Coast to coast on a budget.

Driving across America is one of  things which you have to try at least once in your life. I did it in 2001 during my first visit to USA. After working for three months in Disney World it was time for my first real taste how huge America really is. There was five of us and after some haggling and negotiations we decided to go all the way to San Francisco, even if initial plans were only about Grand Canyon.

With the travel plans sorted, the trip budget became our biggest worry. To cut the cost we rented a big car (big to fit five of us, our luggage and all the shopping done at Disney) but not a SUV. To cut the costs even more we decided not to stay in motels but to camp instead. We bought two of the cheapest tents, and five thin foam mattresses (even cheaper) in Wal-Mart.

After fitting all this stuff and our luggage in the car (not an easy task) we finally started our journey on a beautiful September morning. The first day we just drove on, and on, and on, all the way to Louisiana. It took us the big part of this first day to find out the best configuration of people, luggage and food inside the car. We also found what the best sitting position is if you spend 10 hours in a car. They were all very useful discoveries for the future. The first evening we also learned how to open our too small, too thin tents and how uncomfortable the thin foam mattresses were. On the other hand we also discovered that it doesn’t really matter if you are tired.
On the next day, after a short drive, we reached New Orleans. The Big Easy. It wasn’t really on my list of priorities, but I was positively surprised. The city center is very compact and the best way to explore it is by foot. The French Quarter has still a strong European feel: French street names, tables on the sidewalks opposite the cafés, horse carriages for tourists and generally the relaxed atmosphere. But for me, the best thing was the architecture. New Orleans is full of one or two stories buildings with beautiful wrought iron balconies. They look great, even if some of them are not really in the best condition. In fact the shabby ones looked even better. And they look absolutely fantastic on a rainy day. We had to hide under one of these balconies, from the afternoon thunderstorm. It was one of those small and quiet side streets and we had an amazing time watching the rain.

Unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to enjoy the legendary nightlife of New Orleans as the west coast was still far away. We left the city early in the evening and took the Interstate 10. During the entire trip we never really planned where to stop for a night, we just looked for signs posting campgrounds. That evening we couldn’t find any. So, in an act of desperation we stopped by the sheriff’s office in some god forgotten town and asked for directions to the nearest campground. Folks over there were really friendly, though they didn’t know any campground around, they recommended us simply to stop on the rest area alongside a highway. At the same time they also told us it is illegal to camp overnight on the rest areas in Louisiana. Hmm. Fortunately one of the deputies knew that it is legal in Texas. So we kept on driving west. Finally, around midnight or so, we reached the first rest area in the Lonely Star State, Texas.

Texas is big, very big. The first thing that stroke us in the morning, was the amount of the pickup trucks on the roads. It seemed like everyone, even mothers driving kids to schools, drove a truck. Then there are the roads. Enormous, multilane rivers of concrete, especially around the big cities. But fortunately it is just one part of the Texas experience. An even bigger part of the Texas experience is the landscape. When you move from east to west you notice a gradual change from the lush, green, flat landscape of marshes and forests, through the hilly and green pastures to prairies and finally deserts. It took us more than a day to cross Texas, without even much stopping. We started in the early (kind of) morning from this first rest area in Texas and by the night we were somewhere in the middle of the desert in western Texas. There we spend night on some very remote and small campground. It was an amazing experience. Because evening was warm we didn’t use our “fantastic” tents. Instead we decided to sleep under the open sky. I have never seen so many stars before. The reason was remoteness of the campground (no light pollution) and the dry desert air.

The next day we stopped in El Paso. It is a relatively big city isolated from the rest of Texas by hundreds of miles of deserts and mountains. We would never stopped there but we wanted to visit Mexico and El Paso is good place for a short visit. Its bigger counterpart is Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican side of the border. We left the car on the US side and walked across the border bridge. I have to admit it was a bit of a depressing experience. The border was heavily guarded, especially because it was just two days after September 11. Once in Mexico it seemed like everyone tried to sell us something, mostly rubbish, at ridiculous price. We came back after just two hours. Probably further from the border things get better but we couldn’t drive our rented car into Mexico. Anyway it is better to avoid Ciudad Juarez as it is now a battlefield between the Mexican police and the drug cartels.

West of El Paso we entered New Mexico, another state alongside our route, where we spent another night on some remote campground. The following day was another day of desert driving as we left New Mexico and entered Arizona. It is a truly remote corner of the US. It is effectively just a desert crossed by the highway. Only a few small towns exist between Las Cruces (New Mexico state capital just 40 miles west from El Paso) and Tucson in Arizona. Some could say it must be a boring long drive. No way!! The landscape around is absolutely jaw dropping. It is a geology class without a need for books or maps. There is also this almost transcendental feel of going west towards the setting sun. It is a bit annoying from the driver’s perspective but it is just a minor problem.

After Phoenix we turned north towards the Grand Canyon. Nothing prepares you for its sheer size. You could see it many times on a TV, you can know all its statistics, and you might even say you are completely not interested in nature. It simply doesn’t matter. Once you stay on its edge and look down, you will be impressed. And you will remember this moment for many, many years.

Due to the high elevation you actually drive through the dense pine forest. You are not aware of the Canyon until the very last moment when the road ends, and there it is. Massive, enormous, colorful, simply amazing. After a cold night (again, due to the high elevation) spent on a campground not far from the Canyon we decided to hike down. Our choice was the popular Bright Angel Trail. The whole thing is a bit weird. Usually when you go to any mountain, first you climb and then you go down. Obviously with Grand Canyon it is the opposite. You start the day with an easy hike down, in a nice morning breezy air. The real fun starts when you have to climb back. By the time we decided to go back, sometime in the afternoon, the temperature had reached 35C or even more. Especially at the lower elevations (bottom of the Canyon is good 1500 meters below the rim), temperature is much higher than closer to the rim. Even we didn’t go all the way down, we still had about 1000 meters to climb. It took us quite a few hours to reach the top. We were exhausted but satisfied. Hiking is the best way to experience the Canyon. Views from the rim are amazing but you have to share them with millions of people. Going down, you leave 90 percents of them behind you.

Time. Time was our limitation. The same evening, after taking quick showers, we left Grand Canyon heading west again. It took us four and a half hours of desert driving to get to our next destination: Las Vegas. It was a great drive, the highway was almost empty and the sky was full of stars. Hours before reaching Las Vegas we spotted some brightness on the horizon. It got bigger and shinier with every minute. At the beginning we didn’t know what it was. Some small town, factory, or maybe a prison? Then we figured it out, they were the lights of Las Vegas. It is astonishing from how far you can see them across the dark and empty Arizona and Nevada deserts. Even if Vegas itself is still hidden behind the mountains.

For the proper “Wow” effect you have to arrive to Vegas at night. Believe me, I’ve seen it in the daylight and it looks much, much worse. But come darkness and there is nothing like Vegas. It is a one great show of neons, dancing fountains, fireworks, big cars and fast cars. Pure fun.

We arrived to Sin City at about 11pm and stayed for just a few hours, enough to loose a few bucks in a casino. Of course we didn’t win anything and left the neon metropolis by 2am. Because, as usual, we didn’t have any accommodation booked, we were just looking for a campground. And we couldn’t find one. We were so tired that we didn’t even realize how dodgy the campground we finally spotted at around 3am was. It was a very, very long day. We were hoping to wake up late, to recover from the previous hectic day (and big part of the night as well), but the strong desert sun made our tents as hot as an oven. By 8 am we were almost suffocated and totally awake. Damn it! We then realized that our campground was right next to the fence of the Air Force base, part of the famous area 51 (remember the X-Files?)

Another day, another desert. But this time it was the famous Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on earth. The record temperature was recorded in 1913, brain melting 134F (56.6C). By comparison we experienced quite a chilly day, just miserable 47C. It is still enough to make your eyes dry after you leave car for more than a few minutes. You really felt like you’ were drying out. But it is not all about the meteorological records. Death Valley National Park is full of unique scenery. Sand dunes, colorful rock formations and salt pans. And all this 85 meters below the sea level. Highly recommended.

After leaving Death Valley NP we drove west again, towards the Sierra Nevada, a really impressive mountain range, especially when you approach it from the east. Mountains rise from around the sea level to 4000 meters above in a very short distance. It is, basically, a massive wall raising straight from the flat desert. Very few mountain passes (usually closed in winter because of heavy snowfall) cross them. We chose Tioga Pass (3031m) which leads to the famous Yosemite. Before reaching the pass we passed lovely small towns like Lone Pine, Bishop, Independence or Big Pine. They are like oasis surrounded by the barren land. They are all full of friendly folks and live there goes slowly, all which make them antithesis of the stereotypical Californian towns. They are great places to stop, doesn’t matter if just for a meal or for a whole week.

We spent the night just before reaching the pass. At elevation around 2000m it was another short and uncomfortable sleep. This time the reason was not the heat, like last night, but the very low temperature. Our rubbish tents were completely inadequate for those conditions. I had all my clothes on me and it still didn’t help. So it was another day which started early (everyone wanted to heat up a bit inside a car). Next time I go camping I’ll take some proper tent and sleeping bag.

We crossed Tioga Pass and entered Yosemite National Park. In my opinion it is one of the best national parks in the US. The Famous Yosemite Valley (heart of the park) is more impressive than Grand Canyon (at least for me). True, it is a very busy place, better to avoid it in the middle of summer, but the scenery is absolutely awesome. Walls of granite rocks, some of them more than kilometer high, tower above the valley floor. Among them there is the magnificent El Capitan, the ultimate place to be for the rock climbers. Even if you don’t climb you will feel how small we are comparing with nature. You can spot small figures of climbers high in the wall. These people are totally crazy. Yosemite is also famous for its waterfalls which, unfortunately, almost disappear at the end of a dry summer (we were there in mid September), so the best time to see them is during the spring when snows are melting in the higher elevations.

It was pity we couldn’t spend more time in the park (just a few short hours), but our time was running out. We still had to reach the Pacific and then drive all the way back to Florida. So we left Yosemite in the afternoon and just before dusk we were approaching San Francisco. It was my first visit there, and the most memorable one. The mere crossing of the bay by the Bay Bridge is a great experience. It is a 14km double deck suspension bridge. And view of the downtown is truly amazing. Just before the night we also crossed the famous Golden Gate Bridge. And that was it, finally my dream of seeing Golden Gate was fulfilled. Maybe it is not the highest or the longest bridge, maybe views are better somewhere else, but for me this is the place I always wanted to see. For me it was the real climax of our trip.

We slept again in our tiny flimsy tents in Muir Woods National Monument. We knew there was a free campground, but before we got there, we got lost in network of small, narrow, curvy county roads. Fortunately because of that we could explore Marin County. It is a great place, houses are hidden in the dense forest, little towns are full of some cool coffee places, and all this in the commuting distance from San Francisco. The only problem are the high prices of everything (it is, at the end, one of the richest and most expensive counties in America).

After spending one day in San Francisco (itself destination worth a separate story) we finally started going back east. We had five days time left before we had to catch plane back to Europe in Miami. It was 5022km drive, and we did it actually quite easily. Driving 10-11 hours a day (starting 11am and going until midnight or so with some stops for eating and shopping) we still had some spare time to say goodbye to our friends in Orlando and to get a refund for our tents (Wal-Mart isn’t that bad at the end).

It was one of the best trips of my life so far, and I’m not exaggerating. It was tiring, it was crazy but it was great. So if you have two weeks time to spare, if you are ready to sleep in the middle of nowhere, if you don’t mind sleeping in the cheapest tents in freezing condition or in the desert heat, if you survive on the cheapest food from the cheapest supermarkets and if your bum can take 12 hours a day seating in a car, this is trip for you. But the most important thing, you need is bunch of great friends which won’t drive you mad if you stay together 24h a day in a small space for two weeks. Fortunately we made a great team.

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