At this point, we are far from home. No more Southern accents, no more cheap gas, and no more magnolia trees. We were headed from New Mexico to one of the world’s most amazing creations in a short five hours; The Grand Canyon.
When you go to The Grand Canyon, you will probably stay in Flagstaff, the town 45 minutes south. Maybe I watch too many movies, but Flagstaff was unexpected. We expected Arizona to be tumbleweeds, cactus, and thorns. Instead, I learned about the word “high desert,” and we were welcomed by mountains, grass, and lilac wildflowers.
I highly recommend hiking here and staying at the KOA here in Flagstaff. There is a trampoline, and the campsite is below a mountain with trails through forests and bulging rocks, providing you with the most rewarding views.
Next, we stayed in the town closest to the Grand Canyon, Tusayan. This town is expensive. Though it is just filled with a McDonalds, some Western steakhouses and motels, it can hurt your wallet. Expect a $15 McDonald’s burger and $200 a night at motels. The trick is to reserve six months ahead of time… or do what we did and wake up exceptionally early and wait for first come first serve at Mather Campground. You are close to the canyon and spend something crazy like $10-15 a night. Get there early, or you will be paying $200 at the local joint.
There are many ways to see the Canyon, and none are wrong. Expect for your jaw to drop, to lose your breath and to curse your existence for just now seeing this monumental site.
This is a place that is pointless to describe. Not even the greats: Thoreau, Dickens, Twain…Hunter S. Thompson can use the magic of their words to describe what you see before you. The depth of the canyon is unfathomable, and you struggle at the thought of far it extends, how many horizons it touches. You are weak, small and suddenly unimportant in the presence of this earthly majesty. And yet you are also part of the story, made from the same Earth. Welcomed here are existential thoughts, humility, and appreciation. If you’re lucky enough you will get to experience a thunderstorm roll across the canyon, and you will really experience the drama of the place.
This place is a thrill to face some height fears. Sit on the ledge and swing your feet over a 6,000 ft drop, you’ll lose all physical sensation. Your legs will go numb and jittery. Or take a chance and climb out on the protruding rocks past the ledges. Go where the dangerous people go. It will be terrifying and heart wrenching, but you’ll get a more thrilling and deserving view.
For more desert and adventure you can head a couple hours south to Sedona. There are many secret hidden spots as you drive, winding through the toasted orange mountains. This a place to “take lefts.” Don’t stay on the path and you’ll find secret places like this.
And meet great people like this. Where you can share a drink later and eat homemade spaghetti in their cross-country rented Rv. Trading stories of travel and where we will all end up next.
Vegas was never officially part of our plan, and definitely not mine. I’ve seen Oceans Eleven, The Hangover, I’ve read Fear and Loathing; I know what happens in Vegas. High rise buildings, blackjack, strippers, mobsters, rich people, tacky people-money hungry people. I know on that hot desperate desert strip you’re supposed to lose your mind, your liver, your money, and your wits. It’s a story that’s been told.
So, we went on a whim, and that’s the time I learned my one of many travel lessons: Try everything once and to stop bitchin’ and just go.
Boy did we do Vegas right. First lesson: skip the Airbnb’s and get a Groupon. We were able to stay at Planet Hollywood for about $40 a night. Vegas is about tricks and deals.
When we rode into Vegas, we were on a high. The strip looked just as cheesy and exciting as it does in the movies. Big flashy signs, mobs of American tourists, over-achieving people in over-priced cars, it was as if you stretched times square and fed it cocaine. It is a party town, and as we pulled into the Planet Hollywood garage, we had no plan, except to find a happy hour.
As we wandered around the mall at Planet Hollywood, we were amazed that the mall seemed like the whole world. It was never-ending stores and decorated like a different part of the world. We were walking through what looked like a “Vegas Morocco,” with its clay painting buildings and painted ceiling stars when we saw our happy hour sign. We just found seats at the bar when we hear someone shouting at us.
“HEY, you’re in our seats.”
We looked to find a bunch of guys holding their beers laughing and cackling at us. There was a large burly man of middle eastern decent, two goofy drunk looking twin brothers and some others.
” Oh, we’re sorry,” we said with confusion but also hinting that this might be a joke.
One of them walked up to us, a handsome 6’something Georgian man whispered to us that it’s okay. He explained that they are groomsmen for a bachelor party and we are in the husband-to-be’s seat. He suggested playfully that we should stay and have a drink with them. As we talked and laughed, we saw an incredibly drunk man stumbling towards us wearing a “Where’s Waldo” shirt and everyone cheered and greeted the bachelor boy. We had met our group for the weekend.
We immediately hit it off with our new group, and the money and liquor were flowing. We spent the first night running around, guzzling bottles on the street, and pretending we knew how to play poker while watching them blow $10,000-$20,000 on a game of blackjack. We lost thousands of dollars for them as we’d flirt and they would let us roll the dice; they didn’t even flinch.
As the hours and days steamed by we were lost in an adult playland. Things got more intense as the desert strip played with our impulsions. Paid drinks, free hotel room, flashy bills, and flashy signs. Things started to get messy, twin 1 kicked twin 2 in the head in the lobby, I found twin 2 naked passed out in the bathtub, we got kicked out of the cabana party, and some mistakable late-night decisions were made.
Vegas did Vegas, and we rode it out. It wasn’t till later till we put two-and-two together on why we were skipping lines in clubs, going to $10,000 cabana suite parties and receiving 5-star service. We ignored the fact that the lead guy (let’s call him Mandy) was always sneaking off and conversating with the twin 1 & 2 or always on intense phone calls.
Simply put, we, three girls from Alabama had partied with Chicago mobsters.
What happened in Vegas couldn’t be repeated. It was my last stop to LA, and it was better than the movies, cause we actually lived it. The whole trip was better than imaginable. We did Las Vegas right, we did camping right, we did Santa Fe right, and I kept thinking how can I do Los Angeles right if I can’t even picture it and I’m 45 minutes away.
As we drove the last two sobering hours to my new home, LA it was a sobering feeling. The realizations started to kick in, I have nobody, no job, and no idea what LA is. I just have a hostel downtown I need to check in to, and then my friends, my one memory from home will leave.
I want to give you the story that it was a hard transition, that I struggled, but I didn’t. After my friends left on their flight, I cried for a couple minutes, called people from home and then sat at a Starbucks near LAX and thought about what I should do now.
The minute I hit downtown everything felt right. My hostel was located in the flower district, ironically also one block from the famous homeless community, “skid row.” I was fascinated by the contrast. The smell of flowers next to the smell of trash, the different people on the streets, the sounds of Spanish music filling my ears. I enjoyed every gritty, beautiful, thrilling minute of it.
It all felt right, and it has ever since. My drive out here made me appreciate and understand LA and the west so much more. I now know what lies behind the desert mountains surrounding LA, and all the adventures behind me.
My car broke down three times, we got lost, we lived off lunch meat, slept under the desert starlight, shared dinners with amazing people, spilled jelly all over my car, laughed till we couldn’t breathe, but most importantly we drove out west.