Up the West Coast of the USA
We arrived four hours before we left. Figure that one out. As we spent four days recovering in a sleepy little town outside of Los Angeles, we were certainly struggling to.
It was the longest flight of our round the world trip and in a lot of ways the one we had least looked forward to. It meant we were into the final leg of what seemed like a neverending whirlwind of sun, fun and a total lack of responsibility. Conversely it also meant that we were into what could be the most exciting and most unpredictable part of our trip; an epic drive from Los Angeles to New York, with a quick loop up into Canada. It’s safe to say the route was far from certain!
The only things we knew was Los Angeles was our first port of call and that we were meeting a guy called Tim, who none of us had ever met before; we were planning to stay with him for however long it took us to recover. Then we would work out what method of transport we were going to use to cross the North American continent, and perhaps most pressingly, sort out the route that we were going to take to do it.
My advice when planning your route on this most iconic of drives would be first, ask someone who has already done it and find out what they loved and what they disliked about their route, and then second, work out what it is you want to see and when you want to do it, and then compare notes. You’ll be covering such vast distances in an even vaster country that you can’t possibly hope to see everything on offer, but prioritise and you’ll see more than you ever hoped.
So, we began in classic American style by driving the Pacific Highway that connects Los Angeles and San Francisco, two places you are more or less guaranteed to want to see in the States. This is a truly beautiful stretch of road that started our journey off with those iconic California vistas of rolling waves, sandy beaches and pure blue skies. Imagine four guys, all a little dazed, hotter than they had been for months and beginning to comprehend that we were about to undertake a drive unlike any of us had ever done before. The excitement was palpable.
San Francisco lived up to our expectations and offered a mixture of classic American culture, history, and some of the most amazing sights the continent had to offer, even if the Golden Gate Bridge remained shrouded in cloud for more or less our entire stay. We went from wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf to attempting to get out to ‘The Rock’, only to be told there was a six-week waiting list for the tour, to a bizarre dubstep night in a club in Tenderloin. And all of this was within the space of two days.
The following week or so was spent driving through the most extraordinary landscape I have ever seen. First, Yosemite, which I knew from famed photographers Ansel Adam’s classic images, but nothing could prepare me for the verdant beauty of the park. Driving through a tunnel, around a corner and finding the main valley laid out in front of us in sunshine and unspoilt beauty still takes my breath away to think about. Everything from the Grand Cascade to the enormity of the Sequoia trees seemed unreal and otherworldly.
We were driving through a landscape of extremes. From Yosemite’s unbelievable greens we went over the highest pass in the park down across the Sierra Nevada and on towards Death Valley and its searing temperatures. While having the car windows open made things worse, I can safely say I was as hot as I have ever been; we decided to stop just to marvel at the heat, the completely barren landscape and the vast salt pans from Dante’s View and to take the obligatory jump photo.
Next stop; Las Vegas, completing the triumvirate of great South Western American cities and demonstrating another extreme of man’s creation. You should know a couple of things about me before I go on. First, I don’t drink. Yes, really, I don’t drink. No, not even in Thailand, as one friend asked me once. Second, I’m not a gambling man. And third, I was geared up to hate Las Vegas, more or less on the back of those two things. Very quickly, however, she worked her charm on me and I have to be honest, I loved the place. The totally over the top nature of it, the bewitching decadence and really the complete frivolity of the place.
Nothing matters except having a good time and no one cares how you do it. That, plus the bizarre situation of the place, rising up out of the desert, meant I could hardly resist. I urge you to go with an open mind and I suspect, in most cases, an open wallet.
Neither mankind, nor nature, was done yet however. Still to come were the Hoover Dam and then the Grand Canyon, which I can say, to this day, with complete honesty, is the only time I have ever been rendered speechless. No hyperbole. I genuinely was. I think we all were in fact. One fact about the Grand Canyon; estimates of its age put it at about 2 billion years old. That’s roughly half of the age of our planet. That’s pretty old. I don’t have the words to describe the scale or magnitude of the place, but I urge you to see it if at all possible. The Hoover Dam is at the other end of the spectrum and is a demonstration of man’s ability to create on a scale that almost rivals nature itself. Not only that but a demonstration of man’s ability to harness nature and change it fundamentally to our own ends.
Having visited places with that have made it into folklore like Dodge City we finally made it to Moab and the alien landscape of Monument Valley, Arches National Park and Canyonlands.
Due to poor timing, we drove through Monument Valley at night, but thankfully realised as much from the vague, hulking shapes we could make out in the almost complete blackness. After a brief night’s rest we woke up earlier than we had in months, of our own volition no less, and drove back a couple of hours to see the likes of Mexican Hat and the Seven Sailors. I had seen photos but nothing, as ever, prepared us for the reality. The landscape is the most extraordinary I have ever seen. There are formations that simply do not look they could possibly have been shaped naturally.
Finally, having wound our way through canyons of every shape and size, past rock stacks and boulders the size of houses perched on pedestals that seemed too small to possibly support them, we drove along the Colorado river and up on to the Kansas plain and on towards the Rockies. Stopping occasionally to witness in the distance the monumental lightning storms that appear and disappear as quickly as they came, we drove on and on until we did eventually cross the Rockies and descended into Denver.
The rest of the drive will have to wait for another time, but Chicago, Canada, New England and finally New York beckoned. We would have driven more than 7,000 miles by the time the journey was finished, but I wouldn’t have changed one of them.
If Pete’s inspired you to hit the States then make sure you check out our USA country page for more advice and information.
Also, check out Daisy Ashworth’s guide to the USA – it’s a great start to planning your trip to the States.
And finally, don’t forget to jump on the message boards to see who else is going State side.
About the Author: Pete Churchill
Pete is a keen photographer and blogger with his own site Blue Jeans and Beyond. He currently works at Round the World Experts, who, coincidentally, are the people he booked his trip round the world with. He has travelled extensively with the exception of South America, but is hoping to tick that off his list soon! He has recently moved to London and spends most of his spare time exploring and photographing it when not out and about with friends. You can follow Pete on Twitter @peterchurchill7.