The idea of road tripping the American southwest and mountain-west first occurred to me a month ago when I was wondering how to spend the five free weeks I would have before my planned early August departure for Switzerland. The way I had envisaged it, it was going to just me, doing a grand circle from California eastwards through Nevada and Utah all the way over the Rocky mountains to Denver; then northwards through Idaho and Wyoming till Montana; westwards to Washington state; and finally south through Oregon into California.
It seemed like an incredible idea at the time, and now that I am a week into it, it seems even more incredible.
As it turned out, I did have company for the first five days of my trip. SG, an old friend from Calcutta currently studying in the USA was excited by the idea and decided to fly over to LA so that she could travel with me for the LA — Denver leg of my trip.
Day 1 (June 30), Los Angeles, California to Las Vegas, Nevada.
I had arrived just the previous night from Hawaii, so planning and packing was incredibly hectic. I went to the airport around noon to pick up SG. We had dimsum for lunch, shopped for supplies, did some more last minute packing and left for Vegas around 5 pm.
Vegas never disappoints me. Perhaps it is the extraordinary opulence, the decadence, the lights and sights, the mastery of man over nature. Or maybe I am just thrilled by the unabashed capitalism in action, its open (and legal) gambling and prostitution, its unusually libertarian laws on everything from smoking to public drinking. SG had never been there before and she had the typically overwhelmed reaction that first timers often have.
We walked and talked and went to a bar to drink some cocktails. Around 2 am, after I had accidentally spilled a glass of wine on both of us, we decided it was time to return to our hotel.
Day 2 (July 1), Las Vegas, Nevada to Zion National Park, Utah.
This was my fourth trip to Zion. It is a magnificent national park, with its unbelievable rock structures, high cliffs, deep canyons and blazing red colors. Like the rest of the American Southwest, the word to describe it is majestic.
We reached around 4 pm and set up our tents.
Later we took the shuttle across the park and stopped by the pretty Virgin river. SG and I waded to the middle of the waters and took pictures.
On our way back, we scrambled to the top of a hill with great views of Angel’s landing. Then we returned to the tent and had dinner. After dinner I had the wonderful idea that we should go on a night hike and even more wonderfully, she agreed. We hiked for about an hour to an overlook from where we could see the valley far below bathed in moonlight. Eventually, we returned to the campsite around midnight and went to bed.
In the middle of the night I was woken up by cold drops on my face. Once I had gotten over the confusion, I deduced that it was raining, so I went out and put on the rainfly. So much for sleeping under a transparent roof. The rest of the night was uneventful.
Day 3 (July 2), Zion National Park, Utah to Green River, Utah.
This was the day we truly experienced the American southwest. What can I say? The extraordinary colors, the gorgeous buttes and the deep canyons, the infinite expanses. The deserts and the mountains, the brutal power of a land that has not been mastered and perhaps never will.
The American southwest is an incredible place; words cannot describe it, pictures cannot capture it. You have to go there.
We passed by Bryce and drove through the Grand Staircase Escalante. The road winded through red gorges and white deserts. We could literally see the land changing.
Later in the day, when we were driving through Capitol Reef National Park, SG fell asleep. I decided that she does not deserve to miss these sights for something as mundane as sleep, so I woke her up and we hiked to a huge boulder about half a mile away and then (of course!) climbed it. It was quite an adventure and on the way down she was rather scared, but at the end we had a good laugh about the whole thing.
We spent the night at some motel in a little town called Green River. Dinner was pizzas and beer (three bottles out a six-pack we bought).
Day 4 (July 3), Green River, Utah to Silverthorne, Colorado.
From the rugged rocks of Utah to the high mountains of Colorado. It was another utterly beautiful drive. The Colorado river, at this point a lovely stream on our right, was a constant company. As the Rockies neared, the sights got prettier. Here are some pictures.
I had an interesting experience at a gas station. A guy asked me if I knew the way to Denver in a very slow and strange intonation. After I had given him the information he wanted, he said in an even stranger voice (and even more slowly): Thank you sir. God bless you sir. May Jesus be with you sir. I could think of nothing more intelligent to say than: You too.
Towards the end of the day, we tried hard to find a campground but everything was taken. Finally we realised why; it was the Fourth of July weekend! So we started looking for a motel. We ended up staying at a relatively expensive place at the vacation town of Silverthorn, CO. Finished the rest of the beer at dinner.
Day 5 (July 4), Silverthorne, Colorado to Denver, Colorado.
We did a nice little hike in the morning.
Then it was back on the road. We crossed the Rockies and entered Denver. I dropped off SG at the airport. She was sorry to leave, we had had an amazing four days.
It was time to find a place to stay. I searched online (the airport had free wifi!) and found a cheap hostel right in the middle of the city, exactly what I desired.
I checked in there an hour later and was greeted by a woman wearing an Obama t-shirt and looking like a political activist. No surprise. After all, Colorado was one of the three most important states in the last election and the Obama machinery here had been formidable.
It was also time to do some laundry and I found a laundromat nearby for the purpose. (Later at night, I returned to find that the water pipe serving the laundromat had broken, flooding the street!)
Had bison burgers for dinner at a place that claimed to make the best burgers in the US. The waitress was extremely hot. The burger was very, very good.
Then I decided to drive outside town to see fireworks. Didn’t get much of a sight (it was too late and the place was too far) but it was a nice drive nevertheless. On the way back I picked up a female hitchhiker who was high on pot and wanted a ride down to the parking lot.
I liked whatever I saw of Denver. People jaywalk all the time. The mountains are close by. The roads are full of interesting shops. The city is both incredibly cosmopolitan and perfectly fits in the mountain west. They say it is one of the most libertarian cities in the US and I certainly saw a lot of marijuana being smoked late at night.
Day 6 (July 5), Denver, Colorado to Craig, Colorado.
I had come as far east as I desired and now it was time to go in a different direction. Also, from now on, it would be a solo drive.
My initial plan was to leave early and go all the way to Park City, where I would crash with a friend. But I woke up and got caught watching the long Wimbledon final (Yay to Federer!).
I left around noon and decided I would spend the bulk of the day in Rocky Mountain National Park. Park City can wait.
It was breathtaking. Imagine snow capped peaks and picture perfect valleys. Think of pretty lakes by quaint towns of the kind you seen in the movies. Above all, imagine a road that goes up to 12,190 feet.
I stopped so many times. I hiked, I took pictures. I sat on the peak and mused. Every moment was worth it.
I even spotted a magnificent elk grazing.
I ended the day at a motel in Craig, CO. Just before I stopped I saw a very beautiful sunset. My pictures probably do not do it justice.
Day 7 (July 6), Craig, Colorado to Park City, Utah.
It was mostly an uneventful drive with one singular exception.
Near the CO-UT border, I stopped at a pretty little cafe (they had really good espresso) and stared at a picture on the wall.
It was a photograph of a truly gorgeous canyon. I asked the lady at the counter where this place was.
She told me it was about 30 miles north of there. She said I should go there.
Then, with a twinkle in her face (she was old, around 65) she said I should do the hike that starts where the road ends and then cross the fence they have put up at the end of the hike and go some more (“unless you are afraid of heights”)
In a way her attitude epitomized that of the people who dwell in the mountain west. They are proud and dignified but also fun, and above all fiercely independent. This old lady was running this shop in the middle of nowhere and she was encouraging me to jump over the fence put up the authorities. Implicit in it were the magic words, individual liberty and individual responsibility. She did not think that it is the government’s job to put up some damn fence and protect us from ourselves. These people do not like a paternalistic state, they don’t want government dole-outs; they can evaluate their own risks and take care of their own lives. And in the event they do fall off a cliff after ignoring a warning sign or a fence, I can almost imagine them not asking for government help (and if they do, they will make sure they reimburse the cost of the airlift or whatever to the taxpayer). I hope I am not projecting too much of myself into the old lady!
So I went to the spot she recommended. It was about an hour detour. But it was worth it. I have been to many overlooks and this overlook was perhaps the most unbelievable of them all.
I saw the fence too. Yes, it was mildly scary beyond it. But I was glad there was no sign warning of fines if one
violates it. Well, if by putting up the fence all they are saying is — go ahead at your own risk — then I have no problems.
I crossed the fence and carefully walked some more and soaked in the amazing vistas. It needed a non trivial amount of my mountaineering skills to make sure I did not fall two thousand feet below.
It was an utterly, utterly incredible place.
I sat on the rock and did some math. On the drive back, at one point the road was full of cows. I had to honk for three minutes before they let me through.
I reached Park City around 10 pm.
So that was the first week. 7 days, over 2000 miles driven. Tomorrow I head northwards. It has been a wonderful journey and I hope it continues this way.
Driving across vast swaths of land can put you in a state of mind that nothing else can. It also gives you an extraordinary sense of freedom, especially if your itinerary and route is as flexible as mine is.
This trip has also been enriching in so many other ways. America is such a wonderfully varied country that no single generalization can apply to it. How can one government, even if elected by a majority, truly claim to represent the people? The answer perhaps, is a much greater distribution of power (anti-federalism), counter-balanced by some basic individual rights that no state law can violate. Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day.
I hope to post more descriptions and pictures in a few days.