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The College Road Trip

Fueled by quesadillas and sunsets.

By: Will McKay + Save to a List

November 17th, 2016. Colorado.

Snow. Lots of it. It seemed to be just our luck. After an oddly long dry spell here in the front range of Colorado, Mother Nature reared her head in a familiarly beautiful way. Blanketing every surface in a thick coat, making all things appear nearly four inches taller.

That morning I packed my girlfriend’s car full of the gear we’d need over the next ten days. Sleeping bags? Check. Crash pad? Check. Boots, Puffies, and PBR? Check.

Nearly two months ago, my girlfriend, Kayla Williams, and I planned out a road trip during our college’s thanksgiving break. The idea was to drive from our home in Boulder, Colorado to Redlands, California, the place where she grew up. Along the way, we strove to hit as many National Parks as we could, climbing and hiking until our bodies begged for a quick nap in the back of Kayla’s pickup.

That pickup’s name is Riley, Riley The Truck. A 2003 Chevy S10 coated in a matte brown paint. During the summer of 2016, we schemed up the idea of a car we could camp in after days of climbing, skiing, and hiking. Thus, Riley was born. The topper that fits her rear end is full of scratches from an accident the previous owner was in, and after a few heavy snow and rainstorms, we learned she was equipped with leaks as well. Plywood extends across the back, held up by a few support beams that give the framework to our climbing and skiing storage areas. An Ikea mattress covers the wood grain of the plywood, while our sleeping bags cover us.

As we drove through the freshly snow covered canyons of 1-70, we expected the worst. A massive winter storm, the first one of the year, was predicted to fall directly on our route to Moab, Utah. Sadly for us, the meteorologists were finally right for once. But we pushed on, full of ambition and the drive to see new terrain. As we chugged up the canyon, cars were pulled over every few miles, most of them seeming as if they hadn’t expected that much snow to fall. Go figure, nobody entirely trusts the meteorologists here.

We were lucky. Within ten minutes of crossing through the Vail Pass, the Colorado Department of Transportation closed the road. As the night longed on, we longed to reach our campsite outside Moab. Arriving around midnight, we pulled off onto a Bureau of Land Management road, setting up camp on a well established site. Off to bed we went, mentally exhausted from the weather and driving combination.

November 18th, 2016. Moab, Utah.

I opened my eyes after realizing my entire right side was freezing. That was the morning I learned to cover the exposed metal in the back of the truck with a blanket before falling asleep. After rubbing the moisture off the windows, I got my first glimpse of the Utah desert. Stumbling out of the back of the truck, I was treated to a beautiful palette of colors in both the sky and the land. Having never visited the desert, the idea of red dirt had always made sense to me but seeing it in person just blew my mind.

As I made breakfast on the tailgate of Riley, Kayla came out to join me. We cooked our cheap oatmeal and topped it with crasins from our family sized bag. Laying the crash pad on the ground, we leaned up against the wheel well of Riley and were treated to a beautiful sunrise. The desert colors lined up with colors of the sky, basking everything the sun’s rays touched in a surreal orange and pink haze. After working on some post-breakfast homework, we packed up our camp and headed to Arches National Park.

Kayla had visited plenty of National Parks when she was younger, constantly traveling through the west with her family. I, on the other hand, had never even visited one. The most federally managed land I had ever been exposed to was the national forests of the Rockies with my family. Passing through them every year as we drove every year to Steamboat, Colorado in search of deep snow and beautiful blue bird days.

Driving through the maze of mesa’s, I was struck with a sense of wonder. This was the land that I had grown up staring at through means of photographs from Patagonia and The North Face catalogs. Standing out in the vast desert, it was almost as if I could hear Edward Abbey’s quotes from Desert Solitaire in the wind. We made our way to Delicate Arch and hiked up before the crowds managed to get there. Surreal.

Leaving the park was difficult for me, but we only had ten days so our time was sadly limited. I wasn’t too worried however, I’ve always heard the desert draws you back. And off we went, traveling to Nevada and camping in a location that we were directed to by street signs littered with bullet holes.

November 19th, 2016. Nevada.

We hit the road, driving through the barren Nevada landscape. Old abandoned buildings were scattered through the desert, only made visible by the brightly colored spray paint that covered their dust soaked walls and the trash that had accumulated around their edges. In a way, it was beautiful and horrifying.

We stopped for lunch and a shower on the side of the road. Granted, the shower was freezing and we had malfunctions while cooking some eggs but it was well worth it. Piece of advice, if you make sure the skillet is on a flat surface, you won’t end up with a stove covered in egg whites

.To the Sierra Nevada’s we headed, setting course for Yosemite National Park. However our plans were soon corrected by Mother Nature once again. Another storm was traveling across the west, shutting down the direct passes into Yosemite. Disappointed and tired from a long day of traveling, we drove north towards Lake Tahoe, hoping to drive through the one pass that was still open. As the elevation grew so did the weather. Winds bustled down the mountain pass, blinding us as the snow came at the car from multiple directions. After a stressful drive, we arrived in Yosemite only to find that every single campsite was full. Go figure, we should have expected that. So we did the second best thing, we camped in the back of a hotel parking lot.

November 20th, 2016. Yosemite National Park.

We secured a site the next morning in the Upper Pines campground and headed out to get some bouldering in outside of Camp 4. Although we couldn’t climb trad due to our lack of gear, we managed to scramble up some Boulders throughout the afternoon.

For me this was a pretty big deal. As a kid, my bedroom walls were plastered with images I’d cut out from assorted outdoor magazines. Waking up next to photographs of Yosemite everyday kind of instills a weird obsession in you, especially if you’re from Iowa. Walking around, let alone climbing in a place with this much history brought upon a feeling of deep respect for those who had scaled the exposed granite faces of the canyon. Not to mention, Adam Ondra was currently nearing the top of the Dawn Wall, so that was pretty cool.

We spent the final hours of sunlight resting by the fire, enjoying our dinner as the rain came spitting down on us. Full from pasta, s'mores, and beer, we climbed into the camper and fell asleep, unaware of the tiny water droplets collecting on the inside of our topper from the semi-constant rain.

November 21st, 2016. Sequoia National Park.

Waking up to a crisp morning in Yosemite was a treat. After enjoying a late breakfast, we set out to to explore the park for a few more hours before heading to Sequoia National Park.

The drive to the sequoia’s was quick and easy, pulling into a campground during a beautiful sunset wasn’t a bad way to end our day of traveling. If I recall correctly, we were hit again with rain, but that didn't stop Kayla’s slight obsession with charring the s'mores that made up about half of our dinner. We rested that night in Riley, listening to Jack Johnson as the rain thudded on the topper’s (almost) waterproof roof.

November 22nd, 2016. Sequoia National Park.

Giants. Unbelievably huge. Up until the point where we physically saw the sequoia's, I had assumed they’d be large trees. Mixed into the climbing and skiing magazines that were plastered to my childhood room, a National Geographic poster was hung, outlining the differences of redwoods and sequoias. The poster stated their average heights and ages, but the numbers were nothing in comparison to the trees. The idea of a singular plant living and thriving for that long was just surreal to me. I’m still at a loss of words.

As we walked through the groves of sequoia’s, we felt humbled by the presence of these towering giants. Due to the early nature of our arrival into the park, we were some of the only people on the trails. Thus we began to yell, listening to our echoes as they slingshotted from tree to tree and back into the beautiful silence that filled the forest.

November 22nd - November 25th. Redlands, California.

Asides from traveling to the beautiful parks system, our main goal was to get back to Kayla’s home in Redlands, California for Thanksgiving. During our stay we managed to wake up for a sunrise hike up Zanja Peak, travel to Malibu for some amazing food, and relax while we geared up for another cross country trip. We also picked up some of Patagonia Provision’s Long Root Ale for the road. It definitely lived up to the hype.

I had visited California a few times before, but it was typically with my family. Traveling around and actually experiencing California with a local like Kay was pretty eye opening.

November 26th, 2016. Zion National Park.

Packing up the car the morning of the 26th brought upon the excitement of the road once again. The nerves of traveling cross country began to appear, only to be confronted with copious amounts of coffee. As we said our goodbyes, we headed east, towards the Nevada desert.

Landing in Zion National Park in the evening, we only had an hour in the park due to the lack of time. However that one hour was filled with a beautiful sunset, which is even better when it’s paired with a beautiful girlfriend. We promised each other while driving through the park that we’d come back sometime soon to spend a bit more time in Zion.

Driving out of the park and up a Bureau of Land Management road, we pulled off on top of a beautiful mesa. We set up camp and started the fire, surrounded by the distant sounds of coyotes yipping at us from across the canyon. The stars began to fill the empty sky, treating us to a beautiful scene as we listened to the University of Colorado vs. University of Utah football game on a static filled AM radio. That was a perfect night.

November 27th, 2016. 

A perfect night followed by a painful morning. My alarm filled the topper with an overly aggressive sound, jolting us awake at four in the morning. The night was a restless one due to the gusts of wind that continually slammed the side of Riley, shaking the truck in every way possible. This was our time to head out on the road, back to Boulder, all in a rush to beat a massive snow storm that was brewing in the rockies.

I took the first driving shift, downing my coffee and then Kayla’s too as soon as she fell back asleep in the passenger seat. Through the Utah desert and to the rockies we went, stopping only for gas and much needed quesadillas. Conveniently we were able to make it through the mountains with clear roads and blue skies. If we hadn’t left at four in the morning, it may have been a different story.

Finally Boulder was in sight. It was a miracle. Nothing had really gone wrong on the trip asides from a leaky roof. The truck was in the same condition as when we had left, just a little more smelly, kind of like Kay and I. As we pulled into the Boulder area, a sense of sadness came over me. I didn’t want to finish this road trip. I had fallen in love with the beautiful landscapes of the west that we saw together. Despite the sadness, I knew we’d be back one day. Hell, we live out on the edge of those wild lands, it’s essentially our backyard.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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