A park. A National Park. World-renowned and designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. The Yosemite National Park. That was the first destination of our USA road trip.
A few hours’ drive north-east of Los Angeles, the Yosemite National Park is well known for its giant sequoias, waterfalls, clear streams, granite formations and biodiversity. 95% of the park is designated as wilderness.
Driving in and out of the park at certain times of the year poses challenges: the long winters at high altitude prevent car access to many of the passes due to snow and ice on the roads. Visiting at the end of April we had to work around some of the access issues but the longer drives never became a problem.
Countless waterfalls are one of the main features of the Yosemite park, with Yosemite Falls (the tallest in North America) and Bridalveil Falls the most popular and impressive ones. Late spring is the best time for a visit, and we witnessed some spectacular natural displays. Water then flows into streams and rivers, and through meadows into ponds and lakes.
Stream in the Yosemite Park
The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, a must-see at Yosemite, is located near the park’s south entrance. This area contains about 500 mature giant sequoias, some of which are over 3,000 years old! A hike through the woods will let you get close to some impressive trees.
What car would you choose for a USA road trip? Would you go cheap and cheerful? Would you choose a vintage model? Or would you go for the latest generation?
And how about a combi van instead?
These are important decisions when you are about to hit the road for over two weeks!
We went for the latest model of Dodge Charger…
And when I say “we” I actually mean “he”: my travel companion made the decision.
I had no idea what a Dodge Charger was or what it looked like, for a start. Not to mention the fact that – at a later point during our trip – after an hour behind the steering wheel I was kindly asked to return to the passenger seat, and I never left it since. I am not good with automatic gears, that’s all.
Back to the start: we picked up the car at Los Angeles airport, our meeting point, and named our sat nav “Britney”, as we could not stand the female voice it came with. And we finally hit the road!
Longing for a road trip.
That feeling when you arrive in a remote town in the evening, wide empty roads ahead of you, one large convenience store where to stock up on all you need, the sun setting, quiet and peace.
The feeling of freedom.
That feeling is what got me dreaming of a USA road trip.
The idea started taking shape in front of a hot chocolate on a cold winter afternoon three years ago. Location: a quirky coffee place in south London. Characters: a friend and I.
That friend later dropped out but was quickly replaced by another friend who lived down under and was keen on joining me in the road adventure.
What do you do when the pressure of daily life becomes too much? What do you do when you are not happy with all that is going on around you (or inside you)?
Do you treat yourself to a lovely meal in an expensive restaurant?
Do you indulge in chocolate icecream?
Do you go on a shopping spree and buy a new dress/handbag/pair of shoes/latest tech gadget (or all of them)?
Do you retreat in the arms of your loved one?
I will tell you what I do.
I book a flight.
And I go travelling for a few days.
(Well, not always. Or I would be broke)
I have posted about my love for travels, planes, road trips, and the feeling of freedom they give me (check out Road Trip, On a plane and Boarding Gate). That is what I seek.
Last week I had enough of everything. Work was driving me mad. So I booked to have a Monday off just to give myself some space. A three-day weekend, mmmm, what’s the best use I can make of it???
I suddenly found myself staring at a map of Europe on GoogleMaps trying to identify potential destinations for a city break.
What European country have I not visited before? Where can I get a cheap flight to, at such short notice (i.e. 4 days)? Are flight times reasonable? Is there hostel availability in the centre of town? What currency would I need? Can I pack all I need as cabin baggage? Is my SLR camera ready?
An hour later I had completed my mission. Destination identified. Flight booked. Hostel accommodation booked. TripAdvisor cityguide downloaded on my phone. Bag semi-packed.
Four days later, at 3am, I was on my way to the airport for a three-day city break in Copenhagen!
On my last trip I was “on the road” for just over two months (9 weeks, or to be precise 64 days), the longest ever for me. Mostly travelling on my own. Nothing compared to what a lot of people do but enough for me to encourage some reflections.
I loved it, I totally loved it. But it was also challenging at times.
#Being constantly on the move takes a toll on you.
Moving from place to place every few days and trying to cram too many things on your schedule can get tiring. You may soon realise that you need rest days every few activity days. In my case even a trip to the hairdresser’s around the corner did the trick! Staying more than 2-3 days in each town also helps: not only this is a way to slow down but it also offers great opportunities to get to know a place and the local people better.
#Feeling unwell when on the road and on your own is tough. Getting ill does happen. And all you want to do is to curl up in bed and cry yourself to sleep until it all goes away. Then when you are well again all negative feelings go away too and your travels become your best friend again. In my last trip I was lucky and I didn’t really get ill: no health issues ever lasted more than a day. But things could have been different (as I experienced in the past…).
#Everything is new and unfamiliar.
From how to move around by public transport to buying a local SIM card to booking a half day tour via a random agency. Not to mention any language barriers that you are bound to encounter at some point.
You have never been in that place before. You may have read lots of information online or received advice from other travellers, but you need to learn quickly. Because now it’s you, and only you, there. A build-up of daily challenges can get stressful.
#You may miss your friends back home.
Meeting new people and making new friends is great, a lot of amazing friendships have been born on the road and this is one of the best things about travelling. But we all have moments when we miss hanging out with our long-term friends, the ones who know us best.
#We all need a lil’ bit of “Westernisation” around us. At least I do! As much as I am excited about discovering new cultures and habits, I am and will always remain a Westerner. Having some familiar culture around us can be comforting and reassuring. Being able to buy food and general items in a westernised supermarket or a visit to a well known coffee chain every now and then is often sufficient.
So there are challenges in “long-term” solo travelling.
But then nothing beats the excitement of arriving in a new town in a foreign country, dropping your bags in your new room and going out to discover what’s there! Eyes and mind well open. Camera always at hand to record moments, places and people.
And then you sit on your bed in your guesthouse/hotel/hostel in the evening, sorting out photos, absorbing the events of the day, planning the next day, deciding where to go next, booking transport and accommodation.
Taking it all in.
This is the biggest reward.
This is what I love about travelling!
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” (Jack Kerouac)
First of all let me explain why I insist on using the old name ‘Saigon’ instead of the city’s post-war name of ‘Ho Chi Minh City’. It has nothing to do with its significance in history. It’s just shorter and quicker to say/type. End.
Regardless of how you call it, this incredibly chaotic and buzzing with life metropolis is the most modern and quickly expanding of all cities in Vietnam. It reminds me of Bangkok.
But my very first impression on my first visit here last December was: “Omg, and now how do I cross the road?!”.
It was quite terrifying! Hundreds of scooters, motorbikes and cars swarm around you as you try to make your way to the other side. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are ignored in equal measure. Crossing the road becomes a fearless act of faith: if I believe that I will make it safe to the other side of the road, I will! And as you start walking slowly but at steady pace amidst the traffic, you realise that drivers are so used to avoiding pedestrians that the risk of being hit is actually quite low. And what initially seemed some sort of mission impossible easily turns into a mission accomplished.
Being back here after three months since my first visit is strange. The receptionist at the guesthouse still remembers me from my first visit, making me feel at home. Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker area) and the city centre look so familiar. I still managed to get lost a few times while walking around town, but there’s something interesting to see at every turn so it’s not all bad!