Road Trip in the U.S. – Four Weeks on the Road
In 2015 my boyfriend Mathias (now husband) and I went on a road trip along the West Coast of the United States. I would like to tell you about that trip because while it was one of the best trips I’ve experienced so far, being on the road for so long in a foreign (and very large country) can be really exhausting. This is the story of how and what we did. We were on the road for four weeks, which means there’s a lot of ground to cover (read: It’s a bit long), so settle in. Hope you enjoy!
Off to a scary start
Before we begin you should know that we are from Denmark and we had never been to the U.S. before. Neither had we ever gone on such a long trip, so this really was a learning process. We decided to start our journey in Seattle, Washington. This was because one of our friends was an au pair at the time and it gave us the opportunity to visit her – and get some guidance from her. Her host family was kind enough to let us stay with them for the first couple of nights, while our friend had the role of a personal guide. Before going she had already warned us that we were going to meet a lot of big roads, so we ought to look out.
Well, she wasn’t kidding. We had just flown for seven+ hours, we were hungry and tired. On top of that it was difficult getting our rental car because my credit card got declined, and the cashier kept giving us offers of upgrades and discounts. It was all very confusing, and I’m still not entirely sure that we didn’t get ripped off badly. I had prepared for this scenario at home. I had made a list of all the things to be aware of when renting a car, details of what we had rented and what we had already paid. But when you’re standing there, starving, confused and tired, your head might not be that sharp. At last, we ended up with a red Chevrolet Camaro convertible. When I saw that car, I didn’t care if we’d lost money or not, that was freaking awesome!
We were nervous that all of our bags wouldn’t fit in the tiny trunk and backseat. I don’t know why .. well actually I do; we were extremely inexperienced .. but we had with us four bags. And not small ones. No, no, four big ass suitcases or duffel bags. One just had an air mattress in it. I mean, I don’t know what we were thinking. If you’re taking notes, this is one of the important ones: Don’t overpack! And really rethink your choices before you pack an entire air mattress in just one suitcase.
Driving the car was a whole other matter. In Denmark automatic gear is not the standard, so I was very confused as to what to do with my feet. When you’re driving a stick, you use both feet, one for speeder and brake and one for the clutch. But take away the clutch and you end up using your unemployed foot for the break. I later learned that you’re supposed to only use one foot for both gas and break. Obviously. Magically we made it to our friend safe and sound.
Seattle and Washington State
Just a small side note, not only had we not been to the U.S. before, driven automatic gear or planned a road trip. I had just bought a new camera and had not at all gotten used to it. More than that I had upgraded to a full frame, so I have a lot of wide-angle shots taken with a 16-24mm, because I back then thought it meant that I would get more into the photo. While that is true it also distorts a lot. So, looking back, not a smart choice. But at the end of the trip, I was very familiar with my camera and it’s the camera I still use today.
Seattle was very nice! We went to different viewpoints around town looking at wonderful skylines, mountains and the Space Needle. We visited Gum Alley, which is exactly that. I don’t know how it started or why, but for some reason covering an entire alley in gum seems like a good idea. The sweet smell of gum is one you won’t soon forget. We went to the Public Market or Pike Market and saw the first ever Starbucks store.
Leaving Seattle, we really hit the big roads and grand views. We had never seen landscapes like this before. I remember being taken completely aback by the view of Mount Rainier in the distance towering over the horizon. Driving wasn’t really as horrifying as I thought. Americans are very good drivers, and very great at merging – we Danes could learn something from that. The roads were unbelievably big, but that’s a given when everyone has the biggest pick-up truck money can buy. This is not at all meant as an insult, we were just really amazed at the difference between tiny Denmark and the great U.S.
Being on our own, and in a time without free roaming/Wi-Fi anywhere, we quickly learned that McDonald’s always has free Wi-Fi. So, part of our morning routine was to find a McDonald’s and planning the day, using the internet to find the next stop and a camping site or a motel for the night. Planning your next night on the same day works out, I can recommend it. It’s hard sitting in another country predicting where exactly you’ll be at what time. What I can’t recommend is not checking distances at home. We hadn’t got the slightest idea of how big the U.S. really is. I’ll come back to that later.
We visited Olympic National Forest and Lake Crescent and was once again blown away by the grand landscapes. We only did a small hike in the national forest because we had not planned ahead and made time for a longer hike. But what little of the forest we saw was amazing. And Lake Crescent was just a lucky stop on the road. We stopped and put our feet in the water, taking a nice break from the open road.
The Long and Winding Road
Going into Oregon we knew we wanted to see Oneonta Gorge. Once again, I can only recommend researching properly either on the road or at home. I’m all in for being spontaneous and you should make room for that too. But if there’s something specific you know you want to see, research how to get there, what is actually is, hiking trails and opening/closing hours. I had a faint idea of what Oneonta Gorge was. I had seen photos on Instagram and other photo sites. But I had no idea of what it really was, and also no idea that Multnomah Falls was right beside it, which I’m really sad we missed.
Anyway, when finally finding our way to the gorge we were met by people in bathing suits exiting from the cliffs. We also had to climb over some very slippery timber to “enter”. Walking further and further, completely surrounded by moss covered boulders and feeling like you found a secret passage to an unknown land, it dawned on us why people had bathing suits on. There was a “hole” filled with water and no other way to go further than to climb in. Mathias tried climbing on the rocks on the side of the boulder but had to give in at the end. The water reached my chest. The grand finale was a waterfall where people also took a dip. We had to miss that experience because of lack of bathing suits.
As previously proclaimed, we had no idea just how big the U.S. is. The distances took us completely by surprise. But we knew we had a lot of driving to do, so we had brought a quiz game and we also saw the opportunity to play license-plate game. A game not worth much fun in Denmark. By the end of the trip, we had seen 45 different states.
Although we had packed four bags worth of gear, we didn’t bring anything camping-like to cook with. We had our tent, sleeping bags, air mattress, and I guess the rest was clothing? So, our meals consisted of some kind of energy bars, fruit or bread with Nutella on them for breakfast, often a sandwich (preferably Subway) for lunch and whatever fast-food place we were in the mood for for dinner. During these four weeks we ate a lot at McDonald’s, Denny’s, iHop, Carl’s Jr. etc. In the end we had had our fill of fast food for the next long time coming. But man, it was tasty. The sizes (again) really baffled us. I mean the medium menu was bigger than the biggest menu in Denmark. Although we had a tent with us, we also wanted to stay at hostels/hotels/motels, because we weren’t sure how easy it was to camp in the states. Turned out very easy once we got our hands on a camping magazine with all the campsites in California listed. But when we wanted a bit more luxury we opted for a motel or something. The prizes varied a lot from campsite to campsite and motel to motel, we always tried to find the cheapest option. A lot of the places we stayed at were really nice. Of course, some of them were less than wonderful, but the good thing was we only had to stay one night.
In California we finally saw the west coast. We were driving along highway 101 and it was beyond magnificent. If you’re planning a road trip, please, whatever you do, do yourself a favor and drive along the west coast of the U.S. Well, at first it was actually just a wall of fog we saw. But once it lifted the view of the pacific just blew my socks off. On a not so wonderful note, one of my wisdom teeth had decided to make its entrance, which lead to unimaginable pain. I had to call my dentist very early one morning, because of the time difference, who told me I needed some chlorhexidine. But as it turns out, that’s not something you just go into a store and buy, you need a prescription, which I obviously didn’t have or was able to get. My solution was to buy some Listerine mouth wash, brush my teeth really thoroughly and hope for the best.
We had quite a few places we wanted to see in California. First stop was the Redwoods. Again, we hadn’t researched at home, so it was not until we were actually there that we found out how we wanted to experience the giant trees. We ended up hiking through Tall Trees Grove, and we were completely unprepared. Again, we were surprised at how big everything was – not only the trees, but the hike was just really long. At first it was way too cold, then later it was way too hot for us. We hadn’t brought enough food or water, and I wore jeans. I’m not saying you can’t hike in jeans, but experience has later taught me that there are other and better options.
But the trees were wonderful. Nothing makes you feel just how exceptional nature is than standing between those giants. Later we drove to Yosemite National Park. We hadn’t really planned the road, so we arrived late in the evening, just in time to see the sun set on the rocks. Well, that was from far away. We never made it into the park, only the parking lot. I still don’t know why we didn’t decide to come back the next day. But we didn’t. Maybe because we didn’t know all the options for exploring the park and didn’t think there was much else to see. Although we didn’t go on any of the popular hikes (or even inside the park), I remember seeing Yosemite for the first time was an incredible experience. I was so touched and baffled by its beauty.
In San Francisco we panicked. Having no sense as to how big the city was, we just drove straight in hoping to find some kind of accommodation. Turns out that’s not something you just do. I think this was the rockiest point of our trip, because we started yelling at each other, we were confused and just couldn’t keep our heads cool. After a stop at a gas station, which was the only place to park and take a break without someone honking at you, we decided to go to Oakland.
If we had researched at home, maybe we would’ve known that there’s an underground connecting Oakland and San Francisco and that it’s much cheaper to stay and easier to drive in. So, for the next days of exploring San Francisco we parked the car at the motel and took the underground to the city. It was so easy and a way of travelling familiar to us, and it was nice not having to think about parking and so on. Walking around SF for two days in the scolding hot sun I of course got badly sun burned. We didn’t see all of Golden Gate Bridge because of the fog, but at least we drove on it which was awesome. We of course also saw The Painted Ladies and me being a bit of a hippie once we walked past the streets Haight and Asbury.
Reaching for the Stars
At this point it was the 4th of July and there was absolutely no vacancy anywhere. Nothing at all. So, by night we found a well-lit parking spot where some trucks and other cars had already parked and slept in the car for the night. In the daytime we had visited the beach at Santa Cruz and got a look into what 4th of July means to Americans. We are talking BBQ’s, trolleys and big cooling bags being dragged through the sand to celebrate under a pavilion by the beach. And the beach was crammed. We almost couldn’t find a spot for our two modest towels on the sand.
The next day I had a small breakdown. It was all too much. My sunburn hurt, my tooth still hurt, I had just dropped my phone and the screen had gotten a crack, we had no place to sleep, Mathias had blisters on both feet from walking so much and we felt dirty and hopeless. At this point it really didn’t feel like vacation but more like survival. Being “homeless” for so long can really be exhausting. Our moods lifted a bit as we continued through California and along the famous highway 1. We drove through Big Sur – which I also learned later is a whole area to be explored and not just a quick drive-through. Our next stop was the town of Solvang, which is interesting to us Danes because it’s a city founded by a group of Danish teachers in 1911. It was clear that it’s now just a big parody of anything Danish, or Scandinavian. I really don’t hope that’s how other countries view us.
By the time we got to Malibu my tooth had stopped acting out, we were on our way to Los Angeles and things was going better after a steep learning curve. I always write a journal when we travel. Because while pictures are great for memorizing moments words are better at describing feelings. And I wrote down what we learned during these two weeks on the road:
“Everyone has a big car, preferably more than one and preferably a pick-up truck. The motorhomes/RVs are gigantic. Same are the portions at restaurants. McDonalds is the key to WIFI, and all other places saying they have WIFI are lying. American washing machines are weird. The number of American flags is uncountable – the same is the number of homeless people. Guacamole is just avocado-mush. Taxes and tips suck. KFC sucks. Carl’s Jr. is pretty awesome. They are really fond of potatoes – especially mashed – and ranch dressing. All other coins but quarters should be banned.”
These are of course not meant in an offensive way, they are merely observations made by two Danish tourists.
In Los Angeles we used same trick as in San Francisco; found a place outside the city and took the underground to the city. I foolishly thought that the Hollywood Walk of Fame was just one street. Turns out it’s more like seven. It also turns out spending a whole day staring at the sidewalk, even though it has stars on it, is a poor way to spend the time. We went to Santa Monica Pier one evening and it was like being part of a movie. We drove around Los Angeles in our convertible with the top down going up Mulholland Drive to watch the sunset. But what I was most excited about was our day at Disneyland. We couldn’t go to California and miss Disneyland, obviously. It truly is a magical place.
After Los Angeles we headed to San Diego. On the way there one evening we had finally found a Chuck E. Cheese’s Restaurant. I was beginning to think they were a myth, so we were happy to find one. That was a really fun and weird place. But we had the nicest experience. See, you get a lot of tickets everytime you win a game, but we had no use for them. The mascot threw a lot of tickets to the children at one point, and they just went nuts trying to get the most, but one girl was too shy and didn’t get any and started crying. We gave her all of our tickets, and I’ll never forget the look in her face.
The last stretch
In San Diego we spent a day at their zoo, but we were soon off to Phoenix, Arizona. This was our last stop. On our way there we slept in our tent one night. Don’t do that. Don’t go camping in a desert state, especially not one with giant bugs. When we reached Phoenix, we chose a motel with aircondition and stayed there for the last week. I had not really planned the time well, so in the end we had a whole week in Arizona. At that point it was nice to just sit back and relax, but I wish we had spent a little more time exploring some of the other stops.
We had planned to drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, which turned out to be a four-hour long drive, but we did it anyway. And it was so incredible. No words can quite describe Grand Canyon. We hiked the Angel Head Trail and watched the sunset from another viewpoint. It was magnificent! And a perfect end to our trip.
But the trip didn’t quite end here. We had to turn in our rental car the day before heading home on a plane. It was a relief to be honest. Imagine walking around with a big, red, diamond in your pocket for a month and finally be relieved of it. We had done most of our shopping for the trip home but had of course not gotten dinner. We decided to walk to the nearest Carl’s Jr. Yes, we walked. In the scolding hot afternoon sun, in Phoenix, without water. That’s why there were no people on the streets…
Our journey home was if anything long. Really long. We flew from Phoenix to Seattle to Reykjavik to Copenhagen, to take a train to Aarhus where Mathias’ parents picked ud up and drove us home. I don’t even know how long it took us because of the time difference. But we saw the sun almost setting when we flew above Greenland only for it to start rising, that was quite a unique experience. Once again in Denmark everything seemed so small, it was nice to tread familiar ground, but I’m definitely not done exploring the U.S – how can you ever be?
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