Texas, the Grand Canyon, and Joshua Tree

Mom and I headed west through Texas on Monday, our day of driving that we planned to be the longest of all our days. For nine hours we drove end to end, finally reaching El Paso in the early evening and stopping for a bit to eat. All-in-all, there really isn't a whole lot in Texas. It's big, hot, and takes forever to get across.

We crossed into New Mexico and continued as far as we could until it was dark and we no longer felt like driving anymore. For a large portion of our New Mexico drive, we saw sign after sign warning us of dust storms, which are evidently a thing down here that everyone is very worried about. Despite the current drought that the southwest is in, we thankfully didn't hit any dust storms, though it was extremely windy during this portion of the drive. 

Tuesday we woke up early and planned to make our way up to the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. We passed through Tuscon, Phoenix, and Flagstaff, before completing the drive into Grand Canyon National Park. I've been to the Grand Canyon before (it never gets old), but Mom never has so it was exciting for both of us to get into the park to see it. To our surprise, much of our day through Arizona was accompanied by rain, and the Grand Canyon was no exception. Though it wasn't raining at the time of our entry into the park, it was by the time we left.

It’s hard to quite describe seeing the Canyon first hand, whether it’s your first time or fiftieth. Three years ago I got my first glimpse of this natural wonder, but it never gets old seeing it again and again. It truly is something you have to see for yourself to fully appreciate.

Mom and I

To all first timers, my suggestion is that you enter through the eastern side of the southern rim. I say this because most people – Asian and European tourists mainly, or so it seemed – come in via shuttle bus through the middle southern entrance, thus making it a much more chaotic and bottlenecked viewing area. The eastern entrance will lead you slowly up a winding road through two to three thousand feet of elevation and ear popping. Along the way you’ll pass a few tributary river canyons that ultimately funnel into the Colorado, to which you may be tempted to stop and selfie yourself, but I must say that you need to be patient. Sure, these are also great views, but in relation to the real thing, they feign in comparison. At the entrance to the park, you’re a mere half mile from the first (and best in my opinion) view of the Canyon, Desert View.

This particular view is the one you’ve all seen before, appearing in Google image searches around the world. It’s an absolutely stunning 360 degree view of the Canyon, to which you can look west down the entire length of it. The Grand Canyon, in comparison to other land areas, is bigger than the state of Vermont, which is amazing in and of itself because this single geologic formation was formed by the powerful Colorado river over millions of years. It’s quite difficult to conceptually imagine how that’s possible, especially after seeing it first hand.

The reason I suggest coming in the eastern entrance is for this very reason. Desert View is, as I mentioned, my favorite viewing point of the entire Canyon. Not only does it provide the overlook I mentioned before, but it’s also significantly less crowded than many of the others, being that it’s, for most tourists, the last spot they end up viewing the canyon and so are less inclined to stay for longer, if at all.

View from Desert View

One of the neatest parts about returning to the Canyon this time was Mom’s reaction to it, being it her first time here. I think she also was a bit speechless for much of our trip through the park and unable to process the magnitude of it all. Like Tyrian Lannister seeing Danaerys Targarian fly off on her dragons (for all you Game of Thrones fans), Mom’s jaw was dropped open far enough to let in any assortment of insects flying in the vicinity.

We trekked on and out of the park, and made our way back to Flagstaff, AZ, a quaint and active college town most known for its proximity to the Canyon and access to the limited number of ski resorts in the state.

Wednesday morning we woke up early and continued our travels south and then west through the road leading from Flagstaff to Sedona. Up to this point in the trip, this drive is by far my favorite road of them all. Almost immediately out of Flagstaff, the ten mile road drops down nearly 3,000 vertical feet, winding its way through the exposed red rock draped in forests all the way to Sedona. I tried my best to get some good GoPro footage out of my car’s sunroof, but was quite unsuccessful in holding my camera still to really capture all it’s beauty and do the drive the justice it deserves.

Once through Sedona, we drove on, going through peaks and valleys over the next hundred miles or so until we reached the western part of the state and the endless miles of deserts it brings with it. By far one of the most boring stretches I’ve seen (aside from the nothingness that is all of Texas), hours passed between towns and gas stations until we reached Joshua Tree National Park straddling the Colorado and Mohave Deserts in southern California.

We decided to enter Joshua Tree on the southern end, wanting to just get a lay-of-the land before reentering the park on Thursday to do some hiking of our own. This proved to be a good decision as the Colorado Desert, the desert in the southern half of the park, has significantly less interesting stuff to it than the northern half, the section in the Mohave Desert. After a night in 29 Palms (yes, that's a real city), we came back to the park Thursday morning and enjoyed a short four mile hike through the desert.

Me standing in front of a Joshua tree

If you’re not familiar with Joshua Tree, it’s name comes from the trees that make up the majority of the vegetation in the northern part of the park. An odd shaped, cactus-like tree roughly 15-20 feet (~4-5 meters for any non-Americans reading) in height, it’s a tree like I’ve never seen before, and I imagine it doesn’t exist in many other places either. Very few species have found a way to survive in this formidable climate, yet the Joshua tree thrives on, speckling the landscape for miles into the distance, living off just ten days of rain a year.

After our morning hike in the desert, we finished off our four-day mother-son journey into downtown Los Angeles and to the Pacific Ocean, marking the official conclusion of my coast-to-coast drive. Just a week earlier I was enjoying scuba diving in the Atlantic and now had the chance to dip my feet in the largest body of water on Earth, the Pacific. Mom and I enjoyed an afternoon of walking around Santa Monica before meeting up with Meredith, one of my friends from Northwestern who’s living out in LA now with aspirations of becoming a comedy writer (and quickly making her way towards her goal). Mom took a redeye back east to Newark in preparation for her favorite weekend of the year with my late sister, Anna’s, friends from high school and college. I now have a few days in LA before I continue making my way up the west coast to San Francisco. I’m looking forward to some time spent surfing with old friends from college and experiencing the LA way of life for a few days, particularly the people watching that comes along with being anywhere in California. It truly is one of the wackiest places in the world.