What do you do when two of your favourite people fly to the other side of the world to see you? Go to some of the north island’s most amazing sites of course! My bestie Erin and her husband Jason came to visit Steve and me last week, breaking up their Australian holiday with a few whirlwind days in New Zealand. Because they only had two weeks total, their time in NZ was brief—only four full days—but I think we managed to squeeze a whole lot into that quick trip.
They arrived in Wellington late Sunday night and we immediately got down to business with a long-overdue catch-up (and some of our favourite local wine and beer). I hadn’t seen Erin and Jason since the end of last summer, and the four of us hadn’t been in the same place since their gorgeous wedding last May.
Despite staying up until nearly 3am (an especially impressive feat for me since I’d run a half-marathon earlier on), we got up early the next morning—so much to do, so little time! Because Wellington weather is unpredictable, we took advantage of the decent if a bit overcast day and as soon as we picked up the rental car we drove up to the Mount Vic lookout for a view over the harbour.
One year ago today, Steve and I left our apartment in Vancouver, moved into a 2003 Ford Windstar, and began the most amazing experience of my life so far. After we convinced the US border officer that yes, even though Steve was arriving with no job, no visa, no ties to his home country, all his belongings, and his American girlfriend, he really *would* be leaving on the flight to Ireland he had booked for 88 days in the future (a few days short of the 90-day maximum to account for any potential flight delays), we began our three-month road trip around the United States.
Now, I’ve talked plenty about this trip, here and to pretty much anyone who will listen, and I’ll probably continue to do so for the rest of my life. Mostly I’ll be sharing the highlights–the amazing moment when we saw the Grand Canyon for the first time, the beautiful sunset we watched from a BLM campsite on a hill in northern California, how surprisingly nice and clean truck stops actually are–with a few of the lows (how inevitable it is that you’ll fight on the road, for one). Today, with the benefit of a year’s hindsight, I’ve been thinking about a few things that I’d do differently if I ever had the chance to embark on such an amazing journey again (and since we’re planning to go on the road in New Zealand at some point, I’m hoping to get to use these tips in the future).
It’s been almost a year since Steve and I set out from Vancouver across the United States, and more than seven since our rusty, faithful-but-not-very reliable junker of a van landed, flat tire and all, in my parents’ driveway in Philadelphia, and our road trip is still something I think about every single day. As I’ve said before—and as everyone I’ve told about it has said—it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one of the most amazing opportunities of my life.
I’ve shared tons of photos on here, facebook, and instagram, and I’ve talked about plenty of the incredible things we saw, but I want to get specific about a few of my favourite locations for visual inspiration. However, let’s take a look at the ones that are a bit further off the beaten path—you don’t need me to tell you to go take photos at the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge. Here are five locations where I had a ton of fun taking photos and that I would recommend for anyone looking to explore.
Cumberland Falls State Park
I love waterfalls. Big small, wide, narrow–whether it’s the rushing cascades of Niagara or little more than a ripple in the stream, they’re one of my favourite features in nature. Cumberland Falls is not the largest or most awe-inspiring waterfall you’ll ever see, even if it does call itself the Niagara of the South, but there’s something charming about it. Tucked away in a state park in a rural area of the state—the most notable town nearby is Corbin, known for being the birthplace of KFC—it’s a peaceful, relaxing place to hike and enjoy nature.
Cumberland Falls is also the home of an amazing natural phenomenon: the moonbow. Similar to when sunlight passes through water and create a rainbow, a moonbow occurs when moonlight passes through water and creates an arc of light. While a moonbow can happen anywhere, there are only two waterfalls in the world where the angle and location are just right for the moonbow’s occurrences to be tracked. One is Victoria Falls in location, and the other is Cumberland Falls. We were lucky enough to be there for a full moon, when the moonbow was most likely to be visible. Although the early summer’s long daylight hours meant that the moonbow was incredibly low and faint, it was still an amazing thing to experience.
Everyone always talks about making the perfect “road trip playlist.” There are two reasons I don’t think this as important as millions of Spotify users make it out to be. One: you don’t need to make the perfect road trip playlist because it already exists and it’s called Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. Two: while it’s true that driving down an empty highway with the windows down and the radio at full volume is a freeing, exciting feeling, listening to something that really grabs your attention is a better way to keep you alert and pass the time.
Some people enjoy listening to an audiobook while on the road; personally, I prefer podcasts. Steve and I started listening to podcasts on our road trip after we decided to check out NPR’s deservedly-hyped hit S-Town. We binged on all of the episodes over the course of several days, and then I learned that he had never listened to the first season of Serial. After that, it was the latest episodes of The Men in Blazers Show, the back episodes of Reply All, and more. Here are a few of my picks for longform listens to make the long hours on the road fly by in entertaining style.
Picking the ideal copilots for an extended road trip is important. Whether it’s your partner or your BFFs, you want people with whom you can spend hours in a car without wanting to kill them. Choose the perfect travel companions and your trip will be an incredible bonding experience, full of amazing adventures and special time spent together. Well, 95% of the time it will be. The other 5% of the time you’ll be tired and hangry and whoever’s driving will have just made the fourth wrong turn of the day and you’ll be all-out shouting at each other over the hellfire-and-brimstone religious radio station you’re being forced to listen to because someone forgot to charge the phone with the music. That’s just how it is. But there are some important steps you can take to ensure that percentage stays at 5% and that you still all love each other when you reach your destination.
Get out of the car
On our road trip, we tried to limit our driving time each day to five or six hours, but some days we had to spend nine or more hours in the car and on those days we definitely got more antsy and more argumentative. Obviously the conditions of your road trip may dictate how long you have to drive each day—if you’re trying to make it across the country in a week as opposed to our 2+ months you’re going to be forced to have much longer days on the road—but even if you know you’re going to be driving 12 hours don’t be tempted to try to push through without pitstops. Even 15 minutes’ break outside the car to stretch and get some fresh air and explore a town or a nature area makes such a difference in everyone’s temperaments.
The number one place I wanted Steve and I to visit on our road trip—the number one place on my bucket list, in fact—was the Grand Canyon. After we left Las Vegas we headed into the southwest where even in early spring we were faced with the dry heat of Arizona and Utah. We spent almost two weeks traveling from Sedona to Moab before making our way into Colorado, visiting five national parks in the process. Including, yes, the Grand Canyon, which was even more amazing than I could have imagined. In fact, the entire reason was incredible; the national parks we visited were some of the highlights of the trip, there were ample free campsites for us to stay in (ranging from extremely nice to extremely weird, but all conveniently located at the least), and the rock formations both in the parks and along the road were awe-inspiring to witness.
One thing that interested me, though, was that as much as I loved visiting the Southwest, I could tell right away I would definitely not want to live there. Usually when I visit a place I love, I start daydreaming about what my life would be like if I moved there. And I did that a lot on this trip, not entirely hypothetically—Steve and I will eventually have to settle somewhere (probably), and there’s a 50/50 change it’ll be in the USA, so we talked about whether we could see ourselves living in Chicago, Colorado, and other favourite locations. But, and I mean no offense to people who live there and love it, I just couldn’t see myself living somewhere with so much red sand and desert. By the time we left, I was more than ready for rain and grass and more rain.
Still, visiting the southwest was one of the most exciting and exhilarating parts of our trip, and it’s a region I’d love to visit (key word) again. In the future, I want to get a permit to hike the fiery furnace at Arches NP, camp in the Grand Canyon, and explore the more remote sections of Canyonlands. In the meantime, please enjoy these photos of Arizona and Utah: