I guess it’s time to go home – returning coast to coast: what did it all mean?

Finally, the cross country drive is coming to an end. Based on when this is published and when the events actually occurred, you can probably tell I have been a little busy (and slow to write the final chapter). As much as I like to travel, I think I need a little break after this journey. Hopefully in the future I can stay up to date on everything. Either way, I hope you enjoy the finale of a wonderful journey across, around, and back across the United States.

It’s hot – can we get out of the desert?

Early in the morning, I awoke from my desert campsite near Interstate 10 and drove back into Joshua Tree National Park, up the semi-steep and consistent grade, to the Cottonwood Visitor Center to fill up on water. With the temperature hovering around 115F all afternoon the previous day, I had drunk a considerable amount of my water reserves. Unfortunately there was no water station (at least not a functioning one) at the Visitor Center so I returned down the hill toward Interstate 10.

I finally got to see some wildlife on the downhill. Apparently the desert critters are highly crepuscular due to the extreme heat throughout the day. Before the sun was up, I saw a pair of tall ears gliding behind the tall grass as I drove by. Jackrabbits! I was going to stop to take a picture, but before I did, another one hopped across the road and I had to hit the brakes hard to avoid hitting it. The two scurried away before I was able to get a good picture. As I became aware of the animals’ habits, I started to see them more and more. There were several bighorn sheep standing like statues below the road in the wash. At least in the summer, it’s good to be up during the twilight hours if you want to see wildlife in the desert.

When I hit the interstate, I headed west toward the coast…again. It was extremely windy driving through Palm Springs and the surrounding area, and all headwind. No wonder there are hundreds of windmills surrounding the highway. I was headed to the coast to spend a few days with my cousin in Carpinteria on the coast.

Carpinteria and the Southern California Coast

I completely bypassed Los Angeles via I-210 and kept a wide berth, continuing all the way to Santa Clarita and finally turning west on Route 126 parallelling the Santa Clara River. No traffic! I have driven around Los Angeles before, and I learned my lesson with the traffic there. Most people that live in Los Angeles would probably agree with my strategy to avoid the city. Route 126 eventually hooks up with “The 101” in Ventura. I continued up the coast and stopped several times to walk on the beach.

What a difference an hour or two makes! Driving north from the Los Angeles area, the coastline becomes more rugged but the major change I noticed was the population. Nobody lives here! Between Ventura and Santa Barbara there are probably more people living in RVs along the highway than in houses. It’s such a beautiful area, it’s amazing it hasn’t been exploited for development yet. I guess the mountains are too steep and the shoreline has been exploited to an extent. There is a lot of drilling offshore. As I would find out around Carpinteria, the ground is oil-rich as oil tar oozes out of the ground along some of the beaches.

I eventually made it to Carpinteria, got some pizza for dinner, and met up with my cousin Erika. Ah it was nice to be indoors for a couple of days! Showers are nice!

Early in this post, I can say one thing that this trip did was allow me to appreciate modern conveniences more. Most people get that feeling after a long weekend of camping. After two months of living primarily outdoors, I have never appreciated the modern conveniences more. On the other hand, it’s nice to go without them (for a period of time).

Carpenteria and The West Coast Vibe

Carpinteria is an interesting little town. It’s a short distance to the much larger city of Santa Barbara. It really sits all by itself. When Erika and I went out for the day, we didn’t need a car at all. Everything you need on a daily basis is walkable. No matter where you live in the town, you can get to the beach easily. Erika had to take her dog to the vet in the morning, and it was 2 blocks away! For the rest of the day, we toured around town and took it easy. It’s just so relaxed there. To me, it was the epitome of California. The weather, the landscape, and the people are great, and it just puts your mind at ease I suppose (as long as there are no forest fires or landslides).

Eastbound route

You can probably tell I didn’t really want to leave California. I also wanted to take a more northern route to avoid the summer heat in the South.

8/24 – Returning to Big Sur

After a couple of days back on the coast, it was time to head into the belly of the beast. I was heading to Los Angeles to pick up Lily. I don’t understand the traffic in this city. It never stops. I got to LAX around 11 with several slowdowns on the highway. Lily and I got an early lunch (dim sum) in the city, and quickly got out of town before the traffic got really bad. I wanted Lily to see Big Sur so we drove North. I didn’t want to take a chance with traffic going up the coastal highway again so I took I-5 (the grapevine) before turning west at Route 46. It was a roundabout way of getting there (and totally out of the way of driving East) but I figured we had a day to tour.

The drive from Paso Robles to Cambria is wonderful! That’s why I revisited it on this route. Route 46 runs through San Luis Obisbo’s wine country and then over the rugged coastal mountains. The ocean is visible from miles away (if there is no fog) and the temperature is very mild compared to the Eastern side of the mountains. We made a stop near the Elephant Seal vista and Piedras Blancas where several sea otters were playing in the water. It was difficult to get a picture since the sun was reflecting at us. After watching the marine mammals, we had to book it up the coast before sunset.

Lily watching sea otters, and/or pondering life at Piedras Blancas

We arrived at our overnight spot in Big Sur just before sunset. I returned to the same spot that I stayed in July that overlooks the ocean. It was just as good as I remembered, and as the stars came out it was even better. There were no clouds early so our view was fantastic. There were a couple of people camped out at the spot too, and luckily one guy was an expert on astonomy and pointed out the planets to us. Jupiter is apparently the brightest thing in the night sky. I think I got a handle on night photography too.

Night sky in Big Sur. Jupiter is the brightest on the right

8/25 –  The last coastal drive and the route east through California

We started our day early in the morning and finished our coastal drive all the way to Santa Cruz. We took Route 17 to cut through the lower peninsula from Santa Cruz to San Jose. I wanted to show Lily some redwood forests before we were out of their range.

After a brief tour at Bear Creek Redwoods Preserve, we drove to San Francisco as the traffic heading into San Francisco is not nearly as bad as the traffic around the East Bay. We also wanted to stop and grab some food in the city since we were so close. We headed over the Golden Gate Bridge and around San Pablo Bay. Our roundabout route through the Bay Area probably didn’t save us any time, but I didn’t want to get caught in a 3 hour traffic jam on I-580 like the last time I drove from the Bay Area to Yosemite.

After we got onto I-80 in Vallejo, it was smooth sailing all the way to the Sierra Nevada. We found a place to stay for the night in Tahoe National Forest just off of the highway. The stars were excellent again. I didn’t stay up to take pictures as I knew the next few days would be long so I went right to sleep.

8/26 – Time to do some serious driving

Although we drove a long distance on our first 2 days, we really didn’t make much progress making it to the east coast. Like I said, I really didn’t want to leave California so I squeezed a couple of extra days out of our journey. We made our way through Nevada and Utah, stopping only for gas, bathroom breaks, and (finally) In-N-Out Burger in Salt Lake City for dinner. At least the temperature was only 85-90 degrees in Northern Nevada and Utah. If we had taken I-40 or I-10, we would have been baking. The poor car; she hardly had any breaks all day in the desert.

I gave Lily a break from sleeping outdoors and we got a hotel in Evanston, WY; just over the border from Utah. We drove over 650 miles. It was Monday and if we kept this pace up, we would have no problem getting to Maryland before Friday. Did I mention we had to pick up a marriage license in Maryland by Friday in order to get married the following Wednesday?

8/27 – Wyoming in a day

When life gives you lemons…

It was inevitable, something had to go wrong with the car. Sally had performed so well throughout the 10,000+ miles of this journey, but when we walked out of the hotel in the morning to load the car, something didn’t look right. The car was slanted forward and to the left.

Flat tire! Completely flat. It wasn’t low on air. It had no air. The flat tire was a “plugged” tire since I ran over a nail several months earlier. The plug in the tire had basically served its useful life. To be fair, the tires were overdue for a change. I checked with a mechanic a month earlier and he said I could probably squeeze about 10,000 more miles out of them, and that was fairly accurate. Either way, I was glad we stayed in a populated area on this particular night. Lily was able to locate a tire shop in town and we spent the better half of the morning getting new tires installed at Plains Tires in Evanston. Thanks for the speedy service!

Speaking of car maintenance, I decided to check the oil after the new tires were put on. I knew I needed an oil change soon so I had purchased 5 quarts of oil, a new filter, and an oil plug in preparation. The oil was dark when I checked it, much darker than I expected. When we departed Evanston I told Lily that we should just get across Wyoming (not exactly a short trip) and call it an early day so that I could change the oil before dark.

…make more lemons?

We stopped for the day outside of Laramie in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. I began the oil changing process after the engine had cooled down. However, when I attempted to loosen the oil plug, the wrench slipped. Then I tried again, and it slipped again. “Who put this damn thing on so tight?” I yelled as Lily innocently cooked dinner. “Oh yeah, it was me” I remembered. After a few more tries, I couldn’t get the plug off.

…and take a chill pill

Not only could I not remove the drain plug, I had rounded the bolt in the process so it was next to impossible to remove. I was so angry that I got up and started throwing rocks down the hill and Lily had to witness me melt down as the sun was setting. It really wasn’t a big deal. I was just angry that things were not going smoothly on this day. “First a flat tire and now this!?” I thought. I was concerned for the car too. She would have to go another 2,000 miles with dirty oil running almost non-stop during the day.

8/28 – Crunch Time

Lily and I packed up early and got back on the interstate as soon as the sun came up to maximize our daylight. I decided to stop in Cheyenne at a garage to have them remove the oil plug that I nearly destroyed on the previous day. We grabbed breakfast in town while we were waiting and when we got back to the garage, they informed us that they were able to get the plug off and change the oil. What a relief! We wasted no time getting on the road and rolling into Nebraska.

Nebraska was unsurprisingly uneventful. The rest stops are quite nice though. It was 450 miles to get through Nebraska on our route. When we got to Lincoln, we took Route 2 to Nebraska City. From there, we passed through the southwest corner of Iowa and followed I-29 to Saint Joseph. We then drove almost the entire width of Missouri at night on Route 36 before stopping in Hunnewell, population 227. Our campground for the night was the Hunnewell Conservation Area, a nature preserve with free and well-maintained campsites. We had to set up in the dark of course, but the worst part was the amount of “bug splat” that was on the cover of my roof-top tent.

8/29 – Back to the Eastern Time Zone

It was another long day of driving, just like the day before. We took our time leaving Hunnewell since we went to sleep late. We were on the road by 9am and made our way to I-70. It is funny when we crossed the Mississippi River. Most people consider it a milestone. Lily was driving when we crossed the river. I said “hey it’s the Mississippi” while we were on the bridge. She looked out the window and said “this!?” I had about the same reaction the first time I crossed it. It’s a milestone for sure, but not a particularly interesting one to see.

8/30 – Maryland

I don’t remember much from Illinois; only that I missed the exit for I-72 in Springfield. The only traffic we hit on I-70 was Indianapolis during rush hour. We followed I-70 through Ohio to Ohiopyle, PA where we stopped for the night at Ohiopyle State Park.

The next morning we left our campsite early and coasted into our home state of Maryland within an hour. We arrived home before noon. This gave us time to eat lunch and get to the courthouse in Upper Marlboro before it closed at 4pm. I kept reminding Lily that we drove from Wyoming to Maryland in less than 48 hours! I thought it was impressive (obviously), and Lily gave me a look of “I know, I drove half of it!” She may have mentioned earlier that she was aware of how much we drove.

Anyway, we got to Upper Marlboro with an hour to spare. After nearly being towed for parking in a restricted parking space, we moved the car and got to the courthouse. We were able to receive our marriage license 15 minutes before closing time. Talk about cutting it close!

So you had a great adventure, what’s the big deal?

As I mentioned in a recent post, a lot of this particular trip was getting out of my comfort zone. Maybe sometimes you are “too close” to see the forest for the trees (or something like that). I just like traveling too. Like I said, whatever allows you to get perspective is a good thing to do at least every once in a while. It helps reveal (or remind) what is important in life. So I learned that lesson the hard way I suppose. There are so many lessons to learn in life. I will share a few of my takeaways from this trip.

Lesson 1: Make mistakes and learn from them

Most people know this one. Cliche I suppose. I wouldn’t change anything I did though. I made lots of mistakes, I ran into car trouble, and I didn’t know where I would stay some nights. There was a feeling of “lost” sometimes and I got anxious during a lot of these incidents. However, once I got through those obstacles, it didn’t feel like that big of a deal.

I set myself up for anxiety sometimes by trying to do to much (see lesson 4). For example, at one point in my journey I knew I had to drive roughly 1,000 miles in 5 days, and I decided to sight-see along the way. That made some days very long to “catch up” after a day or two of minimal driving. I would panic and think that I didn’t have enough time or energy to drive after a long day of hiking or things exploding in the back of my car.

Lesson 2: Appreciate what you have

Most people know this one too. It’s not that I had to learn this lesson, but it’s nice to have a refresher. As I mentioned earlier, showers are great. I enjoyed living out of my car, but there are certainly advantages to a house and indoor plumbing. During this trip, there were times where I enjoyed a shower more than anything.

Warning: this paragraph may gross you out. There were some periods where I was going on 4 or 5 days without a shower, and hygiene became the focus of my day. If I was able to locate an actual shower with hot water, it felt like such a luxury; like I got a ticket to the Superbowl or someone bought me dinner at a five-star restaurant.

Speaking of restaurants, food these days is amazing. I definitely learned how to cook well on the road. However a meal prepared in an actual kitchen, or a hot entree at a restraurant beats just about anything I could cook on my backpacking stove. Food is so abundant and cheap in the developed world. It’s amazing what we do with it. During my trip, especially while in San Francisco, I periodically “people-watched” and saw so much food being thrown away. With my observations, I became very conscious of how much food and water I was using.

On one occasion, I was able to stretch my 7 gallon water container for a week. I’m not trying to brag here. I used (on average) one gallon of water per day; cooking, drinking, and washing. I challenge you to see how little water you can use in a week. I think you will find it very rewarding. It’s easier if you don’t have indoor plumbing of course. Anyway, my point is to be thankful that food (in many countries) is cheap, abundant, and delicious.

Lesson 3: You are an incredibly capable individual

Yes you, the one reading this! I’ve talked a lot about myself here, but one thing I learned was how similar we all are. We all run into problems, and usually we can find solutions. I ran into a lot of people traveling just like me along the way, and one subject that came up a lot was simply being able to figure things out. For some people, it was learning how to be more independent; for others, it was problem-solving (like how to work on a car).

When given the chance, people can rise to the occasion. One thing about traveling is that you don’t have a lot of options most of the time. So you have to be resourceful and independent. It was comforting running into people that had encountered the same problems as me (like not being able to find a place to stay for the night) and realizing that we were both able to overcome the problems, often with similar solutions.

Lesson 4: Don’t try to do too much

This is a pitfall for a lot of travelers. For me, this comes down to planning. I’m not a good planner. I like to be spontaneous when traveling. However, if you are traveling spontaneously, once you get somewhere, make a plan. For me, if my day was completely spontaneous, I often wound up going in circles trying to do too much.

Case in point for me was Redwood National Park. I was so excited to get to Redwood National Park. I had wanted to go there for a very long time. And then, when I got there, I wanted to do everything. However, I didn’t want to squander my opportunity (I was only there for a day).

So what did I do? I made a plan. I got some good ideas on where to go from a Park Service employee and I gauged how long it would take to see each place. In an attempt to drive less, I picked just 3 places (still probably too many) to visit/hike. That worked much better than the first visit to Yosemite where it seemed like I was trying to see everything in the park in one day (impossible).

Lesson 5: Enjoy it, and don’t regret it

This goes hand in hand with make mistakes and learn from them. As I mentioned, I wouldn’t change anything I did. If I wanted to change something, it would mean that I have regrets. Sure I made mistakes, and now I know either not to do what I did, or how to do it differently the next time. Maybe you won’t get to see a bear, or a bison at Yellowstone, but you still got to see Yellowstone! Don’t let the lack of wildlife (expectations) ruin your trip. And when shit goes sideways, make lemonade out of lemons. Something will always go wrong. Just go with it. Don’t start throwing rocks at trees in front of your fiance. Well, try not to. Everyone needs to vent in their own way 🙂

One last lesson: Get the National Park Pass

It’s actually called the America the Beautiful Pass. Depending on your age (or other qualifying circumstances), you can get a lifetime pass for (as of 2019) only $80! What an incredible value! But if you can’t get the lifetime pass, you can get an annual pass for the same price. It may seem like a lot, but our pass paid for itself after just a few park visits. Even in our week in the southwest with Lily’s parents, our entry fees for the 3 national parks we visited would have been $80, the same cost of the annual pass. The pass is also valid for several other federal lands that charge entry fees like some National Forests areas and can provide discounts for campsites.

Throughout my trip, I calculated that I would have spent $450 in entry fees without the national park pass. Some of the parks in Utah and Colorado encourage you to buy the pass since there are so many National Parks within a day’s drive and people tend to visit them a few at a time (Zion and Grand Canyon combine for $70 in entry fees).

$450 in entry fees!? Where did you go?

Great Sand Dunes National Park – $20
Arches National Park – $30
Great Basin National Park – FREE!
Yosemite National Park (1st visit) – $35
Kings Canyon National Park – $35
Sequoia National Park – included entry with Kings Canyon NP
Golden Gate National Recreation Area – FREE!
Point Reyes National Seashore – FREE!
Redwood National Park – FREE!
Yosemite National Park (2nd visit) – $35
Death Valley National Park – $30 (I think it’s free to drive through, I didn’t see an entrance booth)
Lake Mead National Recreation Area – $25
Grand Canyon National Park – $35
Mesa Verde National Park – $25
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – $20
Rocky Mountain National Park – $35
Dinosaur National Monument – $25
Bryce Canyon National Park – $35
Zion National Park – $35
Mohave National Preserve – FREE!
Joshua Tree National Park – $30

This list doesn’t include camping fees which are generally not covered by the pass. In addition, I visited several State Parks (mostly in California) that either had entry fees or fees to camp.

Cool Story Bro. Now what?

Well, despite not exploring too much over the last few weeks, I am still recovering, mainly from the drive from California. We drove 2/3 of the country in 48 hours and with a few obstacles along the way. I didn’t get much sleep as we drove at night too. My better half can sleep in the car, but I have difficulty sleeping in cars (and planes for that matter). Needless to say, I have been catching up on sleep. Also I had a wedding to prepare for and attend, so that takes some time.

I will be venturing off soon though. “Where?” you ask. Let’s just say I will be polishing my asian language skills over the next few weeks. And by polishing, I mean learning the basics (if I even get that far). Sayonara for now. Thanks for reading.

Sunset in Big Sur – Gorda, CA

2 Replies to “I guess it’s time to go home – returning coast to coast: what did it all mean?”

  1. I so enjoyed all of your posts and hope to do a road trip of my own someday. I was just thinking about getting the park pass and will look into it. Glad you had such a wonderful adventure! And congratulations again to you and Lily!!

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