Saturday, 18 August 2012

1170 miles of driving later...

Well, we did it! And it was INCREDIBLE.

Starting from the beginning... on Monday I went to work and got my ER. Went home, packed and got ready. Nick came and picked me up at around 5pm, we stopped at the post office then we went to get some food at Panera before heading to the airport. The flight to Atlanta was delayed by about an hour but we eventually got there and the hotel was literally a monorail ride away (well, the Sky Train actually) to the convention center. It was a Marriott suites hotel and it was very comfortable... we even got free breakfast the next day. We had to get up at about 6am, had the breakfast and then went back over to the airport to get our Delta flight to Phoenix.

*side note* I should mention that the reason we went to ATL rather than straight there was because we were initially planning to go to Nick's parents house and then drive to Tennesse for a couple of days so we'd got really cheap flights to ATL... we didn't want to waste them and the timing worked out better to go via ATL on the way there.

SO... we got our flight, it was all on time and everything. It was about a 4 1/2 hour flight which was pretty boring because we didn't have in-flight entertainment so we mostly just played on the iPad and I read my magazines. We went back 3 hours in time so we actually touched down at about 9.30am PST (Pacific Standard Time). We went out of the airport to find the rental car shuttle and instantly the heat hit us! Before 10am in the morning and it was already about 95 degrees.... but it was a dry heat ;) (more on that later) We got the shuttle bus and then Hertz told us it would be about a 45 minute wait for our car to be ready so we had a snack and sat around until we got called. We added Nick as an additional driver and then went to find our car... it was a Chevrolet Captiva Sport 2012 in WHITE! It pretty much looked like this:

Much bigger than we thought it would be. I am pretty sure we got an upgrade actually... either way, it suited the trip we were about to take so I approved. We drove about 30 minutes out of Phoenix to a Walmart to pick up some snacks and water (for us and as a back up for the car!) before hitting the road!

We drove north for about 4 hours until we reached the Grand Canyon! Yup, simple as that! It was weird because you drive through miles of desert (complete with cacti!) and then it goes hilly and foresty... and you wonder when the Grand Canyon, if it's so "grand", is going to make it's appearance... you get to the entrance to the National Park where you have to pay about a $25 entrance fee per vehicle (cash only!) and then through to the visitor's center. At this point, we had still not seen any type of canyon or even big hole in the ground. We got there at about 3.30/4pm so a few people were leaving, we circled for about 5 minutes until we got a really decent parking spot... we went through the visitor center area to get to the shuttle bus stops. They give you a map when you pay the entrance fee and there are four different shuttles you can get which go to all the viewpoints on the South Rim. There are many hiking trails and places to explore which are on the map and signposted too but we weren't really interested in that. So, we got the orange route which took us east of the visitor center to the South Kaibab Trailhead... and THIS is where we first saw the Canyon! During the bus journey there! It was a sudden intake of breath moment and we weren't the only ones on the bus whose first glimpse this was so that was exciting. The bus arrived about a minute later and we jumped off (even though we planned to stay on until the next stop, Yaki Point) because we wanted to see it so badly! We went off the path a little bit and suddenly we were on the edge of the world! LITERALLY!

There were no fences or barriers... if you tripped and fell - you would DIE! It was scary! Especially seen I was wearing my rubbish vans with little grip on them... on the way back up the little hill Nick had to hold me so I didn't slip on the gravel and fall backwards to my death :P Anyways, it felt like the edge of the world... the silence was amazing - even though there were about 10 people that got off the bus, we were all on our own in this little spot without sight of anyone else. All you could hear was the odd bird noise and the wind whistling through the Canyon... when neither of these things were present then the silence almost hurt your ears. We took lots of photos and then after about 20 minutes decided we needed to move on and see another viewpoint but in the end this was my favourite point - maybe because it was the first one we saw - but it felt special.

We continued the orange bus route to Yaki Point for another amazing view. Then got the orange route back to the visitor center and changed onto the Blue route which took us through the Grand Canyon Village. There's a cafe, a gift shop, picnic areas and some other amenities (I believe a post office, bank and small grocery shop?). We then changed at Hermit's Rest Transfer Stop onto the Red Route (this is another nice viewpoint even though we didn't realise it was one) so we could go to the other side of the South Rim and to Mojave Point. We stopped off at Hopi Point which was a different view and then we wanted to go further round... and it was worth it! We got off at Mojave Point and we could see the Colorado River, more than a mile down into the Canyon! The sun was getting a little less intense by this point so it wasn't as hazy which was nice. We took some really nice pictures and I even did a little video (I'll put it on my YouTube channel at some point) before deciding it was time to head back. We were tempted to stay for sunset... but it was very busy as everyone had the same idea so I figured we'd see the sunset once we were back on the road. We spent about 3.5 hours at the Canyon in the end which felt perfectly fine - we saw everything we wanted to see and got some amazing photos. That was not only a point on the bucket list marked off, but a visit I'd wanted to do for many many years!

We did indeed see an amazing sunset as we drove away... I was initially driving at this point but Nick took over as I wanted to take pictures. We drove the 3.5ish hours to Las Vegas mostly in darkness (this included a brief stint on Route 66!! We stopped so I could have a picture with a sign but it was dark so a slight failure... I shall endevour to post it at some point!). We were driving on the highway and going up a slight hill when we broke the crest of the hill to see the whole of Las Vegas laid out before us... I literally stopped mid-sentence to be speechless at the view! Probably won't forget that moment for the rest of my life... amazing. All the glittery lights and lasers shining all around out of nothing! Complete black and darkness all around us and then suddenly that! I can hardly describe it in words to be honest. From that view, it took about another 45 minutes to actually get into the city but our hotel was only just off the highway so it was easy. After a little confusion on where to park (we actually ended up self-parking in the Mandalay Bay hotel lot instead of the valet Four Seasons lot... which also meant it was free versus $22!) we had a walk through the hotel and casino to find the elevator that would take us up to the 35th floor of the Mandalay Bay where the Four Seasons was located. So basically, we were staying in a hotel on top of another hotel!

It was very plush. As it was the Four Seasons (ahem, Trip Advisor's #1 rated hotel in Vegas!) it felt miles away from the casino side of things... it was all classical music, marble flooring and bath robes! Our room had an amazing view from the 36th floor over the south side of Vegas (towards the side we'd entered the city from) even though it wasn't a 'Strip' view, the glittery lights pleased me haha. We got changed and headed out just after 11.30pm to go and get a picture of the 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign which was something I really wanted to do. We had been up for about 21 hours at this point so we were both knackered... it was about a 0.5 mile walk to the sign so by the time we'd done this in the middle of the night and had a brief snack at McDonalds (the SLOWEST MaccyDs EVER by the way) it was time for bed. The bed was amazing, like sleeping on a cloud! Having said that, I think I was pretty overwhelmed by the whole day and thus, didn't actually sleep very well. That was my fault though, not the hotel!

The next day (Wednesday), it was bright and sunny. We checked out of the hotel at about 10am and went to the Starbucks located in the Mandalay Bay for some breakfast. Gambled a couple of dollars on the slot machines just because we *had* to! Won nothing of course ;) We then hit the road again, on route to the Hoover Dam!

This is located only about an hour outside of Vegas - it was very easy to get to. It was bloody hot, I'll tell you that! About 100 degrees when we got there. You get three options for visiting - 1) is $7 to park and then you can wonder around the top part of the Dam and the visitor center, 2) is $7 to park and then $11 per adult to do a 30 minute tour inside the Power Station and 3) is $7 to park and then $30 per adult for the 1 hour Power Station and Dam tour. We wanted to do option 3 but even at midday there was already a 2 hour wait for the 1 hour tour so we got the 30 minute tour instead. First we got taken into a room to watch a brief 10 minute video about the Dam - how it was built, why it was built etc. Very interesting. Then we had to wait for about 20 minutes before we were taken down in groups of about 35 people to the Power Station where the Dam was explained and we were showed the generators and pipes.. it was intriguing. Nick loved it because he's a science nerd whereas I only just understood it but good times! After this, we went back to the surface and went to walk across the Dam (crossing between Nevada and Arizona, this excited me!), took lots more pictures and got very hot as it was topping 100 degrees by this point. We got a couple of drinks for the car and some souvenirs before getting back into the car for the long drive to Death Valley. We were only there for a couple of hours but it was worth it - you could have spent longer there if you'd wanted to.

So, we drove from the Hoover Dam, across another state border into California! (Three states in one day isn't bad!) Death Valley was the slightly uncertain part of our trip... we didn't really know what to expect. As we were ahead of schedule, we took a detour to go and see 'Rhyolite' which was a Ghost Town!! It was founded at the beginning of the California gold rush (about 1905 I believe) and took off, becoming a town of a few thousands within weeks. But the whole place was abandoned by about 1918 and the buildings were even deconstructed and the materials reused in other towns as the mines dried up and no more gold was found. However, there were a few buildings left which were kinda creepy to look at but interesting at the same time! So we drove around there and then continued on to Death Valley.

 It was about 3 hours to there from the Dam and the temperature kept going up and up. It was about 108 degrees by the time we got to the Death Valley National Park. I luckily had a map which I'd printed (otherwise we would have been pretty screwed!) so we knew the viewpoints we wanted to see. By this point it was about 5pm and the visitor center was closed so we were on our own! We drove to 'Devil's Golf Course' which looked cool from the website - and indeed it was COOL! Well, actually it was about 115 degrees, but basically it's so dry that the rock salt had formed itself into balls creating a very bizarre effect. We took some photos and then got back into the car to drive to Badwater Basin which was about another 20 minutes down a dusty road away... surprisingly, most of the roads were fully paved concrete and we didn't have to go "offroad" toooo much! Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America so that was awesome... about 220 feet below sea level if I remember rightly. Oh, and at about 6pm that day it was 122 DEGREES!! That's 48.8 CELSIUS!!! But, as I said - It's a dry heat! Haha!

Okay, so to describe a "dry heat" - it's literally like walking into an oven. It envelopes you like a blanket... every breath you take kind of dries your mouth out. Your sweat evaporates as soon as it's left your skin so therefore you don't feel as hot. You drink water like it's going out of fashion but you don't feel any more hydrated. Every step feels like a massive effort because it tires your body out trying to keep cool. I think that's about all I can say to try and describe what that heat feels like!

Personally, I was already feeling a bit tired... so spending about 30 minutes out in that temperature nearly did me in! After about 15 minutes I was feeling very, very hot... slightly dizzy and slightly sick. As soon as I got back in the car I realised that I had a bright red patchy face and I was sweating all over once I was back in the A/C of the car.... I had to put the seat right back and spend about 10 minutes lying down forcing water down my throat in an attempt to stave off the heat exhaustion. I'm not overdramatising when I say I thought I was about to pass out. Luckily after about 30 minutes of staying in the car, I felt a little better. We stopped at a place called 'Natural Bridge' (I didn't get out) and then drove to 'Artist's Palette' where the light makes all the colours of the rocks come out. By this point, it was about 7pm and time for sunset again... we found a good spot a little higher up and the sunset came round fast! We took lots of pictures and then decided to try and make headway of getting out of the park before it was completely pitch dark.

At about 10pm after endless dark roads, hills, drops and scary moments on the sides of cliffs where road barriers were not high priority at building... we reached 4000 feet on top of this mountain and we decided this would be the perfect place to stop and see the stars.


That's all I can say. I was speechless. We turned the car lights all off and the only light was the stars. We were very lucky as there was no moon either. I saw a long patch of white going across the middle of the sky and presumed it was cloud until Nick told me that actually that's the galaxy! It was basically where there were so many stars in such intensity that it makes it look white... INCREDIBLE. Shortly after this revelation I saw for the first time in my life - a shooting star! AHHH!! I was almost brought to tears. That was, until Nick thought he saw a snake/mountain lion/scorpion and scared the crap out of us both by turning the headlights back on the car complete with horn noise! LOL!  We dragged ourselves away from the view (and the fact we'd scared ourselves by standing in the dark along with the poisonous reptiles all around) to keep driving. It was a long, long drive to Los Angeles. We stopped once more to see the stars before we got back to civilization and 4G phone signal!

We drove to our hotel in Santa Clarita, on the edge of L.A. I gladly crashed out... due to my poor sleep the night more and all the excitement of the day, I was completely exhausted.

The next day (Thursday) we got up at about 10.30am and checked out before navigating L.A. (slightly hair-raising) to go and see the Hollywood sign!! Awesomes! I can't believe I actually saw it in person! We drove through some nice neighbourhood to get there with mahoosive mansion houses - I definitely want to go back to L.A. one day and explore more. Same for Vegas. Anyways, we drove for about 30 minutes to... DISNEYLAND!!!

Now, for me, this is somewhat of a pilgrimage. Ever since I've ever worked at WDW, I've wanted to visit where it all began in California. Everyone had told me how small it was etc. but I absolutely loved it... you park in a multi-storey before getting the tram to the parks. Disneyland (aka Magic Kingdom basically) was directly opposite California Adventure (read: Hollywood Studios with extra stuff) just like in Paris where the parks are walking distance from each other. We headed to Disneyland first... it was super easy to get in, we just showed our main gate and got our park hopper tickets. After getting over the initial shock of the tiny-ness of the castle and my extreme excitement at walking up Main Street USA, we headed to Tomorrowland to do Space Mountain and get fastpasses for Star Tours (it had to be done!). We only waited about 30 minutes for Space so then we did the Matterhorn (it was a classic but unfortunately, quite painful!) and then Indiana Jones (exactly like Dinosaur at DAK but with The Mummy type theming!) before going back to our fastpasses for Star Tours. Then we headed out of that park, over to California Adventure (CA).

Like I said, CA is a little bit like DHS but with extra stuff. OBVIOUSLY the first place we had to go with Nick in tow was Soarin'. But at least, it made sense here - literally Soarin' Over California... the queue line was much nicer. Nick took a thousand pictures and I think he enjoyed himself! After wards, we got some chinese food (the general food options at DLR are so much better than WDW minus EPCOT in my opinion) and then went over to the much-anticipated Cars Land. It only opened a couple of months ago so it was rather busy... we only waited about 100 minutes for the main ride though. It was like Test Track but much better, amazing anamatronic characters in the form of Mater and Lightening McQueen and then you race another car at the end (we won!). We headed over and did the rollercoaster California Screamin' before getting ice cream from Ghiardellis and then doing the Little Mermaid ride and Tower of Terror. We then went back to DL and did Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion (where it dawned on me that I'd wanted to go to DL since I saw the Sing-a-long video Disneyland Fun when I was about 7 years old...) We did some shopping in the gift shops and then at about 8pm it was time to leave. Sadly, we didn't have time to do the shows, parades or World of Color which was a pity... next time, eh?

We drove to LAX and dropped off the rental car. Got some food at the airport and then boarded the red-eye flight at 11.20pm home... it was yuck. Mainly because it was an overnight flight, we landed at 4am PST (7am EST) then drove home and I went to bed. I napped on the plane but felt very groggy and gross. I got about 4 hours sleep before having to get up to get ready for my PM yesterday!

It was also yuck because I didn't want to come home. It was the most amazing trip I've ever done I think.... I saw some sights I'd dreamt of seeing and more. I had take-your-breath-away moments, crazy moments and unbelievable moments. We drove through 3 states, a total of 1170 miles, saw temperatures from 66 degrees to 122, I took over 600 pictures (which are yet to be uploaded... I'll update this when they have been!) and I had the time of my life.

I also owe a thank you to Nick for being an amazing driver (he ended up doing the vast majority of it), tolerating me and my excitement at Disneyland plus my endless requests for pictures, and being the best travel buddy I've ever had.

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