Friday, April 1, 2011

Two months and 6,000 miles later; we've come a long way.

(This blog post is well over due.  It was written in its entirety well over a month ago and deleted by mistake.  I have since rewritten it in parts, but actually starting a life from scratch has at times gotten in the way of my attempt to document it.  A lot has changed since this blog was started, which means there is a lot to catch everyone up on.  In two days, Christina and I will be driving a Budget Truck cross country from Chicago to Evansville, Indiana to Denver, Colorado, where we plan on spending the next few years of our lives.  What brought us to Denver was the culmination of a five week, 6,000 mile cross country road trip in search of a new home.  I could write a book from all of our experiences driving across this beautiful country.  But, what you’ll find below, although abbreviated, is a pretty good start.)
What is the cost of following your dream?  I woke up this morning freezing cold in a damp tent buried amongst the giants of Redwood National Park in Northern California.  By late evening, I was in Portland, Oregon in a complete stranger’s living room unpacking my dirty laundry as a very nice, but very obese couple sat in the next room watching.  We had rented a room from www.airb&b.com, a service that allows you to rent out rooms in peoples house similar to a bed and breakfast.   But, after three weeks on the road and countless nights spent sleeping on friend’s living room floors, the weight of the task we had undertaken began to wear on me.  I try my hardest to be a free spirit. But, the truth is that I’m simply not wired that way.   I come from a play-it-safe, risk adverse family that makes calculated decisions with predictable outcomes.   So, it’s no surprise that at times, the idea that I willfully walked away from a well-paying job and a house that I owned to wonder the country in search of a new home and career in which I have very little industry experience … Well, it’s enough to make me second guess what the fuck I was thinking.  But, as I’ve said before,  change isn’t easy.  And, most people avoid it for that very reason.  Sometimes, I think the Winnie from the Wonder Years captured it best: “Change isn’t easy. You fight to hold on and you fight to let go.”  I have not had a home or a job for nearly six months.  Uprooting your life and starting a life from scratch comes with its fair share of anxiety.  But, one thing is for sure; it’s an experience I will never forget.  I know what has happened the past six months.  I can recount detailed stories of the people I’ve met and the bizarre experiences I’ve shared with them, paint beautiful pictures of the countless landscapes I’ve traveled through and without much hesitation, the hair on my arms will stand up just thinking of the where I’ve been and the enormity of that task that lies ahead.  This, without question, is more than can be said for any previous six month block in my life.  I can’t tell you what happened last year at this time, or the year before and so on, and so on.  So, if I have gained anything from this experience, it’s that I feel alive again, as if I’m an actual character in shaping the plot that is my life.  And not just a spectator watching as the weeks and months go by, wondering where the last year had gone.  I know what has taken place these past six months and likely the months that are to follow.  It’s not life one repeat, one day or one week bleeding into the next as it used to be.  And that alone has been worth it.

Nevada
We woke up on the Utah/Nevada border and hit the road for California after an especially nasty continental breakfast.   I had pictured Nevada as some flat, brown, featureless landscape with only Reno and Vegas and a whole lot of dust in-between.  I was wrong, it was not featureless.  There is no greater feeling of enlightenment than realizing that which you previously thought to be true was in fact, not.   As we headed west on Highway 80, the mountains did not disappear from my view at any single moment during my drive.   In one afternoon, we drove nearly 400 miles straight through Nevada and if I would have fallen asleep at the wheel, I would have woken up just after passing through Reno after encountering the first turn in nearly six hours of driving.  Although certainly not featureless, Nevada is indeed baron.  Every 120 miles or so, groups of small white trailers peppered the landscape, like schools of small fish swimming in an otherwise undistinguishable and un ending mass.  These small communities of 60-100 people were not too different than the pioneers that first passed through Nevada.  They lived completely isolated from any traditional form of infrastructure.  They used propane for energy and were often times more than a hundred miles from a hospital, school or grocery store.  I was befuddled as we passed these communities, each one more isolated and bizarre than the last.  I couldn’t help but to wonder what would bring someone to live in what was literally the middle of nowhere.  But, for fear of some Texas Chain Saw Massacre-esque event transpiring, I couldn’t bring myself to turn off and ask them why they had chosen their particular spot.  And, even if I had wanted to, there were no roads leading to their communities. 
Nevada: Not bad, not bad.
California
As we rolled through Reno and passed finally into California, it was as if there was someone flipped a switch and the hills and mountainsides came alive with green.  Suddenly, spruce and pine covered every available inch of space as we began to wind our way through the Sierra Nevada’s.  We had intended to drive straight to San Francisco, but when our lodging fell through, we decided to take a much needed detour to Sonoma to spend a day touring the vineyards and indulge at some of their famous restaurants. 

We arrived in Sonoma County around 5:30 that evening as the sun began to dip lower in the sky, casting a golden light atop the endless rolling hills of green grass checkered with rows of evenly spaced grape vines.  I remember quite clearly the feeling of rolling into Sonoma County.  It was the feeling of entering an environment which I previously though only existed in movies and dreams.  The countryside was beautiful, too beautiful.  I felt as if a herd of My Little Ponies would come galloping over the hillside any moment shooting rainbows out of their ass while singing “What a Wonderful World” in unison.  The town of Sonoma did not disappoint or stray far from this fairytale either.  It was full of people wearing thatch hats, driving around 1950’s red pick-up trucks with shovels and hoes rattling around in the bed and Golden Retrievers sticking their head out the passenger window. Sonoma was indeed more beautiful than any work of fiction could have ever portrayed it to be.

Somewhere outside of San Francisco
Later that evening, we strolled around town before heading to the Girl and the Fig to treat ourselves to a dinner that did not come with the directions “add water and microwave”, as we had become accustomed to.  It was well deserved.  We ordered two flights of red wine, beef tartar, duck confit and Crème Brule.  I finished off our delicious meal with a twelve-year-old scotch and for the first time in quite a while, I did not feel like some homeless, jobless vagabond wandering around while reality was on hold.   We slept well that night and woke up the next morning to tour some wineries before heading to Woodside to visit a friend.  As we drove around the next morning, both Christina and I fell more in love with Sonoma with each passing block.  It was the type of place I had only dreamed of living, was the idea really that farfetched?  As the day rolled on, we began to talk seriously about moving to Sonoma.  And, the subsequent wine tastings did not discourage our banter.  By the time we hit the road later on that afternoon, Sonoma had climbed to the top of our list of places to live.
I made it!  My inner-hippie rejoiced at this sight.
We spent the following six days visiting a friend in Woodside, California as we explored the areas surrounding San Francisco.  It did not take much for me to fall in love with Northern California.  As a kid I always dreamed of living someplace beautiful and there are few places more beautiful and alive than Northern California.  As we winded along Highway 101 with waves crashing into jagged rock on the left and Redwoods towering over us on the right, I couldn’t help but to picture Christina and I spending the rest of our lives surrounded by this beautiful landscape.   But, as we spent more and more time in Northern California, one thing became glaringly apparent; Northern California was a land of extremes.  It is a land of extreme beauty with extremely wealthy people and extremely isolated communities.   San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.   And, if we wanted to live in or around it, we would have to pay the price financially. But, after living in a condo for the past five years, I couldn’t stomach renting out a studio for $2,000 a month.   In fact, one of the reasons we left Chicago was to have more space.  So, after spending time touring everywhere from Berkeley, to San Francisco, to Santa Cruz, we realized that Northern California may have been a pipe dream.  If we weren’t going to live in one of the cities near San Francisco, we would have to settle for a small town buried deep within the Redwood Forests or one of the quirky towns dotting the Pacific coast.  But, living in a town with less people than my graduating high school class wasn’t going to cut it either.  So, after a fulfilled week in and around San Fran, we hit the road and headed north toward the Redwoods.
San Fran.
Redwoods
After spending a day in Berkeley, driving around and seeking out the unique places I had jotted down in chicken scratch in a San Francisco coffee shop, we hit the road on our way to Redwoods National park.  Before long, we were back in Sonoma County, passing through nearly a hundred miles of vineyards with tiny wine towns strewn intermittently along the way.  I knew California grew its fair share of wine.  But, vineyards plastered the hillsides like corn farms in Iowa.  For almost a hundred miles we passed nothing but vineyards and it was beautiful.  Much to Christina’s growing annoyance, I struggled to keep my eyes on the road, but the beautiful rolling hills kept drawing them back in.  Things started to change once we passed through Cloverdale, CA (popularly known as the place where the vineyards meet the redwoods).  At this point during the drive, we were supposed to head straight toward the coast and to Hwy 101.  But, our GPS had alternative plans and instead, it directed toward Highway 128. It did not take long before we started questioning whether something had gone awry.  But, we stuck to the road anyway and what an adventure it was.  Highway 128 is a one lane country road winding continuously through some of the most remote parts of Northern California before eventually running into HWY 101 some 75 miles of twisted asphalt later, somewhere in the middle of Mendocino County.  But, in spite of our mistake, we passed through some of the most remote beautiful countryside we had seen yet.  In awe that we were still on Earth and not in fact dreaming, I stopped the car often to take pictures.  If you are under the impression that California is a state full of huge cities, liberal elitists and yuppies, than I suggest you take a drive through the state as I did.  Because in between San Francisco and Crescent City, it seems a lot more like Montana or Idaho than it does California.  We passed through countless towns buried deep in the woods with populations as low as sixty-five and usually no higher than two hundred people.  Towns like the ones we passed through in Nevada, where people lived only off of propane that was delivered monthly.   But, in a place as fruitful as California, the land of milk and honey, who needs a grocery store?


Not everyday you drive through a tree.
 Eventually we made our way to the Redwood National Park, where we spent the next few days camping, hiking through the giant Redwood forests and collecting oddly shaped driftwood beside the golden sandstone bluffs that overlooked the beach.  The Redwoods were one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.  Walking through the Redwood forest amongst 3,000 year old giants, you feel as if you are on the set of Jurassic Park.  And the truth is, you’re not far off.  Fern Canyon, one of the areas where we spent the afternoon hiking, was in fact used in the filming of Jurassic park.  When you’re in place as majestic as the Redwoods, there is little need for special effects.  Things simply don’t get much more beautiful.   Our time spent in the Redwoods was much needed.  Outside of a trip into town (pop. 167) where Christina and I chewed the fat with a wood carver who graciously donated us a truck load of firewood, Christina and I spent our time in the forest alone, with only each other.   But after a few days spent sleeping in tents and sleeping bags that weren’t graded for the February weather, we were ready to hit the road and head to Oregon.
Believe it or not, there is a radio station for elk in N. California.


Just think.  That's not even the whole tree.
Oregon
In between Crescent City California and Portland, Oregon, there’s not much except trees and Indian Reservations.  It was a strange sight to see a sign that read “You are not entering the sovereign nation of the Urduk”.  And, it was an even stranger sight to walk into a gas station that was both a Subway and a Casino and run entirely by Urduk Indians.  Part of me wanted to shake their hand and apologize for the white man.  But, instead I grabbed an energy drink before hopping back into my 4-Runner and settling into another long but beautiful drive.  Some eight hours later, Christina and I ended up in the Hawthorne Neighborhood of Portland, parked outside the place we would be staying for the next few days.  We reeked of campfire and had not showered in days, so I was a bit nervous before ringing this complete stranger’s doorbell whose living room I would soon be sleeping in.  I anticipated an awkward encounter and I was not mistaken.  An obese woman answered the door and her husband followed soon after.  Their profile on Air B&B said that they were an active couple who enjoyed hiking and skiing in the mountains.  Somehow, I think they may have embellished a little.  After a forced and relatively awkward ten minute conversation standing in their living room with our suitcases by ourside, they finally got the hint and let us be alone to shower and clean up.
Mutlnomah Falls (30 minutes outside Portland)

Day hike.
The next few days in Portland were perfect.  We spent each afternoon touring all of the large neighborhoods, we didn’t get lost and more importantly, we began to fall in love with the city.  It was both a city and a town and it was really charming.  It reminded me of Bloomington, Indiana (one of my favorite places on earth) but bigger.  Each neighborhood was quirky, had its own distinct character and identity.  The line between town and large city was completely blurred.  It was, as far as we were concerned, exactly what we were looking for.  After less than 48 hours in Portland, both Christina and I were sold on the place.  So, we decided to take Sunday off and enjoy the Super bowl, optimistic that we had found the place we were looking for.  After Portland, Seattle was the only place left to mark off our lists. 
A day hike.
After a night of watching the Super bowl while drinking red wine (it was all we had) and munching on spicy black bean dip, I awoke at 4 a.m. to an unpleasant feeling in my stomach.  Before long I was hugging the toilet and trying my hardest to keep my internal organs from joining the rest of whatever was floating in the now colorful toilet water.  I stumbled back to bed and laid there shivering with a high fever.  In less than three hours, we were to hit the road for Seattle where we would spend the next few days touring the city.  Great.

On the morning we drove to Seattle, I was suffering from the stomach flu and convinced my life was going to come to an abrupt end.  It was all I could do to dress myself and throw my clothes, unfolded into my suitcase.  Luckily, I had a copilot who could take over as captain.  Christina drove to Seattle as I shivered in the passenger seat with a hat and wool socks on.  A few hours later, we arrived downtown at the Holiday in where a cheery man who worked the front desk greeted us and began to walk us through a map of the city.  Sensing my disdain for anything other than a bed and a blanket, the man handed over our keys and Christina and I, both tired from a month on the road, headed toward the room where we spent the balance of the day watching TV and napping.   We spent the next few days driving around the city, touching all of the important neighborhoods in spite of the fact that I was still feeling like a bowl full of asshole.   It was a beautiful, cultured and surprisingly cosmopolitan city. It had access to the mountains and the ocean and everything that comes with living in a big city.  But, it quickly became apparent that Seattle was a city and only a city.  And, unless we could to buy or rent a million dollar house, we would be forced to rent a tiny apartment.  We left Chicago for a number of reasons, but one of them was to have more space.  So, after a light speed tour of Seattle, we decided that although it was a great city, it simply fell short.  And, just like that our tour of the Western United States was over.  So, later that night as we sat on the bed Indian style with instant soup cooking on our camper stove in the corner, Christina and I both agreed that Portland had won our vote.   And, we set forth plans to return the following day and begin the tedious task of starting a new life in Portland… or so I thought.
Somewhere on the Pacific Coast.
Portland Round II
When we drove into Portland the second time around, it didn’t seem quite the same as I remembered it.  Perhaps it was now falling under more scrutiny because the reality began to hit that this place was indeed my future home.  But, as we passed through Washington State and right into Portland, the city seemed grey.  Everything about it seemed grey; the color of the sky, the old buildings stained grey with acid rain, even the rivers and the bridges.   As we crossed over the Willamette River, I felt as if I was entering a coal mining town in Pennsylvania and not my future home.  We found our way to Motel 6 on the outskirts of town, right next door to a strip club.  We had planned on it being our home base for the next week or two as we searched for temporary housing.  But, after changing rooms twice because they were clearly not non-smoking and after realizing that the Wi-Fi which we had paid for wasn’t even working, we demanded a refund and hightailed to another cheap motel.    We soon found ourselves at the Briarwood Suites, a fifty dollar a night motel outside of downtown Portland popular with prostitutes and druggies, where we would spend the next week trying to get our Portland dream off the ground.
That first night, as we sat in our motel room under dimly lit florescent lights, the enormity of the task we had undertaken began to get to me.  We were far from home, really, really far.  And, we were attempting to find a home and start a life in a place where we did not know a living soul. Much less, I had never met anyone who had even lived in Portland.  What was I thinking?  Were we ready to drop everything and move to a city we had only spent 48 hours in?  As it turns out, there is more than one answer to that question.  The truth is, we had already dropped everything.  Christina and I were both jobless and both homeless by choice.  We had chosen to go on this adventure together and now, finally, we were both being dealt a strong dose of reality. Christina was ready and I simply wasn’t.
Ahh, nothing like a home-cooked meal.
We spent the next week holed up in our crumby motel room, fastidiously checking for rentals on craigslist, rarely leaving except to pick up some sandwiches at the Safeway down the street.  It was nearly the end of February, the clock was ticking to find a rental and we were having little luck.  I had barely ventured out of our motel room, but Portland was beginning to wear on me.  Then it dawned on me that I had not seen the sun the entirety of the time that we were in Portland.  Why?  Because it had also not stopped raining the entire time we were in Portland.  After a quick Google search, I stumbled on Portland weather statistics.  Only 70 days of sunshine a year.  Someone had once described to me that living in Portland is like living in a cloud.  It’s always wet and you rarely see the sun.  The weather was the first domino to fall, but for me and only me, the rest fell relatively quickly.  I also came to find out that Denver has one of the most depressed job markets in the entire country next to Detroit, which I was reminded of nearly every time I mentioned to anyone in Portland that I was moving there without a job.
Over the course of the week we spent in the motel room, I quickly fell out of love with Portland.  The weather the distance from friends and family and the nagging feeling of being alone, completely isolated and nearly as far away from everything I knew as possible quickly began to wear on me. Christina, on the other hand, was as ready to move to Portland as ever.  But, as it came time to sign a short term lease in an apartment complex, my cold feet got to me.  We had been approved for the application process and everything, all we needed to do was drop off the deposit.  But, when we woke up that morning, I broke down.  I simply couldn’t do it.  I had too many reservations and it simply didn’t feel right.  So, instead of heading to the apartment complex to drop off our deposit, we packed our bags, loaded up the car and headed to Denver, where there are over 300 days of sunshine a year.  I dropped Christina off at the airport two days later and crashed on a friends couch as I began to look for jobs and houses, of which I now have both.  And, as I type these very words, I am two hours away from a flight that will take me back to Chicago where I will pick up a moving truck and move Christina and I out here, along with our dogs and all of our belongings. 

The journey to get to this point has not been easy one.  At times, it’s been defeating.  And although the feeling of anxiety about the future rarely subsides, neither does the feeling that I can change my future at anytime.  Its a powerful feeling when you realize that if you want to do something, you can simply do it.  You just have to try...  Thanks for following along.

My life is now complete...



Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Our cross-country trip in search of a new home: Chicago-> Denver-> Utah

Denver to Utah

In what seemed like a sequence from some old zombie movie or a "Tales From The Cript" short, Christina and I rolled into the eerily small and isolated border town of Wendover, as the sunset against surrounding sandstone cliffs and bounced off the Utah salt flats. I walked in to one of the towns only two hotels half expecting the receptionist to turn around with blood shot eyes wanting to suck my blood or eat my brains. Much to my delight, it was a cheery Indian fella curious as to how and why I found myself in the isolated desert town Wendover which borders the Nevada state line. "Going to California?" he asked. He knew too well that the only reason people find themselves in such a place is after having succumbed to fatigue after countless hours on the road. And, after having driven completely across both Colorado and Utah in a single day, he was dead on. Christina and I were both tired and heading to California.

20 Miles outside of Wendover, Utah.
The drive from Denver clear across Colorado and Utah was without question the most spectacular and beautiful drive I have ever made. I quickly found myself questioning why I had not seen these sights before, why I had not made this drive before and why I was so oblivious as to their existence. I knew the answer to all of these things, but I wanted to take notes so I could return and explore each nook and cranny of every mountain, canyon, mesa, plateau and valley we passed in my Toyota 4 Runner over the course of the day. I was completely overcome with both the beauty of the terrain and the idea that all of this existed in our own country. Jesus, I was so enthralled I lost track of the number of times I veered off the shoulder and onto rigid lines cut into the pavement warning drivers of their impending death and dismemberment. Having just traveled almost the entire continent of S. America by bus, impressing me with landscape was no easy feat .

Somewhere between Colorado and Nevada.
 As we winded our way through the Colorado Rockies, through the Vail Pass at over 10,000 feet and the blinding snow-covered mountains, the terrain began to transform by the mile marker. Wide valleys gave way to narrow canyons as the Colorado river snaked it's way underneath us and in between the vertical rock walls around us. Before long, the snow had dissipated with red sandstone and green Aspen taking its place, permeating nearly every inch of available earth around us. And, as if there were some imaginary line drawn across the earth, mountain tops appeared sheared off and in it's place were countless mesas as far as the eye could see.
Highway 6, Utah.
 Somewhere before turning onto U.S. Highway 6, we passed through Green River, Utah in search of fuel for both my car and Christina and I.
Green River, Utah (middle of nowhere)
 Green River, Utah is a town that exists in some sort of forgotten Western Norman Rockwell-esque time capsule. You can call it a town or a strip pavement in the middle of nowhere, but it was the only thing between us and 139 miles of nothing before the next gas station. And when we arrived, my car slowed to nearly a snails pace as Christina and I gaped at the town that time forgot. I stopped my car at a local gas station in an atempt to capture the gargantuan mesa's that peppered the background (I failed). Over the course of the next six hours, we cut right across the entire state of Utah. As we winded our way through endless canyonlands, past Salt Lake City and onto the perspective bending Salt Flats.
Salt Lake City, Utah The resemblance to Bolivia was uncanny. Christina and I stopped at a rest station outside of Wendover just in time to watch the sun drop behind the sandstone outcroppings and dissipate into a single ray of light along the salt flat. Am I really in the U.S?

Denver and our trip out there
On January 20th, Christina and I left Chicago at 4:00 a.m. bound for Denver, Colorado. Our goal was to make the 1005 mile drive in a single day and we were hell bent on doing so. We had visited both Denver and Boulder, CO nine months prior in search of a new place to call home, but we were far from sold on either city. At the time, Denver seemed like Indianapolis in the mountains and I could not get past the hoards of twenty-something college students in Boulder sporting dreadlocks and driving Mercedes' with "Free Tibet" stickers on the back. The irony and hypocrisy was a bit too thick to swallow. But, in spite of its short comings, Denver impressed us enough to warrant a return and possibly a second chance on our trip out West in search of a new home (once again). This time around, we stayed with one of my best friends who showed us around the city. On our previous trip to Denver, Christina and I had rented a car and driven around the city, trying our best to tour the most popular neighborhoods. It was overwhelming and anticlimactic. But, having a host and a friend who knows the city you're visiting really helps to show you what a city is all about. We walked countless miles both downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods. We ventured out to bars and met countless locals who were both intrigued by our story and eager sell us on Denver, a city they all clearly loved. During our six days in Denver, we did not cross paths with one person who was not overwhelmingly passionate about their city, which made an impression on us. We took one day and ventured our to Rocky Mountain National Park to spend the day snowshoeing.

On our way into Rocky Mountain National Park.
 Above all else, Christina and I wanted to move out West to be closer to the outdoors and the mountains, something we were both passionate about. On January 24th, we packed our backpacks, rented snowshoes and woke up early to head for Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a beautiful day, but we both bit off a bit more than we should have. We headed five miles into the wilderness and 1,500 vertical feet up into a small valley between two mountains at 11,000 feet. But, the bitter cold and altitude had wore us both down a bit more than we had anticipated along the way and the five miles back seemed painfu,l and it was. All of our water and our food and water were frozen rock solid and our camera would not work because of the cold. But, with the sun quickly fading, we managed to make it back to my car just before the worry set in. In spite of it all, it was a great day.

January 25, 2011.
The following day (yesterday) was my birthday. I am now 28 years old. When I was younger and had little concept of age. I always thought that at 28 I would be living in some non-descript culdesac, married to a beautiful woman with whom I would be on my way to raising a pack of young children who would run wildly around the neighborhood causing all sorts of trouble as I did when I was a child. Instead, in some bizarre twist of fate and irony; I am the child and not the adult raising children. Although I'm older than I've ever been, I feel like I'm viewing the world through the eyes of a child; it's a beautiful and refreshing thing. Instead of diggin though the dirt in search of treasure, I am blazing a trail across the country with my best friend (and girlfriend) in search of a different kind of treasure; a place to call home.
I spent my birthday in a cabin in Breckenridge amongst the company of two great friends from Chicago and Christina; all of us the nearly the same age and all of us reflecting on what it meant to grow older. But, to me, what it means at this very moment can be summed up in Birthday card I received from a friend:

"Here's to new beginnings and happy endings. Here's to dreams coming true and wishes being granted. Here's to trying new things and growing wiser and better with each passing year... Here's to days in the sun and nights out under the stars. Here's to moments of quiet reflection and laughing as loud as you can,. Here's to another year of celebrating life every chance you get..."
Thanks for following along on this crazy journey that has become my life. We will arrive in San Francisco tomorrow.
Clay



Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Road Trip: 5,000 miles cross-country in search of new home

"Go West, young man!"
Every child has a dream.  When I was a child, I dreamt of moving out West and spending my days amongst the greatest playground of them all; the mountains of the American west.  After I graduated from college, I tried my best to find a job out West that would that would pacify this desire. Unfortunately, not too many people were jumping to give an entry-level job to a twenty-two-year-old journalism graduate from Indiana.  The 3,000 miles between myself and any foreseeable job opportunity did not seem to help.  As anxiety and fear crept in, I began looking for a job closer to home base. Not only did I let that dream die, but I also gave up on finding a job in photography and fine arts and instead decided to pursue some job leads that seemed more promising.  Not too long after, I found myself sitting in a cubicle in Chicago working as an advertising sales rep for the Chicago Tribune Co.  As it turned out, I had landed a great job in a great city.  But, for whom?  It did not take long before the new job and new city lost it's luster and I began looking for a way out of both. 

Less than three years after my arrival in Chicago, I was on a plane bound for San Diego with three of my best friends in search of someplace better. We spent four days seeking out the best San Diego had to offer, but we were sold after day one.  I absolutely fell in love with San Diego. Unfortunately, around the same time, I was also falling in love with a girl I had been dating long distance.  Her name was Christina and we have now been dating for three years. I gave up on the idea of moving out West once again, but this time I knew the reason was worthwhile.  A short time later, Christina left Nashville and moved to Chicago (her hometown) to attend graduate school. Eventually, even after multiple trips out West to scout out potential new homes, I gave up on the idea of moving westward and settled on moving to Nashville with Christina after we made our great escape from Chicago. My house had not sold after nearly a year on the market and I suddenly was feeling too old to uproot and move to a place where I (we) would be completely isolated.  I let the dream die again.  Period.

If you've read even a snippet of this blog, you know that after much turmoil, I made it out of Chicago and down to S. America where I traveled with Christina for 2.5 months. We've now been back from S. America for just less than a month.  But, during our trip up, down and sideways across the continent, I changed.  Travel is a powerful thing.  Walk down a single street in a single country and it can forever change the way you perceive the world. Travel will open your eyes, it will stump and befuddle you and it will deconstruct countless preconceived notions and replace them with an even stranger reality.  All of this leads to an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder at the unknown and an urgency to explore it.  While traveling I saw and experienced things I had only dreamt of.  And, I met people from all walks of life and every age imaginable doing all sorts of unimaginable things. These people broke the mold; the age mold.  And after meeting one too many of these people to count, I realized an important lesson. Something I had tried hard to practice, but always unsuccessfully so; ones life does not have to be lived according to society's prefabricated time line.  I now realize that age REALLY is just a number and not a state of mind or even necessarily a state in ones life.  And, outside of a few biological limitations, you can do whatever the hell you want with it.  If you think you need to own your own home and have children by the time you are twenty seven simply because Ward and June Cleaver did, well-you don't.  So, when we got back from our trip, feeling more empowered than ever and ready to take on the world, we decided that perhaps one more look at the West was in order.  And, one subsequent four day visit to Nashville wiped out any shred of doubt as to whether or not we were ready to move there; we were not. When I left Chicago, I promised myself that I would not compromise and settle for a future that I did not want. Constant compromise is how I found myself staying too long in a job I saw no future in. Certainly, compromise is a part of human interaction and an unavoidable part of life.  But if you have a goal, why not shoot for the goal?  What's the point striving for something slightly less than you actually want?

  So here we are. As I write this post, we are six hours away from beginning our journey across the country and up the Western coast of the United States. My car is brimming with camping gear, luggage and road snacks for the 5,000+ mile journey.   To save money, we plan to stay with friends, camp where possible and eat lots tuna and crackers in lieu of countless Big Macs. Besides exploring our own country and getting the piece of mind I need, our goal for this trip is simple: find a place to call home. Outside of a book on National Parks and a trip outline drafted in chicken scratch, we've planned sparingly for this trip. But, as I've learned lately, this trip is just as much about the journey as the destination. I've included a brief outline of our trip below.  But, if you are reading this and you think you know of a city we may love, please comment and let us know.  

American Road Trip
Chicago, IL --> Denver, CO
Denver, CO --> Moab, UT (camping in both Arches National Park and Canyonlands)
Moab, UT--> Battle Mountain, NV
Battle Mountain, NV--> San Francisco, CA
San Francisco, CA--> Redwoods National Park (camping for a few nights)
Redwoods National Park--> Portland, OR
Portland, OR--> Seattle, WA

I will continue posting as we arrive in different destinations.  Thanks for following along on this journey.

Clay

      

 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Life after travel and "The Death Road"

In only 48 hours time, I went from walking the beaches of Lima, Peru to walking the aisles of Schnuck's Supermarket in Evansville, Indiana, surrounded by teenage girls wearing Uggs and red necks wearing camouflage coveralls. The change had been so abrupt, it left me questioning whether the last 2.5 months were real, or simply a fairytale I had imagined. Things were suddenly so normal that I felt just the opposite; completely abnormal. I had spent the last 2.5 months having a new and sometimes scary experiences nearly every minute of every day in a completely foreign land and in what seemed like an instant, I was back stateside as if nothing had changed. And the truth is that nothing had changed; except for me. To everyone else, I was and continue to be the same old Clay.

While traveling, I formed bonds with a handful of great travel mates. And they, like many other people I encountered while tramping around S. America were traveling for extended periods of time. Most people I met were traveling for at least six months, many were traveling for a year or longer: visiting India, Southeast Asia, S. America, Australia, New Zealand and more in single extended trip. We met these people with such frequency that I began to question why I was not doing the same? After all, what did I have to go back to? I had quit my job, rented out my house and stored everything away to find a new city, travel and start a new life. Even I sometimes forget that this is not a travel blog, this is a blog about starting over, hitting the restart button and creating a new life from scratch. Travel happens to be a part of my life right now, but the real adventure is yet to come. I've always wondered what happens to people who drop everything to pursue their dreams. It didn’t occur to me until recently that I am now one of those people. This acknowledgement came with a powerful realization: the only person in the world preventing me from doing anything is me.
When it came down to the brass tax on deciding whether or not to travel more, Christina and I were travel weary and hesitant to miss the holidays with our families. I was especially weary of missing Christmas because my family would not be together in its entirety for another two years. In the end, we decided to compromise; when we returned, we would pack my car and head due west for the ultimate cross country American road trip. I no doubt have traveled more extensively outside of my own country than within it. And, since I was a teenager, I had dreamed of doing such a trip. True, February is certainly not the ideal month to travel in the States. But, when presented with a once in lifetime opportunity, it's best not to let "good enough" be the enemy of "perfect". So, for now, I am delaying the start of my new life and deciding to hit the road once again. After all life will always be there waiting when I get back. So, sometime in February, we will be packing up my car and heading West. We plan to visit as many National Parks as possible and camp when the weather is reasonable. But, if you want a visit from Uncle Clay and Aunt Christina, please let us know. We'd love to see you!

The Death Road
One of the most memorable experiences of my entire life was mountain biking down The Death Road connecting La Paz and Corioco Bolivia. I first heard of The Death Road when I was fifteen years old while watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would be flying down it on a mountain bike twelve years later. It's called The Death Road for one very obvious reason: for more than a decade it held the title as the worlds deadliest stretch of road. Each year more than a hundred people would meet their maker on the death road, or more accurately, in the ravine at the bottom. The Death Road is a 56 mile stretch of gravel about the width of a full size van. It winds precariously through the mountains, it has two-way traffic and one side it has a continuous drop of nearly 2,000 feet to the jungle below. Thousands of people have died on The Death Road and the casualties are not the result of auto collisions, but vehicles plummeting off the narrow stretch of gravel to the jungle below. Four years ago, the Bolivian government began building a new stretch of road to replace the Death Road, eventually leading to the closure of The Death Road for all auto traffic. During that time, an enterprising New Zealander decided that The Death Road would make for a wicked mountain bike ride. He opened "Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking" and began weekly tours of The Death Road. Some four years later, there are over 20 companies that offer death defying mountain bike trips down The Death Road.

La Paz: 13,450 ft.

While traveling though S. America, we ran into quite a few people who had visited Bolivia and biked the Death Road. The reviews, however, varied greatly. While some people regarded the experience as amazing and once in a lifetime, other regarded the experience as reckless, dangerous and regrettable. The latter left Christina weary of signing up for such madness. I, on the other hand, was more excited than ever. In the end, the amount of positive reviews slightly outweighed the negative and, with some careful poking and prodding, I was able to convince Christina to do The Death Road with me. Luckily, while tramping through the Bolivian desert, we met two French girls who gave us recommendation on an outfitter. Biking The Death Road is kind of like sky diving; it is not a service where you want to seek out the best bargain, unless your willing to bargain with your life or all of your font teeth. We paid 400 Bolivianos a piece and signed up with "Pro Downhill" our 2nd day in La Paz.

The morning of our bike ride, we were picked up by Louis, a gregarious, short and stalky Bolivian missing one of his incisors. We were led outside to our minivan, which held five mountain bikes on the roof. Inside the van was Ana, a German med school student who would rounded out our group of three. After throwing back a banana and a chocolate bar, we began our journey deep into the mountains where The Death Road begins at 15,400 feet. After over an hour in the car, we had reached our destination. We would start our trip on the new road, in the freezing cold, amid jagged snow capped mountains and glaciers before entering the official "Death Road".

All geared up and ready to roll.


The beginning of the "New Road".
As we jumped out of the van, I was anxious to see our gear. Your gear and the quality of the mountain bike on which you are riding is what separates most tour operators, but the trip is the same for everyone. You begin at 15,400 feet before making your way down through the mountains and into the jungle, where you will eventually stop at 3,000 feet after riding 56 miles straight downhill. I was not interested in the pedals on my mountain bike, I knew I would not need them. I was however, extremely anxious to try out the breaks. If your breaks fail you on The Death Road, you will likely be one of the 40 people who have plummeted to their death while mountain biking on it. My bike seemed to be pretty nice, considering the abuse it had suffered. It had both front and back suspension and although the rear break was a little loose (understandably so) everything else checked out. We were all given helmets‘, elbow pads, shin guards and a protective suites to save our skin in the case of an accident. I checked Christina's bike to make sure everything was legit before snapping one last picture and hitting the road behind Louis. As we hit the pavement, I had to restrain myself from letting my bike top out. In no less than 20 seconds, we were cruising down the road at 40 M.P.H., my right hand clinched firmly on my back break. Unfortunately, the poor fool in front of me mistakenly tapped his front break and he paid for it dearly by loosing nearly all of his front teeth and suffering a serious leg injury. This was a wake up call, we were not on a ride at Disneyland. As granite mountains painted intermittently with hues of green and yellow, I tried hard to keep my focus on the road. I was smack-dab in the middle of one of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen, but I knew that sneaking a peak for too long had its consequences. After nearly an hour, with my body sufficiently numbed, we reached the entrance to the "Death Road". As we dropped in altitude, signs of life were abundant as the relatively bare peaks turned to lush green and suddenly, the environment around us had come to life. Once we entered The Death Road, the game changed completely and the stakes were much higher.
 The Death Road
A long way down...

The road was steep, the gravel was completely un-uniform containing rocks of all shapes and sizes and having not served traffic in over four years, the condition of the road was poor. On one side of the road was a wall of green mountain, loose rock and exposed roots jetting straight towards the heavens. And, on the other side was an 1,800 foot shear drop off to the jungle below. Though everyone was aware how costly a mistake could be on this road, we were all too consumed with the beautiful landscape to let fear creep into our minds. Yes, flying down 56 miles of road through the mountains and jungle on a bike is indeed exhilarating. But, the truly amazing part of The Death Road was not The Death Road at all, but the landscape surrounding it.

 Every inch of earth was alive with vegetation. Wispy clouds formed at eye level and then disappeared into the sides of green mountains. Condors circled overhead endlessly and the color green had never been greener. We stopped often along our route not to revel in what we had just done, but to contemplate the sights before us.


video

Look at what we have conquered!

Yes, the entire road was like this...

Beautiful.

The entire journey took us around five hours with lunch and multiple stops in-between. Our journey ended in Corioco, a small town nestled in a holler between two mountains and removed from just about everything. We had gone from snow covered mountains to the deep jungle on bikes and all without out so much as a single turn of the peddle. The dramatic change in environments left my head spinning. Hours before, we were bundled up above the tree line fighting to breathe and stay warm. Now, we were sitting amongst banana and mango trees, covered in sweat and fending off army's of stinging and biting insects. After a lunch of soup (Bolivians love soup in spite of 95 degree weather) we loaded our bikes on top of the van and began the three hour up hill journey back to La Paz. Staring out the windows of the van as we made our way up an endless vertical road, the feeling of accomplishment was bittersweet. There are some experiences in life that are so unique, so memorable that you know they are truly once in a lifetime. This was indeed one of those experiences and that recognition made me both happy and sad at the same time.

Thanks for following along on this journey.

Clay





Monday, December 20, 2010

OFF THE GRID: 4 days and 600 miles across the Bolivian Desert.

Continue reading and you'll see what this picture is all about.
We started planning our trip to S. America last August and I began making bullet points on scratch paper, noting bucket list items and destinations.  There are all different types of travelers, but I have never been one to get my kicks visiting museums and monuments for hours on end; flipping through informational brochures while listening to detailed descriptions on a cassette player.  I, on the other hand, get my fix from being in the great outdoors and putting as much distance between myself and any human trace as possible.  Although I do have a deep respect for history and enjoy it quite much, I’ve never quite grasped how some nations spend fortunes protecting marble statues while they pillage and neglect the greatest treasures of all; you know, the ones that were not made by man? 
Among the list of bucket list items I penned on Tribune letter head was the unspoiled landscape of Bolivia.  I had been reading and hearing about Bolivia from people who had been there for ages and if I were to ever visit S. America, I refused to do so without passing through Bolivia.  Bolivia, however, is not an easy place to travel, especially for Americans.  Bolivia is a land of extremes.  It is the poorest country in S. America with 60% of its population claiming indigenous heritage. It is one of the most isolated countries in the world; it has the highest city in the world (Potosi), the driest place in the world, the largest salt flat in the world and the nicest people in the world, etc.  All of these things make it a dream for the adventure traveler, but the remoteness of the country and the poverty it suffers from makes it particularly difficult to get to and to get around in.
Before we had a single detail of our trip planned, we started researching Bolivia in anticipation of the troubles we were likely to encounter.  Most notably; our United States Citizenship.  Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia, is not only the first indigenous president elected in Bolivia, he is also one of the largest coca farmers in the country.  Coca is a harmless plant chewed by most residents to fight the effects of living and working long hours at extremely high altitude.  It also happens to be the same plant from which cocaine is manufactured and, not surprisingly, 80% of the cocaine manufactured in Bolivia manages to find its way, in one form or another, into the bloodstream of countless Americans.  It’s no shock that the U.S. Government, who has waged a Coca eradication campaign in S. America for decades, has come down particularly hard on Evo Morales.  And as such, it also comes as no shock that Americans are now the only citizens in the world that are required to obtain a visa to enter Bolivia.  When we planned our travel to Bolivia, the State Department had warnings for American citizens against travel in Bolivia, which was suffering from civil unrest.  We said “fuck it” and we decided to go there anyway.
After a nine hour bus ride from Salta, Argentina to La Quiaca, we arrived at the border town and grabbed our backpacks before catching a taxi to the Argentine/Bolivia border.  Christina and I both had reservations about this part of our travel.  It was no secret that Americans were often harassed at the border and our chance encounter days before with an American girl that broke down in the tears at the border did not ease our anxiety.  Our requirements for passing the border were as follows:
 -One visa application filled out in print with address, name of employer, etc.
-Copy of bank statements (to show solvency) or copy of all major credit cards
-One passport picture
-One letter of invitation from a Bolivian hotel or tour operator (in Spanish)
-One W.H.O copy of vaccinations
-$135 U.S.D (must be in mint condition and must be U.S)
When we arrived in Villazon, Bolivia countless Europeans crossed the border without out so much as a second glance. Christina and I showed our passport to the border authority who quickly ushered us over to a separate window where a young man sat in an Adidas jumpsuit.  We handed him our documents which we had unscrupulously labeled, which were thrown in a pile of other paper work without out so much as flipping through the papers; this man wanted our cash.  Christina handed hers over (all large bills) and she was quickly awarded her visa.  I, on the other hand, had spent most of my large bills and was forced to use the 50 American $1 bills I had brought along.  Over a course of fifteen minutes, the young man combed through my American cash, placing crisp bills and slightly dilapidated bills in separate piles.  Every last American dollar I had was in this man’s hand, so Christina and I held our breath as we waited for the verdict.  The young man turned down $25 of my American cash for reasons I still do not entirely understand.   Although I had heard of this happening, I was still slightly befuddled because the exchange rate was 1:7 (do some math, buddy, you’re on the winning end here).  After some negotiating, the gentleman agreed that I could pay him the extra money in Argentine Pesos, but not in their own currency, Bolivianos. I paid the extra cash and after another young man stamped my passport and exclaimed “Ahhh, Americano!” I was on my way.  Christina and I hailed a Taxi to the train station where we would catch a three hour train to Tupiza.  We had gone from very little altitude to nearly 12,000 feet in a matter of hours and when we sat down at the train station, the altitude slapped us in the face.  Having arrived nearly two hours early, we struck up a conversation with a young Italian man who was on his first week of backpacking around the world.  As the time for our departure neared, we moved outside and continued the conversation as we waited for the train.  As we stood against a wall and traded stories, a small group of dodgy looking young Bolivians traded glances with us.  Not a moment later, the young Italian turned around and noticed his bag was gone.  A group of locals began yelling at him, describing what the thieves were wearing, but it was too late; they were long gone.  Apparently, although a large group of Bolivian men and women witnessed the bag being stolen, the thieves’ reputations as thugs kept them quiet until they had left the scene.  We had not been in Bolivia more than two hours; this was a wake up call.
We said our apologies to the young Italian man before hopping on the train to Tupiza.  We had made our way from the southernmost city in the world to the isolated country of Bolivia (some 3,000 miles away) with one goal in mind: drive across the Bolivian desert and visit the largest salt flat in the world; the Salar De Uyuni. The train’s cabin car was not bad; it featured a small articulating fan and a TV that played amateur Bolivian music videos featuring the pan flute.  At times, however, the cabin car filled so completely with dust that people wrapped t-shirts around their face and covered their eyes.  Three hours later, we stepped off that train and for the first time, I no longer felt like some yuppie from the city carrying a backpack, but a real backpacker.  We were tired, covered in dust, completely unkempt and smelling god awful as we walked down the mud streets Tupiza with various odds and ends clipped to our back packs (hiking boots, stuffed animals, rain gear, nalgene bottles, sandals) swinging to and fro in complete synchronization.  In two short months, I had gone from Clark Kent to Grizzly Adams; it was an odd, but strangely gratifying feeling.
We had booked our salt flat tour before coming to Tupiza as we needed a letter of invitation to enter the country.  I had been researching tours to the Salar de Uyuni months before our departure and the stories I read both scared and excited me.  The southern half of Bolivia is one of the most desolate isolated places on earth.  And, outside of anthropological studies, the only reason anyone would ever find themselves in the remote desert of Southern Bolivia, is to partake in the Salt Flat tour.  However, this small boom in tourism has spawned countless hundreds of tour companies, all jockeying to grab as many tourist dollars as possible.  And, the disparity among the qualities of these tour companies is expansive.  Before our trip and even during our travels, we had heard countless horror stories of people pairing up with the wrong tour operator during their Salt Flat tour.  In fact, even our Lonely Planet guide book (which is the bible amongst backpackers down here) admitted that picking a tour operator for the Salt Flat tour is tantamount to playing Russian roulette; there is no guarantee that your experience is going to be a good one.  Stories of drivers getting drunk at 5.a.m., jeeps breaking down stranding people in the desert for days and passengers staging mutinies had both Christina and I on edge.  But, while hiking in Torres Del Paine, we met a S. African couple who ensured us that going from Tupiza (considered the reverse route) was the safest option.  And, although it cost nearly twice as much as most other tour operators (usual cost is $80 for 4 days and 3 nights), I was smart enough to know that this is not the type of trip where you want the best bargain.  So, at the advice of others, Christina and I booked our tour with Tupiza Tours and hoped for the best.

Our ride!
Calling it a “Salt Flat Tour” is kind of a misnomer.  Like most things in life, this trip is about the journey, not the destination.  Think of the Salt Flat as the dessert  following a twelve course meal.  It may be the sweetest part, but the dinner is just as memorable.  Getting to the Salt Flat is not an easy task, in fact, when you analyze the rather wide margin for error, a trip across the Bolivian desert to the Salt Flat seems rather stupid and at the very least, extremely risky.  To get to the Salar De Uyuni, one must first traverse 600 miles of Bolivian desert void of any roads in a jeep.  The most important element in any tour is without question, the jeep within which you are riding.  There are varying degrees of jeep quality, but the jeep of choice for most all tour companies is the Toyota Land Cruiser.  Most all are outfitted with large off-road tires and huge steel roof racks to carry extra fuel, food and passenger cargo.  Most people and guide books recommend checking out the quality of your ride before signing up for a tour, as people are often stranded in the desert for days awaiting rescue and transport when their jeeps break down.  Given that I know jack shit about cars, I gave our jeep a pat on the hood (sounds good to me), checked to make sure the tires were not flat (looks good still) and crossed my fingers  after seeing that our jeep had over 200,000 miles on its odometer.
The next morning we woke up early to pack the jeep and meet our future travel mates.  You have the option of traveling with four or five passengers, not including the cook and the driver.  The idea of sharing a jeep for ten hours a day with seven other people did not sound so enjoyable, so we opted to pay a little more money to travel with only four passengers.  While loading up the jeep, Christina and I met Valentine and Laetitia, two French girls who were traveling together for a few weeks.  They spoke English, were our same age and immediately seemed warm and friendly; the next few days we would all grow very close. Our cook was Zaida, a shy twenty-year old who barely muttered a word our entire trip.  And, our driver was Edgar, a twenty-eight year old who had been driving this particular tour for the last three years.  His age and experience came into question moments after our drive began and we found ourselves hugging a tiny, two lane dirt road, carved out of the side of a mountain and perched precariously over 1,000 feet above the canyon lands below. Our first day we would drive for nearly nine hours, but we had barely been in the car for a half an hour and everyone was already questioning what sort of adventure we had gotten ourselves into.  It did not take long before we were in the middle of nowhere, having left any trace of industrialized civilization long behind us.
The desert if fun.  Yay!


They're fun to watch and eat for lunch.
The next four days we would drive over 600 miles across the Bolivian desert and traverse nearly the entire southern portion of Bolivia. And it would be some of the most interesting days of our entire trip.  The expression “off the grid” can barely begin to describe where we were and the places we traveled. The very word “desert” brings to mind isolation.  We, however, were traveling in a desert 15,000 feet -18,000 feet above sea level in one of the most isolated countries in the entire world (likely for that very same reason).  The landscape in this desert is often described as Martian like.  And, without question, when traveling across it, you certainly feel like you are on another planet. We went four days without traveling on a single road.  We passed countless volcanos, geysers spewing sulfuric mud and huge dried beds of borax.  Strangest of all were the countless lagoons we visited, lagoons that were red, grey, blue and white; at the top of the world, in one of the driest places on earth.  But, what truly made these lagoons unique was not their isolation, their location, but the fact that they were composed largely of arsenic and magnesium and on top of it, home to countless thousands of pink flamingos.  This was no drug induced hallucinogenic trip (although it seemed like at times), this was the real McCoy; hundreds of miles from any sort of industrialized civilization, in the middle of a dessert at +16,000 feet you can find a sprawling bright red chemical oasis home to home to flamingos too innumerable to count.  The smell of these lagoons will accost your nostrils and knock the breath right out of you, but the sight will leave a lasting impression.
Pink Flamingos in a pool of Arsenic and Magnesium. Why not?

The valley beside where we slept our first night.


The village we slept in our first night.
 The first night we arrived in a small village, where we would spend the night in a small mud hut hosted by a local family. Never in my life had I felt more isolated then on that first night. We had driven by a handful of pueblos on our way through the desert; groups of 10-12 dilapidated mud houses where llama herders or mine workers typically lived.  I was fascinated that a collective of people could survive in such total isolation and in such harsh conditions without any of the conventions of a traditional society: no plumbing, no cars and no electronics.  The pueblo we stayed in was home to around 100 people.  Each house was about the size of a standard bedroom (usually no bigger than 12x12’) where entire families would live, sleep and eat.  I simply could not wrap my head around it.  After we arrived, I took a brief walk up onto the hill that overlooked our pueblo and watched as the sun descended and turned the Monet clouds a beautiful shade of pink; it was beautiful.  I took a deep breath and everything that I had done to get to this place flashed through my mind, like some cliché movie montage.  What a wonderful and vulnerable feeling it is to be so far from everything you know.  And sometimes, as in this case; everything you don’t.
The sun setting on our first night.
That night for dinner, we ate Llama for the second time that day.  It wasn’t as good as our lunch, but no one had high expectations.  Before going to bed, we threw on our head lamps and ventured out into the valley to take a look at the stars.  There are moments in your life when you convince yourself that what you are seeing is something that will never be repeated; something truly once in a lifetime.  And, there is often no greater feeling than proving yourself wrong.  Both in New Zealand and Torres del Paine, I saw stars so innumerable, so plentiful, that I thought could not be repeated, not anywhere else in the world, not if my lifetime.  Well, I was wrong and what a delight it was.  At night in the desert, the clouds disappear and the sweltering heat gives way to freezing temperatures leaving a remarkably clear sky-the clearest I’ve ever seen.  We were hundreds of miles away from any city and it’s ambient light.  The stars that night made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  You could see Jupiter clearly, the Milky Way peppered the black sky in a way I’ve never seen and shooting stars fired off as if on command.  We spent about a half an hour under the stars before the cold and creepy desert noises got the better of us.  We headed back to our mud hut, threw on every layer available (a potato sack roof, no heater and sub zero weather makes for a shitty combination) and set our alarms for 4:00.  We would hit the road the next day before sunrise.
"Is it just me, or is this road bumpy?

Getting high.  (That's 16,021.5 feet)
Fun with altitude!!!!

The stone tree.  Yes kids, sand did that!
The following three days were long and exhausting.  Riding in a jeep at 40 M.P.H. across the desert for 10 hours a day feels a bit like being on a roller coaster that never ends.   We were lucky to have the company of Valentine and Laetitia, who were always up for sing-alongs and good conversation.  We picked each others brains constantly about each other’s cultures and often poked fun at the ridiculousness of them.  Had we been cooped with a forty something couple that didn’t speak English, I would have jumped out of the jeep at the nearest cliff, but, we were lucky; they were great!  Each day more or less began to bleed into the next.  The scenery was often awe inspiring, but sometimes featureless.   I won’t bore you with the boring parts because, well­-they’re fucking boring.  But, below are some highlights and memorable moments (but, first two random pictures I couldn't fit anywhwere else)

A volcano.  We saw too many to count. I named this one Cledis.

 Our Christmas card.  Also, the railroad of death.
- THE JEEP Problems with the jeep and complete breakdowns.  Our jeep had at least five problems during our trip.  They included two flat tires, replacement of an alternator, and some other major problem of which I’m still not certain, except for the fact it was certainly the worst of the bunch.  Watching Edgar (our driver) fix a flat tire, in the middle of the desert, while wearing a sweater in 95 degree heat without out so much as forming a single bead of sweat on his forehead was impressive.  There was no spare, he had to remove the tube from the giant off road tire and patch it by hand with a lighter and god knows what else.  At another point,  when our jeep broke down within sight of the mud village we were sleeping in, Edgar spent the following five hours (after having driven for nine hours that day) completely dissembling our jeep in the dark.  I’m not sure what the problem was, but his tools were minimal and I shit you not, the repair involved multiple fabrications from soup cans in the mud village.  Edgar was a man of very few words, but he knew how to drive and repair his vehicle.
- THE ALTITUDE  The altitude is certainly one of the most memorable parts of the trip.  Regardless of whether or not you had properly acclimated (we did not), sleeping at 16,000 feet every night is enough to throw you for a loop.  Everyone got sick at one point and popped Soroche (altitude sickness pills).  We reached our highest point at the geysers, where we would spend 30 minutes.  The geysers were at 18,000 feet and I felt every foot of it. I had declined the altitude pills that day which turned out to be to a school boy error on my part.  While walking around the geysers of boiling sulfuric mud, I hit a wall and my knees nearly buckled (the last thing you want to happen while walking around pools of 500 degree mud).  My head was spinning, my stomach was churning and my mind was racing.  Edgar, noticing the sudden loss of color in my face, offered me a handful of Coca leaves.  I gladly accepted, knowing that people of the Andes have been chewing Coca hundreds of years to relieve the affects of altitude.  Coca leaves take about 30 minutes to take effect, but eventually I was feeling normal again and thankful to be heading back to 16,200 feet, where we would spend the night again.
-OFF THE GRID, OR MAYBE NOT? There’s one valuable thing I learned from this trip: no matter how far you travel, no matter hard you try to leave behind the trappings of conventional society; it will find you!  This idea first came to mind while riding through the desert canyon lands and listening to Boy George and Twisted Sister.  True, it was only the first day of our trip, but were already in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Llamas and wild Vicunas and we were all playing sing along with Cindy Lauper.  I could not help but to acknowledge this strange paradox.  This moment was not so much disappointing as it was ironic.  However, there were a few moments during our trip that made me wonder whether or not there were places on this earth that truly remained pure.  And by that, I mean places that had not been touched by Coca-Cola.  It’s a bizarre to be in the middle of the desert, in one of the most isolated countries on earth and to come across a mud village of 25 with a Coca Cola sign hanging precariously from their window.  What a tragedy.

The last night of our trip, as we neared the Salar de Uyuni, we stayed in a hostel, in the middle of the desert, made completely out of salt.  The floors, the walls, the chairs, the ceilings and the beds were all made completely out of salt. The “Salt Hostel” had been our nicest accommodation in the past few days.  And, after eight hours on the road and a very long dust storm, we were anxious to arrive to a place that served  extremely expensive beer, that had a roof not made out of potato sacks and a shower you could pay to use (although the shower did not end up working out as planned).  When we arrived, we were still catching the tail end of the dust storm, so I helped Edgar unload (as usual) as the girls headed in for cover.  While outside, I made friends with a little piggy who tried to bite the ankles of fellow travelers, but apparently warmed up to me (he must have smelled all of the pork in my blood).  That next morning we woke up at 4:30 to head to the salt flats; the grand finale.
Me and my piggy!


More fun with trick photography.

The Salar de Uyuni is something that is impossible to describe in words, but the pictures below will hopefully paint a picture, so I will stop short of writing in detail. It is the largest salt flat in the world, spanning over 12,000 square kilometers.  It is huge, it is flat, it is made entirely of salt and it sits at over 12,000 feet.  In the middle of the Salar lies the Isla De Pescadores, a small island oasis populated by thousands of Cactuses (or is it Cacti?).  After stopping at the Isla for a 5:30 breakfast, we hit the road to explore the rest of the Salt Flat.  Driving across the Salt Flat is quite a trip.  The horizon is so flat and so expansive, it’s impossible to grasp, causing your mind and your eyes to play a game back and forth; each one questioning the other.  Because the Salar de Uyuni is the largest, flattest place on earth, it lends itself to perspective bending photography.  We tried our best, but others have done much better.
The Salar de Uyuni and the Isla de Pescadores.

An island in the middle of a salt flat full of thousand of cacti?  Why of course!
When we finally finished our trip, everyone was exhausted, covered in dirt and smelling like a herd of Llamas.  We rolled into the small desert town of Uyuni, where we would wait for an overnight bus to La Paz with Laetitia and Valentine.  What an amazing trip it had been, one of the most memorable and IMPRESSIVE of my life.  In life, I love nothing more than the discovery of something new and the realization of how little I actually know.  What a beautiful feeling it is.  Thanks for following this journey.

Clay