WESTBOUND CROSS COUNTRY TRIP
2016

I spent May, June, July, and August traveling just over 10,000 miles around the United States in my car. My summer began by crossing the country in May. I was headed to the west coast for a residency and I invited my younger brother, Kyle, to join me on the trek. We traveled from Florida to California over the course of two weeks. This is our westbound journey.

 

May 7. Excerpt from my journal:

 

Tallahassee --> New Orleans

4 States: FL-AL-MS-LA

 

Kyle and I started our cross country trip today! Holy Toledo, Batgirl! We're doin' this thing! We ended up in an AirBnB in the Bywater district that provided sweet cruiser bikes for us. We spent the evening riding around the French Quarter. Kyle discovered beignets! (I wasn't about to skip Cafe Du Monde!) He also experienced the chaos that is Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. Even for a fraternity guy, his eyes almost fell out of his head...! We drank Hurricanes of course and ate shrimp creole. And not to mention... fried alligator. Delicious. The weather was spectacular and we finished with a ride down Frenchman Street. A great first night to kick off the trip.

 

Tomorrow? We're headed deep into the heart of Texas ;)

May 8. Excerpt from my journal:

 

New Orleans --> Dallas

 

We had some lovely scenic driving through deep Louisiana. Saw a sign for "cajun cracklins" and could not resist stopping to try them at the Specialty Meat Market. Had no idea what they were, but we were totally game! They were delicious. And we also had the best jerky we've ever tasted. I gawked at the market's full stock of country meats: alligator fillets, chicken hearts, crawfish, frog legs, etc. A fun and memorable stop.

 

We hit TX and wow. Just gorgeous. Prairies and grasslands. Real tumbleweeds. Windy as hell. We weren't afraid to take a few back roads, probably onto private farms, but hey ask forgiveness, not permission ;)

 

Arrived in Dallas where our cousin, Zack, lives. He took us to a rooftop bar where we could see the Dallas skyline and drink Manhattans.  The evening ended with a dreamy thunderstorm. Amazing. What a trip so far.

May 9. Excerpt from my journal:

 

Dallas --> Palo Duro

 

We hit 1,000 miles today!

 

Again, TX is beautiful. Stopped a whole lot for photos and scenic gazing. Trespassed on an oil field because life's too short? Watched the wells pumping. Kinda mesmerizing. 

 

We arrived at Palo Duro, the second biggest canyon in the states, and it literally drops out of nowhere. What a spectacular sight! Our stone cabin sits at the bottom of the canyon and has views of the canyon walls all around. I cooked up some chili for us and we went looking for a trail to hike at sunset. Couldn't find the one we wanted so in Kyle Saunders fashion we bushwhacked our way up a hill and scrambled over some boulders. Found ourselves a nice little peak to watch the sun drop. We saw a big buck and some cute rabbits. Roadrunners everywhere! Game night playing dice under the stars. We couldn't help being a little skittish though with noises in the bushes ;) "Is that a bobcat?" And the wind blew mercilessly through the creaky cabin all night. I feel super alive.

 

May 10. Excerpt from my journal:

 

Day in Palo Duro.

Total Hiking Mileage: 9.5 miles

 

We hiked from the bottom to the rim of the canyon on the Rock Garden Trail. About 6 miles up and back. Views the whole damn way. Just breathtaking. Saw bright blue-collared lizards and an indigo bunting and a red-tailed hawk. Even a Palo Duro mouse! We got to the top and WOAH. Never seen anything like it. We ate lunch at the top. I yelled at the top of my lungs out into the canyon and the canyon yelled back, "What a life!"

 

Took a long rest in the afternoon and set out for an evening trek to an outcropping called "the lighthouse." We reached the 2 mile-marker on the trail and could see it in the distance. Both of us at the same time turned to the other and said, "Close enough!" and we turned around and headed home, HA. Totally wiped out. 

May 11 &12. Excerpt from my journal:

 

Palo Duro --> Arboles, CO

We made it to Southern Colorado. Our drive was another jaw-dropping one. It's amazing how quickly the landscapes change. And the climate too! We are absolutely FREEZING in Colorado. Did not pack enough warm clothes, but we're making do and loving the views from our tent. We hiked in the national forest today and got to see the snow-covered Rockies. We also ran into a few friends: snakes, etc. No bears so far.

This evening we had planned to cook over a fire, but with the wind blowing the heat over the fire our chicken kabobs wouldn't cook all the way through. We had our first sibling spat over what to do about it, but it wasn't really a fight. Considering the bickering we did in our childhood, we're getting along great. We're going to bed a little hungry tonight, but headed to Lake Powell and Glen Canyon tomorrow. Warmer weather awaits us.

May 13. Excerpt from my journal:

 

Colorado --> Lake Powell/Glen Canyon

It was a memorable day here on Lake Powell. We arrived at our camping spot with the sun blazing. Immediately we went swimming to cool off. I set up the tent with sand stakes and anchors. This process takes much longer than setting the tent with normal stakes and Kyle had a lot to say about this. Complained about how long it was taking. But I had read about the random sandstorms that can happen on Lake Powell in May and I wasn't taking any chances. Well... not ten minutes after I had set the tent, a raging sandstorm came through. We tried to shield ourselves behind the tent, but it didn't do much to prevent wind and sand from stinging our skin and getting in our eyes. After the storm passed, ours was one of two tents still standing out of about 35 on the beach. "I told you so!!!" I yelled at my brother. He rolled his eyes and muttered a thank you as we watched several jet skis chasing their tents that had blown across the lake. 

After that sandstorm, the wind never really dissipated. In fact, steady winds increased throughout the day. By dusk, we were one of two parties remaining on the beachfront campsite. Everyone else had given up and gone home. The conditions were miserable, but being a poor graduate student at the time, a campsite was the only option for us. The sand was so fine that the wind was blowing it straight into the tent through the screens. Small dunes were forming over our sleeping bags, and I'm not exaggerating. We made every effort to block the sand from coming in. We built a small wall of sand around the rainfly to no avail. We sat in the tent playing games and watching sand whirling into the tent, filling our cans of beer. Not much conversation. We were very uncomfortable. Then, suddenly we both burst into laughter as we cried at the same time. "I can't believe we're doing this." At this point, the winds were blowing so hard that the windward side of the tent was caving in a bit and bending back the tent rods. As we cry-laughed and sipped sandy beer, I knew we had to get out of there. We hatched a plan to break down the tent in the relentless wind, keeping the tent from blowing into the lake. We decided to hotel hop and beg for someone to take us in.

We made our first stop at a Best Western where they told us it would be $359 for a night. Sand was falling off of us in the lobby and I could tell the attendant felt bad for us. She couldn't reach her manager to approve a lower rate, so she called all the other hotels in town for us. Either everyone was full, or no one could offer us a lower rate. I almost cried thinking of us setting our tent back up in the winds and now in the dark. We walked to the car, brainstorming our options, when the attendant came running out yelling, "How about $109?!" Abso-freaking-lutely. 

We made our way to the hotel pool and jumped in. Pounds of sand fell off us. It was in our ears and hair and everywhere else you can imagine!

 

We are SO thankful to have a resting place for the night. We hope the winds die down for tomorrow because I can't afford another night in the hotel. But one step at a time... We have a hike through Antelope Canyon in the morning.

May 14. Excerpt from my journal:

 

There are no words for how beautiful and humbling the canyon was. We were thankful to have a tour guide who taught us the history of the land and point out different animals and plants. 

In the afternoon, we hiked to Horseshoe Bend. Again, speechless. This country is beyond beautiful. The drop was frighteningly high and I kept my distance, but Kyle was brave enough to stand at the edge. 

Tonight we are in the tent with the wind, but it has died down a great deal since last night. We have blocked the wind with the car, which sort of works, and we are making do. Tomorrow we head to Zion National Park. 

May 15-17. Excerpt from my journal:

 

Lake Powell/Glen Canyon --> Zion National Park

It was a very restless night of sleep in our tent. In addition to the howling weather, we are pretty sure we had a lurker around the tent checking us out. Sometimes people are worse than the forces of mother nature. But not to worry anymore, we've made it to Zion!!

Kyle and I got up before sunrise to pack up our sand-filled tent and rush over to find a campsite. There weren't any reservations for tents available when I booked the trip, so we knew we'd have to fight for a spot.

Our drive into the canyon was literally jaw dropping. We hardly spoke as we smashed our cheeks against the windows to see the peaks towering over us. Along the way, we passed a cyclist on the thin, curvy roads and remarked at the courage and commitment it took to cycle into Zion. Admittedly, we also giggled, "Glad that's not us!" We arrived at the first come, first served camping site only to find out we were 34th in line for a spot. Misery! Where would we stay?! We kept our cool and parked the car in line. I noticed another cyclist was right behind us, 35th in line. We struck up a conversation with her. I talked about my art and she shared some wonderful watercolor drawings with me. She told me she painted one every day. I loved them! They were intimate, subtle. The nuances and tiny beautiful moments found in the everyday mundanities of life. My favorite kind of art! She said her name was Victoria and told me she was spending a year traveling on bikes with her partner, Ollie. (How freakin cool is that!) They were here visiting from Australia. We lightheartedly commiserated over the stress of finding a place to sleep and camp. She mentioned that her partner was at the next campsite down the road looking for a spot too. A moment later, he biked up to us (it was the man we passed coming into the park!!) and, out of breath, exclaimed that a ranger offered him the LAST SPOT at the other site. He motioned at Victoria to follow and she said, "Only if my friends can come too!" And pointed to me and my brother. We were moved!

We spent three days camping together, eating s'mores, attempting jiffy pop over a fire and sharing stories. They got engaged on a peak by asking *each other* in a super cool, understated, but very romantic way that made my heart explode inside my chest!! 

Kyle and I got to do some incredible hiking. Zion looks like Jurassic Park. It's unreal. We had a small argument when Kyle wanted to hike the Subway (a hike requiring a permit because it is in a flash flood zone) on a day that called for 50% of precipitation. I was so worried he'd get caught in a flood! But ultimately, he makes his own decisions, right? We separated for the day, while he did the Subway and I hiked my first solo hike. I finished my hike just before a big rainstorm came through. Naturally, I was worried sick about my little brother. I went to a bar and drank a beer while watching the radar on my phone and convincing myself he was going to get trapped. (I'm so dramatic sometimes!) But he arrived safely back at the campsite, having done a very difficult hike all on his own. The hike is estimated to take 8 hours and he did it in 5!!! I was very impressed. (Kyle you are a badass.)

The next day we hiked Angel's Landing together. Admittedly, this is one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. The last mile or so of the hike is a "trail" (more like scrambling over rocks) with drops on both sides over 1,000 feet!! There were many people on the trail, which felt more dangerous than the drops. It started raining and the sandy rocks were slick under foot. But the views made it all worth it. What a life!!!

Zion is our last hiking spot. We head to Las Vegas next where Kyle will fly home and I'll head to my art residency in Southern California. It's been a fantastic trip and I'm very grateful I got to see so much of the country with my brother. 

KATHLEEN

SAUNDERS