A SHORT TRIP ALONE OUT WEST
1,500 miles of quiet road: laying under the stars, down into the Grand Canyon, striking out in Vegas, and getting caught in LA traffic
Despite my best efforts, I was overdressed when I left stepped out of LAX into the mid-day sun. Several hours ago, I had been in my light jacket and tshirt, half-awake, shivering in the 5AM cold for my cab. My car was delayed, and my flight landed early. Outside the airport terminal, I planned and re-planned how my day would go, aware that my idleness was costing me daylight. After a wait that was long enough to be reasonably be upset about, Donny pulled up.
Donny is a Guatemalan guy who it was hard to be upset at for too long. As we drove to the car wash (he insisted I rent a clean car), he told me about his fear of flying; his trips to Guatemala would always be on the road. His wife initially thought his 6-day road trip was cute, annoying, and then worrisome because of the bribery and coercion to smuggle drugs becoming harder to avoid along the route.
I changed my clothes and unpacked my carry-on into the trunk at a nearby gas station. A grizzly man with a garbage bag over his shoulder approached me, complimenting my car. He asked if I knew the horsepower and other specs that I didn't understand. He quickly changed the subject to asking if I had any coke. I politely said no and continued on to filling up my tank. As I pulled out onto the road, in my rearview I could see his legs dangling out of a large dumpster he had jumped into.
I began to feel the mild traffic of the city as I warmed up to the new car. My destination was set to The Getty Museum, which had been on my bucket list for years. My first surprise was parking, which my itinerary hadn't at all accounted for. After a bit of circling the parking lot, I spotted a small opening. As I made my way in, a slow, painful crunch sound greeted me. I couldn't believe I already scratched the front of the car with little more an hour on the clock.
For the short hour I had at the museum, I resisted the temptation to linger on the cost of repairing the car. Parking was eating into my time, and now into my wallet. I soon got over it by accepting the damages as a normal expense of the trip, as inevitable as the cost of dinner. Most of the art at The Getty didn't do much to move me; instead it was the architecture of the campus that grabbed my attention, so most of my time was spent outside wandering the grounds.
I told my friend Carla that my plan was to head on over to Manhattan Beach Pier for sunset before meeting her. It'd be the start of rush hour traffic, and she had doubts that I'd make good timing. On the slow drive to the other end of the city, I began a series of Spanish-learning podcasts. I figured being alone on the road would be a great opportunity to revive the 5 years of studying that eroded from years of neglect.
I lucked out with parking right on the beach, and ambled my way through the cool sand up to the water's edge. I was in my jeans, rolling them up just below my knees as far as they would go. Since I was packing light, I hadn't brought anything to swim in. The water felt like ice on my ankles, so I wasn't sure I would have mustered up the courage anyway. I sat on the sand under the pier, thinking about the photos I've seen of people modeling at this exact spot. The one downside of traveling alone I guess is not being able to ask a friend to pose for me at will. Just as I had done in Bali, I wondered what my day would be like if I chose to move here. I imagined finally learning how to surf, practicing at the end of every workday, swimming back ashore at sunset.
It got dark so I headed over to Intelligentsia Coffee in Venice to meet up with Carla. I hadn't seen her since she left New York City a few months ago. If it wasn't for the driving, I would have loved a drink. We decided to walk through the Venice Canals, which was mostly dry of water due to the drought. In between hearing how Carla's move to LA was panning out, and telling her why I ended up in LA, both of us pointed out which houses we loved, and which houses we absolutely hated the design of.
I had plans to meet my friend and former coworker, Jacob, in Downtown LA for a quick dinner. I chose Guisados, again, on the other side of the city (I wasn't making this easy on myself). We joked about the stereotypical line about how authentic tacos are only available in Los Angeles, and how seriously some people take that: "The best spot for tacos is behind this dive bar's dumpster, and it's only open for a few hours after midnight on Tuesdays unless it rains."
On the the drive back to Venice, where I was staying in an Airbnb, I planned out the next day in Las Vegas. I went to bed thinking maybe I could win enough money to pay for the dent I added to the car. I didn't consider much the possibility that I may end up losing even more.
I woke up early, hoping to see as much as I could before having to leave the city. At Santa Monica Pier, I wasn't surprised that at 7AM the only other people were homeless people lying on the cold, damp sand and a few morning joggers.
There were a few more spots on my list before leaving. I arrived at the Getty Villa after a brief walk in Malibu. The museum was quiet, except for the occasional groups of school children making their rounds through the courtyards and rooms. It was here that I finally started to feel happy about this trip. Greco-Roman art reminded me a lot of being a kid, when I would pore over myths of gods and goddesses. I caught brief snippets of facts from the tour that the kids were doing, and tried not to laugh when one of the kids corrected a teacher on a factual mistake.
After a hearty meal of chicken and waffles at Bru's Wiffle, I was ready to leave the city for a drive eastward. My friend Chris had invited me to a cocktail event that sounded fun in Las Vegas, where his sister lived. I thought it sounded fun, but it really would depend on when I would arrive.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
This drive would be the first extended leg of the trip. I came prepared with hours of podcasts, since I wouldn't have a road trip buddy to talk to. I did also have my thoughts to keep me entertained, like whether I would pick up a hitchhiker on the road (the answer: it depends).
I drove into Joshua Tree National Park and immediately was amazed by the funny-looking Dr. Seuss trees and oddly shaped piles of rocks all around me. My phone no longer had service, so I relied on the map and landmarks to guide me, and then gave up altogether and let my curiosity guide me. I stopped at the interestingly named Hall of Horrors and did some scrambling to get as far up as I could without letting my uneasiness with heights stop me.
The sun was setting and it was also getting cool quickly. I decided to find a remote place to park the car and watch the desert horizon change colors as the sun slipped away. From what I had read, the park was an incredible place for stargazing.
While it was still twilight, I left the car and walked deep into the desert for quite some time with my headlamp. I tried walking in a straight line, so I'd have some clue for how I could return when it was pitch black. There were several black-tailed jackrabbits I saw, recognizable by their comically large ears, but moving too fast for to get a good look at. It wasn't long before the night sky exploded with a scattering of stars above. I stayed for as long as I could, before wishing I had layered up a bit more.
My drive to Las Vegas was more or less uneventful and in the dark, and I wasn't looking forward to Las Vegas either. From my first visit last year, all my biases against the city were confirmed. It was only out of convenience that Vegas was on my itinerary. I would be arriving too late to eat at the restaurants I had an interest in and also too late for the cocktail event Chris suggested. In any case, I checked into the Stratosphere and had mediocre Thai food from a seedy-looking strip mall.
I allowed myself an hour of exploring, and I convinced myself into trying high-stakes roulette at The Venetian. After setting a limit on how much I was willing to lose, and limiting myself to five rounds, I pulled $700 in crisp hundreds out of the ATM. The only other person playing was a large, sweaty French man who had what had at least $20,000 in chips. He was playing frantically, and not doing very well. I watched for more rounds than I played. Every round his pile would be shaved off slightly, and only rarely incremented in the least bit. It was only a few minutes before my last chip was lost, and I silently left the casino poorer than I arrived. Naturally, I rationalized this loss by promising myself I would never play in a casino again, and it was for the best that I didn't win, since that would have emboldened me later in life to bet (and lose) more. I slept surprisingly well that night.
DOWN INTO THE GRAND CANYON
I woke up at 6AM, a time when I imagined several people may be stumbling into bed in Las Vegas. The long drive to the Grand Canyon was aided with caffeine pills and several podcast episodes of inappropriate humor from the Bodega Boys. My lunch was in Seligman, a town overtly marketing the Route 66 nostalgia to the fullest. I ate a quick meal at the appetizingly named Roadkill Route 66 Cafe.
My plan was to hike down into the canyon before sunset along the South Kaibab Trail. I had a reservation at Phantom Ranch, nestled at the very bottom along the Colorado River. I was expecting snow and ice along the entire trail, but that was the case for only the first half-mile. I had 7.4 miles til reaching the site, and I stopped seeing other hikers after the first two miles. In the cool afternoon air, all that I heard were the soft crunches of my boots and my quiet breathing. Occasionally I would pass breathless hikers on their way out of the canyon, and I started to think about the dreadful climb back up.
Very irresponsibly, I only brought a liter of water with me. The decision was influenced by a hike last summer where I shared the responsibility of carrying a full 8-gallon jug of water with my friend Ben up ten miles to the West Rim of Zion National Park for backcountry camping.
Most notable along the trail were the very prominent mule droppings. The trail is used by US Postal Service mules for delivering goods and parcels to the bottom.
At a certain point, I could hear the Colorado River from a distance, but I also heard something else rustling. I spotted two elk grazing near me. Since I was making good time on my hike, I decided to stop and watch until they moved on.
My stay at Phantom Ranch would be in a dormitory of ten beds, like what I imagined summer camp would've been like. I made friends with a chatty REI tour guide, Alex, an Arizona local who does this trek several times a month. I befriended the right person, because he introduced me to the others in his group. Two people were also from NYC, and one of them, Petra, was about my age.
Dinner was at 6:30PM sharp, and I had some time to wander. The crisp late afternoon air reminded me of a New York autumn, and I had changed into sweatpants, a chunky sweater, and flipflops. I met Izzy and Theresa while walking along the river when he commented on how comfortable I seemed. They were both from LA, and came down with family. Hiking to Phantom Ranch was an annual tradition for their father.
The Hiker's Stew at dinner was served family style. There was also cheap Grand Canyon Brewery beer, which I took full advantage of. Something I discovered was that any beer after a hike tastes amazing to me. Coincidentally, I was assigned to sit across from Izzy. He invited me to play dominoes with his family in the cabin they rented. I considered it, until I realized his father was the crazy guy at the end of the table scolding the staff for not serving enough salad. When Izzy found out I worked at a tech startup, he immediately began pitching me his (terrible) business idea, expecting feedback. He boasted that he wasn't trying to be a "like a billionaire or anything" but could easily be a millionaire (he actually said that). I did my best not to be rude and looked for every opportunity to talk to other people around me.
After dinner, I walked around with my headlamp, gazing up at the incredible scene of stars framed by the silhouettes of the inner canyon walls. I found a picnic table far from everyone and lay facing upward, until the dining cabin reopened at 8PM for drinks and games. On the way back, I ran into one of the staff, and thanked him for dinner. We started talking, and he told me that he had been at Phantom Ranch for 17 years, spending half of each month here and the other half on vacation.
I met up with the REI crew again, and found them in a game of Jenga. Someone in the group was carrying a handle of Captain Morgan's Rum, and it seemed like she and I were the only ones interested in going the extra mile. Diane, the other New Yorker from the group, saw me drinking and asked if I drank enough water today. I lied and said that I did.
We were getting along really well, but some people started getting tired and retired into their dorms. When it was only myself, Petra, and Diane, they asked about what I did for work and fun. Eventually, Diane asked if I had a girlfriend and started telling me about her daughter. It was fairly obvious that she was hinting that we meet up, which I found pretty adorable.
At 10PM, we were asked to clear the cabin and call it a night. I knew I'd never see Petra and Diane again, but I was really happy to have met them. Unlike most times when I meet a new person, I didn't fake my laughs and pretend to have a good time. For the first time in my trip, I was comfortable and relaxed as if I was among friends. Diane asked for my website and email, so that I could share with her the starry photo of the Grand Canyon.
THE ASCENT OUT OF THE GRAND CANYON
There was a 5AM wakeup call for breakfast in the dining cabin. I got haphazardly dressed and dragged my feet over to the quiet dining tables. The conversation was minimal and hushed, but I chatted with a German man who purchased land in Arizona recently. He now spends his early retirement travelling alone throughout the Southwest in search of new trails.
I ate quickly, and geared up for the cold. It was still dark out, but the stars above were beginning to fade. My stride through the dark was swift, with my headlamp and memory of the trail leading the way. I passed by stable of mules, which I recognized first by smell before I realized I was a a few feet away from them.
I was making good pace, and kept the momentum going as the canyon filled with rays of sunlight and the path became steeper. A mile into the ascent, I passed by a couple who I startled (I showed up as he was taking a break to pee off the trail).
I left the camp with the same liter of water, and began wishing I hydrated more during breakfast. I decided to ration my water, and treat it as a reward when I made it to certain memorable points that I recalled from yesterday's descent.
After the third mile, I accepted the fact that I was now grossly overdressed, and welcomed a small break to change into something more comfortable, just a tshirt. As I changed clothes, I kept a close eye on my water bottle, hoping I wouldn't accidentally let it roll down over the edge of the path.
After the fifth mile, I had gone through most of the expletives in the English language I knew and was pausing every ten minutes for a breather. My appreciation for the scale of the Grand Canyon was certainly greater on the way out.
I kept myself going, knowing full well that I had gone through far worse hiking to the West Rim in Zion. I didn't expect that overcoming last year's pain would propel me forward now, but it did. After six miles, I decided to take a short rest on a comfortably lopsided tree in Cedar Ridge, the furthest into the canyon most visitors go. Someone brought a ukulele and was playing a relaxing tune and I could have dozed off. From the corner of my eye, I saw a man taking a photo of me. He introduced himself as Kayo, and explained that I was in such a good pose that he didn't want to interrupt me for permission til afterward. He promised to send it to me when he got back home (I still haven't heard back from him).
The last mile was where I began to feel cramps threaten to fire up in my quads. I had about two sips of water left, and I was beginning to regret not grabbing an abandoned bottle of water I found a half mile earlier. The frequency of visitors became somewhat of a nuisance, since they weren't aware of or didn't care about right of way to uphill hikers. However, more people on the trail meant I was close to the end. When I reached the top, I wasn't greeted with any fanfare, but I was overjoyed nonetheless and finished my last sip of my water triumphantly. I think I had beat the average time estimates as well, at 4 hours from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim.
I was so excited to change out of my sweaty clothes that I left my sunglasses on the roof of my car, and drove off without realizing. My next destination would be Page, Arizona, a small city known for being right by Horseshoe Bend. Horseshoe Bend was just off the highway, and wouldn't take much time to see. It would be my second time visiting, and I was again amazed at the massive scale of the formation as well as the lack of any safety gates (I hope it stays that way).
I happily took full advantage of the guideline that I should eat twice as much as usual after a hike, and I stopped in at Big John's Texas BBQ. The barbecue wasn't fantastic, but the simple sweetness of a waitresses who call you "hun" was enough to put me in a delightful mood.
SUNSET AT ZION
Zion National Park has a very special place in my heart, and I chose to take a detour on my route to see it, even if would be just for a short hour before it got too dark. My hike out of the Grand Canyon was faster than I anticipated, so the sun was a lot higher in he sky than I was expecting when I arrived. Oddly, the entire park was deserted. The ticket booths at the entrance were shuttered, the visitor center's lights were off, and the shuttle bus wasn't running. There was a park ranger in the distance, but I didn't want to ask any questions in case I wasn't supposed to be there. A few lost tourists awkwardly wandered around, wearing the same confused expression I had. Some even waited for a shuttle bus that I knew probably wouldn't show up.
I stayed until it got dark and then some, hoping for some night photos. The thin cloud cover didn't clear up, so I begrudgingly made my way back to Las Vegas where I had an Airbnb awaiting me.
LAS VEGAS, FOR THE LOVE OF RAMEN
It was a Saturday, my last full night of the road trip. My Airbnb was intentionally far from the Strip, where prices for rooms were at least four times the weekday prices. In addition, I was too dirty and tired for the bright lights and glitz of the Vegas scene.
For me, barbecue and ramen top the list for me in best food after a tough hike. I already checked the first off, so I had my sights on Monta Ramen, located on a strip mall that was popular for Asian food. There was a long wait for a table, but because I was dining alone, a single seat at the bar opened up quickly.
As wonderful as the ramen was, I can count how often I've had better by being spoiled in NYC. However, I did go to sleep though thinking about that amazing pork belly bowl sitting with a warm bed of rice.
LAST DAY IN LA
I woke up early again, and my breakfast was Red Bull and Ritz Bits Cheese crackers, a favorite of mine during road trips. The drive to Los Angeles was the longest straight drive on the trip, and I was running low on podcasts to distract me. The minutes dragged on. I checked the time only to be frustrated that ten minutes had gone by, when I was certain at least a half hour had passed. Inevitably, I made it to Los Angeles, where I had plans to meet my good friend Ranadeb, coincidentally also travelling and in LA at the same time. I ended up experiencing the worst traffic of my life, due to foolishly choosing a brunch spot near the LA Marathon finish line. Ranadeb's friend Zak joined us as we scarfed down some coconut fried chicken at Cha Cha's. I joined the guys for a few beers along Santa Monica Pier.
We walked along the Venice Beach Boardwalk, dodging requests for interviews for random YouTube shows, homeless people, and even saw someone getting arrested. The sun was setting, and I had several hours to sober up alone on the beach. Before Zak and Ranadeb left, we saw two girls on roller skates, struggling to get their photo taken by a woman who was having trouble with their smartphone. Zak helped them out by lying that he was a photographer.
It happened to be Valentine's Day, and the beach was spotted with couples and families enjoying the sunset and the cool, Pacific breeze. I sobered up quickly, and knew there was one last item left on my list: eating poke (a raw fish salad originating from Hawaii). I stopped by Big Daddy's Poke Shack for dinner. While I waited for the food to arrive, I recounted each step taken over the last few days. It felt like I was gone for much longer than five days. I had some great moments, but I knew this wasn't a trip I needed to take. In any case, I was confident I made the most of it.
I wrote all of this down so that I can look back at it years later and remember what I did, and how I thought about my situation. I confirmed that I love travelling alone. I really believe that I'm never alone though when I travel, unless I want to be. I met some people who inspired me in interesting and subtle ways. I'll definitely revisit Joshua Tree National Park and spend more time at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for sure.
Thanks for reading!