Valley of Death

Back on the road with a girls car and boys car arrangement, we drove for hours and hours… and still hadn’t made it to Death Valley! Soon enough we did - and nothing changed. It was 5 hours of vast, empty, rocky and lifeless desert and extreme winds, which made it tricky to find literally anything to hide behind for a wee.

With nothing but a few casual coyotes piquing our interest, we carried on and eventually found civilisation - Vegas, baby!

Mighty Yosemite

After several weeks apart, we reunited with our friends Luke and Kelly to embark on more USA adventures. Luke and Kelly had hired a van (Josie’s cousin!) and after some catch-up beers in the quaint town of Mariposa, we headed into Yosemite National Park. We were initially a bit underwhelmed - and then we spotted the cascading waterfall and mighty granite cliffs beneath the veil of gloom and fog.

We arrived at the campground, which was renowned for having an issue with bear visitors. Taking all precautions, we gutted both our cars of ALL scented items and relocated them to the bear locker, before settling in for a very chilly evening. Sack really wished he hadn’t lost his jeans in New Orleans.

We woke to a very crisp morning but clear skies, which was perfect for exploring the park. We checked out Yosemite Falls (the boys quite literally, climbing into the river) and watched a bobcat casually stroll right past us. Seeking more excitement, we jumped in the vans and headed east. We found ourselves climbing and climbing, and at the top (around 11,000 ft) we found SNOW! Naturally, there ensued plenty of snowball fights until the chill became too much.

After a rapid descent from the mountains, we found ourselves back in dry warmth. We spent the night on the outskirts of Big Pine, where fatigue gave out to plenty of BB gun target practise.

Steam Training

Feeling slightly worse for wear, we hit the road to start ticking off the many, many miles we needed to cover. We were due to meet our friends in Mariposa, California, the next day and had a mere 11 hour drive ahead. We soon discovered the vortex that is the interstate highway and its efficiency in getting us from A to B. We found ourselves skirting around Los Angeles and were blown away at the size of the highway and velocity of the traffic.

Swept along in the current, we caught the sunset over LA until the traffic finally calmed down and was replaced with hill climbs instead. After too many hours in the car and Sonic, Starbucks and Del Taco as our only food groups for the day, we were very relieved when the journey was over.

Reuniting with the 'Rats

Holed up in our hotel, we had plenty of time to get excited for the reason we came to Phoenix - to catch a Dune Rats gig! Within minutes of arriving at the venue we had been spotted by Danny, who remembered us from Berlin. Our quick chat was followed by a very energetic and pretty exhilarating set, featuring a lot of crowd surfing by Sack. We stayed on to watch Fidlar, the headlining act, and chat to the Dune Rats crew.

We were surprised and very humbled that they all remembered us, and spent the rest of the evening having some great chats. After some bear hug farewells and Sack being told his hair “smells like the ocean,” we finished up our evening with a massive McDonald’s feast and passing out on bed. Epic.

Land of the Cactus

We were constantly amazed by the dramatically and often abruptly changing landscapes in America, and the drive into Phoenix was no different. Although at times tedious, we soon saw our first giant cactus, at which Sack couldn’t help but exclaim, “They are real!”

From then on, it was hard to tell whether we saw more cacti or wind turbines. We soon discovered why when we arrived in Phoenix in the midst of an insane dust storm, followed by hours of torrential rain. We were very glad to be staying in a hotel!

Bucket List Item #11 - Attend Red Bull Rampage

After 2 days of hard work, it was time for the main event - and boy were the crowds pouring in! With the riders at the gate, we were free to simply watch the event and saw some spectacular runs down. We watched Nic do his first full run and nail it! Catching him on our way down to lunch, we stopped to have a chat and congratulatory high-five in front of the watching crowds. Feeling like minor celebrities and pumped full of Red Bull, we were buzzing for the next round of qualifiers.

Due to be in Phoenix by the next day (a 7 hour drive), we cut our viewing short and left once the top 11 had been decided. We said our farewells and thank you to Nic (such a legend!) and slogged out 4 hours of the journey, revelling in the afterglow of the Rampage experience…or perhaps it was the orange dust.

Rampaging Part 2

Day 2 of digging was just as surreal as the first day. Slightly less awkward and starstruck, we navigated our way with ease up the cliff faces with plenty of spectating on the way. The site was buzzing with activity and the atmosphere was definitely beginning to ramp up (especially with the abundance of free Red Bull). We spent the morning learning hard and fast about trail building and helped prepare a section of Nic’s proposed trail. Fortunately for us, Nic turned out to be a very chilled out guy and was quite happy to knock off for lunch after just 1 full practise run. After eating our lunch in the company of some famous bikes, we went back up to check on the trail - and do a lot of spectating. We were still struggling to believe the guts of the riders and the sheer insanity of the event itself. And the fact we got to see so many pro riders on the trails in real life! It was an incredible privilege.

Rampaging

Conveniently in the right place at the right time for the Red Bull Rampage (funny that), Sack had offered to help one of the competing riders, Nic Pescetto, with his trail construction. Not expecting anything to come of it, he got the surprise of his life when Nic accepted! Some brief organisation ensued and it was confirmed - we were going to be ‘diggers’ at the Red Bull Rampage!

Up and at ’em much earlier than usual, we trekked to the site entry and caught the 4x4 shuttle to the new Rampage site (the only way in!). It was a surreal experience to be among all the pro riders and people we had only ever seen on TV, not to mention the scale of the landscape around us. We spent a good 1-2 hours scaling the sketchiest of cliff faces before we finally located our rider. The rest of the day was spent digging (trail building), chatting and spectating some test runs. We struggled to comprehend the insanity of some lines and vertical drops - unreal! We stayed to witness a sensational canyon sunset and more practise sessions, and missed the last shuttle down. However, the camaraderie of the day lived on and we ended up in the back of a very nice guy’s ute for the long, bumpy ride down.

Back at camp, we endured a conversation with our ‘mini-celebrity’ neighbour before finally enjoying a long, hot shower to remove the orange dust and return to human colour.

Losing Our Virgin-ity

Our next destination was Zion National Park, and we got a sneak preview as Highway 9 actually wound through the park! Somehow it was even better than any of the other parks we had seen (photos yet to come). With no wifi and most RV parks fully booked, we drove for another hour and camped the night just outside Virgin.

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Having driven past an old Redbull Rampage site, Sack was very keen to go and check it out. We enjoyed a coffee and the most incredible cinnamon scroll at River Rock Roasting Co. (soon to become our favourite cafe) before setting out to explore the area. We drove up the towering mesa and put Josie through her paces over the lumpy, narrow ridge roads. Lucky we had the A/Ts on!

We caught some spectacular views and carefully surveyed the landscape for hidden trails. Forbidden to do the most extreme trail, Sack found one at much lower altitude that still allowed him to achieve some adrenalin-filled mountain biking.

Conquering Bryce

After catching a glimpse of the goods Bryce Canyon had on offer, we committed to a hike to see it from another perspective. We found ourselves on a steep, switchback-laden trail that led through the heart of the amphitheatre of ‘hoodoos’. After a rapid loss of altitude, we decided at the bottom to complete a circuit rather than go back the way we came.

The loop took us through the canyon to Sunrise Point, and we climbed up the Navajo Loop up to the long Rim Trail - pausing frequently to admire the spectacular views. It felt like we were walking in a gigantic scaled fairy kingdom or at least King Neptune’s lair if it existed on land. Four hours, 10 km, plenty of photos and some very weary legs later, we finally made it back to the car.

An Epic Drive

Utah just kept on dishing out the spectacular panoramic views and our camera was given a good workout. Continuing our journey, we started in the forest and were soon back among canyons with a drive that was anything but boring. The roads twisted and wound through epic scenery of bold, vibrant colours - at one point we even drove along the spine of a mountain ridge with sheer cliffs on either side!

After an awe-filled trip, we finally made it to Bryce Canyon National Park. In the fading daylight we went for a scenic drive to scope out the park and see what all the fuss was about. I think we figured it out!

More Rocks (and a Few Trees)

We finally left Moab and all its rocks and headed north to Capitol Reef National Park - and found more rocks! Well, to call some of the most unreal, gargantuan-scaled scenery just ‘rocks’ is slightly underselling it, but the supply of these spectacular landforms just didn’t seem to end. We took the scenic drive through the park and were spoilt by incredible canyon and cliff panoramas with the most vibrant colours.

After a couple of hours we left to find camping, and no more than half an hour later found ourselves on a mountain pass in dense pine forest. We camped at Oak Ridge in the national forest, where the temperature dropped faster than we could layer up our clothes! We went to bed early and fully clothed that night.

Cowboys and Canyons

After a morning getting to know the town of Moab and its locals, we decided to utilise our caffeine buzz (from some VERY good coffee!) and go for another afternoon ride back at Dead Horse Point. There was a trail called ‘Gemini Bridges Trail’ that Sack was keen to check out, but being a loop over 50km long Sponge agreed to shuttle and meet up at the lookout around 30mins later.

In the dwindling light, we went to explore the Gemini Bridges and stumbled upon one of the most epic canyons we had ever seen. It felt like we were in an old Western movie and it was a struggle to comprehend what we were seeing (let alone try and capture it on camera). Unable to take our eyes off the landscape before us, we shared a special, solitary sunset over the vast canyon.

An Alien Landscape

An afternoon sojourn into the aptly named Arches National Park completely knocked our socks off. We were blown away by the scale, uniqueness and colour of the landscapes; it was unlike anything we had seen before. We battled the swarms of tourists (our first in a while) and stopped at almost every lookout in an attempt to soak it all in. We’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…

Be-Utah-ful

Bleary-eyed after a night of relentless thunderstorms and rain, we woke to find the campsite flooded. This made for a slow (and muddy) start as we were unwilling to get drenched in the continuing downpours. Once we finally made it on the road, the stormy skies and drizzle only enhanced the vibrant colours of the Utah plains.

The landscape grew more surreal the further north we went and we saw some amazing canyons and arches (and made plenty of stops). In Moab, we holed up in McDonalds to escape the rain and despaired what to do and where to go. Eventually the rain started to clear and we headed off to ‘Horse Thief’ campground in nearby Dead Horse State Park (definite theme going here).

We found a prime site and took advantage of the break in weather to explore the nearby mountain biking trails. As we traversed the slab and sand trails, we were captivated by the uninterrupted and private views of the phenomenal landscape that surrounded us.

We headed back to site just before nightfall and settled into Josie in an attempt to evade the plummeting temperature. Despite a restful night, we had an adrenalin-fuelled wakeup upon the discovery that we had left Josie’s passenger door open all night. Filled with relief after the consequent stocktake of our valuables and the fact it hardly rained, we recovered with a tea and book for Sponge and sneaky MTB expedition for Sack.

Four Corners Report

As we followed Highway 64 across New Mexico, we saw some spectacular scenery such as the Rio Grande Canyon and some more of those golden glowing forests. We even saw some Earth houses and hundreds of prowling tarantulas crossing the road (mating season apparently!). Soon enough, however, we found ourselves back in the flat, unexciting plains for more kilometres than desired. We took plenty of photos to pass the time…

Clearly not catering for many tourists, we struggled to find a place to stop for lunch or fuel. Forced to stop in Shiprock, the car facing us at the bowser had what appeared to be a bullet hole square through the windscreen. With Sponge firmly locked in the car, Sack performed the fastest fuel purchase ever and we sped off into the sunset.

We drove through some spectacular canyon lands and made an obligatory stop at the Four Corners Monument, where the borders of 4 neighbouring states converge. Although not as exciting as we hoped, it was pretty cool to see - especially having seen it in so many movies and tv shows. Keen to leave New Mexico behind us, we kept on until the road took us (back!) into Utah.

All Fired Up

We awoke to bright blue skies and crisp air, which quickly became hot. Coffee-less, we drove in vain for 3 hours and literally saw nothing. No life. Nada. We finally arrived in Santa Fe and went straight to Dunkin’ Donuts for that coffee - and free wifi. Put off by what we’d seen of the city and prices of accommodation, we left town pretty quickly to get to Angel Fire (our next mountain bike destination).

We found a quirky hotel just outside Angel Fire and, after a quick freshen up, found ourselves in an authentic saloon, circa 1880s. As the only patrons, we spent the evening drinking beer and chatting to the bartender before discovering what a “chicken fry steak” actually was. After a cosy, restful sleep we were feeling optimistic and headed straight to Angel Fire for some mountain biking. The rapid transformation of the landscape as we ascended the mountain was incredible, and beautiful. Fall truly is a spectacular season!

On the chairlift we met a robust 69 year old who insisted on giving is a guided tour of all the trails. It turned out he was the record holder of the most vertical feet descended in North America (after only 4 years of mountain biking!). He eventually left to our own devices for our third run, and we were about to complete our fourth when a storm front came through and the mountain was closed down. The biking vibe soon left us (and lack of fitness caught up with us) and we left to find a camp for the night. We ended up in a very bizarre RV park, where upon arrival we were invited to a group singalong/bbq with an interesting assortment of characters. Despite our skepticism and the discovery that Sean had lost his jeans, belt and our gas lighter, we survived the night and even heard our first coyote calls.

The Bit with Nothing

Continuing our journey west, we soon realised there really was a lot of nothing in these parts. We stopped in Junction for fuel, supplies and an interesting anecdote from a local as he described accidentally shooting himself through the knee. Back on the road for a whole lot more of nothing, we indulged in our first Dairy Queen experience to keep us entertained. Pumped on sugar, we drove and drove into nothingness - vast expanses of it - until, finally, mountains appeared on the horizon!

We spent the night in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in a glorified carpark (“campsite”) and were treated to a glittering blanket of stars.

The next morning we were delighted to discover something interesting nearby and stopped to explore the Carlsbad Caverns. We took the elevator down 800 feet/230m to the “Big Room”, which is the largest cavern in the western hemisphere. And boy did it live up to its name! We walked around for an hour or so on slippery, dimly lit paths and soaked in its wonder.

Back on the road we were greeted with another few hours of nothingness, until once again mountains loomed on the horizon. We found camp at Valley of Fires Recreation Area, which is atop an ancient lava field. After a sunset stroll through the intriguing landscape, we were treated to another phenomenal starry night. We watched the stars, listened to Kings of Leon and contemplated life.

Keeping Austin Weird

Somehow we made it out of Houston, complete with a record fast service and new shoes for Josie, and set off to… somewhere. A quick Maccas stop helped us find McKinney Falls State Park, which was helpfully close to downtown Austin (though we paid the price for it!). After being checked in by a nice grandma, we relaxed at our site before checking out the nearby falls at sunset.

We were surprised to discover Austin had a clean and friendly atmosphere, which kind of reminded us of Nashville and Vancouver put together. We saw the sights before enjoying some G&Ts on 6th Street, listening to a live piano battle and later, some blues. The next morning we went back into town for some coffee and to find a food truck for which Austin is renowned (and recommended to us by a friend). Much to our delight, we found a Thai truck and indulged in pad thai, tom yum and pork dumplings for the road. However, we barely made it out of Austin before we could no longer resist the smell, and practically inhaled our first Thai meal (with actual spice!) within seconds on the side of the interstate.

Extremely satisfied, we moseyed on and soon found ourselves in wine country. After a quick stop and purchase at Grape Creek Vineyards (one of the oldest vineyards there), we headed to Fredericksburg (a town evidently settled by Germans, complete with a marktplatz). Inevitably, we ended up at the brewing company for beers and a pretzel. Feeling a bit tipsy, we decided to camp at nearby ‘Lady Bird’ - which revealed itself to be a bizarre camp spot between a gridiron field and an airstrip. We watched both as the golden hour kicked in, followed by a late dinner and early bed.