USA, February 2002: My first (road) trip to the USA.

In February 2002, Doug Burbank at University of California Santa Barbara organised a “Marsyandi Project” meeting for the researchers involved in the Nepal-focused project. My PhD project on pebble abrasion along the Marsyandi River was part of it, and my supervisor Jerome Lavé said I should go. I did not object.

The meeting was very interesting, although I must admit I struggled a lot, my English being poor and my American even worse; most attendees were from the USA. As a result, I did not manage to talk to many people, and I am not sure they understood much of my presentation, but I really appreciated how super friendly, welcoming and passionate everyone was!

Some of the people at the meeting (Kate Huntington on the right?) and the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara
Some of the people at the meeting (Beth Pratt on the left, maybe Kip Hodges on the right?) and the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara

I had never been to the USA before but had always been fascinated by the landscapes of the Western USA: I therefore took an extra 3.5 days to visit. The plan was simple: rent a car, fill the boot with food and my sleeping bag and go. The question was: where? Doug Burbank very helpfully gave me some suggestions and a road atlas that I made copies of: Death Valley (“Titus Canyon is really worth it”), Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.

He probably suggested I do one of these, but that got lost in translation. This was before satnav and international roaming. Three and a half day and a gruelling 1,600 miles later, this trip had crystallised my love for the road trip, for adventure with not much planning, and for North American nature. This trip contained some of the best and the worst of what can happen on a road trip. This may be why I remember so much of it, as if it were yesterday. It was 20 years ago.

The trip (approximately – I didn’t have Google Map at the time)

(Half) day 1: Santa Barbara to Death Valley.

The meeting finished just after lunch time: I made copies of a few pages of a road atlas, dropped some of my stuff at PhD student Beth Pratt’s place (who kindly offered me to stay at her place on the last night before my flight), went to a local hire place and got a wee metallic green Chevy Metro for not much money. I loaded my belongings, went to a supermarket, got food for three days, and drove off towards Death Valley. The driving was very pleasant, and I was super excited. I distinctively remember two songs that were played all the time on the radio: a song by a young unknown Colombian artist called “Whenever, wherever”, and “This is how you remind me” by Nickelback. The late start meant I didn’t actually reach Death Valley, but by 11pm I decided I was close enough: I followed a dirt track for 100 meters, stopped, brushed my teeth, slipped into my sleeping bag and went for a sleep.

Day 2: Death Valley and Las Vegas. I woke up with the sunset into a completely surreal landscape. I had never seen anything like this.

Waking up not far from Death Valley after first night in the car
Me and my faithful Chevy Metro
Approaching Death Valley
My first Joshua Tree

I had some juice and cakes, and went to explore Death Valley. I spent the whole day in awe at the rock formations and sedimentary structures, exploring dune fields, canyons and alluvial fans. There was barely anyone. The driving experience was not exceptionally pleasant in the valley, as the dirt roads tend to show “washboarding” or “corrugations”, which I only recently discovered was a physical phenomena – I always assumed these were left by tractors’ caterpillar tracks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washboarding). As a scientist, I made a series of tests to see if the smoothness of the ride could be improved in any way, and discovered that the ride becomes smooth above 50 mph, but then the ability to steer is lost, which is not ideal.

Basins, ranges, alluvial fans and dune fields, Death Valley
Road into Death Valley
Dunes, Death Valley
Dunes, Death Valley
Dunes, Death Valley
Death Valley

To get into Titus Canyon, you need to climb out of the valley on the NE flank, and then back down into the valley via the Titus catchment. As I reached the Titus Canyon trailhead, I was not pleased to read a sign that said “4×4 only”. I thought I would give it a try and turn back if it looked really impassable. I drove very slowly and carefully into the canyon and it was actually ok (and very safe compared to what I have seen drivers do with small cars in Nepal!) At some point, the track reached the river bed and the river bed became the track. It was made of perfectly sorted gravel: it was like driving on snow, but more controllable, which meant that you could easily drift the car around and you didn’t need to go fast to have fun! It was amazing. [Just to clarify, in case you hadn’t realised: I am really into cars and driving. My dad was a mechanics. I grew around cars. I am obsessed with them.]

As I was getting closer to the outlet of the catchment, the bedrock walls got closer and closer. The last few miles were at the bottom of a deep, sinuous and narrow slot canyon only slightly wider than a car. It really felt like being a pebble transported down a canyon during a flash flood (thankfully with no impact with the banks). The polished bedrock walls exhibited all sort of colourful structural and sedimentary features, with a surprise around each bend. Finally, I reached the end of the canyon and suddenly emerged at the apex of the alluvial fan, with a panoramic view over Death Valley. It was truly spectacular, and I am incredibly grateful to Doug for having recommended this!

Bumpy dirt track, Death Valley
Entering the Titus Canyon catchment from the top
Green Chevy on red dirt track: getting into Titus Canyon
Entering the canyon
Feeling like a pebble in Titus Canyon
Coming out of Titus Canyon, in Death Valley: spectacular alluvial fans
Alluvial fans, Death Valley
Ridges, valleys and fans, Death Valley

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the valley, visiting Badwater (85 meters below sea level) and other notable features. I then drove to Las Vegas, because I was really curious to see what it was like. I arrived at 11pm and was overwhelmed by the whole thing after one day in the desert. I found a petrol station to refill and tidy up (face wash, shaving). I went into the first casino I found, played quarters in a slot machine for around an hour and won $200. That was a happy me. I then drove off towards my next destination, stopped on a layby slightly out of Las Vegas and went to sleep. It was 1am.

Badwater, Death Valley
Badwater, Death Valley: the lowest point in North America, thanks to the extension that gave the Basin and Range province (85 meters below sea level)
Reflection at dusk, Badwater
Natural arch, Death Valley
Palace Station, Las Vegas
Palace Station, Las Vegas
The Las Vegas lights from the layby where I spent the night.

Day 3: Bryce Canyon.

I woke up early with sunset, had a quick breakfast and made my way to Bryce Canyon. I don’t remember much of the road other than the drive through Zion park, with its incredible red cliffs and fossilised dunes. I wish I had more time to explore more but I didn’t, and I had a long drive. I powered through and reached the Bryce Canyon parking just after 2pm.

Driving through Zion National Park
Driving through Zion National Park
Zion National Park
Fossilised dunes in Zion

Now, I had absolutely no idea what Bryce Canyon was: I just went because Doug said it was worth it. The approach is not particularly spectacular, as you arrive from the top through a forested plateau: there is not much of a view. I was hungry so ate my sandwich on the parking, and then decided to go for a walk: I filled my backpack with some biscuits and water, and followed the trail.

I have rarely been as mind-blown as I did when I reached the rim of the canyon. I sat there in awe for 15 minutes, just taking in the scale of the landscape. The photos don’t give it justice. I don’t have words to describe how amazed I felt. The colour palette had stunning contrasts between the red rocks, blue sky, green trees and white snow delicately sprinkled over. The geomorphological features were otherworldly, and I spent the next three hours hiking through an incredible maze of sharp ridges and narrow canyons. I came back to the car elated, and drove off just before sunset, towards my next destination, the Grand Canyon.

Walking from the parking to the Bryce Canyon trail head
Reaching the rim of Bryce Canyon. Mind blowing.
Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon

The roads were clear and empty, and I may have got a little carried away. At some point, a pick-up truck came in the other direction and passed me. Just as it passed me, it turned around and suddenly I could see blue and red lights flashing in my mirror. Damn it. I had never heard of mobile speed cameras that could get your speed while moving in your direction.

I stopped and the pick-up truck stopped behind me. After a minute, I was wondering what they were doing, so I went out of the car to go and talk to them. When I told this to American people afterwards, they all went “are you mad?!” No one had explained me that you are supposed to stay in your car when you are stopped by the police, and that if you don’t you may get shot. Fortunately for me, by that point, it seems they had run my plates and figured out that it was a hire car, as this is the first thing the sheriff asked me after I said hello (he really looked like Walker Texas Ranger: same pick-up truck, same Chuck Norris beard, and same hat!)

He was very courteous and helpful. He asked me if I knew the speed limit (yes: 55 mph), and if I knew how fast I was going (answer from the speed gun: 68 mph). I apologised. He said the fine was $200 for excess in the 10-20 mph range, but that he would reduce it to $100 if I signed a paper testifying that I was going to respect the speed limit for the rest of the trip. The trick: if I sign the paper and get caught again, then I am in very serious trouble. He said that was their way to doing prevention rather than repression. I agreed to sign the paper and paid the $100. They told me to be safe and I was back on the road. This was my first speeding ticket ever.

I found a petrol station near Page, on the Colorado River and parked on the far end of the parking. I washed and shaved in the bathroom, had dinner and went to sleep. I hadn’t anticipated that the elevation was quite high, around 1300 m (4000 ft), and that it would get very cold during the night. By midnight, I think I was wearing all the clothes I had in my crappy sleeping bag. I didn’t sleep well.

It was very cold on the third night!!! Yes, the ice on the windows is inside the car
Scenic location for my third night

Day 4: Grand Canyon, back to Santa Barbara.

I woke up with sunset at around 6am and had to spend a wee while scraping the ice on the windows inside the car.

My aim was to spend the morning along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon and then spend the afternoon driving back to Santa Barbara. I had a leisury drive, stopping regularly to take on the impressive views, and talking to random people as I was reconnecting to civilisation (I hadn’t seen many people on the previous two days). One thing that struck me, and I remember it distinctively, is the reaction people had when I told them I was French. This was shortly after 9/11 and the disagreement over the war on terror. On three occasions during this trip, people asked me something along the lines of “oh, you’re French, is it true that French people hate us and, why do they hate us, we haven’t done anything wrong, have we?” I tried to explain that there was political disagreement between our two countries, but that I didn’t think French people hated people from the USA on a personal level. It did make me feel sad.

On the way to the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon in all its glory
Grand Canyon and Colorado River
Making new friends
Grand Canyon

I had lunch (I remember I had bread and a lot of cheese left), and then started driving back “home”. I distinctively remember going through Williams at around 2pm and seeing a road sign that said “Los Angeles 400 miles” or something like that. I stopped as soon as I could. Based on my initial planning, I thought I would be 200 miles from Santa Barbara at that point. The sign said 400 miles to LA, that is, 500 miles to Santa Barbara. I started gathering the bits of maps I had printed out of the road atlas and came to the horrific realisation that because the roads are so few and so straight in this part of the world, I somehow missed a page. It was 2pm. I was 500 miles (800 km) from my destination, and I was flying back home the following day from LA at 12 noon (so had to be at the airport at 10am). That was probably one of the most stressful moments in my life.

Cheese sandwich shortly before I realised my miscalculation
Petrol station. I should have filled up there.
Motorway

There was not much I could do: let’s drive. I couldn’t even let Beth know I would be late: I didn’t have a phone and I couldn’t find her phone number anyway! So I drove. And drove. And I was getting very tired. I had a few 15-minutes power naps on the way, when I felt I was falling asleep, but I mostly drove. And at some point, for some reason, I decided to alter my course as I was getting very bored by the long straight soporific motorways: I would take a small detour via Amboy, and refill my tank there because I was starting to run low on petrol. I still hadn’t got into the habit of “refill as often as you can as you don’t know when the next petrol station will be”, despite some close calls. I think tiredness and stress were starting to seriously affect my judgement then.

So I left the dual carriageway at some point and drove towards Amboy, with a nearly empty tank. Shortly after, I hit a roadwork section, with a 20 mph speed limit. It was a straight road with no one around, clearly no one actively doing road works, but I had signed this piece of paper I gave to the sheriff. So I drove at 20 mph. For nearly 20 miles. I was screaming my head off in the car. And then I reached Amboy, which was essentially a ghost town. My petrol needle was in the red, I hadn’t seen another soul for hours, and sun was setting (it was around 6pm). I freaked out.

I parked, had a good cry, and then noticed tourist signs about Amboy Crater explaining that some of the volcanic activity in the area was as young 10,000 years! I didn’t go all the way to the crater but had a 30-minute walk through the lunar-looking landscape as I was trying to calm down. It did the trick to some extent. As sun set, I resumed my journey. The distance to the nearest city back on the motorway (Ludlow) was 30 miles: I would drive as far as I could, and walk if I ran out of petrol close enough, that was the plan. I treaded as lightly as I could on the throttle, and was on my way. I don’t think I ever talked so much to a car as on that trip.

Amboy crater
Amboy volcanics (some are as young as 10,000 years)
Amboy volcanics
Freight train

I think I lost track of time. It got very dark. The car kept going. And then at some point a level crossing closed in front of me. What were the chances?! Because I had seen some of the km-long trains in the area before, I knew I was there for a while. The gauge needle was at the very bottom of the red but I turned off the engine, knowing I may not be able to start again. The train came and it was very long indeed. I stared at the dark wagons passing one by one, lost in my thoughts, when a miracle occurred: headlights in my mirror! A car! Behind me! As the car stopped, I came out of mine, trying to look as un-menacing as I could, and I explained the gentleman my situation. I asked if he was okay to follow me just in case I ran out of petrol, and he said yes. I felt so much better. After a while, the train cleared the crossing and we were on our way. The car actually started and made it to Ludlow. I may have kissed the wee car at that point.

From Ludlow, the drive was relatively straightforward, although I managed to take a few wrong exits in LA and had to do a few extra detours – I really didn’t need that! But remember, that was before satnav: I actually had to read the road signs! It was past midnight when I came out of LA. At some point my muscles were aching really bad and I had to stop: I took the first exit I found and stopped by the roadside. It was dark and there was no one around. I came out of the car and started stretching when, under the motorway bridge, I heard some noise. A car started, lights turned on, and the car accelerated at a terrifying speed towards me. At that point I was too tired to react so I probably looked like a bunny in the headlights. I froze, and it was probably a good thing: by the time the car reached me, tyres screeching to a halt, blue and red lights were flashing, siren blaring, and someone was shouting on a loudspeaker. Blinded by the spotlight in my face, I instinctively raised my arms.

The policemen must have quickly realised I was no threat. They came out of their car and one of them had a big smile on his face: I must have looked terrified (I was). They told me I could relax, and asked me what I was doing. They explained me that there had been dodgy dealings going on in this place and that they were trying to ambush the criminals. They said they would stay with me until I was finished with my stretching. So, I finished my stretching, a bit frazzled, and got back on the road for the final part of my journey.

I reached Beth’s apartment in Santa Barbara around 1am I think. I felt terrible to arrive so late. Beth said she was not expecting me anymore, but wanted to know what happened, so we did end up having a chat, and I probably went to bed around 2am. That was a long day.

Day 5: travel back home!

I woke up at 6am because I had to prepare my bag, as well as refill and clean the car which was very filthy before returning it. I must admit I felt a bit sad when I returned it, as my companion didn’t let me down on that adventure. I then got on the bus to LA airport, got there, checked in my bag, and decided to have a quick lunch with what was remaining from the trip: some bread, a tin of tuna, and some ketchup. Unfortunately, my can opener was on my Swiss army knife which was in the bag that had been checked in. I therefore had a ketchup sandwich. I went back in the airport, went to my gate, onto the plane, fell asleep, and woke up halfway across the Atlantic. I was so tired I didn’t even notice we took off.

Last picture of the trip. I think I was waiting for the bus to the airport

I will never forget this adventure. I had many afterwards, and I have been lucky to travel to some wonderful places for my job (or not), but this trip was a defining moment. It gave me this drive to try to make the most of any new opportunity to discover a new place, its landscapes, its people and its culture. A road trip is wonderful: the car allows you to go at your own pace and make your own path, while also providing a safe haven (you can sleep in it, keep warm and dry in the worst situations). It allows you to change plans at the last minute and visit places off the beaten track. I met extraordinary people, saw extraordinary places and had extraordinary food in locations where only local people tend to go.

I guess I tried to do a bit more planning following this trip, as there were some very desperate moments I would not want to re-experience. The balance of “time in the car” versus “time exploring without the car” was also leaning too far towards the former to my liking. Satnavs, Google and international roaming make planning easier these days; maybe too much? Nevertheless, I always try to ensure there is an element of spontaneity and unplanned activities in my trips, sometimes to the despair of some of the people who end up tagging along. These tend to be the most memorable parts.

I understand road trips are not incredibly environmental friendly, but the advent of the electric car may offer some greener options for the future!

I really enjoyed reliving this adventure through this blog. I hope you enjoyed the story!

Mikaël Attal, February 2022

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