LEAVING NEW YORK
The Friday of March 16, 2018 was my last day working for Bank of New York Mellon in their office at Lower Manhattan. This day marks an extremely drastic shift in lifestyle for me as I would spend the next month making my way back to California and preparing to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail on May 6.
After having spent almost 3 years away from the land I love most (constantly moving from Dublin, Boston, Pune, and New York), I was finally returning home. That moment, that particular moment, had played in my head over and over a million times. My truck pointed West, filled to the brim with my positions, and with the Manhattan skyline in my rear-view mirror for the very last time. All societal responsibilities cast aside and an entire United States of America laid out in front of me. Endless possibilities swam about in my head and freedom filled my soul. I had planned to leave New York early in the morning, but my excitement made for a sleepless night. Thus, I found myself sneaking out of the city at 2 AM. No momentous good-byes and the only fanfare was from me shouting out into the cold night air to the tune of Born Ready by Steve Moakler. I was finally heading home. I was finally heading West.
But, driving across America is an opportunity not to be wasted nor an endeavor to be rushed. It's a chance for me to test the waters, to roll around like a pig and revel in my new found dirtbag lifestyle. And it was glorious.
Now, when embarking on such an adventure, your vehicle of choice is an important decision, almost as important as the journey and the destination in and of itself.
Cue Olga, a 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road Double Cab with a pop-up camper sitting in the truck bed. She is so named because whenever I hit any significant bump I make the hugely attractive noise, "Ulggg". At this point, it might as well be my mating call. Another likely reason as to why I'm single.
The camper is effectively a 1,000 pound air-brake, so Olga isn't the fastest lady around. She is also very picky about how you photograph her. The camera tends to add a few pounds and wide angle lenses from certain perspectives don't really do her justice. But, she's mine, she's home, and I love her.
Now, if I were to give you a tour of my home, it'd last about ten seconds. You'd step in, I'd point ahead and there'd be a slide out bed. To your right, there'd be a couch and to your left a stove. So, while the living space is rather modest and about the size of a pitiful walk-in closet, the yard is really what you want to see.
EAST OF THE ROCKIES
I've really only included this section because otherwise you'd only see photos of Arizona, Utah, and California with no accord of the rest of the nation and wonder if Ryan hasn't completely forgotten his geography. I honestly have to say, I rushed to Utah and Arizona as fast as Olga could possibly move, which isn't terribly fast.
Driving past the Appalachian Range with Country Roads on repeat was a definite highlight of the drive. The range has a rustic beauty to it and the Appalachian Trail and other adventures out in that part of the world are definitely on my list. But alas, the West had been waiting for me too long and I dare not keep those tall peaks and sandstone towers waiting any longer.
I had been to Sedona once before on a camping trip with two friends, Quyen and Chris, back in November 2017. During this trip, we unfortunately only had time to drive through Sedona. Thankfully I was a passenger, otherwise we likely would have wrecked given I was busy ogling the red sandstone structures.
By this point in time, I had already given my notice to John, my close friend and manager at BNY. March 30 was originally supposed to be my last day of work. But, as we passed through Sedona, the setting sun striking the sandstone spires, I knew I needed more time to spend in the American Southwest before I began hiking the PCT. So, I promptly asked John to change my end date to March 16, and began planning my time in the Grand Circle.
Somehow, in all of my prior travels to Arizona, I had missed out on this gem of a place. I had originally planned to view Sedona later on in my trip. Unfortunately, Olga had some issues with her camper butt and, having no societal responsibilities, I miscounted my days. I had plans to meet another friend, Ashley, at Phoenix on March 25, a Sunday. However, having thought it was already Friday while entering Colorado, I zoomed straight pass the Rockies (zoom here meaning driving about 40 MPH uphill in 3rd gear on I-70 with my emergency blinkers on).
While Great Sand Dunes National Park has been a long sought after destination of mine, my mistake here cost me the chance for that particular exploration. But, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. The particular silver here translated to time exploring Sedona and and resting in Phoenix to put my various affairs in order.
For better or for worse, the photographer in me began looking for a juicy sunset photo. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked about being able to shoot the West again. While exploring, I found a wonderful little spot off the side of Red Rock Loop, marked on the map above for any who would like to follow suit, and basked in the glory. This particular overlook featured Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock dominating the below valley. Moreover, a perfectly placed Utah Juniper (please correct me if I'm wrong about this, my fauna knowledge is far from perfect) served to frame these fantastic formations. As I would continue to discover on my trip, these juniper trees are absolute wonders, shaped by the unique environment in which they inhabit. Their wind swept branches and distinct bark would be featured in the foreground of many of my photos throughout the trip.
As the sun dropped below the horizon, two photographers ran up. I myself was packing up, but I was curious to see what these two would be shooting with the direct light gone. These two photographers happened to be Steve and Sam, all links to respective photographers content to be found below. We began conversing. Steve is based out of Arizona and Sam is based out of Oregon, and, together, they travel the American West in order to launch their careers as professional photographers. They, in turn, found me a tolerable human being, fortunately. Thus, I was invited to an Instagram meet-up at Monument Valley on April 6.
A gorgeous sunset and new friends, a brilliant start I'd have to say.
PAGE - TED & SHIRLEY
Page and Horseshoe Bend hold a pretty special place in my heart. Back in 2011, I went on my first solo road trip. As the end of my senior year of high school was fast approaching, I decided I wanted to revisit my roots in Richardson, Texas. On the way, I'd make one detour: Page.
Thus, an absolutely clueless Ryan found himself at the precipice of Horseshoe Bend, marveling at the view before him. I believe this to be the place that first sparked my love for the American West, where all my adventures started.
Back in 2011, Horseshoe Bend wasn't Instagram famous yet and was a much quieter place. Now, you can't miss it. Cars line the highway for another half-mile past the parking lot and construction is everywhere in an attempt to facilitate some semblance of sustainable tourism.
It's a rather conflicting feeling, seeing these crowds. The litter on the trail frustrates me as much as the continuous selfies baffle me. Visitors dance at the edge, paying more attention to their phones than the thousand foot drop right in front of them. Yet, who am I to judge? I sit at the edge, comfortable in my own limits and my experiences outdoors and with climbing. But, does that make me any safer or less idiotic? So, although a real shame, I understand the need to build guard rails. If the Horseshoe Bend stays as it is, you're asking for a disaster, both from an ecological and human-loss-of-life perspective. My only hope is that the awe realized from Horseshoe Bend serves as a gateway for others to discover and love nature much in the same way it has for me.
Between that initial experience and present day, I've visited Page and Horseshoe Bend a fair few more times, but I have to say this was the most circuitous and unique visit yet.
Ashley and I had just left Flagstaff and on our way out of town when we saw a man, Sam, looking for a ride, so we picked him up. This would be the start of a wonderful karma loop that would save us in a bit.
We dropped Sam off at the highway 89 and 160 intersection. Upon dropping him off, I found my camper had shifted quite a bit…I mean an “Oh shit” amount of shifting. Upon further inspection, I found that two out of four of my rear turnbuckles connecting the camper to the truck bed had snapped.
Luckily, the camper is light enough that two people can lift it up enough to shift it. Ashley and I got our work out in putting the camper back in place, but I wasn’t willing to drive with the camper in such a state. So, we stuck our thumbs out, looking for a ride, and hoping that previous good deeds would pay off now (I’ve picked up so many hitchhikers during my trips).
After 15 minutes, a man named Dave comes by and picks us up. Funny enough, he’s just finished backpacking the Grand Canyon and had to hitchhike back to his own car. And he was just looking to pay it forward.
As we arrive in Page, I realize that it's a Sunday and that everything was closed. Thus, Ashley and I buckled in for the night in Page. We walked the 2.5 miles from town to Horseshoe Bend, vowing to return with our cameras once the truck has been fixed. Still, it’s no chore to watch the sunset in such a beautiful location. Actually, to be fair, it was rather nice to just watch the sunset and not worry about taking a photograph.
Anyhow, the next morning we walked to Ace Hardware and picked up the necessary spare parts. Then, we walked to the edge of town and stuck our thumbs up. Nobody was biting. I don’t think I look too murder-y? I’m wearing a shirt that says “Beary Chill,” surely I’d be a wonderful passenger?
Fortunately, Ted, a man sleeping in his RV in the nearby Walmart walked up to us and asked where we’re headed. I told him our scenario, and, as it turned out, he’s looking for gas money to get to Phoenix. Thus, I offered to fill up his tank and he offered to drop us off at my truck, and we’re on our way.
Teddy Leonard S. Jr. is a man straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel. He purchased the RV we were driving in for $400 and named her Shirley, as in “Surely, you didn’t buy her for $400?!” And let’s just say she had character…loose rear view mirrors. Ted had to leave her running while we filled up the gas cause the starter was broken. The door almost opened while we were driving. Oil levels were questionable. 55 MPH was pretty much the fastest we went. No heater, so it was freezing inside. And it creaked like 1,000 garage doors opening that need some good WD-40.
Turn outs, Ted has lived a pretty ridiculous life. He’s been in a fair few vehicular accidents that he’s been very lucky to walk away from, which he did…literally walk away from. He’s been in jail 5 times for uhh…various recreational reasons. And he’s headed down to Phoenix to marry his girlfriend. This and more has led him to a type of desert sage wisdom. The advice he was shouting at me over the sound of Shirley’s rumbling was absolutely profound. He has a calmness with disaster that is unheard of in city life and has adopted a very natural pace in life.
As he stated it, “You can’t look back in life. You can only look forward. But sometimes life is telling you to stand still. And for two days, life told me to stand still in that Walmart parking lot. But then you came along, and life gave me the go ahead once more.”
Ted has considered writing a book about his life titled “Fuck Me Runnin’.” His logic being, what else can you say when life happens other than, “Fuck Me Runnin’.” I’ll definitely be on the lookout. Ted, wherever you are now, I hope that marriage works out for you and I hope you live the rest of your days in joy and happiness.
The occurrences of those two days and having met Sam, Dave, and Ted really drives home that all we can really do in life is look to enjoy our experience while we’re here and look to make the experiences of others more enjoyable. A fear has sunk in to our society that prevents us from reaching out for help and from providing it to those who need it.
Hitchhiking in the states is an almost extinct art, which is an absolute shame. The people willing to put their hearts out on the road and ask for aid are often the most wonderful. And the same goes for those who are willing to offer an open seat and an open heart. Life is wonderful, but it can be tough. Let’s help each other out.
Special thanks to Ashley for having the open-mindedness to not only tolerate but truly enjoy my shenanigans. My only regret from this entire experience was not shooting a photo of Ted and Shirley. Here's hoping Ted and I cross paths once more.
Lastly, here's two ridiculous photos of your's truly at Horseshoe Bend, photo credits to Ashley.
ALSTROM POINT - LAKE POWELL
My visit to Alstrom Point occurred without too much incident, debatable as to whether this is more or less enjoyable. Alstrom Point is a stunning overview of Lake Powell only reached by driving about 2 hours out of Page, 90 minutes of which are done on roads where 4WD and high-clearance are heavily recommended. Alstrom Point was really my first chance to see what Olga could do and was really the first chance for me to justify purchasing a Toyota Tacoma. Afterwards, I'm happy to say Olga handled the drive with ease.
Alstrom Point and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area sit on this enormous mesa towering over the adjacent Lake Powell and surrounding desert landscape. While driving through just a small portion of this, the immensity really hits. It's astounding to think that Lake Powell is actually a man-made reservoir, and, yet, despite our human intervention, the beauty is still undeniable.
The population of individuals who have the time, resources, and bravery to thoroughly explore this vast landscape is extremely small. Moreover, the depth and story of this landscape extends so much further than simply a few overlooks and the recent impact human intervention has had. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and it's adjacent Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are hugely intricate mazes of slithering slot canyons, massive mesas, and another whole endless array of baffling geological formations beyond our limited imaginations and understanding, thus leading to a whole host of questions seeking answers. Most immediately, what was this land before drastic human intervention? What types of ancient crustaceans have found their graves in these sedimentary layers? What stories might they tell about how they interacted with this land when it existed in drastically different conditions? Why do the cacti bunch up as they do? Why have they suddenly stopped growing here? Is there something in the soil? If so, why? Popping out between the sandstone and limestone layers are the softer deposits of shale. Why are those still there? Would they not have eroded long ago? Each new answer leads to ten new questions. And so, nature has taught us to be curious.
GRAND CANYON - SOUTH RIM
The Dirtbag Diaries have long since been my favorite podcast, or really media of any sort. The stories they share and publish are some of the most genuine in the world in regards to soulful experiences to be had outdoors. It is a channel that speaks to all, seasoned explorers or casual discoverers, whether you enjoy nature through kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, skiing, paragliding, or whatever hobby. True dirtbag or a professional weekend warrior, there's numerous stories there that will light your soul on fire.
I had long been trying to convince Ashley to give the Dirtbag Diaries a listen. She's long since resisted. Very few people tend to believe me when I tell them this podcast, or anything else for that matter, has drastically changed my life. Given how often my life has made drastic changes over the past few years, I like to think I am somewhat of an expert when it comes to life-changing phenomena.
Thus, as we were pulling in to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, I played a few select episodes. Crash and Burn (link here), an episode I had long since forgotten about, came on. The particular episode covers Fitz's old truck, Crash, and how it was his home and youth for many many years. Moreover, he uses his truck as a metaphorical vehicle to discuss key life defining moments and knowing unequivocally what you are meant to do in this world.
All of the themes in this episode struck such a chord. I had recently begun spending life in my truck, moreover in this time that I felt would be one of those key defining moments. That I would look back and see such a dramatic trajectory shift of what was and what was to be. In addition, I had recently discovered my life purpose, which is to, beyond any shadow of a doubt, unequivocally, use finance to motivate and fund solutions to the environmental crisis.
My heart was ripe for combustion and that episode really just set everything on fire. By the time Ashley and I had reached the park gate, I was a slobbering mess of tears of joy. I know it's bad form to cry in front of your ex, but I was just so damn happy. Just so overcome with all of it.
Once you enter the park, every now and a then the trees break and you catch a glimpse of the canyon. Then finally, a clearing. And you see it all. Even if you're driving and it's just a flash. That moment freezes in your mind. The canyon sits below you, boundless, immense, and ancient. These conflicting emotions wash over you all at once. Insignificance and humility at your minuscule proportions. Yet, pride and empowerment to be part of such a natural system, part of such a world. Curiosity and wonder grab hold and throttle you into a reality greater than you've ever known.
Congregating watersheds, isolated mesa precipices that rival the tallest peaks, congenial geckos that have no care in the world but to bask in the sun, the afternoon light casting shadows hundreds of feet long along the canyon floor, ancient junipers clinging to the cliffs, layers upon layers of rock revealing the pages of geological history. It's all here.