The weather changes quickly in San Francisco.
Clouds move faster than the people as storms roll off the Pacific Ocean, and people move with typical Californian leisure. Strangers continually stopped to guide us on the occasions we looked lost, which, sadly, with the M.C. Esher-esque hills were numerous.
The city is beautiful; horizons seem to disappear vertically…
“I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list.” – Susan Sontag
Flying in from London, San Francisco was the start of our 3-week roadtrip across the West of the USA.
My girlfriend and I would be riding from San Francisco to Monument Valley, then north up to Yellowstone, taking scenic routes through forests, deserts and the wilderness at every possible turn. The idea was to see as much natural diversity as possible.
The trip would not disappoint…
Take a look as I relive the journey with notes I kept along the way, small anecdotes, recommended sights, Hunter S. Thompson-induced musings and dozens and dozens of photographs.
3,500-miles of rubber-to-the-road were ahead of us, but first: San Francisco.
Yosemite is about 3 and a half hours east of San Francisco.
Inhabited for some 3000 years by the Ahwahneechee tribe, the Valley became imbued into the American consciousness sometime around 1855 when it was discovered by writer James Mason Hutchings and artist Thomas Ayres, who subsequently made their careers off of the land’s beauty (something writers, artists and later, photographers - including my personal hero Ansel Adams - would continue to this day).
If there was one reason for our journey, it was to see Yosemite Valley.
This is one of the most beautiful places you could ever see.
We stayed at Wawona (below): a picturesque doll’s house set against the backdrop of pine, oak and nearby sequoia trees. Nature envelopes all: there is no TV, radio and barely any phone service. You’re warned of bears in the car park and you’d be crazy to stray too far from the hotel when darkness reaches.
The best way to see Yosemite is to go on a hike through the mountains. Even on a busy day, with the right pair of legs you can walk for miles and barely see another person. That’s important because the valley itself is hiving with life: there’s hotels, camps, gas stations and even a supermarket.
Lilly (who you will be seeing a lot of) and I hiked the Panorama trail - an arduous but rewarding 8-miler which involves climbs and descends of 3000 feet. It was a great way to take in the beauty and sheer scale of the valley.
Mariposa Grove meanwhile homes some of the largest trees in the world; the impressive sequoias of Yosemite. Approximately an hour drive away those are definitely worth a look too.
A definite highlight of our trip was the drive across the Tioga Pass. With an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet the road is prone to snowfall, and thus regularly remains closed up until May, and sometimes even far beyond. But we were lucky enough to drive through it and have our breath continually taken away.
Here you’re afforded views of endless snow-capped mountain ranges, idyllic lakes and birds-eye views of wonderful forests. Unlike Yosemite Valley there is a sense of true isolation here - no people, no traffic jams and no supermarkets.
The photo below was taken at the start of the June Lake Loop.
I remember seeing that particular view for the first time - an out-of body experience for somebody used to the concrete grey of London, England. The image is a kind of avatar for the whole trip: a road that could lead anywhere, with the beautiful mountains flirtatiously calling out in the distance. I think the enormity of the experience to come hit me here: that this might just be something I’ll think about for the rest of my life.
We stayed here, parked by the side of the road, for some 20 minutes. No car’s passed as the sun slowly began to fall. It was a nice moment.
Every photo we’d seen of Mono Lake was with picturesque skies and almost luminous sunsets. As we ate dinner at the mesmerising Mono Inn (photo below), we were greeted with such a view - but as soon as we were finished eating and stepped outside to get a closer look, the sky opened and fell.
There is nothing wrong with a good storm.
What would be our first of two rental cars, the ridiculous white mustang, enjoyed riding through it‘s spiritual home of the desert.
Lilly refused to be photographed with it, but cruising at sunset with the roof off listening to the True Detective theme (her choice) finally won her over.
On the first day the thermometer hit 51 and we had miles to burn yet. We were easy prey to the sun and mosquitoes alike. We stayed at a hotel called the Furnace and could immediately appreciate why they call it Death Valley.
By the end of our stay inside Death Valley it had maxed out at 53 degrees, only some 3 degrees off the world-record temperature of all-time, which happened to also be held at Death Valley.
A beautiful but deadly part of America…
The mustang didn’t have any working air conditioning; a rookie error. Opening the sunroof just exacerbated the problem, and our flesh was crisp within minutes of exposure to the sun.
But the real issue was the air; you just couldn’t breath it. It was like trying to inhale the force of a hairdryer, and it would burn your throat just the same.
We never strayed too far from the car, or from each other, but we made it to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the polar opposite of anything we’d seen in Yosemite some 3 hours away, and to Badwater Basin, a dead stretch of land that is the lowest point in North America.
Death Valley was a remarkable place we enjoyed and yet were extremely happy to see the back of.
Las Vegas is like a spoof of an actual city. I don‘t know if any conversations I had here were real. Every plant is fake and every smile seems even more so. It‘s so hot everyone‘s skin is constantly peeling and frankly who knows what may lie underneath…
Every hotel is a giant dome of a shopping centre. The first thing you must contend with are the casinos, and with the whirl of roulette tables and the flashing lights of slot machines, it’s easy to get captured inside.
This is what the capital of Mars will look like when we colonise.
Still, the beast that is Vegas was a lot of fun, but only if you don‘t make eye contact with it.
Perhaps it was a little snobbish or us, but we much preferred the silence of the wilderness. But then our experience of Vegas was different to Vegas itself; we could still enjoy ourselves even though we didn’t want to lose a part of ourselves there.
We stayed on the 57th floor of the Wynn hotel and had a near panoramic view of the Strip, which was as dizzying as it was awesome. That was a luxury worth spending on - I figured if we couldn’t afford ourselves certain treats in Vegas, we couldn’t afford them anywhere.
We caught a show - Le Reve - which was incredible, watched the Bellagio fountains, stood and watched the showgirls count their money on street corners and packs of old ladies throwing their life savings away a dime at a time, and then rode around in a helicopter, but we never bet or mingled below.
Looking back at my photos, it’s clear we seemed to always watch the city as an audience member rather than act as an active participant, and we would always view the city from afar, as some kind of mutated, fascinating spectacle we didn’t quite understand.
Zion was never part of the plan. It was the one place we wanted to visit, but couldn’t ever justify as it was such a ridiculous detour.
But, for some reason, we just couldn’t let go of the idea of going there. While we’d already seen red rock canyons on the outskirts of Vegas and endless trees in Yosemite, Zion combined them together with the addition of streams you could hike through.
We ended up sacrificing our visit to the hell-mouth of the Grand Canyon to go to Zion - something we’d both do again in a heartbeat. Zion was a special place.
Rated number 5# in the list of the Best Adventures in America, we hiked part of the way through the Narrows. Darkness won and we couldn’t go too deep in, but what we saw and experienced was incredible.
Water would come up to your thighs and there was a real sense you were somewhere special, tucked away off the map.
If the roadtrip was to have stopped in Zion we’d have been more than happy. By that stage, some 10 days in, we’d pretty much seen everything we’d dreamed of.
And then along came Upper Antelope Canyon,
It was definitely, and strangely, the busiest place we would visit.
If the claustrophobia of the walls literally caving in wasn’t enough (throughout most of the quarter mile hike you can reach out and touch both walls), you had queues of people to contend with. But then, not even that could detract from the natural beauty of it.
The midday sun cast ever-moving shards of light that would pierce down from above, illuminating the sand as it blew through the air. It was an amazing sight.
We were both massively excited to make it to Monument valley in time for a special Friday the 13th full moon…
It is a magical place.
Here we stayed first at the View, the only hotel within the boundaries of the valley, where our balcony overlooked the giant mittens (where the photos directly below were taken from). It’s an expensive but wonderful hotel camoflagued amongst the red rock of the canyons.
On the second night we stayed in a traditional navajo dwelling called a hogan (made of timber and earth) at the Firetree some 10 miles away. The hogan exposed you to the elements a little more, but it’s always nice to get a taste of the indigenous culture when staying so far away from home.
An unnerving 20-minute dirt road at the end of Route 261 as you exit the Valley provides this amazing view of Utah. We drove much of it with our fingers crossed, half-expecting a tire to pop at any moment. But we made it and spent the afternoon just staring out into the endless desert.
From here you can see about 100 miles West over Monument Valley and the unique ridges of Gooseneck State Park.
Parts of Utah barely exist in any modern sense; endless miles of beautiful, uninhabited land.
We spent our 13th day exploring as much of it as we could: Gooseneck state park, Muley Point and Valley of the Gods. We probably passed just a handful of cars as we drove between them all.
As if tired of staring at red rocks and burnt orange canyons, we headed to Salt Lake City, and specifically to the Bonneville Salt Flats, to see the ‘white desert’.
The area is a remnant of the Pleistocene Lake Bonneville and is the largest of many salt flats located west of the Great Salt Lake. As we made our way across Interstate 80, we probably saw about 100 miles worth of this stuff.
The Bonnville Speedway is an impressive sight. The white ground is spongey and almost damp to touch, but we really preferred the stretch about 30 miles East of Bonneville at a gas station, which was completely without tire marks.
Without the reference of the faraway mountains, with the white ground and the equally white sky, there was nothing to see and I felt like I was being erased.
Despite the fact it snowed for the first time on our journey and we were incredibly underprepared, and we went on a float ride across Snake Pass where it felt like we just may freeze to death, the Tetons may just have been my favourite of all my favourite places to visit.
I’d love to say we planned to see this, but we just managed to stumble upon it.
It’s amazing to think just 2 days ago we were in Monument Valley.
Once we’d reached the Tetons, we went on a bit of a wildlife kick, figuring to round the trip off it’d be great if we could find a Moose. Somehow we went one better and stumbled upon a beautiful Brown Bear.
For the Tetons we stayed in Jackson Hole, an idyllic little town which holds a gun fight re-enactment every day of the week at 6pm (”but not on Sunday’s, because there’s no killin on Sundays”)
Later, once the snow had cleared, we hired a canoe, attached it to the roof of our rental car with a series of questionable knots and bits of foam, before driving it several miles to Leigh lake. Now, reattaching it back was much more difficult, and I wouldn’t recommend doing so with just 2 people, but luckily a group of scouts were nearby and we managed to get the help of the strongest one we could find. Driving around with the canoe on our roof, with no insurance for it and in ever-increasing wind was a little scary, but the overall experience was probably my personal highlight.
Nothing beats the tranquility of a good lake.
The final leg of our journey.
We’d thought long and hard about how many days we’d spend in each location. Ultimately we decided we’d spend 2 days in Grand Tetons and just 1 in Yellowstone. The truth is, Yellowstone has absolutely everything, and you’d probably be doing it a disservice if you were only there a week.
Yellowstone is home to the bison. A scary but seemingly docile animal. Their heads alone can weigh up to 300 pounds and it’s a little amazing how close you see people getting to get a good photo.
Cars move so freely on the roads, but if animals are around all traffic comes to a halt. So we soon came to love traffic jams, as it’d afford us the opportunity to get a close-up of a bison, deer or elks.
Yellowstone may be the closest I get to experiencing another planet.
It homes one of the largest supervolcanos in the world; a dormant volcano some 34 by 45 miles wide. As a result, there’s incredible geothermal sights there: including exploding geysers, colourful springs and pungent sulfur cauldrons. You really can’t see anything else like this anywhere else in the world.
There is something so innate about the act of travelling. No matter what you see, the act of moving somewhere brings with it a sense of hope. Hope that the next day could truly be the best day of your life or you could experience something that could change you forever, somehow; anything could happen. And it’s important to remember we don’t all belong to just one place; we are all free to move around and enjoy living on this planet.
Of course, travelling is never the answer to any of life's questions. It is just something to do and a way of challenging who you are, and maybe within that creating a new identity: allowing you to exist outside your normal life and think differently, so that when you go back home again, you can tackle everything with fresh eyes and renewed energy.
For me, I think I had an inner-peace in my life I’ve never had before, and I just wanted to have a crazy adventure with my girlfriend.
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
In total we’d seen 1 moose, 2 bears, been on 3 boats, sent 4 postcards, took photos on 5 different cameras, visited 6 National Parks, ate 7 packets of red vines, been to 8 States, drank 9 smoothies, listened to 10 chapters of our Harry Potter audiobook, stayed in 14 hotels over the course of 21 days, took 43 polaroids, travelled 3500 miles, took 4000 photographs and unquestionably had the time of our lives.
It was spectacular.
Special thanks to Lilly who let me take endless photographs of her, and for making the trip so special. We did it, baby!
To everyone else, why don’t you go and plan your roadtrip…
- Richard Paris Wilson
I’m a director and photographer based in London, England. For more of my work go to www.RichardParisWilson.com. To contact me, feel free to email RichardParisWilson@Gmail.com.
Just as a fun addendum, here are 8 Polaroids we took with some Impossible Film.