This adventure really started four years ago in London, England when I attended a DARE Workshop, created and led by Gary Lashmar of Marshal Gray Photography. I promised to just be my complete self at this workshop, not to be the “always on” version, but the actual introverted side that I rarely allow to show in public. That being said, I pretty much kept to myself. I fully participated but I did not socialize much. I think Sarah and I actually talked for no more than a total of 5-10 minutes when I realized I had forgotten my camera battery charger and found she is also a Nikon camera user. Speed forward 3 1/2 years. Sarah and I had bonded on social media through common ground. We are both photographers, moms, a bit rebellious and such, and we became really good friends in the process.
I don’t recall who first dreamed up the idea of taking a road trip together. We were pretty loose about the idea but suddenly found ourselves making real plans and booking flights. Hers originating in England where she lives and mine originating in Oregon. The plan was to travel on Route 66 from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Santa Monica, California where Route 66 ends. We made no plans beforehand except that we knew we wanted to visit quirky and gritty places and meet quirky and gritty people, while photographing everything and anything along the way. We are both very easy going and adventurous. So let’s get started shall we?
Day 1. Medford, Oregon to Los Angeles, California and London, England to Los Angeles, California
We met at LAX in Los Angeles, California. It was pretty flawless. I arrived, walked to the international terminal baggage claim area, grabbed a Starbucks, planted my arse down at a seat looking out at travelers jumping into cars, buses driving by and people, just lots of people, scurrying around. I waited less than an hour before I saw her reflection in the window behind me. I knew it was her immediately. Floppy blonde hair pulled up, leather jacket, camera backpack with leopard print scarf attached to it Steven Tyler style.
Sarah and I were both so damned excited and proud of ourselves for making this happen! We caught a shuttle to our hotel, chatted and laughed and embraced the unknown that awaited us. Like bring it on alright already!
Day 2. Los Angeles, California to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
We caught our flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico, jumped into our rental car, which we later named Karen. Karen was really good to us. She didn’t know it but she would drive us over 2,000 miles through three states, on gravel, through red dirt and dusty white desert roads, snow, rain, sunshine, wide open roads and Los Angeles traffic.
We had a very loose plan. We knew we wanted most of our trip to be spontaneous. We wanted to sleep in locally owned hotels and motels as much as possible, eat in local restaurants, meet locals, take photos of beautiful locations, crusty and interesting people and just kinda go with the flow. We decided to choose our lodgings each day of instead of making reservations. We didn’t want to be firmly tied down.
We were hungry so we grabbed a meal at a local and funky pizza place/bakery that made really excellent food. We sat outside in their dusty yet charming patio area, came up with a plan to visit the downtown area and find a hotel, and later visit a few of the local bars that our server recommended to us. We came across the most perfect motel on Route 66 called The El Vado Motel. An adobe style motel with a classic neon sign one expects to see on Route 66. It was small and quaint with a sunken courtyard surrounded by small shops and restaurants. Sarah was really tired, remember she traveled from England, so she went to take a nap while I grabbed a glass of wine and listened to the live music in the courtyard. It was chilly but really, really nice because of the outdoor heaters that were blazing.
I sat there taking it all in. This felt like a dream and I was so open to the possibilities and adventures that were to come. Every moment, every person, every bite of food, just everything.
Day 3. Albuquerque, Acoma Pueblo, Gallup, New Mexico
Our first full day in New Mexico was nothing short of magical. We left our cute little hotel room with a blue door, grabbed groceries, purchased a cooler on wheels (Sarah later used it as luggage on her trek home) and searched for coffee before we headed out to visit Sky City in the village of Acoma Pueblo. We stopped at random places along the way before we made it to Sky City just in time for it to close. Yeah, we missed the opportunity to see it. So on our way back to the interstate we made the best of it and pulled off the side of the road and took some photos of the vast landscape.
We ended our day in Gallup, New Mexico at the El Rancho Motel and Hotel. This place is so special and so funky. We ate dinner in their bar which felt like stepping back in time. I had chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes. I tried to get drunk but it didn’t happen. I’d hoped to be dancing on the bar by the end of the night. But that didn’t happen either. We sat there for hours talking and laughing and eating and drinking.
Day 4. Gallup, New Mexico, Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater, Flagstaff, Arizona
Our morning started out at a classic little diner on Route 66, complete with the sweetest servers and a group of diner regulars–three guys who were very funny and friendly. This was exactly what we imaged we would find and we loved it.
The weather forecast promised snow so we really did need to get on the road and try to get into Flagstaff, Arizona before dark. But we did not get an early start to our day. Neither Sarah nor I are morning people. We could not be more MFEO (made for each other). Anyhow, before we reached Flagstaff, we wanted to see the Petrified Forest and the Meteor Crater.
On our way we pulled over here and there to take photos, running through sleet and freezing temperatures. At one point I ran across the road and into what looked like granite. I was so preoccupied with taking photos of this really cool group of buildings that I did not realize the granite was actually incredibly gooey mud that was building up layers upon layers on my boots. My feet were actually heavy from all the mud I had picked up and I was walking about 2 inches taller because of it.
We arrived at the Petrified Forest in Northern Arizona, with really no idea what to expect. Well, the desert is really beautiful. The colors are surprising and the massive sky takes your breath away. There we were, driving in the middle of nowhere on a two lane road with nothing but this huge sky and desert and desert plants and rocks and just flat out gorgeous scenery. It was so peaceful and adventurous.
We reached the actual Petrified Forest, which isn’t really a forest at all, we ate lunch from our cooler and then explored the trail a bit. This is when we met Ace, a park ranger. Ace was the nicest, most friendly and knowledgeable guy. He tried to teach us a few native words, which we butchered. I was really in awe of what he shared with us about this sacred land and native people. Ace, if you are reading this, I do hope you will contact us so I can send you some of the photos of you. Meeting you was one of the highlights of our trip. [Note: Ace literally texted me shortly after writing this.] This is the kind of place I wish we had more time to adventure in. It. Was. So. Peaceful! We could really breathe there.
Our next stop was a meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona. I had never seen such a sight. It is hard to imagine something from space hitting the earth and leaving a big huge hole. But there it is. Totally worth visiting. On our way back to the highway the sky was so stormy and the prettiest little rainbow popped up. So we stopped to take pictures and it felt like magic. I think this was probably our favorite day from our road trip.
We decided to stay in Flagstaff, Arizona. Unfortunately, we got into town after dark so we couldn’t do any street photography. We immediately found a hotel and checked in. Ten minutes later, we checked out. So, funny story. We found a really cool old hotel called The Monte Vista Hotel in the downtown area. The lobby was eclectic and bustling with people. We were quite happy to be staying somewhere with character and lots of life. What we did not yet know was that this hotel had all kinds of “life.” More like the opposite of life. We entered our room, which was painted black, with dark comforters, gold curtains and antiques. A very “funky and cool” room we said. Unlike the buzz and fun energy in the lobby, this floor was absolutely silent. Sarah soon felt something in the room that didn’t seem right to her. So, as I was trying to tell her the room felt fine to me, I quietly googled the hotel and found that it was the most haunted place in Arizona. Sarah’s feelings were confirmed after she read a double-sided flyer about the hotel’s hauntings. We checked out without any problems and found a new place to sleep a few blocks away. We had a really nice dinner and drinks at a local pub, the Lumberyard Brewing Company, and we cracked up about the experience.
Day 5. Flagstaff to Phoenix, Arizona
Our day started off with the complimentary breakfast at our very unhaunted and very comfortable hotel (Residence Inn). I have become such a coffee snob and the hotel coffee did not cut it for me so we went cruising around the downtown area looking for a good cup of coffee, as we did every day. Sarah was great about that as she is not a coffee lover. We snapped some photos and hopped in Karen for our day’s adventure.
On the agenda today was the Grand Canyon. This was a first for both of us. So, when you drive up to the Grand Canyon you do not just come upon a big canyon. You enter the park, choose to drive left or right along the trees and then all of a sudden there is an opening in the trees and there it is. Well, there part of it is. We walked near the edge of the canyon which is extremely intimidating. It really does take your breath away. It is so freaking, well, grand. It is immense and overwhelming and beautiful and like nothing you can prepare yourself to see. We spent just a little bit of time there, eating our chicken sandwiches from the back of the car, taking a few photos and then making our next plan.
We decided we wanted to see some Saguaro cacti and to visit Joshua Tree so we got off Route 66 and shot down to the Phoenix area. We grabbed a hotel room in Scottsdale and had dinner at PF Changs. It was not our most favorite night. The town, while lovely, was too clean, our hotel room wasn’t interesting and we really did not want to eat at chain restaurants but we were really tired. That being said, we closed the place down. Not sure I will ever again be able to say that I closed down a PF Changs. My apologies to the staff. We were just really having good conversation and the cocktails were decent enough to make us lose track of time.
Even though Sarah and I always have fun no matter what we are doing, honestly, I wish we had stayed on Route 66 when we left Flagstaff. I think we quite possibly missed some interesting sights. But Sarah got to do some laundry at the hotel and we saw wild bunnies by PF Changs after dinner. So, there’s that.
Day 6. Phoenix, Arizona to Joshua, California
Sarah took pity on me and agreed to visit our old house in Chandler, Arizona that we built over 20 years ago. I had no idea where I was so it took us forever to get there. It looks the same except the trees we planted are huge now. I realized that saying “you can’t go back” has a lot of truth to it. It is not the same. My memories of our time there are cherished but I am so glad we made the move to Oregon.
We visited Superstition Mountain which is quite stunning and then headed deeper into the desert and saw Cactus Lake–a place my family and I used to swim. While I am used to seeing lakes surrounded by pine tree forests, there is something odd and beautiful about a lake with cacti surrounding it.
That was all we had time to see as we were anxious to get to Joshua, California. The drive from Arizona to Joshua was long and flat. The sunset was beautiful. We pulled into Joshua about an hour after sunset and stumbled upon the Joshua Tree Saloon for a cocktail before heading to our airbnb. That place was so much fun that we decided we would go check into our Airbnb and head right back for dinner.
So, here is where our adventure gets a little more interesting. It was dark. Google Maps tried to get us to our destination but it was poorly marked and/or not marked at all. So there we were in the desert on a very dusty single lane dirt road trying to find our way to our accommodations…an old Airstream trailer. At one point we found what we thought was our Airstream, but upon inspection, found it was completed gutted. So we drove up more roads, backed down more roads, made more wrong turns until we finally stumbled upon it.
We headed back to the saloon and had a really great dinner. I had a burger and Sarah had chicken strips and fries at the bar. We drank a lot. We sang a lot. And things got really serious when I jumped on stage as a backup dancer for a stranger who was singing “I Like Big Butts” by Sir Mix-a-Lot. I think I would like to forget this part and jump right to the part of the night where Sarah sang karaoke. After finding out her favorite song was not available, she settled on Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics. This is not an easy song to sing but dammit, Sarah sang it and she sang it really well!
Again, we closed the place down. Met some really nice people in the parking lot, got picked up off my feet, literally, by one of the girls, and took some really blurry photos of them and headed to Circle K to get some candy bars. There we met a woman who told me I was a wicker woman. I said “Really. I am?” not knowing what that hell that meant. We had a very interesting conversation with her about Flagstaff being a portal for spirits. Later, Sarah looked up the urban dictionary definition for Wicker Woman and well, I just might be one. HA!
The Airstream was really nice change from staying in hotels and motels and I would stay there again in a heartbeat. But next time we will have to put more effort into finding the heater. Sarah thought she found it but it turned out to be a fan that made the freezing air even colder. Listen to me. The desert gets freaking cold at night. We slept under four comforters. FOUR. And we still froze our asses off. I don’t think either one of use moved all night because if we did it was like putting our bodies on ice blocks.
All in all, it was a really great time and something I don’t think we will ever forget.
p.s. The Preparation H wasn’t used for what it is intended. It’s was used as a beauty aid and it worked.
Day 7. Joshua Tree to Palm Springs, California
Surviving the night without getting frostbite, we woke up to the most beautiful sight. Having arrived at our airstream airbnb in the dark of night, we really had no idea what our location looked like. We were surrounded by big piles of rocks and desert plants. We showered outside, naked and afraid. I am not one for public nudity, but truth be told, it was really lovely and kind of private–there was a slight risk of being seen by a random hiker. I must say, the owner of the airstream told perspective renters to beware of mice and tarantulas. WTH?? I am NOT a fan of even the tiniest spider so I was really nervous about this place. I am happy to report we saw neither mouse nor tarantula.
We headed out to look for coffee and grab a few more groceries. We got lost and turned around and it took us 9 million years to get to Joshua Tree National Park. But we found coffee, a brand spanking new Starbucks. I was very excited to take a sip of my coffee but soon found out that they hadn’t added cream so I did not get to enjoy my morning coffee.
Joshua Tree National Park is stunning. The contrast of the airy and spiky vegetation against the round rock formations is just beautiful. I wish we had had a couple of people to do a photoshoot with there. Gary Lashmar had a DARE Workshop there five years ago, which neither Sarah nor I were able to attend, much to our dismay. The photos from that experience will just blow you away. You can view images from his Joshua Tree workshop right here.
From here we wanted to visit Thousand Palms Oasis in Coachella Valley just outside Palm Springs. We followed the signs. We saw a huge row of palm trees in the desert. We pulled over and walked through the desert to those palm trees. We thought we saw Thousand Palms Oasis. Later we found out that we did not see Thousand Palms Oasis. That was a bummer.
We arrived in Palm Springs around dinner time so we drove around until we landed in the downtown area which was really bustling. There is a really cute restaurant called Ruby’s Diner where we ate chicken strips (Sarah) and a bacon cheeseburger (me), yet again. I don’t think we really branched away from our favorite foods much. But I could eat cheeseburgers everyday. At this point in our trip we were just tired. The new town, new hotel every day routine was catching up with us. We were both a little homesick, still having a great time, but missing our families. So while a street fair was coming to life, all we could think about was getting to our hotel and sleeping. Neither one of us really wanted to stay in normal places and Palm Springs felt like a really normal place. It was not gritty enough for us. But in all fairness, it does have a certain charm.
Day 8. Palm Springs to West Hollywood, California
This day was Valentine’s Day. We spent most of the day wasting time to be honest. We got a late start. Finding a place to stay in Hollywood that wasn’t a million dollars was time consuming. We settled on a place that was above our daily budget because, quite simply, I was grumpy and tired of driving around in the Hollywood traffic. We ended up staying at The Grafton on Sunset which ended up being a really decent place. There was a mix up with our reservation so we had to wait for a few hours. Luckily they had a nice little hotel bar where we sat and chatted with the bartender. Sarah and I thought we would have more opportunities to connect with locals during this trip but it was packed so tight that these moments were few and far between. But when it happened it was really special.
The hotel was not far from the famous Whisky a Go Go. Sarah is a huge fan of the band Guns N’ Roses and a few days before we had found out a Guns N’ Roses cover band, the Hollywood Roses, was performing so we bought tickets to the show. Turns out there were 5 bands that night. We had dinner and drinks at the Rainbow Bar and Grill, passed by The Viper Room and The Roxy, all famous West Hollywood hangouts. Sarah and I celebrated Valentine’s Day together, drinking, head banging, laughing and taking photos on the street and of the musicians. A very different kind of Valentine’s Day, but it was fun and memorable.
Day 9. Hollywood, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, California
Since we had not been able to do as much street photography as we had hoped for, we made it a priority to do it before we left. When in Hollywood one must see the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame, right? Honestly, it is so touristy. We spent about a hour there but it didn’t really hold much interest for either of us. Looking back at the images I captured I realize it was more interesting than it felt. I was having a hard time being present and in the moment as I knew this was our last day and we would both be flying home the next day. But I do have to admit the photos of Darth Vader walking in the crowd and Spiderman and Mickey Mouse having a chat are so damn funny. You can find all kinds of characters on the Walk of Fame–dressed up and hoping you will take a photo with them in exchange for a few bucks. At one point, we saw Spiderman (who was tall and thin) and a few feet away a second Spiderman (who was much shorter and more muscular). The shorter, more muscular Spiderman asked Sarah if she would like to take a photo with him and she made mention of the other Spiderman. With a Spanish accent he said “Oh, you like the skinny Spiderman!” Maybe you would had to have been there, but it was damn funny.
We hit the road toward the Santa Monica Pier where Route 66 ends. The Pier was packed with people. After having been on other parts of Route 66, this part of it was incredibly commercial. Such a contrast. Sarah and I are definitely more interested in the slower pace and old town vibes of New Mexico and Northern Arizona. The places that are not littered with sidewalks and perfectly manicured landscapes. Places that do not take 45 minutes to get out of the parking lot–literally that is how long we sat in Karen before we finally escaped from Santa Monica Pier’s parking lot.
Our next, and last stop along our trip was Venice Beach. Venice Beach is very interesting. It is a combination of this beautiful beach, shopping, restaurants, skateboarders, families, tourists, performers ranging from palm readers, musicians, artists and everything in between. And then there is a huge homeless population. Once the sun starts to go down, the homeless camps start to pop up. Such a surreal reality.
We did manage to find a hip restaurant called The Sidewalk Cafe where we were kept company by a really sweet pup who waited outside a shop for his owners. Next to us a group of skater teens ditched their tab and left a huge mess on the table and floor. Little punks. We headed back to Karen who would take us to our hotel for our last night in Los Angeles. The last night of our trip. We stopped at Walgreens to grab some packing tape to secure Sarah’s new ice chest that she loaded with cans of Diet Dr. Pepper and a massive bag of Jolly Ranchers that she got for her kids.