• James Armstrong

90 days of North America

90 days in North America already doesn't seem like long enough. It's a real task to see the entire country in any given period of time, it seems. So many roads, so many towns and cities, and an incredible amount of people.

The states of America are special. Each state offers a different culture that reflects it's surroundings. There is an incredible array of beauty in the country. The landscapes are wild and vast and they vary dramatically as you move from one location to another. I'm forever impressed by what we've seen in these past 90 days.

We landed in Los Angeles on April 1st. It was 6 something in the morning, we had just watched the sun rise, and we were ready for bed after 5 movies and no sleep on the plane. We were being picked up by my good friend Tom. We grew up together in Australia and he has been living within the United States for three years now. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife Elyana.

With sleep under our belt and a good couple of days relaxing we spent the next few weeks seeing the surrounding area and finding a car to live in for the following months. We walked and rode as many streets as we possibly could. We spent an incredible amount of time trying to find a good coffee. We sifted through Craigslist and the classifieds each day trying to find the perfect vehicle to buy for the trip. And we became more and more obsessed with Mexican food. It was relaxing to finally be having an extended period of time away from work, and especially given that it was such a long way from my office chair.

After a couple of weeks in LA our motivation to find a car had grown to the point where I was suggesting impulse purchases of whatever kind of vehicle we could get. The used car market (for our price range) was no good. Everything wasn't suitable for some reason. Though on the morning that I had had enough of the vehicle searching and had settled on an ordinary Chevrolet Astro in Inglewood, CA, Charley managed to find a nice example of a Dodge Grand Caravan only a short walk away. So we scrapped the trip to Inglewood to look at the Astro and grabbed an Uber to Torrance to see the Grand Caravan.

Two days later we had "Ruby" the Burgundy 1994 Dodge Grand Caravan registered, insured, serviced and the minor fit-out for living within the car had begun. Our goal was to fit a double bed sized mattress in the back and have all the crucial items needed to stay clean, well fed and happy under the seats.

Ruby - Dusty and exhausted during her first major trip. Seen here at Alabama Hills.

We could sleep comfortably in the back of the minivan, it looked inconspicuous and it was quite economic with regards to fuel consumption. We were very happy with the purchase!

Los Angeles is fantastic, but it can be exhausting and quite expensive when you don't have day-in-day-out occupation and a whole hoard of cash to throw at the attractions. We spent our time avoiding the hustle and bustle of the city and walking the area as much as possible to see what we could find and to see how familiar we could make Los Angeles. We traveled north one weekend in April to Lone Pine and Independence up by the Sierra Mountains of California with Tom and Elyana. This was just the experience we needed to kick-start the adventure. Beautiful mountains, amazing terrains, few people and classic small American towns. We even had our first breakdown for the trip. I managed to destroy the brakes coming down a 9,000' pass at Onion Valley which resulted in a long tow to Lancaster, CA where we spent a night sleeping in a Dodge dealership car lot pretending to be a used car for sale.

I was loving spending time with Tom and Elyana. Each day Charley and I spent our time walking and riding bikes wherever we could while finding delicious drinks and food. The weather was lovely the majority of the time and each day we exhausted ourselves with our adventures. After a few weeks in LA we found ourselves itching to escape the area and see what else was awaiting us on our travels. So it was time to hit the road and venture further then a couple of hundred miles from where we landed. We now had freedom at our fingertips in the shape of a Dodge Grand Caravan so there was no reason to not get out on the freeways and explore.

We set out on a loop through some of the south western states of America that would eventually lead us to San Diego where we would begin our journey north to Canada. We left Los Angeles and made our way to Joshua Tree National Park, on to Las Vegas, through a tiny bit of Arizona and on to Utah where we camped at Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park and Arches National Park. We trekked through as much of Colorado as we possibly could, and absolutely loved it - Picture perfect and plenty of untouched landscapes. From Colorado we ventured to New Mexico where we stayed with Elyana's parents where we had the most relaxing and wonderful time. Elyana's parents live in Albuquerque, which is a large bustling metropolis in the Mexican Desert that one must visit (think Breaking Bad). The large Sandia Mountains tower over the city and bring comfort to the otherwise vast area. We visited the White Sands National Monument near Las Cruces in the southern region of New Mexico before high-tailing it across Arizona in a couple of days so we could get back to the coast at San Diego and see some Pacific Ocean. As 'real' mountains were new to Charley and I in this trip, we were a little overwhelmed and were excited to get to the beaches of San Diego and to make our trip north to Canada. We enjoyed the Arizona desert and the cartoon-like cacti that inhabit the desert there as well as the arid Mexican desert, though the coastline and beaches hold a strong footing in our minds. So we had to go!

We managed our second breakdown quite well when Ruby's alternator packed it in as we crossed the Arizona/California border. We rolled into an Autozone car park with the engine off, quickly dropped in a new battery and drove on its charge to San Diego where we could get it fixed. San Diego is fantastic! It has the laid-back Californian vibe, the good food and prices and plenty of craftbeer brewers. We had previously met three gents from San Diego and Los Angeles while we were at Joshua Tree National Park. We managed to catch up with the two who lived in San Diego while we were there over some amazingly delicious pizza and beers.

After lounging around San Diego's beaches and cafes we planned to make it to San Francisco in time for the annual Bay Area Maker Faire (www.makerfaire.com). Maker Faire is an annual event produced by Make Magazine that is hosted all over the world in many different locations, with one of the largest being in San Francisco Bay Area in San Mateo. Everyone from YouTube sensations to large company CEOs and TV personalities show up to this event. It's the ultimate gathering for engineers, designers, artists and enthusiasts of technology and design. So we had to get there for my sake, and Charley had to endure one day of me enjoying it (I thought two days would be too much to ask for). It was the perfect event to see how America was relishing in the amazing limelight of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEAM/STEM) and to gain insight into how the culture could be manufactured and/or cultivated where I reside in Australia. The pen and notepad were more than ready for that day out! But before we could get busy in San Fransisco we had to firstly get there safely, and also enjoy the week we had driving up the coast to get there.

From San Diego the drive north to San Fransisco and beyond along the coast is brilliant. I had previously driven from San Fransisco south to Los Angeles, though this time I was looking forward to driving the coastal highway along the entire length of the USA. We spent nights at beautiful beaches such as Jalama Beach. Visited great businesses in neat towns like www.gowesty.com in Los Osos and hiked some neat trails in Big Sur National Park. We spent two nights in Santa Cruz before driving over to San Fransisco. The drive from the quaint Californian coastline at Half Moon Bay to San Francisco is quite short. We grabbed coffee at a Half Moon Bay diner and drove over to the Maker Faire site at San Mateo before 8:30am. It's amazing how close SF is to the beautiful Californian coastline and the small towns that sit at the Pacific Ocean's shores.

If you're into the Maker scene you'll recognise the logo below. If you aren't, then it probably looks like a robot with an 'M' on it's torso. It is the logo of Make Magazine (www.makezine.com) that speaks for the Maker Faire and the 'Maker' at heart. Most dictionaries say that a 'Maker' is: A person or thing that makes or produces something. Which opens up a whole can of worms as to who is involved and what is the result of someone's or many people's work. So the term 'Maker' now represents a huge variety of different people, from people with engineering roots to artists and designers involved in gastronomy and beyond. It is marvelous!

Being a maker is something I am passionate about, and something that I wish to better promote to fellow enthusiasts and makers/craftsmen at heart where I reside in Australia. There is a true culture that exists right now that I wish to enforce. Attending the Bay Area Maker Faire was one of the biggest items on my list for this trip, and it was everything I expected and more. It was also one of the first steps for me to better understand how America does what it does when it comes to business and events (because they seem to do it well).

Image courtesy of www.makerfaire.com

The Bay Area Maker Faire was great fun. We spent a total of 6 hours roaming the event, which we (especially Charley) found to be more than enough to cover all attractions and see the event in it's entirety. My only gripe was that seeing the talks and lectures was made difficult by there being too many great speakers at the one given point in time (a good sign that the event coordinators know what they're doing). They had a tent for racing drones, a couple of large halls for businesses to display their products, halls for children's education, a pond for a giant battleships game, outdoor displays of art, engineering and design, lecture rooms, a food district and much more. The attendees were big kids and little kids, and those who got dragged along.

Make Magazine support Maker Faires all over the world, including Australia. I'll be sure to be more actively involved in those that I can be involved in and also attend when I can in Australia.

Upon leaving San Mateo and the Maker Faire, I bundled up all my goodies that I had received from the day and packed the car for our drive to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. We planned to spend a week in the two parks as we knew what was in front of us at these parks was going to be massive, extraordinary and worth hanging out at for a good few days. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are extraordinary to say the least. I had been told many time about the magic that abounds this mountain range from Tom, and by the time I had sat in Yosemite Valley for 4 days I was completely and utterly astounded at the truth to all that he had said. The Sequoia National Park showed me just how big a tree can be and Yosemite showed me how big one rock can be. Both places, much like America's other National Parks, are a place of inspiration and motivation. They are the land of the gains.

Yosemite was well behind us once we had sights for Northern California, Oregon and Washington. The drive from Yosemite Valley to San Fransisco is easy to do in a morning or afternoon. From San Fransisco we could jump on the Pacific Coast Highway and move north. California becomes lush as you near the Oregon border and the plethora of evergreen trees is mind boggling. The beaches and coastline become even more spectacular (in my opinion), clouds and rain begin to exist again and the people are incredibly friendly.

Charley's birthday was near and we were hunting for the right place and event to enjoy it at. We stumbled upon a neat little town in Oregon named Coos Bay. Located on the Coos River where it enters the Pacific Ocean, Coos Bay has a strong heritage in timber, coal and fishing industries. We sifted through local events online and found that the local Mill Casino was hosting a grill off that afternoon. They were also offering beer tasting and live music all night. Casinos also generally have 24 hour parking, toilets and amenities. Perfect for us! We wrapped up the long weekend celebrations by driving over to Portland to see what was happening for Memorial Day.

When you're living out of any kind of mobile home, you need to quickly sort out your essentials for your day-to-day routine. If you aren't prepared you'll quickly understand exactly what they are. There's a brilliant perspective to gain from showering every few days (if you're lucky or you're splurging on the comforts), though most weeks cleanliness is achieved by moist towelettes, back of the car sponge baths, portable camp showers, ocean swims and even the car air conditioning can bring some life back to a not so fresh body. When you spend your day actively exploring cities, towns and parks you're going to crave feeling fresh and rejuvenated. Each day you're packing your mind with new information, indulging in foreign environments and meeting amazing new people - Finding a shower before relaxing your body into a perfect slumber takes your already amazing day to another level. We average one to two showers each week while on the road, and I'm quite happy with that. It's tolerable, by me any who. You'd have to ask my co-pilot if it's at all acceptable though.

We've so far had plenty of early mornings, sleep-ins, police telling us move-on, tinned soups, bananas, corn nuts and Reese's Pieces in the 12,000+ kilometers we've driven. Many hours of Googling places to hide-out, explore and visit, Uno, Solitaire and writing in our journals. Countless hours sitting in a 1994 Dodge Grand Caravan in only a couple of months of being on the road, and with 3 months left, I'm wondering if all of this will double.

Excitement grew as we navigated our way around Olympic National Park. As we topped out at Port Angeles we could see Vancouver Island, and we had been incredibly excited to see British Columbia before we had even boarded the plane to the United States. You can tour the extremities of the Olympic National park in a loop and enter the different internal regions of the park from various locations. The dark sand beaches of the west coast could be watched all day. While we were there the sun shone brilliantly behind a haze of clouds during the day, and in the evening sea otters cruised behind the breaking waves on their backs. As you drive north you can visit giant cedar trees, Hurricane Ridge ski slopes, numerous hiking trails, native reservations and lush forests. When you leave the Olympic National Park area, you can do so via ferry to Canada and Seattle, and by road south to Tacoma or via Olympia. We had spent our time over the last week in the Washington wilderness and were excited to see the city of Seattle.

With Walmart managers making it harder and harder to park overnight in their car parks in Washington we scoped out the local casinos and pulled up for the night at Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn. I have zero interest in gambling and the mid-week casino crowd are wild, though the uninterrupted snooze and free night is worth it when you can get it. Our first two nights in Canada were also spent in a casino. We stayed in the Edgewater Casino car park in downtown Vancouver for our first couple of nights there. When you roll into a casino car park after the sun falls looking for a place to call home for the night, you realise that you are far from the first person to think of it. There are often quite a few travelers looking to call the 24 hour casinos home for the night.

Our first fortnight in Vancouver consisted of catching up with life long friends, making new friends, sleeping in the streets in the Dodge, walking the city streets, exploring the different suburbs and eating. Lots of eating! We've toured Vancouver Island, ventured to the Skookumchuck hot springs, camped at the Stawamus Chief and deep within the Squamish Valley and had a great time enjoying local events such as Vancouver's 'car free day'. We are excited for our next 90 days in North America as we plan hang around for Vancouver City for a month and then make the 6000 odd kilometre trip to New York City where our trip ends.

Check out the gallery of photos and the Google Map of our adventure so far. I will be updating the blog with more content as we continue our travels over the next 90 days.

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