Beauty All Around Us

With it being the 12th time this trip that I pack the car, the process comes easily. Large bags and those we won’t need to get anything out of on the bottom; smaller bags and frequently visited bags on top. The gaps are filled with my water filter and tea kettle along with Riley’s shoes for every occasion and blanket. I admire my Tetris-formation resting motionless in the backseat. I then hop in the driver’s seat, confirming that my field of vision is not obscured by protruding luggage, and rev up the car.

Today we’re going to Santa Barbara. Why Santa Barbara? Because we heard it’s a pretty sweet town. Plus, Los Angeles is too far a drive to make in one day; particularly a day with as many scenic stops as today. The day’s journey commences on not-too-unusual highways. By now we’ve driven on so many boring interstates that the 880’s, 280’s, 10’s, 20’s and 101’s mesh in my mind.

Our first stop is Monterey, home to many of the country’s wealthiest residents and vacationers. A 17 mile road, creatively dubbed 17 Mile Road, takes us on a loop of this affluent area. With pristine weather pressuring us to enjoy the beauty around us, Riley and I cruise along a winding one-lane road. We pass between endlessly tall trees, drive alongside unexpectedly steep cliffs and stare out our window at perfectly struck golf balls.

“How much do you think it costs to play a round on that course?” I ask Riley as we pass a man putting beside a breathtaking 50 foot cliff emptying into the bay.

We look it up. $495.

Seems like a better use of money than getting our car towed for $700.

We open a map of the area, showing 20 points of interest. We pull off at one of them; a scenic beach. A Chinese man, inexplicably excited, climbs atop his van and pumps his fists in the air, yelling manically. His friends snap photos of him. The view of the beach is nice. But not that nice.

We stop at another beach. A large rock rests in the water a few hundred feet from the shore. The rock appears typical – brownish yellow, with some rough edges. Riley and I walk over to a sign describing this point of interest. “Seal Rock,” it reads. We look closer.

“Holy cow,” I shout. “All those brown spots are seals.”

Hundreds of squawking seals and California sea lions sun bathe on this monument protruding from the water. Various species of birds circulate the rock searching for something to nibble on. One bird, tired from its constant flight, rests atop a lazy seal. Agitated that his tanning session has been disrupted the seal jumps, or rather flops, into the water.

We stop at a handful more points of interest. Each displays a unique beauty, which can only be found among this magical West Coast bay. We pass beneath a massive house, built almost entirely of glass, overlooking 10 foot waves splashing against a cliff. Soon after we pass a golf club house. On second glance, the structure is not a clubhouse, but a home. A massive home, costing more than most families make in 10 lifetimes.

The beauty around us blinds us to the needs of our body. It isn’t until 3:30 in the afternoon that we realize we are starved. We have a $10 voucher for any restaurant within the confines of the 17 Mile Drive, so we pull into one of the golf resorts. We spot a restaurant and walk in. Despite our voucher, we still spend thrice the price one should pay for a meal consisting of a handful of under-fried calamari and popcorn shrimp, 4 slimy buffalo wings and 3 potato skins.

Remember what I said above about all the highways meshing in my mind? Well, that all changes the moment we step wheel onto Highway 1. Of all the roads I’ve ever driven on in the contiguous United States, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, this one is by far the most spectacular. This one lane road runs along the Pacific coast. To our right is the ocean and to our left are the Sierras. The water has never appeared this deep a blue. And the mountains have never looked this appealing to climb. We enter Big Sur, a 100 mile drive of purely brilliant nature. We cruise along the tallest cliffs I’ve been atop since hiking Waimea Canyon in Kauai.

The sun descends on this cloudless day, casting a golden glow atop everything in sight. We stop to take a scenic picture. We stop again. And again and again. The panorama seems more and more stunning with each mile driven. The beauty reaches a climax at one particular hill. Riley and I pull of at a shoulder and follow a thin trail running up this mini-mountain. Upon reaching the 100 foot apex, we stand at the edge of a 600 foot drop.

“Wow, what a view,” I exclaim, praying I’m not overcome by vertigo. What seems like miles in front of me rests a field of lazy cows. A step and a half to the right is a straight drop into the merciless ocean; only jagged rocks positioned to soften the blow. To my left is the highway; the very same one we just drove on. And behind us is a picturesque bridge, below which rests a gray and white sand beach.

Riley, a few feet behind me, peers in front me. She quickly squirms back to her comfort zone against the back of my shirt. “We’re not going any farther,” she says.

“Let’s just take a few more steps and take a photo,” I say.

Hesitantly, Riley agrees. Fortunately, a man with the same idea as us reaches the top of the hill and agrees to take our picture. We now have proof of this magical spot.

As we stand, basking in the moment, a strong gust of winds brushes against us. I waver along the 4 foot wide ledge.

“We’re leaving,” Riley squeals.

Not wanting to tempt fate, I agree. We cautiously shimmy back down the trail, mindful of bulging shrubs and loose rocks. We make it down in one piece. Back in the car, we continue our journey.

Just after 5pm, Riley and I pull over again. The sun is an index finger’s length away from sinking into the water. We find a comfortable rock to sit on. Riley cuddles up in her well-traveled blanket as I sit beside her with my arm around her shoulder. We watch the massive ball of fire disappear for the night. It can sleep well tonight knowing it put on a most wonderful show for us today.

The final 50 miles of Big Sur are driven in darkness. With twists and turns making up the entire remaining stretch, and there being no street lights to guide us, this drive is a bit discerning. For the most part we’re alone on the road. Occasionally we encounter a fearful driver slowly trudging along in front of us or a daredevil catching up behind us. Fortunately, there are plenty of shoulders for the sluggish to pull off at. The quick pass allowing the slow to return to their peaceful route.

The road straightens and street lights appear. Big Sur is no more. Back to the old, boring highways. Hungry, yet again, we find a Trader Joe’s, where we stock up on a breakfast-worth of groceries and a few prepared dinners. 2 rolls of sushi and a couple of kale salads later the steering wheel is tightly gripped between my hands as we set off on the final stretch to Santa Barbara.

2 hours later we pull up against a curb in front of a plain, beige apartment building. After reading the parking sign 3 times and concluding we won’t be spending the following morning conversing with the local tow company, Riley and I extract our essentials from the car and head to the waist-high black gate. We enter a courtyard surrounded by 8 apartment doors. One reads “D.” This is where our Couchsurfing host, Gao, lives. We knock. A man, not even a year younger than me, although appearing over a decade younger, opens the door. Specs of gray hair huddle among his straight black mane.

“Hi Misha,” he says in a Chinese accent.

“Hello,” I reply.

Gao steps aside, allowing us to enter his mostly empty apartment. A stand-alone heater, running from the floor to the ceiling is positioned opposite the front door. Uncomfortable hot air blows from it. A few feet to the left of the front door is a twin size mattress and a slightly larger futon. We rest our bags beside our beds and sit to talk to our host. We learn that Gao moved from China to New York to attend Cornell. Upon graduating he got a job with a small engineering company in Santa Barbara, California.

“A great place to live, but not so good place to travel,” he explains when attempting to come up with things for us to do while in town.

Exhaustion sets in for Riley and I and we’re ready for Gao to depart to his room and let us sleep. Either due to cultural differences or our host’s preference to sit silently and stare at us, Gao does not get the hint. For what feels like the next hour, the 3 of us sit in a triangle, looking from one set of eyes to the next, no one uttering a word.

“Alright, I’m going to drink some tea and go to bed,” I say.

“Okay,” Gao replies, still not rising.

Only when I stand up and walk to the kitchen does Gao depart from his seated position.

“Good night,” I say.

“Good night,” the little man responds.

Lake Tahoe with the Crew (Part 1)

My ears have been popping for 30 consecutive minutes. The temperature continues to drop and the wind intensifies. Misha gingerly drives along the edge of steep cliffs while I admire the snowcapped mountains filling up the horizon. Staring down is discerning, as a fall would be deadly. We turn a corner and are slapped in the face by the most mesmerizing body of water I’ve ever seen. Lake Tahoe glistens with countless crystals beneath the setting sun. The water is a deep blue like that of a newly polished azurite pendant. Misha and my brothers fall silent as we soak in the beauty of nature before us.

We arrive in the small town of South Lake Tahoe shortly after the sun sets. Our first stop is Misha’s family friend’s house, where Misha will be picking up his snowboard. Misha turns onto an unlit road, not noticing the black ice covering the pavement. The wheels spin wildly as they grasp for traction. Misha does his best to guide the struggling vehicle into a soft patch of snow. Pierce and Hugh exit the car and give it a shove, ejecting it from the ditch. Undeterred, Misha finds an alternate, safer route to the house. After loading his gear into the car and resting his snowboard atop Pierce and Hugh’s laps, Misha gets back into the driver’s seat and steers us to our home for the next week.

Parked along the snowy street, I open my car door to piercing cold air. The 4 of us rush through the cabin door and immediately turn on the fireplace. Relieved to be out of the below-freezing temperatures outside, we let warmth overcome us. A large, brown leather wrap-around couch, homey wooden furniture, and fluffy blankets and pillows make me feel comfy and relaxed. I envision a winter slumber approaching. But first, we must wait for the others guests to arrive.

In the meanwhile, we decide to rent ski equipment and purchase food. A car full of skis, ski poles, boots and $300 worth of groceries later we come home to a lively environment. Misha’s friends from Florida have arrived. Introductions are made. There is Steven – tall, dark and handsome. He sits roasting by the fire beside his girlfriend of 4 years, Jesse – a beautiful girl with long dirty-blonde hair and big green eyes. She appears filled with excitement. The couch is occupied by Jared, proudly wearing a full beard and beanie; evidently adjusting to the drastic change of climate. His girlfriend of 8 years, Jen, sits near him. She is a small girl with short black hair and a face full of Italian features. Jen struggles hiding her enthusiasm after seeing snow for her first time. Hugh and Pierce (who are referred to as “the Brothers” throughout the trip) introduce themselves to the crew and plop down on the couch, opposite of Jen and Jared. Feeling restless, they soon head to the kitchen where they pop open a few beers before immersing themselves in the backyard hot tub. They return 30 minutes later. Having not seen his friends in a good while, Misha stays awake catching up, while Pierce, Hugh and I all hop into a king size bed upstairs, like we used to as kids on Christmas Eve.

I wake up to an even colder day. Bundled up in unfamiliar winter clothes, we squeeze into my car filled with skiing and snowboarding equipment. A 40 minute commute later we arrive at Sierra Mountain for our first day of skiing. Pierce and Hugh jump out of the car and head straight for the blue and black runs. After changing into our gear, Misha and I meet up with Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen. Although Steven and Jesse have a year of experience and exhibit skill on the slopes, Jared and Jen are first-timers and don’t fare as well. While Misha and I wait in line to head up the bunny slope we see an out-of-control Jen unintentionally ski into the trees. For the next 10 minutes, Steven attempts to push a fear-stricken Jen back onto the slope. Agony occupies Jen’s face while confusion and determination fills Steven’s. Unwilling to wait any longer, Jared skies down the bunny slope for his first time. He exhibits impressive control and successfully pizza and French fries himself down the hill without falling.

After a short stay on the bunny hill, Steven, Misha, Jesse and I head for the more difficult, blue runs. Jesse and I anxiously hover at the top of the mountain, as Misha and Steven speed down. Slow and steady, but with some screams and falls, we make it to the bottom in one piece. Jesse and I agree that some easier, green runs are in order for the time being. The hours quickly pass and the weather becomes progressively colder. With frozen fingers and toes, we call it a day at 4pm.

Misha, Pierce, Hugh and I arrive home and eagerly cook a salmon, potatoes and asparagus dinner and eat it by the blaring fire. The others arrive from a dinner out and are ready for the casinos. Our cabin is conveniently located one mile away from the state-line of California and Nevada, which is an area surrounded by restaurants, bars, tourist shops and casinos. Jared and Steven, experienced gamblers, head straight to the Craps table with Misha tagging along to learn. The girls aren’t thrilled with this excursion as they are too familiar with their boyfriend’s obsessions with casinos. Not interested in watching a bunch of rowdy persons throw a dice against an enclosed felt rink, I walk with Pierce to the slot machines. Free drinks in hand, we crack up as Pierce proudly turns his $3.00 into $7.00. Exhausted from skiing and bored of gambling, Pierce, Jesse, Jen and I head out leaving the boys behind to gamble. Upon exiting the casino doors we stand face to face with a thick sheet of white. I look up at the falling sky, thinking there is no way the snow will stop anytime soon.

My prediction is right. I wake up the next morning to a winter wonderland. Gusts of wind swirl symmetrical snowflakes, covering everything in fresh powder. The forecast of a half-inch of snow was grossly wrong, as it snowed nearly a foot and a half during the night. Excited for the seemingly perfect day for skiing, everyone quickly gets dressed and heads outside for their cars. To my utter despair I find a $205 ticket atop my windshield for blocking the path of the snowplow. How is a group of kids from Georgia and South Florida (currently experiencing lows of 75 degrees) supposed to even know what a snowplow is? Let alone the fact that we can’t park on the streets on days it snows. We call the owner and ask her this exact question. She kindly offers to pay half the ticket.

Our spirits elevated, we begin our drive to the mountain. However, due to havocking winds and hazardous road conditions we are soon forced back into our cabins. While deliberating Plan B, Misha and his friends decide the perfect event would be an old tradition of theirs – Beerlympics (short for Beer Olympics). Beerlympics is a series of drinking games (some of which I’ve never heard of) between two teams. First team to 6 victories is crowned champion. We pick names out of a hat to split teams. Jesse, Pierce, Misha and I face off against Steven, Jared, Hugh and Jen. Jesse and Jared’s rivalry is by far the most entertaining part of the night. It all begins with a not-so-kind-hearted squid. What is a squid, you may ask. A squid is when an individual (person A) offers a high five or a knuckle pound to [Person B] by extending their open hand or closed fist. When Person B attempts to high five or pound knuckles with Person A, Person A pulls back his hands and waves wiggly fingers towards the face of Person B. This is exactly what Jared does to Jesse to begin the night. And Jesse does not live this down. The next 6 hours are filled with shotgunning (chugging a can of beer from a hand-made hole in the aluminum), flipping cups, throwing ping pong balls and carefree bickering. One, particularly enjoyable and intense game is called Downs. 8 beers are placed on the table (4 on each side) and a ping pong ball is thrown from one side of the table towards the opponents cans on the other side of the table. The opponent then races to retrieve the ball and place it atop the table while the shooting team chugs their beer. While playing this marvelous game, Jesse slides across the carpet causing rug burn and a bloody knee, Jen slams her head against the table, and Misha nearly castrates Steven by reaching between his legs to retrieve a scurrying ping pong ball.

With the competition nearing an end, and our team clawing towards a comeback, Jesse becomes even more ferocious towards her arch-nemesis, Jared. Screams and curses are commonly heard among the group’s laughter. Jesse is particularly thrilled when she sinks the last cup in beer pong, after Jared calls her out for holding on to the ball for too long. Jared, however, gets the last laugh as his team prevails 6 to 4, after an entertaining, neck-and-neck battle.

The tournament concludes at 11pm, at which time we stumble over to the casino for some late night gambling. A hangover setting in, and the day not having even ended, we decide to head home to our warm beds.

Waking up from a deep slumber, I realize its New Year’s Eve. My pounding head argues that I should remain in bed rather than celebrate the New Year, but I’m on vacation and it’s the holidays. Let the festivities begin.

Christmas in Sacramento

The drive from Las Vegas to Sacramento consists of 570 miles and takes over 8 hours to complete. A strenuous drive, to say the least. As we pack the car, Riley offers to drive. A pleasant surprise, as this allows me to write and maybe even catch some shut-eye. One hour later, the wheels of the car grind against gravel. I look up just as the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

“What happened?” I ask Riley.

“I’m tired,” Riley says, her eyes three-quarters closed.

And thus, I spend the next 8 hours behind the wheel.

After a 2 hour nap, Riley turns on the highly recommended Serial Podcast. We obsessively listen to it for the duration of our drive. An hour from our destination a thick fog sets in. Drivers slow down to 15 miles per hour below the speed limit as their visibility is limited to a few feet.

At exactly 9:30p.m. we park our vehicle beside a suburban house. We’ve arrived at Riley’s Aunt and Uncle’s house. We’re greeted Hubert Riley, Riley’s mom’s brother. A thin, fit man, with soft eyes and a genuine smile, Hubert welcomes us with open arms into his beautiful home, reminiscent of Spanish design. Christmas decorations hang from every nook and cranny. We take a seat in the kitchen as Hubert finishes up cooking pasta for his newly arrived guests. One by one the cousins flood the kitchen. The first is Anna, a sophomore at Georgetown University. Her dark brown hair, straight as an arrow, flows midway down her back. Her thin legs excitedly sprint over to her cousin and best friend. Then comes Caroline, the 2nd oldest – a junior in high school. With an eerily similar physique as Anna, it is no surprise these 2 are sisters. Having smelled the waft of the tomato sauce, Anna and Caroline’s little brother, Will, enters the kitchen. A thin boy, enjoying the joys and agonies of being a high school freshman, Will carries a sweet comb-over and a timid, yet pleasant smile, not unlike his father’s. The last of the 4 children, Stella, stumbles into the kitchen in her one-piece pajamas. She boasts golden blonde hair and the puppy-dog facial expression all children between the ages of 2 and 5 have mastered. Thumb in mouth, this 4 year old looks shyly at the big, tall man eating her family’s pasta.

“Hi,” I say to the cutest little girl I’ve seen in ages.

Stella takes a scared step backwards.

This may take a couple of days, I determine, succumbing to a simple wave to the toddler.

While still trying to memorize all the cousin’s names, the front door opens and Lisa Riley walks in. Tall, athletic and possessing straight, dark-brown hair, Lisa’s appearance makes it clear where the two oldest daughters obtained their physical features from. The now-packed kitchen transitions to the dining table, where Riley and I detail our travels to the 6 active listeners (one of whom is awake way past her bedtime). The Riley’s take turns asking questions and expressing their jealousy and support for our venture.

After consuming dinner and gulping down a cup of tea I can no longer keep my eyes open. I bid everyone a good night and I head to my room in the guest house, located opposite the pool.

I wake up to a murky Christmas Eve morning. Much of the morning and afternoon is spent helping the Riley’s set up for the Christmas Party taking place later that night. At 3pm, I attend my first Christmas Eve Service. Children and adults unite as one, through song and prayer. Many close their eyes as they feel their lord in every inch of their bodies. Feeling holier, we return to the house shortly before 5pm. Less than 2 hours later we hear the first knock on the door.

The guests start flocking in. They bring wine, hors d’oeuvres and entrees. We chip away at the various cheeses, jellies and crackers until the main course is prepared. The kids (of which Riley and I are included) form a buffet line. I fill my plate with fried onion mashed potatoes, vegetables, croutons and fresh crab. When I say fresh crab, I mean REALLY fresh crab. This succulent crustacean was brought by a friend of the Riley’s who proudly owns a renowned fresh food store. Just when I think that dinner can’t get any more delicious, I’m reminded that there is freshly cooked prime rib awaiting my consumption. I walk over to the kitchen counter and introduce a quarter pound slab of meat to my plate. Minutes later, my stomach is as happy as can be.

With digestion having begun, Lisa suggests a dance party in the living room. We move aside a few chairs and tables and gather in a circle, forming a serviceable dance floor. One of the kids whips out a small, wireless speaker, connects his iPhone to it using Bluetooth technology, and starts pumping the music. For the next 2 hours we dance, sing and laugh. There are 35 people attending this party and every single one lets loose at least a few dance moves. Two gymnastics-splits, multiple perfectly choreographed songs, and 35 pairs of sore calves later physical exhaustion kicks in and the music ceases. By 11p.m. the guests are gone and clean-up time has begun. Despite a seemingly endless supply of dirty dishes and trash, we clean the entire house in record time; even remembering to prep the living room for Santa’s looming arrival.

And lo and behold, Santa does arrive. I wake up Thursday morning to a surplus of gifts. However, my pile pales in comparison to Stella’s. She must have been particularly good this year. With wrapping paper and cardboard boxes comprising the majority of the living room floor and my stomach full from breakfast, it’s the perfect time to get some fresh air.

I arrive at the Shady Oaks disc golf course to a perfectly warm afternoon. Disc golf is a sport merging golf and Frisbee. Specially designed plastic discs are thrown from a concrete tee-pad, about the size of a door, towards a chain-linked metal basket, positioned anywhere from 100 to over 1,000 feet away. The purpose of the game is to make your disc into the basket in as few shots as possible. Two discs in hand, I start my round. At hole 4 I run into Rich and Freddie, two local disc golf enthusiasts. We agree to play the rest of the round together. Seemingly having an endless supply of marijuana, these two Cali natives light up a celebratory bowl after every successful hole. Two-thirds complete through this 18-hole course, we run into Jesse, an old friend of Freddie’s. Fire-orange bangs droop over Jesse’s pale blue eyes, as he joyously hugs his old friend, who he hadn’t seen in years. Delighted by the cloud of smoke forming around my two new acquaintances, Jesse decides to play the final 6 holes with us. To little surprise, Jesse also has a plentiful supply of weed, of which he makes use of liberally. My 3 friends walk in a blissful haze as we complete this enjoyable course full of gorgeous trees and calming nature. Officially being able to check California off my list of states I’ve played a round of disc golf in, I leave the park feeling accomplished.

The morning of Friday, December 26 is dedicated to exploring Sacramento. Riley and I do this in our favorite way – a jog throughout the city. Led by our tour guide, Hubert, we run 7 miles through suburban communities, public-living communities, railroad tracks, West Sacramento, Old Sacramento, malls and a massive hole in the ground, which will soon host the new Sacramento Kings arena.

At 5pm, the household increases by 2 as Riley returns from the airport with her little brothers, Pierce and Hugh. This being one of the few times I’m in the same room with all 3 siblings, I stare at each of the Smith’s debating who resembles whom more. Riley and Hugh’s golden brown hair and blue-green eyes seem to merge, while Pierce and Riley seem to have their noses and facial expressions chiseled by the same artist. With it already being past 8pm on the East Coast, we decide it’s a suitable time to pop open a few beers. An hour into catching up with the newly arrived guests, Riley and I light up the stove and oven in preparation for dinner. An Indian Pale Ale in hand, I begin cooking chicken, couscous and vegetables while Riley prepares the fresh kale. An hour later we’ve crafted one of our finest meals to date – a vintage Moroccan style feast.

Our moods elevated, Hubert, Pierce, Hugh, Riley and I decide to spend the night out on the town. We head downtown, where we hop from one watering hole to a second and then a 3rd. Targeting solely the local and craft brews, I have a delicious night. While Riley and Hubert grab a taxi around midnight, Pierce Hugh and I stay out till 2am, before getting dropped off at the house by a friend of Pierce’s, who he met in Croatia earlier in the year.

While Riley’s brothers wake up early to drive down to San Francisco, I spend Saturday catching up on sleep and reading. Just before sunset Hubert, Lisa, Anna, Stella and I head to a local nature park where we are surrounded by curious deer and spawning salmon. I learn much about Anna during this short hike, including her fear of deer. By the end of our walk, we’ve come within feet of so many does and bucks that Anna has no choice but to successfully face her fear. This meeting with the fresh outdoors mitigates my headache and livens me up for the Sacramento Kings basketball game taking place later that night.

While Riley stays home with the rest of the gals, Hubert, Will, Will’s friend (Jack), and I head to the 7:30p.m. tip-off between the New York Knicks and the Sacramento Kings. The game is a thriller, ending in a fantastic overtime victory by the home team. I watch 17,000 ecstatic fans yell, high-five and hug as their Saturday night is temporarily improved by the performance of their Kings. As with any competition, there is a losing team – and tonight (as is the case on most nights) it’s the Knicks. Will proudly tells Hubert and me about the verbal scuffle he and Jack had with the rowdy Knicks fan yelling obscenities from the seats above them.

I wake up Sunday morning with an extra spring in my step. I pack a single suitcase, eager to get on the road and see my best friend, Steven (who inspired me to go on this adventure), his girlfriend, Jesse, and my 2 friends, Jared and Jen, in Lake Tahoe later that evening. Riley and I sit in the living room, awaiting Riley’s brothers. Fashionably late [as Riley predicted], Pierce and Hugh arrive nearly 2 hours later than promised. The 4 of us jam-pack Riley’s vehicle and head north to the world-famous lake in Tahoe.

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas…Unless You’re Writing a Blog

For 4 hours Misha and I drive through blankets of darkness. We’re anxious to arrive to civilization. In the distance I make out flashing lights. As we near the colors become clearer. A neon yellow and green sign flashes the word “casino.” We’ve made it to Las Vegas.

As we pull into the valet at The Palms Hotel and Casino, sparkling chandeliers hang from the ceiling canopy, bounteous palm trees surround the entrance and doormen in freshly pressed suits greet us. “Wow, we’re really stepping it up,” I say to Misha.

Our renovated room is even more extravagant. A modern king-size bed, stylish lamp shades, granite counter tops and tile bathroom floors await us. Perched 20 stories high, we stare out the window at the illuminated city below. Although the city isn’t nearly  ready for sleep, Misha and I are. A strenuous hike and another long drive has defeated us.

We wake up to a pleasantly warm morning.  An hour later we’re munching down Animal Style hamburgers and fries from In and Out Burger’s secret menu. Despite needing a healthy meal, we can’t resist this West Coast fast food chain. We enjoy a fattening brunch for less than 10 dollars. Ready to begin our only full day in Sin City we eagerly make our way to the Strip.

Its barely past noon and I already feel overstimulated. The Strip is a different world. Blinking billboards, expensive cars, street magicians and a plethora of hotel casinos distract me from reality. Our first stop is Planet Hollywood. Upon entering this building we are immediately entrenched by colorful carpets and ceilings, endless ringing of slot machines and tireless card dealers. While watching Misha get lucky playing Roulette, I reminisce about my most recent visit to Vegas – an incredible week spent with two of my best friends, Erin and Beatrice. Feeling content with his $25 winnings, Misha arises from the table. It’s my turn. I love the anticipation of gambling. Although losing a few bucks at the table, I make up for it in free drinks and entertainment value.

So as not to spend our entire $100 (self-determined) limit in one spot, Misha and I leave Planet Hollywood and gamble a bit more in other hotels. My favorite is the Bellagio. I step foot into this grandiose hotel and am immediately mesmerized by the 30 foot tall lavish Christmas tree before me. Incredibly decorated holiday ornaments line the interior of this hotel-mansion. Golden reindeer-led sleds, constructed Santa Clauses 8 times the size of me, and countless green, red and blue lights encompass our field of vision. Impressed tourist snap pictures in every imaginable nook of this spacious room. I feel as if I’m in the upper class ballroom of the Titanic.

A trip to Vegas isn’t complete without seeing a show. As such, Misha and I purchase discounted tickets to “Vegas! The Show.” Prior to heading over to the theatre, Misha and I find an isolated corner on the 3rd floor of Planet Hollywood to munch down some tasty Thai food. We then descend to the theatre located on the second floor. We watch with glee as talented singers, dancers and showgirls expose the audience to what Las Vegas was like in the 1950’s. A tiny bird trainer comes on stage and has his cockatoo fly through hula hoops held by the audience. The scandalous and puffy costumes worn by the actors and actresses and the vintage props used by the ensemble appear fitting. That is, until Misha points out the old man playing a Grand Piano on stage. Atop his varnished instrument rests a MacBook Pro, from which the pianist reads sheet music I’m tempted to inform the producer how inappropriate this prop is.

After a full day of constant commotion, and each of our wallets $50 lighter, Misha and I head back to our hotel. One day in Vegas is enough for me. I can’t imagine what it’s like living and working here. It’s past midnight, yet the Planet Hollywood mall is packed with commotion and fluorescent lights. The ceiling, painted a bright blue, gives off the impression of a clear-sky morning, undoubtedly disrupting employee’s circadian rhythms. We exit the mall and walk along the way-too-crowded-for-a-weekday streets and wonder how long it takes someone to unwind from a day working in this city. “This city really never sleeps, does it?” I ask Misha.

“Sure doesn’t,” Misha says.

As much as I love visiting Las Vegas, I could never live in this city.

The Grandest of Canyons

I stand with Steve in the kitchen, an old Indian Country map spread open on his half-constructed marble countertop.

“If you take this route, you’ll be able to see the best view of the Colorado River,” Steve says, pointing to a route from Flagstaff, AZ to the Grand Canyon. “But if you go this way, you can explore the Red Mountains.”

“Which would you prefer?” I ask our adventurous host.

Steve bites his lip and caresses his soul patch with his thumb and index finger. “I really want to say you should go through the Red Mountains. They’re one of my favorite spots. But that’s the only thing you’ll see on the route. The other route has 3 or 4 really cool stopping points.”

I wait silently, allowing Steve’s inner dialogue to play out.

“Go this way,” Steve says, concluding that we should bypass the Red Mountains.

“Sounds good,” I say.

“Remember to swing by the local AAA and pick up one of these maps too.”

And that’s exactly what I do.

Two shiny, new maps in hand, Riley and I set off for Flagstaff, AZ. After two hours of cruising along the speedy interstate, we jump onto Route 66. Yes, historic Route 66 – one of the first U.S. highways, created in 1926, and originally running 2,448 miles from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA. We pass by gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants and hotels all boasting the numbers “66” in their name. After many miles of this gimmicky stretch of road, we merge back onto the quicker and more efficient interstate 40. The sun begins to set, painting the swirling clouds above us deep shades of gold, pink, blue and purple. The snow-capped mountains, seemingly forever in the distance, radiate a confident dark blue glow.

We arrive in Flagstaff shortly after 6pm. Rather than heading straight to our hotel like a boring, old couple, we decide to gander around the city’s downtown. First order of business is food. We blindly decide on Beaver Street Brewery. 3 succulent bratwursts, a fulfilling Portobello ravioli and a tasty local Pilsner later, Riley and I feel quite content. We spend the next 2 hours walking off our dinner while enjoying the many clothing and craft shops scattered throughout this quaint town. After realizing we desire every single item being sold in this town, we decide to head to the hotel.

A good night’s rest and a surprisingly diverse hotel breakfast later, we depart our Fairfield Inn for the Grand Canyon. As per Steve’s advice, we take a longer, more scenic route to this world renowned park. We approach Sunset Volcano crater, a volcanic cinder cone, covered in hardened black lava rock. The apex of this mountain is missing, as if bitten off. We then pass many hills and mountains encompassed by black sand, from which unusual vegetation grows. We continue increasing in elevation. Suddenly the picture-perfect clear day turns into an impenetrable fog. We’ve entered a cloud. Over the next 3 minutes the temperature drops from 51 degrees Fahrenheit to 31. We pass through 18 miles of Wupatki National Monument, unable to see any of it. Once again, Riley sits behind the wheel during an unexpectedly challenging drive. And once again, she impresses.

We park a short walk away from the Bright Angel trailhead. Not anticipating the snow, ice and slush covered terrain awaiting us, I wear my running shoes, having 18 months, 2 half marathons and 100’s of miles of tread on them. Riley, also wearing tennis shoes, walks a few steps behind me as I gingerly descend the slippery trail. We slip but avoid falling many times. Less than a half mile in, we pass a group of 4 fit looking men, staring fearfully at the canyon below them. “Let’s just turn around,” one of them says.

Undeterred, we continue our hike. After a mile, the ice ceases as the trail is exposed to the sun. Simultaneously, the view becomes even more stunning. An indescribable amount of space fills this trench we stand in, surrounded by rocks of various shades of red and brown. The plateau seems miles away, and in fact it is. We hike down another half mile. Mesmerized by the beauty we are witnessing, we climb atop a rock protruding farther than the others. Encased in the magnitude around me, I can’t help but think of how small I truly am.

The hike up is easier and quicker than the hike down. We pass many good-natured individuals cursing themselves for hiking as far down as they did. One boy sprints by us, slowing down only to explain that he needs to complete the trail in less than 20 minutes to prove his manhood to his father.

We drive through another gorgeous sunset towards the small town of Williams. We eat a satisfying Mexican meal at Poncho’s. Feeling refueled, we set off to our next destination.

Land of Cheap Gas and Beer

We approach the ancient wooden door. A stone Buddha sits in full lotus to the left of us. A scooter, having seen many better days, leans against the side of the house, motionless. Misha makes a fist with his right hand and knocks three times below the smiling sun carved into the upper center of the door. A fit man appearing in his fifties opens the door. Unkempt grey hair protrudes from beneath his black and white fedora.

“Hello,” the man says.

“Hi. Are you Stephen?” Misha replies.

Still acclimating to this new experience, I stand a few feet behind Misha.

“Yeah, I’m Steve,” the man answers. “And you must be Misha.” He then turns toward me and asks me my name.

“I’m Riley,” I say.

Steve invites us into his cluttered home. Tribal relics and artwork span the unpainted walls. Shelves upon shelves are filled with vintage records and tapes. Another bookcase contains more modern sources of music – CDs. Countless dusty books are stacked atop antique tables. One of the many Buddhas in this home rests peacefully within a wall incision along the staircase leading to the second floor. Steve points out a small tent lying atop aging wooden furniture. “I’m in the process of making that thing waterproof for when I backpack Colombia for 2 months. I leave in a few weeks.”

While studying the disorganization among us and talking with our host, we learn that for a profession Steve imports and sells various items from Indonesia. In addition to the keepsakes and indigenous clothing scattered among the house, Steve has an entire warehouse full of imports he is attempting to liquidate. “Once all this crap is gone, I’m retiring,” he says.

Steve is also working on multiple projects around the house, including renovating his kitchen, painting the walls and setting up a permanent room for Couchsurfers. The more we speak to Steve, the more I realize this is going to be an unforgettable and eye opening 2 days in Santa Fe.

An hour after arriving at our temporary home, Misha and I set out to the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe. Unprepared for the 20 degree weather, we only stay long enough to eat dinner and check out a “funky schmunky” (as described by a local couple we came across) bar, named Evangelos. And indeed the bar was funky schmunky. Rugged-looking men with cowboy hats drink in the dim-light room filled with stuffed game and ancient Mexican decorations. We return to Steve’s house exhausted and are soon asleep in his guest bedroom.

With the sun having awoken, Misha and I arise from bed ready to go for a run. Upon stepping outside we are exposed to picturesque terrain. Snuggled between the mountains, Steve’s house is at the end of a development consisting of quaint homes perched among large plots of land. We look into the distance and see snow-capped mountains beyond endless dry fields of golden shrubs and scattered rocks. We run 4 miles along the desolate, snowy street, passing horses, dogs and adobe-style farm houses. Despite the 7,000 foot altitude and the uncomfortable blasts of sub-freezing wind, we make it back to Steve’s house.

Although worn out and cold, I’m determined to experience more of this distinctive city. Our first stop is Madrid. No, not the city in Spain. A 40 minute drive from downtown Santa Fe, Madrid, NM was once a prosperous lead and coal mining town. As with many mining towns, the natural resources in Madrid were exhausted and the economy dwindled, resulting in a ghost town. Some time later Madrid received a face lift and now boasts a renowned artistic community, with a variety of enjoyable shops and galleries lining the main street. As we wander in and out of the aged shops, I can’t believe that I’m in the United States. The culture, terrain, and architecture of Santa Fe is something I’ve never experienced. I soak in each step.

We end the day at the Santa Fe Brewing Company. Unlike the breweries I’ve experienced in the past, in which I receive a collectible glass and six 4oz pours of beer, this brewery sells delicious pints of beer for 3 bucks a pop. This favorable price came as little surprise to us, as gas sells for under 2 bucks a gallon in this town. Misha and I climb the stairs to the second floor where we are surrounded by extravagant Christmas decorations. A Christmas Party will be taking place here later tonight. While sipping our crafts brews we engage in conversation with an older couple from El Paso, TX. We have much to talk about as they are quite the travel buffs. After discussing cross-country motorcycle treks, Couchsurfing, camping, and New Mexican history, Misha and I are ready to conclude our night.

We snag some cheap dinner at a local pizzeria and head back to Steve’s home. We walk into this eccentric home to the sound of Steve listening to calming music and feasting on organic rice, veggies and self-made juice. The stove, positioned half in the kitchen and half in the living room, heats up a pot of organic purple sweet potatoes – Steve’s lunch for the next day. After many questions from Misha, we learn more about our wonderful and caring host, including his passion for preserving our environment and our bodies. We are wildly impressed by his use of composts for the garden, buckets to catch the cold and excess water in the shower, and mason jars to preserve and ferment food. I go to sleep reflecting on my time in Santa Fe; it has been an unusual; yet, amazingly mind-opening experience which I will never forget.

Into the Underworld

If you’re looking for an exciting 8 hours, the drive from Austin, TX to Carlsbad, NM is not for you. Aside from a handful of small towns, this drive consists solely of dried vegetation and empty road. On average we see less than one car per hour, and see more oil rigs than humans and animals combined. To pass the time, we play crossword puzzles, blast Phish through our car speakers and find excuses to pull over and stretch our legs.

After 4 hours of monotonous driving, my cell phone displays signs of reception. A town must be nearing. Moments later, we enter Mason, Texas, a town of 2,000 inhabitants. Seemingly the only awake resident works at the café we walk into. A fairly priced taco salad and roast beef sandwich later, Riley and I are back on the open road. Despite the topography not changing at all, leading us to wonder whether we’re actually just driving in circles, we arrive in Carlsbad, NM just after 8pm MST.

Tonight we’re camping. Seems like a reasonable thing to do for a young, adventurous couple. Especially since it’s saving us $80. We pull into the only open grocery store in town and load up on ground beef, vegetables, Weenie Beenies, beef jerky, aluminum foil, charcoal and water. Ironically, our campsite is across the street. Not quite the backcountry camping I imagined, but it sure is convenient. Using an old camping trick Riley learned back in her early teens, we season the purchased beef and vegetables, enclose the concoction in aluminum foil, and set it atop the grill. 30 minutes later – pure deliciousness. We light some candles in honor of the first night of Hanukkah, pop open a brew, and feast on our inexpensive, yet delightful, meal.

Once the food settles and the fire dies down, we realize it is freezing. Mid to high 30s didn’t seem so bad when talking to the campsite owner earlier in the day about the impending weather. Riley and I each put on three layers of clothing and bundle up in a single sleeping back and an airplane blanket inside my tent. With Riley and I relying solely on each other for warmth, sleep is hard to come by tonight.

It suddenly becomes uncomfortably warm beneath the blanket wrapped around Riley and my head. I unzip the tent flap and am blinded by the glare of the desert sun. It’s 8:30 in the morning and nature wants us awake. We munch on whatever foods we can find in our car and pack away our belongings. By 11a.m. we’re at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Although not quite the longest, deepest or widest, these caves are largely considered the most beautiful in the world. For 4 underground miles we explore Dogtooth Spars, Cave Pearls, Helictites, flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites and aragonites. We emerge from this fairy tale land unscathed, ready to treat ourselves to an authentic Mexican lunch; one not named La Salsita.

After a fulfilling meal, Riley asks if she can drive. Over the next 4 hours, we ascend to an altitude of 9,000 feet to Cloudcroft, NM; one of the highest elevations in the U.S. and descend 5,000 feet to Alamogordo, NM. I feel a bit unsettled as Riley slices through the Sacramento Mountains, among rain, snow, oncoming trucks, and pitch darkness. Despite me fearing for my life, Riley drives exceptionally well and we arrive at our Super 8 in one piece.

The only source of food at this hour is a Japanese/Chinese/Thai restaurant. As we order sushi, I can’t help but wonder where the restaurant obtains its fish from when situated in the middle of the desert. We return to our abode for the night and pass out. Having slept less than a handful of hours the night before and hiking for most of the morning and afternoon, we sleep like kings (and queens) tonight.

We wake up in time for the all-too-familiar continental breakfast. We then set out for White Sands National Monument, a not-too-well-known gem consisting of 275 square miles of snow-white sand. We stop by Staples and plead the store employee for an empty cardboard box, so we could use it to slide down the 50 foot sand dunes at White Sands.

Upon entering the park we drive 8 miles deep to the starting point of the longest hiking trail and the area with the largest sand dunes. Despite all our best efforts our pieces of cardboard refuse to slide more than a few inches before becoming immobilized by pounds of white sand. To our delight, the young quartet sitting behind us at breakfast shows up with flying saucer sleds and kindly offer us a ride. Riley and I slide down the steep sand dune at a much more respectable speed. Everyone laughs as I make a last second dive out of my sled to avoid crashing into my terrified girlfriend.

We hike barefoot for over 5 miles of sand dunes, coming across only a handful of people along the way. The sand is so white that it can easily be mistaken for snow. And by 2pm it begins to feel like snow as the sun lowers into the horizon. 3 hours of fresh desert air later, we get back into our vehicle and head to our next destination.

The strenuous hike has led us to a state of hunger. A promising billboard reassures us that a celebrated café is in the nearing town. 15 miles later we arrive at a dilapidated building, seemingly having been closed for the better part of the last century. Looking around, we find that the entire town has a similar appearance. Onto the next town. Unfortunately for our stomachs and bladders, the next town is 50 miles away. We arrive in this sleepy town and pass through its 1 mile diameter, slowly losing hope that we will ever eat again. Pleasantly surprised to have reception, I do a quick Google search and am pleased to find an open restaurant on the cusp of town. Another mediocre Mexican joint. But one that is very much needed in this time of extreme hunger.

Our appetites satisfied and our moods improved, we get back into the car. After 3 hours of high speed driving through darkness, we arrive in Santa Fe, NM. About 15 miles past the downtown exits, we pull off into a small mountain town. Another few miles later we turn onto an unlit road, boasting a sign that we are entering a land grant area. A little apprehensive about the lack of civilization around us, we continue driving until reaching an eerie looking house in the middle of nowhere. We have arrived at the home of our Couchsurfing host.

Everything is Bigger in Texas

The sun glistens off a shiny metallic star, 10 times the size of me. We’ve officially arrived in Texas, the Lone Star state. With Austin another 4 hours away, and my overwhelming hunger making me sick, I ask Misha to pull over at the next decent restaurant. This task is more challenging than we thought. For 20 miles the only restaurant we pass is a Pizza Hut. No thanks. We see signs for the city of Beaumont. That sounds more promising. Misha reads a few reviews online, and we settle on a reasonably priced Italian restaurant. It’s closed. In fact, the entire town of Beaumont looks like it’s been closed for the past few decades. We try another place – La Salsita; authentic Mexican food. Huge Mistake. After ordering what I think was a chicken burrito, and watching the cashier hit on my boyfriend, we sit down to eat. Misha maintains a stoic face as he attempts to down the mass of food in his hands. Despite my apprehensiveness, I follow suit. Two-thirds through our burritos, we call it quits.

“We needed to eat at a place like that. So we could get it out of our system. Right?” I ask Misha, attempting to find optimism in the episode having just occurred.

“Sure,” Misha says.

With a rumbling stomach, I cautiously drive along seemingly endless, wide roads. The 80mph speed limit is a bit disconcerting for me, as I’ve never seen anything greater than 70. I guess it’s true when they say everything is bigger in Texas. Shortly after 9pm, we arrive at Chelsy and Brett’s house. Chelsy and Misha met in the summer of 2012, while Misha was backpacking Hawai’i for two months. She now lives with her boyfriend, Brett, in Cedar Park, Texas, just north of Austin.

Chelsy greets us with massive rubber boots and a wide simile. She instantly radiates a positive and free spirited vibe. With her dirty blonde hair and athletic physique, she’s not exactly the dark-haired Hawaiian I imagined her being, but I can already tell that I’m going to get along with her. As we enter the seemingly typical home, we are enthralled by the decor of the insides. The walls are filled with artwork made of drift wood and copper. We later learn that Brett, a freelance handy-man by trade, built and welded most of these magnificent items.

After an early morning run through Brushy Creek Park, we head to SoCo, a hip area along South Congress Street, in Austin Texas. The street is filled with diversity and spontaneity, as we pass by a skater, a runner, a pair of traveling hippies, and a man dressed in a full Santa Claus outfit, crossing a bridge atop a galloping horse. Misha and I explore unique shops filled with vintage costumes, collectible books, well-preserved antiques, adorable hand-made souvenirs and other uncommon objects while discussing the carefree vibe in Austin. It’s a place of neither judgment nor a preferred style; a place where you can truly be yourself.

The rest of the afternoon is filled with laughter and Misha’s weirdness. We gradually make our way to HopeOutdoor Gallery, a hill containing wall after wall of graffiti art. A strenuous, short hike leads us atop the structure overlooking the city. We sit and enjoy the sunset.

Our last night in Austin is spent cooking a delicious salmon, red potato and asparagus meal for our lovely hosts and ourselves. We pop open a bottle of red wine and toast to old friends and new friends. A few hours of good conversation later, I make my way to bed while Misha plans the next part of our trip.

The Voyage Begins

For the past 27 months I woke up every weekday (and some weekends) knowing that I had to shower, eat breakfast, slip into a dress shirt and slacks, and be at work by 9am. Today feels different. Today is my last day as an employee of a Big 4 accounting firm. At least for now.

The elevator reaches the 10th floor; the very same floor I received my first full time job offer. I read the countless affirmations pasted on the walls: experience, opportunities, unique, flexibility, happy. I’m finally living these words, I think to myself. I sit at a desk beside a glass wall overlooking this gorgeous Atlanta morning. I’ll miss this city, I think to myself.

Today is mostly formalities. I print out my 3 page Exit Checklist, and make sure I’ve completed all necessary procedures. I’m hit with a splash of emotion as I glance at my work instant messenger, containing the names of all my coworkers and work friends. A wave of gratitude encompasses me and I send a few kind words of wisdom to those I’ve grown close to over the years. They thank me and wish me safe travels. I check the digital clock at the bottom of my computer screen. It reads 10:15. Almost time for my exit interview. I head up to the 12th floor.

After a refreshingly open conversation with my interviewer, I exit her office and ascend to the 14th floor with my computer. In a very matter-of-fact way, the man workings the operations services desk snatches my computer, asks me to sign some paper I’m too excited to read, and bodes me farewell. This anti-climactic moment does little to deter the excitement bubbling up in me. Without a work computer for the first time in nearly 2.5 years, I feel lighter; literally and figuratively. I try to hide my grin as I speed walk to the elevator and then sprint across the lobby to the glorious day outside. I scan the parking lot for Riley. There she is – appearing scared, yet excited.

8 hours and some world famous BBQ later we turn onto an old pot-hole infested street full of vintage, tall houses with large porches. We’ve arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana. We park in the street beside a picturesque white house with pink window shutters. Unsurprising beads hang from porch posts and telephone lines. As we ascend the aging porch steps, a skinny boy with long red hair jogs over to us.

“Misha?” he asks.

“Yup,” I reply. “And you’re David?”

“Yes sir.”

David is our Couch Surfing host, with whom we will be staying the next two nights. We pulled in just as he was returning from a night of studying economics. He unlocks the door to his dwelling and we enter a classic shotgun-style house. Dating back to the early 19th century, the shotgun house is built as a narrow rectangle, with one door at the front of the house and one door at the back of the house, and all the rooms in between connected by a continuous hallway. Our room is the one closest to the door. A full sized air mattress, 2 sleeping bags and 2 pillows await us. David’s room is connected to ours, followed by a study area, a kitchen and a bathroom. Not every day do I walk through 4 rooms just to brush my teeth.

David invites us onto his porch, where we set up 3 chairs and a hammock. We pop open a bottle of red wine and merrily sip away, while listening to some unusual sounding birds screeching above us. I stargaze for the first time in months. Midway through the bottle David’s friend, Pedro, arrives. An exchange student from Honduras, he and David are co-founders of the Loyola University Economics club. The 4 of us spend a wonderful evening discussing everything from communist-Russia to college girlfriend troubles. As the temperature dips into the 40’s we walk inside where David prepares us some fancy shmancy hot chocolate. We sip on it and our eyelids grow heavy. David, a self-proclaimed night owl, has a party to go to. We check the time – it’s midnight (well, back home it is. In N’awleans, it’s a young 11pm). We tell David we’re going to take it easy tonight and go to sleep early.

Riley and I wake up to a perfect morning. We tie our shoe laces and head off on a 5 mile run along the St. Charles trolley line towards the French Quarter. The closer we near to the Quarter, the rowdier and more eccentric the crowd becomes. After witnessing a fight between a convenience store employee and a drunk homeless man, and passing by a van advertising “Weed Candies” (which I did not know was legal in Louisiana) we arrive on Canal Street. Resembling The Strip in Las Vegas, Canal Street is beautifully lined with vast hotels, symmetrical palm trees, a casino, and endless activity. We cross the street and walk along the deceivingly quiet Bourbon Street. A family dressed in Victorian-era clothing prances around, while a man balances himself on an invisible chair for tips.

An afternoon in New Orleans is not complete without Po’boys, which is exactly what Riley and I eat for lunch. Dessert consists of Cafe Du Monde and their world famous coffee and French beignets. As the afternoon draws to a close, we hop on the St. Charles trolley, which takes us back to David’s house.

After relaxing and changing into more presentable attire, Riley and I treat our accommodating host to a true creole dinner at a local restaurant. We then hop back on the trolley towards Bourbon Street. With the sun having set many hours ago, the atmosphere on the Street has drastically changed. Spray painted school busses speed past us, blasting music. Its tenants shake their rears out the windows. We walk the length of Bourbon Street, stopping only to purchase the famous Hand Grenade beverage and to stare at intriguing passersby. We listen to some impressive piano music at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the oldest bar in America, before setting off to nearby Frenchmen Street. Considered, a more vintage New-Orleans experience, Frenchmen Street is bustling with live music. Men play jazz on street corners while onlookers dance. A trio of women play folk music on a set of dirty steps. A sextet of young boys play classic covers inside a local bar.

Riley and I stumble upon a recommended hot dog joint where we gluttonously down an obnoxiously large brat. An enjoyable amount of beers, a strip club and a rave later we’re back on the trolley heading to our host’s home.

We wake up Sunday morning to a third consecutive day of marvelous weather. We pack the car, snap a selfie with our host, and take off for our next destination.

The Day Before

I sit in my room, packing the last of my belongings. It’s Thursday and the clock reads 12:13 p.m.; approximately 24 hours before Misha and I hit the road. The process of folding clothes into a suitcase is mundane, and evokes little emotion. Later that afternoon, I sit down with two girls for my final tutoring session. Having worked with these young ladies for the past few months, we’ve grown quite close. About 10 minutes into the lesson, one of the girls begins to cry. At first I am confused, until I realize she is sad due to my impending departure. Her sorrow transcends into my sorrow and I soon feel a wave of emotions come over me. I’m barely able to hold it together as I try to comfort her.

This moment marks the onset of a surplus of emotions, consisting of anxiety, sadness and excitement. Words do not manifest to describe this collection of emotion, but deep down I’m certain that I made the right decision to take on this challenge with Misha.

After loading the car with my final bag I sit with my parents for dinner. Despite all attempts to focus on the delicious Thai food in front of me and the comedy act radiating from the TV, my thoughts are elsewhere. As dinner nears an end it hits me that this is the last time I’ll see my parents in quite some time. After never having lived more than two hours away from my mom and dad, I am about to set sail on a journey which will take me over two thousand miles away from them. After suppressing my emotions for months, I finally let the tears flow down my face. Seeing me cry is too much, and my mom begins tearing up as well. This wonderful chapter of my life has come to end. And now begins a new one. Thankfully, I receive ample phone calls and text messages from my friends to distract me enough to fall asleep.

I wake up from a surprisingly great night’s sleep. At 11am I hop into my vehicle and head south to Downtown Atlanta. By noon I’m parked across the street from Misha’s work office. I notice a male figure wearing a striped white and blue button down shirt and grey pants exit the building. It’s Misha. Our journey is about to begin.