Road Trip USA: Southern Hospitality

Photos in collaboration with Quin Schrock

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I watched helplessly as the van defiantly spewed a rainbow of dust into the night air. The back wheels spun deeper into the soft desert sand, but refused to move forward. We were officially stuck. Filthy and tired I plopped down next to the offending wheel. My mind flashed to the scene in Happy Gilmore, when Adam Sandler can’t make a putt. Except now I’m Happy Gilmore, and the van is the golf ball. I’m at face level with the wheel and I turn to it: 

 “It’s time to move, [van]. [puts van in drive; van doesn’t move] Son of a bitch van! Why didn’t you move?! That’s what you do! Are you too good to move?! Answer me!”

I shrug the image off. It’s only been about an hour - too soon for a Happy style tantrum. Feeling around in the dark, I find the only instrument available beyond a hand - my spoon - and start digging around the rear wheel-well again. Note to self: get a shovel and MAXTRAX for the van.

I woke up from a shallow sleep, sweaty and disoriented. A blinding sliver of light was hitting me square in the face where the curtains had separated. Sitting up, I notice that everything is listing badly to the right. Then I remember - I’m in a van. And that van is stuck in a hole, in the middle of the desert, with no cell service. 

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My spoon shoveling efforts had proven fruitless,  and we dejectedly went to bed, hoping that our situation would look less dire in the daylight. But now, outside in the already intense morning sun, it was clear that we needed help. Luckily help didn’t take to long to find us. We flagged down two women in a large SUV, and they graciously agreed to follow us to the van—despite acknowledging that, like us, they had no idea what they were doing. 

After destroying two hammock straps and a number of towels, we were free! It was an ominous start to our road trip across the southern United States, and I was ready to cut our losses and clear out of Arizona. But we decided to finish what we’d started and hike out to Cibecue Falls - we had already payed for the permits after all. When we arrived, we were greeted by an improbable oasis of bright green water. We were alone for a while, with nothing but the crashing water to keep us company. I was glad we had stayed.

New Mexico

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Nothing can prepare you for White Sands National Monument. The drive is monotonous and desolate - a vast expanse of brown landscape stretching across the horizon in every direction. Beautiful in the stark way that many desert landscapes are. But definitely not white. 

There are 10 backcountry camping spots at White Sands - and you can’t reserve them. It was a Saturday of a three day weekend, and it was one of those few times a year when entrance to federal parks is free. I flipped through coffee table books while Quin waited to talk with a ranger. I wasn’t hopeful - it was already late afternoon when we arrived. Back home in Washington, you’d literally have to sleep outside ranger stations to even have a chance of getting backcountry permits for most popular trails. But as I walked up to the counter to meet Quin, I overheard the ranger asking him to choose between multiple available spots. 

I couldn’t believe it! How could we be this lucky? Perhaps this is redemption for our previously failed night of spoon excavation? Then my heart sank - something must be wrong. Perhaps all the photographs I’d seen were photoshopped. Or we weren’t where I thought we were. There was no other explanation. Where was everyone? 

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Driving into the park it looked like a continuum of the roads we had taken to get there. And then gradually, without warning, the pavement slowly faded under a layer of fine white sand until it completely disappeared, and just like that, we found ourselves in another world. Great wave-like dunes of glistening gypsum sand rolled out in every direction. The light reflecting off the sugar white sand was blinding and almost too beautiful to look at.  

I felt the cool sand seep up between my toes as it engulfed my feet. The sun was setting and the sky popped with color against the white horizon. I sat down to enjoy the show. When the last streak of orange had faded, darkness rolled in heavy with stars. The park was closed now and the sky felt a little too close. A crushing desire to internalize the moment washed over me. A need to capture it. To remember every detail. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Something about the immensity of nature in places like this had always elicited an overwhelming mixture of loneliness and belonging. A hazy, yet unmistakable sense that I am part of something much larger. If only for a fleeting moment. 


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On a map Texas was the half way point on our cross-country road trip. But in my mind, it was just the beginning. 

I lived in Texas once. I was four years old, and remember little from my brief stint as  a resident of the Lone Star State.  And yet, the few memories I did have were fond ones - flowers, fire flies, frogs, and epic thunderstorms. Perhaps because of this experience I expected to feel somehow more at home in Texas. As if a small part of me—that I hadn’t even realized was missing—would be magically returned upon crossing the border. But I felt nothing. 

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Texas. Austin was cool - but more or less like Portland, with  cowboy boots. And the Hill Country was lovely. Jacob’s Well and Hamilton Pool Nature Reserve were exactly as advertised - visually interesting, although crowded swimming holes. And the BBQ was delicious. Texas was, in short, everything it promised to be. But nothing more. 

I’ll be back I’m sure. After all, it’s a huge state, and I only saw a very small, very well trodden corner of it. Next time I’ll visit Big Ben, and put aside more time to get off the beaten trail. Next time, I’ll find the Texas that stole a little peace of my heart when I was four years old. 


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My first morning in Navarre I beat the sun to the beach. I stood waist deep in the warm water, a half mile of empty white sand on either side of me, and watched as the sun slid up over the horizon. Just as I was about to grab my camera from the beach I saw them. A pair of dolphins slowly dancing through the shallows right in front of me. I was consumed in the magic of a moment. That was three years ago. On my very first solo photography assignment. 

It was surreal standing here again. On the same beach, in the same small town, thousands of miles from home. The last time I was here I had been working for Santa Rosa County. The goal was to bring attention to the small county as a rising adventure travel destination. I had been hesitant to take the job. I’d never heard of Santa Rosa, or any place in it. No one had. And in the end maybe that’s why I accepted. Few locations have surprised me the way the panhandle had. I felt a connection—a strange nostalgia—that was almost disconcerting in its persistence. I remember picturing a different life for myself. Past and future. And yet, I never expected to be back. 

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When I realized that the road trip would put me right back in the place that had stirred up so many unexpected emotions, I was excited and anxious. Would the connection still be there? Or had it all just been a product of my circumstances: The adrenaline rush of my first solo job. The thrill of experiencing a new place. The heat. 

We drove through the night, passing through Louisiana and Mississippi in the dark. Empty spots on the map that I would have to come back and fill in some other time. I watched the sun rise over the floating bridges in Mobile, Alabama from the van window. A couple hours later we pulled into an empty parking lot adjacent from Pensacola Beach. I stayed in the van to change while Quin climbed over the sand dunes to see what it was all about. When he finally returned it was with a signature flurry of energy that I knew all to well by this point. He grabbed his camera excitement in his eyes. I hadn’t made it up all those years ago. He had felt it too. There was something special about this place.

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We were in Georgia just long enough for me to decide I’d like to come back someday. Sunrise at the coast. An afternoon spent at the famous Wormsloe Plantation tree tunnel. And a farewell ice-cream in Savannah. 

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On our way up to Tennessee we spent the night just off the side of a dirt road outside a town whose sole amenity appeared to be a gas station. The world was quiet, and the only light was the slow pulsating flicker of a few fireflies. In the morning we topped off before heading north. I wanted to grab a post card in every state we passed through - a mission that had proven much more difficult than expected. Not seeing any, I asked the lady at the register. She smiled kindly, “Sweety, does this seem like the type of place people wanna write home about?” I thanked her and left. But in my head I was thinking. . . Maybe. 


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The entire road trip started with one simple idea: There are beautiful places everywhere, if you’re open to them. You don’t have to travel half way around the world, or spend an obscene amount of money. You can find those memory making, life affirming, and photo worthy locations, right in your backyard - no matter where your backyard happens to be. 

Nonetheless, when we started driving east from San Diego I wasn’t sure exactly what we'd find. What if we were wrong? What if we drove all that way across the country only to realize we should have never left California. Back home when I told people that my next destination was a road trip through “The South,” I was met with blank stares, amusement, and more than a couple “whys?” And that was before I explained that it wasn’t for any sort of tourism gig, brand deal, or paid collaboration - it was just “for fun.” 

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Perhaps it was the ridicule back home, or a lifetime of west coast bias, but when I was greeted by this line on the Tennessee Tourism Boards website I was dubious: 

“The great outdoors. The kind that look like a postcard and feel like a playground. Where every adventure, and every turn, dare you to come back for more.”

But I shouldn’t have been. We were only in Tennessee for a day. Like many of the states before it, we had arrived in the dark, only to wake up to a new world in the morning. This time it was a world full of waterfalls. Waterfalls that rival any I’d visited in the Pacific Northwest. One after another—Cummins, Burgess, and Greeter Falls—huge, cascading, and beautiful. They looked like a postcard and felt like a playground. And I definitely wanted more. 


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We met Cole and his dad, Dusty, at the end of an unassuming country road. Cole had flown in from Colorado the day before to visit his family in Alabama, and the father-son duo had agreed to help us rappel into one of the area’s many caverns.

The forest trail was hot and sticky. Cole was in front, educating Quin on some of the areas more gruesome wildlife: Poison Ivy, Ticks, and something called Chiggers - apparently they’re the worst. My whole body itched. I recalled the scrub itch from some distant Australian bug cousin that had once called me dinner. I had no desire to repeat that experience in any way. Absorbed in the thought of microscopic insects injecting digestive enzymes into my delicate areas so that their larva could feed on my flesh, I almost didn’t notice that the rest of the group had come to an abrupt stop. 

We had arrived. Standing at the edge of the cavern is like standing at the portal to another world. Any thought of carnivorous insects or killer plants had vanished. I was an Avatar. And this was Pandora. The forest was no longer hot and sticky. Streaming waterfalls disappeared 16 stories cascading straight into the pit, leaving only mist and cool air behind. The result was a visually arresting combination of rainbows and light rays bursting forth from the darkness into the verdant forest. 

Once you got over the initial 162 foot exposure, rappelling down was relatively easy. But getting back up was a marathon. There was a point very early on, maybe 15 feet off the ground when I felt panic creeping in. I wasn’t going to make it. Quin and Cole shouted up words of encouragement and I started again. Dusty was waiting for me at the top. He was covered in sweat, smiling, and standing next to an elaborate pulley system that he had rigged to help pull me out. I’d never felt so grateful for southern hospitality. 

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We talked about work, politics, and faith, while the boys worked their way out of the pit. Three topics I’d been avoiding the entire road trip. And if we are being completely honest, three topics that I’d been avoiding most my life. Here, deep in the red zone, I was particularly hesitant. But Dusty made it easy. He told me about his family, his wife, his church, a few good books, and Alabama. And when he was finished I wished we had more time. I wished I’d had the opportunity to hear more of these new friends’ stories. To learn from them. To understand that our differences weren’t all that important - or even all that great. That at our core we are all just searching for those connections that make us feel whole. And in the end, that was the greatest lesson I could have asked to learn from a trip to discover beauty in my own backyard. 

Note: Many of the caves, caverns, and pits in Alabama are preserved by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. They maintain and oversee their use. Please visit their site for more information, permits, and ways you can help protect these unique ecosystems. 

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