The name for the USA in Chinese is Mei Guo (美國), which directly translates into “beautiful country.”1 The name suits the country well, as anyone who’s driven around the US can attest.
After spending a few years abroad, I became somewhat mystified by the American love affair with the automobile. Cars were indulgent and cumbersome when buses or trains were cheaper alternatives. It took a road trip of my own down the Pacific Coast Highway to reignite the romance. I’ve since racked up the mileage on my odometer exploring the forests and deserts of my home state of California. Traveling without a car hasn’t been the same.
While others tend to get caught up with “the open road” and “the wind in your hair,” I drive to travel on my own schedule. I’m not running to catch the last bus out of town or missing an alarm and scrambling to pack for the only train to who-knows-where. I don’t have shady tour operators forcing our bus to stop at a deserted factory outlet in the middle of China. If I want to spend an extra hour sipping this tea or admiring that view, I can. Driving is travel unrestrained by where or when other people say you ought to go.
Recently I was fortunate to be outfitted with a funky little campervan from the good folks at JUCY for a little tour of my own. With a rooftop tent and a kitchen in the trunk, I had no choice but to answer the sultry beckoning of Zion National Park.
We almost named the purple and green van Big Poppa in honor of The Notorious B.I.G. (Juicy, get it?), but we eventually settled on Donatello. It comfortably seats and sleeps four people, with a foldout bed in the lower level and a rooftop pop-up tent above. The lower bunk has access to the fold-down DVD player. In the back there’s a little kitchen with two burners, a little sink, and a fridge. The fridge made managing our food supply so much easier because it can run overnight without killing the van’s battery.
The Pacific Coast Highway was out of the way, but it would be criminal to embark on a Californian road trip without a bit of Highway 1. My companion Ai Ling handled the music as we careened along the coast, the sunset glowing molten oranges and violets.
We set up camp at Leo Carrillo Beach, one of my childhood beaches. Sitting in the shade of the giant sycamore trees, I inspected an acorn that fell at my feet. We used to go on field trips in this area to learn about the Chumash, who depended on acorns as a major food source.
The beach was a short walk from the campsite. Kayakers were paddling back from exploring the nearby sea caves, and kids were gleefully molesting the local sea life in the tide pools. We lounged about on the beach with some paella I cooked in the campervan, taking sips from a bottle of wine we kept hidden in a towel.
There’s some great hiking in the Malibu and Santa Monica mountains, but I had other plans. We packed up the van and headed to the Angeles Crest Highway, just off the 210. It’s a winding drive up into the Los Padres Forest, with many places to stop and enjoy a view of Los Angeles. We found a quiet turnoff and clambered up into the pop-tent and admired the shimmering city below.
By the time we’d reached Zion, we were sleep deprived, and our brains were cooked medium well from the heat of Lake Mead. My friend Rex drooped in his seat, mumbling something about naps. He perked up the moment we parked. “There’s nowhere you can stand that isn’t beautiful,” Rex said. Zion’s sandstone formations certainly deserve their divine reputation, reaching up thousands of feet into the sky. Colored like dusty pastels, they reminded me of the dyed shells of Easter eggs.
One of Zion’s most famous hikes is Angels Landing. The signs at the base warned it was “not for people with a fear of heights,” but we just laughed it off. We weren’t laughing for long though. After a steep ascent, there’s a section where hikers must hang on to a chain bolted into the walls or risk falling straight off of the narrow bit of rock. A strong gust of wind or a homicidal passerby could send you hurtling to your death. Which is to say, it was exactly the kind of hike I was hoping for. Reaching the summit gave us 360-degree views of the canyon and a chance to bask in our triumph with other hikers.
So what’s the best way to celebrate a day of rigorous activity? By being lazy, of course. We rented a DVD of Inglourious Basterds to watch in the van and had a merry time drinking American beers and watching Nazis die by the hands of Brad Pitt.
We would have loved to have hiked the Narrows, but it was unfortunately washed out by rain when we were visiting. It follows a narrow canyon with vertical walls, and you actually hike in the river (you can get outfitted with appropriate gear in town).
All the more reason to come back.
[Editor’s note: This trip was partially sponsored by our friends at JUCY Rentals.]