Driving across the country, to me, is the quintessential feeling of freedom – hitting the open road for days on end, stopping wherever your heart desires and watching the sun rise and set over a new horizon each day. It perfectly encapsulates my personal “American Dream” – life on the road: constantly moving while experiencing endless adventure, meeting a constant stream of new faces, and exploring new places. Every person should, at least once in their life, make this journey across the states. However, there are MANY route options that are all fantastic in their own right so choosing where to go and what to see is an arduous task. Thus, I am here to offer you the “Unconventional Route”. Have you already visited the Grand Canyon and explored the Rockies? Are you looking for new sights to feast your eyes upon? Do you enjoy the weird, the unique, the different and, even at times, the kitschy? Are you traveling during the colder months of the year and wish to hit up the warmth and sunshine that the southwest offers (especially if you are hoping to camp and have fun in the outdoors)? If you answered yes to most of these, this route is SO FOR YOU!
To begin with, my husband and I have already explored the eastern/midwest US through and through, so we wanted to drive across these states as fast as possible to allot more time for new adventures. Our first stop was Nashville, TN (beginning in Pittsburgh, this was about an 8.5 hour drive.. not too bad!). The NEXT day, however, was the longest drive as we battled against the clock to arrive in Amarillo, TX for the night. Driving through Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma, we finally made it to the Texan Panhandle where our true journey began…
Stop #1: Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon, also known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas”, is the second largest canyon in the United States. Being wildly less explored and much less popular than her cousin (the Grand Canyon, AZ) lands her a spot on my unconventional list. Reaching 120 miles in length and 1,000 feet deep in parts – her beauty is abounding. Arriving in early March, I was able to comfortably hike around Palo Duro Canyon wearing only leggings and a t-shirt – the weather was superb! Thanks to the illuminating sun, the canyon’s dramatic features came to life for us – showing off her multicolored layers of rock and steep canyon walls in all their burning red tones.
*Good to know: There is a $5 fee per person to enter the park.
Palo Duro Canyon offers a multitude of phenomenal hikes, but I highly recommend trekking to her signature feature, “The Lighthouse Rock”, via the Lighthouse Trailhead on the right hand side of Park Road 5 (there’s a parking lot here as well). I would consider this trail to be an easy/intermediate hike, rounding out at a total 5.4 mile journey with 940 feet elevation gain. It’s a perfect half-day hike, full of hidden beauty and countless photo-ops. Be sure to bring water along and watch out for snakes basking in the sun!
Another great location for photo-ops: Observation Point at El Coronado Lodge and Visitor’s Center. Here you can see breathtaking, panoramic views as you overlook a vast stretch of the canyon and learn more about the canyon’s geology, wildlife and history. Afterwards, drive on over to the Palo Duro Trading Post to try one of their “world famous burgers” and shop for hand-crafted souvenirs.
Stop #2: Roswell and Bottomless Lakes State Park
If you are anything like me, you LOVE all things “alien and extra-terrestrial”. Therefore, there is NO better spot to check out in the U.S. than the infamous site of the 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, NM. When I say that the entire town is centered around this alleged event, I full-heartedly mean it. There are UFOs and little green aliens waving at you from every street corner. The gas stations sell copious amounts of alien souvenirs AND…the best part… their McDonalds is even shaped like a giant UFO (kid you not!). Hence why this town earned a stop along my unconventional route. Just strolling along the streets of this town is a joy – you can’t help but smile at all the kitschiness.
While here, I strongly urge you to check out the International UFO Museum and Research Center – its walls contain substantial information and stories of not only the Roswell UFO crash, but many other UFO crashes and sightings as well. There are even stories and evidence regarding alien encounters – some of which I had never heard before. It blew my mind JUST HOW MANY there were. It’s also baffling how much evidence exists suggesting government cover-up. Whether you believe it or not, you can’t help admit that it is highly suspicious and oh so intriguing! Not to mention, the alien scenes and UFO landing reenactments, along with actual artifacts from crash sites, make the place even more worth your time and money ($5 entrance fee per person).
Right down the road from the town of Roswell lies Bottomless Lakes State Park and, if you aren’t already, this place will make you a believer in aliens. Within the park are nine, very deep, sinkhole lakes – caused from the collapse of what once were limestone caves due to erosion by the Pecos River. All but two of the lakes are almost completely surrounded by steep cliffs and their waters are a very “teal-blue” color – giving it a very otherworldly appearance. The entire park looks like the surface of an alien planet – and who knows what secrets lie hidden in the depth of these sinkholes?! I mean, I guess you could try (key word, try) to find out what lies beneath by joining a scuba diving tour? Sounds like quite the adventure to me!
Even without scuba diving, you can explore the shallower parts of Lea Lake by swimming in its beach area (Lea Lake is the only lake you are permitted to swim in). Or, if you prefer to stay above water, you are able to explore via kayaking or canoeing. Be sure to check out Cottonwood Lake and Devil’s Inkwell – these are my two favorites! Cottonwood Lake is surrounded by 80 foot cliffs and Devil’s Inkwell has the richest blue/green colored water. Both are spectacular to see and both encourage the brain to further believe in myths.
Speaking of myths, a cool myth (and there are plenty) surrounding Bottomless Lakes State Park is … locals believe that the sinkhole lakes are connected to Carlsbad Caverns 70 miles to the south. Say what?! It doesn’t end there. The myth, as it goes, is that a horse died in one of the lakes and was later found washed up in the Carlsbad Caverns. I mean, again, these are just myths. But fascinating to hear, nonetheless. It’s so easy to see how this place can rampantly ignite one’s imagination in all its mystical glory.
Right beside Lea Lake is the perfect place to pitch a tent and camp out for the night – at Bottomless Lakes Campground. The only not-so-perfect element is that campfires are prohibited. I suggest using your charcoal grill as a mini-fire instead. However, the dark skies here are unbeatable – you can almost see aliens swooshing throughout the milky way, dodging constellations and shooting stars on their way down to New Mexico ;-). But for real, Bottomless Lakes’ night sky is remarkable.
*Good to know: Beware of the racket-rousing raccoons that run amok. One big rascal banged on the tin trash can a few feet from our tent for hours on end.
Stop #3: White Sands National Monument
Guys, this place is AH-MAZING! Never in my life had I known such a place existed within our own country’s borders, let alone is the largest of its kind on Earth (largest gypsum dunefield). These expansive sand dunes are PURE WHITE – they sparkle underneath the crystal clear blue skies as the circling mountains provide the picturesque backdrop. Uniquely, the sand is composed of gypsum crystals which do not get hot in the sun. Yes, you read that right… you can freely walk barefoot on these dunes without melting the flesh on your poor soles. Rather, it’s incredibly cool between your toes.
*Good to know: Bring sunglasses – the whiteness in combination with the bright sun is utterly BLINDING.
My husband, best friend and I played like children all day long among the wave-like sands. We hiked up and over countless dunes, getting lost in the white abyss. Running and jumping off the dune cliffs and rolling down the gypsum hills without a care in the world, truly living in the moment and enjoying every second. Adding to the excitement, you can even rent sleds and sand boards at the park’s visitor center (or bring your own) – you must do this! It looks like snow and you’re on a sled, however… you’re in the middle of giant sand dunes in the desert of New Mexico… talk about mind bending! Check out this link to read more about sledding in White Sands National Monument > Plan Your Visit: Sledding on the Dunes. Your child-like wonder is sure to pique among this pristine, glistening white expanse.
Furthermore, every ounce of this place is a photo-op – it’s so gorgeous that our friends opted to get married here during our second visit. The white gypsum acts as a natural bounce, creating phenomenal lighting in photos. Think that’s rad? Wait until you experience the magic of a sunset here – all the dunes turn various shades of pink and purple. There’s backcountry camping on the dunes, as well, so after sunset you can set up camp and hunker down under the starry sky for the night. It’s an adventurer’s paradise. It’s so different from every other place in the country, you can’t miss the chance to experience White Sands National Monument for yourself. I promise you, it’s a dream.
*Good to know: Each time I’ve visited here, it’s never been crowded. In fact, within a short hike over a dune or two, we’d be completely alone in nature – not another soul in sight. My happy place. Spiritual. Calming. Rejuvenating.
Stop #4: Tombstone, Arizona
Wild West History, here we come! Doug and I love the Wild West and were giddy with excitement to see it all come to life in this small, reincarnated ghost town. The second we stepped out of our cars, we were transported back in time – horse drawn carriages rolling down the streets, cowboys gathering in front of saloons and smoking cigars, bonnet-wearing ladies shading themselves with parasols – it was a full-on scene.
First on our Tombstone agenda: tour the supposedly haunted Bird Cage Theater, once a brothel and gambling hall back in 1881 during the peak of the silver boom. Upon entering the theater, the tour guide immediately points out the bullet holes in the walls (there are over 140 holes total). You then continue to explore the multi-floor theater, the saloon area, the gambling parlor filled with poker tables and more. I absolutely loved seeing the portraits of the women who once worked there, circa 1880s, hanging throughout the building. I couldn’t help but wonder what their lives must have been like as I intently studied their faces. There is so much history in this place, it’s worth the money to explore it.
Next, grab a bite to eat and a shot of whiskey at the Crystal Palace Saloon and enjoy its Wild West authenticity: the furnishings are rustic and old-timey, waitresses wear vintage dance hall lingerie, bus boys sport six shooters, there’s the classic swinging doors… it’s all one needs for a genuine dining experience.
After a meal and some drinks, head on over to Boothill Graveyard to visit the tombstones of outlaws and cowboys, such as Tom and Frank McLaury who were killed in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which is another site you can visit while here). Tom and Frank were friends with Billy Clanton who is also buried in this cemetery. Billy was a member of “The Cowboys” (an outlaw gang) who clashed with the likes of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, etc. There are many other well-known outlaws buried among these historic grounds so go check it out! You’ll especially get a kick out of some of the writings on the grave markers, like this one… “HERE LIES LESTER MOORE. FOUR SLUGS FROM A 44. NO LES. NO MORE.” Oh, and did you know that the name “Boothill” derives from all the men who died with their boots still on? So much to learn and see. Tombstone is the best place to feel the spirit of a Wild West town – which ultimately is deserving of a spot along my route.
*Good to know: Yes, Deadwood is a fantastic Wild West town to explore as well. However, Deadwood seemed much more modernized and renovated – there was too much “new” mixed in with the “old” that it didn’t feel quite as authentic as Tombstone (in my humble opinion). Thus, Tombstone is a MUST. (However *side note*, DO check out the HBO TV series, “Deadwood” …PHENOMENAL!) 😛
Stop #5: Slab City and Salvation Mountain
Ok, as most of you know, my blogs are geared toward the adventure-seeking crowd – the ones curious to know all walks of life, eager to explore all landscapes, ready to encounter extreme weather and wildlife and so on. Those who are unafraid of depth and growth. Keeping that in mind, if none of this sounds like you… perhaps you should avoid going to Slab City (fair warning). Now, on the other hand, if this IS YOU… Slab City will be an unbelievable riot! An experience you will NEVER forget.
Upon arriving to the absolute middle of nowhere ,California – also known as Slab City – we were greeted by a painted stone hut, giving off welcoming vibes from the get-go.
After the rush of seeing the “Welcome” sign, we hopped back into our car and continued to drive up and down the sand “roads” in search of a place to set up camp for the night. Slab City is free land – people can live here as they please, for free. Thus, we camped there for FREE. There’s no proper law enforcement. No public schools. No official electricity, running water, sewers, toilets or trash pickup service. Most of the people who live here use generators and solar panels, if they can afford them. The residents must journey into the nearest town of Niland to do their shopping – usually by bicycle. It’s not at all what we are accustomed to, and that is why I love it! It’s the obvious choice to cap off my “unconventional route”.
*Good to know: Slab City gets its name from all the concrete slabs laying around, left over from the abandoned World War II Marine Corps barracks.
We finally found a vacant plot of land, pitched our tent, collected our own firewood, started a fire and began to eat our supper. Once the sun began to set, the man living in the camper closest to our tent (our neighbor for the night) came over to greet us. He then proceeded to invite us to a party held by “Radio Mike” later in the evening. He told us to “listen for the music, and that’s where it’ll be.” We were thrilled to have an invite and couldn’t wait to meet more locals.
*Good to know: Our neighbor warned us of the stray, wild dogs running around. He said that they are not shy and will jump on you and, some, are even a tad aggressive. “Be sure to carry a large stick with you at all times so you can shoo them away!” he told us. We heeded. Though they were everywhere, we never encountered any problems with the stray dogs. Thankfully.
That party, at Radio Mike’s, will go down in history for the three of us. Radio Mike lived in an old airstream with Christmas lights strung all over and, in his “front yard”, had the perfect party setup: a tiki bar, a large campfire, a giant carpeted mat with couches and chairs sitting on top, a leg lamp and much more. Everyone there was a Slab City resident (besides the three of us), living in the last of America’s free land. Some were troubled souls and some were just free-spirits, living the simple life. Whatever their reason for living there, they all accepted us into their party and we all talked, laughed and drank for hours. Best part: towards the end of the night, we all formed a giant drum circle and played around the campfire as a talented singer sang songs and played his acoustic guitar. So many memories. It was the “Into the Wild” experience I always hoped for (and more), but never thought I’d be lucky enough to have.
Funny story from this night: One of the long-time residents, name Stick Man, was convinced the singer was a Hanson brother and continued to tell us this ALL NIGHT LONG. He was out of his mind on LSD and alcohol, but it was SO DANG FUNNY because he truly believed it. Stick Man also kept trying to switch his bottle of wine with mine. Later, found out it was because he cut his wine with water. -_- Oh, Stick Man was a HOOT. And the Captain was a character, too! We saw his butt crack the entire night as he danced and we never understood a word he said to us. But he was fun to be around. They all were. If you happen to meet Stick Man or The Captain when here, please tell them “Mindy says hello”. I’m positive they won’t remember me, but I’m positive it’ll make me happy.
Not everyone at this party was on drugs, we did meet plenty of very like-spirited folk as well – such as Radio Mike himself. The qualities we all had in common, though, were: being accepting, non-judgemental and open-minded. Our differences didn’t matter. And that is what makes this place SO SPECIAL. Try being in a place of no judgement, no shame. Everyone is who they are. Try it and see how GOOD it feels. This leads me to…
The next morning, we wandered around and awe-d over this beautiful work of art – created by Leonard Knight using adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. The message Mr. Leonard Knight wished to spread: LOVE. To me, there is nothing more pure, heart-opening and soul-touching as that. I truly wish I could have met Leonard and thanked him for my enlightening experience here, giving him a big ol’ hug! Sadly, he passed away in 2014. 🙁 It is clear that his love still lingers over this mountain. It’s a feeling that strongly envelops you as you walk about. In one corner of the Mountain (on the inside), there’s a nook for people to leave prayers or wishes, poems of love or stories of God, etc. They can leave behind meaningful trinkets and photos of loved-ones passed. Its my favorite work of art I’ve ever come across. Ever.
Upon leaving Slab City, we saw the back of the “Welcome Sign” that greeted us. It read:
We all laughed but we knew it was true.
After Slab City and Salvation Mountain, we ended our cross-country road-trip in LA, where we stayed for the week at a friend’s house in Hollywood. I won’t say much about it there because, well, that’s not what this blog is about. However, I will suggest going to El Matador Beach because it was, and still is, one of my favorite beaches near LA (in Malibu). We ended our trip at this beach and had a perfect day there. There are rocks to climb, caves to explore, secluded beach areas to sunbathe on …it’s immaculate.
To wrap up this post, peep this short video of our cross-country road-trip, the “Unconventional Route”…