All Roads Lead West, Part I

by Jake Hanner, Alabama Crew

 

Ten years ago, if you were to mention the word “overland” in a conversation you would probably be met with a confused, blank stare. In recent years; thanks to the power of social media and the increased development of products, overlanding has become much more mainstream. By definition, overlanding is car camping where the journey is the primary destination. People have done it for years, it just never had a proper trendy name like “overlanding.”

I have always been a dedicated Toyota fanatic, and when I bought my most recent 4runner, I dove headfirst into the overlanding scene. I spent thousands on suspension, wheels and tires, roof rack and a rooftop tent. I was excited to get out and explore without lugging a camper around for once. What I didn’t want to do was to be like the majority of the community and never use my gear. I’m a function over fashion type of guy, and never understood strapping a high lift jack to your hood and never using it. I wanted to explore and camp as much as possible with the gear I had and without breaking the bank.

The idea for this trip started in January of 2017. My dad was a recent survivor of prostate cancer and as always was fully involved in work. I wanted to do a long trip in 2017 and the idea to bring my dad along hadn’t really crossed my mind. I write trail guides for trailsoffroad.com, and when talk began of a meetup in Moab, I figured there wasn’t a better excuse to pack up and go. One day at my parents’ house, I half-jokingly mentioned that my dad should tag along to Moab with me, surprisingly he said yes. Considering he had never been too far out of the southeast and never away from my mom for more than 2-3 nights, this came as a pleasant surprise. So, for the next six months, we roughly planned our journey. We would leave with no definite destinations, routes or reservations, just how we like it. All we knew was–all roads led west.

Day One – We departed our home of Talladega, Alabama around 4:00pm on a Friday afternoon. With a 26-hour drive ahead, we thought to leave a day early would put us ahead for the remainder of the trip. We started up I22 through Alabama, Mississippi and into Tennessee where our route would turn directly west onto I40.  The drive was uneventful but enjoyable passing through the small country towns that line the undeveloped section of the new I22 corridor. Surprisingly we checked off one of many firsts for my dad; eating at Waffle House. I’m still not sure how he has lived 50 years on this earth without eating at Waffle House. We passed through a very sketchy part of Memphis and turned towards our destination for the night, Little Rock. We arrived in Little Rock around 10:00 pm, and stayed in the first of a few hotels throughout the trip.

Day Two – We left Little Rock around 6:00 am, after a short stop for food and fuel, we pointed the 4runner west on I40 with a goal of driving “until the trees got shorter”. We passed through the Ozarks and crossed into Oklahoma around 12pm and continued into Texas. We passed through the massive wind farms and through an intense microburst thunderstorm before arriving in Amarillo. After a quick stop for new windshield wipers, we turned southwest for New Mexico. The drive into New Mexico began with one of the most beautiful sunsets we had ever seen. With a goal of reaching Albuquerque, we continued through the desert watching an approaching line of thunderstorms in the distance. About an hour east of Albuquerque we drove into an intense lightning storm and were forced to stop momentarily due to large hail. After the short delay, we continued over mountains into Albuquerque and to our home for the night, another Hilton hotel. Yeah, I know, we were really roughing it.

Day Three – As usual, we woke early on day three and watched the sunrise as we left our downtown 4-star camping spot. We backtracked up the interstate a few miles to see the view that we missed in the dark the night before and were not disappointed. The rugged mountains surrounding Albuquerque are definitely impressive. With a goal of reaching our first campsite by afternoon, we set out on our 8-hour drive to the Grand Canyon.

We passed through the rocky desert of the native American tribe lands and crossed into Arizona. After a quick stop for a photo standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona (my Dad is a huge Eagles fan) we continued west.

Another quick stop at the meteor impact crater along I40 proved to be a slight disappointment. While the crater itself is interesting, the whole operation is a little too “touristy” for our tastes, looking back I’m not sure it’s worth the $25 entrance fee. Once reaching Flagstaff we left the interstate behind and turned north on US 180, passing just beside the base of Humphreys Peak, the tallest peak in Arizona. The area was beautiful and we marveled at what appeared to be homesteaders living off-grid in the pine forests just north of Flagstaff.

After a quick stop for some very expensive fuel in Valle, we headed north for Grand Canyon National Park. We both discussed the Grand Canyon on the drive up, both expected to be slightly disappointed in the canyon itself. As my dad would say “I was really just expecting a big hole in the ground.” As we entered the park and studied the map, we randomly turned onto what was the rim road. As soon as the trees gave way to the canyon beyond we both reacted with a “holy shit.” We immediately found a parking spot and raced to the canyon edge to get a better view. No matter how many pictures you see of the Grand Canyon, you can’t prepare yourself or properly describe just how amazing it truly is, as my dad would say that day, “God has definitely been here.” We spent a few hours marveling at the mile-deep wonder of the world and equally as much time watching vast numbers of brave and idiotic tourists climb, sit and stand on the vertical ledges.

A park ranger told us that on average 12 people fall per year. I don’t see how it isn’t 1,200. After a few hours and 1000 pictures later we headed north along the rim to our planned campsite for the night, desert view campground. After arriving, the campground was full, so we switched to Plan B: head north to Page and Lake Powell. With sunset quickly approaching we headed north on Highways 64 and 89. The drive was amazing, offering sunset views across the high desert and pine forests surrounding the canyon. The Little Colorado River slot canyon along 64 was just as remarkable as the Grand Canyon. We continued north and arrived in Page just before sunset, after a quick stop to marvel at the Glen Canyon dam and canyon, we arrived at our campsite on the shores of Lake Powell. This was our first time setting up camp, and we would be doing it in the dark.

After a few frustrating moments and a few choice words, we set up and called it a night. We sat under the stars for a while around the heater absolutely awestruck at the stars and Milky Way above us, it was a great way to end an amazing day on the road. Our sleeping arrangement was for me to sleep in the 4runner on a sleeping pad and my dad would take the rooftop tent. After a few adjustments on the rain fly, we both got a decent night’s rest.