Missed Week One? Find it here.
The sun is high up in the sky, it’s rays burning everything it touches down here in the desert. There is nothing alive or moving – only us and the cars zipping past at high speeds on Highway number 8. Mexican music is blaring out of the radio whilst I try to keep cool by sipping on my ice-cold Arizona sweet tea. One hour into our ordeal we were still waiting for our hero to rescue us.
His name was Art and he was clad from head to toe in his dark blue coveralls, with a straw hat adorning his head. I didn’t know how he could stand the heat, but he went right to work to get our wheels swapped out. I heard him complain only once about the heat, when he must have touched the burning tarmac with his bare hands. “All done!” he said and proceeded to pack up his gear. Both of us thanked him and continued our journey east. “Let’s first head to Yuma and stock up,” I suggested.
With our fridge full of food and bottles filled with water, we returned to the desert to find an RV park we previously pinpointed on Google Maps. On the way there, we ran into a checkpoint between Arizona and California. “Where are you guys headed?” “We want to stay at Gordon’s Well,” I replied. “You guys are crazy to stay there at this time of year,” he said, and gave us a receipt that we passed the inspection.
“It’s definitely closed.” I looked at Fanny who just nodded in silence. “Let’s just check out the dunes and find something in town.” We passed the dunes now for the third time but stopped to take photos and fly the drone. “Alex take the drone down now!” I heard her shouting across the dune. “Someone is coming!”
“Hi Ma’am!” The ranger approached Fanny. My heart raced at the thought of being fined for flying the drone or even having it taken away. “That’s it,” I thought to myself. “Is that your vehicle?” He said to her. “It can’t stay there, Ma’am.” There was no mention of the drone. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Where are you guys staying tonight?” He asked once more. “We thought of the rest area down the road,” Fanny responded. “You can’t stay there either, but if you’re brave enough head north to Glamis, there is a free camping spot in the middle of the dunes.” We thanked him and drove off. The tiny gravel path that led us alongside the train tracks felt like it would never end. We saw what must have been the glowing eyes of a coyote and tiny chipmunks running across the road. The sun had just set, leaving the landscape in total darkness, with our headlights the only source of light. We made it to a larger paved road before spotting a sign leading us to the camping area. We were definitely the only people out here with the exception of the trucks passing by in the distance. “I can’t see anything around here, but look! It’s the milky way!”
Glamis Sand Dunes to Phoenix
I was fast asleep when Fanny’s shrill voice pulled me out of my soothing dreams:
“Al, wake up now and look outside!”
“What?” It took me a while to realise where I was. “Wow, wow, wow!” was the only thing I could stammer at the sight of the bright red and orange sun rising above the dunes. I quickly packed my camera and the drone and went outside. The dunes stretched as far as the horizon. Nothing but an ocean of sand. They looked like giant waves moving across the landscape in a time scale that’s hard to imagine. Only if you could stand here and watch them over months or even years would they reveal their secret rhythm.
Then I looked over to Fanny, cheerfully eating a bowl of Cheerios on her favourite sand dune. As beautiful as it was to be here we had to move on. A friend of Fanny’s saw that we were close to Phoenix and asked us to come and drop by. We took a smaller road north and merged onto highway 10 heading east to Phoenix.
“Look at DAT Alex! Look at those perfect specimens!” Fanny was pointing like a kid in a candy store at the giant saguaro cacti along the road. “No! I can’t take it anymore! The are soooooo beautiful. It’s like I can hug them!” Little did the cacti know, three hours later they would turn into a motif for Fanny’s tattoo. “Are we going to do this Alex?” Fanny looked at me before her friend Lorenza started to etch the little saguaro cactus alongside “LOOK AT DAT” on her left hip.
We spent the rest of the night with Lorenza and parked our RV right in front of their house. It was a relief to be staying in their nicely air-conditioned home, instead of the sticky heat of our RV. “It’s so great you brought her to me.” Lorenza said looking over to Fanny chatting away with her husband.
Phoenix to Grand Canyon
Getting out money in the US with Fanny’s Italian debit card has always proven to be a challenge, and now that I was running low on my own account she needed to find a place to get cash. It was all the more surprising when her card worked at a Mexican supermarket, where we ended up getting all of our chores done including laundry and food shopping.
The drive up north brought us through yet more cacti-riddled landscapes to the joy of Fanny, whom I had to remind to keep her eyes on the road. The temperature began to drop the higher we climbed up the Colorado Plateau, and with it the vegetation and landscape changed as well.
Whereas we were melting down in Phoenix, up here in Flagstaff we had to put on another layer of clothing to keep ourselves warm. The drive from Flagstaff brought us through beautiful pine forests that we figured must have been growing on top of a lava field, judging by the black color of the ground along the road.
The sun now cast long shadows through the forest, whilst a storm cloud followed us on our tails. The perfect time to take out the drone and take a break. “Look! I can see a rainbow from up there!” I said to Fanny before it began to rain and we continued up to Tusayan at the edge of Grand Canyon National Park.
Grand Canyon to Lake Powell
“Thank you National Geographic Store, thank you!” Fanny repeated her Ritual wherever we stayed somewhere for free, in particular if it was a parking lot. It’s 5:30am but both of us were wide awake and determined to catch the sunrise from inside the park. There was no one at the ticket gates but we managed to buy one using one of the automatic booths.
Nothing really prepares you for the sheer scale of the Grand Canyon. A massive gorge carved over millions of years by what is now a tiny stream called the Colorado River. We overheard a tour guide explaining how the Grand Canyon was formed and intently listened in.
“Starting over a billion years ago, sediments have been deposited by rivers and seas, but once the Pacific plate submerged underneath then North America plate, the sheer force of this created the Rocky Mountains and in the process lifted this entire area to form what is now the Colorado Plateau. During the many ice ages water built up behind massive ice dams and were released in a catastrophic flood that sent water, ice and rocks down the river. This, alongside the slower process of erosion, helped to form the Grand Canyon.”
We stopped at most of the viewpoints along the south rim of the Grand Canyon and marveled at the natural wonder right there. It was a strange yet satisfying feeling to be here and see it from up close. It must have been late afternoon when we finally left the park and headed north to Lake Powell where we would have to find a place to stay for the night.
Lake Powell to Valley of Fire
Fanny’s worse nightmare became reality. Our RV had run out of battery overnight, because we forgot to unplug our charger.
“Try it again!” I said, but the sickening sound of the engine not turning over was the only thing we could hear. “What should we do Al?” I could see the despair on her face. “It could have been worse,” I said to her and looked over the Walmart parking lot, where we camped out overnight. “They must have some sort of jump start kits here! How about we go in and look for one?”
It didn’t take us long to find an auto repair center around the corner and borrowed their jumpstart kit. “Still nothing,” Fanny looked at me with all the hope we had gained completely vanished. “How about we buy a jumper cable and ask people around here?” I suggested. Fanny returned with renewed energy and went around the parking lot to find someone to help us. She came back once again and this time with a Native American family and their truck in tow. It took us three tries until we finally got the motor running.
“Thank you so much!” Fanny ran up to the lady and gave her a big hug.
Our lack of planning didn’t prevent us finding a spot on a tour of the Antelope Canyon which was supposed to be booked out months in advance. “$48 is a lot of money, but let’s do it anyway.” I said to her.
We first had to take a very bumpy pickup truck ride to the beginning of the canyon and we were then herded inside alongside hundreds of other tourists coming in and out of the narrow opening. The number of people and the way we were rushed through would have definitely ruined the experience, but the sheer beauty of this place more than made up for it.
There is a calmness that’s hard to describe. The gentle curves where the water has eroded away the Navajo sandstone lends to the serene atmosphere. Time flew by like an instant and the 1.5 hours tour of the Upper Antelope Canyon came to an end. I could have stayed there for hours watching time pass by as the shadows move across the walls. Our journey continued east back in the direction of Nevada. The landscape changed as we moved across different climates from widen open grasslands to deep mountain gorges.
From the Valley of Fire to Sequoia National Park
We were woken up by an emergency announcement that popped up on our phones, warning us of flash floods in the area. I squeezed my head out of my little bunk window to glance at the dark grey storm clouds approaching. “Yes!” I shouted and got my camera ready to take photos of lightning. Fanny wasn’t as enthusiastic about the prospect of being caught in a storm and convinced me to move on. Adding to our predicament, the petrol was running low as well, with no petrol stations for many miles. Fanny was definitely nervous but we had no other choice than going through the Valley of Fire and hope to find petrol on the other side before we ran out.
The storm caught up with us, throwing lightning bolts behind the fiery red hills that gave the valley it’s name, set against the ominous grey clouds. It’s quite a sight to behold. We managed to stop to take our commemorative photos before fleeing the scene in time to escape the flash floods that even the radio was now announcing.
The petrol warning light was now flashing amber, but still there was nothing as far as the horizon that we could see. The road just cut straight through the barren landscape and out of nowhere streams of water appeared flowing across the road. It was nothing that our RV couldn’t handle but it was still a strange thing to see in a desert. Even I was now getting nervous about our petrol situation and began to picture our RV running out of gas in the middle of nowhere and being swept away by the flash floods that were getting stronger by the minute. Then out of nowhere we spotted what looks like a little settlement, and as we got closer could make out a sign for a Chevron petrol station. Both of us let out a sigh of relief.
We continued our drive east past Las Vegas, around the Death Valley (as we were told to avoid it this time of year) until we reached the southern tip of the Central Valley. The temperature dropped and the landscape suddenly transformed from a barren desert into the golden grass hills we have come to associate with California.
With this also came increased signs of human activity, the most striking were the oil fields around Bakersfield. We were left in awe by the scale of destruction humans can inflict on nature, but at the same time realized the hypocrisy of our thoughts as our RV itself is powered by the same oil that is destroying this place. The man made landscape continued with orange plantations, wheat fields and ground scorched by controlled fires until we reached our spot for the night at Vallejo.
Sequoia National Park and back to San Francisco
“Today is definitely not our day” I turned to Fanny as we were driving on the same road we just took half an hour ago. “I can’t believe they don’t let RV’s in from this side.” She looked back at me. We had just been turned away by the ranger at Sequoia National Park entrance as our RV was too big to go through the south entrance.
“It’s ok! Now we get to see more of the landscape around it before we get to the north entrance.” Something I have learned whilst traveling is that you should always spin a negative situation into an opportunity and here we are, in the beautiful Californian countryside driving along small winding roads and breathing in fresh country air.
The RV did struggle on the way up the mountain, but it was nothing it couldn’t handle. “The next right and then we should be merging onto a bigger road leading right up to the park.” I thoroughly enjoyed my job as the Chief Navigator or, as Fanny called me, ‘Copilot’. “I should definitely learn how to drive,” I thought to myself whilst watching out for the next junction coming up ahead.
“Look at DAT!” Fanny shouted as we drove past a giant Sequoia tree. “I can’t wait to see all of them beauties together.” I always love her enthusiasm for everything around her, especially now, where I was once again a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of traveling and the constant change of locations. We luckily found a spot on the RV parking lot near the General Sherman trail and began to walk down the hill by following the crowd of people in front of us.
“Here they are!” I looked up at the giant Sequoia standing tall right in front of us. “Look at the size of this thing!” Fanny smiled and walked off the path to have me snap a photo of her in front of it and was immediately told off by a ranger walking past. We only later found out that Sequoia trees have very shallow roots that can be easily damaged by people walking on top of them.
As much as we wanted to stay here all day, we were once again on a tight schedule to make it back to San Francisco in the same night. I took one more photo of General Sherman, the biggest tree in the world by sheer volume (there are taller and thicker trees apparently), before getting into the RV for our last stretch back to San Francisco.
We only stopped once for petrol just 10min before we arrived at our destination. I was still wearing shorts and a T-Shirt when I stepped out into the freezing cold outside. “We’re definitely back in San Francisco!”