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"Deserts to Cities" by Brad Grant

26.02.16

Eighteen days, 12 strangers, 1 chauffeur and Fourteen States. Let me tell you all about the amazing and unforgettable trip I completed back in the summer of 2014!

We at the hotel, motel, Holiday Inn!

So having spent my last few hours in New York City after completing my summer job through Camp America; I made my to way Port Authority Bus Terminal. Whilst waiting to catch the Airport shuttle bus, a scene out of CSI was being shot. Well, not really. It was just some unknown to me, folks being arrested.

The bus arrived at 4pm, I hadn’t waited long. I then had two hours to get to The Holiday Inn Express at JFK airport. Now, according to Google Maps this only takes 49 minutes, so I was being very punctual if you ask me. 18:00pm struck the dot on the clock, where was I? Still sat somewhere between one car, and another. Yep, we hit traffic from the off-set.

     

Eventually arriving at JFK, I grabbed the shuttle train, followed by the hotel pick up bus, and made my way to the hotel check-in. It was only about 7:30pm at this time, so no biggie. Just 1 hour and 30 minutes late, ice-breakers missed, pizza gone; I introduced myself looking red as a tomato due to the rush, but all was good, I was introduced to these lovely new strangers, and they even actually saved me pizza. I loved them already. Conveying my own ice-breakers, I got the names of the strangers, had a quick chat, met who I’d be sharing a room with that night; two awesome people by the way, a lovely girl from New Zealand, and an awesome guy from Liverpool, all before the 6am wake-up call in the morning.

Rise of the alarm, quick shower, quick change, a bite to eat, and doors locked! We were in the van, on our way to our very first location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Let’s pause though: let me introduce you to the awesome trek gang that I got to travel over 4,000 miles with!

That’s them, a lovely bunch.

Where were we? Oh yes, on the highway to Philadelphia, PA!
 

Hey, Philly! Beautiful, right? We weren’t staying over here, it was just a quick stop over. We grabbed some lunch at Philadelphia’s famous Reading Terminal Market, eating the well known Philly CheeseSteak Sandwiches! Let me tell you, nothing compares to the ones here in Philadelphia. It’s worth visiting just for a Sandwich! Whilst here, we also had time to visit the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Rocky steps, well, we didn’t actually get to do the whole run scene due to a concert taking place that evening, blocking the steps! Spending only a few hours here, I could confidently say it seems a great place and if you have the chance then definitely visit here, even if it’s just a stop-over!

Thanks, Philly!

Back in the van, and we’re off to Washington D.C! The nations capital. This was by far, one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting and it didn’t disappoint. It exceeded all my expectations. We set up camp just outside of D.C in Maryland, at a lovely camp site. Our first night spent together as a trek, bonding through setting up tents, making dinner, and trying to find the nearest charging point!!

Later we set off into Washington, and from a distance you could see the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. It was so surreal. We’d arrived in D.C baby!

Our awesome trek leader Tony, took us on the illuminations tour, stopping off at the Capitol Building, the Washing Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the National World War II Memorial. It was incredible, being in an environment where so much history has taken place, we paid our respects, and reflected.

The next day we packed up camp and headed back into Washington D.C to go and visit Arlington National Cemetery, an incredible place of memorial, also unknown as the nations most hallowed ground.

A sea view of white headstones, heroes to their nations, their families, their friends.

We also visited JFKs burial ground, whereby an eternal flame is lit in his memory. I definitely recommend visiting here if you’re ever in Washington D.C.

Next we stopped off at the big man’s house, the Obama residence!! We were fortunate enough to get up close and personal with The White House before the newly built fences were put in place. We even got to see the big guy fly into the house in his helicopter!

“Who’s in that helicopter?” we asked, “The big man himself” she, one of many security guards around the house replied.

Making the most of our last few hours, we visited a few more tourist places including some of the places we visited on the illumination tour, to get a better idea of the place in the day. We also visited a few of the Smithsonian museums. They’re absolutely great. It’s a must do in Washington D.C!

Being here felt very authoritative. You instantly get that sense of importance, you know it’s the capital. There is crowds of security, men and women wearing black, and a lot of private blacked out cars, it’s an important place for sure. Aside from that, it’s an amazing place and I highly recommend visiting here. I would definitely return to Washington D.C, there is so many green spaces where you can just chill, read a book, listen to music, and watch the world go by. If you’re going to do this though, make sure you bring a cooler bag!! There isn’t one shop in sight for a drink, or bite to eat.

Pack up your camera in your old knit bag and smile. We’re off to the Appalachian Mountains next!

We had a day visit over at Shenandoah National Park, West of Virginia, also encompassing parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The views were breathtaking, green mountains for miles and miles. The sun was shining down bright which was great to sit in, but not hiking! After driving pretty much most of the way up, we eventually hiked Stony Man Summit and sat down with a PB&J Sandwich, taking in the views.

That night we also stayed over at a KAO camp site in West Virginia, and I even got to spar with a real bear, see below:

I guess I can say I won? Word of warning though, forget the bears, West Virginia or at least on this particular hot night in August, was full of spiders!! and I mean huge, gigantic, spiders! Getting a shower that evening in the communal block was like a dance competition, feet were all over the place, trying the hardest not to squish one! Would I visit again? Yes! Would I camp? No! Too many spiders.

Now it’s time for a sing-a-long, we’re off to ‘Music City’ Nashville!

As you can see, our minds were on other things. I guess this a good time to introduce you to Bruce and Fiona though. Bruce is the teddy bear you see above, we picked him up at a gas station on route to West Virginia, someone had left him. Fiona, she is the frog and was left at the KAO camp site in Virginia, in the laundry room. We decided to adopt both and the two became our trek mascots!

What happens in Nashville, stays in Nashville! We had such a great night. From the minute we set off in New York City until we arrived at Nashville, our tour leader Tony always played LA indie pop duo ‘Capital Cities’ who sing some notably popular tracks: ‘Safe and Sound’ and ‘Kangaroo Court.’ None of us had heard of them before starting the trek, and consequently by the time we had reached Nashville, we were their biggest fans, even calling our trek group – ‘The Safe & Sound’ crew 2014.

Tony had told us we were going to a gig that night, at Nashville’s Public Square Park, none of us had any idea who it was, nor did we even think to Google it. Well you guessed it, we were only going to watch Capital Cities who performed a 10 piece set-list!!

We first headed to one of Nashville’s most popular bars, ‘Jimmy Buffets Margaritaville’ – this place was the vibe! Defiantly visit here for food or a drink, or even just to visit the memorabilia shop. If you do get food, the Nachos are recommended! A trekker got a portion and it pretty much fed the whole table. Wasn’t a fan of the root beer though!

Anyway, off to the gig we go!

We danced the night away, literally. All completely sober.

We mixed with the locals, we mixed with other nationals, everyone was having fun. We couldn’t quite believe we were watching Capital Cities performing live in the actual ‘Music City’ itself. If you don’t know this band by name, I can guarantee you’ve heard a song of theirs. They’ve recently been the backing track for the ‘Bose’ UK advert, with the song ‘Kangaroo Court’.

The dancing didn’t end on the ground, we took it up to a multi-story carpark, where lots of locals were up dancing. Is this safe? I initially thought, being sensible. But on seconds thought, I was only ever going to be in Nashville once, watching CC Live, so why not?! (I’ve popped an ariel shot amongst the pics below, the views were brilliant!) After the gig, we popped into Nashville Hooters, for a quick photo before walking past an actual Coyote Ugly Saloon. Sadly there was no Violet Sanford in sight, but we fought the moonlight ourselves.

Waking up completely sober, because of the drinking age and all, we were fresh as daisy’s ready to hit up the King of Rock & Rolls hometown, MEMPHIS!

Touched down in the land of the delta blues…. Hey, Memphis!

Where do I start to describe this incredible place? This is by far one of the best places I have been too. This is old school America, its retro, its soulful, it’s Memphis. Forget booking a hotel if visiting here, you want to stay at one place only: Graceland RV Park & Campground. Talk about being on Elvis’ doorstep, this place was the place to be!

We pulled up outside Hound Dog Way and there was our crib for the night. It cost us $1 each between the 11 of us. It was either this or camping, and after camping from New York to here, we wanted a bed!

We got 3 between the 11 of us, and we were feeling on cloud 9. Before getting some sleep though, our leader had planned to take us to a high school American soccer game!

Of course we brought along with us our mascots, Bruce and Fiona!

We were here for what seemed like a whole day, the game was never ending! It was great fun though. We got to play with the match tannoy, commentating on the game in our different accents, it went down a treat for the Americans! After the game finished, the coach, pictured above, let us come onto the pitch and have our photos taken, one for the photo album!

And because it was that long ago, I forgot who won the game… maybe I’ll see if Google knows the answer!

After the game had finished, everything got a bit manic. The winning team were having a party, in their cars. There was crowds of high school kids hanging around, we stuck out like a sore thumb, we were ready for bed, definitely. But there was one thing I had to do before we hit the nest!

Remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Well I was nominated and did it right outside of Graceland itself. It was awesome and lucky enough, no security was about.

Don’t forget, you can still donate to ALS by clicking here.

The next day we went and done all the touristy stuff, including that ultimate visit to Graceland. I just have to say right now, I feel so lucky and privileged to have had this opportunity to visit here and it will be something I remember forever. Graceland is a place of treasure.

After Graceland we visited the famous Beale Street, exploring the retro streets of Memphis which was really cool. Tony had arranged to take us to see the Peabody Duck Parade. I know what you’re thinking. But let me tell you, it actually has such good history to it. Firstly the place is a hotel, and secondly the parade has been happening everyday for what has nearly been one hundred years, and each day ducks get to waddle down a red carpet, and play about in the Peabody Hotel lobby fountain. It attracts hundreds of spectators each day and yes, it’s silly, but it’s a silly fun! When else do you get to see ducks waddle down the red carpet? They do it better than those at the Oscars, that’s for sure!

Anyhow, back to the real Memphis, here's me at Graceland!

I loved Memphis. It’s completely different to any state you would visit. It is its own world, and it’s not materialistic or contemporary with the real world, at all. Yes, Graceland has been made to be a tourist attraction, but somehow, Memphis has remained to keeping this a sweet place to visit, and kept to its traditional routes.

Ooh shalala, now we’re off to dance with Queens of New Orleans!

The weather down from Memphis to New Orleans was storm galore. Everyone was hungry and with no gas station insight, we decided to stop off at Louisiana welcome park and make do with the food we had in the back of the trailer. I can officially say, trying to make a PB&J sandwich, in the cold, and the rain is a challenge. You can see a pattern developing here can’t you? Yep, I am obsessed with PB&J sandwiches.

I decided I wanted a quick selfie with the Louisiana welcome sign before we headed off into New Orleans but part of the trek team thought it would be funny to drive away on me and another trekker who went the toilet. Selfie taken, I turned around, no van insight. no trekkers insight, until one appeared from the toilet. We thought we had been left. no phone. no coat. standing in the rain. the joke definitely worked.

Back in the van, somewhat drenched, we headed to the hostel for the night. I’d never stayed in a hostel before, well I had in New York and it was let’s just say bad. After having visions of the film hostel, I was quickly reassured American hostels are like UK hotels, really? I thought. My last one wasn’t! We pulled up outside the Clarion Inn & Suites New Orleans, positioned on the main strip, with Bourbon Street a few streets down.

Greeted by a member of the concierge team who straight away, before we had even entered the lobby, gave us tips on how to stay safe whilst being in New Orleans. To be honest though, although this was for our own good, I didn’t feel sure about then being in New Orleans for two nights.

We made our way to our rooms; 2 to a room, 2 huge double beds, a large bathroom, and a kitchen, a kitchen in the ‘hostel’ room, yep. That’s American hostels! The only thing which gave it the ‘hostel’ effect was the dodgy lift which felt like it was going to just stop each time we got in it.

Arriving around 4pm, we were told to be ready for 8pm to hit up the French Quarter.

This was the view from our ‘hostel’ room:

Brilliant, right? The tall buildings you see at the end of the street are the bigger chain hotels, and to the left of them is Bourbon Street with the port of New Orleans at the very end of the street.

Ready for 8pm, we went dining at one of New Orlean’s popular seafood restaurants, Oceana Grill. NB; I forgot the name of this place so I just searched for it and what came up? Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Gordon Ramsay actually filmed here back in 2011 for his series ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ you can read more here. I however loved the place and I guess it improved by 2014, thanks Gordon. We ate crocodile tail with Louisiana’s notably famous hot sauce. The thought of eating crocodile grossed me out big time. Even when it was on the plate in front of me. Tony reassured us it was good though and it was. Try it if you’re ever in New Orleans, but I couldn’t comment on any other places that sell it, so avoid it.

After feeling fully dundeed, we headed to the French Market, even though it was closed. Just so we knew how to get there the next day. Then we headed to Café Du Monde, which is French for ‘Café of the World’ and is famous for their unbelievably tasty beignets (basically a donut, if you ask me) but much better than a donut. The place was jammed pack, you couldn’t get a seat and this was at about 10pm at night. It was a great place and is a must visit if you’re in New Orleans and a fun fact: It appeared in Jon Favreau’s 2014 ‘Chef’ movie.

Then we went exploring Bourbon Street, which isn’t everyones cup of tea.

I personally didn’t like Bourbon Street, there was so much going on, so many people and lots of drunk people, enjoying the mardi grass. Due to the legal drinking age, I was not able to enter any bars or clubs either. We checked out some witch craft, voodoo stuff because this is quite big in New Orleans and then me and a fellow trekker decided to call it a night and head back to the hostel.

The next day the sun was shining bright, and we had the day to ourselves to go and explore; I decided to go and do the Hurricane Katrina tour which also visited New Orlean’s Sculpture Garden. The tour was very informative, it gave a great insight into not only the tragic events what occurred in 2005, but also a history of the main strip of New Orleans and surrounding areas, with the bus going down some the most dodgiest places I have ever seen. It also even took us past the homes built through Brad Pitts ‘Make It Right Foundation.’ These tours run daily and can be booked online or at the port terminal. I recommend it if have you no other plans.

With our last day done at New Orleans, a few of us decided to stay in that night as the New Orleans night scene was not appealing to everyone. We ordered room service and someone made me watch an American reality TV show which I will not name. No. I have never watched it again. Thinking the night couldn’t get anymore eventful, what goes and happens?

Yep, right outside the window a tram comes of the tracks. No-one was injured lucky enough.

Overall New Orleans experience? I wasn’t very keen and was looking forward to leaving. The majority of people on our trek absolutely loved the place so don’t let my own thoughts be an off put. I’m glad I have been and done it because I always wanted to go, but would I go back? No. Not unless there was a reason to do so.

After we had finished in New Orleans, we headed for a day trip to the Honey Island Swamp Tours, about a 50 minute drive from New Orleans. Here you can take a boat tour through the swamps, seeing the Louisiana alligators!

HOUSTON, TEXAS YA’LL!

The whole bus was hyped to be in Texas, just because it’s Texas and we were visiting Houston!

The trip down to Houston was eventful, but so much fun. We actually arrived later than expected and didn’t want to set up camp so checked into a Super 8 Motel.

The next day we started with breakfast at Panera Bread and headed up to the Johnson NASA Space Centre.

This place was great, we were here for pretty much the whole day and it’s definitely worth visiting.

Saying goodbye to Houston, we joined the highway and headed to San Antonio.

We yet again managed to avoid the camping and instead upgraded to this log cabin. This one was $5 each, but still so cheap and the insides were so nice. After watching the sunset we headed into the city to admire the Alamo and the riverwalks.

 

San Antonio is the place to go for valentines day. It has this cute romantic vibe going on, especially down on the riverwalk. I really enjoyed San Antonio and would visit here again, maybe for valentines one time? Returning back to camp, the pool was still open and we met up with another trek group and had a bit of pool party, which was fun!

 

The next day we headed to Breaking Bad territory, New Mexico!!

If you look closely at the photos above, you’ll see the many bullet holes in the welcome sign. Yep, we had arrived in New Mexico. The look out for Walter White was on!

Not really, we were here to explore National Park, Carlsbad Caverns. Famous for its free-tailed bats, they exit the caves in search for food and you can see a bat flight show here.

This place was incredible. It’s one of the world’s largest caverns with 119 known caves, and many still remain to be found and explored.

After a night of camping in Carlsbad, we continued up the New Mexico boarder having a quick tourist stop at Roswell, known for the ‘1947 Rosewell UFO incident’ this place is a bit like Blackpool UK, instead cashing in on everything Aliens! Worth a visit if you’re around those ways.

Santa Fe, next!

Santa Fe, similar to Memphis was completely unique to itself. Its pueblo architecture left you feeling you like you where in a completely different country. It had a very Spanish, Latin American feel to it which was great.


That evening we visited what was featured in The Guardian’s Top 10 Santa Fe restaurants ‘Cowgirl’ a vibe of Mexico and Texas. Here they served great food and had a live band playing. It was a vibe of locals and tourists, and it was a good place to go. We camped in Santa Fe for the evening and the sunset was spectacular

The next day we headed to Colorado to check out another National Park, Mesa Verde!

The views and the scenery on our way to Colorado where beautiful.

And rather than camping, what did we do? Yep. we upgraded to a log cabin! They were always so cheap and the tents took a bit of time to set up, so we always asked the check-in desk for an upgrade. Our tour leader wasn’t best pleased, he preferred the camping!

How could you say no to that though? This was our view looking directly onto Mesa Verde.

Evening well spent in the pool and jacuzzi, with a camp fire going too, we watched the stars, heading to bed ready for a day up the mountain the next day.

Mesa Verde is pretty much like a village, with lots of cliff walls protecting it. It’s home to Ancestral Pubelo people, who originally made it their home for 700 years, AD 600 to 1300. It’s a great place to check out, wear your hiking boots for this one!

Next we headed up to Four Corners Monument, which is where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico all meet down in Southwestern USA. Fun fact: Skyler White visited here during an episode of Breaking Bad!

After a little cool stop here, we then headed for:

MONUMENT VALLEY!

Famous for its red sand, although orange in the photo, Navajo residents and Forrest Gump, Monument Valley was something else. We arrived during the day and were driven off track by our very own Navajo tour guide, exploring the monuments and eventually watching the sunset spending our evening with local residents, who made us dinner followed by a traditional Navajo song and dance. We had an amazing evening but it didn’t end there, we then went camping outside with our sleeping bags, watching the stars and listening to the howls of the wolves as we slept.

It was truly incredible. This is one of the destinations that you don’t get to go to everyday and I will never forget Monument Valley, one of my favourite places ever.

Next we headed into Arizona, having a quick stop on the famous Route 66 highway!

This place was really cool and retro, it was the place that inspired the movie ‘Cars’

Where next, you ask? The GRAND CANYON!

When we arrived here, we were each given a blind fold to wear, linking arms, guided by Tony to a viewing point. When we opened our eyes, there is nothing to describe the view we saw other than spectacular. That night we set up at camp in the beautiful forrest of the Grand Canyon. This place is huge, there is so many camping sites, so many paths, it’s easy to get lost so definitely stick together when you’re here and watch out for the ELKS! After setting up camp, we were taken to watch the sunset, with a takeaway PIZZA!

Never, will I ever be able to say I have ate pizza in a better place than the Grand Canyon.

We watched sunrise in Monument Valley and watched it set in the Grand Canyon, with pizza. Such an amazing experience.

The next day we could do whatever we wanted, we all split off into groups to go and hike different trails of the canyon, based on our own judgement of ability and what we felt up for doing.

Setting of early to avoid the sun coming back up, me and a fellow trekker headed for the ‘Bright Angel’ trailhead!

The views were incredible. We didn’t hike all the way down, we had other plans, to catch a helicopter!

Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the world the Grand Canyon was amazing and I highly recommend visiting here! Just don’t forget your hiking boots and definitely take a helicopter ride if you can, it was incredible!

Now nearing to the end of my travels, you know what stop is next right?

VIVA LAS VEGAS, Baby!

Before the party started though, I needed a haircut! Who better to go to other than MC Hammers Barber?! Meet Mr. Neil Scartozzi.

He was based at the Riviera Hotel at his Celebrity Club Barber Salon. I remember sitting down and thinking, this place looks well fancy, how much is this going to cost?! No price list in sight, I Googled the place. I saw a review from someone saying it cost them $75!! My initial thought, how am I going to get out of here?! I was called to the seat and it was too late. He stated cutting away and told me he has cut all these famous peoples hair. I couldn’t stop thinking about being $75 short in 10 minutes. Hair cut done. I looked fresh. But for how much?! He charged about $25, relief! much better than the $75! Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, hey?!

Heading out with another tour group who we had trailed all the way from New York, we all hopped on board a party bus, with a tour around Las Vegas!

The night consisted of proposals, dancing, and more dancing. and no, the proposals weren’t real!

And just like that, our trek had ended. The people who were strangers, became a travel family, 4,000 miles of nothing but fun, laughter and memories. we had the best time.

With one more day and night left in Las Vegas before I needed to head home to England, a few of us decided to book a hotel room. With so many to choose from, we were spoilt for choice, and the prices in Las Vegas for hotel rooms are dirty cheap!

We knew we wanted to go up the Stratosphere to see the views and go on the rollercoaster, which would have cost $20 but we ended up getting a deal which got us a room for 1 night for $20, with free access to the roof view and the rollercoaster. WINNER! We didn’t do the rollercoaster ride though. It looked to scary and it was dark. Definitely not!

The Stratosphere is at the far end of the strip so bear this in mind if booking here, we didn’t mind though, we got a taxi there which didn’t cost much and during the night walked to the strip which probably took about 10 minutes or less. The walk is fine though, there is so much to see that you’re forever stopping anyway to view all the amazing hotels. There is also a tram you can get which takes you pretty close to the hotel.

During the day we went and explored the place, including the famous Bellagio hotel, known for the Oceans films and of course, Caesars Palace famous for The Hangover. Word of warning, if you’re going to try and see the roof, don’t go through the fire exit door, you’ll get locked in!!

As the day drawn to a close, I came to the realisation that not I’m I only going home, but I needed another suitcase for the all stuff I had bought.

Suitcase bought, it was time to go and pack and have a bite to eat before our ride to the airport at 2am.

There was only one way to finish this trek, in style…

To everyone I met on this trek, thanks for being awesome!

Speak soon,

B

FAQS:

Are the drives between each location long? Yes. Some days you can be driving for over 5 hours, it varies on each location. I actually didn’t mind the driving though, our van was always so lively, singing songs, taking lots of selfies with lots of discussion happening. You also get to see parts of America you wouldn’t see if you were to fly! There is also plenty of gas station stops to grab some snacks and have a toilet break.

How was camping? Camping was fine and actually enjoyable. Although we did upgrade a few nights to log cabins, Intrepid provide all the equipment needed for camping and your tour leader is on hand to help you out. NB: Your tour leader isn’t obliged to allow you to upgrade to log cabins, ours was just very nice and let us as a group decide.

How much money did you take? Because I did Camp America, I received money from my time at camp and saved months in advance prior to the trek because I knew I wanted to it. All in all I took about $1500 with me, some cash and some on travel cards. Travel cards are recommended and if you’re going to a do a trek, save in advance so you can do everything you want to do, as there is additional activities on each tour, including the helicopter rides, which you have to pay extra for.

Is not being 21 a big deal? Absolutely not. There were a few people on my trek who weren’t 21 and we had just as much fun as those who were 21 and over.

Would I recommend a trek through the USA? Absolutely, without a doubt. It’s the best way to see the states, hassle free!

I’m not a CA participant, can I still a book a trek through CA Treks? Absolutely! Each year lots of people take part in CA Treks who haven’t done camp, whether that be to meet friends or just to see the sights like everyone else!

Don’t forget:

CA Treks also offer 15% discount for both CA participants and non-CA participants! Check out the website here www.campamericatreks.com

You too could do this exact tour, click here for more information or here for a list of the treks on offer!