June 25, 2013

How I Fell in Love with the American West

I was 21 years old.  It was the summer of 2007.  I just finished up a turbulent spring semester at Tech.  That April was the school shooting that rocked our tranquil university town.  It rocked me as well leaving confusion, doubt, and questions about everything: the families and friends of those killed, my career choice, God, why I wasn’t in that building.  The only thing I was sure about was that I had to make the most of it.  The “it” being life, the opportunities, the people around me, and my circumstances.  A soul searching solo road trip across America couldn’t have come at a better time to sort through these thoughts and feelings. 

I had an internship that summer starting in 10 days and 2200 miles away in Bagdad, AZ.  The company was actually going to pay me 50 cents a mile to drive out there for the summer.  It is a dream come true to someone who relished a good road trip.  My route of choice was through the heart of the nation via I-70, Pittsburgh to Denver.  Then wind through the Colorado, Utah and into Arizona to settle for a few months before reporting to my final XC preseason camp in mid-August.
I packed my red Ford Taurus with all the things a young adventurer needs for a camping road trip through the American West: fishing rods, hiking backpack, sleeping bags, duffel of clothes, two pairs of running shoes, AAA foldout interstate map of USA, and a case of Lionshead beer kept safely under a blanket in the trunk.

The adrenaline rush of riding west into the unknown with no agenda and a car loaded up with camping gear is akin to buying a one way ticket to a foreign country with nothing but a small backpack.  It’s exhilarating.  Up until this point, I had never experienced the Mountain west region that I read so frequently about in my older brother’s Backpacker and Outside magazines.  Places such as Rocky Mountain National Park and Arches and the mystical Grand Canyon were only distant dreams to me.  So I was buzzing when I set off on that Thursday morning in May. 

I was so pumped to see the Rocky Mountains that I made an ill-advised push to get there in less than 24 hours.  Pittsburgh to Denver is 1500 miles.  I made it to a rest stop in Wakeeny Kansas at 2 am and since it is legal to sleep at rest stops in Kansas, I recharged for 2 hours before pushing on towards Denver.  As first light came through, I could see the snow-capped mountains of Colorado’s Front Range jutting high above the flat plains (pictured at top).  I must have been 100 miles away but I stopped anyway to take a picture.  I then stopped like an idiot every few miles taking pictures like visitors to the mine staring in awe as they witness their first mining blast.          

I was absolutely hooked at that point.  Everything I read about in the magazines was true.  I loved the American West instantly.  I still do.  I love the big mountains, I love the twisty canyons, the emptiness, the sunsets and most importantly the random encounters with people like sharing a drink with a 3 girls I just met while watching the sunset from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon which is arguably the best place in the world for it. 

This trip set the standard for adventure that I continue to practice today.  I may never top this first big adventure into the unknown but that doesn't stop me from trying.    It came at just the right point in my life where I needed to do something thinking and figure out what was important to me.  I had to live the moment because so many others a month before wouldnt get the chance to.  That summer turned out to be one of my best because I cherished every moment of it.

Trip log- Summer 2007
The following is a trip log of my expedition across the United States from my home in Pittsburgh PA to my summer internship in Bagdad, AZ.
Thur, May 24
8:00 AM (eastern): Depart Pittsburgh, Drive all day.
Fri, May 25
2:30 AM (Central). Stop and sleep in my car at rest stop past Waheeny, KS.  Apparently it is legal to do so in Kansas.
6:00 AM (Central): Awake.  Depart rest stop and head west for Rocky Mtn National Park.  Lack of sleep feeling is dismissed after pushing through the plains of kansas and seeing the rocky mountains in the distance.
10:00AM (Mtn):  Arrive in Boulder CO (U of Colorado Buffaloes) after some mild traffic in Denver.  I was dumbfounded when I hit the Am rush hour traffic? We are in the mountains, not NYC or DC or LA. This was Colorado right? Mountains right? No traffic? Unfortunately, my dream town was not this wild frontier town that I so envisioned. Pushed through traffic to finally take a break in Denver at approximately 8 am. I went for a run around CU campus. There were mountains all around but I jogged around the town. Then drove to rocky mtn national park.  Searched for shower on campus but the buildings are pretty secure here
12:30 PM (mtn): Stop at grocery store in Estes park and Proceed toward Rocky Mtn National Park.  Its absolutely beautiful here by the way.  Do trail ridge road drive (~40 miles).
4:00 PM (mtn):  Arrive at timber creek campground and set up camp.  Make dinner and relax, read.
8:00 PM (mtn):  Squeeze the last hour of daylight awake before falling asleep

Sat, May 26
6:30 AM (mtn):  Wake up and make breakfast.  Leave camp site for lulu city hike.
7:30 AM (mtn):  Start lulu city hike (~9 miles).  See some bighorn sheep at spliner pass.  Colorado river is beautiful here.  Lulu city ruins were kind of a bust

11:30 AM (mtn):  Return from hike and make lunch.  Relax.
1:00 PM (mtn):  Do a  little driving to see some easily accessible sites.  Hang out, have dinner, go to bed.  It is freezing here as snow begins to flurry in the May air.  Too shy to talk to group next to me and regret it because they had a guitar and beers and a campfire.  doh. 

Sun, May 27
6:00 AM (mtn):  Wake up and pack up.  Head out
7:00 AM (mtn):  Do an eazy hike up to Big Meadows via the green river trail head.  Suprising more beautiful than I expected with spectacular views of the snow capped mountains and a small stream running through the meadow

8:00 AM (mtn): Depart Rocky Mountain Nat Park.  Heading west for Arches in Moab, UT.
11:00 AM (mtn): Stop in Rifle CO for some supplies at walmart.  Not much in this town except a large hispanic population.  I hear a chinese man speaking spanish here.  I just found that funny.
12:00 PM (mtn):  Make a stop at “No Name” Rest Stop
4:00 PM (mtn): Arrive at arches and do some site seeing til about 8:00Pm
9:00 PM (mtn):  Find last site at camping area along the colorado riverway ( ~7mi from moab north on ?191) for like 5$.  Make camp and go to bed.
Mon, May 28

6:00 AM (mtn):  Wake up and do a 55 min exploration run in the town of moab.  Very crappy run.  Travelling has caught up to me.

7:30 AM (mtn):  Have a continental breakfast  at the holiday inn express Moab. Depart Moab for Capital reef national park. 
12:00 PM (mtn): Stop in capital reef at a cool little swimming hole complete with stream and waterfall.  I forget the name of it.  Free Shower.  Should see Heckman Bridge next time.
3:30 PM (mtn):  Arrive at bryce canyon nat park and take shuttle around the canyon.  Do some hiking along the rim trail.  Never seen anything like this before.
7:00 PM (mtn): Depart bryce and head for zion campground. 
8:00 PM: Arrive at zion campground  and sleep well
Tue, May 29

6:30 AM (mtn): Wake up and run 55 min to watchman pt

8:00 AM (mtn): Make breakfast, read, write, relax.  Depart watchman campground and head out for a day of hiking
10:30 AM (mtn):  Take shuttle to Narrows trail.  Hike narrows all day long, kind of made a wrong turn, feet were destroyed, probaly a 20 mile day through freezing water. Cool canyon though.
8:30 PM (mtn): Return from narrows just as the light dissapears for the evening.  Start searching for campsites
10:00 PM (mtn): Make camp at a BLM free campground 7 miles from zion on route 9 (Right around mile marker 24).  Feeling unsafe at this campground from some reason.  Maybe because some left wing wacko was rambling on alone in the dark saying this aggression will not stand man.  I bucker down and fall assleep with a fixed blade knife as my tent mate
Wed, May 30
6:00 AM (mtn):  Wake up a little earlier than normal probaly out of fear.  Pack up and leave sketchy campground to take some pics at Zion on my way out
10:00 AM (mtn):  Take some pics of Zion for one last time.  Depart zion for Grand Canyon north rim.
12:00 PM (AZ):  Arrive at Grand Canyon.  Eat lunch with bamby 5 feet away waiting for some dessert
3:00 PM (AZ): Feeling tired and exhausted, I sit in the grand canyon lodge while my cell phone recharges.  Not too excited about the plan to head towards flagstaff this afternoon. I  notice 3 unique looking girls with bandanas typing on a typewriter in the Lodge.  I found them interesting but too tired and grumpy to talk to them.  Finally one of them talks to me.  Their names are Sophie, Sarah, and leo.  Two go to school in new york and one in santa babara.  They are on a girls road trip through much of the same area I just came from.  I hang out with them all day.  We watch sunset at cape royal and meet a few other people there most noteworthy that englishman.  He apparently doesn’t drive in the US West anymore because he hit a cow a few years back.  He loves the national parks here.  Says they are some of the best.  These are the first people I really got to know on the trip.  In the future I would like to talk to more people while on these trips
10:00 PM (AZ):  Make illegal camp at Grand canyon Campground with girls and go to bed.
Thur, May 31
5:00 AM (AZ):  Feeling nervous about being caught I wake up early and pack up.  I move the car to to the parking lot and watch the sunrise a bright angel pt.  I do a run toward the kaibab trail.  I run into a guy who is just starting the rim to rim hike.  He says he is going to take 4 days.  He is using a shuttle service for the journey (~60 bucks for that).  Sounds like a cool idea.  From this day forward I am fascinated by the idea of the rim to rim hike.  I will do it some day.
7:30 AM (AZ):  Return to camp to say bye to girls.  We exhange tips about places to see and things to do on each of our respective journeys.  Head out for Flagstaff AZ
11:00 AM (AZ):  Arrive at Northern Arizona University Campus.  Walk around a little bit and find showers at the NAU Aquatic Center.
2:30 PM (AZ): Drive through the red rocks of sedona.  Didn’t really take time here or in flagstaff because the trip has finally wore me down.  I am too exhausted to take the time to enjoy it so I push on probaly faster than I should.  But I do return in future to enjoy the beauty that exists here.
5:30 PM (AZ):  Stop in prescott town square to walk around a bit.  My first impression was that I like this little small town.  It was just a beautiful day here when I stopped.  (I really can say i did like that town after looking back on my 3 years in arizona).  Exhausted, I push ahead to Bagdad.
8:00 PM (AZ):  Winding drive to Bagdad in middle of nowhere has me thinking what the H am I Doing?  Arrive in Bagdad and key is not here.  So I just camp out in a BLM campground and wait for tommorow
Fri, June 1
Wake up and head to bagdad AZ.  Key is finally ready and I move in for the summer
*Total Trip mileage: 2981
*Overall this was my first big trip alone like this.  It was awesome to have the freedom to do what you wanted when you wanted.  That’s the benefit of doing a trip like this alone.  I was efficient.  I saw several nationals parks (6 in total) and had the opportunity to go at my own speed.  It would have been nice to have some one to share the experience with.  But that is why I had pen and paper.  I love road trips.
If I knew I loved the west, why did I leave.  I suppose it is that same feeling a young man has when he meets his first girlfriend- everything is good/ok but perhaps there is something better out there.  It is mans never ending void or search for the next thing that will make him happy. 

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