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America final episode: work hard, roadtrip hard!

Updated: Oct 21, 2019

We left New Orleans at 9 am for a 4 hour flight towards Los Angeles, but as we were flying against the timezone we actually arrived around 11 in LA. Meaning we still had the whole day to explore the area around our airbnb! This was a pleasant surprise. Of course, there’s always a downside... and in LA that meant traffic. We’d heard about the traffic in LA being bad, but nothing really prepared us for how horrible it was! Though it really clogs up from 3pm till 8 or 9, actually the traffic is bad non stop. Some roads would have 5 lanes and still the traffic would not be moving! When we asked about the public transport in LA, people stated it was just as bad as the traffic! Taking the train would take longer than taking the car, there were bad connections, terrible delays,... Not quite an option for us so it seemed.

Anyway, we eventually arrived at our airbnb and after settling in, went grocery shopping and exploring our neighbourhood (West Hollywood).

That next day, I already started my guest spot in The Honorable Society tattoo parlour!

The shop was located at a busy traffic bend in Santa Monica and only a relaxing 20 minute walk from our Airbnb. It hosted about 7 resident artists, and 2 guest artists (incl. moi!) in a very spacious building, interior decorated in a cozy barocque style. Walking in, I was warmly greeted by shopmanager Ari. And after the proper introductions with all the lovely artists, I settled down in my booth.

I can say that my days at the Honorable Society were a total blast and truly the most fun I had in LA! I was busy from opening until closing time while still enjoying a good time with my colleagues there! The variety of their work was also very fun to look at!

The atmosphere of shops in the US certainly is different from the ones in Belgium. There’s pros and cons always of course, but the overall impression for me was that the shops in the US were more artistically expressive, relaxed yet determined, and customers seemed to carry a bit more respect for the artistry of this branch of work. Or it could just be I had the luck of always ending up in the awesomest shops. ;)

I will admit, I wasn’t such a big fan of LA as a city. But I had such a wonderful time in the shop. I can not wait until next time!

People again asked curiously what Haythim does while I’m guesting. I explained how he goes and visits other goldsmiths/ jewelers/ pearl suppliers. He wanders around and scouts out the spots worth visiting together later on, and sometimes enjoys a lazy day netflixing at our airbnb. It’s also healthy, while travelling, that each can enjoy a bit of « me-time » once in a while. I could draw designs while he reads, or one of us could be editing the pictures while the other writes the blog and vice versa.

After my guestspot I still hoped to visit and do things before leaving LA. Since we were in WeHo (West Hollywood) one of the easiest things to do for us was to visit the walk of fame. It is one of those things you have to do when visiting LA and honestly it seemed like a ton of fun to search for our favourite actors, directors, ...

Tip: If you want to enjoy your time in peace before the tourist buses arrive, you really have to get up early, and make sure you get there before 9am. Another tip we urge you on is to beware the “superhero” cosplayers. Not only is it just random people doing a weak cosplay, they also want to trick tourists in taking a picture with them so they can charge the big bucks for it. And they can be really pushy / rude ( we saw one holding a woman by the arm saying she wanted a picture with him, it was a bit scary)

Anyway, after a stroll down the walk of fame, the Chinese theater and a looooot of pictures with our favourite bands/actors/actresses/..., we headed homewards, while passing a tiny shop along the Avenue La Brea, called Necromance. A shop with a variety of weird and fun items such as skulls, porcupine quils, butterflies,... You can really get your halloween groove on in there!

In the afternoon we met up with Kosey, a friend of ours who lives in LA and is training to be a professional stuntman. Together we visited an indoor firing range. This was the first time in my life that I’ve held a real gun, loaded and fired it. While it was a fun afternoon activity, the easiness of firing a gun also frightened me. It really is so easy to fire a weapon... which can potentially kill a person. Some of the weapons didn’t even have a safety. Admitted, aiming and hitting the target at a range is easier than you think but having full control of your gun is still quite difficult. I’m still not a fan of the idea that just about anybody can carry firearms...

Just when you think this day could not get crazier, Haythim surprised me by saying we were going towards the Scum and Villainy Cantina for a drink. A Star Wars themed bar down the walk of fame! Of course I would recommend every Star Wars fan this awesome experience! The setting, the drinks, the bar, ... everything was so well made as if off a movieset! I wish we could have stayed longer but we needed our sleep because next day we were going to Disneyland!!!!! (A little surprise on my hand)

Now let me tell ya Disneyland for us was somewhat like a unicorn. We tried to go plenty of times but for some reason it never (like ever) worked out. The timing was wrong, prices were too high,... (you get the picture). But finally, after (for me 28 and for Haythim 34) years we made it!

And needles to say, it was more magical than I could ever have imagined. We got up superearly and entered the park abit in a haze, to hear from the desklady that there was more than one park to visit. Apparently they would have their rollercoasters in the adventurepark and all the magical rides in the Disneyland park. We obviously opted for the last choice since this one had the Star Wars themed area called: Galaxy’s Edge (the first thing we hurried to). It completely BLEW our minds. The meticulous attention to detail give you a genuine feel that you are in the Star Wars galaxy. And, at the hart of it all stood the Millenium Falcon (you beautiful piece of junk) with the Kessel Run ride. A ride that lets you fly the Millenium Falcon in a small team while battling off the Galactic Empire. Yes. It is as awesome as you think. 

Obviously I would love to go on spoiling every little detail of every ride we went on that day, but lets round things up here by just stating that Disneyland really is an experience I hope everyone has at least once in their lifetime. The halloween theme that day made everything even more perfect to us.

And do stay until late! The night sky gives everything and even more magical hue!

After a long and very exhausting day in WeHo again, we met up with our friends in LA and relaxed for a couple of days. We went to the beach, hung out, had some food and made our preparations for out next adventure, a roadtrip through the national parks and forests of California and Arizona!

So Sunday the 15th of september, we took an uber to the LA Escape Campervans. We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, but during high season, the prices were simply unaffordable. We checked prices on a regular basis and finally set for a deal near the end of september when off season prices started and the trip seemed manageable again. It was still a lot but considering all the things we wanted to do this was still the best choice. Therefore we picked up our awesome escape campervan and set off for a trip of 2 weeks.

Before, we had looked up on the places we hoped to visit with the campervan. We made a very long list, but realising everything was quite widespread we needed to cut down the list down to just number of things. Wise lesson here: just accept you can never do it all. You’ll rush through things and never enjoy everything to the fullest. Don’t be that tourist who hurries to the spot, takes a hundred meaningless pictures and then hurries to the next location. So, eventually we decided on Joshua tree national park, Grand Canyon national Park, Sequoia / King’s Canyon national Park, Bodie Ghost town and the Winchester mystery mansion. Haythim still wanted to cram in Death Valley somewhere but soon realised that it would not be possible, if we didn’t want to be rushing.

So! First stop: the Wallmart supercentre! Yes, of course! We needed to stock up on groceries, else this would be a very expensive road trip. And having our own little campfire with us cut our food costs by a buttload! (Note: always place your burner in a secured location such as firepits. Never use when advised not to. Don’t be the douche who starts a forest fire!)

Second stop: Victoria beach secret pirate tower! While it was already getting dark when we arrived we still had our fill of adventure visiting this seaside treasure! Rumour has it that the builder of the tower tucked and hid gold coins within crevaces of this structure, as it was his idea of “Finder’s keepers!”. Obviously no gold had been found for a long time (sad face).

After this, we finally set off towards Joshua tree national park. It was already pitch black outside and realising we still had more than 3 hours driving to do, we decided to do some dispersed camping. This is free camping in locations where it is (legal) allowed, such as truck stops, walmarts, marked rest areas along the free ways, national forests (if you have a permit and entrance pass),... Our first option was the San Bernadino national forest. We put it in the GPS and followed the directions. All went well for a while until suddenly the paved road stopped and a dirt road into the dark desert greeted us... only to be stopped at a sign saying: Cahuilla Indian reserve. Trespassers will be prosecuted... Well that sucked.

So, we went to our backup plan. And after what seemed an endless drive, the nearest Wallmart parking lot at Desert Palms was like a gift from heaven. We really wanted a good camping spot at the Joshua Tree National Park so the next day we woke up around 6 and immediately took off again.

Most campgrounds in National Forests have a first come first serve rule, and since the campgrounds still fill up pretty fast in the autumn season we really wanted to make sure we had a good spot! We arrived at Joshua Tree National Park at 8 am and… had no problem at all finding camping. Apparently we had found the golden moment between high season (summervacation) and mid-autumn (when temperatures are perfect in the desert), schools had started again and people were working. We took our time picking out the perfect spot that would have some shade in the morning, and sun in the afternoon and settled down.

After a good meal, we put on our hiking gear and started our first adventure. We picked out a trail from our campground (Belle) towards Arch rock and back. While the distance wasn’t all that much, the challenge was staying hydrated and not get sunburned. We took it easy, enjoyed the various scenes this desert had to offer and made it back to camp around 5.

Joshua Tree really is a strange place. It’s almost like this place doesn’t belong. A desert climate, yet with trees, bushes and flowers. We also saw a lot of wildlife: rabbits, hares, birds and we’re pretty sure we heard a rattlesnake. It gets scorching hot during the day but at night almost freezing cold (even in our van and sleeping bags).

But what makes this place really amazing (especially for my lovely hubby who had been wishing and dreaming of a darksky), is that there is little or no light pollution. At first, there was the golden hour, that time when the sun has set but there still is some sunlight. It made for amazing pictures! With lots of yellow, orange and red filling the sky above the desert and mountains.

After that the blue hour set in, and the lights changes to all the cold tones while the first bright stars and planets became visible. After this the sky darkened quickly, filling up with more and more stars. Suddenly there were so many stars that at first I thought there were clouds running through the sky, ruining this magical experience. Until Haythim said that what I saw weren’t clouds, but our very own Milky Way! It is impossible to describe what we saw and felt at that moment. It was beautiful, fulfilling, and at the same time very humbling. I’m pretty sure I saw Haythim wipe away some tears. ;)

While we were watching, we noticed our one of our neighbours setting up her camera and aiming towards the night’s sky. Of course nothing could stop my oversocial hubby to start a conversation. Thankfully we again had the delight of meeting some very nice likeminded people! Miranda was a professional photographer and she, with her husband and their 2 kids were travelling around the national parks in their airstream trailer! (You can check out her gorgeous work on instagram: Thislittleairstream). Together we enjoyed the rest of that magical evening beneath the stars while sharing our travel stories and tips. These are some of the pictures taken that night. Fortunately her camera díd grasp what we saw that night.

Picture by Miranda Lawson Photography - Mylittleairstream

Picture by Miranda Lawson Photography - Mylittleairstream

Picture by Miranda Lawson Photography - Mylittleairstream

Picture by Miranda Lawson Photography - Mylittleairstream

The next morning we woke up to a park ranger checking if we had paid for the camping spot and after showing our ticket we slowly started our day. We did another hike, a shorter one that was more of the beaten track, and had a lot of fun exploring some interesting boulder formations. Joshua Tree National Park really is a play garden for adventurous grownups. Though the rocks are quite rough, with some good climbing shoes you can pretty much get anywhere.

We finished our day the same as the day before. Looking at the stars. Though from the top of a giant boulder this time.

The next morning we hurried off towards the Grand Canyon. We arrived early at the Desert View camping and settled down in our campground. We visited the visitor centre and the different viewing spots and decided what hiking trail we were going to do the following day. Hearing about an old mine we quickly set our heads on the Grandview trail. Also, the trail offered multiple overviews of the canyon.

It became apparent quite quickly that the Grand Canyon, much like Joshua Tree, is a place hard to grasp. It’s as if your eyes can’t comprehend what they’re seeing. First it seemed like a very monotone landscape but then little by little we started seeing the colour variations, difference in vegetation, rocks,… and suddenly you find something new wherever you look! It is truly amazing that this canyon contains so much: from sandrock, bright red clay to iron and copper! We went to bed early because we wanted to have an early start the next morning.

We started our hike at 7 AM. We hadn’t done a serious hike in quite a while and this one was said to be one of the hardest. So we set off with lots of water, powerbars and the plan to turn back, no matter where we were, after about 3 hours of walking in the canyon. This because going down is easy, and a lot of people make the mistake of wasting most of their energy trotting down the canyon at a fast pace. But the way back up is where the real challenge lies. As I like to say: Don’t be the hero, be the smartass.

I’m not going to lie, this trail was hard. It was very steep with a lot of rough terrain, narrow pathways, slippery rocks,...

We made it down to Horseshoe Mesa in about 2 hours and half. Though we really wanted to go beyond the old copper mine and visit the nearby poisonous spring, we stuck to the plan and headed back up. Not knowing exactly how good or bad in shape we were, and how long it would take to get back out of the canyon. We just didn’t want to take that risk, safety first! The way back up was really hard. The terrain felt double as steep and those damned uneven slippery pebbles didn’t make it any easier. We made frequent stops for food and water and after about 3 hours we made it back to the top. It was a nice surprise to see we actually made it back way quicker than expected. So we could have spend more time in the canyon but really, playing it safe was the best thing to do here. Now at least we knew that we roughly had the same speed going up as we do going down. Little did we know that this was going to save us the following day.

After such a strenuous hike, we set our minds to do a lighter hike on the South Kaibab trail the following day. Again we started early to beat the crowd but doing so we achieved our goal (skeleton point) a lot sooner than anticipated. (Un)luckily we met a volunteer ranger there and asked for some advice. She said that we could go back up here but that this would be a rather harsh and boring hike. Better to go down to the river (phantom ranch), back up through Indian garden and up the bright angel trail. She said this in a way so fluffy and happy that it all sounded like an easy, pleasant walk. IT WAS NOT. This was an excruciating 27km trail for which we had started way too late. Tip for all you hikers: either get a map that shows the exact climbs, decents and distances, or invest in a good app for your cellphone (for example: alltrails) so you can always check where you are at any given time!

We kept up a good pace and for the first 5 hours everything was fine… since everything was mainly downhill. Touching the Colorado river was also a magical moment, since we were really at the source of the Canyon! Not a thought popped up of swimming in this treacherous river though. Even if the water could seem calm, under the surface there were strong currents that carve their way through the canyon. People drown every year. And there really was no help at all down there in the Canyon.The next 2 hours from the Colorado river to Indian Garden were difficult and we were quickly running out of water. And though that “kind” volunteer ranger assured us of multiple spots where we could refill our water, we still didn’t find any of these so called sources. When we finally reached the Indian garden there finally was a spot where all the hikers rested and refilled their waterreserves. There were people doing the rim to rim hike, people that came down the shortest way (bright angel) and people doing the same trail as us.

At the start of our day we met another couple who were also advised the same hike as us by that so friendly volunteer ranger... Unfortunately for them, this was their first hike and they were not equipped (bad shoes) for this hike. They also seemed to rush down the canyon and we could already foresee some problems for them. When we met them again at the Indian Garden, their spirits were pretty much broken if not their bodies, and we didn’t see them anymore on our way up. There was another group that first snickered at us, no idea why, when we arrived exhausted at one of the last resting areas. We also left them behind when one of them got so tired and sick they couldn’t go on anymore. The last we heard them say is to look for an emergency phone near the rest areas. There really was nothing more mentally and physically draining than those last 3 miles. Our speed dropped a ton and it took us 3h+ to finish this last part. Darkness was closing in and even with a flashlight we couldn’t make out which bend in the path would finally be the last. But eventually, we made it out!

And was it worth it? Hell yes!!! The hike was absolutely beautiful and behind every corner lay a new view, a new discovery, a new challenge… But I would still throw that old lady in the canyon if I’d ever meet her again!

What seemed so simple at the beginning of the day...

Approaching the river...

The Colorado river and the phantom ranch

Suddenly... Sand.

Onwards to the Indian garden!

Everyone enjoys a hike!

Getting darker...

Last strokes of light... Yup, we came from down there.

The next day we left the Grand Canyon and made our way towards our third and last national park, the King’s Canyon National Park. Right next to the Sequoia National Tree Park. We really wanted to see those giant Sequoia trees and close to our campground was the biggest grove in the entire world. Note: biggest trees in width, not in height (although they’re still superhigh). Also, Kings Canyon is the least known park that conveniently sits between Sequoia and Yosemite National Park.

Once again we entered the park with our oh-so-handy annual parkpass and made our way into the campround Azalea. We were immediately greeted by lots of disclaimers everywhere, warning us to put everything that carries a scent (food, toothpaste, deodorant, drinks, dishes, bug sprays,...) into the bear containers, to always make noise when out in the forrest, to not approach the wildlife and to always be careful. So it seems these forests were chockfull of black bears (no grizzly bears luckily). Therefore we appropriately tidied and cleaned out the van as good as possible, leaving no traces of food, and putting anything that carried a scent in the bear container right next to our camping spot. Surely, seeing a black bear from a distance is cool, but not when it’s skulking around your sleeping spot. Again safety first. We already noticed the abundance of wildlife around us. Groundsquirrels, grey squirrels, flying squirrels, ravens, woodpeckers,...They all came over to check whether we wanted to share our food with them. Sorry boys, no feeding the wildlife!

We quickly ate lunch, and headed to the visitor center to ask one of the professional (this time) rangers what they’d recommend us for a nice hike. We double checked with a local who had experience hiking these parts, to make sure the hike we were planning to do was a good one, and satisfied with the information we gathered, enjoyed the rest of our evening at our campingspot before going to sleep on time.

Mine's bigger!

The next day we set out early for a 15km loop trail with an elevation of 600 meter, from the Sugar Bowl to the Hart Tree. The views were good, but mostly the trees were absolutely breathtaking along this trail. It was and is hard to grasp, the sheer size of some of these trees. Some of them could fit a house easily! The bark was a warm shade of red/ cinnamon(that’s why they called it redwood canyon), and mixed with the greens of the shrubberies made for a stunning scenery. The place was also a paradise for hundreds kinds of birds. I collected a couple of feathers during our hike (yay!). We noticed a lot of the trees had big burnmarks. Some of them hollowed out the tree almost up to the top! We read on a sign along the trail that these trees actually need forest fires to open up their pinecones (sets the seeds within them free), and to clear the ground so that their sprouts might take hold and have enough air and light to grow! Also, though we thought that some of these giant burnmarks would kill the Sequoia trees, these trees are one of the most resilient trees on the planet. As long as there is healthy bark, they stay alive and keep growing! Their bark also makes its own insecticide, repelling all kinds of bugs and therefore diseases! Unbelievable!

The next day we concluded our stay at the Kings Canyon National park with a visit to the General Grant Tree. This tree, which could easily fit our house in Leuven, was 1700 years old (and still 1500 years younger that the oldest Sequoia tree!!!) and about 12 meters in diameter! Such an impressive tree, president Eisenhower made it a National Monument.

And still this baby lives!

the Hart tree <3

After this we drove the whole day through the Yosemite National Park (they sure were right about it being the most touristic park), along Mono lake and, exhausted from the long drive through all the zigzag roads in the mountains, camped the van for the night at a local village. During our travels we noticed how selfknowledge became a vital thing in handling our travels. For example, I’m not so good with mornings (bright light really hurts my eyes), but superactive in the evenings. Haythim is focused at the beginning of the day but gets tired quickly in the evening. So we always split the rides: Haythim would drive in throughout the morning and noon. And I would drive the afternoons and evening/night. Not only does it split the load of driving in half, but it’s way more convenient and pleasant for each of us this way.

The next morning we were just half an hour drive away of one of my bucket list stops: the Bodie Ghost Town at Bodie National Park. This once prosperous town laid in a desert-like valley in the mountains, at about 8000 feet (2.5km) height. In a not too far past, this little town was husstling and busstling with people looking for their fortune. There was gold to be found in the mountains, and quite the amount! For 2,5 million dollars worth in just a couple of years! Even silver they discovered, yet in smaller amounts. Of course this popularity brought along the quick rich schemers, highwaymen,…, which made the town one of the biggest outlaw towns of the wild west. And misfortune followed when a giant fire broke out, wiping more than half the town from the map. Following the next years: the wall street crash and the wars really got the best of Bodie, and soon the area became a ghosttown. Because of the dry landscape, the buildings kept in good shape, and it didn’t take long for curious spectators to come snooping around, and others to want to take Bodie into protection. Today the Bodie Ghost Town is a protected area, with rangers staying here, a museum and people living there to help maintain the buildings and keep thieving hands out. Arrested decay is the motto. So the buildings are kept exactly the way they are. No rebuilding, but not letting them decay any further either.

The elevators...

That same day we continued our way northwards, towards San Jose. We camped out that night at a local walmart supercenter in Sonora. Tip: eventhough some villages don’t seem like the safest (and maybe get a very bad safety rating when you look them up on google), your best bet is always a walmart supercenter, somewhere visible (not too much near bushes or in the shadow). If you also spot other campers/caravans/winnebagos camping up there, you’re good. But of course always be careful: never ever leave valuables in the van when you’re going out, never leave them in sight in the van, and don’t make your presence too obvious by turning on every light in the van.

The next day we were expected at 2 o’clock, at one of my absolute must-sees in the US. The Winchester Mansion. Ever since I heard about the mansion since I was a kid, it had been my dream to ,once in my lifetime, visit this place of mystery. And of course I needed to drag my happy hubby into it. So the Winchester Mansion, obviously, gets its name from the famous Winchester firearm, developed by William Wirt Winchester. The house is famous, because of the nonstop building and rebuilding. They started in 1884 and kept building up until 1922 when Sarah Winchester died and now it counts roughly 161 rooms. Sarah Winchester started building this house when after the unfortunate death of her husband and daughter believed to be haunted by the spirits of the people who had fallen victims to the Winchester Rifle. She was advised by a medium to build and keep on building a house for herself and the spirits. She not only build, but frequently rebuild and changed rooms and corridors which made the house an absolute maze of doors (some of which leading to nowhere), windows in the strangest places and staircases with dead ends. Surprisingly, throughout the whole house the number 13 is consequently being used (13 bathrooms, 13 windows, 13 lamps,...). Sarah also never spared any expence building and designing the house. Every room displayed the most expensive and fashionable tiles or wallpaper, windows, lamps, ceilingdecorations, etcetera. The furniture though, unfortunately, had been sold by relatives after her death, so the ones on display (though still from the victorian era) are not the actual furniture Sarah had bought. Though we can guess they would have been of the best quality. We enjoyed a mansion tour, followed by an explore more tour that had only started in 2017, showing never before opened up chambers to the public. Honestly there is so much mystery about the house I could easily write a book about it. I’m not going to spoil everything here, I can only advise people to go and visit when they can.

The door to nowhere...

The mirror shows where the staircase goes behind the corner... the ceiling.

After our wonderful visit to the Winchester Mansion, we drove back southwards along the seaside also known as the Big Sur. We enjoyed the rest of our day at another Koa camping, making good use of their showers and laundromats, after which we started tidying up the van and packing our bags again. The next day we parted ways with the escape campervan with a tear in our eye, and entered the Los Angeles Airport again, for a flight towards one of our most beloved Eastern countries. Here we come again, Japan. 今度も、よろしくお願いします。

"I said noooooo!!!! You can't make me!"

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