Our First Visitor

I wake up in high spirits. It’s been slightly over a month since we arrived in San Diego and today our first out-of-state visitor arrives. Leslie has been my friend since we were little kids riding skateboards on our butts down my parent’s driveway. In a few hours she will complete her flight from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to San Diego International. Although I haven’t felt overly homesick, it’s still comforting to have a taste of home. After all, I spent the better part of the past 15 years living in Atlanta.

I check my phone frantically waiting for Leslie’s text, notifying me of her arrival. And there it is. I excitedly hop in my car and head to the airport, located 10 minutes from our house. Scanning the terminal entrance, I notice a tall thin figure waving her arms. I pull up to the curb, exit the car and embrace my old friend. Oh, how I’ve missed her!

“I’m so ready for the sun,” she exclaims. Leslie is in much need of a change from the dreary winter temperament in Atlanta.

We head back to my place and park along the street. I give a brief tour of my teensy home before preparing a pair of ham and cheese sandwiches. We scarf them down, eager to get out on the beach. Although Leslie has already been to San Diego a few times, she’s never been to Pacific Beach, or ‘PB’ as it’s known here. I decide this is the perfect place for some sunshine and relaxation after a long flight during the wee hours of the morning.

We arrive at the beach and approach the sand and water. Brr, I shiver. It seems Leslie brought the cold with her from Atlanta. Determined to get some sun, we lay flat on the sand attempting to escape the brisk wind. Luckily, the temperature increases slightly. Before we know it, Leslie and I are burned. Despite the redness spreading across her body, Leslie seems pleased with having gotten sun for the first time in weeks.

Leslie and I then vote to stop by La Jolla before picking Misha up from work. We snag a prime parking spot right by La Jolla Cove. As we walk approach the water, searching for sea lions, we are smacked in the nostrils with an almost unbearable stench. We look to our right and identify swarms of camouflaged sea lions sun bathing atop black rocks. All around them are various sea birds. The birds don’t travel far to do their business, as the rocks are lathered with fresh and aged droppings, causing the foul scent. We cautiously open the small gate separating the sidewalk from a small path leading down to the rocks. We walk towards the sea lions, attempting not to disturb them. Once close enough, we snap a photo. We then quickly turn around and hurry up the hill to escape the rancid smell. With it still being too early to head to Misha’s office, we decide to pick up a nutritious smoothie from Mr. Juice and fulfill our shopping fix on Prospect Street, a popular area for shoppers in search of luxurious brands. Our first stop is at a make-up boutique named Benefit, where we end up spending most of our time receiving free makeovers and getting talked into buying cosmetics we don’t need.

After picking up Misha from work, we head back to our home. We’re all starving. To Leslie and my pleasant surprise, Misha cooks us a divine meal of goat cheese and basil stuffed hamburgers and sliced red potatoes. Before we know it, Leslie and my first day has ended. We have the type of relationship where we don’t need to communicate regularly to fulfill our friendship. Whenever we see each other we simply pick up right where we last left off.

Prior to Leslie’s arrival, she and I planned out all the activities we wanted to do together. This list turned out quite lengthy. After an elongated night’s rest, Leslie and I hop out of bed Friday morning eager to check off a large fraction of this list. We first head to Old Town. Old Town is considered the “birth place of California” and the earliest indication of people living in San Diego, 9,000 years ago. The native Indians called themselves the Kumeyaay and when the Spanish explorer, Cabrillo, settled in San Diego he described them as “good natured and attractive people.” It doesn’t take Leslie and me long to figure out this gimmicky area is a tourist trap; however, it is still fun to explore the souvenir shops and entertain ourselves with the cultural attractions. The Mexican restaurant, Cafe Coyote, in itself makes the trip worth it. We sip on icy Margaritas and traditional Mexican food in a cultural and festive environment. There are colorful courtyards, splashing fountains, flower scented air and historic Mexican music adding to the authentic ambience.

Having eaten too much, we roll out of the restaurant and navigate to Coronado Island. Although Leslie and I have both been here, the beauty never gets old. We first stop at the Coronado Tidelands Park, located along the bay of San Diego near the Coronado Bridge. We sit atop a wall and let our feet dangle down towards the ever-blue water. We admire the skyline of downtown San Diego, positioned in front of us, while the intriguing architecture of the Coronado Bridge rests to our right. Directly below us sting rays meander in the clear water. The sky is overcast, but the scene is still elegant and peaceful. We take some time to simply talk and catch up as we’ve done on many occasions these past 16 years.

Feeling physically calm but mentally elated, we drive over to Hotel Del, a luxury hotel, open since 1888, with classic red and white wooden Victorian architecture. The hotel’s beach front view and unique history has lured many noble guests including presidents, royalty and celebrities. We circle the grounds admiring the herb gardens and greenhouses, stylish cottages and pools, and over-priced shopping area. Unable to control our sweet tooth we manage to add homemade ice cream to the cacophony forming in our stomachs.

Needing to exercise away the 10,000 calories we ate today, I suggest a hike down to Misha and my discovery from the weekend before: Black’s Beach. Always one for new experiences, Leslie agrees. We park at the Torrey Pines Glider Port and repeat the actions Misha and I had taken on Valentine’s Day: the forbidden scenic trail atop the narrow cliffs followed by the harsh decline along the stone and wooden steps leading to the Black’s Beach shore. With the weather chilly and murky, the beach is mostly deserted today. But sure enough, a handful of older men feel like liberating themselves. Still little girls at heart, it’s tough for Leslie and me to contain our laughter. “Will we ever mature?” I ask my friend.

“Probably not,” she says.

After a brisk 20 minute walk along the beach, it’s time to pick up Misha from work. With the three of us sitting in the car, we discuss our plans for the evening. Despite our burning legs from the afternoon’s hike, Leslie and I agree to more exercise and breathtaking scenery. Misha steps on the gas and we’re off to the most popular hike in San Diego: Cowles Mountain. The busyness of the hike lives up to its reputation as we arrive to a full parking lot and cars lining the street for a half mile from the entrance. The hike is a mile and a half to the top. We step through the entrance confident we’ll master this journey.

“Are you sure this is only a mile and a half?” Leslie asks 8 steps into the hike.

I look up towards the peak, barely able to make out a series of specks moving up and down the trail. After a shaky-legged half mile climb up this rocky surface we make the decision to turn back.

“The sun is setting anyway,” I reason. “And we don’t have flashlights for the hike down.”

Walking towards the car, I think to myself how grateful I am to live in a place with a beautiful skyline, rolling hills and countless mountains enriched with the distinct nature of this dry climate.

The sun has set and our bellies are rumbling again. Misha, Leslie and I are craving seafood and thus head to The Fish Shop for dinner. This local restaurant was recommended to us by Grant and Rachel. The line for food extends well outside the restaurant doors, indicating the appeal of this food. We view the menu, which is set up for the customer to choose a type of fish and marinade and whether they want the meal in a taco, salad or entree. A perk here is that buyers can bring their own wine. A bottle of while, a fillet of Salmon, and lobster and crab tacos later, we head home and call it an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s big plans.

While the acclaimed San Diego Zoo is a convenient a half mile from our home, the lesser known San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located 45 minutes away from us, in Escondido. We arrive here at a quarter till 11. At the ticket booth, we gaze at the detailed map. The woman selling us our tickets points to a small parking area on the left side of the map. “The San Diego Zoo can fit inside our parking lot,” she says.

The three of us study the layout of the Park and determine the path we will take. The 70 degree forecast is in our favor. The animals are as active as I’ve seen at any zoo or safari. We walk by a roaring lion, admire a mommy gorilla caring for her baby, stare at hungry giraffes and laugh at bathing elephants before getting on the Africa Tram. This tour not only guides us through a variety of African animals in colossal habitats, but also offers a view of the almost extinct Northern White Rhino. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park boasts 1 of 4 remaining in the world.

On our way out we pass a sign signaling the Cheetah Run begins in 15 minutes. We decide to stay and capture this spectacle of speed. I watch in awe as a cheetah chases a toy at 70 miles per hour. Impressed by the Safari and thankful for having been lucky enough to be here on a day the animals were so active, we exit the park.

Leslie leaves tomorrow so tonight she treats Misha and me to sushi and sake at a recommended restaurant in North Park. As Leslie hadn’t spent time in our neighborhood yet, this is the perfect location for our meal. I feel so lucky to have a friend like Leslie come visit me all the way from Georgia. Beginning in 5th grade, while riding scooters around the neighborhood, our friendship continues to blossom. I feel a wave of sadness because I don’t know the next time I will see Leslie. One thing’s for sure – when I do, we’ll pick up right where we left off.

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Our New Home

We follow the sidewalk running along the one way road dubbed Boundary Street for about 100 feet before veering to the right onto a dirt alley barely wide enough to fit a Mini-Cooper. Another 50 feet and we stop at a wooden fence, about a foot and a half taller than me. My body tingles with anticipation as our realtor, Cathy-Ann, fidgets with the stubborn lock as she attempts to insert a key into the heavy-duty lock securing the fence closed.

This past month of traveling has been an incredible experience, and the timing couldn’t have been any more perfect, but I’m now ready to have a place to call home. There are joys that can only be attained traveling, but a girl like me eventually needs the stability of her own bed, clean bathroom, and organized closet. Seemingly ages later, the gate swings opens. We are exposed to a short, rectangular cottage separately fenced in from a larger unit in which our landlord and his fiance reside in. immediately before us rests a round metal table and four white, cushioned chairs under a spacious cloth umbrella. Beside it, a small, leafless tree and potted plants chatter among themselves A hummingbird, half the size of my palm, sweeps past my frizzling hair. With clear blue skies and a 75 degree forecast, I already foresee many afternoons spent reading and relaxing on this veranda.

As we approach the front door I notice “Shalom” written on a decoration hanging by the front door. As we later learn, the owner of the home is both Russian and Jewish, not unlike Misha. With a little less trouble, Cathy-Ann cracks open the front door. We are welcomed by a comfortably quaint room embodied by tile floors, wooden cabinets and jubilant decorations. It only takes a few seconds to identify everything in this charming living room and kitchen. Beside the door resides a small round kitchen table covered in a flowery table cloth. Almost pressed against it is a massive stainless-steel refrigerator large enough to house 2 family’s worth of food. To the right of the fridge are granite counter tops, an oven and stove and a washer and dryer. Opposite the kitchen sleeps a petite brightly striped couch, a wooden coffee table and a modest sized television atop a wooden TV-stand.

This room has everything one would need. It’s small, but not too small. It’s the perfect size for a couple with limited possessions. Our short tour continues into the bathroom, located beside the washer/dryer. My eyes brighten as (in my opinion) the most important room in the house sparkles with beauty. The spacious, tile-floored shower bears a tile-seat and a glass door. The porcelain toilet and shiny sink fit comfortably beside it.

Cathy-Ann, Misha and I then migrate to the bedroom, located on the opposite side of the house. Again, my expectations are exceeded. A queen sized bed screaming my name, a 3 drawer IKEA-esque dresser screaming Misha’s, a tall white wardrobe for my excessive supply of dresses, and a large wooden book shelf filled with months’ worth of books and games is more than we could have asked for.

I look over and see Misha grinning at me.

“Our first home together,” he says as he walks over and embraces me in a big bear hug.

We spend the bulk of the evening unpacking, only taking a break to watch an obnoxiously vibrant red, pink and purple sunset. We then ride over to the local Trader Joe’s for some groceries. Misha and I cook a delightful steak meal and down it with some celebratory red wine. We have successfully journeyed from Atlanta, Georgia to San Diego, California. This marks the end of a wonderful chapter in our lives and the beginning of the next.

I wake up my first day in San Diego to another perfect morning. Before starting my to-do list, I decide to go on a run through our neighborhood known as North Park. We chose to live in North Park as we had been informed by many that this up-and-coming neighborhood is the hip area for young people like ourselves. I begin my run. A half mile from our cottage lies University Avenue, a street boasting the neighborhood’s downtown. This diverse area provides a plethora of cafes , restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, and microbreweries. A theatre and weekly farmer’s market also add to the variety. As I observe the countless happy youth and adults flood these eccentric streets and shops I already feel myself falling in love. There is already an overwhelming amount of things and places I’m ready to experience here.

The hours begin to fly by as Misha and I continue getting settled into our new home. Misha spends most of his time on Craigslist finding us deals on road bikes, a bike rack, impenetrable bike locks, a wine rack, and other essential items we weren’t able to squeeze into my compacted car. He also begins coordinating with potential tennis clients he’s gathered through various online and offline outlets. I spend my hours doing research on the required paperwork for substitute teaching. The process is a lot more complicated than I thought. Unlike Fulton County in Atlanta, San Diego County is divided into 42 separate districts each with unique requirements. Scheduling an appointment for fingerprints and teacher credentialing at the San Diego County Education Office is only the first step. Feeling the stress already rolling in I take a deep breath and continue on with my productivity.

Needing a break from filling out substitute teacher applications and attempting to master the art of scanning documents on our newly acquired (for $5), fresh-out-of-the-box printer, I check my email. I’m pleased to find an email from a woman I had been communicating with on http://www.care.com. She asks if I’d be interested in babysitting her 3 young children. I give her a call and after a 30 minute conversation, I am invited to come meet the kids the following Monday. Misha and I eat dinner that night with a sense of accomplishment. We both got an unprecedented amount of work accomplished today.

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.

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.