The American West

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We put Santa Fe in our review mirror and headed into the great expanse of the American West. We drove all day and into the night arriving under a blanket of darkness to Monument Valley where I reflected the next morning: 

Sunrise over Monument Valley… I arrived in the night, black on black the monuments rose in a silhouette of stars. Sleeping monsters hiding in the dark. I felt small in the shadow of that mighty fame. As dawn emerged from beyond the endless horizon I became a weightless feather riding on the back of an eagle in the hallways of the valleys between, together waiting for the sun. They say Native Americans believed everything has a soul and as I look out on this vast and strange place I can’t help but feel these formations have memories and wisdom and are looking back at us just as we are of them. What do we have to say that could possibly compare to all that the monuments hold?….

At Monument Valley we stayed at The View. The rooms are nothing to write home about (life hack: I always travel with a scented candle to help elevate hotel rooms) but it was all about waking up to the sun rising from the balcony of your room with the most incredible view. If I ever find myself back at Monument Valley I would do an early morning or early evening horseback ride through the monuments to experience the nature up close since you are not allowed to venture off the designated road in your car. The below image of me looking out over Monument Valley is taken by the freestanding boulders to the left of the visitor’s center as you head toward the entrance to drive down into the valley. 

We then continued west to Horseshoe Bend which is an easy pull-off the main road and requires no admission fees. It is a 10-15 minute hike to the bend (just FYI) and can be very crowded at sunset but still totally worth it. 

The next morning I wanted to photograph Antelope Canyon which you must make a reservation for and is actually quite expensive. I opted for the photographer’s tour which was about two hours in total. Being that it was winter there only ended up being two of us with a guide who takes you through the canyon and points out some of the best photographic spots and helps clear people on other tours out of your frame. Some very important facts to know about this: the canyons are narrow and VERY crowded. There are multiple tour groups at a time and can be claustrophobic. However, if you are on the photographer’s tour you will have opportunities to shoot in empty spots as they occur with the help of your guide. Also very important to note, you must have a DSLR type camera (not just an iPhone or point and shoot) AND a tripod. They will not allow you to take the tour without these two elements nor let persons you are traveling with to accompany you if they do not also have their own gear. I personally think these rules are ridiculous but that is the way it is. I am so glad I did the tour and I’m happy with my shots, however, I would not do it again as the experience is stressful. I photographed Upper Canyon, Lower Canyon was closed, but from my understanding Upper Canyon is more photogenic. Additionally, if you want the famous light beams you must visit during summer and request that time slot. 

Then it was off to the Grand Canyon. We stayed at the El Tovar Hotel right in the center of it all which was great for easy access to sunrise and sunset views. Being that it was winter and quite cold, the hotel’s lodge-like atmosphere with burning fireplaces felt cozy and the restaurant, which you will need reservations for, had organic seasonal options.

It has always been a dream of mine to do this road trip across America and I cherish these memories. There were long stretches of not much to see, there were at times never ending urban sprawl but then there was magic. As the time between now and then separates the highlights float to the top and it was really just a relaxing way to travel that slowly without a real plan and opening ourselves to discovery.

The road trip came about because I hadn’t been home in so long I had many places I needed to visit. The thought of overpaying during holiday season to fly from city to city for weeks in cramped airplanes with no personal space and being treated poorly was too distressful a thought. I’m so sick of people going through my luggage, patting me down, taking apart my camera bag, and fighting for overhead space. So I hatched this idea to just drive. From coast to coast, sea to shinning sea. The only problem was … highways terrify me. The only way I’d do it is in one of the safest cars on the road, a Volvo XC60. I know a lot about Volvos. I did a road trip through Sweden in the XC90 a couple of years ago. I shot a collection of Volvo’s over the decades for their 60th anniversary out in L.A. and Palm Springs and even on top of Griffith Observatory! But this was different, this was personal and with that, in our XC60, starting in Savannah, Georgia, we took off

Review of the Volvo XC60 (this is not paid for, btw, I just love this brand / vehicle)

We came across all weather conditions on this journey from hot and sunny to 2 degrees and snowy. I always felt safe, first and foremost. The vehicle is quiet, and the sound system is so good. We listened to music, to audio books, to my favorite daily podcast. I can also say without hesitation because now I know after weeks of being in this vehicle, the seats are the most comfortable. I’ve been in a few cars since and nothing compares in comfort. The drive is smooth, you feel removed from the road and as passenger I greatly appreciate this. It has all the safety features from the cameras to little lights on the mirrors when a car is in your blind spot. It can assist you in parallel parking, it can drive assist for you down the highway which is amazing when you’re looking at a flat, straight 8 hour highway in western Kansas. It will stop you if you are about to run into something or someone. Seat warmers were life savers and the car in general heats up really quickly. OHHHH, but perhaps my favorite feature was the ability to pre-condition the car while it’s plugged in. Meaning, if my yoga class was at 5pm I could schedule the car to pre-heat while plugged into the house at 4:30pm so my ride to class in the snow was not freezing. Speaking of plugging in, being a hybrid we could charge it at home and at certain charging stations in museums, concert halls, and even grocery stores making the vehicle super green. The iPad sized display was beautiful and easy to use. The entire top of the car is a sunroof if you want. It was all just really awesome. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the journey so much in any other car… probably because I would be sure every eighteen-wheeler we passed (which was A LOT) was about to kill us. The Volvo protected us from the fear, the sounds, the size of things on the road that would typically give me anxiety. The car is also just so smart, it felt like its own little character as part of our trip. 

Below are some of those highlights I mentioned earlier from discovering the American West.