boundaries (a willingness to go further)
We all had boundaries as kids. . .
Imagine you’ve just gotten a new bike or skateboard – or maybe you just learned how to ride without training wheels.
You feel ready for the world and your neighborhood friends are right behind you.
You start pedaling down the street, gaining momentum, and you’re feeling euphoria for the first time as it hits your face. Though, you are about to learn a very important lesson about society at a very young age.
Remember that mailbox your mother told you to never go beyond? Well, you just did, and you keep going because you love it. Just like all great explorers before you, you’re in unchartered territory. And just like those explorers, you’re faced with the same problem.
There is something holding you back – in this case, your mother. You know your freedom is finite as when you go home, there will be consequences to pay. Usually, what you are left with is the everlasting feeling of being just out of reach of the big hill. But you’re scared, because you don’t know what’s on the other side.
So, you use your imagination. And what you feel is that adrenaline of freedom again. It keeps coming back, urging you to get to the top of that hill.
But you know you shouldn’t – or worse – can’t. You fear the repercussion. You shy away from the feeling that drags you to the mountain in your head. You tuck it away deep within you to one day find when you’re ‘ready’.
A few weeks, months, years go by. The feeling is still there but you’re terrified of showing it the light of day. By now, you’ve moved on to other mountains but this one sits heavy. You wish there was nobody who told you what to do when you had the chance.
That bike has cobwebs on it by now so the big hill becomes a thing of the past – or better yet – it becomes that something you’ll do ‘one day’.
As we grow up, society has the tendency to set restraints on us. You never reached the big hill because there was someone telling you not to. Similar to how a person you know never went for his (her) dreams because society told them to play it safe.
But I argue that sometimes the risks are worth the rewards.
“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”
. . .
There is a creek in my old neighborhood that we would play in as kids. Mostly, it was just to act out scenes from our favorite movies or to escape the watchful eyes of our parents.
They used to tell us to stay away from the storm drains because the possibility of a flash flood could be fatal. We knew if rain ever did come while we were down there, we were done. Or, at least, our parents would warn us and we knew to listen to our parents. But we thought we were invincible.
When I was ten or eleven, I hung around a kid named Noah. I never knew him too well, our friendship basically only spanned one summer. My parents didn’t like him because he liked to stir the pot; he played in the storm drains.
And, as a matter of fact, all of the sudden, I started wondering what was in the storm drains. Where did the mysterious tunnel lead and why did my parents insist I stay away? Remember when our parents told us we could dig a tunnel to China – well, was this my tunnel?
One day, on a perfectly sunny day, I followed Noah into the tunnel. I took a few steps inside and became afraid so I ran out. The next day, Noah took me a little further. And each day after that, we went a little further into the darkness until one day Noah said we were too far.
After that, Noah didn’t come with me. I went to the storm drain alone. I snuck a flashlight out of the house in broad daylight because it was scary to wander the tunnel alone. I got a little further and the tunnel started taking turns. I knew I was getting close to somewhere.
I walked nearly all the way across the city – or, at least it felt like it. In reality, I was no more than a few blocks from home but for a young kid who is gambling with his life, I felt the intense surge of adrenaline.
With every step, my heart beat faster. Here I was only 10 or 11 walking under the city streets, exploring where no man (child) had ever been. I was drawing new boundaries for myself. And because somebody told me not to, I wanted to do it more.
I liked that no one knew I was down there. It felt like I made my own rules and no one could tell me where to stop.
. . .
I grew up in a relatively small town in Kansas where people never go very far. In the Midwest, we get a reputation for being homebodies. As the years passed, this started to bother me.
I didn’t mind my life at home, but an itch told me there was something better – somewhere I belonged that would bring me more alive.
Like the storm drain.
the kick (and the follow through)
Ever since my second year of university, I had a dream I would end up in California. Growing up in Kansas, I never got a taste of the big city life or living in a place people dreamed about. It all seemed so foreign and cool for someone like me – someone just learning how to dream.
I know I was young, but before that year, I never had a mind of my own. I always followed the conventional-yet-proven path that my parents and people around me had laid before me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my parents and had a tight-knit relationship with nearly everyone around me. I was a people pleaser. A Midwestern kid with the stereotypical Midwestern persona. That’s all I ever knew. Stay straight on the path that is well-worn and you never have to face disagreement or others’ disapproval; the latter being my biggest fear – facing disapproval.
It was a bit of an irrational fear given the fact that I never disappointed anyone with my choices or efforts. How could I? I had a 3.9 GPA throughout high school and college, I played varsity baseball, was Vice President of the Public Relations and Advertising Club at my university, had tons of friends who were all considered ‘good kids’, and I only recently started using swear words in my day-to-day life (No, really, Mom, I never even cussed when I was with my friends in high school.)
My story is not unique – I’m not trying to claim it as such. There are millions of kids just like me who hit every stepping stone they need on their way to a successful, well-established, accepted life. However, to me, that was the problem. I wasn’t unique – or, at least, I hadn’t done anything unique yet.
To be honest, I always envisioned a life in Kansas. I envisioned a life in my little bubble known as Johnson County – our claim to fame is that it ranked among the top ten counties in the country to raise a family. I was subtly proud of that. I thought it was important to me; the idea of my future children having the same opportunities that I did as a child. It was how I planned to show my parents how appreciative I was of how I was raised – by doing the same thing they did for me. That’s the Midwestern philosophy. All I knew in life was the simpleness of the American Midwest.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it was, but that year was when I started desiring more – if only temporarily. Music, mainly, served as a key to the world for me in those days – or at least a door to the rest of the country. Through music, I saw my future through different lives. One as a New York socialite, drinking whiskey on ice while attending various social gatherings. Building a network of business connections and launching my career in a bigger way than I ever imagined. Waking up in a downtown brick-laid SOHO loft fixed with a minimalist design was all I saw of myself – and I’d never even been to the Big Apple.
Then, later on, came my yearning for the Great American West after watching a movie I credit as my inspiration for taking the leap, Into the Wild. It’s a biographical story following the adventure of the late Christopher McCandless who passed away at 24 while living in the Alaskan wilderness. While his story is extreme, it represented something that meant something to me for the first time in my life; doing something different.
He was a true explorer I could look up to – after all, he was just like me. He had a life stacked for him with his good grades, well-connected family, and a well-appreciated education. But then, he decided to give it all away in pursuit of something different. This resonated with me and I couldn’t explain why.
At the time, I was headed exactly where I wanted to go and I didn’t need to do something different. I just needed a temporary life. His story, among many that followed, made me realize if I was going head down life on the beaten path, I needed a momentary pause to do something unfamiliar.
I can’t explain why, but all a sudden, everywhere I turned, there were inspirations calling me. People, movies, photographs and videos, music (still) – I was suffocated by stories of people who did exactly what McCandless did. He wasn’t a lonely anomaly. Soon, I found myself involved in communities of these adventurous people who seemed all-too-invested in thinking about anything other than real life. Almost in an instant of predestined belief, I knew I needed a pause on my normal life – again, if only temporarily.
a mentor of the road (my grandad)
My Grandad has always been my guiding light. My whole life, his approval has weighed more than others. He was always the odd-ball of the family who liked to sleep in his van when he came to visit and cut his own hair. These things never made much sense to me, but I was young and didn’t put much thought to them.
Then, when I turned 18, I went to live with him. He had renovated a detached garage in the backyard of his home fitted with a bedroom and its own kitchen and bathroom. He built it solely for me to come live with him while I attended university in his town.
That’s when I first started to realize the quirky things he did were completely intentional. I noticed his day-to-day life was just different than everybody else. He consumed the bare minimum and liked to be resourceful. Where I come from, those two attributes aren’t exactly the sort of thing you strive to achieve. Hell, most of America doesn’t even try to limit themselves.
We are a consumer-heavy nation with so much to entertain us, we hardly give anything a second glance. In school, I studied marketing and advertising. We learned the average American spends 37 seconds reading any particular article online. Half a minute – that’s the average attention span of any one of us. And, sometimes, it is much less than that. That’s the world we live in; if we are bored, we are on to the next thing – and the next, and the next.
Grandad, though, he’s different. He grew up in slower times when fashion wasn’t meant to be fast, it was meant to last. He grew up with the patience to watch television commercials. He grew up knowing the letter he mailed his friend would only reach the next state in a few day’s time. My Grandad believed in minimalism before it was the cool hipster way of living.
He lived in a modest house, with modest belongings, and went about life in a very modest way. Never splurging, just enjoying. As I said, he slept in his car whenever he traveled and made-do with whatever he could.
When I sat down to plan the logistics of my idea to go West, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t know if I wanted to move to California for a summer or travel the coast, I just knew one thing; I had saved a nice budget for a twenty-year-old and I would dedicate the whole summer to do this.
Immediately, I recognized that if I wanted to make this a long-term affair, I was going to have to sacrifice. I couldn’t afford a hotel or a motel – not even a Super 8 or some other shitty highway joint. If I stayed in hotels, I’d be limited to about a week and a half of traveling the way I saw it. I wanted to be gone at least a month, maybe two – or three!
So, I began looking for other options. I first checked online for alternative accommodation. Airbnb’s, Couchsurfing, hostels. . . There were a ton of options I had never really heard about. However, Airbnb’s and hostels are still too expensive for my budget, at least in the United States. Plus, the logistics of Couchsurfing seemed unlikely. I remember about a month before I left, I tried Couchsurfing for the first time. I messaged a few hosts but to no avail.
For those who don’t know, Couchsurfing is an online community of people (mostly travelers) who register accounts as either local hosts or backpackers. It gives you the opportunity to link up with locals who volunteer the spare bed or sofa in their home for free to travelers. On paper, the idea sounds perfect for someone in my situation. But between the non-replies and rejection for one reason or another, it didn’t seem like it would be a reliable option.
I sought advice from Grandad, being the frugal person he is, but, of course, I knew what his suggestion would be. And I’ll be damned if we weren’t sizing up my car that afternoon to see if I could extend my legs for a good night of sleep. Grandad even pulled out the tape measure and began designing ideas in his head for a homemade cot.
In the year 2015, I was driving a 1998 Nissan Altima. It was by no means a spacious car but I certainly found it reliable enough. Dad, on the other hand, didn’t see it that way. Sure, the car was nearly my age but it had taken me to faraway places before with no problems. And before me, it had been his car. But this would be its biggest test to-date if I decided to take it.
That’s when Grandad and I really begun talking logistics. The trip wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t guide me through it so much as to even giving me his first-ever long-distance road trip packing list. He handed it to me and said, “I take with me about a quarter of the stuff on this list now, but this is a good start.”
He also passed on some of his financial excel sheets of earlier road trips so I could begin laying out a budget. By this time, I knew it would be a road trip and I had to start configuring the Altima for part-time living. This meant buying some supplies and borrowing some of the more unique essentials from Grandad.
He had dozens of tricks for me such as bringing along an electric coffee mug that is powered by the car’s cigarette lighter. This doubled not only for warm coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker) but also as a viable option for warming up canned soup on the road.
There was so much information being passed to me, I nearly hit overload. But, at the same time, his knowledge of the road inspired me. I wanted to someday reach his level of expertise and I hadn’t even left on my first trip yet. Matter of fact, it still didn’t even feel real. Here, I had almost everything planned down to the date I would take off, but it still didn’t feel like I would ever get there.
That’s part of the ride – the surprising courage you feel when you actually do leave. So, with all of my Grandad’s tips and essentials, I was one step away – but not before he surprised me with a special gift. A PDF document he had made and printed which documented one of his trips to the northeastern United States and Canada twenty years prior. He kept emotional and practical journals, photographs, and inside jokes all in this PDF. I cherished it and read it multiple times. It was only twenty pages-or-so, but it captured a period of life and time like nothing I had ever read. I promised I would document my trip and do the same as he did when I got back.
And with that, the day had arrived. I took a couple of goofy self-timed photographs next to the Altima in the driveway then quickly hugged Grandad goodbye.
It was time to go.
had i never left (the way things were going)
The enormity of leaving never really hit me. The amount of risk involved – not in the leaving but in the what-if’s – wasn’t clear until years later. What if I had never left on that trip? What if I made a concise plan only to ditch it at the last second? What if I never took the time out of society’s busy agenda for me to do something I needed?
I try to imagine how those years of my life would have played out had I never left on that day. . .
Whether I like to admit it or not, my life then was too simple. I’m a simple person and I pride myself on that, but everything had become too easy and in my life, I’m not thriving unless I’m overcoming hardships. My life had no hardships at its current stage then.
I woke up every morning around eight to go to classes I didn’t enjoy. I came home around three, logged into my computer, and started writing articles to pursue a career as a sports writer I was sure I would never reach without a proper connection. That is if I wasn’t binge watching Netflix or meeting a girl I was in a semi-long-term commitment with.
She was nice and pretty – checked all of my boxes at the time. She was a part of my circle of mostly uninspiring activities. Back then, nobody I knew could motivate my dreams. Matter of fact, when I began talking about my trip to the West, they mostly got annoyed or laughed at it – not everyone but most. I had no one I could confide in or share aspirations with – not even the girl I was in a relationship with or my parents. They all said the same thing: you talk about it so much so why don’t you just do it? Nobody believed I actually would. That was a part of the accomplishing feeling when I finally left; proving the neigh-sayers wrong. It feels good to prove those who doubt your dreams wrong.
But I certainly wasn’t thinking about the what-ifs. I didn’t understand the magnitude of my decision until I could look back at where I was and see how drastically that one decision – that one final act – changed my life.
Luckily, I documented my trip and turned it into a PDF like I promised my Grandad. When I re-read it five years later, I still can’t comprehend how far my thirst for a new life has taken me. You’ll see, that first trip wasn’t what I was suspecting it to be, but it laid the foundation and the direction my life would take for years to come.
It all started with Day 1 – my first day traveling alone. It is unique to be able to remember the feelings and the route in which I guided myself.
5.5.15 (kansas to new mexico)
5 May 2015
I turned in my last final exam – my bags are already packed and in the Altima. It is raining and has been nearly all afternoon. The conditions aren’t great, but I’m in a rush to get out of here. My plan is to make it to Clovis, New Mexico where I will reunite with a high school buddy, Austin Hoisington, stationed in the Air Force.
The secondary highway to get out of Kansas is busier than I anticipated. I nearly get into two accidents while trying to pass cars on the two-lane highway. I’m really in a rush and the close calls were my fault. What am I in a hurry? I don’t know.
I meet a drunk at a gas station cafe near Salina. His name is Joe. I’m eating a sandwich I prepared before I left. His friends are sat at the table behind me – perhaps he wants to meet someone new or, perhaps, he is just drunk. It’s three in the afternoon. He offers me a beer and a cigarette. I’m driving and don’t smoke. He’s in Kansas to find his girlfriend who ran away to Salina with another man.
I continue to Oklahoma City where the rain gets so bad I have to pull onto the shoulder of the highway twice because I can’t see. I’m still in a rush and don’t know why. I’m two hours behind schedule but I’m confused because I’m not supposed to have a schedule. It is hard to shake this feeling that everything must be planned.
I leave the red dirt of Oklahoma to cross the Texas panhandle. The rain finally clears and a big Amarillo sky full of clouds shows just how big Texas actually is. The agricultural land stretches much further than my naked eye can see.
Finally, I reach Clovis. It’s just on the border of Texas but being in New Mexico feels entirely different. Hoisington hasn’t changed. He shows me around his base and I get a peek into what he does to serve our country. We get a bite to eat, joke, and laugh, but he works the night shift and I don’t get to spend but a few hours with him. I crash on his couch while he is at work.
Years of summer vacations with my parents have made it difficult for me to slow down. Always, our trips have consisted of a constant go-go-go. I have time now, why am I still following that pattern?
The following was written as a journal entry in 2015.
6.5.15 (road to the grand canyon)
6 May 2015
This morning, I was up before the sun. It’s a beautiful thing to drive in the early morning when everything is so calm and quietness consumes you. Interstate 40 is impossibly long. Theoretically, I could follow it from the coast of North Carolina nearly to Los Angeles. I think about the countless hours and the man-power used to construct such a highway. The true feat of an accomplishment like that escapes me.
However, interstates seem boring and uneventful. Grandad tells me to take the secondary highways whenever possible – it will lead to a better adventure. I opt for the two-lane Highway 60. I drive for nearly an hour-and-a-half without crossing a single car.
I drive slow, now, probably because I’m finally off the interstate. I go until the first sight of mountains about 90-minutes outside of Albuquerque. I’m eager, I’ve finally reached the mountains and I’m all on my own.
Even just the Albuquerque foothills turn me feverish. I’m at a rest stop and it’s time for my first true test; my first shower on the road. I run my hair through the sink of the bathroom and dash to a stall. I shampoo myself there and use soapy baby wipes for my naked body. This bathing system is not perfect, but it goes over pretty well for the first trial. I open the stall door, check for other people, and sprint to the sink to wash down. I’m embarrassed to be seen. “No, no, no – this isn’t how I normally live!” I want to say to the gentleman who doesn’t seem to notice me.
My next stop isn’t until the Continental Divide where I learned that any rain which fell east actually flowed all the way to the Atlantic. The spectacle of some things is not realized until they are right in front of you.
I reach the Grand Canyon in the late evening and am met with the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests – a well-welcomed surprise after nine hours of desert landscape. As is often said, words can’t describe the vastness of the canyon, especially at sunset.
There are families, couples, and friends gathered around me. I face my first feeling of loneliness. I want someone to experience this with. As the late explorer, Christopher McCandless, once said, “Happiness is only real when shared.”
Hopefully, this feeling can be overcome.
7.5.15 (a day in arizona)
7 May 2015
Last night, I left Grand Canyon National Park with the sudden realization that it was dark, I didn’t know where I was, and I didn’t know where I would be sleeping. After thirty minutes of aimlessly driving around, scouting spots, I finally settled on a spot deep into the forest where a few RV’s were already settled for the night. From now on, I’ll settle my sleeping arrangement before the sun goes down. Everything is more difficult at night.
This morning’s shower consisted of a bar of soap and a spray bottle followed by a towel wipe down. The logistics of doing all of this within my car (as there were no bathroom facilities around), naked, while trying to keep the windows shielded didn’t work as well as the baby wipes but, still, I’m figuring it out.
I take off on Desert View Drive along the West Rim where I’m reminded just how majestic Mother Nature is. The canyon is wide – much wider than I remember when I first visited with my family ten years prior.
In the afternoon, I take a trail less-hiked 2.1 miles to Mojave Point where there is a crowd for sunset. Before Mojave Point, I didn’t pass a single soul on the trail. I existed in solitude with nothing but fresh, arid Arizona air to bear.
I take the park shuttle back to the Altima and find myself a cozy spot at the same campsite as the night before.
8.5.15 (grand canyon to zion)
8 May 2015
This, my last day at the Grand Canyon, I almost run empty on gas trying to escape the dollar upcharge within park limits. I drive by nearly every viewpoint in my dash to the next gas station. I’ve seen these points already, but something that can take your breath away is never seen enough.
I’m frustrated at complications with charging my devices. My phone, camera, laptop, etc. don’t charge as quickly plugged into a cigarette lighter – and the charge lasts half as long. This is a minor issue amplified by not having comforts of home.
I stop at an almost equally impressive sister canyon twenty minutes outside of the park, of course, not at the size magnitude of the Grand Canyon. Then, onto Lake Powell which is gorgeous with its turquoise water and red rocks surrounding. I hear it has a sad story involving its creation. The strong winds carry me away sooner than I wanted but I continue to Zion National Park.
I drive straight through the park to a little town on the other side, Springdale, to search for a place to park my car for the night. Clouds roll in and eventually the rain too. Later, hail. I have to find cover.
I spend the majority of my night under the cover of a laundromat outside of Zion. It’s a Friday night. My friends are at home gathering for a night out. I’m here, alone. I nearly break down and cry. This has not been what I expected. It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done and it’s only Day 4. I only imagine things getting worse.
I fear the campsite will be flooded and muddy. I nearly got stuck in the mud earlier before it rained, now, I will have to navigate in the dark. I look forward to easy Walmart camping – maybe it would have been better to start this journey with a few nights in a Walmart parking lot instead of places I’ll surely appreciate more later on. This is all overwhelming. Why can’t I just park in any lot like I assumed would be the case? Why are there rules for everything?
I’m in contact with family all night to level my loneliness. Mom tracks my location on Google and points me in the direction of public showers. I write an email to Grandad. In it, I write:
“Maybe I was in over my head with this trip. You made it sound so easy!”
He writes back (along with advice to read, read, read!):
“With every trip there are tough spots. . . You cannot be surprised by anything because anything can happen. . . [On my trips,] I didn’t have to be on the move; I was free, no bosses and no itinerary and these things alone sustained me. I always knew that soon I would be somewhere I’d never been and there would be wonderful things to see. It’s about pace and enjoying where you are.
Give yourself a little time to get into the swing of travel; it has its own pace and requirements. Make sure you experience aloneness, but never loneliness; there is a huge difference. America is a wonderful country to travel. You are one of the lucky ones.”
9.5.15 (angel’s landing, utah)
9 May 2015
I wake up to the clings of pots and pans and what sounds like cooking. I shed the window shades of my makeshift bedroom and, to my surprise, I’m surrounded by loads of vans and Subarus and car campers all doing the same as I. I didn’t notice last night as I pulled into the campsite because it was dark. My feeling of loneliness is replaced with a sense of community. There are others like me! Though, I’m far too timid to get out and socialize. My, what a difference a night of sleep can make.
I take the park shuttle to the trailhead of the renowned Angel’s Landing trek. Zion does its best to eliminate visitor’s carbon footprint by not allowing individual vehicles inside Zion Valley.
There are only two other people on the shuttle so early in the morning, both around my age. I start the hike and we take turns passing each other on the trail as each of us break for a breather or to take photographs. Eventually, the two girls ask me to take a photo of them. The act is followed by small talk and eventually, we are hiking together.
They are two friends from Las Vegas – one of which shared stories from a west coast road trip a year prior almost identical to mine. “You’re too nice to be from anywhere but the Midwest,” they guessed.
Several times during our three-mile ascent, I feel the trail is starting to get too dangerous. If I was alone, I’d turn back. But the girls keep pushing on and, therefore, so do I. The strenuous climb becomes an adventure as I tip-toe narrow cliffs with 1,000-foot drops on each side. Angel’s Landing introduces me to a new breed of adventure hikes. Never had I experienced something like this but it fills my soul.
The rain clouds are rolling in quickly but we finally summit. Everyone unpacks their lunch at the top. I have nothing as I’ve come completely unprepared. Several hikers offer me food. It is a community. I don’t take their limited food, but I feel lightheaded. Maybe I should’ve.
The girls talk me into visiting Vegas only two hours away. Thankfully, I didn’t know that or else I might have hastily opted to move onto Vegas the night prior and missed what was an unforgettable day in Zion.
As the red sun fell over the Utah mountains, I was on my way to Sin City.
Interstate 15 into Vegas could not be a more direct route. I wonder if dozing off at the wheel would even matter on this highway. I’ve never encountered a more insatiable thirst to turn the wheel than on this highway. It is as straight as a razor all the way to Vegas.
This region of Utah is made up of salt flats which are regularly used as racing strips to break land speed records. However, I didn’t attempt any record-breaking stunts. I was preoccupied with the idea of spending one night in Vegas, even if I was not of legal age to drink or gamble.
And, my oh my, if I couldn’t see the bright lights of Vegas shining in the night sky nearly twenty miles away in the dark desert – what a spectacle.
10.5.15 (las vegas to los angeles)
10 May 2015
After waking up in the suburbs of Vegas, I stop for a refuel at 7-Eleven before hitting the road to Hollywood. There are a couple of men playing slot machines in the 7-Eleven – it’s a Sunday morning. It’s 8AM. I walk into the Men’s room. There’re slot machines in there, too. What is this place Vegas?
After a lackluster drive through the desert to L.A., my continued failure of expectations is pushed further. The City of Angels is not what I hoped for, in fact, it is the polar opposite.
I struggle to find beach parking for the better part of two hours before settling on an $8 per hour lot. That’s not all, though, as they charge you to get on the beach as well. I spend a mostly uneventful hour on the beach trying to enjoy myself, but I know if I’m a few minutes late I’ll be charged another hour.
There are no surfers, there are no campfires on the beach, nobody is playing the guitar surrounded by a circle of strangers – nothing about southern California is matching up with the movies that painted the Lords of Dogtown 70s in L.A. so vividly freeing.
Frustrated, I move north. I find a beach which is free to the public – I can’t believe I’m writing this – so, I stay for a while. I spot a family of dolphins not more than fifty feet from shore. There’s a sand volleyball match going on in front of me. I watch, but I’m too timid to join. I wish they were my friends and I didn’t need the courage to get involved.
There’s no nighttime entertainment on the outskirts of the city, to my surprise, not even after searching for events online. Which reminds me, my charger is broken, so I’ll be without a phone for a few days; that means no automatic navigation, as well.
I settle for a California sunset along Redondo Beach and I’m reminded that if once this place was special, there must be more parts that still are. It was majestic with palm trees, surf, and mountains silhouetted in the distance. I don’t spend too much time, however, as I’ve found a free beach shower which is just like a real shower but with absolutely no privacy. I put on my swims and soap down in public.
There’s a lot of foot traffic around my car at the Wal-Mart I get ready to settle in. I can’t help but peek out the windows and I see a few guys paying notice to my car. Their shadows lurk in the corner of my eye. I can’t stand the anxiety so I roll over to the driver’s seat, turn the engine on, and pull away hoping to find another solution.
I sleep with a pocket knife within reach as a last-chance self-defense measure, but tonight is the first night I thought about it. About an hour later, I’m much further north and finally settle at a 24-hour Wal-Mart that is heavily lit. I sleep fine.
11.5.15 (hollywood hills)
11 May 2015
I force myself to sleep-in to avoid rush hour traffic. Silly me, you can’t avoid traffic in L.A. I deal with it with only one goal for the day; to make it out of southern California.
Being only minutes from some places which are so widely known, I drive through UCLA’s campus as well as Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Sensational places, but I had the urge.
Later in Santa Monica, while driving along the coast, I finally see some surfers – a group of twenty-or-so – and I nearly put the brake pedal through the floorboard in an attempt to watch. Who knows if it’ll be the last chance I get to see surfing on this trip as I know conditions aren’t as ideal in northern California and the rest of the west coast.
More dolphins. More surfers. I love the culture I see. Strangers arriving with boards at the same time quickly chat about the conditions and paddle out together. I watch for an hour or so in awe.
Then, I head north on Highway 1, but not far along I stop at Malibu Beach. I recognize all of these beach names and need to see them all. Finally, this is what I imagined about SoCal.
The water temperature cools down in the north, so I slide on my swims and go for it. After, I bury myself in the sand, search for shells, build sand art, and all of the fixings of a great beach day – even the sunburn to compliment. There are even some windsurfers further up the highway and, wow, those guys move fast.
I hit the 101 until sunset; from Malibu to Ventura. Once I hit Ventura, I lose sight of the coast, but I love it anyway. The perfect mid-90s feel – the feeling that those things I saw in the movies do still exist in southern California.
I get to Goleta, just outside of Santa Barbara, and park for the night at a rest stop; my first time sleeping at a rest stop and it is surrounded by California’s foothills. It’s still early so I do some route research and decidedly stake the claim that I will make friends in San Francisco.
12.5.15 (big sur)
12 May 2015
I didn’t think I’d be halfway up the Californian coast just one week after leaving, but here we are. I think I’ve found my spot; Big Sur: “The most beautiful place on Earth where land meets the sea,” as Grandad said.
Funny, I spend nearly an hour at Rigid Point – a viewpoint with the sign, “Welcome to Big Sur” in front of it. I didn’t understand that Big Sur was the route and not a particular location. Rigid Point is beautiful, but, perhaps not as beautiful as other views I see along the route.
I’m traveling no faster than 35 miles an hour the entire distance of Big Sur. Millions of cars are passing me and I could not care less. I suspect I’ll reach San Francisco, so I breathe in the fresh air and stop multiple times along the way including a beachside park near the small town of Cambria where I shared the beach with only one fisherman, the Elephant Seal Viewing Point where thousands of seals were hibernating on the beach, and Carmel by the Sea where white sand and pink skies mash into a fairytale.
I take time to read, nap, journal, take photos, think, and most of all, enjoy the moment. The evening ends in the small town inland from Carmel by the Sea, Salinas, where I find a Wal-Mart to camp for the night.
13.5.15 (weird night in san fran)
13 May 2015
My day is spent figuring out the city of San Francisco. How to get there, where to sleep, what to do – it is all expensive.
First, I try a BLM spot across the Bay Bridge in Oakland. BLM stands for Bureau Land Management which is a fancy way of declaring land free for public use. Surprisingly, there are many BLM areas in the western United States and they are all free to camp overnight.
In Oakland, though, the BLM was crawling with suspicious people in the early afternoon. One guy began to circle my parked car and stare directly at me through my windshield. It didn’t seem like a place to be at night. There was graffiti all around so I assume it is a hotspot for gangs of the Bay Area.
Instead, I move to a highway rest area about twenty minutes south of downtown San Francisco. Next, I begin to research ways to get into the city as I noticed while driving through the downtown area that parking was far too expensive.
There are several options to get into the city: Caltrain, Amtrak, and Park & Ride. I decide to take the Caltrain. Being from a suburb in Kansas, it was my first time navigating public transportation and I ask a lot of strangers for help.
All my encounters with local people ae decidedly pleasant and I eventually make my way to Market Street. As the day works its way into the evening and the sun goes down, I found myself in an area of town I probably shouldn’t be in.
An old woman with no teeth walking at the height of my waist, and probably high on crack, tries to get my attention. She isn’t the first homeless person I interact with here, though, I don’t pay her much attention. She starts grabbing my arm to my surprise. I free myself and keep walking. She grabs again and I tell her to stop.
Next thing I know, she has her arms wrapped around my waist from behind and she begins screaming bloody murder. It causes a scene. I flee the area quite frightened and head back to the Caltrain.
The rest area is now flooded with cars – nearly 60 parking spaces and 59 of them are full. I snag the last one if only because my car is small enough to fit. Note to self: I’m not the only one in this city looking for a free place to sleep.
14.5.15 (san francisco chronicles)
14 May 2015
I meet a guy on the Caltrain back into town. He’s here for a month on a business trip from India; he gives me all of his best tips on where to go. I get off and board the MUNI to Chinatown.
With many empty seats, something possesses me to choose a seat next to a guy nearly my age. He becomes the first real acquaintance of my trip. His name is Sharin, from India, too.
An interesting guy with an interesting story to share. After spending two years in Spain doing farm labor, he moved to San Francisco six months prior. I find it interesting all locals refer to their city as “SF”.
In that time, he has picked up a graphic design job and become comfortable in the city. I can tell when I speak that Sharin is truly engaging – something so often difficult to come by. He hears my story and encourages me to keep going – to find what makes me happy. He quotes several lines from Steve Jobs and inspires me in a smart way.
In addition, he humbly mentions that his life changed in a major way just twelve hours before we met. Through a contest he entered, he was paired with a stranger and given the task of designing a traffic app in less than 24-hours. Their concept won the competition as well as a $50,000 grant to move forward with the idea. He is now on his way to meet his competition partner for just the second time.
We are so caught up in conversation, we both miss our stops and ride the bus until the end of the route. The bus is empty and we don’t notice until the engine shuts off and the driver shouts at us, “End of the route!”
I head to Starbucks to get my phone charged and find out where I am. Sharin told me where to go, but I need to get my bearings straight. I meet a few more people; Faison from Saudi Arabia and a couple from the United Kingdom. All of these interactions are encouraging my curiosity about the rest of the world.
I climb Coit Tower where I get my first glimpse of the mystique Golden Gate Bridge. Clouds are partly covering, but it is, indeed, mystique.
There would be no shortage of Golden Gate views the rest of the afternoon as I toured around Alcatraz Island and sat in the same jail cell bed the notorious gangster, Al Capone, used to sleep at night. From the ferry to the island, I finally see the entire Bay in all of its glory.
15.5.15 (another day in san francisco)
15 May 2015
Today started with a knock on my window. It was a police officer. He was clearing cars from the lot. We have a brief conversation when he asks invasive questions and I give him brief answers.
“How can you afford a trip like this at your age?”
“I’m doing it fine.”
I don’t rush out of the lot as the officer stays busy with other vehicles. A man named Quentin approaches me near the restroom. He is French and returning home today. He offers me a yoga mat and a cooler as he sees I’m car camping.
I drive up the hill to Twin Peaks to get a view of the entire city before making my way to Haight-Ashbury Street. I was highly interested in the hippie culture in San Francisco ever since watching a documentary about it in the 60s. Haight-Ashbury was of prominent importance to the counter-culture movement there, but hardly these days.
The day ended at Land’s end. I grab some Dim Sum and find a park bench where I can write. I’m exaggeratedly inspired by everything. Today is the day California has finally marked its impression on me.
16.5.15 (lost my heart in san francisco)
16 May 2015
I make my way to Sausalito, rolling down my windows and screaming to no end while driving the Golden Gate Bridge. I have made it, my mind can’t comprehend this.
It’s big, much bigger than it even looks, and not so red. It is cold with the windows rolled down, but I keep screaming pure joy. The feeling is all I ever longed for and I feel the culmination of all the miles and wondering. This must be it.
I feel overwhelming ease like all pressure has been relieved and I understand the purpose of the entire trip and my desire to do it. One thought after another starts to reveal itself. I’m consumed.
Sausalito is just a ritzy tourist town for yachties, but I enjoy everything now. I have lunch on the sea and head back over the bridge, this time it feels like an old hat but I’m smiling.
After a stop at Crissy Field Beach and a walk through the annual Bay-to-Breakers convention, I stroll the shoreside until I run into a field of hundreds of young people. They are students, obviously, drinking, socializing, and playing park games. I so badly want to join, but wouldn’t dare intrude uninvited. This is where I imagined this trip taking me.
I hang around for thirty more minutes walking through this unique park party, hoping for someone to acknowledge me, though, my camera probably tells them I’m not a student here.
Disappointed in my courage to meet new people, I head back to my car and decide to go up to the renowned Lombard Street. The road is so steep, I have to use two feet for the brake and acceleration while I wait in a line of traffic just to keep my tires from squealing.
Finally, the time has come for the concert which took me to San Francisco in the first place. The Wombats at The Fillmore. What a historic venue with performances dating back decades to legendary icons like Jimi Hendrix.
I meet a couple of girls, Chelsie and Kelsey before the first act comes on and we enjoy a hell of a show together. The show finishes and I’m buzzing with life. It feels like no time to sleep so I take another adrenaline-filled peruse across the Golden Gate Bridge and I finish the night, again, shouting at the top of my lungs under the San Francisco night sky.
I lost my head in San Francisco.
17.5.15 (highway one)
17 May 2015
Life is just a big ball of momentum, isn’t it? I drive up Highway 1 all the way to Eureka in pure bliss. I keep my camera away as I don’t want to exist through the lens anymore – I’m in the moment.
There are beautiful coastal views second-to-none all the way until I reach Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area where a mountainous landscape takes over and I’m driving winding roads through green forests.
I stop driving early in the evening and set myself up at a Wal-Mart in Eureka. There are a few weirdos in the parking lot. One man is blankly staring into the sky; it has been two-plus hours without moving. Another walks around playing the recorder (not well) for customers loading their groceries into the car. A third man seems drunk. Maybe they are all together and just on some kind of drug.”
18.5.15 (crater lake, be damned)
18 May 2015
I get a knock on my window at four in the morning. I ready myself for it to be one of the weirdos from the parking lot. It’s not. It’s the Wal-Mart security man telling me I must move to a K-Mart lot down the street where I find other campers and resume sleeping.
In the early afternoon, I drive through Redwood National Park nearing the Oregon-California border. The weather starts to warm up as I get further from the coast. I’m feeling awkward about California; we had a rough start but she turned into a hell of a good time.
Oregon meant cheaper gas, finally. I nearly gleefully pissed myself at the sight of gas for $3.09 a gallon although it was $2.29 in Kansas when I left. Gas station attendants in Oregon fill your tank for you, but it feels excessive.
I stop for a few quick hikes at Mill Creek Falls and the Natural Bridge Trail. I see a great spot to bathe in the Rogue River which was my idea for bathing the entire trip. This is my first opportunity to bathe in freshwater, so I take the chance to do so and continue to Crater Lake despite the rain.
When I arrive, they tell me most of the park is closed due to excess snowfall. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought snow was still a problem in Oregon’s late May. Nonetheless, I see what I can – it’s foggy and the lake is mostly unseen.
The rain continues to fall. Back in Zion, I let the feeling of arriving in poor conditions beat me. Now, I understand it’s not about the destination, but the journey to get there.
I continue north on a route back to the coast when I see a roadway sign for Watson Falls. Sure, why not. By now, the rain is pounding down but what is life without a little dance in the rain.
The trail is a wreck with mud, but I do the little hike up the forested hill while slipping and sliding everywhere barefoot. I’m the only one in the forest so I scream. I talk to myself, sort of like Tom Hanks in Castaway. It’s a blast.
I paint a face on a pizza box with mud from the trail. I touch it up with various leaves and call it “Watson”. Mind you, I’ve been alone for the majority of two weeks. I’m not losing my mind, though, just being a kid and loving it.
Afterward, I wash off in the Colliding Rivers, still raining. I let all the wild out of me and finish the day at a Wally in Roseburg, Oregon to a beautiful pink sky.
19.5.15 (bridge of the gods)
19 May 2015
After a few days of cold canned soup, I needed to replace a fuse for my cigarette lighter. It is easier than I imagined and should’ve done it before I ever endured the horror of cold Chef Boyardee.
Oregon’s Highway 101 can’t compare to the drive along California’s coast. There were too many small towns blocking the coast, which – even if they were pleasant in their own right – didn’t appeal to me.
The drive on Interstate 84, Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Highway, however, is one of the most beautiful scenic routes in the country. One day, this area of the country will be preserved as a National Park. It runs along the Columbia River separating Oregon and Washington all the way to Cascade Locks in the valley of dark green foothills of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens (Washington). It teems with wildlife and lush vegetation and Cascade Locks is right in the thick of it all.
The Bridge of the Gods is a bridge connecting Oregon and Washington which gained my attention in the movie Wild. It was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit this region. That, and the chance to hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Although I had just driven the length of the PCT, I had my hopes set that I’d be able to hike this section for months.
I drive across the steel truss cantilever bridge into Washington where I can pick up a section of the trail. The view is magnificent with the sun getting lower but not ready to set. Rain clouds fill the sky but don’t disrupt the chance to hike. I hope to run into a through-hiker, but it doesn’t happen.
Only 300 people attempt to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail yearly, so, the chances were slim. I hike four miles before the sun starts to set and I fear getting lost in the dark. I head back to my car to calculate that my hour-and-a-half of swift walking on the trail equates to not even 0.01% of the trail’s length.
The courage it would take to do something like that – especially alone – is something I can’t comprehend. I have experienced up and downs on this trip but it pales in comparison to the highs and lows of a through-hike across the United States’ west coast.
20.5.15 (ode to an idol)
20 May 2015
I make a stop in Portland, but not for long. I’ll be back to Portland one day – I have a high interest in this city but there is something else on the agenda – the grim logging town of Aberdeen, Washington; home of one of my idols, Kurt Cobain.
Three hours out of my way, but to honor a hero like Cobain, I do it without hesitation. I see the well-known “Come As You Are” sign at the entrance of the city – an ode to Nirvana’s billboard song. Then, to my dismay, I largely wouldn’t notice Kurt’s existence anywhere else in the city until his small memorial park next to the Young Street Bridge by his childhood home.
Under the bridge on the muddy banks of the Wishkah River, fans have immortalized him through a collage of Nirvana-related graffiti. So many worship what he meant to music of the 90s and his leadership of the counter-culture movement of that time, but Aberdeen refuses to honor his controversies more than that.
The long day goes on as I drive into Olympic National Park and pull onto a side road of Quinault Rainforest to prepare my soup dinner next to a redwood spanning at least nine-feet-wide. I passed by a hitchhiker and thought to pick him up, though, my passenger seat is a bed and it is nearly stopping time. At sunset, I came across an unmapped rest stop in the small town of Forks and used it as a sign to give it a rest for the day.
21.5.15 (under the clouds is british columbia)
21 May 2015
I spend the morning and afternoon on several hikes including Hoh River Trail and Sol Duc Falls. The landscape has changed dramatically and the environment is now wet and teems with mossy vegetation. I’m in the rainforest now.
Before I reach the trailhead, the route takes me past Big Spruce Tree – once the tallest spruce tree in the world at 191-feet tall. It snapped during a powerful winter storm in 2014, but I could still stand next to its mammoth trunk spanning over 18-feet in width.
The sun’s heat and the naturally colder, wet environment create a thick mist that permeates around me. Rays of light shoot through the fog like I’m in an intergalactic video game. The few who have passed are already returning to the trailhead – they’re aware of the humidity that is about to consume the air. I see a family of deer – and another. It is quiet enough for wildlife and humanity to exist in the same environment.
The Hoh River was originally named ‘Destruction River’ by British Fur Trader Charles Barkley in 1787 after one of the first explorations of the area ended in six of the boat’s crew being massacred by the Hoh tribesmen.
I’m sweating like a grease monkey but using very little energy. I’ve gone only three miles of the 26 miles the Hoh River Trail extends across the entirety of Olympic National Park. I pause to listen to the silence and can hear my own breath. I can hear my sweat drip onto the leaves below me. I sit on a rock varnished with wet moss. It comes off brown on my shorts. I expect vistas but, as the trail is so long, it could be miles before I run into one.
I head back to my car to dry off and move on. Along the northern 101, there is one last surprise for me; Crescent Lake – a semi-alpine lake rumored to fall to depths of 1,000-feet; the second deepest in the state. It is brilliantly blue and surrounded by gorgeous green spruce trees.
Sol Duc Falls is, in a similar fashion, breathtaking in its own right. And the hike to get there is both less humid and more beautiful. Though it is later in the afternoon now and the sheer amount of people on the trail drives me back to my car sooner than desired. To keep a leisurely hiking pace when others follow you constantly on the trail is a difficult test of blissful ignorance.
My day ends with a drive up Hurrican Ridge – arguably the park’s top attraction – as everyone else is making their way down. But I’m heading up the steep, narrow road with about an hour left of sunlight and a perfect ambiance of solitude under a pink sky.
I hike to the peak and am the only one at Sunrise Point. I meet Joe, an older American man, on the way down. He stares into the distance of where I was looking at the top. A clouded valley. Big, white, fluffy-looking clouds of cotton underneath a neon sky. We’re standing above the clouds on Hurrican Ridge.
“It’s British Columbia, you know, under the clouds. You’re looking at Canada,” he says.
We begin a conversation and continue it as we hike back to the parking lot. Joe is a recently retired Boeing pilot. He has many stories of aviation and stories of his own travels at my age. He’s in a large RV he tells me he is borrowing from his father for his own west coast road trip.
He pulls out two lawn chairs and hands me a beer. I don’t tell him I’m underage, but I don’t think he cares. We’re on the mountain alone, and best of all, he tells me camping on the mountain top is free and allowed. That’s where he is staying tonight and I will stay here, too.
“It gets cold up here, though. You have blankets?” he asked. I nod.
The neon has faded, but it is just light enough to see wildlife come out for evening feed in the open alpine fields below us. It is quiet, but not the kind of trapped silence I experienced in the rainforest this morning. It is a big, wide-open silence.
Joe offers food, water, blankets, and anything else I might need and we make a plan to do a sunrise hike in the morning. It is the most peaceful night of sleep I get on my trip.