I’m trying a new thing; I’m trying to travel with no expectations. This seems like a simple concept, but with a never-ending social media stream filled with pristine pics of croissants in Paris bakeries (always being held by a perfectly manicured hand against the whitest wall), of lush, green bamboo forests in Japan without a soul in them, and image after image of the exact same angle of the Flatiron building or vantage point from Barcelona’s Park Güell, it seems impossible to step foot in a spot without already holding an image in your mind of what you’ll encounter. Heck, as a recent homeowner I’ve finally ventured into the deep, dark world of Pinterest trying to grab some decorating inspiration, and don’t even get me started on the travel boards you’ll stumble upon — who rides camels in Kate Spade dresses? I mean, c’mon.
It seems to me that in recent times travel has turned less into a “discover for yourself” venture, and more of a “gotta catch em’ all” trek to snap and post the world’s most recognizable places. We no longer judge for ourselves what we find monumental or awe-inspiring; we’re told before our plane even lands down which spots have the most value. Find Big Ben, find Ayers Rock or Old Faithful and by god make sure you take photographic proof of it, because if a selfie can’t be submitted as evidence, were you ever really there?
Keeping this Instagram-driven, image-cataloging, bucketlist-check-off’ing travel method in mind, for Carl and I’s latest coast to coast road trip I decided to throw in a surprises along the way. We had a general map of the route we’d be taking, so I did a quick search of national parks and monuments, and any that were nearby were added to the itinerary.
There was no image search involved, we’d go in cold and discover a place without any outside pressure. There would be no “Well, when you’re at Craters of the Moon you must go here” statements from friends and no “This tour in Wind Cave is the best one”. Granted, we were met with a few skeptical questions like “You’re going out of your way for the Petrified National Forest…why?”, but in the end some of the places we were most excited to see were places that we’d never seen pictures of.
We were on the road for a month. Early one July morning we left Seattle, our home for the past four years, and zipped into Montana, down through Idaho, Utah and Arizona before popping back north into Colorado then up across North Dakota, finally settling at our new home in Pittsburgh. In the end we stopped at 11 National Parks, 5 cities and a handful of National Monuments and roadside attractions. My favorite stop in the end? Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. One of the places I had absolutely no expectations for.
Capitol Reef is nestled between Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon National Parks. We had been looking at red rocks in Utah for days before arriving here, and I expected more red rock. More sand. More sun. More desert. Certainly there were red rocks to behold, but there were also forests that came alive with foxes and coyotes in the evening, meadows full of turkeys and badgers, and pick-your-own apple orchards. Dear grazed not more than ten feet away from our tent, and next to the campground was a two room cabin that baked pies fresh each morning from the fruit grown in the park. It was a paradise.
Days before our arrival in Capitol Reef we had hit up Arches and gazed upon dozens of well, arches, but Hickman Bridge in Capitol Reef provided the most glorious arch hike of our trip. The rocks absolutely burned in the early morning, creating a golden glow against an ever more brightening sky, we passed only about a dozen others on the three mile trail (compared to the hundred you’ll pass on a 1/2 mile hike in Arches) and stopped for pie breaks, freshly baked from the Gifford House hours before. Warm apple pie + outstanding scenery — honestly, what more could you ask for?
Bonus points to the orchard we passed on the way out too — We picked half a dozen apples standing next to half a dozen turkeys. They weaved around nearby trees as we searched for the best heirloom apples. The heirlooms made a perfect snack, which we munched on during Sedona hikes and over campfires in Bryce.
Would I recommend this method of go-in-blind travel? Absolutely. I wouldn’t go so far as to say spend all of your vacation money on a ticket to a location that sounds neat, lest you’ll end up in Poughkeepsie for a week, but if you’re taking a day trip or are looking for a place to stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco, why not be surprised? You may not find the next wonder of the world, but you will be taken somewhere you’ve never been before. And when we can go anywhere in the world just by taking a quick Google image search, seeing something for the first time has become completely novel.