On the Edge of the World: The Grand Canyon

My journey to Flagstaff did not start with it’s best foot forward. I’ve already expressed how tedious the journey via Greyhound bus was between San Antonio and Albuquerque, but if I’m completely honest, it was only because it was such a long distance. For all the hours I spent travelling on that leg of the trip, everything ran on time and according to schedule. However, the same could not be said for the rest of my experiences with Greyhound. The weather had taken a turn for the worse across the Southwest, which was causing massive delays in the bus schedule. Usually I can deal with unavoidable delays, but this was one was particularly aggravating, and not because I had woken up at the crack of dawn to get from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. When I finally jumped off the Rail Runner at Albuquerque and made my way to the check-in desk, I was informed that the bus would be delayed.
“How delayed?” I asked, slightly relieved that I didn’t need to rush anymore but simultaneously annoyed that I’d rushed so much in the first place.
“We can’t exactly say. The journey has been affected by the weather, so they’re estimating about three hours. But it could be sooner than that, so you shouldn’t go anywhere in case the bus comes earlier.” In other words, I would be forced to wait around the bus depot for three hours with no real indication of when the bus was going to show up, and leaving to explore the city came with the risk of missing the bus, should it manage to make up for lost time.

The weather was pretty crappy, so I wonder if I would have been bothered to go wandering around Albuquerque at all even if they had been able to confirm the arrival time of the bus. Regardless, I was still pretty annoyed by the fact I’d gotten up so early to literally just wait around at the bus depot. There was also an uncomfortable amount of chatter among other travellers about the tendency for Greyhound to oversell buses and have passengers stranded with no other option but to wait for the next bus. And that was so not happening. After about an hour and a half of waiting I ended up sitting in a queue on the floor in front of the doors that lead out to the boarding area. I mean, I didn’t have anything else to do, and I was already behind schedule, so I wasn’t leaving things to chance when it came to getting on that bus. Eventually it arrived, after the initially anticipated three hours, and we all clamoured our way onto the bus, and I made sure I got a window seat so I could peer outside and make sure my bag was loaded underneath the bus – I’d overheard other horror stories from my fellow travellers about Greyhound leaving luggage behind.

The bus ride was another long trek through relatively uninhabited land, slowed down by the fog and wet weather, and with the days were growing shorter, it was dark by the time I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had been sending messages to David, the Couchsurfing host who I’d arranged to stay with during my time in Flagstaff. He’d actually been at work for most of the day, so instead of having to kill time until he had finished, he was actually waiting for me at the bus depot when I finally arrived, and together we walked back to his place. Flagstaff was definitely a small suburban town, and probably the only reason that it got as much tourist attention as it did was because of it’s proximity to the Grand Canyon. David was French Canadian, living in Flagstaff and doing his PhD research at the nearby university. He was soft-spoken and polite, but also very chilled out. We went home and he cooked me some dinner, where he managed to make a delicious meal seemingly out of scraps and leftovers that he had lying around his kitchen. The weather was cold and miserable, so once again I had a nice evening in with my host, drinking some craft beer and wine, getting to know each other and sharing our own travelling experiences and Couchsurfing stories.

***

The Grand Canyon is huge, stretching across the borders of several states, meaning there are plenty of places where you can stay and base your visit from. I chose to visit it from Flagstaff because… well, I didn’t really know what else to do while crossing the Southwest. I’d spoken to my mother about a week earlier, when I was in Austin booking all my buses and getting a travel plan together, and she had told me of a friend who had had rave reviews about the helicopter tour that they had done of the Grand Canyon, and told me that I should really consider it and make the most of being there. I shopped around online and found some day-trip packages from Flagstaff that included transport out to the Grand Canyon, lunch at a restaurant in the Grand Canyon National Park, and a helicopter tour that took you out over the canyon. It seemed like a good deal, so I went ahead and made the reservation.

However, the weather on the day I was set to head over the Grand Canyon proved to be as horrible as it had the day before. I had rugged up with several layers, including the thermal underwear that Bradley had given me, and made my way to the hotel that was the first pick-up point of the day-trip. There were 7 people on the day-trip – three older couples and myself – and once we were on our way out we received the disappointing news that the cloud cover was so low that the helicopter ride would have yielded absolutely no views of the canyon. Helicopters are not allowed to fly below the rim on the canyon – in fact they have to remain at a certain elevation about it – so that portion of our day unfortunately had to be cancelled (fortunately, it also had to be refunded, so it didn’t end up being a waste of money). We still stopped by the visitor centre where the helicopter would have departed from, and watched a 3D film about the history of the canyon and its exploration, which was also included in the price of the day-trip. After that it was on to the canyon itself.

I’ve heard people talk about how impressive the Grand Canyon is, and I’d seen plenty of photos in the past. Sure, it looks really big, but it’s a huge hole in the ground: of course it’s big. I didn’t really think that much of it at first, but once we arrived and I stood on the edge of the canyon… no pictures, no photographs, and no description could compare to the feeling of standing there and staring down into the open expanse. It honestly took my breath away. And I know I said that photos really do not do it justice, especially not when taken with an iPhone, but you best believe I took quite a few:

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The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

And the obligatory Grand Canyon Selfie

And the standard Grand Canyon Selfie

We were dropped at one point on the edge of the canyon, and there were short hikes along the edge with various vantage points and viewing spots. I kept mostly to myself, occasionally chatting to some of the other members of my group, mainly taking photographs for each other.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

Cougartown

Cougartown

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon felt like standing on the edge of the world. I’ve stood on the top of immense skyscrapers and looked down at the people below, scurrying around like ants, but this was definitely something else. I don’t know if its because it’s even wider than it is deep, or because it’s a natural phenomenon as opposed to a man made structure, but its just one of those things that really forces you to look at the world in a new perspective. There’s a humbling effect in standing on the edge of something so awe inspiring and realising how minuscule and ultimately insignificant we are in the bigger picture scheme of things. But not in a depressing way, or a realisation that we don’t matter, but more of an appreciation of what it means to be part of something so huge – something so grand. It’s the kind of stuff religious epiphanies are made of, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had one of those, it definitely increased my appreciation of the world around me, and the forces of nature.

***

After our visit to the Grand Canyon, the day-trip took us home through the Navajo Native American reservation, and our guide explained a little more about the reservations and their existence. We also stopped at a small shop by the side of the road, which was run by a Native American woman, selling all kinds of souvenirs that were all supposedly authentic and handmade by the Navajo people. I must admit I’ll never be able to tell if that is true or not, but I didn’t have any reasonable reason to doubt it. Turquoise was the precious stone used most commonly by the Navajo, and there was a lot of beautiful jewellery designed with it, as well as other stunning looking gems and stones. I ended up buying some earrings and necklaces for my mother and sister for Christmas presents. I hadn’t been one for much souvenir shopping over the last eight months, but as my journey was coming to an end I felt that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to start acquiring a few more bits and pieces to take home with me. After that, there was one last stop at a service station before we were taken back to Flagstaff.

The driving service which was part of the day-trip was a hotel pick up and drop off, but I obviously wasn’t staying in a hotel, so I jumped out as the bus drove through the main street of Flagstaff, as close as I could get to David’s house. When I sent him a message, it turned out that he was having a beer at a bar not too far from his house, so I went to join him there. I joined him at the bar, but when I asked to order a beer, the bartender asked me for my ID.
“Oh, yeah, of course”, I said, as I pulled out my drivers licence. The guy stared  at it for a second, then had an uneasy look on his face.
“I’m sorry, it’s the law in the state of Arizona that we can only accept federally issues forms of identification.”
“Um… excuse me?” For safekeeping, I never took my passport out with my unless I knew I was going to need it somewhere. Literally everywhere else in the entire world had readily accepted my New South Wales drivers licence as proof of age in bars and clubs.
“It needs to be a federally-”
“I know what you mean, but… look, it says my date of birth right there.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t accept it.”
“Are you serious? Look, that’s me, that’s my date of birth, it clearly says I’m over 21.”
“I’m sorry.”

I rolled my eyes and was about to give in and just get a non-alcoholic drink, but it was actually David who ended up kicking up a fuss and telling me to not bother, and we just left to go home.
“It’s so ridiculous,” he said to me as we plodded along home in the cold. “I had all kinds of problems when I first arrived here too. Although, they wouldn’t accept anything because my ID was in French. But I mean, I’m almost 30! I don’t look under 21 at all!” He just shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Oh well. I’m going to go buy some food, I’ll make us some dinner. How about you grab your passport, and head over to the gas station and get some wine, and we’ll meet back here?”
So that’s what we did, and it ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Aside from his little outburst after the bar, David was an incredibly chilled out guy, and we spend the evening eating and drinking and talking, with the wood fire burning juniper logs, creating a warm and cosy feeling. It was the perfect way to end the chilly day out by the Grand Canyon.

***

In the morning I awoke to find it had been snowing. I pulled back the curtains to reveal a thin layer of white that had covered everything outside. After my experience up on the mountains near Santa Fe, I was still a little enchanted by the whole idea, especially since the snow was actually in the town and on the houses. David was less enthusiastic, and he let out a long sigh, completely contrasting to my sense of wonder. For someone from Canada, I suppose snow outside your front door was something of an everyday nuisance during the winter, and not something to get overly excited about.

Snow on David's neighbours house.

Snow on David’s neighbours house.

Much like my stay in Santa Fe, I was only scheduled to be in Flagstaff for two nights, a temporary refuge on my trek across the Southwest. David was heading off to the university that morning, so we had a slow start before saying our goodbyes in the morning. I headed off to the bus depot, early enough that I didn’t have to rush to get there, but late enough that I wouldn’t be waiting around for hours. Or at least, that’s what I had thought, and what would have happened if the bus was on time. Of course, the worsening weather had only compounded the delays that the Greyhound buses had been experiencing a few days beforehand. To make things even worse, the bus depot in Flagstaff was a fraction of the size of the depot in Albuquerque, so I was cooped up in the box of a building with the rest of the impatient travellers, with the horrible cold weather bleaching the colour out of the surrounding suburban landscape. There was nothing to do but simply read my book and wait.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

The bus eventually arrived, but once it did, we had to wait for another bus to come through, as there were a few passengers that were catching our bus as a connection. As annoying as it was to have to wait for the second bus, I guess I could appreciate the fact that they did wait, as it would have been even worse to arrive and find you’d missed your connection – buses don’t leave these places particularly frequently, and such an occurrence would have spelled disaster for my travel plans had it happened to me. It was early afternoon by the time our bus finally set off, several hours after the originally scheduled departure time. I sent my next host a text message informing him of the delay, and then settled into another long drive across the desert. It was quite a different feel this time, with snow covering the ground as we drove though the gloom, but despite the weather and the delays, I couldn’t help but feel excited. My next destination was a place that I’d seen in countless movies, and heard countless crazy stories, both good and bad, about people’s experiences there – I was brimming with anticipation about what the city of Las Vegas would have in store for this adventurous traveller.

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The Land of Enchantment

After disembarking from the Rail Runner in Santa Fe, I was greeted by a noticeable climate change as the cool evening air rushed at me from the darkness. A lot of people back home were surprised to hear the New Mexico was a little on the chilly side, given its reputation for being a stinking hot desert. But it was November, which meant that winter was coming, and evenings in the desert are cold enough as it is. It wasn’t necessarily cold though – just fresh and crisp. I made my way into the parking lot where I was set to meet my next Couchsurfing host.

Like a lot of my previous hosts, Bradley was new to the Couchsurfing game. The dynamic between us seemed reversed to what one would normally expected – despite myself being the one turning up and crashing at a strangers home, I found myself feeling rather relaxed, with Bradley almost seeming a little intimidated by me. He was a bit older than me – mid to late thirties – and very warm and welcoming, but at first I had the feeling that he wasn’t sure if what he was doing was “correct”, whereas I had become something of a seasoned Surfer by now. I guess I’d learnt along the way that there was no right or wrong way to be a Couchsurfer, but I also had absolutely no pre-planned schedule for my arrival in Santa Fe, so I was happy to go with the flow and tag along with whatever he was doing. We swung by a grocery store, where he picked up from dinner ingredients and beers, and he headed back to his place. After briefly recounting my painful previous 24 hours, I assured him I had absolutely no qualms with him cooking some dinner and getting to know each other over a few beers at home.

I guess I should use the word “home” loosely, though. Bradley explained to me that he had just moved to Santa Fe pretty recently, and he was working with a physical therapy company. The building had been transformed into a very professional looking practice, but there were also living quarters in the back of the building, and that was where Bradley was currently living. It then made a little more sense as to why he might have seemed uneasy – he admitted that he wasn’t totally sure if he was allowed to have guests, but he’d accepted my Couchsurfing request because he’d wanted to help me out. But there was an extremely comfortable looking couch for me to crash on, and with the only condition being I’d have to make myself scarce during business hours of the day, as long as he was okay with it, then so was I.

I’ve always thought that there’s something therapeutic about talking to strangers, and opening up to someone and being able to tell them whatever you’re feeling without having them judge you or make references to anything else prior in your life. I’d loved Couchsurfing so much because actually being pushed into proximity with these strangers (albeit relatively screened through profile reading) forced you to open up in these new, fresh kind of ways. In the case of Bradley, I feel like he enjoyed the experience just as much as I did. He had moved there after the ending of a long-term relationship, for a clean slate and a fresh start, only to learn that some other completely independent forces had brought his ex-boyfriend to Santa Fe as well. And Santa Fe isn’t exactly a large city. It doesn’t even feel like a small city – more of a large town, really. I got the feeling he didn’t really have anyone around here who he could talk to, but I was more than happy to lend my ears. He had some other frustrations that were bothering him, and I also got to unload some of the feelings or frustrations that you sometimes just don’t have the time to pay attention to when you’re always on the road. After my partying antics in the last two cities, it was definitely a welcome change of pace for the evening.

***

The following morning, Bradley informed me that he had most of the day off, and that he only had a few clients in the late afternoon and evening, giving him plenty of time to show me around. Our first mission was breakfast burritos: apparently they were popular all over the Southwest, but were particularly amazing in Santa Fe. We wandered through a few places around town before we found one that Bradley deemed worthy, but I gotta say, it was worth the wait. I can’t exactly pinpoint what makes a breakfast burrito so different from other kinds of burrito… except that, you’re having a burrito for breakfast? And like… as if that isn’t amazing?! 

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

After breakfast we headed to downtown Santa Fe, where we did a brief walking tour around some of the more popular buildings and attractions. Santa Fe translates into Spanish as “holy faith”, so it’s unsurprising that in the centre of town one of the most prominent buildings was a church, Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

There were a lot of beautiful things in and around the church, but my favourite was the bronze statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American saint who was one of the first to convert and become a part of the Roman Catholic church.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

There was also the Palace of the Governors, a national historical landmark and the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Once the home of the seat of government for the state of New Mexico, it is now a history museum, although it was more of an interest to us on the outside, where many pedlars and street vendors had laid out their goods and wares for sale.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

We also wandered around a few more streets, looking in a few shops, and Bradley even pointed out some of the cities gay bars, which he admitted to not frequenting too often on account of there being a severe lack of variety and diversity in the patrons. I’d sometimes had similar thoughts about the bars that I frequented back home in Sydney, a city of 4 million people, so I couldn’t even begin to image what it would be like here. We continued along, mostly admiring the architecture of the city. One of my favourite buildings was the New Mexico Museum of Art, which looked like a piece of art itself, in my opinion.

New Mexico Museum of Art

New Mexico Museum of Art

As beautiful as the museum itself was, Bradley assured me that Santa Fe was an artists haven, and that there were plenty of other smaller, private galleries with unique artworks that we could check out. At least, that had been our intended next stop, until we walked in a particular direction that gave me a better view of mountain overlooking Santa Fe, and I saw what was on top of it.
“Oh my God, there’s snow up there!” I knew it had been cold, but cold enough for snow? I was shocked.
“Yeah, it can get cold enough for it up there,” Bradley said, and paused for a moment before adding, “Do you wanna take a drive up there, check it out?” I hadn’t been to the snow, or even seen snow, since I was about 16 on school camp, so I agreed it might be fun to go have a look.

***

The snow was clean and firm, perfect for making snowballs, of which Bradley and I tossed a few. I mainly just loved putting my bare hands into the cold, fresh ice and bouncing around leaving my footprints as I went.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

The forest floor was covered in a blanket of white.

Snowball!

Snowball!

Bradley and I just wandered through the snow field, mucking around and chatting. With our lives and experiences being so vastly different, we didn’t really seem to have that much in common, but he was just a nice and genuine guy, which made for good conversations and sharing of stories and experiences.

Some of the slopes were actually being used for skiing.

Me, not skiing.

And then there was me, not skiing.

Other than playing in the snow, the trip up the mountain provided a pretty breathtaking view on the clear morning.

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Dispelling the myth that the Southwest is a flat expanse of nothing.

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A beautiful view… There’s also a shot of the scenery in the background 😉

***

After our trip to the snow, we came back down to Santa Fe and made our way to some of the galleries that Bradley had mentioned earlier. He had said that the city was a hot spot for artists, but I hadn’t really grasped just how much of a stake the art community had in Santa Fe. There were whole streets literally lined with galleries, and some of the art was absolutely exquisite. We spent the rest of the day there, slowly trawling through all the amazing art galleries and marvelling at their creations. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of most of them – after all, they weren’t world famous paintings by any measure so it was important to protect their intellectual property. There were some with such fine details that would have taken hours. Bradley and I would stand at a single painting and just point out all the intricacies, unpacking the entire image before moving on.

However, I will always have a soft spot for sculptures, and the courtyards among the galleries were home to some equally beautiful 3D art.

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Even without art, the areas surrounding the galleries looked like mysterious, picture perfect scenery.

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Many of the outdoor sculptures were also wind chimes or windmills of some sort, which danced and twirled in the light breeze.

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This harp sculpture actually created some gentle, ethereal music as the wind blew through it.

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I eventually grew tired of even some of the most famous art galleries that I had been to throughout Europe, but in all honesty, I could have spent an entire day wandering between all those galleries. In fact, we spent a better part of the afternoon there, before it eventually grew time for Bradley to head back home. Or, I guess to work, technically.

***

There was one particular thing that I’d thought about checking out while I was in Santa Fe. At the suggestion of Rob, my Couchsurfing host back in DC, there was a luxury spa located just ten minutes outside of downtown Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. After the excessive partying and the long transit that preceded my stay in Santa Fe, a relaxing afternoon in a spa sounded absolutely perfect. Bradley offered to drive me up there before he had to work (luckily, because I hadn’t seen one cab in the city so far, let alone a bus), but there was no mobile reception up on the hill, so we just had to arrange a pick up time for whenever he would be finished work. That left me with at least a few hours at the spa, which would probably be the perfect amount of time.

I wasn’t trying to break my budget, and while the spa offered all sorts of massages, skin therapy treatments and private hot tubs, I just opted for a general entry to the communal areas. The unique thing about Ten Thousand Waves was that given its place on the mountainside in the relative wilderness, most of it was open air and outside. While the spa I’d visited in Zürich with Umer had had an open rooftop where you could view the city from the spa, the one here in Santa Fe was surrounded my trees and nature, a private slice of forest sanctuary. I had my phone in my locker the entire time so I didn’t take any photos, but I’ve lifted some images from the website to show how beautiful the spa is.

spa-overview spa-grandbath_4

There were cold plunge pools next to the hot tubs, so you could immerse yourself in cold water before returning to the warmth of the spa, and wet and dry saunas, of which I am a huge fan. Highlights also included the futuristic toilets that cleaned up after you, washing with water jets and drying with warm air so you literally did not have to lift a finger.

***

After I finished up, I headed on outside and waited for Bradley to pick me up. There had been some hold up, and he was almost an hour late, which was a little annoying since he had no way of letting me know in advance, but completely beyond his control. He still felt bad, so he ended up buying me dinner on the way home, in a cosy little restaurant that served some good traditional local food, which was similar to Tex Mex but with slightly different styles, spices and flavours. We headed home after that – I would have to be getting up very early the following morning to get the first Rail Runner back to Albuquerque to get my next bus heading west.

“Do you have enough warm clothes?” Bradley asked me as I was packing up most of my stuff. “It’s gonna be pretty cold over in Flagstaff this time of year.”
“Umm… I have jeans?” I said. Truthfully, this was the coldest it had ever been during my travels, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned.
“Do you have any thermals?”
“I’ve got a thermal top.”
“What about thermal underwear.”
“Ahh… no. Am I going to need it?”
“You know, you might not, but I wouldn’t want to risk it.” He went into his room and fished around in his cupboard for a few moments, and then returned with two black items of clothing: a long-sleeved thermal t-shirt, and a pair of long thermal underwear. “You can borrow these if you like. They’re pretty old, but they might fit you, and I won’t be needing them any time soon.”
“Oh wow, thank you! But… I’m not gonna be headed back this way… How will I get them back to you?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I can easily get some more whenever I need to. We can’t have you Australians freezing your asses off down in the Grand Canyon, though!” Receiving hand-me-down thermals might not have seemed like a big deal to Bradley, but as someone who had received so much assistance from people who were essentially strangers during this journey of mine, it meant a lot to me. It was another favour that would assist me yet give him nothing in return, and something that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to directly repay him for. He must have known that though, and he didn’t seem to mind. I thanked him profusely, but he insisted it was nothing, and we finished the night with some more good conversation and finishing the rest of the beers.

***

It was still dark when I got up that morning. Once again, Bradley was an absolute saint and offered to drive me to the Rail Runner station at such an ungodly hour. He had intended to drive me to the first main station where I had disembarked less than 48 hours ago, but we ended up cutting it so fine that he headed directly to the next station. Traffic was so light that we ended with plenty of time to spare, so we got to share some heartfelt goodbyes before I left. We hadn’t spent a lot of time together, but I’d really grown to like Bradley in the short time that we’d had. More than being a friend, he’d actually come across as more of a father figure over the past two days. He’d fed me, even clothed me, given me a place to sleep, looked after me and showed me around, and had numerous meaningful conversations about things as personal as our lives to things as simple as the beauty in all the art we had viewed together. I didn’t see myself ending up in Santa Fe again anywhere in the foreseeable future, but I was glad I had made the final leg of the transit from hell to get there to see it, and to have once again had another great Couchsurfing experience. I gave Bradley one final hug as the  Rail Runner approached, and he flashed his lights from his car in the darkness as the train pulled out into the dawn, taking me back to Albuquerque.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

22 Hour Transit

Travelling is a lot of fun. New countries, new cities, new people, new experiences – if you’ve made it this far reading about my travels and adventures, you’ll know just how amazing it all can be. However, there’s something to be said about the difference between being in these awesome, exotic places, and actually getting there. I know, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” is a real phrase that people use all the time, and for the most part I completely agree. Given that my year of travelling was a consistent pilgrimage from place to place, never spending longer than two weeks in any one place, and that my eventual ‘destination’ would be right back where I started, on a macro level it really was all about the journey. But on a smaller, more specific level, the journey between place to place isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Some times they can be great, like the short cruises I used to hop across bodies of water in Europe, and the more peaceful train rides where you can sit back and soak up the Swiss countryside. Some train journeys, like the Trans-Siberian Railway, are challenging yet somehow intrinsically rewarding, while other rail and bus journeys are just downright awful, and make you wish you were still curled up in the last most comfortable place you slept, wherever that happened to be. Even flying can be stressful, what with the airports and baggage limits and occasionally missing your flight. I’d won some, but I’d definitely lost some too. However, if I had to pick a winner (read: loser), it would undoubtedly be the 22 hours transit between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

When discussing how I was going to get from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Vincenzo had given me tips and suggestions about places to stay, and I’d spoken to a few other people along the way as well, but there was one step of the process that I was unanimously assured was going to be… not so much difficult, but definitely not much fun: getting across Texas. As far as states go in the US, Texas is huge, and west of San Antonio there isn’t exactly a great deal of… well, anything. I was looking at the map for small places that I might be able to stop at along the way, and while driving a car might have provided the possibility to do so, in the end I was assured that it was better to just bite the bullet and drive on through the night across the desert. So that’s exactly what I did: since it was going to take at least 9 hours to drive from San Antonio to El Paso, I decided to book the night bus so as to not waste a day in transit. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…

***

I climbed on the bus at San Antonio and picked a seat. Close to the back, window seat, and thankfully nobody sat next to me. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, and the city lights had given way to the vast darkness that the arid landscape had become, that I tried to recline my seat only to make a horrific discovery: I’d sat on the very last seat before the wall that partitioned off the toilet at the back of the bus, and therefore my seat only reclined a fraction of the way that the rest of the seats in the bus did. The bus wasn’t full, but there was no more spare seats that didn’t already have somebody sitting next to them, and I was not about to be that guy that blatantly violates the unspoken code of respecting personal space. And so begun my long, relatively sleepless night, twisting and turning, lying across the two seats, sometimes with my back propped up against the window, other times with my legs dangling out into the aisle, although that meant having people bump into them and stumble over them anytime someone needed to use the bathroom. I think it has to be said, that saving a day by doing a long haul transit at night only really counts if you’re somehow able to have a decent sleep on said long haul transit and avoid being a complete mental zombie for the entire following day that you were “saving”.

After intermittent bouts of uncomfortable sleep and a brief pit stop at a gas station, we finally arrived at the bus depot in El Paso at about 5am. I don’t know if there’s much to do in El Paso in general, but I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much of anything to do in El Paso at 5am on a Monday morning. Sitting there in the breaking dawn at the bus depot, I recalled a conversation I’d previously had with Vincenzo:
“I’ve got a 5 hour stop in El Paso before the bus to Albuquerque. Do you reckon I could go down and cross the border into Mexico? Get another stamp on my passport? Cross another country off the list?”
“Absolutely not,” had been his response, without missing a beat, before educating me on just how bad the drug wars could get along the Texas/Mexico border. “I’d like to see you again one day, preferably not decapitated.”
At the time it felt like an exaggeration, but I promised that I wouldn’t try, knowing that he definitely knew better than me. Now, sitting in the bus terminal after a long sleepless night, wandering around the border towns of Mexico was absolutely not at the top of my list of priorities. But that did leave me with the reality of a 5 hour wait before my next bus was due to depart. Luckily the bus depot was actually relatively modern: there was a cafeteria where I had some breakfast, and free wifi, so I ended up having a group Skype chat with some of my friends back home – the one good thing about the ungodly hour in Texas was that it was the perfect time for my friends in Sydney.

By the time 10am rolled around, I had reached that euphoric feeling of over tiredness that you get when you stay up all night at a sleep over: that feeling when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either. It had been 5 hours of boredom at El Paso, and I had to admit I felt a little bit crazy for actually looking forward to the thought of being on another bus for 4 and a half hours. The one plus side about this trip, in addition to being half as long as the journey between San Antonio and El Paso, is that the sun had finally risen, allowing me to actually see the expanses of nothing that we were driving though.

The Great Big Nothing

The Great Big Nothing

This bus trip also had another milestone – border patrol. Not long into the journey the bus crossed the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a little surprised at first: it wasn’t like travelling to and from Canada when I’d actually been in another country, and I had never encountered these kinds of checks between any of the states on the east coast or between Louisiana and Texas. In the end I put it down to the potential for drug smuggling, given that this bus had literally just come from a gateway to that world. Of course, I got all the usual remarks from the guy who checked my passport:
“Long way from home?”
“Yep.” You’ll have to forgive me for not feeling chatty.
“Where are you heading?”
“Santa Fe.”
“What for?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Travelling?” It doesn’t exactly plead my case, but a flip through the pages of my passport and seeing all the stamps and visas usually speaks for itself.
“Wow, you really have been travelling,” he eventually said, handing back the passport and letting me get back to staring at the desert.

The rest of the bus trip went by uneventfully, and finally the bus pulled into the depot at Albuquerque, a place which, until very recently, I had thought to be a fictional city invented by the creators of The Simpsons in the episode where the city buys the Springfield Isotopes baseball team. Yet here I was, standing in a very real city, although for all the sleep deprivation I might very well have been hallucinating. At any rate, Albuquerque was not my final destination of the day – my transit from Hell had one final leg, not on a Greyhound bus this time, but the Rail Runner, a train that connects Albuquerque with the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. It was painted to resemble a roadrunner, the bird species that is native to the area, and provides a relatively fast journey, as speed is also something characteristic of the roadrunner. However, unlike the Greyhound buses, the Rail Runner is more of a transport for commuters, with people people working in one of the two cities that it joins, and living in the other. This meant that the timetable was not evenly spread out throughout the day, but with many of the services being centred around the peak hour times in the morning and the evening. Therefore, despite arriving at around 2:30pm, remarkably in sync with the bus schedule, the next Rail Runner to Santa Fe didn’t leave until about 4:30pm. In my mind I had thought “Great, that gives me a few hours to have a wander around and check out Albuquerque!”, a consolation for being forbidden to explore across the border during my stop at El Paso. Of course, upon arrival, with my big bag and depleted energy levels, that was absolutely not going to happen. I found a cafe in the bus depot, conveniently located next to the Rail Runner station, got some food, accessed the wifi, and waited.

The Rail Runner itself was remarkably modern, like any of the inner city metro trains that I had encountered throughout my travels – in some cases, even better. It whizzed through the desert, and since it was the peak hour service heading to Santa Fe, it was pretty crowded. I ended up chatting to an older couple who were sitting next to me, after they curiously commented on my backpack and began asking questions. I was tired, but they were actually quite sweet, so I ended up chatting to them for quite a while. It takes about an hour and half to get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner, and apart from my conversation with the elderly couple, only one other interesting thing happened. I’d like to think that I wasn’t talking too loudly, but there wasn’t a lot else going on during the journey, so I guess it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the people around us to overhear the stories I was telling my temporary companions. As we approached Santa Fe, there were a few stops on the outer city limits before stopping at the main depot in the town centre. I was heading to the very last stop, but as the Rail Runner pulled into one of the stops before the final destination, a girl who had been sitting across the train from us got up to get off. However, before stepping off, she approached me with a nervous smile and handed me a little slip of paper, on which she had written her name and phone number. She was probably around my age, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, although they were downcast for most of our brief interaction, when she mumbled a few words from behind her smile.
“Let me know if you need someone to show you around town,” she said, and I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything other thank “thank you” before she hopped off the train and the doors slid closed. The elder couple sitting next to me didn’t say anything, but they were silently smiling at me as I felt my cheeks begin to blush. I put the number in my backpack, although I never ended up calling her. I wouldn’t be in Santa Fe for very long anyway, plus I had absolutely no idea what her intentions were, and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Still, I had to admire the courage it took to do something like that.

Eventually the final stop came. It was about 6pm, so after a solid 22 hours of riding on buses and trains, and waiting in depots and stations, I had finally reached Santa Fe. At the time I had absolutely hated the journey, understandably, but in retrospect it’s those journeys that you actually look back on with some fond memories, because that’s exactly what they are: memorable. There’s almost always a silver lining to all the seemingly crappy experiences that you go through as a backpacker, even if it’s just another story to tell the grandchildren.

Man on a Mission

The Alamo is potentially the most well-known tourist attraction in San Antonio due to its place in American history, but just outside of town there are a series of other old churches known as the San Antonio Missions. We had intended to ride our bikes out there on Friday afternoon, but after the Thursday night we’d had, Hector, Nico and I decided we were in no condition to make that journey. On Saturday both Hector and Jay didn’t have to work, so I spent the day hanging out with them. I joined them around town while they ran a few odd errands, but then it was off to see the Missions.

Although there was one stop on the way out there: an open air market, full of all kinds of trinkets, gadgets, and other things for sale, most of it second hand. We pottered around there for a little while, though I didn’t end up finding anything noteworthy or anything I wanted to buy. The highlight was probably the market’s sign:

Fabulous

Fabulous.

After that it was on to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. There are four old missions that are found downstream along the San Antonio River, although the furthest one is where the visitors centre was located, so we headed down to the Mission Espada.

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Mission Espada.

Mission Espada.

We went into the visitors centre and gift shop and had quick look around. There was a small cinema that was showing some historical videos, but I have to admit that after the past few nights of partying that I’d had, staying awake in such a dark environment proved difficult, and Hector caught me dozing off a couple of times before we’d made it to the end of the presentation. After that we headed to the next closest church, Mission San José, which was larger slightly more impressive than Mission Espada.

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Mission San José.

Mission San José.

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The missions had all been Catholic outposts that aided the spread of Christianity across the Southwest during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but now they were mostly just historical buildings, heritage listed to as to keep them preserved in their current conditions. There was a room that had been redone as a church inside Mission San José though, but I much preferred just wandering through the open grounds and exploring the secret nooks and long abandoned rooms within the old building.

The modern side of the missions.

The modern side of the missions.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

It was great that I’d had Hector and Jay to take me out to the missions and show me around – my last minute planning and decisions to end up in San Antonio meant that I didn’t really know a great deal about it and hadn’t done much research, and while I’m sure if I’d ended up there without them, every man and his dog would have suggested I go and see them, having a personal guide to the city never hurts.

***

We made our way back into town later that afternoon, and after stopping for snow cones and Tex Mex (Mexican food with Texan influences – although to be honest it’s pretty much the same as what we’d call Mexican food in Australia, which did make me curious as to what real Mexcian food would actually be like), we picked up some supplies for the evening. Hector and Jay had been organising to throw a party at their house that night – I’m not sure if it was a special occasion or not, thrown in my honour, because from what I had seen so far they didn’t seem like the kind of guys that needed an excuse to throw a party.

They really went all out. Between food and drinks and their hilarious friends, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last night in the city. I spent the beginning of the even playing token Australian abroad, answering all the usual questions about my mysterious homeland, then pronouncing a bunch of different things, and including names, so they could hear my accent, as well as explaining the different terms we used for different things back home. It’s kind of weird the things you take for granted about the way you… simply exist, I guess? And you never realise it until you meet someone who’s never met anyone like you.

After eating and drinking came, inevitably, dancing. Apparently Jay used to do drag, so out came a wig and pair of heels too, although no one could really pull off a successful dance move in the heels (but that didn’t stop us from trying). There was lots of laughing and dancing, although one thing that happened that I found rather peculiar, upon later reflection, was the numerous times that I was referred to by some of the guys as “white boy”. I mean, it wasn’t really shocking – I am white, after all – and I wasn’t offended, because… well, I’m white? Most of the people at the party seemed to identify as Hispanic on some level, and I realised that I’d never found myself in a social situation or a group of friends where white or Caucasian wasn’t the most represented racial category. It didn’t bother me at all – it was just funny to be the token white boy for once, instead of the token gay guy.

Shots!

Shots!

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio - beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio – beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

A solid effort and a great night.

A solid effort and a great night.

***

Sunday was my last day in San Antonio, but my bus wasn’t due to leave until the evening, which gave Hector and Jay plenty of time to show me the Riverwalk, the remaining attraction of San Antonio that I had yet to see. Though not before bringing me a refreshing cocktail in the late hours of the morning, while I was printing my bus tickets off Hectors computer.
“Sunday Funday,” he said with a grin. It was savoury, but there was no pickle in it, so I drank it without issue.

If it was late enough in the morning to warrant drinking, then it was probably late enough for lunch, so the first port of call was Quarry Hofbrau, which despite the name, did not actually serve German food. However, they did make some delicious Tex Mex, but the real reason Hector wanted to bring me there was so that I could try their Dos-a-ritas. That is, a frozen margarita garnished with a full bottle of Dos Equis beer. There was a range of different flavours that could be topped off with different beers, but I’d a fan of the classic margarita and I’d been enjoying Dos Equis for most of the weekend, so I stuck to the original Dos-a-rita. Don’t ask me to explain the physics of it, but the frozen margarita keeps most of the beer still inside the bottle, which slowly drains out when you lift the bottle up. So you can let it all pour out at once, or keep topping up the glass with more beer as you keep drinking it. If it hadn’t only been midday, I probably would have ordered another!

Dos-a-ritas!

Dos-a-ritas!

However, after leaving Quarry Hofbrau, Hector and Jay did take me to something else – a drive-thru bar. I don’t mean like the bottle shops in Australia where you can drive through, throw a case of beer in the back of your car, pay and keep going – this place had a menu! They did cocktails! Of course, they’re not allowed to serve “open” alcohol to the cars, so each drink was just sealed in a plastic bag before handing it over. I was part impressed, part amazed, and part terrified as to how this was actually legal. But it was, so of course I ordered another cocktail to go.

***

After all that, we finally headed down to the Riverwalk. The whole concept is really interesting – given that it’s such a popular attraction, the San Antonio Riverwalk is almost like a main city centre that is focused around the winding stretch of water. I know that cities build on or around water isn’t exactly unique – I’d been to a few examples myself – but it was still a cool vibe. There were shops and restaurants along the waters edge for miles in either direction. When you walked down any of the staircases that take you to the waters edge, it feels like you’re leaving the upper streets of the city behind and entering some secret, magical world, full of people yet free from traffic, except for the occasional tour guide boat chugging past, wide-eyed tourists taking in the scenery.

The Riverwalk

The Riverwalk

Boat tours went up and down the river.

Boat tours went up and down the river.

We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering down the Riverwalk, hanging out and chatting and remembering all the fun we’d had over the weekend. Hector kept asking if I wanted my picture taken with anything – after travelling by myself for so long, I sometimes forget that that’s what people did when they visited foreign cities. I had just resigned to mostly not appearing in my own photos (or taking selfies, of course), so once again it was nice to have someone to take the pictures for me.

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Outdoor amphitheatre along the edge of the river.

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After walking a decent length of the cool, shady Riverwalk, we went back to the actual city centre, where we had been on Friday night. I glimpsed the Alamo again, and Hector took me to see another popular attraction, the San Fernando Cathedral. The inside was beautiful when we had a quick peek inside, but given that it was Sunday afternoon and there was a service beginning, as tourists we weren’t allowed to hang around for long.

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San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the nation.

And then the sun was setting, all too soon, and it was time to head back and pick up my bags and make my way towards the bus station. Nico and Daniel met us there, and I said my heartfelt goodbyes to the guys who had welcomed me into their lives for the weekend, and truly made my San Antonio experience an amazing one.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better first Couchsurfer,” Hector said with a smile. “Although I wonder if we’re ever get anyone as awesome as you!” I was so glad to have had a positive experience too, both for me and them. Bad first experiences can really put people off for life, but a good one allows for them to keep a little hope if ever the future ones don’t turn out so well.

I loaded up on snacks, stored my bag in the luggage compartment, and made my way onto the bus. I had been catching the cheaper MegaBus buses up until now, which cut on costs by not actually having an official bus depot, but now I was kicking off on some long haul journeys that MegaBus didn’t cover, so I was boarding the first in a series of Greyhound buses that would be taking me across the Southwest. First up was the long drive across the vast empty expanse that was the rest of Texas. I waved to the guys one final time before the bus pulled out of the depot and chugged away into the night.