A Southwest Road Trip for the Soul

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As much as I love traveling to foreign countries and getting new stamps in my passport, my wanderlust spirit does not have to go far to be wowed. America truly has a wide variety to offer, including not only famous cities but also a phenomenal National Park Service that grants us access to our many incredible forests, deserts, historical areas, and natural wonders. I have done quite a bit of traveling within the U.S. (my favorite cities include New Orleans, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, my beloved hometown of Washington, D.C., and of course, my amazing new home in Honolulu) and there is still so much more I have yet to experience. I often think to myself from the perspective of a foreigner, and if I were from another country and visiting the U.S., I don’t even know where I’d start! Think about it – we really have it going on! There are endless things to see and do all within our own backyard.

While other modes of transportation, such as air, may be more convenient and preferred, there is still nothing like a good road trip. One of the best things about this country is that many fabulous destinations are within short distances of each other, so you can hit multiple landmarks in one shot. That is exactly why the American road trip is such a treasured pastime for so many adventurers. There is something about the open road and the freedom that comes with it that is healing, especially for us free spirits. I am a firm believer that human beings have an inherent desire to wander and explore our incredible planet. In addition to being fun and teaching us some of the most valuable lessons in life, more importantly, this is how we become more grounded and connected to the earth we inhabit. Not only that, but it will make you appreciate how awesome our country truly is.

As much as I love living in Hawaii, that is the one thing lacking here. Road trips are not an option when you live on a tiny island like Oahu, since I can’t drive for more than an hour without eventually driving my car into the ocean. So I can completely understand why so many people claim they get island fever here. While I am totally satisfied with the endless adventures Hawaii offers me, I can admit that I did begin to miss being able to get up and go. Being from the east coast, I used to take advantage of this all the time. I would drive up to NYC almost every weekend at one point, and even took 10+ hour road trips all the way to Chicago and Toronto. As long as I had good music and good company, I actually enjoyed those road trips. But I never realized until I moved from the mainland to Hawaii how much I took them for granted.

Something about a road trip in the Southwest specifically allured me and has always been calling my soul ever since I can remember. Earlier this year, I realized the nagging urge was stronger than ever. Maybe it was from listening to too much Queens of the Stone Age. But something just kept telling me that driving from Vegas to the Grand Canyon would be badass. Not only in a rock star kind of way but in a spiritually liberating way. I had been fantasizing about going on this trip for years and I could never figure out why I wanted it so bad, but I was determined.

Well, this past May, I finally made it happen and got to check this bucket list item off my list. A good friend and I left Hawaii for a week of road tripping from Nevada to Arizona. It was definitely an amazing and memorable experience. However, it certainly was NOT what I expected in a lot of ways….

And so the adventure begins…

Our itinerary began with flying overnight from Honolulu to Las Vegas, having breakfast, and then beginning the four hour journey to the Grand Canyon as our first destination. We upgraded our rental car to a luxurious Volvo in order to maximize our comfort for the 10+ hours of driving ahead of us. At first, it started out great. Probably because we were so excited and pumped up with adrenaline. We decided to go at a leisurely pace and make stops wherever we saw fit, since there are several famous landmarks on the way or shortly off the path. We ended up stopping at Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam for some fantastic photo opportunities. Then we just wanted to get the rest of the trip out of the way, so we hit the road.

The incredible Hoover Dam
The incredible Hoover Dam

It seemed to take much longer than four hours. It felt like it would never end. Plus, the desert wasn’t exactly what I pictured it to be. There was very little awe-inspiring scenery along the way. Unlike other road trips I’ve been on where you want to stop and take pictures of beautiful sights, it was actually a pretty dull and boring drive. It also poured down rain for part of the ride, and since I hate driving in the rain, I was not a happy road tripper. There were little towns here and there, some of which freaked me out because they looked creepy enough to be something out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Needless to say, I could not wait to arrive at our destination and was going well above the speed limit to get there as quickly as possible.

What most of the drive looked like... nothing exciting
What most of the drive looked like… nothing exciting
The mean rainstorm during our drive
The mean rainstorm during our drive

About 40 minutes before arriving at the Grand Canyon, I needed to stop and use the restroom. We walked into a McDonalds and I ordered a coffee and French fries, then we took a seat to stretch out and relax for a bit. I cannot even describe what an uncomfortable experience that turned out to be. I did not expect two Hispanic women such as ourselves to stand out in a place where I assumed I would see many Native Americans, but we sure did. Every single person in that restaurant was gawking at us with hostility and giving us dirty looks. We were just waiting for someone to ask, “why are you here?” because it was clear we were NOT welcome. I have never experienced anything like that in my life. It was actually pretty scary. I have heard there is a lot of racism in Arizona, but it still blew my mind. We ended up rushing out of there and getting back on the road, eager to arrive safely at our hotel room and to put the strange day behind us.

Not exactly what we had imagined…

Finally, we arrived at our destination: Grand Canyon Village, which rests on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. While planning this trip, I was pretty disappointed at the selection of lodging options there. However, I was pretty pleased with our hotel, the Best Western. It was older and outdated (as with everything in the entire town), but it was comfortable, clean, and put us in the perfect location to explore what we came to see.

One thing we were not at all prepared for was the weather. I specifically chose to go in May because, based on my research, it was supposed to be pretty mild in comparison to the harsh winters and scorching summers. However, during this particular May, they were experiencing a longer stretch of winter so the temperatures were in the 40’s (which equates to below freezing when you’re coming from Hawaii). We totally did not pack accordingly. This really took away from our time there, as we only wanted to be outside during the hotter daytime hours and were miserably cold during the evenings. Definitely a lesson learned to pack for the worst and to be more prepared for unusual weather circumstances like this.

Another disappointment was the Grand Canyon Village itself. It’s almost as if you’ve stepped back in time since everything seemed to be in need of some updating. Not that we were expecting an upscale experience, but… Goodness sakes. We did not experience any more overt racism thankfully, but no one was particularly friendly or helpful. We did not have a single meal worth raving about, which is a big deal for a foodie like me. While there were plenty of shopping opportunities for Native American jewelry, art and souvenirs, everything was grossly overpriced and not one single Native person was there to sell it themselves. So the whole thing felt very unauthentic and seemed like blatant exploitation of Native culture. Since I am mixed with Native American and a very strong proponent for Native peoples and their rights, it just didn’t sit too well with me and really put a damper on my experience.

The Grand Canyon itself made up for everything. It is just as incredible as everyone says. No photo could ever do the grandeur and vastness of it any justice. It’s just something everyone needs to experience for themselves and it should absolutely be on every bucket list ever made. The park is very well maintained and organized, with an easy to use and inexpensive shuttle system that will transport you to different viewing points, trails, and tourist areas. It’s perfect for those who love to hike, bike, camp, or just appreciate nature. We did do some hiking on the South Kaibab trail, which was pretty steep coming back up but fairly easy. The Canyon is absolutely stunning, especially when you are a mile deep into it and still looking out trying to comprehend how our planet can be so gorgeous. Sunsets at the different viewing areas were absolutely magical. And that’s just the South Rim. The entire Canyon is unimaginably huge and deeply humbling. Despite all the disappointments, there were no regrets for us. We were incredibly grateful to be able to visit a place like this. At the same time, we were equally grateful when the time came to head to our next destination.

The Grand Canyon, which is absolutely breathtaking
The Grand Canyon, which is absolutely breathtaking
A picture perfect sunset begins at the Grand Canyon
A picture perfect sunset begins at the Grand Canyon

Right outside of the Grand Canyon Village area, we found a real Native American store set up in a teepee, where I got some pretty cool items to take home. I was very thankful that I waited to buy my souvenirs until I found the right place where Natives would directly benefit from the sales. I know not everyone is as culturally-sensitive and pro-Native as I am, but I would hope that others would try to do the same. This land belongs to the Natives and is particularly sacred to them. It’s important that we respect this and try to give back to them and their communities whenever possible, rather than add profits for the companies and individuals who exploit the Southwest tribes as a tourist gimmick. End rant.

Native teepees
Native teepees

On the bright side…

Next on the itinerary was a two hour drive to Sedona. What a difference. This shorter drive was much more bearable, not to mention more scenic. As we were driving into the city of Sedona, the energy just felt much better. It was energizing, inviting, oh and the weather was divine. Just what we needed after a few cold days spent somewhere where we felt out of place. You can read more details on my Sedona trip here. We could not have enjoyed our stay there any more. In fact, we wished we had more time to spend there. Although it is not as famous as the Grand Canyon, it’s a pretty well-known place for the spiritually inclined and new age crowds. It was an absolute delight.

The drive into Sedona blew us away with its beauty!
The drive into Sedona blew us away…

After two days in Sedona, it was time for the final leg of our road trip, driving four hours from Sedona back to Las Vegas. With a JLO concert that evening as our motivation to haul ass up the road and make it in time, the trip was less grueling than the way out. We had some mixed experiences on the trip so far and were pretty exhausted, but mostly we were ready to go let loose and have some fun for a couple days in Sin City. I was also particularly ready to get a break from all the driving.

Vegas is one place that is always guaranteed to be a good time. This was definitely a good finale for the trip. We went to some awesome shows, shopped, visited different casinos, hit the pool at our hotel, ate VERY good (this is one of my favorite cities ever for dining), and of course the rest will stay in Vegas, as they say.

So, was it everything I ever dreamed it would be?

As I look back, this was a pretty epic trip. Not only because I made great memories with my friend, got to explore nature, felt spiritually enriched, and experienced many new things, but because it didn’t go exactly as I planned, and that in itself taught me a very valuable lesson. No matter how much planning and researching you do, sometimes the places you go will still be nothing like you expect or you just won’t enjoy them as much as you thought you would.  And that is okay. You live and you learn. I also believe that if you’re like me and you fall in love with almost every place you visit, then your expectations tend to get set pretty high, which makes it inevitable that you’ll be disappointed here and there. That still doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy yourself or gain something out of the experience. Would I road trip in the Southwest region and visit the Grand Canyon again? Yes, absolutely! Just with some blankets and pepper spray in tow this time.

 

As I discovered, a road trip requires the perfect combination of preparation and planning along with spontaneity and flexibility. Sounds conflicting and complicated, but it’s actually not.

Here is my best advice on this for anyone curious about embarking on a similar adventure:

–         Do the exploring yourself. There are many companies that offer guided tours but any of these national parks and road trip destinations can totally be done on your own for far less money and far more fun. There are so many resources out there to help you plan it out, but the best part is figuring a lot of it out when you get there.

–         Keep it simple. All you really need is a GPS and a rental car. You do not need to have every minute planned. When road tripping, half of the fun is going with the flow and making stops whenever something catches your eye, even if it’s a little out of the way.

–          Be realistic about time. Allow your self plenty of it. Tight schedules are a bad idea for road trips, since not only will you make unexpected stops, but driving can be exhausting and you will want to give yourself ample time to rest before and afterwards.

–         Cover your bases. While you definitely want to wing it for a lot of your road trip, make sure you do have some necessary arrangements lined up in advance. It’s not like the good old days with vacancy signs out front, where you could usually find something available. These days, things book up quickly and when they are available last minute, the price reflects. At my hotel in Sedona, I literally watched a couple get offered a room at triple the rate I paid, and because they were desperate with nowhere to go, they took it. I don’t know about you, but I try to be frugal when I travel. So I always prefer to have hotels and rental cars reserved far in advance to avoid being overcharged or ending up in a situation where I have nowhere to stay at all, which is my biggest nightmare.

–         Be prepared. As you hopefully learned from my mistakes, it pays to pack sufficiently so you’re ready for any possible scenario. I will never again go anywhere without packing a jacket, just in case.

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