Country Roads, take me home…
They certainly did. Country roads, mountain roads, desert roads, highways…I’ve traveled a great deal of roads over the last few weeks. 3800 miles of them to be precise- all to make my way back to Jefferson County, West Virginia.
What could have been a straight forward 4-5 day road trip evolved into two weeks of fun adventures and memorable moments. My initial route in mind would have taken me through Utah to start, but the morning of my departure the weather forecast was bleak, so I decided to head south through Arizona. No specific route determined, I just knew I was working my way east inevitably- but first, south: chasing warmer temperatures and endless sunshine.
This is the journey that unfolded.
(In another post I will share more detailed information from this trip, including a map of my actual route, places I stayed overnight, etc. Keep in mind that the destinations I’ve included here are not the only ones along this course- if I had taken more time, there are certainly more places I would have visited and other experiences to be had. Some photos were taken on my phone, please disregard the inconsistent quality… I’m trying to master the balance of living in the moment, as well as capturing the moment.)
Heading south through Arizona, I didn’t really know where specifically I wanted to go. A friend had recently told me about a beer called ‘Big Blue Van’, which not only is delicious, but also displays a camper van on the can. The brewery that makes the beer (College Street Brewhouse) is located in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. And that’s how I determined my first stop…
Lake Havasu City
Only a few hours from Vegas, yet I’d never been, making this an extra fun spot to explore for 24 hours. Upon arriving I scoped out some BLM land outside of town to find a good parking spot for later that night, then followed a quiet side street that led to a sandy lakeside spot, perfect for eating dinner and watching the sunset. I didn’t expect this view, but what a way to kick off a road trip!
College Street Brewhouse made for a great evening stop- aside from my ‘Big Blue Van’ beer, they also had ‘Jesse’s Lager’- a clear sign that this stop was meant to be for me. Following the suggestion of the bartender, I headed for another bar named ‘The Office’, a laid back bar with a large outdoor area and live music. Hours away from Vegas, yet it felt further- such a different atmosphere, it was an appreciated change of pace. Bonus- I yelled out “John Denver- Country Roads” & they actually played it! Talk about good vibes for my upcoming journey…
Walking around the lake granted me some lovely sights, & fun interactions with people. Of course I had to go for a quick swim- the air was warm, the water was NOT.
London Bridge is a huge attraction for visitors, definitely worth reading about and visiting. The bridge was originally purchased from London in 1968: each block was numbered, the bridge was disassembled, shipped over, and then painstakingly put back together piece by piece.
A short stop to visit a friend, and to take a hike. Hiking is one of my favorite ways to explore around and see more of an area, and this route (Hidden Valley Trail) was a lot of fun. Initially overlooking the city the trail then takes you into the hills, winding through cacti and wildflowers, squeezing though rock formations and a natural tunnel, and even passing ancient petroglyphs.
The BLM land I stayed on outside of Phoenix was one of my favorite spots of the trip- a drive down a long, dusty, bumpy dirt road brought me to an unexpectedly beautiful meadow for the evening. (This is a lesson I learned throughout this trip- that the longest/ most difficult roads to travel, often lead to the best destinations. I mean that literally, but I’m certain that its metaphorically correct as well).
Saguaro National Park
Divided into two sections located west and east of the city of Tuscon, this park protects it’s namesake cactus, the saguaro. These are actually the largest cacti in the U.S.! On an early morning hike through the desert I was able to view tons of these giant beauties, as well as some coyotes (which is a bit nerve-wracking when you’re the only human around.)
I have made it a habit to never pass up on opportunities to chase waterfalls, so when I heard that recent rains had amped up the water flow at Lower Tanque Verde Falls, I knew I had to check it out. This was a fun adventure while passing through Tuscon- scrambling over boulders, crossing through the creek, and playing in the ice cold water underneath the warm Arizona sun.
Once again I camped out on open BLM land while in Arizona, and once again I found myself driving down a long, bumpy road into near isolation from the rest of society- which yes, can be a bit intimidating, until you look up and realize the views you’re gifted in those dark quiet locations. I never knew how spectacular the night sky could be until I moved west, and experienced less light pollution.
White Sands National Monument
This location had been on my “must visit” list for quite some time, I’d seen tons of pictures from others prior to going myself… and yet it still blew me away in person. This is the largest gypsum dune field in the world- miles and miles of pristine white dunes, an ocean of sand forming mounds and waves as far as the eye can see.
In direct sunlight the brightness of the white sand is almost blinding; at sunset, the landscape changes, becoming softer under the muted sky. You can obtain permits to camp out overnight in the dunes- something I would love to do on a future visit.
Making my way back to my van, I met a group of guys that were headed for Colorado, hanging out for the evening near the dunes. We ended up camping out and making dinner together. Campfire, beers, and fun people… a simple recipe for a good night! I had never tried light painting for a long exposure shot, but when one of the guys brought it up, it sounded like fun. Using small handheld lights or headlamps, you slowly move your light through the air while the camera shutter is open, writing or drawing whatever you choose. Please enjoy our artistic masterpiece below.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
There’s more to this park than the caverns it’s named after (desert vistas, wildlife, etc.), but I’ll admit I went for the caves. Guided tours have never been a preference of mine, so I found it pretty exciting that you can walk through the caverns on your own, following paved paths and informative signs along the way. Taking the Natural Entrance Trail into a gaping dark hole in the earth was a pretty neat experience- the path continues to wind steeply down, until you are almost 800′ below the ground! These caverns were magnificent to stroll through, truly a different world. The only thing I regret was not saving time to hang around until sunset, when you can witness the flights of bats leaving the caves for the evening.
Big Bend National Park
Prior to the last few months, I had never heard of this park- someone at my recent job had told me about it, recommending it as a ‘must visit’ destination. I was already headed in that direction, so I figured I’d check it out. So glad I did so! This area really surprised me with how diversely beautiful it was. Mountains, canyons, desert, hot springs, and the Rio Grande River winding its way along the border. The bluebonnets were in abundant bloom, lining the roads with their beautiful blue hues.
I met numerous people here that made my visit infinitely better than it would have been solo- sharing their campsites with me (campgrounds in the park were full), and taking me on some pretty rad hikes with them. As happy as I am doing things on my own, some times, experiences are just better shared. Like when hiking Emory Peak- the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains (as well as the tallest point in the park).
First stop in town- Austin Bouldering Project- one of the largest bouldering gyms in the country. I’m not an experienced climber by any means but I really enjoy trying to get better, and this gym was such a great experience (they even had showers- hallelujah! My first real shower in 4 days, unless you count swimming in a river… which I do not).
Up until this point on the trip I hadn’t been buying food; instead, I had a cooler stocked with groceries and kept my menu pretty simple. Then I hit Austin… BBQ, beer, taco trucks, more BBQ… it was a fantastic city to break my unspoken “no eating out at restaurants” rule. On the way out of town I stopped at a spot called ‘Czech Stop’- recommended by a friend, this place was so, so good. The most delicious bakery goodies, meats, breads… carb heaven, with a heavy side of Czech heritage. So nice, I stopped there twice (really- I camped nearby, so I went back the next morning on my way out of town).
A local resident was awesome enough to show me around the city a bit, highlighting some really interesting spots I probably would have never found on my own- one of which was the ‘Tree of Remembrance’. Each colorful tag hanging from the tree carries the name of an individual. A memorial plaque before the tree reads:
It is the essence of DEPRESSION.
It is IMMORAL.
It is SOCIALLY CORRUPT.
And it is an ACT OF VIOLENCE.
In memory of those who have lost their lives on the streets of Austin.
Simplistically beautiful and touching, I’m really glad I was able to visit this.
Driving through Arkansas is when I really began to feel as though I was entering a different part of the country. Everything began to get more ‘woodsy’, and so much water- both of my night stops here were lakeside locations. When you spend a few years in the desert, it really makes you extra appreciative of abundant water sources. On my first night in Arkansas, it stormed bad- really bad. Lightning flashes and crashing thunder woke me at about 3am, and the rain was coming down so heavily I felt like my van would be swept away. My second night in Arkansas was (thankfully) spent with much milder weather, and I met a wonderful couple traveling from Quebec that I camped near. They even made me hot coffee in the morning- what a treat!
Hot Springs National Park was different from any other National Park I’ve visited- the park surrounds the City of Hot Springs, so they’re fairly intertwined. You can walk the streets of the city, browsing an array of unique shops, as well as visiting Bathhouse Row- consisting of 8 historic bathhouses, all built in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Captivating architecture, active hot springs, public access to spring water… so much to explore! A short walk behind the bathhouses took me into the mountain trails, a nice escape from the busier streets of town. A really interesting area with a historic feel.
Initially when I moved to Vegas, I stopped in Nashville and loved it. However, this trip I just didn’t feel like stopping in any of the big cities when I was driving through. I did stop for a nice trail run at a public park in Nashville (Percy Warner Park): it’s so nice to get out and move after hours of driving. A chilly night called for a campfire and hot dinner. I was the only person camped out at this location, and it was a misty morning to wake up to- both alluring and slightly eerie.
My last night of camping was spent in the mountains of Virginia, beside a creek in the woods. This location was quiet and a perfect escape, but after the second morning in a row of waking up in 20 degree temperatures, I decided I’d reached my cold weather limits. It’s not that I was ready for the road trip to end, I could have kept going indefinitely… but trying to make breakfast/ change/ get my life together in that weather is NOT fun for me, and definitely had me missing the warmth of the southwest.
Based on a recommendation from my father, I stopped in the town of Damascus. He had said it was a really neat locality with a fun vibe- the Appalachian Trail cuts right through town, following the sidewalk, the well-known white blazes marking telephone poles along the way. He was right (but please don’t tell him that), this was such a cool town to visit: I loved the laid back atmosphere, the ‘hiker-friendly’ attitude, and the fact I could follow the AT from town into the mountains for a scenic midday hike.
Shenandoah National Park
If this road trip was going to end, I at least had to enjoy one more extra special sunset… so I headed for skyline drive in Shenandoah National Park. It was a chilly gray afternoon, and I was afraid that the view would be hidden in a gloomy haze of cloud cover… but right as the sun began to go down, the clouds parted, and I was blessed with an appropriately amazing sunset to close out this beyond amazing trip. Oh, those Blue Ridge Mountains… once again, cue some John Denver please.
And just like that… two weeks of adventures and freedom and living on the road came to a close, as I pulled into the familiar driveway of my childhood home in West Virginia later that evening.
Ending this road trip was bittersweet- happy to be back, but sad to stop traveling, and perhaps a bit scared of getting ‘stuck’. I’m reminding myself that the end of this trip, is really just the beginning of my next adventure, which will be my biggest and most exciting endeavor to date. But for now, I’m going to relax. Catch up with family and friends. Fall back in love with my home state and surrounding areas… until I inevitably leave once again.