I had to make a decision quickly. It was 3:15 a.m. on New Year's Eve, I was still more than four hours from home, and the strangest weather conditions I had ever experienced were getting worse by the minute. Do I ride out the storm at this gas station, or continue the last leg of my journey and risk getting caught in what I can only describe as the most unlikely mix of fog and freezing rain?
After considering everything, including the likelihood of my body even being able to rest after taking a heavy dose of 5-Hour Energy, I chose to keep driving into the night. Even through stretches of limited visibility and being the only car on the road, it felt like the right thing to do.
Thankfully, I made it home safely, despite having to trek the final 25 miles on incredibly icy roads that were not kind to some other drivers. I was shaking from being nervous for hours. I was exhausted, but wide awake. Above all, I was relieved to be back in my own home after nine days and nearly 3,500 miles on the road. It felt only fitting that I cap off the biggest adventure I've ever had with the most treacherous and exhilarating nine hours of my life.
The Journey Begins
I left Fort Worth on December 23rd and did not intend to return until after New Years. Ten days to get away and disconnect. The first day's drive was going to be the longest, a 9.5-hour trek to make a pit stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
From there, I set out for remote Utah to the first big stop of the trip, a place that had been on my list since childhood...
Monument Valley, Utah
I remember seeing an image growing up, probably in a travel magazine or down a typical internet rabbit hole, that became ingrained in my mind. It was a picture of a long, narrow desert road that cut through enormous jagged rock formations, rocks arranged in such an artistic way that I thought I was looking at a painting. The title read "Monument Valley".
I didn't know where this place was, I didn't know how I would get there, but I knew that I had to see it for myself one day.
Years later, on a chilly December morning in a remote slice of southeast Utah, I'm sitting on top of my car watching the sun rise onto the place from the picture. It's all there, just like it was all those years ago: the road, the rock formations (which I come to learn are called buttes) and the surrounding desolate desert.
I'm noticing the little details that I couldn't get from just the picture. The road, while sitting in a far removed part of the country, is well kept, like it had been paved the day before. There's a silence that's almost ominous. No cars are in sight this early.
I walk onto the pavement, look out and that old picture flashes before me; it's as if I'm standing in the exact spot in which it was taken. Time had passed, and I was a completely different person. But in that moment, even for a split second, I felt like the bright-eyed child many years ago filled with wonder.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
I let out a loud "Oh my God!" as I passed the front gates of Grand Canyon National Park and the vast natural wonder came into view for the first time. As I walked the trails along the edge of the cliffs, I stopped on several occasions and spent a lot of time just...looking. Staring. Being awestruck by the most majestic piece of nature I had ever laid eyes on.
The picture below is definitely the most exhilarating photograph I've taken. After setting my camera down on the edge of a cliff, where a strong gust of wind could've sent it tumbling down, I climbed down 15 feet onto a rock that stuck out of the wall like a tongue. Legs shaking, I approached the edge. There was nothing more below. One false step would've sent me flying thousands of feet down. But I had to do it. I had come all this way. Why not let the adrenaline flow?
Los Angeles, California
Spend enough time sitting in rush hour traffic and you'll probably see your share of nice sunsets. Spend enough time flying and you'll get to appreciate sunsets from a whole new perspective. But take a drive west on the 10 and, if you approach the Coachella Valley at just the right time, you'll see the most beautiful sunset over the San Jacinto Mountains on your left.
I don't mean to be hyperbolic…maybe a better way to put it is: The most beautiful sunset I've ever seen was in southern California. The way the evening sun hit the clouds that day created incredibly striking shades of red, orange and purple. Even after the sun escaped from sight behind the peaks, the colorful hues continued to linger.
My impression of southern California had been shaped only through television, movies and music. So as I drove through Beverly Hills with Weezer playing, and cruised down the 101 at sunset listening to Kendrick and Kanye, I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the cliché. But LA is where cliché thrives, a land of dreamers yearning to make it big.
Closing It Out
If this trip was about living outside of my comfort zone, it saved the best for the way back. After two days in Los Angeles, I made the 7.5-hour journey to Tucson, Arizona. I intended to spend two nights there to avoid back-to-back travel days, but a sudden change in plans had me back on the road 14 hours after my arrival.
The drive from Tucson to Santa Fe, New Mexico is listed as 7.5 hours, nowhere near the longest I've driven in one day. But after eight days, thousands of miles and several nights of poor rest, my mind and body were giving out. I was forced to stop for a while at a rest area because there was a legitimate fear of falling asleep at the wheel.
Exhausted and delirious, I met my friend Jake (who was on the final leg of his own west coast trip) for dinner in Santa Fe. We had intended to spend the night and drive refreshed back home, but we both found ourselves restless (and found Santa Fe unappealing); suddenly, the most tempting option was to begin the nine-hour home stretch at 10 p.m.
Between leaving Tucson and arriving home, some 1,100 miles, I did not sleep at all. It wasn't cool, it was actually incredibly reckless. Had I known just how treacherous the conditions would get, I wouldn't have even tried it.
These nine days were some of the most introspective times I've had. I spent countless hours reflecting on the toughest year of my life, on good times and bad, on the people who had the greatest impact on me. I saw places and things with my own eyes that I had only ever seen through someone else's. I passed time on the long drives calling my best friends; what was originally going to be a trip that allowed me to disconnect from the world that was bringing me so much hardship turned into a trip that instead let me reconnect with the people who bring me the most joy.
I set out with three main goals: reflect, take pictures and bring back a story. I'm fortunate to say I accomplished them all.