After the calm and quiet of New Zealand's South Island we flew to the USA. The flight was a two part, overnight, cross timezone affair that left completely shattered. [The best bit about it was all the food that kept coming out! And the food was GOOD too. NOM. – Nikki] But we'd arrived at LAX and had a few days in the city before picking up another camper van and doing another road trip.
We took about two hours to get out of the airport, which involved numerous checks, fingerprint scans and faffage. Eventually we stood outside waiting for an Uber to turn up and take us to our Airbnb.
One scary car ride later, having successfully and somewhat miraculously not hit or been hit by any other cars we made it to our Airbnb. Our hosts let us check in way earlier than normal which we were incredibly grateful for, as it was 7am local time and our bodies didn't even know what time it felt like. We showed our appreciation by falling asleep until 3pm. We eventually prised ourselves out of the biggest bed we'd slept in for a month and went out to get food.
Wow. America was living up to it's stereotype and it was only the first day. We went to a store called Smart & Final and everything was HUGE. We'd picked up a few bits for the next few days and wondered how we'd eat for the next six weeks – if we'd just have to eat the same thing for a week to make it through the packet.
We had two more full days in LA which we spent sorting out a sim card, getting a new dress for Nikki and working out how much America was going to cost us. Spoiler: a lot more than we thought. We chatted with our Airbnb hosts over a homemade Filipino drink which was nice but I have no idea what was in it except, apparently, boiled egg [It was ube ice cream, condensed milk, ice and a ton of fruit. Turned out to be pretty nice – Nikki].
We also did a day of sightseeing. Although I'd seen it all before – virtually. There's a game called Grand Theft Auto (GTA) V, which has its map heavily based on LA. To the point where I messaged a photo of a building to Nikki's brother, with no context and he knew exactly where we were in LA based on his knowledge of the GTA map! We used Uber to get around a few spots; Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Griffith Observatory. We saw so many different people and on the drive between places we saw loads of fancy homes.
We both hit our limit for sightseeing in one day. LA was huge and busy and we were looking forward to picking up our Escape Campervan and heading out to find some quieter places.
But first we had to get out of LA. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
That was a nerve-wracking drive I can tell you. Wrong side of the road, in city traffic in a big (to me) van that handled as well as a submarine in syrup.
Almost two hours later we arrived at Crystal Lake campground to the north of LA in Los Angeles National Forest, which on the map had looked a like a hilly forested area but in practice turned out to be a mountainous forested area replete with road closures and as we were to find out; bears.
Our first night camping in America and we didn't know if we'd make it to our campsite, or indeed through the night. We also learnt that we'd had it cushy in NZ with every campsite having toilets, showers and some kind of kitchen. Not so in the US it seemed; no running water, no kitchen, just a toilet and not a clean one at that. This could be fun.
We didn't originally plan to visit Mojave. The plan was to head north east out of Los Angeles National Forest and join the main road towards Las Vegas. That plan changed when we drove out the campsite, followed the road in the same direction we'd been heading the day before only to come across a locked barrier and a road closed sign. Balls.
So we drove an hour back down the way we'd come up into the forest back towards LA to find phone signal to come up with an alternative plan. A frustrating Google Maps search later and I found a campsite in vaguely the direction that we wanted to go.
At this point I was sorely missing CamperMate, which made finding campsites in New Zealand so easy. We were yet to find something as good as CamperMate for the US. Also we'd come to the conclusion that America doesn't have the same type of campsites that NZ does. The USA seems to have two different types; campgrounds and RV parks. The first being cheap but incredibly basic with at most a flushing toilet and RV parks being really expensive.
As we drove out of LA the landscape changed; we climbed and climbed and the surroundings got drier and drier. Until a few hours later we found ourselves in Mojave Desert following an unmaintained road into the middle of nowhere. Just as the tarmac ran out the turning for the campsite appeared and we went and found a space. Both of us were struggling to believe where we were, having not planned to come here and having never been in a desert before.
It got dark quickly in the evening and as soon as the sun was gone so was the heat. We slept under a clear sky, with a gentle breeze and the sound of coyotes howling in the distance.
We woke the next morning cold and stiff and with no plan for the day ahead. We had a goal of getting to Zion and the Grand Canyon at some point in the next few days or a week but no idea where we were heading that day, or for the days between now and Zion. Or even how to get to Zion.
Can you tell we don't plan ahead much?
That has its benefits though. With no solid plan and struggling to find a good, reasonably priced campsite in the Las Vegas area I thought I'd have a laugh and see how much a hotel in Vegas would be…
And that's how we ended up going from staying in a desert campsite with a pit toilet and no running water to staying in a four star hotel with a super king size bed and his & hers sinks.
It turned out to be a little more expensive than we first thought because they add on a 'resort fee' which basically doubled the price but it still worked out to about £60.
We walked into the Hard Rock Hotel after eating lunch out the back of the van in the car park feeling a little out of place in our travelling clothes, unshowered and generally a bit scruffy looking. The decor was purposefully dark and oozed cool, we did not. We got checked in and found our room on the 18th floor, opening the door to a huge room overlooking the pool area.
Our new found luxury was put to good use as we had showers and lounged on the huge and super comfy bed. Just before we both fell asleep we got up and went out to find the strip.
We found it. Show girls, lights, casino after casino, fast food places, trucks advertising hot girls, people handing out cards for escort services and a fake Eiffel Tower. We walked bedazzled by it all. We walked through the casino at the Bellagio and watched the fountains outside put on a show. The water shot so high up into the air that you could hear it crashing back down into the pool below.
It's hard to describe Vegas, you've really got to see it. I wanted to visit though I wasn't sure I'd like it, but in the end I took a strange liking to the overt fairness and over-the-top-ness of it all and I could have easily stayed a second night.
But Vegas being Vegas it threw up an unexpected twist. I embellished a little with the title of the blog because while we didn't actually lose our money we did have a stressful couple of hours where Nikki was completely locked out of her bank accounts. My accounts had run low paying for flights and hire cars so Nikki held pretty much all of our remaining money.
From about 8am until after we had to check out Nikki was repeatedly on the phone with HSBC explaining again and again that we were travelling and couldn't go into a branch in the UK to unlock her accounts. We sat in the multi storey car park next to Hard Rock Hotel wondering what the fuck we were going to do if Nikki stayed locked out of her accounts until we got back. Apparently a transfer to me had been flagged as fraudulent even though I was an existing payee on her current account and a named joint account holder on an account she also has with them and the amount was nowhere near their maximum limit. Is that the end of the HSBC saga? No. Wait for our next blog post for more.
Valley of Fire
Again, this destination was decided only minutes before leaving Las Vegas after the bank debacle. It also made us decide whether we were going to loop clockwise or anti-clockwise around the Grand Canyon: clockwise it was (but we'll come back to how that bit us in the arse later).
We drove for an hour and ended up on Mars, or so it seemed. There were orange/red rock formations all around us, springing up out of the otherwise largely flat landscape. We made a beeline for the two campsites I'd found well aware that we were arriving quite late in the day because of having to phone HSBC in the morning and an unexpected time zone change.
Cut to us driving round both campsites in Valley of Fire state park having paid the $10 entry fee only to find no spaces. Our already tested collective patience was reaching breaking point as we silently drove out the other side of the state park. Much to our relief we eventually found the BLM land the park ranger had mentioned, it was further out than we expected but was easy to find thanks to the numerous RVs dotted all over. I trundled off the road and found a spot over looking a small valley.
We parked up and took a little while to separately calm a little before making dinner and getting ready for a night spent 'boondocking' (free camping). We left half the curtains open as there was nothing but open space to our left as we slept and I kept the side door open to star gaze for a while before falling asleep. We woke the next morning with an amazing little view and the best bit was it was free!
Wow. Our first week in the US was a bit of a rollercoaster. We changed landscapes so many times and had to look out for so many different things our heads were spinning. Searching for campsites every day has its advantages but was proving to be a frustrating exercise in the US. Still, we'd made better progress than we expected in the number of days and were looking forward to what was to come.