Travel: Part Two - Nevada & Arizona

It's hard to remember what order we did everything in now; it all happened so fast. After two eventful days of exploring alone in San Francisco, I checked out of my hotel and got a taxi to the next gateway hotel to meet everyone, where the trip was set to begin. 

I was one of the first to arrive, but once we’d filled out some paperwork with our tour leader and grabbed a subway, we all packed our bags into the boot of the white van and made ourselves comfortable for the first stint of our road trip. There was a haze of excitement, with twelve girls of all ages (18 being the youngest, including myself) and one guy already chatting away about friends, family, travelling, home and all kinds of things. Every passing hour was spent discovering more about each other, and it wasn't long until it felt like we’d all been at school together for years or something. Our small group consisted of people from all over the place, such as Scotland, Wales, Australia, Switzerland, Denmark, Korea, our wonderful Californian tour leader, Taylor, and England (although even our accents differed greatly from each other). We always found things to talk about and laugh at together, with plenty of opportunities to annoyingly mimic each other’s accents, in good humour of course.

After exploring San Francisco alone, given what had happened on my first night, it was nice to be surrounded by people again, even though they had been strangers just moments before. They soon found out about my first night spent at St. Francis Hospital, and it became a running joke to make sure that I was always hydrated, even when I said something as casual as "I'm tired" which is something I do say a lot. I soon felt very well looked after, and on the long journeys when everyone was too sleepy to chat it became perfectly okay to fall asleep on the shoulder of the person sitting next to you, all in the name of team bonding.

We were on our way to the Golden Gate Bridge, which definitely did not disappoint; we were lucky enough to see the entire bridge without it being obscured by the mist. We walked over the bridge breathing in the fresh bay area air with Alcatraz prison looming eerily across the water. It felt so surreal to finally be there, and to think of all the times that I had seen pictures of this bridge when, now, I could look up and see the red iron beams above me. We hopped back in the van on the other side and set off on the next stage of our adventure. As we drove, my wide eyes tried to take in all that I could see from around us as the hot July sun warmed my face through the glass. I couldn't help but think about what it was going to feel like in six days’ time when we would finally drive into LA.

After a brief stop-off at In N Out Burger, we drove for several hours on the highway through small towns and corn fields until the road began to meander more and more up steeper inclines and our surroundings became greener, until we finally reached Yosemite National Park, the closest to a seemingly magical place that I've ever been to. We went hiking through the valley until we were high enough to look down upon the waterfall, where a rainbow shimmered in the falling water before it collided with the surface of the teal pool beneath it. We spent our two nights at Yosemite sharing bunks in a log cabin called El Capitan which had a rattling air conditioning box that kept us up for most of the night.

When we weren't hiking, we were free to wander around the information centre which told us all about the history of the park, including information about the plants and trees and stories of the native American tribes that had been associated with the park. We were told that there was a massive forest fire in the area so a large part of the park was closed off, but we were also told that forest fires, despite the destruction they caused, were ultimately a good thing, as they replenished the land. After an opportunity to see some giant redwoods, we left Yosemite, helplessly watching the plumes of smoke rise from the dark green hills, leaving nature's cruel-to-be-kind ways behind us, and headed for Nevada.

Despite being seven hours long, the drive into Vegas was incredible. We followed the yellow lines in the middle of the highway, passing through episodes of Joshua trees and wide open dusty plains that replicated the landscape of an old western film, with the sun setting behind the distant mountains on the horizon until the sky turned a dusky, twilight purple (my favourite time of day), as we occasionally passed through small, cartoon-like gambling towns of neon lights which got increasingly bigger until finally the bright lights of Vegas beamed at us from over the hill beneath the black, star-sprinkled night sky. We were officially living the scene from The Hangover (such cliche tourists).

A sinful Disneyland for grownups in the middle of a scorching desert is the most apt way I can explain Las Vegas. There were bright lights and flashing signs everywhere, tempting you towards the casinos, bars, arcades, limousines, fancy hotels, shows of all kinds, and more. It was the weirdest change to go from waking up in a rustic log cabin to waking up in Vegas, sharing rooms of a double bed each, a flat screen TV with room service and a window view of the Bellagio and Caesars Palace just across the road. Driving around Vegas in a giant bus that felt like a club, briefly hopping off for a lightshow, watching the Bellagio fountain display, running through casinos, eating pizza slices by the dollar, drinking cans of Margherita in the streets because it's legal... it didn’t feel real, and I felt so far away from the life I knew at home, that I wondered how surreal it would feel when we'd finally arrive in LA. It got a little unnerving after a while, walking around the casinos and in the streets, seeing the bright lights which successfully lure you into spending the green paper bills in your hand, you begin to question how much energy is being used and how much rubbish and money is being generated there every day and no one seems to bat an eyelid. It couldn’t be more different from Yosemite National Park.

I think that’s what made us appreciate the Grand Canyon so much more, despite being thrown back into reality by getting caught up in a sandstorm on the highway, where we unfortunately stumbled upon the scene of an endless domino effect of cars and lorries that had all shunted into each other under the thick clouds of sand, which must have happened only moments before we arrived at that point in the road. It was a sobering break from our dreamlike trip, to catch glimpses of the smashed, overturned cars emerging within gaps in the sand-filled air, in the ditch between us and the other side of the road. We felt so helpless, watching the scene unfold before us as so many cars parked up and waited for the sand to pass, until we were able to see further than the van bonnet. 

After a long drive, a lot of fast food, a brief fling with Route 66 and a stop off in the old town of Seligman (where the Disney film 'Cars' is allegedly set, we finally got to the Grand Canyon just before sunset, with boxes of takeout pizza and bandannas that our tour leader, Taylor, encouraged us to buy on our previous stop-off in Walmart for reasons that would later be explained: Taylor told us all to turn our bandanas into blindfolds. Leaving us confused, she then lined us up, so that we could blindly cling to the shoulders of the person in front of us, and walked us to the edge of the canyon where we could finally take the blindfolds off to reveal the magnificent sight of the orange rock glowing in the low sun before us. Standing on that rocky ledge, it's so hard to explain how it felt. I hadn't experienced anything like that before; I felt so small and insignificant in the most healthy and humbling way, which just made me grateful to be alive. 

We were given some time to sit beside the canyon for a long, contemplative moment as we all watched the sun go down in silence, valuing each other's company as we shared this moment. It was a transcendental and timeless experience that many before me had witnessed before, I knew that, but it didn't take away how important and inspiring it was as the flame-like colours stretched across the sky, lighting up the canyon with its warm orange glow. I would have stayed there indefinitely, if I had the choice. Once the sun went down, we had to go back to the van for we had to get up early for our morning helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. I couldn't wait.

We spent that night in a budget motel which had a logo of a native American on a billboard in the parking lot next to a Dunkin' Donuts. We got into our pyjamas and spent the evening sprawling into one room for tipsy chats and giggles as we celebrated the success of our trip so far. It had been so amazing that we were already nostalgic, reminiscing and reliving our favourite moments until we ended the night by slipping inevitably, and somewhat reluctantly, into a game of Never Have I Ever, where we certainly got to know more about each other.

We woke up at the crack of dawn to blue skies; perfect conditions for the helicopter ride. Despite my nervousness, I couldn't have been more excited. When we were finally in the questionably small helicopter, with our giant headphones and microphones on to tackle the loud sounds of the spinning propellers, it wasn't long before I looked down to realise how high up we had lifted in a matter of seconds. For several minutes we traveled high above trees that spread across the land for miles; they were tiny, almost model-like. Suddenly, we flew out over the edge where the orange rock gaped open far below us; we were in the canyon. The only way we could express our awe was through single words and sounds of amazement, pointing, jaw dropping and smiling at our indescribable surroundings, as we flew over the Colorado river that meandered miles below us like a trickle, as music played through our headphones, adding to the movie-moment aesthetic.

I watched the shadow of our little helicopter moving along the rugged rock with us like a tiny little spec in this majestic, ancient formation of orange rock. Now was the most insignificant I had ever felt, and it was the most incredible feeling I had ever experienced. I couldn't believe how fast the time had passed us by, once we had made a steady landing back on safe ground.

We made our way to our next and final hotel, which wasn't quite so luxurious as our Vegas hotel, although it did back onto the Colorado River with a small beach and a view of the mountains in the back drop, so we took a freezing cold dip in the river under the sun and clasped onto every last moment that the trip had to offer; it was almost bittersweet to know that the trip would end tomorrow.

After a week of sunny skies & clingy heat, we woke up on our final day to a grey sky with rain beating against the window and thunder rumbling in the distance. I felt an anxious twist in my stomach as I feared for my imperishable fantasy vision of finally driving into Los Angeles under a faultless blue sky, that I had daydreamed about so much for several years up to this point, even in moments such as driving on the motorway on my way to school every day.

It just had to be right, it had to be the way I had imagined it. So my pipe dream optimism pushed the fear away and I held onto the hope that the sun would burn through the clouds as it had done every other day. It's always sunny in LA, at least, on TV it is. 

So we packed up our bags once more, and headed back on the road back to California, to our final destination, Los Angeles.