2021 Southwest – Of Canyons and Cacti! (Part 2)

February 12th – From Bearizona to Sedona

We were on the road early the next day. For the first time, we were eager to get back to an actual city with chain restaurants and (hopefully) cheaper accommodations. We took a pit stop at Grand Canyon Junction for gas and made a note to one day revisit the attractions across the street. One appeared to be a sanctuary for birds of prey called Raptor Ranch, and the other was a Flinstone-themed recreation of Bedrock City! Both were closed (we wouldn’t have had time to stop anyway) but both looked interesting enough to check out another day!

We did allow ourselves a stop at one attraction that just happened to fall perfectly along our path! For the past day or two, we had seen billboards advertising Bearizona, a drive-through wildlife park. (I LOVE drive-through wildlife parks!) On the map, we discovered that it was just off I-40, on a small stretch of Route 66. Since we would be passing by it on our way south anyway, it made since to stop and explore!

I originally thought it was $25 per car…but it was per person, so it was a bit more expensive than I had anticipated. However,Bearizona it was well worth it! The mountain goats weren’t on exhibit, which was disappointing because that’s an animal I have never seen before! But everything else was out and about! There were mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bison (and white bison!), bighorn sheep, and mini donkeys that you could drive through. There was not an option to feed the animals, as hungry herds crowding the cars would have drastically clogged up traffic.

The real claim to fame with this park, however, was their predator exhibits! The bears and wolves were free-roam, so you could drive right through their exhibits! The rules stated you had to keep windows up and doors locked, which were very valid rules to have. They had rangers watching these pens to make sure guests complied. Getting to drive through the wolf pack and have these beautiful creatures come right up to my car, even sniffing and licking my license plate, was a magical moment for me! Wolves are my favorite animal! I took a lot of pictures of them, especially a large white one that stopped so close to my window, I could easily have reached out and touched him! (But I followed the rules…sigh.)

There were lots of black bears too, mostly sleeping in caves or in trees. There were a couple of adults wandering about and having them brush past the car was the closest I have ever gotten to one! The baby bears had their own exhibit, and you weren’t allowed to stop your car in this pen because the babies would climb on it. There is no cuter reason to have a rule than that! It was absolutely wonderful!

Among the wolves

Once the drive-through portion ended, there was a small, walk-through zoo tucked in the middle! (Better hope those predator fences hold!) We parked and went to explore the adorable layout. It was very neat and clean, a small patch of land in the midst of pine trees! These exhibits were set up more like the average zoo and contained lots of the small native critters. We saw turkeys, badgers, foxes, peccaries, reindeer, raccoons, otters, and elk, just to name a few. They also had some grizzly bear cubs that were there as rescues. The gift shop there was completely amazing and magnificent! Fully satisfied with our experience, which took up a decent portion of our morning, we got back on the road.

We grabbed some quick and cheap fast food, then cut through the forest, skirting Flagstaff again by taking a scenic route through the mountains. We were quite glad that we did! We ended up on State Route 89A and, 15 minutes outside of Sedona, the landscape around us changed so abruptly, we were scrambling for our phones once more for a video. The road tipped suddenly into a canyon that we hadn’t noticed on the map! It was a steep descent along a narrow set of switchbacks and hairpin turns. We sank very quickly into the canyon, the towering cliffs closing in on us from all sides with vast swaths of snow-covered pine trees everywhere you looked. It reminded us quite suddenly of Colorado! (At least this road had railings!)

When we got to the floor of the canyon, the pine trees crowded the road, tall and dense. There was a lively creek flowingThe bears of Bearizona alongside the road, so everything in this valley was green and lush. Before long, we were passing signs for Slide Rock State Park. I vaguely remembered this park from a visit here when I was younger…although there are lots of hiking trails, it is mostly a hotspot for swimmers to enjoy the ice-cold mountain water here amidst the heat of the desert. Usually, it is only a summertime hotspot, but there were a surprising amount of people there! I remember thinking it was a beautiful place, all that green foliage against the red rocks. When we passed the entrance, I saw the entry fee was about $20 or so. We talked about stopping, but decided this might be one we come back to the following day.

We had a new plan in place. We were finally far enough south where the temperature was (sort of) warmer and might be comfortable enough for tent camping. In an effort to conserve our rapidly depleting bank accounts, we decided Sedona was where we would finally make use of all that camping gear we had been toting around for almost a week. And, of course, we needed some time to explore the area!

So, we bypassed Slide Rock, thinking we would have time to return, and devoted the afternoon to finding a camping spot first, as it would be much more time-consuming. We had high hopes for Sedona, as we had heard great things about its beauty…but when the lush canyon ended and we found ourselves at the north side of the city, we were instantly overwhelmed! Even David, who doesn’t mind city driving, admits that it was crazy! The town itself did look like a fun place with cool hangouts, nice restaurants, and cute shops…but we barely could see all that through the throngs of people that filled the sidewalks and the many, many cars that clogged the road.

Road to Sedona

Also, Sedona apparently does not have stop lights. Just round-abouts. Lots and lots of round-abouts…at every intersection. It was about ten minutes of pure madness just trying to get through to the other side. Once we made it, there was an unspoken agreement between us that we would not be attempting that again. Neither of us had realized how big and populated Sedona was and we hadn’t expected this much traffic this time of year. Although what we had seen of Sedona was beautiful, we were not very intrigued by the idea of exploring it further. And sadly, with Slide Rock being on the other side of it, we decided it would be better to find other attractions that didn’t involve driving through Sedona again.

The greenery and red rock canyons fell away behind us. We were able to catch our breath as we cruised along another fifteen minutes down the road, finding ourselves in Cottonwood. It was still a busy town, but not anything at all like Sedona had been! And better yet, we found a campground on the map that was only another ten minutes east. We headed towards it, comforted by the fact that there was a Walmart and a McDonalds in this town. Maybe I am slightly basic and pathetic, but by now, I was craving some familiarity.

When we arrived at the Verde Valley Campground, we found it to be a cute little place sprawled along an open hillside,Base camp! reaching all the way down to the creek that rushed through the floor of the valley. Getting a tent site was no issue (about $40 per night) and we started with just one night, unsure yet of what our plans would be. We drove through rows upon rows of RVs, until we got back to the very last section of camping sites.

Tent campers had their own stretch of packed sand and rocks along the wooden fence at the back of the campground. The other side of the fence was pure sage brush and cedar trees leading down to the rushing water. It was a beautiful spot! Plus, the bathrooms and lounge building were within walking distance. So, we pulled into a sheltered corner and put our camping skills to work. It had been years since either of us had been camping, but we had practiced tent setup and packed our supplies with lots of forethought, so we were confident. And we were pretty proud of the result! We set up our tent facing the wilderness, so when the sun rose over the hilltops the next morning, we would have a great view! We got the power cord strung up to our tent (yes, using electricity is cheating, but we’re building experience slowly), our lantern hung in the tree, and our sleeping bags spread out all snugly inside!

We still had some daylight left, so we reconvened on our options. We briefly discussed going back to town to explore, but frankly, that sounded like a lot of work. In all the days we had been on this trip, we realized we hadn’t yet taken time to just sit back and relax. So, we decided to just hang out around camp for a quiet evening in. We took a short hike down to the water, weaving through the short, scraggly trees and wading through yellow grass that was taller than us! We spent quite a bit of time at the creek’s edge, enjoying the sound of the crashing water and the calls of many, many red-winged blackbirds hidden somewhere on the other side.

As evening fell, the coyotes began yipping in the distance and we started wandering back to our tent. David had brought along a little crockpot, and we had several large cans of soup, so we cooked under lantern light beneath the stars. We had a propane heater running to keep us warm, and we were feeling quite cozy as the hearty smell of roast and potatoes filled the crisp winter air. Feeling very accomplished with our “backwoodsy-ness”, we happily ate our dinner and snuggled into our tent, looking forward to our first night outdoors.

February 13th – Escape to Red Rock State Park

As it turned out, everything about our first night tent-camping…was terrible. We learned two very important lessons. One: Two layers of sleeping bags is not nearly enough padding when the ground is hard and rocky. And two: Being in the desert does not mean your night is going to be comfortably warm. Nights can still get cool even in summertime, but in the winter, as we discovered, they are not a whole lot better than the Midwest. Our propane heater cannot be used indoors, for safety’s sake, so we thought we would be fine without. That was untrue. The temperature still dropped to the 40s which, although it doesn’t sound too uncomfortable, it is frigid to sleep in without proper equipment.

I slept about three or four hours in total, never able to sleep any deeper than a doze and even then, waking constantlyMorning view because my whole body ached from the hard ground and from shivering in the cold. My feet and face were so numb, it took a while for the feeling to return to them. And David, with much less padding to his body than I have, was so cold and achy that he didn’t sleep at all. Not a wink. Needless to say, we were both utterly miserable the next morning.

The only silver lining was that David was up in plenty of time to get some great shots of the sunrise through the tent window. After that, we dragged our weary bodies out of the tent and did the bare minimum to prepare for the day. Then we sat in the car and cranked the heat, trying to shake the chill from our bones. Because I was so miserable, I allowed myself McDonalds for breakfast as my comfort food, since it was just down the road. (I had been trying to cut back on the amount of McGriddles I was consuming, as my guilty pleasure was becoming an addiction.) As we ate, we discussed our nighttime experiences and realized we are not the hardcore outdoorsmen we wanted to believe ourselves to be. Neither of us had the proper conditioning to just jump straight into the extremes of camping. We clearly needed to take baby steps.

We also needed to decide what our plans were for the day. There were several options in the area, and we knew we needed to get a jumpstart on one of them if we wanted to make the most out of our day. We finally settled on Devil’s Bridge, which we knew to be a decent-length hike into the red rock hills to see a massive natural bridge that starred in many Instagram photos from other travelers. It intrigued us, so we headed back towards Sedona, where the trailhead was located.

In the morning light, before it had gotten to peopley, we were able to better enjoy the beauty of the area. Sedona has the nickname of Red Rock City, and it really lives up to that. The red and orange of the desert cliffs surrounding the community were really a stark contrast to anything we have back home. It was quite stunning! We also learned a fun fact: the McDonalds arches in Sedona are blue, as opposed to the traditional yellow. This is because blue contrasts better against the red rocks, making it much easier to see, whereas the yellow would blend in!

Thankfully, the turn off for Devil’s Bridge was just before the madness of downtown Sedona, so we were still able to enjoy the beauty of the residential side without the insane traffic. The parking lot for the trailhead was on the outskirts of town, and as we approached it we realized…there were already a LOT of cars here. Even the road leading up to it was lined on both sides with parked cars for about half a mile. We both had a bad feeling as we approached the parking lot itself. It was absolute madness! It was teeming with people and every single spot was taken. There was a line of cars forming a continuous carousel around the narrow, twisted road, driving lap after lap as they waited for a spot to open. And if one did, it was a fierce competition of angry, reckless drivers. We joined this carousel very briefly, but it was a whole new kind of hell. The stress of the situation was intense, and it only increased as more and more people arrived.

The actual hiking trail was also extremely crowded, so much so that I couldn’t imagine any decent pictures being takenRed Rock views anyway. After about twenty minutes of trying to park and almost being run into or backed into about three times, I was on the verge of a panic attack (I’m a bit emotionally unstable when I’m stressed). And David was getting so frustrated and angry with the people around us, we both agreed it just wasn’t worth it. So, moral of the story: if you want to visit Sedona or this particular trail, you need to be there EARLY. We were there around 8am and it was still far too late. Be there by around 5am and you might get a decent spot. Even in the off season, as this was the dead of winter!

As we headed back to town, we pulled off on a side road to reassess our day, and because my panic attack was spilling over, so I needed to catch my breath and calm my shakiness. So far, this morning continued to be harsh on us, and our experience with Sedona was not a good one at all. We decided we were done with this area, for this trip at least, and began heading back towards Cottonwood. However, along the way, we saw the turn off for another attraction on our list: Red Rock State Park. I was still shaky and skeptical, but we were both determined to have something good come out of this day, so we thought we would give it a shot.

Happy treehugger!

This road was quiet and abandoned. Instantly, I was feeling immensely calmer, and our hopes started to rise. We were the only car at the check-in booth, and we chatted briefly with the friendly old man who was running it. After a $15 entry fee, we stopped for a restroom break and took a look at the map. We made our way to the Visitor’s Center, a cute adobe style building with some cool exhibits and interesting information about the park. The vibes here were much more chill and relaxed and our moods drastically improved!

The parking lot here was almost barren, aside from a couple other cars, so it was wonderfully peaceful as we set off across a wide open field towards the trailheads. We passed over a cute wooden bridge and into some sandy, scrubland forest. And David found a MASSIVE cottonwood tree to hug, so he was very happy! After glancing at the map, we picked a medium-length trail that circled a good portion of the park. The trails were all red sand, marked out by borders of stone, that cut through scrub brush and boulders. There was something of a forest here, the trees all scraggly and spaced out with no underbrush. And there were several spectacular overlooks that offered great views of the massive red rock formations in the distance.

As we hiked along the ridge, overlooking the valley below, we were back to our cheerful selves. Being alone in nature, as always, was lifting our spirits and healing my troubled mind. Our trail took a few hairpin turns, winding back and forth down to a dry creek bed. We moseyed along, David taking pictures of all the strange plants and cacti we had never seen before, while I kept my eyes open for snakes and scorpions. We pondered all those strange rock formations, wondering how they had been formed and why they were all so different. Our conversation also drifted to where our next big adventure might take us (it is almost a tradition to pick the location of our next road trip while we are still on the current one!) We had seen mountains, and now deserts, so in our search for a new corner of the country to explore, our first notion of the pine trees and rocky ocean coasts of Maine were formed…

However, for the time being, we refocused on our hike as we started climbing towards the hilltop at the end of the trail. The narrow pathway to the top gave us a wide view of the entire park below, and it made the perfect place to rest and relax, breathing in the warm silence of the day. David got a great time lapse of the cloud shadows shifting over valley! Then, we began moving downhill again, diving back into the tall grasses and thicker forests that thrived this close to the creek. We skirted a cute little meadow in the shelter of the cliffs and found a lonely bench just asking for a photo shoot! One of my favorite pictures of myself came from this spot!

Then the trail turned into loose, white sand as we followed the water back to the bridge where we had started. We were quite pleased with our decent little hike, and started back across the field towards the Visitor’s Center. At the top of the hill, it had been all blue skies and sunshine, but now, we noticed a dark storm had appeared very suddenly and was creeping closer. That’s one thing about the desert…the weather can form very suddenly, without warning at all.

Satisfied with how our morning had turned out, we made our way back into Cottonwood and drove around a bit, exploring the town. We were quite hungry, but decided to settle for more groceries, as we needed to stop by Walmart anyway. We had discussed getting a hotel room again for the night, but the expense was more than I wanted to pay and neither of us really wanted to wimp out on camping just yet. We simply needed to prepare better! So, while we were getting food, we also bought a Safeway self-inflatable air mattress and a small, electric heater.

Feeling a bit more confident for the night ahead, we paid for a second night and returned to our campsite. The wind had picked up considerably and it had blown our tent over, so we spent a few minutes straightening it back out and staking it tightly into the ground. We then started setting up our new mattress and could not have been more pleased with the result! It was firm, comfortable, and easy to use. In fact, we use it to this day for all sorts of occasions! Definitely a good purchase!

David set up the crockpot inside, so the smell of hot stew rose from the corner of the tent and helped warm the air. Meanwhile, I was looking into my shower options. The night before, I had noticed that this campground did not have a shower house; only an outdoor shower beside the pool to rinse off. I did not fancy trying to scrub myself clean with zero privacy, so I tried to use a new product I had bought for exactly these circumstances…dry shampoo. Maybe I didn’t use it quite right, but after one attempt, I decided I was not a fan. I think it just made my hair greasier than it already was. So, I forced down my high maintenance desire for cleanliness, and tried to convince myself to enjoy the primitive feel of camping. (To be fair, I think my daily need to shower is the only high maintenance thing about me.)

By this point, the afternoon was getting dark as the storm rolled in over the hills. We were thankful now that we weren’t on some long trail far away. Instead, we were able to tuck in early and cuddled inside our tent playing games. Nighttime came a bit earlier as well, because of the storm. We packed all of our extra gear back in the car for a quick getaway, just in case it rained enough for the creek to flood. Then I pulled out my laptop and we killed some time watching one of our favorite cartoons, Gravity Falls. We brought along a fun, familiar show just in case we had a rainy day like this!

We had our new heater going and were thrilled to see it worked fabulously! So much so that we actually got a bit hot! We were very warm and cozy when the storm hit at its hardest, around 8pm. I like storms, but not wind, and the wind was pretty strong, especially when you’re in a tent. We wondered briefly if it might be safer to go ahead and get a hotel room anyway, but we quickly shot the idea down. We were determined to persevere. And we were still having fun, even if it was a bit scary. David was able to distract my worried mind with our favorite Nintendo Switch game, Wingspan. And it worked! Around 10pm, the storm had passed and I hadn’t even noticed!

We shook the excess water of the tent so it wouldn’t drip on us (although the whole thing was well covered with Scotch-guard) and wrapped ourselves up in our toasty tent. Our sore muscles were greatly relieved by the softness of the air mattress, and after an extremely long and stressful day, we thought it well-deserved!

February 14th – Cruising South

We slept harder than ever before that night. The next morning, we were relieved to find ourselves feeling refreshed and we were proud of our first successful tent camping night! (Even if it was heavily supported by amenities…) We quickly packed up what little of camp we had left and ran down the road to grab breakfast at McDonalds again, as we weren’t sure if or when we would see another one. (That’s a good excuse for a McGriddle, right?) While we ate, we scoured our list of attractions, as there were a lot in this area! (It will take us a long time to finish everything we want to see in this state.) However, most of them were north of Cottonwood, which was the wrong direction for us. We were intending to head south, aiming for Tucson, Arizona next. There just so happened to be one attraction in that direction: Montezuma’s Castle National Monument.

I have been to several national monuments before, but since David wasn’t with me, I don’t count them as part of our travels. For David, however, this would be his first one! So, after taking advantage of the gas station (again, you never know when the next one will be in the desert) we made our way down the road about thirty minutes and paid the cheap entry price of $10. (Note: This price included Montezuma as well as Tuzigoot National Monument, since the two were so close. Had we known that we would have gone there first. Unfortunately, it was out of our way now, so we just did Montezuma. But there’s a tip for next time: if you go to one, go to both!)

Montezuma’s Castle is one site of three in the area that preserves the ruins and history of the native Southern Sinagua people who lived and flourished in the Verde Valley about 800 years ago. We found the whole site to be incredibly interesting as we love learning about native cultures and their lifestyles. The trail to it was very short and paved. The ruins could be viewed from below, but not entered, in an effort to preserve their structures. It really was an impressively sized building! And to be built on the ledge of a cliff like that was even more amazing, knowing how primitive their building tools and materials were. It was a nice historical place to spend about 30-45 minutes. We swung through the gift shop, and each purchased some small items before heading south some more.

Once we hit the road again, we didn’t really stop! We took a scenic mountain road that would route us around Phoenix, as we had no interest driving through that hectic jumble we saw on the map. And the drive was well worth it! The road rose and fell in elevation and, much like our experiences in Colorado, we would be in snowy pine forests for a while, passing through small mountain towns with cute names like Pine and Strawberry, then drop into the dry, sandy valleys of scrub brush once more.

Eventually, the hills turned more barren and became rolling waves. We rounded a corner at one point and found ourselves looking down into a vast valley. Sand and sage bushes were all that could be seen, and a range of mountains bordered us on either side. The highway itself stretched across the floor of the valley as far as the eye could see, and the shadows of the clouds drifted across the land in dreamy patches of sunlight and shade. We drove for a long time in this serene setting and my mind kept wandering to the days of the cowboys, wondering what it was like to ride across this range at a full gallop for days on end, hoping to encounter civilization somewhere along the way, with no promise that you would.

We had been passing through the Coconino National Forest on and off for several days, but now, as the road tipped up towards the hills once more, we crossed over into the Tonto National Forest. Almost immediately, David got to see his first saguaro cactus. He was getting more and more excited as more of these tall cacti began appearing, as well as thickets of other vegetation. Then, we rounded another hill to see the beautiful Theodore Roosevelt Lake sprawling to our left. There were some large water birds on the lake, so we stopped for a bit to do some birdwatching. We also found a massive saguaro right beside the road. David eagerly got his picture taken beside it, his mind blown by how big they were in real life! (For some reason, he decided not to hug this one…hmm.)

Down the road a ways further we came across the Roosevelt Lake Bridge, which is a cute bit of architecture for those that enjoy bridges like David and I do. There was a parking lot beside the dam, which was almost hidden from view as it was tucked in between two large hills. We stopped here to stretch our legs a bit and do some more birding. There was a road that continued on behind the dam, called the Apache Trail. It was ridiculously narrow, almost a single lane, and it wound very tightly along the canyon wall and descended around the corner, out of view. It looked like a fascinating drive, but maybe not so much for my wide, fragile car. Just for fun, we drove down it a short distance, but discovered it became a rough, dirt road about a mile down. Plus, it was the opposite direction of where we were headed, anyway. Oh, well. Maybe one day we will come back with a proper off-roading vehicle!

We made our way back out to the scenic road and continued our route south. We took our time cruising through the treeless hills and shadowy valleys. We went through another mountain range of barren sandy slopes with sharp points, then came down on the other side to see more sprawling valley below. The surroundings began to take on a hostile desert vibe. What little vegetation there was looked charred, and the sand looked patchy and black. Maybe there had been a fire here? Not sure. Every now and then, a stand of saguaros would show themselves, then rocky canyons would close in the highway for a while once more. Interesting rock formations would adorn the landscape as the road dipped lower and lower into the hills, sometimes cutting paths straight through them. Our surroundings were an alien world to us now, as barren and rocky as another planet.

Our entire day was this way, hours of endlessly changing scenery as our minds wandered. By about 4pm, the landscape had really flattened out with the Catalina Mountain range following along on our left. We were finally starting to catch glimpses of the first civilization we had seen since Cottonwood. There were a few small residential areas lined with strange looking palm trees that made us think of the West Coast. Then, Tucson itself was sprawled out before us on the horizon. Although it was a large city, it had lots of space to spread out over, so it never really felt too congested or hectic. I actually didn’t mind driving in Tucson at all!

We were approaching the northern edge of the city by late afternoon. Some research done on the road had informed us that Tucson had plenty of chain restaurants and hotels. I had been craving some chain restaurant food for a while now (probably only because my subconscious knew it would be difficult to find out here) and the one I was craving the most just happened to be the first turn off on the outskirts of town…Red Lobster! I made an exception here because it was Valentine’s Day after all, and I thought we both deserved a hot and filling meal from a fancy, familiar place.  So, we joined the long line of other couples waiting for their early dinners and feasted on a lovely seafood platter!

Afterwards, we decided to get a hotel nearby so we could start our Tucson exploration fresh and rejuvenated early the next morning. Just a couple minutes up the road was a very nice Wyndham hotel. It was a bit out of the price range I had in mind, but David insisted, and he paid for it as a Valentine’s Day gift! So, we got snuggly and relaxed in a beautiful room and I relished the feel of a long, hot shower and a large, fluffy bed! I was ready for some luxury.

February 15th – Lots and Lots of Saguaros!

We slept in a bit later than we meant to the next morning and missed out on the hotel breakfast, so we scrounged up our own meal from cooler food. Then we spent some time scouring the internet and making phone calls to every campground in the city, desperately trying to find somewhere that was open and had tent sites with electric hook ups available. It was very difficult, as the winter season, as well as Covid, meant much was closed or limiting capacity. But we really needed to be taking advantage of the cheaper accommodations right now.

Finally, we found one on the southern edge of Tucson that had a spot open. We decided we would get a jump start on getting our campsite booked and set-up, so we didn’t have that stress lingering over our heads all day. So, we plowed straight through the city and then continued several more miles into the countryside. Off the main highway, on a lonely dirt road, was a sign that read Cactus Country. The drive down this lonesome road was picturesque desert landscape. Flat, sandy, and covered with scraggly bushes and the occasional saguaro. It was very charming! The campground itself was an adorable little oasis surrounded by palm trees. It had paved roads and was set up in a neat little grid like a city. There were nicely kept gardens of desert flowers and cacti species filling every bare patch in between. The campground also had a gate that closed at a certain time in the evening to discourage vandals. You had to have a special code to enter after dark.

It was amazing, how this pristine little piece of paradise was just plopped out here in the middle of nowhere, with literally nothing but desert and mountains in all directions! It was a very peaceful place. And it was only about $30 for tent campers. The main office was located right in the middle of the campground, and the ladies that checked us in were very nice and encouraged us to let them know if we wanted a second night!

There were only five tent sites available here, and they were not nearly as private as Verde Valley. These sites had a small “block” of their own in the gridded layout, right in the middle of the streets of RVs. However, they also weren’t as primitive as Verde Valley either. Each site was a soft, sandy plot marked off by logs. And each site had its own tree for shade. The largest one, the one that we reserved, was the only one with electricity. Thankfully, we were the only tent campers there, so there was still some sense of privacy.

There wasn’t much in the way of a view, because of all the camper trailers around us, but the campground was charming enough, we didn’t mind. We set up our campsite quite a bit quicker than last time now that we had done it once. The tent was built, the bed made, storage totes in place, makeshift sink and water jug set up on the picnic table, and our lantern in the tree. Again, we felt very proud of our cute little setup, and we were thankful to have this part done already, meaning our day was completely free and unburdened!

We decided that nothing was stopping us from exploring the third national park of our trip: Saguaro National Park! We discovered, belatedly, that there are actually two portions for this park, an east and a west. The western half was the smaller of the two and it was on the northern edge of Tucson…where we had just been that morning. The eastern half, to our pleasant surprise, was only a few minutes down the road from our campground! We had thought the northern portion was the whole park, and that we had a long drive back through the city to get to it. That was not the case! So, we happily made our way down the road to the eastern gate.

We stopped for pictures with the sign (David had his Parks cards ready to go) and took a brief glance through the Visitor’s Center. However, we knew this park made a full loop around and came back out the same road, so we would stop here on the way out. Actually entering the park turned out to be a more confusing kerfuffle than was necessary. There was no one manning the booth and no signs with payment instructions, so I initially assumed this park was free to enter. Only after we passed, did I see a teeny tiny sign with the entrance fee and an arrow pointing towards a drop box. Apparently, you were just expected to pay on your own. I had no idea how they actually kept track of who paid and who didn’t, but because I am a good citizen, we turned around and looped back through to pay our $15. Better hope you had cash with you.

After a mild bout of bitterness regarding the frustration of entering, I brushed it off and we referred to our brochures for how to best spend the day. Most of the advice suggested starting with the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. It was an 8-mile paved road that looped you through the Sonoran Desert and gave you a great view of the highest concentration of saguaro cacti in the state! (We also learned that “saguaro” is not pronounced with the “g” as we had been doing. Instead, it is pronounced “sa-war-oh” which took us a while to adjust to.)

We piddled along the road, stopping at some of the shorter hikes that really immersed you in the desert after only a few minutes of walking. One of my favorites was the Ecology Trail. It was very short and paved, but lined with lots of plaques that discussed how all the plants and animals worked together to make a living in one of the harshest climates in the world. We also got a lot of pictures of almost a dozen different cacti species…who knew there were so many!? And David was absolutely loving the vast diversity of shapes and sizes to be found in the saguaros. They are just very strange plants! Finally, along the backside of the loop, we stopped at Javelina Rocks. It was basically a large pile of boulders that were quite enjoyable to climb on and gave you a pretty nice view of the Sonoran Desert!

We spent a good portion of our day here and, by 3pm, were making our way back towards the Visitor’s Center once more. There were still lots of other trails here, including the Cactus Forest Trail which cut through a broad swath of the park, but we had quickly discovered that, although the plant diversity was thriving, there were only so many views worth hiking to before it all started looking the same. And of course, the portion we had seen was only a small fraction of the thousands of acres this park encompasses. Most of the landscape diversity occurred higher up within Saguaro National Park, in the Rincon Mountain range. But the only way to see those trails was to take an overnight hike or explore by horseback. (Coming back with horses would be an amazing way to thoroughly enjoy this park and I would love to do this one day!)

As we ended our national park excursion for the day, we explored the Visitor’s Center gift shop a bit longer, as well as a cactus garden out front, complete with labels for all the species present (probably should have done this part first!) We had been out in the desert sun for a majority of our day at this point (so thankful it wasn’t in the summer heat!) and we were starving. I was craving tacos specifically, so on the way back to our campground, we found a little, hole-in-the-wall taco joint attached to a gas station. It was called Papa Locos, and their taco shells were made of freshly fried tortillas! They were very different from tacos I was accustomed to, and probably the most authentic I would find on this side of the Mexican border.

Fully fed and satisfied with our day of exploration, we started back towards Cactus Country. I was so glad the campsite part was already set up and done and we could focus on other tasks that had been nagging me all week. Like laundry. We desperately needed to do laundry, but we hadn’t wanted to waste time at a random laundry mat when we could be on the road! But Cactus Country had everything we needed! So, I bagged up all our dirty clothes when we got back to camp and walked a couple blocks over to the laundry room on the backside of the office building.

Just across from the door to the laundry room was the gate for the campground pool. I peeked over the fence to see a cute, clean oasis-style setting. It was completely deserted. Now, it was far too chilly for a dip in the pool (lower sixties), but the hot tub bubbling off to the side looked absolutely splendid! I had packed a swimsuit, just in case a rare opportunity such as this arose, but as neither David nor I like swimming very much, and it was so cold, I hadn’t expected to use it.

However, I hurried back to camp with my new idea and convinced David to join me! So, I ran back and got the laundry started, then met David in the hot tub. We got to be all cutesy and cuddly for a while, with the oasis all to ourselves as the strands of fairy lights around the pool began to shine. We got some pictures of us in the bubbles and steam, palm trees in the background, the sky painted beautiful colors from the desert sunset. And then we sent those pictures to our friends and family in Missouri, where the high for the day had been -6. (Did I mention that we are cruel human beings?)

After about thirty more minutes of muscle-relaxing bubbles, the laundry was ready to be switched over. So, David and I both wrapped up in warm towels and robes (as it was quite a bit chillier now that it was dark) and while he finished up the laundry, I ran inside the lounge to take a shower. The shower house in here was surprisingly clean and quite nice! Feeling refreshed in every way possible, I grabbed our finished laundry and happily made my way back to the tent. We had some snacks beneath the lantern light, then curled up on our cozy mattress, the tent pre-heated by our trusty little heater, and played Switch games until we were too sleepy to stay awake. It was one of the loveliest evenings I can recall from the entire trip.

February 16th – A Lovely Day in Tucson

We were fully refreshed and ready for some fun the next morning! We went to the lounge and explored some of the pamphlets and brochures they had there, looking for activities. There is a LOT to do in Tucson! We thought about going to the western half of Saguaro National Park…but we knew it would look much the same as the eastern half, and there were so many other options, we thought we should branch out and try something different!

Each of us picked an attraction in town that sounded fun and, after stopping by the office to pay for a second night (we were enjoying Tucson too much to leave quite yet!) we loaded up and headed for the Reid Park Zoo, which had been my choice! It was a quaint, clean little place about $25 per person. They had a lot of the usual zoo animals: meerkats, giraffes, rhinos, peacocks, zebras, elephants, lions, tapirs, anteaters, wild dogs, and grizzly bears just to name a few. They also had a couple of small, walk-through aviaries that we went through more than once because…well, birds! I thought the exhibits were very-well maintained and natural-looking throughout, reducing the use of traditional fences that usually ruin the view. It was a very fun, laidback morning.

Most of our meals now consisted of groceries from Walmart or fast food, so we made do with that again for lunch, trying to conserve our dwindling money as much as possible. Then, we devoted the afternoon to the activity that David had picked: the Air and Space Museum! It was about $30 per person and proved to be a huge place! They had many hangars containing a plethora of planes from the WW2 era, as well as specific vessels with historical significance, collections of unusual and modernized air travel, and a few spacecrafts! David’s favorite was a SR-71 Blackbird, known as the highest-flying and fastest manned aircraft in the world!

The outside lots had rows and rows of larger planes with various uses and histories. When it comes to air and space travel, my knowledge is very negligent, so this whole place was definitely a fascinating learning experience! My favorite was probably the space portion, and I would have loved to try out the simulators had they been open (closed for Covid). As much as there was to see here, it could easily take several hours to fully appreciate, but it was getting towards the end of the day now and the museum would be closing shortly. We made sure to hit the highlights that David was most eager to see, then we made our way back to the car.

The sun was starting to set as we headed back to camp. We were very pleased with how relaxed and fun our day had been! When we arrived back to Cactus Country, we sat at a lone picnic table just outside the campground gate to do some birdwatching. We were in a thicket of brush and saguaros, so there were lots of roadrunners, Gambel’s quail, and numerous songbirds that were completely unfamiliar to us! We also saw several desert hares bouncing through the bushes. Then, the sun began to set, so we turned our attention to the wide expanse of endless desert in front of us. The sky was lit with a fiery orange that faded into deep red as the sun slid behind clouds and distant mountains. It was the perfect, peaceful way to end our perfect, peaceful day!

We sat until the stars were shining bright over our heads, listening to one of the campers nearby drunkenly strumming his guitar to some softly playing country music. Then we slowly made our way back to the tent and made dinner of some more soup and leftovers. We cuddled in for another comfortable night! (Fun note: somewhere in the middle of this night, I was awoken by the deep hoots of a Great Horned Owl! I never saw him, but it was pleasure enough to hear him! When I recounted this to David the next morning, he too admitted to having heard it…but he thought it had been the drunk man, plucking at a banjo. David is hard of hearing, so I never tease him about most things like this…but I laughed about this one for a while!)

February 17th – Land of Enchantment

We slept in a little the next morning, as we had no reason to rush off anywhere. We were on the downhill slide of our trip and the next couple of days were largely unplanned. We only knew that we would start trekking back east today, and try to make it as far through New Mexico as we could. We took our time getting our camp packed up, then slowly rolled back towards the main road under full blue skies and sunshine! Looking back, the time we spent in Cactus Country became one of my fondest memories of that trip. I would love to return here, and to Tucson, again one day!

We stopped by McDonalds for breakfast (Yes, I am aware I have a problem) and hit the road! Our drive through the remainder of Arizona was fairly uneventful. We ended up in a rocky landscape for a bit, driving through piles of boulders, all roughly the size of a car. It looked like some giant had just dumped his bucket of rocks in some random patch of desert along the highway. Quite strange, but an interesting observation for sure! We also began seeing lots of tree farms. As David is a literal tree hugger, he has a strong affinity for tree farms and found lots of enjoyment as we passed through these massive plots of land. Just acres and acres of uniformly perfect rows, from saplings to “adolescent” trees as we called them.

Then, eventually, everything got very flat again. We could tell we were close to New Mexico, even before we passed the state sign. Most of our day was spent passing through the vast expanse of the Chihuahua Desert, with only the occasional distant mountain range to disrupt the blue haze of endlessness on the horizon. We knew the Mexico border was somewhere to our right and, as flat as it was, we were probably looking right at it!

At one point, the road curved through some hills and into a valley where the scrubland was experiencing scattered showers and thunderstorms. In the Midwest, this just means it might rain or it might not; it’s hard to predict. But out here, we could literally see where each and every storm cell was located. There were a couple small patches of rain showers on our right, scattered across many miles. The storm on our left was larger and darker, throwing sheets of rain down on the mountains. However, we were still under sunshine on the highway! It was very surreal.

We didn’t get rained on until we passed through Las Cruces, and it wasn’t long before we were on the other side of the storm. We passed through a handful of small cities, some with familiar names. I was beginning to remember some of this route, as I had driven this road once before on a trip to visit my grandparents when they vacationed in Tucson. However, we had been trapped in a vicious blizzard that year going across New Mexico, so although the town names were familiar, I hadn’t seen much of the landscape!

The highway took us through a pass between two mountain ranges. The San Andreas mountains were on our left and the Organ Mountains on our right. The altitude was high enough, it was still snowy up here in these barren hills. It was a beautiful drive, and as we crested over the top of the mountain range, we were given a bird’s eye view of the awe-inspiring vastness below. The empty valley, filled with only the shadows of clouds, stretched beyond our sight into the horizon. Our descent from this mountain pass was gradual, and then we were in the valley itself, surrounded by scrub brush once more for another hour or two.

At one point, we had to pull into a mandatory border check (because of our proximity to the Mexico border). It was a simple process of a military officer asking us a few questions to ensure we weren’t smuggling anyone into the country who wasn’t invited. It was quick, but startling when we hadn’t been expecting it! We rolled on for a while longer and started to see signs warning us of our proximity to the military’s missile testing range. David and I agree that it would have been very cool, and slightly terrifying, to witness a missile test, but there was nothing of that sort occurring on this day. They would have closed this road anyway.

We were now approaching our fourth national park of the trip: White Sands! As flat as it was, we thought for sure we would see it way early, but there was just enough of a rise to keep it hidden. Instead, we just saw scattered patches of whiteness that could have been the sand, but was probably just snow. Still, any little bit got me very excited! I’m not sure why, but this was the park I was looking forward to the most. Maybe because it’s just so different from anything else I’ve seen.

Finally, we made it to the Visitor’s Center and David got another picture with his Parks card and the park sign. We went to investigate the gift shop, but discovered that New Mexico was much stricter with its Covid regulations. You could shop from the doorway, but no one was allowed in. Well, David and I prefer browsing and studying souvenirs before we buy them, so we decided to pass this time. Although, there were sleds you could rent for $20 that were very tempting…but I was so short on cash I was trying to survive by necessity alone.

The entrance fee is usually $10, however, we just happened to arrive on a day that national park entry was free (there’s a few days like that scattered throughout the year for parks countrywide). So, we hopped in the car to toodle along, with a quick glance at the map. This park was incredibly easy to navigate. There was a single road in, a one-way loop, and then the same road back out. There are three layers to it: the outskirts, where the sand is minimally scattered through the vegetation; the interdune range, were the yellow grasses are evenly intermixed with the sand; and then the heart of the dunes themselves, in the center of the park. (Fun fact: White Sands National Park is actually not made of sand at all. It is a mineral called gypsum, left behind after thousands of years of geographical movement from wind and oceans. It does not absorb heat, so it is cool to the touch, even on the hottest day!)

We stopped at one trail, the Interdune Boardwalk, because I am a huge fan of boardwalks! Plus, I also wanted to explore all of the park’s beauty, even though I was most excited to get into the heart of the dunes! This boardwalk was metal and only went out about a quarter mile, but it had lots of good information about the ecology of this park. I do love ecology as well! The yellow grass mixed with the pale gypsum was so pretty, although it wasn’t looking “white” to us yet.

We kept going a bit further into park. There’s a few small trails and places to stop, but the views don’t differ too much, so we kept rolling. About a mile or so in, the pavement stopped, and we were on a path of hard-packed gypsum with high banks. The yellow grasses were starting to disappear, and the dunes were getting taller! We passed a few more “trailheads” but the trails here were unlike any other park. Any footprints left behind were erased by the wind, so the only way to navigate was by colored markers scattered across the dunes. If you stood on a high enough hilltop, you could see the path of all the trails and where they intermingled. And, like most national parks, there were also select “trails” for overnight campers and horseback riders who wanted a more adventurous way of experiencing the dunes!

We found a large, round parking lot about halfway through that had a promising amount of dunes. I was excited to go hike, so we changed into our boots, and I bounded away like an excited child. We followed the trail markers for a few minutes, but it was so easy to stray away. It appeared most people did anyway, as there were footprints going every direction. We saw a particularly high dune to our left and both of us left the trail without a second thought to go climb it. Finally, I was somewhere that I could enjoy climbing, and let David climb to his heart’s content, without fearing either of us falling to our death on sharp rocks or high cliffs!

The gypsum was gorgeous! It rose and fell in high dunes, windblown to look like ocean waves, then fell away into sloping valleys. When the sun finally broke out from behind the clouds, we suddenly saw why it was called “white” sands! Under the sunlight, the gypsum beams quite brightly and we were almost blinded! It was so strange to touch. It was so cold, and sparkled as brightly as snow. But its texture was just a little stiffer than sand.

We cut loose and let ourselves run wild for a little bit! David attempted to run up some of the steepest dune crests, just to see if he could. And he did pretty well, minus some ungraceful landings at the top. As for myself, I frolicked over dunes and slid into the valleys, really regretting not renting one of those sleds. I saw a couple other people sledding down the hills and made a note to myself: never pass up an opportunity to go sand-sledding!

We spent quite a while playing in those cold dunes, drawing pictures in the gypsum, and getting some of the most gorgeous, dreamlike pictures. This place was so strange, it was hard to believe it was right here in the United States! Those smooth, white hills rolled on forever, as far as the eye could see in any direction. In the background, blue mountain ranges towered into the sky. Much like the Grand Canyon, it’s one of those places that words can’t describe, and pictures don’t quite capture the reality. You just have to experience it for yourself!

After a while, I had played so hard, I was short of breath. I paused on a high dune and looked around. We could see a few other hikers way in the distance, hiking their own trails, but I realized…I had no idea where the parking lot was. The wind was blowing very hard, and our footprints were completely gone in some places. This was one of those wild places in the world that proved that humans are insignificant to Nature; it could leave us completely at her mercy, while wiping out any sign that we had ever existed.

Thankfully, David’s brain is wired with a built-in map of his location at all times, and he was able to guide us back in the general direction of where we had come. It was frighteningly easy to get lost out here. As it turns out, the parking lot wasn’t even that far away, but it had disappeared behind the dunes quite quickly. By now, we were both pretty worn out. And it was pretty cold, with that wind. Plus, we had a storm starting to move in over the mountains, so we decided we should probably head out.

Aside from the gypsum itself, there is not really anything else here to see, so it can be a relatively quick stop for those that just want to see the park. I, however, with my love for sand, could have spent the entire day here! Who knew I would love this park so much? After a while, we made our way back to the parking lot (and overheard a small group of people excitedly adding our Missouri license plate to their 50 states list…apparently, they hadn’t seen any other Missourians on their trip!)

There is a park rule that you are not allowed to take any gypsum from the park with you, and I really did try to knock it all off my clothes and boots…but to get it all off is very difficult. I may or may not have collected the remainder into a tiny glass bottle when I got home…

Windblown and exhilarated, we started back for the highway. I really enjoyed my time at White Sands National Park and I look forward to returning one day! As for our route for the rest of the day, we decided we were going to veer north for a bit and head for Roswell! We were both interested in visiting this alien-themed oddity, and it now seemed like a good place to hole up for the night while we decided how to finish our journey. (The rest of our trip was entirely weather-dependent at this time, as the Midwest Deep Freeze was moving south and would soon be overlapping roads we had intended to take.)

We cut through the Lincoln National Forest, winding our way through snow-covered pine trees, mountain peaks, and even a brief and unexpected ice storm…it was scarily reminiscent of our Colorado snowstorm…but the road soon dropped in elevation again, the weather cleared, and we were zooming along through a whole lot of nothingness. About an hour outside of Roswell, we began passing through numerous tiny towns, villages more like, and found them eerily abandoned. Although the towns looked cleaned up and inhabited, we saw no people. No cars. Not even a cow, although there were plenty of empty pastures…it was unnerving.

It began to sink in for us how alone we were out here. We made a few nervous jokes about how the aliens must have already abducted everyone in these parts…and drove a bit tensely for a while longer. Surprisingly, when we reached Roswell, everything felt normal again! In fact, Roswell was much more of a low-key, comfortable place than I had imagined! There were a few businesses with an alien theme or décor, but nothing too outrageous. And there were lots of familiar chain restaurants and a Walmart. (How Midwestern do you have to be to feel comforted by a freaking Walmart?) I was also quite pleased with the way the town was set up. It was an easy-to-navigate grid, not too terribly crowded, and the stoplight system was spread out just enough to keep traffic moving efficiently without ever being difficult to pull onto Main Street or even to make a left across the four lanes!

Feeling quite relaxed here already, we picked the Roswell Inn as our home for the night. It was one of the businesses that was alien themed, and that’s what we were in the mood for! The rooms, or “pods” as they were referred to, were only $40 a night, which was just as good as camping! Plus, they had just been remodeled, so they were very nice and modern! We were right on Main Street with easy access to everything in town, but it was still nice and quiet! We were going to go out and eat at either the Applebees or the IHOP just down the road, only to discover that the restaurants here were still only carry-out or delivery due to their continued Covid regulations. We went back to our room to decide what we wanted, and ended up ordering Buffalo Wild Wings to be delivered to our door! It was a fun night of spicy chicken wings, Youtube videos, and relaxation!

February 18th – A Restful Day in Roswell

We knew this day would be a lazy one for us, so we slept in and got a leisurely start to our day. We went for a drive to explore town, from one end to the other. The Roswell Inn was pretty close to the southern edge, where it ended abruptly at the highway. On the other side of town, we got some pictures along Main Street of the alien statue holding up the Dunkin’ Donuts sign and a McDonalds that was shaped like a UFO! (Yes, I got a McGriddle at the UFO McDonalds because it was really cool! Don’t judge me, I know my flaws.)

As we came back through the little downtown area, we stopped at a little souvenir shop called Hangar 209. It was a strange little place with a collection of knick-knacks, conspiracy books, alien-themed trinkets, and a complimentary coffee bar! Being that they also sold several brands of ground coffee that David and I had never heard of, we each picked a bag to try when we got home: Double Dead for David and Wicked Wolf for me. (Both were amazing!!)

Afterwards, we slowly piddled back towards the southern edge of town again to investigate a sign we had seen on the outskirts, pointing towards Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We both love wildlife refuges and, since David was still practicing his bird identification, we decided to go explore! It was a charming place, an expanse of wetlands several miles outside of town. We spent a couple hours traversing the gravel road that looped through the refuge and enjoyed having the whole place mostly to ourselves. It was very quiet and peaceful. Of course, it was also cold, and most birds had migrated on by this time of year, so there wasn’t a ton to see. But we still enjoyed pointing out a variety of ducks, geese, and hawks.

We made a pit stop by Walmart, then retreated to our motel room after paying for a second night. We decided to just enjoy the rest of our day here, get a good night’s sleep, and figure out the route for the rest of our trip. We had been seriously contemplating heading south again, crossing back into Texas long enough to visit Guadalupe Mountain National Park, as well as Carlsbad Caverns National Park. However, two big obstacles stood in our way. 1) We were nearly broke, and I wasn’t sure we could handle any more nights in a hotel, or even camping. And 2) the winter weather that had been coating Missouri had moved into Texas with a vengeance. Whole cities had lost power and dozens of people were literally freezing to death, unprepared for this kind of weather. Most of the roads were in no condition for safe travel and most of Texas was in a state of emergency. It just did not seem like the right time or conditions to continue our vacation here.

So, we agreed on the less exciting, but more practical decision. We would cut our trip short by about a day or two and head towards home. We were right beside Highway 70, almost to the border of Texas where we were now. If we drove from dawn to dusk, we could make it home. And if the winter weather caught us, we would scrape up the cash to pay for another motel somewhere in Oklahoma. (We did have more money in savings in the case of an emergency. We aren’t that poor at planning. However, that was the money for bills, gasoline, and groceries when we returned home, and we were trying really hard to make it on only the budget we had allowed for the vacation.)

With the realization that this was probably our last night of relaxation, we spent it playing games and watching videos. And I allowed myself one more splurge and ordered IHOP for delivery. That way I had leftovers for breakfast in the morning and would speed up our departure (yes, that sounds like an excuse, but it really was a viable reason!) Then, we mentally prepared ourselves for the long day of driving ahead.

February 19th – The Road Home

We were packed, had the gas tank filled up, and were on the road before 9am. (I did get one more coffee from the UFO McDonalds…but not a McGriddle! I upheld my IHOP promise.) It was a very quiet, peaceful morning of full sunshine without a cloud to be seen…or anything else for that matter. We were back on the interstate with miles and miles of more flat nothingness around us. No birds, no cars, nothing but the empty highway. We took a few more pictures, trying to fathom it all…but after another couple hundred miles of that, it lost its luster. In fact, the pictures tapered off altogether at this point. We were only focused on getting home.

We drove straight across what little remained of New Mexico and soon, the flat grassland was replaced by flat farmland once more as we zipped through the Texas panhandle. Hours later, we were cruising through Amarillo along good ole familiar I-40. So much of it was a blur…we had seen enough flatness to last us both the rest of our lives. And neither of us were quite ready to go back home. (I was ready for the stability of a familiar bed and knowing my money wasn’t depleting faster than I was making it, but who wants to see their road trip end?)

The weather was holding so far, making for a pretty day, albeit an uneventful one. We only stopped for gasoline and to switch drivers, taking advantage of those moments to stretch our legs. The only official stop we allowed ourselves was when we reached Yukon, Oklahoma. We had been making great progress and, after eating cooler food all day, we were craving something more substantial. Just off the highway was a Longhorn Steakhouse, and I realized how amazing steak sounded! So, after struggling to squeeze into a spot that wasn’t packed full of snow mountains left by snowplows, we treated ourselves to a nice, heavy meal.

The sun was setting while we ate, so we did some quick research on the area, wondering if we should stay the night somewhere close, or keep going. But there was a lot of snow on the ground outside already, and the radar showed the threat of more on its way. This only spurred us to make it home as soon as possible. So, on the verge of twilight, we were back on the road and barreling towards home.

The second half of our drive through Oklahoma was done in darkness. At least we knew we weren’t missing any views. We begrudgingly paid our tolls and kept pushing to finish those last few hours. Somewhere in the late hours of the night, we crossed back into Missouri and were on the final stretch of our non-noteworthy return. Then, just outside of Springfield, barely an hour from home, my car began dinging desperately. We were almost completely out of gas. I knew we had been running low for the past 30 miles, but I had kept pushing my luck, thinking we could make it…but I watched the miles available drop from 60 to 30 to 15 with startling speed. David and I gritted our teeth with nervous laughs, keeping that foot on the gas pedal as Springfield crept closer and closer.

Finally, as my car was taking its last few breaths, we coasted down the exit and limped into the familiar Casey’s across the road, on our very last fumes. The giddy relief woke us out of our exhausted stupor as we filled up one final time. It was also this moment that I praised my reliable old car for making that 3,000-mile journey, proving wrong my doubts to how well she would hold up. And to think, I had almost considered selling her at one time!

Fully refueled, we started the 45-minute drive down the road we had driven dozens of times before. Around midnight, we finally rolled into the parking lot of my apartment. The roads were in much better shape than when we had left, so I didn’t hesitate to bundle my sister out the door, thanking her for housesitting and promising to pay her back for it when I wasn’t so exhausted and in need of sleep. (Although the roads were clear, I noticed that the same ice remained in the parking lot, never melting in the time we had been gone.) Without even unpacking, David and I crashed into bed, reeling from our long day — and long trip! — knowing we would have to wrap our heads around it all in the morning.

Epilogue

It’s a strange feeling…coming home, after you’ve been away for a while. Everything is the same as when you left it. But nothing feels the same. It’s hard to unpack and go back to the old routine. It feels weird going back to your everyday job, as if nothing happened. And it is impossible to part from the one companion who was beside you through it all. In the end, you realize that it is not your old life that has changed…but yourself.

When David and I awoke the next morning, we had about another twenty minutes together as I drove him home. He spent his morning digging out his Fiat, which was completely buried in ice and snow after two weeks of not moving. Meanwhile, I went home and attempted to resettle into my life. And I did, with time. But it felt like we had been gone much longer than two weeks, and it was even harder returning to my old routine than it had beenwhen we had returned from Colorado.

However, the one thing David and I could not cope with was the distance between us. We had been so in sync with each other throughout the entirety of our journey, that living apart now felt like we were missing half of ourselves. We were not meant to be apart, and we were so certain of it, that less than a month after our return, we moved in together!

Now, we will never have to leave each other’s side when we return from a road trip. We can plan out our future trips from the comfort of our shared home. And we can look back on everything that we have done together as we snuggle on our couch or lay beside one another in bed, instead of recounting our memories through text messages. Every time we leave for a road trip, every time we return from one, it will be centered around this home that belongs to us both and that, I believe, makes it so much easier.

As I recount this tale to you, David and I still could not be happier in our small, adorable little home where we have lived for almost seven months. It has been exactly one year since our Colorado trip ended. Almost eight months since our Southwest trip began. And in one week, we will be leaving for our next adventure, bringing to life the ideas we had first come up all those months ago. Very soon, we will be on rocky coastline, watching the sun rise and set from the ocean. If you have read along with us this far, just know that at this moment, I have nothing left from our past to recount. There is only what lies ahead, whatever that may be. You can find out along with us if you’d like! So, stay tuned for our future adventure!

And remember, we only have one life to live. So, get out there and live it!

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