Grand Canyon, and all the other awe inspiring natural wonders the American west holds, I am still able to appreciate what I have here. The continued interactions with the Raccoons are still fun, but we are getting much better at cleaning up all the food stuffs immediately as not to attract them in the first place. Additionally, despite being less than an hour to downtown San Antonio, we are still in a much more natural place than anywhere in Jersey!

Besides the ‘coons, I have become accustomed to a lot more animals in my life. Because I am sleeping outside, I am often woken in the morning by bird songs, not  some grating alarm clock. Also, speaking of birds, large birds of prey are much more common down here. Several times they have circled quite close to the campsite, and I often see large birds in the sky while we are in the car. We also saw an armadillo, a first time sighting for both of us. Unfortunately, it skittered away before Mike could take any professional looking shots, but here is the photo I snagged.

Living in a place with so much wildlife is teaching me a lot of lessons. Of course, a lot of these lessons are practical camping knowledge, like clean up the spilled beverage promptly or you’ll be dealing with a veritable army of bees. Additionally, however,I am also learning how to appreciate a simpler way of life.  As I write on my laptop, I sense the irony of that statement. Despite “roughing it” in a tent, we still have our gadgets to entertain us into the night, and we often watch an episode of ‘Mad Men’ in the tent before turning in.

After a discussion about just that, our seemingly indispensible technology in this primitive place, we decided to buy a chessboard. That way, we will be able to entertain ourselves, while still maintaining some of nature’s integrity. However, we have no intentions of abandoning use of the crank/solar-powered flashlight/radio. Admidantly, we probably wont be able to get any good stations in Big Bend, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city, but having a little music is nice.

While I’ve spent quite a bit of time at this campsite alone, it has not been time wasted. I am already through 4 of the 20 sections in the ESL course, and have read three novels since the trip began. Additionally, I have used it as a time to reflect on life, not distracted by any urgent need to go anywhere, or to get anything done. While I don’t have anything profound to impart, I do recommend that anyone who has been living in a highly developed area to spend a few weeks away from it. It took me more than a week away to truly separate myself from the impatience instilled in me from city life.

So, while I am sorry that I don’t have any more grand travels to report, I am not sorry that we are stalled here in the middle of Texas.  The grand travels will come, and in the meantime I am enjoying myself. Its already 1:30, so I doubt we’ll be leaving Guadalupe tonight. I have no update from Mike because my phone is dead and the charger is in the truck. Hopefully I will be able to keep myself busy until he gets back, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

Friday afternoon now, and we are still in Guadalupe Park, and we will be staying yet another night. A little after noon, I left Mike at the campsite to walk a few miles down the road. I was headed to the ranger station to get ice and pay for the campsite another night. We figured that if even if we got the car back in the early afternoon, it would probably be better stay here to get the truck packed and organized properly.

After arriving at the station, I was told that the campgrounds were full! While we were hoping to get the car back later today, it was still uncertain! Fortunately, after explaining our situation to the ranger, he clarified his statement. Not all campsites were reserved, just all of the campsites with electrical outlets. After telling them that we would change sites, I asked when we had to be out of the old site. They confirmed my suspicion, 2 o’clock.  I looked at the clock: it was 1:30. So, I asked for a ride back. After all, I wasn’t looking forward to the 45 minutes hike with a few bags of ice on my back. Fortunately, another park ranger was headed into the park, and he stopped and drove me back.

Along the way, we talked about this and that. I told him about our troubles, and the trip in general. I also asked about the job of park ranger: how to get one, how does it pay, how does he like it? By the time we got back to the site, he had offered to stop back after he unloaded whatever was in the bed of his truck. He got back before we were finished, and he helped us breakdown and pack everything up in his truck. He also had the idea to leave the tent in tact, and I took a picture just to prove it.

Now, we are settled at the new campsite. Apparently, today is beginning of spring break. So, we are going to have a park full of students.  We are unsure of what age group is headed this way, but we have seen a few cute college student-looking girls coming in. I think it might be worth a stroll past our old campsite tonight, just to see what the scene is like.  Then again, maybe I won’t. I doubt Mike will be interested in the prospect, and we are getting up to leave for Big Bend by 7am tomorrow.

That’s right, we get back into gear tomorrow. The fuel pump needed to be placed on some sort of old bracket, which the dealership didn’t have, so we stalled yet again. However, they received that bracket today and put it in. They called Mike and made arrangements to pick him up here. He’s off in town now, paying for the repairs and getting us some dinner for tonight. Hopefully he remembers the chessboard as well. Even if he doesn’t, I’ll be happy to see that truck back here.


On the road once again! Car is fixed, and we are headed to Big Bend! Albeit almost a week after schedule, but it's all good! While we are not headed out of Texas yet, at least we are no longer stalled!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Things They Stole

 Saturday night in Austin was nothing special, yet again. We went downtown again. Again, we were appalled by the inefficiencies of their public transit system. Can anyone tell me why wouldn’t the train downtown not run on a Saturday night, especially considering all the music events going on? Anyway, after taking a bus, we checked out more of the downtown area. We walked around a bit, then after stopping in for food, a few beers, and darts at some bar, we walked around some more. We stopped by a liquor store along the way and bought a ½ pint of Jack Daniels for the back pocket. Mike likes to call it a “nip.” So we take a few swigs here and there, and eventually get to the end of the bar area and turn back and walk back through. We are disappointed to see that none of the live music is free, and decide to get a cab back to the hotel.

We have a pleasant ride with a personable cab driver and he drops us off right by the truck. We head into the hotel and get a good nights sleep. I had slept in the day before and just missed the free breakfast, and didn’t want to do so again. We passed by the truck on our way over, and saw that the bed cover was open and one of the windows had been smashed in. All of our amateur forensics led us to believe they used a crowbar: there were marks by the bed cover and most of the smashed window was on the outside of the car. Additionally, the guy that replaced the window confirmed our suspicions when he told Mike that when it was pried open it bent the frame and it may now leak water.

I suppose we were lucky. Our backpacks, laptops, and cameras were all in the hotel room with us. I think it's likely that they were on foot, considering how much they left behind. Then again, maybe they just didn’t consider it valuable enough to take. Either way, Mike and I have compiled a list of what they took. Here it is:

UPS Camping Chair (not Mike’s Coleman camping chair)
Book of scratched CDs
Car Power Inverter that I had bought for my dad for Christmas a few years ago)
Bag of change (roughly 20 dollars, but then again who knows, probably more)
Mike’s Book of DVDs (good stuff too)
~20 Cans of Soup
~50 packets of ramen
5 piece Louisiana Hot Sauce Set 
5 piece BBQ rub set
Lots of tea (including this wild ginseng red tea we had bought)
2 Full Containers of Concentrated Gatorade Powder
~40 Packets of Propel
~25 Packets of Emergen-C
2 Jars of Peanut Butter
10 Instant Rice Sides
2 Boxes of Macaroni and Cheese
2 Boxes of Pancake Mix
Box of Butane Fuel Cartridges
Portable Cooking Stove
Scrabble Game
Vintage Yahtzee Game (they left Othello)
Citronella Candle (they left a second)

Despite Austin having an excellent reputation for being a great city, it has forever been stained in our eyes. We found out later that the hotel where we had been staying was not in a very good area. On top of that, the adjacent mall was in the process of closing. All in all, we are very happy to be getting out of the city.

We had to hang out all day Sunday because we couldn't get the car tuned up and its window fixed until Monday morning. We changed the oil and got a tune-up, and the problem seemed to go away. We headed into San Antonio because it was close, and we would still be able to shop the truck, if needed. I am currently writing from Guadalupe River State Park, about a ½ hour north of San Antonio. While I write Mike is cooking us some dinner, we stopped at a Sports Authority and bought a new cooking stove to replace the one that was stolen. I also picked up an air mattress for 14.97 after being extremely jealous of Mike’s. After all, if we are car camping, there is no reason not to have an air mattress. Especially considering Mike already has the battery operated auto-inflator.

Unfortunately, after some driving, the problem resurfaced. Although not as severe as before, it is definitely a concern. Personally, I would like to push forward onto Kickapoo State Park, where there is some intense caves, and onto Devil’s River State Park, where we can do some primitive camping. FYI- primitive camping simply implies a camp site that does not offer food or water, but thankfully we are still equipped to pull something like that off. Thankfully we have power tonight so we can leave tomorrow with a full charge. Ideally, we will be able to make it through Big Bend National Park and into Bisbee, Arizona by Saturday. There, Mike has a friend that has offered to put us up for a couple of days.


Wednesday morning, back on the road. Mike was able to get the problems with the truck cleared up (a loose wire), and we are headed out of San Antonio today. I'm going to keep this post quick because we want to get a move on. The mood is excited now that we appear to be rolling again. We are headed west, likely to stay at Lost Maples State Park tonight, and onto Big Bend National Park tomorrow, where we plan on staying for a few days. Only a few things left to do in town before we get out of here, so we're going to get to that. I doubt i'll be able to post until the weekend, being how i'll be out in the wilderness, but i'll likely do some writing at the campsites and update everyone when I get back into civilization. Until then, just a few pictures stolen from Mike's Facebook account.

As promised, picture of me with wild baby gator.

All grown up, nasty huh? The guide actually turned the boat's motor off so we could cruise in real close. When they did finally splash into the water, practically everyone on the boat jumped in surprise.
This is from Sea Rim. Despite the mosquito hordes, we actually got to see some good nature.

That's it for now folks, got to put a few hundred miles behind us today. Until next time.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Austin, TX... plus pictures

So far Austin has been a cool place. There is definitely an abundance of young, friendly people all around. Also, there are bike lanes on almost every road. I don't know why, but I find myself searching craigslist for job openings in the city. Really, I was just looking for temporary work, because if we found jobs and a cheaper place to stay, we get to be around for South by South West, an interactive film and music event taking place in the city next week.

Speaking of working, I have been considering working on the road, and extending my trip indefinitely. I spent $200 to buy myself a certification course to teach ESL, english as a second language. It is the same program that my friend Kem, also known as Kyle, had purchased. He is currently teaching english in Germany and has a job lined up to begin teaching english in Japan. He also writes a blog and hosts a forum called Revolution Earth dedicated to figuring out how to keep humanity from wiping itself out. I actually plan on meeting him in Hannover later in the summer, and i'll get a chance to see how he has been living, and hopefully we can do some traveling together as well.

Somewhat counterintuitively, and to some quite surprisingly, one does not have to speak the native language to teach ESL. Therefore, with this certificate, I could theoretically draw an income anywhere in the world. I imagine another year of living abroad for myself, spending time both working and traveling. Although it may be against conventional wisdom, attending graduate school may not be the next step for my life. However, all that remains to be seen. The applications are still out and I am still fly from Los Angeles to Bangkok in a month, that much is for sure. In the meantime, I can get myself certified to teach ESL, do some more research, and let it all roll around in my head while I roll around this great country.

We are not even sure when we can leave Austin! Mike has scheduled to take his car, which is still fully capable of local driving, into the shop on Monday morning for it be worked on. You see, we only ran into problems when we hit 70 mph or a steep incline, but otherwise it ran fine. Also, he told me on several occasions that he would consider moving to this city, and we have talked about the possibility that his car is not worth fixing and our plans potentially changing. However, at this point it's all highly speculative. Expect an update about the new plans on Tuesday or Wednesday, until then we have 2 more nights in this hotel room in Austin, and possibly more in the area.

Anyway, here are some pictures from the trip so far. I stole a few of them of Mike's facebook account, and some of them are from my own camera. I know that Mike has another several hundred pictures that he will go through and post, and i'll take a few of them and put them up here for all to see at another time. However, don't expect many pictures of the two of us, because he is mostly taking shots for his portfolio. Hopefully he can find himself a photography job somewhere out here in western America. I think he will.

I certainly get to see a lot of this.

Some of the pictures he is getting are incredible. Often when we hike down some trail, I will bring a book to occupy myself while he is taking pictures. On one occasion, I had him take the short loop while I took the long one. I actually wound up sitting on a few benches to take in all the nature in solitude, and he beat me to the trial head where we were scheduled to meet by about 15 minutes. Still, this picture is amazing. I know he's got some good ones of birds from the nature trail at Sea Rim on the gulf coast.

The head peacock from Hot Springs. This picture is also courtesy of Mike. They were actually surrounded by the net, and was still able to take this picture through it. Quite impressive.

The duet we heard at the Spotted Cat in New Orleans. You can see the instrument I tried to describe, as well as the Spotted Cat logo behind his left shoulder. Now I wish I would have taken one more picture that shows just how small and chic this place was, but at least you get to see the band.

We have caught a lot of sunsets. This shot is from Hot Springs National Park on a day where we hiked back to place called Balanced Rocks specifically to catch the sunset from that location. We made ourselves some hot room in the thermos and hung out there for a while. But in general, every night we camped we got a chance to see either the sun rise or set. Actually, this first morning in Austin was the first time I have slept in a good bed since the last night in Hot Springs. You don't appreciate the everyday comforts like that until you go without them for a few days.

Lake Hamilton, Arkansas. I didn't even know Mike was taking this picture. Worked out pretty good. I especially like this picture because it makes me think about all the different possibilities available to me. I'm not 100% sure where i'll be next week, and even less sure about six months from now. 

Ok, thats all for now. Enough sitting around talking about the trip, time to get on with living it.