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.

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.




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.

Look at what we have conquered!

Yes, the entire road was like this...


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.