My First Dive

The ocean keeps changing for me.

It used to be our small space in Fort Morgan on the Gulf of Mexico. All oceans are green and have oil rigs like sparkling cities on the horizons. Then I saw the oceans in the Mediterranean, with smooth rocks instead of sand and water that is crystal cold and blue.

Then I saw the Pacific Ocean and fell in love. The powerful waves crashing against cliffs and swallowing rocks, foam swirling, and fog hanging. It became the idea of romance; everything became a beautiful movie.

Recently, I went to Thad’s Place, a scuba diving camp on the island of Dumaguete in the Philippines and my whole perspective flipped. I stayed at a camp where people would live and breathe water instead of air if they could. They would spend hours at the bottom of the sea and come up speaking about strange worlds. They taught me to scuba dive, how to take care of the ocean and what’s happening to it. I went underwater and entered the silence. The only sound present was of my artificial breathing from the oxygen tank , and I saw the worlds they were talking about.

Under the waves, I saw coral communities with purple spikes, swaying green grass, orange rocks that look like brains and veiny indigo shapes. All this life of turtles, snakes, eels, and fishes all completely unaware of the other world is above them. That this world above is killing them, Instagramming them, caring for them, defending them, and turning them into sushi.

As our boat mounted each wave, the salty sea was spraying our eyes, and I realized how separate we are…. land and sea. As if two different cultures are experiencing each other for the first time. The ocean felt so alien and superior. The ocean was not a romantic idea any more or a sweet childhood place. It is our other universe, just as beautiful, foreign, scary and infinite as space is to us.

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Don’t Fly out West: Part Two

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.

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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.

https://koa.com/campgrounds/flagstaff/

 

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.

https://www.recreation.gov/camping/map_of_Mather_Campground/r/campgroundMap.do?page=map&search=site&contractCode=NRSO&parkId=70971

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

IMG_3769.jpgVegas 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Fly Out West: Part One

I promise you, you are making a big mistake. Be a romantic and drive. To check your bags in, sit between strangers and see the western landscape out a two-foot circular window is the wrong way.

When you set out east to west you are now engaging and enlightening yourself on a trek thousands of Americans risked and journeyed in the past. There is a nostalgic and electric feeling every morning you wake up, an excitement to see what the west unfolds.

So if you have the time and the chance why limit yourself?

My adventure began humbly at 10 p.m. leaving from Birmingham, Alabama, a real southern blood vein. I had just graduated college two weeks before and I was headed out with my two best friends, my car stuffed with everything I could squeeze and our tent.

Many people have made this drive or flight before. We were driving to California with no deadline, no place to be, just freedom to be attained. They were to drop me off in Los Angeles, a city unknown to me, with nobody, no job and only a finger crossed future.

 

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Our first stop was in Austin to stay with my family. We were pampered, we swam in hillside pools, drank old French wine and stayed in the warm laughter and comfort of family. It was hotter and there were a significant amount of more hipsters, but still the south.

When we weren’t relaxing in the west side of Austin, tucked in between the hills and the mansions we were out exploring. Austin has been photographed, Instagrammed, and pinned a thousand times over because it is that cool of a town. You will not be unamused by the nearby swimming holes, five-star food trucks, famous BBQ or endless catchy wall graffiti.

For me, a great day in Austin would be checking out Zilker Park. At the park, you can walk the gardens and look for fairies on the Woodland Fairie Trail or kill the Austin heat and swim at Barton Springs Pool. From there spend your afternoons getting lost in eclectic shops in South Congress, eating great bites at food trucks and checking out breweries such as 512 brewery, a perfect small and local spot for your IPA fix.

In Austin, you have to end your night with a wickedly good restaurant and live music. My favorite dinner spot is called, Sway, it is a gorgeous modern Thai restaurant with family-style dinners, warm moody atmosphere and an unresistible dish called the “Tiger Cry.” If not stuffed from the all amazing options, finish your night bar hopping for bands. You can’t experience Austin truly without the sound of live music, and this town is blessed with that.  There are unlimited options, but for big names in an intimate space check out Stubbs BBQ and for new local discoveries hop over to Whip in, and grab a naan sandwich for round two.

Austin is the city I hope all cities America can be. Not to take away what makes it Austin, but to be a town that is alive with music, food, and adventure. Austin was my last temptation on my decision to move to LA. I saw my life in both places, and being very happy in very different ways. Spoiler alert: I am very happy with my decision, and after a few days in Austin I felt closure and we moved on.

 

Next, we embarked on our biggest ride: 13 hours from Austin, Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

 

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You can either hate it or love it, driving through our countries biggest state. Texas is hot and flat, eerily flat, the isolation is similar to what one can feel in an ocean. On the thrilling side, you can drive as fast as you want and periodically there are sunflowers that go on for miles in every direction.

You start to really feel like your truly in the middle of nowhere going somewhere.

 

 

As we passed the Texas border, for me southern New Mexico was a completely different energy from northern New Mexico. Southern New Mexico felt like a different type of isolation,  a sense of emptiness. That feeling became overwhelming in the town of Roswell. The town that became famous for finding UFO wreckage in the 1950’s and involving themselves in an FBI scandal. I made us go off course for this mysterious place. It’s as if you walked into a spooky movie. Roswell is a dusty sidewalk town all consumed by alien memorabilia, with a general feeling that it hasn’t left the 1980’s. Roswell is definitely worth a visit if you want to experience this strange throwback town and collect a few pins and stickers.

It seemed as we drove closer and closer to Santa Fe, things became more magical. We seemed to be entering a spiritual land. This is where I learned to pause and take the side roads. If you feel an itch that you should turn left even though you’re supposed to be going straight, take a left.

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When you take lefts, you’ll discover high places, rocky places, isolated places. The opportunity for accidental discovery cannot be taken for granted.

We arrived in Santa Fe in the twilight, the desert mountains turned purple, blue light shed all around us and stars began to peak out in the atmosphere. Things had changed: the air was different, the energy and this was the first place without a white queso dip. No mas of that hot melted, gooey, white liquid gold that we oh so love in the South. No more Tex-Mex, they serve real Mexican here.

 

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Santa Fe was the first place I have ever set up a tent and camped. I fell in love with the desert air, the crunch of the rocks and whistle through the trees. We drank heavily under the stars and woke up on our backs to sunlight. Camping was my new thing and so was Santa Fe.

 

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How can I bottle up Santa Fe in a few words, a few paragraphs? This place is special. Founded by the Spanish in 1610,  Santa Fe is the second oldest city be colonized in America and is the oldest state capitol.

So much has happened here between the native Pueblos people and her conquers. There were many brave revolts and Santa Fe was an ending stop on the horrific Trail of Tears route. There is a noticeably strong native American energy here as if the spirit of the indigenous Pueblos people are still fighting the Spanish for their rightful piece of Earth, even in their graves. Yet, it isn’t a hostile energy, it’s beautiful. As if every step you take in Santa Fe there is an ancient feeling, a reminder that the ground beneath you is truly the Pueblos land.

 

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The whole town is made out of ancient clay, that changes mood and color depending on the light of day. One minute the town is toasted orange, within an hour the whole town is electric pink. It is romantic at any hour and there is a reason why so many artists migrated here. The colors, ancestry and welcoming energy is the perfect recipe for creating art. Whether it be sculpture, paintings, necklaces or music, I see the appeal to leave the city and create beautiful art in this magical clay town.

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In Santa Fe, you don’t need directions. It small enough to roam, because every street, house, and shop is unique. Explore the town’s marketplace, buy handmade Native American gifts and listen to live street music. Certain days you’ll catch the annual events such as the Zuni Pueblos show, International Folk Art market, or the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), which is an annual local showcase of local Native American goods happening since 1922.

While wandering the street of Santa Fe any place will satisfy your hunger. But some suggestions for eating would be at La Plazuela for lunch for well-known tortilla soup and for dinner stop by The Pink Adobe for a romantic unforgettable setting in a 350-year-old house. Food and atmosphere like that aren’t just in any town.

Santa Fe also has many options of exploration surrounding the city limits. For true serenity stay at the Ten Thousand Waves spa. It is an inspired Japanese mountain spa resort surrounded by the beautiful New Mexican desert only ten minutes away from downtown. For a longer drive but with adventurous needs, you only have to drive an hour away to discover new worlds. Check out the site, Tent Rocks to understand the more about the beauty of the desert or take a trip Taos. A beautiful town containing a small authentic community of Native Americans tucked away in the mountains. It will give you a better perspective of life in New Mexico before the Spanish.

If your still not convinced to drive out west, Santa Fe will be the town to change your mind. To fly over such a treasure would be a shame. When you stumble upon this haven called Santa Fe I only have two requests: learn and understand the history of this place and do not leave until you had hot chocolate from Kakawa, it’s like drinking velvet.

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For the rest of the adventure, things get wild with Arizona and Vegas. Follow me to LA and check out ” Don’t Drive Out West: Part Two”