My trip to USA

13/05/2014 - Katie Green

America has always held a certain appeal for me. There’s just something about the vastness of it that I find intriguing. I’ve had people tell me that going to the USA isn’t “real travelling”, but after my experience last year I’d happily challenge anyone who tried to tell me that! 22 days, 13 states and over 5,000 miles; this is how I spent the month of September.

So it didn’t get off to the best start. Don’t get me wrong, I love every aspect of travelling, including airports and flying…the whole shebang! I suppose in the past I’ve been lucky, because I’ve never really experienced airport delays longer than thirty minutes or so, but when I arrived at Heathrow, I’d barely even made it into the terminal when I realised my flight was delayed by an hour. “Not a problem,” I thought to myself “Just gives me more time to get some brunch and have a drink.” I found a restaurant, ordered a glass of bubbly and some food, and relaxed!

By the time I’d left the restaurant my flight had been delayed by another hour, and once I finally made it through to the departure lounge they kept us waiting for another hour. Needless to say I was getting a bit frustrated by this point! However, once we boarded the plane and we were airborne (and I’d been polite and answered the questions of the chatty person in the seat next to me), I stuck my headphones in, hit “shuffle” on the iPod and twelve or so hours later we were touching down in one of my (soon to be) favourite cities.

The downside was that we landed three hours later than we were supposed to, so by the time I’d caught a taxi and got to the hotel, I’d missed meeting up with my group for dinner. I wasn’t too worried; there was a note for me at reception telling me what time meet up was in the morning and I was pretty tired, so I used the evening to get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning I met up with the twelve people who were to be my travelling companions for the next three weeks. At Gap 360 I get a lot of people asking me “will I be the only solo traveller in my group?”, and on a trip like this, the chances are slim to none! Our group was a mix of all ages, an equal split of couples and solo travellers, with a dominating presence of Brits and Aussie’s! After a quick round of introductions, our tour guide introduced us to the minibus that we would travel the width of America in, and then it was off for a tour of San Francisco.

photo (17)One of the best things about this trip was that even though it was a tour and we did things as a group, there was plenty of free time for us to explore and do our own thing, so after a stopping by some of San Francisco’s famous landmarks we broke off into little groups to explore the areas we wanted to. Embarrassingly, my first stop was to an In-N-Out, a famous fast food chain only found in California and the Southwest states of the USA, for what’s known as an animal-style burger (classy, I know)!

Apart from stuffing my face with enough calories to last several days, my San Francisco highlights were heading down to Fisherman’s Wharf for some truly cheesy touristy entertainment and to check out the sea lions, and taking a stroll through the Haight-Ashbury area, which was famous in the 60’s for its hippie subculture, and is home to the San Francisco branch of the famous Amoeba Music (warning. It. Is. Huge.)

Obviously San Francisco is famous for things like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, but if you want to fit it visiting these iconic landmarks I’d plan to arrive a couple of days early, as time in this incredible city is limited. This wasn’t my first time visiting (or my last…I’ve already booked my next trip there!) so I didn’t feel like I missed out, but if you’re a newcomer to the city you might want a little more time to explore!

That afternoon we met back at out bus, and that’s when the journey really began. We loaded up our bags, picked a seat and we hit the road to begin the 200-odd kilometre drive to Yosemite.  I should warn you, there is a lot of driving involved in this trip, because you are literally crossing from coast to coast, but it really is the best way to see the States. You’d miss out on so much if you flew!

Once we got to the campsite and had unloaded the dinner supplies, it was time to pitch our tents. I confess, I’m not really much of a camper and this was the first time I had pitched a tent in several years, and it probably looked a bit like a comedy sketch as me and my tent buddies wrestled with ground sheets and tent pegs, but we got there eventually (and I was pretty pleased with myself when I woke up the next morning to find that it hadn’t just collapsed on us during the night!). I won’t pretend it was the best night’s sleep I ever had, and it probably didn’t help that I didn’t figure out until day 3 how to properly inflate the roll-mat, but overall I decided camping wasn’t as bad as I had expected it to be.

IMG_4354Yosemite was both a high and low point for me; this national park has some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen, but I bravely (or stupidly) decided that along with the majority of my group, I was going to hike the Panorama Trail, which is just over eight miles, rather than the other option which was the Four-Mile Trail (the clue was in the name, really). It soon became apparent that myself and a couple of the other girls just couldn’t keep up, and after a couple of wrong detours, several new blisters, one near case of the waterworks, and six hours after we set off, we were the last of our group to arrive at the meeting point. We were sweaty, dehydrated and exhausted, but feeling accomplished. Until the next morning, when we woke up and realised we could barely lift out battered and aching bodies off the floor. For the next few days everything hurt. Getting in and out of the bus was something I had to psych myself up for. Note to everyone – go on some practice walks before attempting this hike, especially if you are anywhere near as unfit as I am! Still, the views made it worth it.

After saying goodbye to Yosemite the next few days saw us hit Death Valley, Las Vegas and Monument Valley, all of which I had been looking forward to for weeks, so the next few days were pretty awesome, apart from some flash flooding, which I’ll get to later!

For those of you that don’t know, Death Valley is located in the Mojave Desert, and Furnace Creek, where the National Parks HQ holds the record for the highest ever air temperature record in the world (56.7 Celcius, in case you’re wondering)! The day we were there it was a comparatively mild 45 Celcius, but still hot enough that the air burns your throat when you breathe in! It’s worth the sweat though, because the rugged landscapes are fascinating, especially at Zabriskie Point. Interesting fact for any music fans; Zabriskie Point is where the album cover for U2’s The Joshua Tree album was shot rather than in Joshua Tree National Park, ironically.

IMG_1298After leaving Death Valley we were off to Sin City, for a night of party limos, gambling and a few too many over-priced drinks. Everyone knows that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, so I won’t go into too much detail, but it was definitely up there as one of the best nights of the trip, Just be prepared to lose some of your dignity along the way. Oh, and have your sunnies on you at all times…you won’t regret it when you have to catch a taxi back to your hotel as the sun is coming up over the strip!

After Vegas we hit the Grand Canyon, and again, this wasn’t a first for me, but even though I’d stood on the Canyon rim before, I was any less taken aback by the vastness, and how small you feel next to it. It’s a visit that I think should be on everyone’s bucket list, if it isn’t already, because the feeling of awe that you get as you look out over the Canyon is something everyone should experience. Unfortunately, this is also where those flash floods I mentioned hit, and after a day exploring the Canyon Rim, we hopped off the shuttle bus for our campsite just as the heavens opened, and continued to open for the next few hours. Let’s just say everything got very, very wet!

Momument Valley was also a big highlight of the trip for me. My dad is a huge fan of Western’s (and John Wayne in particular), so I of course knew what Monument Valley looked like from all the films it’s featured it, but absolutely nothing can prepare you for seeing it in person. It’s a truly breathtaking place to be, and we were lucky enough to take a tour led by a Navajo guide, followed by an incredible dinner cooked by local women, and a Navajo dance ceremony. We also got to camp out under the stars and watch the sun rise over the majestic buttes (rock formations), which is an experience I will never forget, and one that I think my dad is just a little bit jealous of!

Over the next few days we continued to make our way East, heading through Mesa Verde, where we giggled our way through an excruciatingly bad guided tour of the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo-ans, ate mouth-wateringly good Mexican food in Santa Fe, and proudly walked the streets of Roswell looking like idiots in aluminium foil hats (to protect us from alien abduction, obviously).

The next state on the route was Texas, and boy is this big ol’ state. The drives in Texas were definitely some of the longest we had to do, and the bathroom breaks weren’t always what you’d expect. I never thought that in America I’d have to use a public bathroom where the stalls don’t have doors, and the dividing walls only came up to my hips; turns out I was wrong.

Our two stops in Texas were San Antonio, where we swung by the Alamo for some history and culture, before taking a stroll along the River Walk, followed by Houston, where we spent an afternoon at the NASA museum and space park. I can’t say that Texas was my favourite state that we visited on the trip (although I’d like to go back and visit some more of it), because apart from the dodgy public bathrooms I also got eaten alive by mosquitoes at our water-front camp site (I lost count after I got to 95 bites), but it did introduce me to Taco Cabana, which now ties first place with In-N-Out as my favourite fast food joint!

The next four days were definitely the absolute best days of the trip for me, as we got to visit 3 cities I’ve been dying to go for several years now. First up was New Orleans, home to Mardi Gras, Po-Boys and the Hurricane cocktail. Also, after camping for 10 nights straight since Vegas, we also had hotel accommodation waiting for us, so everyone was pretty excited about that!

I could have stayed in New Orleans forever, I think! The atmosphere is incredible there, and whilst the famed Bourbon Street is a little overrated, Frenchman Street has some fantastic jazz clubs where live music plays all night, the drinks are cheap, and people spill out into the street dancing. And as an added bonus, on the walk home at the end of the night you can pick up amazing Creole cuisine from street food vendors for $5, as opposed to that greasy kebab you’d get at the end of a night out back home!

After a fairly big night out, myself a couple of the other girls had a lazy start to the morning, with coffee and beignets for breakfast at the famous Cafe du Monde. A beignet is a kind of deep fried fritter/donut that is drenched in powdered sugar, and is all kinds of amazing, and the ones at Cafe du Monde are a must for anyone on this trip! We followed that with a river cruise on one of the steam boats, then gumbo for dinner (I know it’s beginning to sound like I just ate my way across America…) before another night of jazz music and drinks.

Saying goodbye to New Orleans was hard, but next up was Memphis and Nashville; another two cities famed for their music. In Memphis we paid tribute to the King with a visit to Graceland (another long-time dream of mine), stopped by Sun Studios and joined in with some people street dancing to blues music later that evening. Nashville is all about the country music, so after hitting up Boot Country, where you buy one pair of cowboy boots and get two free (seriously, I’m not joking), I donned a pair of my new boots and we went line dancing. Any of my friends will tell you I am one of the worst dancers ever, and in fact they will often pretend they don’t know me on a night out, but I had this idea that somehow I would be great at line dancing. I wasn’t. I was out of time, I went right when everyone else went left, and I trod on more toes than I can count, but I still had a fantastic time.

Departing Nashville signified the last stage of our trip; we were nearly at the East Coast. We drove through Shenandoah National Park with the whole group signing Country Roads Take Me Home before arriving in Washington D.C. The Capital of the USA is fascinating city with so much to see and do. As we arrived in the city in the evening, our guide took us a cool ‘midnight madness’ walking tour, where we visited loads the iconic landmarks associated with D.C, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The next morning started off with a trip to Arlington Cemetery, which is definitely an emotional experience, and we then had the afternoon to explore the many museums and sites that the city has to offer, including an obligatory stop outside the White House. D.C is definitely all about donning your comfiest shoes, wearing a backpack and embracing being a tourist! Georgetown is also definitely worth a visit; this student town has a great vibe with some wicked bars and restaurants. It was a fab place to just hang out and have a few beers with the new friends I’d made, and chat about our adventure which was coming to an end.

And so, the next morning with a slightly sore head after a few too many drinks, we disassembled our tent for the last time (like pros, in under five minutes), packed up the bus and began the last drive of our trip, to New York City. I have long proclaimed that NYC is my favourite place on earth (although the more I travel the harder it gets to pick just one place); I adore the city and everything about it, and even after several visits, when I catch that first glimpse of the city skyline, it never fails to make me smile.

My group said our goodbyes that evening, because everyone had their own plans for the next day. I always find it hard saying goodbye to people I’ve been travelling with, because in such a short space of time you become close to people that you’d never even met just a few weeks ago, but I made great friends on this trip, who I’m still in touch with, and some of them who I’ve seen since.

Really this blog doesn’t even scratch the surface of how incredible my American Road Trip was. I loved everything about it (even the flash floods and dodgy toilets!) and I could have written three times as much and still not covered everything. The USA has so much to offer; every state is different to the next, and I feel so lucky that I had the chance to experience this epic cross-country adventure!

 

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