“Surprise”

Do you ever surprise yourself sometimes? Like when you look back on a decision you made and after it’s all said and done, you can’t help but wonder, “Did I really just do that?”

It’s typically the kind of decision you make on a whim with zero expectations, except for to take whatever comes next for what it is. 

Well, I suppose that just happened to me… 

Again.

I recently returned to Reno after spending a little over two weeks, 17 days to be exact, on the road. The trip spanned through four states and over 4,600 miles. 

Now it’s time to process all that did happen and what it means; but where to begin?

It started with a solitary seven-hour drive from Reno to Las Vegas, with the unfortunate incident of there now being one less squirrel in the state of Nevada along the way. After reaching Las Vegas, I met with friend and fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) Brianna Kennedy for an afternoon lunch. Shortly thereafter, I picked up my parents from the airport and proceeded to drive another three hours to the gates of Mt. Zion National Park.

Myself with fellow RPCV Brianna Kennedy.

How does one describe Mt. Zion and it’s looming, towering mountains? 

There’s a sense of peace by the steady-flowing river that runs through the canyon. All the while, a deafening silence and expansive shadows fall soothingly on your shoulders. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly august, and I don’t mean the month. It’s the type of place that invites you to whisper and because it does, you do. 

From Mt. Zion we went to Bryce Canyon to witness its foreign, eccentric hoodoos. Navigating through the maze of bright-orange rock likens the feeling of a mouse searching desperately for that elusive piece of cheese. 

Wind pummels through the canyon walls, at times kicking up walls of dust that force you to take cover or turn away. In among the canyon’s bottom-dwelling pines, a Steller’s Jay with a sharp, black crown lands aloft a branch. 

Next on the itinerary was the Grand Canyon, but not without stopping first at Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, which as a matter of fact is located nowhere near the rest of the canyon.

But I guess that’s why they call it “Grand.”

And Grand it was. 

The Grand Canyon was five days of long hikes in the blistering desert sun, book-ended intermittently with four sunsets and two sunrises in between. Sporadic shadows at times spot the canyon, each cloud throwing their own take on the canyon’s various shades of burgundy.

An overzealous ground squirrel climbs onto your lap, as audacious as he is fearless in his desire to receive part of your snack.  

A painter captures the promise of a quiet and majestic dawn, swirling his mix of watercolors on the blank canvas of a new day.

The whirring sound of a bright-red rescue chopper echoes through the canyon walls thousands of feet below, an unusual concept when considering how helicopters fly. Amazingly enough, moments later the chopper soon rises like a phoenix from the ashes, its precious cargo in tow. 

There’s a crick in your neck from looking at the star-scattered night sky, tracking constellations with a mustached and southern-drawled Texan who wonders aloud what it would take to “Wake up them Navajos,” nearby. 

After the Grand Canyon, it was back to Las Vegas and its incessant beckoning of ringing lottery bells, glittering lights, and enticing promises of titillation. 

The first part of the trip being over, I dropped off my parents at the Las Vegas airport, with well-wishes and a “see you at Christmas” to boot. 

Circling back to Arrivals an hour later, I picked up friend and fellow RPCV Riley Doerrler. We hadn’t seen each other in over two years, back when we were both still in Grenada. 

On the road again, the AC is cranked due to the baking dry heat of the vast and barren Mojave Desert. Only one gas station could be located for hundreds of miles around. Run by two Hispanic brothers, one working the pumps and the other behind the register, it was a simple, old-school operation giving the station an aura of being captured in history like a photo in time. 

Eventually, we reached the quaint, isolated small town of Twentynine Palms, California. As it turns out, aside from the nearby Marine base, the desert town’s pride and joy can be found in being at the northern doorstep of Joshua Tree National Park

There was a certain character to Joshua Tree, something that made it different from the other National Parks. In such a harsh and arid environment, Joshua Tree appears void of life; yet, it is teeming with a plethora of secrets.

Secrets like a long-horned sheep posted on a rocky outcrop, gazing at the early morning horizon. Secrets like a rattlesnake around the bend, his tail convincingly warning you keep your distance. Secrets like a small lizard, warming himself on a summit rock and the mad dash of a roadrunner, making a case for his name against the likes of his fictional nemesis Wiley E. Coyote. 

As Joshua Tree revealed its secrets, it saved the best for last as we drove through the rest of the park.

Driving along a winding desert road, a cyclist glides effortlessly past a sea of Joshua Trees. Each tree is uniquely twisted and distorted, not unlike a conductor lost in the music of his own symphony.

Then it was onward to San Diego and its thick, salty ocean air. The wind was as strong as it was warm, a balmy afternoon on the majestic Pacific Coast. Kite-surfers danced along the cliffs, testing their wings before the mother bird kicks them out of the roost. 

Nearby is Torrey Pines, the world-renown PGA golf course. A steady stream of people flock down its gravel parking lot, where an unmarked path dives down to the adjacent cliff-side beach below. 

“You’ve found the best-kept secret in San Diego!” someone calls out as we tactfully navigate our way down the path.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what was meant by that comment, but nonetheless we soon found out. From now on, anytime I see a PGA tournament being played at Torrey Pines, I’ll be reminded of the time I stumbled upon the nude beach right below it.

Naturally, one cannot visit the Pacific Coast without taking in a sunset or two. So we went to the locally acclaimed Sunset Cliffs, where the sun vanished behind a clouded horizon. I admit I was a bit disappointed by my first Pacific Coast sunset, but at this point I guess I’ve gotten spoiled by those sunsets I left behind in Grenada and the Grand Canyon. Nevertheless, it was still a moment that I was grateful to have packed lawn chairs in the car before I hit the road.

The next morning saw a few hours worth of driving through small beach and resort towns scattered between the coastal mountains of Southern California. Just outside of L.A., a hot summer afternoon was spent at a small community park in Rancho Cucamonga. It was a spur-of-the-moment, ragtag picnic thrown together for a good old-fashioned reunion with old friends of mine in the area.

Quick flashback to May of 2017: I was sitting atop the nunnery stairs next to a fellow Peace Corps Trainee Lili Gradilla and looking up at a starry St. Lucian night.

“Where are you from?” I had asked her, having just met.

“Oh, I’m from L.A.”

“Oh, really? Well this is probably a bit of a long shot but I’ll ask anyway. I had a roommate who was from Ontario,” I replied. 

“No way! I’m from Fontana, that’s right next to Ontario!” Lili exclaimed. 

Having just returned to the States after her three-year stint with the Peace Corps ended abruptly due to COVID-19, Lili came out with her sister Cynthia, who we previously met at Grenada’s Camp GLOW in the summer of 2018.

Also joining us was Ivan Villaneda, one of my closest friends and roommates from the small Ohio college known as Capital University, who was also back home in L.A. at the time I was passing through.

Never could I have imagined on those St. Lucian steps in 2017 that they would one day meet. 

It can be such a small world sometimes. 

With a quick stop on Hollywood Boulevard, we were on our way to Santa Barbara, where we finally caught a sunset worthy of the Golden State nickname. 

The next day was cool and blustery, with a heavy fog and the feeling of a pending rain that never came. The road now was what you would envision The Pacific Coast Highway to look like. The highway skirts along sharp and steep coastal cliffs while angry, Pacific Ocean waves crash violently on the rocks below.

Meanwhile, a harem of elephant seals can be found tucked into a small beachhead of a local state park. It’s breeding season, the time of year where the males duke it out to establish their mating dominance. 

Hairpin turns along the route takes some adjusting, as you’re forced to drive at a timidly safe 15-20 mph pace, guiltily diverting into the next turnout every time an accustomed-Californian driver approaches quickly from behind. 

This stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway is located in Big Sur, which unfortunately for us, was mostly closed due to COVID-19. Despite that, the drive through Big Sur and the subsequent stops we made to Pfieffer Beach and Buzzard’s Roost in Pfieffer State Park solidified itself as an immediate highlight of the trip. 

A few hours later we came upon Pebble Beach, another world-renown PGA golf course on the coast of California. A cool, evening summer breeze buffeted the overcast coastline at every stop along Carmel-by-the-Sea’s 17-mile loop. 

An additional two hours of driving found us in San Jose, with a late-night stop at an In-N-Out burger joint. It was the first time I had In-N-Out, even though I’ve been living out West for over a year now. Although I don’t typically eat out often, I must say In-N-Out lived up to its reputation as the best fast food burger one can find.

The next morning we crossed the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, a place you can easily get lost in. With its steep hills and close-quartered city streets, it can feel like you’re driving through a studio set from the movie Inception

Luckily, from the tips of our friends back in L.A., we knew all the hip, local places to go. From a 360o degree view atop the Twin Peaks, to Mission Park and the Painted Ladies, there was so much to see tucked within San Francisco’s city limits. However, Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and most of the city streets for that matter, were unusually vacant, evidence of the ongoing pandemic in this country.

After a quick drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, we were soon engulfed in the shadows of the humbling Redwood trees in Muir Woods National Monument. The Redwoods towered over the subtle murmur of a trickling stream, while a hazy, late afternoon sun pierced through the trees’ foggy canopies. 

The remainder of the trip was spent driving through the golden fields of California wine country, with a tasting or two at a few Napa Valley wineries along the way.

Finally back in Reno, the trip was finally winding down. With Lake Tahoe now a short distance away, a few hikes and beach days were then called for and enjoyed. 

And just like that, 17 days and over 4,600 miles later, my life resumed back in Reno. Coincidentally, the end of this trip coincided with my return to America just one year ago. 

It was only one year ago, but it already feels like a lifetime. Sometimes I look back on photos, talk to old friends, and think back to what that Peace Corps experience meant and it’s almost hard to believe that all really happened. 

Joining the Peace Corps and living two years abroad was one of those decisions that looking back now, surprises even myself. 

Yet, here I am, one year later back in the States.

When I first came back to America, I often wondered what my next big adventure might be.

I had always wanted to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, America’s signature road trip. But never in a million years did I ever think I one day ever would. 

Now completed, it was as exhausting as it was exhilarating.

It was the type of trip that makes you long for the comfort of your own bed and a steady place to sleep. A trip where the only sleep you do get comes after long days on the road, when early mornings and late nights become a regular occurrence.

But when I did finally get back home to Reno and got that well-earned sleep, I was rewarded with the most vibrant of dreams. 

The type of dreams that, against your realistic judgement, you can only wish would someday come true. 

That is, until you realize they just did. 

Surprise

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Cheers!

3 thoughts on ““Surprise”

  1. What a delight it was to read this, Scott! After being home all summer due to COVID-19 social distancing, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting so many favorite places you described so vividly! Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Carmel-by-the-Sea–all were favorites of mine as well! Your pictures were so vivid, but your writing really brought it to life!
    Thank you!!
    Mary Connors

    1. Thank you Mrs. Connors! I’m glad you enjoyed re-visiting these destinations! I hope all is well.

      Scott

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