Something I realized this past summer while I was abroad in Europe was that people take the natural and man-made wonders nearest to them for granted. I flew across the world to see some (very cool) things, but there was beauty in my own backyard that was begging for my attention. A day’s drive from my hometown would put me into some of the most visited national parks, and before the year was over, I wanted to see them. The day after Christmas, my sister, Sierra, and I left for a seven-day whirlwind road trip of Death Valley, Grand Canyon, and Joshua Tree National Parks. We woke up before the sun and said our goodbyes. I actually remembered everything!… Except for my insurance card and my national parks pass I had bought specifically for the trip… (So close.)

December 26th, 2018 would be the first day and also the longest day of driving. We arrived at Wildrose campground in Death Valley roughly nine hours after departure that morning. Fortunately, the drive was gorgeous and having prepared a road trip playlist the night before, our ears were occupied. During our trip, we did not use the “maps” application on our phones at all. Sierra used a real roadmap. This was unsettling for me as I rely heavily upon the big satellite in the sky that tells me where to go —ironic for a government skeptic like myself. I did okay, for the most part, only starting to pull out my phone every once and a while when Sierra started to seem unsure (and putting it away when I realized I did not have service.)

The landscape was ever-changing; we drove through snow-capped mountains to frostbitten plains to a desert dominated by cacti until we finally reached the open, dusty, dirt roads of Death Valley National Park. Unsure of whether this road was the one to take us to Wildrose Campground, we cautiously followed it for miles without seeing a single soul. Finally, we passed someone who told us the road did, in fact, go all the way through despite the “road closure” signs that were posted. Wildrose Campground was indeed at the end of the 30-minute internal freakout that Sierra and I were having. There was an emphatic exhale of relief upon seeing the campground. We set up camp with the last hour of daylight peering over the mountains.

While Sierra and I were waiting on the water to boil for our mac n cheese, we watched two boys around the ages of 11 and 9 climb a mountain across from us. At first, it seemed innocent exploring, but when we looked back, we saw they were unnervingly high up. Sierra expressed her concern to me, and even I was a bit rattled by their endeavor. We thought about calling to them and wondered if their parents knew where they were. Just as Sierra was about to say something, the youngest called across the canyon “MOOOM! LOOK AT ME!”

A woman came out of the RV next to us and just about fainted. She called to her husband in a thick Italian accent “Oh my God! THEY’RE SO HIGH UP!” He looked up at them “NO! THAT IS VERY STUPID JUDGEMENT!”

“Very stupid,” he kept muttering under his breath in between calling out directions about how to approach their descent.

The two brothers finally arrived safely to the ground after gathering an audience, and Sierra and I began dinner in the cold desert night. I was wearing two pairs of pants and I lost count of how many top layers I was wearing. I was already freezing, and it was only day one. Our coldest day, however, would be in the Grand Canyon. The predicted temperature? Single digits. Something I’d never experienced. As I slid into my sleeping bag in the back of the SUV, I began to question if I would survive the trip and started dreaming up my escape to the coast.

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