Crossing USA: Las Vegas, Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands

At the time of writing, I am sitting in a sardine can-like airplane, beside the cutest redhead who is actively trying to look disinterested. I couldn’t blame her, I reek of sweat and overtime underwear.
Laundry and showers are one of the many luxuries we had to leave behind when we started this trip, alongside any means of electronic communication. Most of the campsites we’ve been to were pretty bare-bones, without running water or electricity. Luckily, they were nothing compared to a week in Black Rock Desert so we’re well-equipped.

Las Vegas, on the other hand.
We stayed in a place called Cat Hostel because it had a good online rating, and it was close to the city center, aka The Strip. Little did we know, its primary function is to serve as a crashing pad for perpetually partying 30-something adults, at least one of which had been living there for 2 years. Others, several weeks.
They had acquired jobs and spent their days getting shit-faced at the hostel before going out, to return late in the day with a face full of coke but no memory of the night before. It was their daily routine, and they slept in the same dorms as us.

We went out on the first night for dinner, which I reluctantly agreed to because it was Linh’s last night with us. We managed to find a place that wasn’t either a scam (though they tried) or a fast-food place (though they tried), but the waitress’ skirts easily blocked the establishment from pretending to uphold any sort of class. Though I must say, I had a soft spot for the dominatrix-type wine specialist.

My friends tried to drag me off to the casinos after that and I intended to come with, but halfway across the parking lot, I felt my heart sink. Looking around, I was beginning to realize, I hated what I saw. Deeply. And that feeling only got worse after I apologized and started my journey back to the hostel.
Las Vegas is a place where everything is for sale, but nothing holds value. It’s a city were minds come to die. The nickname ‘Sin City’ suggests that it has some charm at least, some content, but it does not. Nothing good will ever come from Las Vegas.

I spent the rest of my stay taking care of practical stuff. There was one time where we introduced some Australian to the card game ‘Munchkin’ but otherwise, I avoided contact with the idiots hogging the public spaces. With every passing minute, I felt more detached from my surroundings, and the more I wanted to leave.

Dieter had managed to cut his hand quite badly at Death Valley, and despite my best efforts, it was in danger of getting infected. I was poorly equipped and frankly, incompetent to handle the problem, and we had to take it to a doctor on our day of departure. More than 6 hours we spent at that fucking whorehouse, 4 of which we sat and waited while watching druggies get arrested, 90 minutes handling financial details, and between all that, we got to talk to a doctor for about half an hour. And here’s the treatment they gave him: A bandage and a prescription for antibiotics. By the time we left, I was seething and starting to fail in my knightly attempts to hide it.

But Las Vegas wasn’t ready to let us go. We spent another hour waiting at the biggest pharmacy in the fucking world, for what assume was the brewing of the concoction because they never actually told us why. By the time we actually got to leave the city, which we had planned on before noon, it was dark.
Granted, the city looked quite spectacular from a distance. The little lights made it seem like the whole area had burned to the ground and there were only embers left, with a few towers sticking out, like stakes, for the ritual burning of heretics.
I liked it.

With Linh and her relatively low tolerance for our mess gone, the car soon turned into a car’s interpretation of a bachelor’s apartment. With ice tea cans littering the floor and underwear (clean) in the ‘hygiene’ bag, we weren’t in danger of scoring chicks with a guiding glance towards the improvised paint job meant to cover up our encounter with a road sign.
It was safe to say, her absence was felt from day 1, for a myriad of reasons.

Since we only reached Zion around midnight, the campsites were already fully taken- which tends to happen by noon already. We had to settle for a site outside the park, which actually turned out to be a pretty awesome place. I’d recommend it but I forget the name.
We half-assed out tent down and slept in the main compartment, loose tarp flapping around us. I nearly froze that night and couldn’t care less.

Expectations were high for Zion, and mine were easily met. We chose to check out Angel’s Landing, partly because it was dangerous as fuck, with several people dying each year. Finally, a bit of a challenge.
We chose well: The trail leads over a very narrow ridge with vertical cliffs on either side. A chain is there for you to hold on to but if you’re lugging a DSLR around, you may as well have no arms.
The end point, “fit for angels to land” according to some guy supposedly important, is seriously impressive. It’s a 360° view of the canyon looping around it, and with the red rock everywhere, it is gorgeous.

“Watch this,” I nudged my friend upon returning to our abomination of a tent. “We put down our tent too close to the fire pit so we’ll have a convenient excuse to go sit over there.” We didn’t even have to bother, the two girls called us over and started asking us all about the things we had done that day, trying to decide where to go later. A Dutch accent is hard to hide so before long, we continued in our mother tongue.
We managed to friendzone ourselves pretty much instantly by pulling our our deck of Munchkin cards, but still had a good time staying a day extra hiking The Narrows with them, wading through a river upstream into the canyons. Impressive but repetitive.

We would try to meet them at Bryce the next day but it didn’t turn out that way, leaving plenty of time for our bromance to develop as we got lost (literally) between the rock spires of the park.
Same as Zion, but different. Each park is unique in its own way- Where Zion had beautiful, immense stone facades, Bryce is fragmented into towers that stand away from the side of the mountain. It’s as if with each step towards the east, we were witnessing a further decline of the mountains, as they broke into pieces of the years and eventually came down from erosion of water, wind and humans. This is unique in the world, and truly fascinating to see.

Our intention was to see Arches National Park before meeting a friend in Canyonlands, but as we sat down and counted our remaining hours before our flight to New York, we realized how few they were. Instead, we camped at a site near the park, and did some night photography while it was free to enter. The combination of stars, rock formations, passing headlights and the moonrise, gave us some stunning shots, unlike anything I’ve done before. I’m sure you’ll find them on the Tumblr site in October.

As our neighbors arrived at the campsite in their tiny RV, I immediately noticed a familiar accent: They were from our home town. We got to talking and soon, we had made a few friends.
So when we had ourselves installed at Willow Flat in Canyonlands Park and ran into them at the visitor center, we offered them to share our space since the park was pretty much full. After our American friends joined us there as well, we had quite the family around the table, eating and drinking and joking around until the late night noise complaints came rolling in.

In fact, Canyonlands itself was one of the highlights of the trip. While not as well known as Yosemite or Zion, it definitely has a different but arguably even more spectacular landscape. The viewpoint near Willow Flat gives you a baffling view of a place shaped by giants, where you can see the earth’s crust give way under millions of years of erosion and expose its brittle layers. You expect to see herds of dinosaurs in the far distance, but no animal larger than a mountain lion lives there- the only thing close are the lizards scurrying away before your feet.
See Canyonlands if you can but beware: The park is divided into 2 passable areas, with a detour of over 150km in between. Do not confuse them, or you’ll have to drive all the way back to Arches to get cell phone reception and communicate your mistake because it is too late to pack up and try the other sites. There goes another 5 hours.

To our frustration, we had to pack up early the next day.
If there’s anything I could go back and change, it would be our time management. I’d drop Yosemite and definitely Las Vegas, and perhaps even drive straight from Black Rock City without turning back to San Francisco like we did. Having to leave each park without even properly seeing it was my biggest regret, although I was getting addicted to this nomadic life. The stress of finding a campsite in time changed the trip for the worse, fed by our inability to get up before 9am.
The parks’ popularity is to blame for that, but there’s nothing you can do. The accommodation is as well thought out as it could be, and the uniform organization of each park makes them easy to navigate. This is very different from European parks, where you’re pretty much on your own and spontaneous plan changes come with a batch of inconveniences.

I wish we had more time to look for the spots not riddled with tourists, though. With with literally not an hour to spare, we couldn’t just start driving through Colorado in search of pretty mountains. Perhaps next time, when we’ll have even more than 5 weeks to muck around?


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