You might have noticed that, until this point in the blog, we’ve been city-hopping across the USA. Although it’s an efficient way to visit as many of the must-see places as possible (and we have seen some amazing things!), we didn’t feel like we were seeing the ‘real’ America. So, after New Orleans, we decided to hire a car and drive roughly 2,000 miles across five different states to get to our next city stop – Las Vegas.
It was exhausting, sometimes stressful (see the notes on American driving below) and a little more costly than our greyhound and budget hostel routine, but it was totally worth it. It gave us a huge amount of freedom to go off the beaten track and explore, and we got to see some incredible things that we would never have been able to experience taking flights or buses everywhere.
The first hurdle was finding a rental car that didn’t charge a hefty one-way fee (a charge rental companies whack on top of your rental to cover costs of getting the vehicle back to point A again). Kayak was an amazing website we found that allowed us to compare prices for lots of different companies. It also looked into pick-up and drop-off locations that aren’t the obvious choices, like airports, to make the rental even cheaper. After picking up a Chevy Spark from Hertz just outside NOLA (with no one-way fee!), we were ready to start our trip.
Before we left Louisiana for good, we wanted to get out into the countryside and visit one of its many historic plantations. We were keeping one wary eye on the weather news, which was forecasting severe thunder storms right across the state after our last week of glorious sunshine.
With all that rain in mind, we decided to get as close as we could to the plantation we wanted to see – the picturesque Oak Alley Plantation – by staying overnight in nearby Thibadoux. We made it to our motel in time to see the first flashes of lightning as the storms rolled in – and they were big’uns. It didn’t take long for the storm to develop right over the motel. The lightning was like a strobe – with one flash after another over and over again – the thunder was deafening and the rain was HEAVY. In the morning we heard on the news that our area was already under a flood warning and there was even a tornado warning in place for the highway we were planning to take later in the day.
We made it over to Oak Alley Plantation during a break in the rain, only to find that it was closed to the public while they dealt with some flooding issues. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long and, after getting some pictures of the impressive Big House through the renowned tree-lined drive it was named after, we were able to enter the premises to take a tour of the grounds.
Oak Alley Plantation was, and still is, a working sugar cane plantation and it used more than 100 slaves during its heyday. Although it’s a symbol of some very shady American history, it’s a beautiful, peaceful place and does a good job of recognising the plight of the slaves that worked on the land – with an exhibition about the conditions they lived in and a memorial naming all known slaves that were at Oak Alley.
Another of the things we wanted to experience on our visit to the USA was a real rodeo. With some quick online research, we found that a small town in Texas called Mount Pleasant was holding one the next day. After driving through some very heavily flooded areas in Louisiana that had seen up to 10ins of rain, we headed up the highway (thankfully, the tornado warning had passed) and made it all the way into Texas – ready for rodeo!
We found there wasn’t a lot to do in Mount Pleasant – it’s not really geared for tourists – so we headed out to a pretty lake just outside the town during the day and headed back into the town for the main event in the afternoon.
While waiting for the event to start, I helped some of the townsfolk prepare by shifting boxes and putting up signs while they explained the rules of all the different rodeo events to me. The people I met were lovely – and they seemed genuinely delighted that we had come to visit and told us repeatedly that we’d picked the best rodeo to see. It was certainly impressive; the cowboys’ roping skills were lightning-fast and I have no idea how some of them managed to cling on to the bucking broncos!
The next stop on our roadtrip was Carlsbad, New Mexico. We’d heard about Carlsbad Caverns, which are some of the largest caves in the western world and are home to thousands of bats that you can watch descend en-mass into the air at dusk. Getting there was meant to be fairly straightforward – two four hour drives with a quick overnight stop in Abeline, TX – however, we had a bit of a scare we had when we found ourselves running out of fuel in the middle of the desert! Becoming used to all the regular gas stations along the interstate, we had turned off the highway and started driving right through Texan oil country before noticing that our fuel was running low. We thought we could stop at the next town for gas, but it soon became clear that there was nothing for miles around.
Starting to get worried that we’d end up stuck on the side of this remote road in the baking heat, we finally reached a little collection of buildings just as the car was flashing an ’empty – refuel now’ warning. Unfortunately, there was no gas station and out of desperation we pulled up at an oil pump equipment business to ask for help. The worker who came out to greet us was very nice and cheerfully explained that ‘this kind of thing happens all the time’ before filling our tank for us from a supply they kept on site! We were very lucky to have stopped when we did because the next town was 50 miles away and we certainly wouldn’t have made it.
After all that drama, we were relieved to make it to Carlsbad with no more problems and headed straight to the caverns to get a look before sunset. The caverns felt like huge underground cathedrals, complete with stalactite chandeliers and stalagmite alters. The cave itself was formed by sulfuric acid eating away at the limestone rock, which explained some of the bizaare-looking rock-formations that had colourful-sounding names, such as ‘popcorns’ and ‘sodastraws’.
The bat flight was the highlight, though. We weren’t allowed to take pictures or video because we were told that bats don’t like the noise of electronic equipment, but it meant that we weren’t distracted from watching them as they swarmed out of the cave and spiralled up into the air and over our heads into the desert.
While making it back to our motel, we found that the car – which had been fine until that day – was starting to complain about all the driving we were doing. The tyre pressure light was showing (even though we didn’t have a flat) and occasionally the engine light would come on – which didn’t fill us with confidence considering we had another 1,000 miles to go. We called Hertz and they explained we could either try to make it to the nearest Hertz location (400 miles away in Albuquerque), or we could get a tow the whole way (but we’d have to wait for the tow to get there first). We decided to go with the former and set off for Albuquerque the next day.
The journey took us through Roswell, which as you can imagine, was full of aliens – even the McDonalds was shaped like a crashed spaceship!
Thankfully we made it to Alberquerque with no further problems and exchanged the car for a new one that only had 4,000 miles on the clock. Dale couldn’t stay in Alberquerque without checking out some of the Breaking Bad filming locations, such as Walter White’s house and the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant. We managed to find both of those, although the owner of the White’s house came outside just as we arrived and decided to sit in the driveway, which made it a little awkward to take pictures!
We got an early night that night so that I could rest up before the heaviest day of driving so far – a six hour slog to the Grand Canyon, in Arizona. We arrived at the canyon at about 4pm after passing through some truly amazing scenery. The national park was much prettier than I expected and the beautiful image of the bright blue Colorado river winding through the bottom of the rust-red cliffs will be one that will stay with me forever. We didn’t see any condors during our trip, but we overheard a guide saying that there are only around 70 in the whole park, so it’s extremely rare to see one.
I was surprised at the scale of the park itself. I had expected to arrive at the side of the canyon, see the famous view of it, and be on our way – but the park was actually miles long, with viewpoints right the way along the side of the canyon – each one offering something a little different to the last. Unfortunately for me, the view points were spaced fairly far apart, which meant more driving – but if you have the time you could get the free park shuttle bus, which runs in a loop stopping at each point. Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be a way to walk between the view points – the road was the only way to move around unless you fancied a two day trek right into the bottom of the canyon itself! Another surprise was that the ‘Skywalk’ we’d heard about – which is a glass platform allowing you to walk out above the canyon floor below – was a five hour drive away outside the national park. We weren’t too disappointed though because we had heard that the platform isn’t in a great condition and covered with scratches, which ruins the illusion of standing in the air.
The good thing about there being so many viewpoints spaced so far apart was that it never really seemed crowded. We rounded-off our visit in a deserted spot where we could sit and relax while watching the sun set behind the canyon in front of us.
We stayed overnight in a motel in Flagstaff – just off the famous Route 66 – and got up bright and early to do the last leg of our trip to Las Vegas. On the way, we had a quick stop at the Hoover Dam and the bridge opposite. I think Dale was much more impressed by the structure than I was, but it was still good to see – and you get to drive right over it!
We eventually made it to the end of our 2,000 mile journey and returned the car in Las Vegas without any problems. We’re now planning a few days rest by the pool before we start exploring again. We’re glad we decided to do the road trip and, although it was tiring at times, the experience was amazing. It was incredible to see the landscape change from lush and green to dusty and dry – here’s some of the scenery on our drive…
For anyone thinking about doing some driving in America, here are some helpful notes that might come in handy:
– Driving through a red isn’t illegal (if you’re turning right) – we noticed this one as pedestrians in New York. It was very confusing to have the lights telling you to ‘walk’, when cars are passing through red lights in front of you!
– No one cares about stopping distances and tailgating is just fine – the closer to the person in front, the better
– Undertaking is fine too (this one really worried me – especially around interstate exits near busy cities)
– You have to pay for the gas you want before you can fill up the car. It’s generally easier to pay by cash (you can get change if needed after you fill up) because to pay by card for gas you sometimes need to enter a zip code into the machine – although you can occasionally get around this by substituting the letters in your post code for zeros.
– Road conditions can be awful – even on the interstates. Honestly, the roads are littered with the debris of destroyed tyres… and we complain about the odd pothole in the UK!
– Joined a road and can’t figure out the speed limit? It’ll be the speed that NO ONE else is going (not even the lorries!)