“You’re literally driving a house down the highway,” Erin declared as I nervously navigated a spunky campervan named Suerta outside the city limits of Phoenix, Arizona. It was my first time captaining a vehicle this large; the van’s berth was going to take a bit of getting used to.
I hadn’t seen my best friend in over two years and here we were reuniting via campervan adventure through Arizona. We had met as scrawny seventh-graders occupying the last two chairs in band class, playing a terrible rendition of the flute. The foundation of our friendship was built on a shared love for Pizza Hut, crafting, ridiculous adventures, and overall quirky shenanigans.
Meeting in Arizona for a campervan venture seemed fitting. Why not reunite in tight quarters without a bathroom or a real shower for a few days and fill ourselves with the kind of food that broke college students live on?
We found our fearless campervan through RV rental platform Outdoorsy, and Suerta’s personality couldn’t have matched ours more perfectly. Plus, her name meant “lucky” and we were going to need all the luck we could get.
The goal? Make up for lost time with some epic new memories (and not crash the van, of course).
I’ve got your back
Our first stop was the Grand Canyon, and it ended up being a race against time to make it before nightfall. My plan for finding a free, dispersed campsite along one of the forest roads in the Kaibab National Forest seemed like a solid one. However, doing so in the dark posed a challenge. By the time Suerta was tucked cozily into a campsite, it was pitch black and Erin and I both had to pee.
Suerta was great—fantastic even. But she had no bathroom. With no idea of our surroundings, and visions of hungry mountain lions waiting to pounce on us, the prospect of a bathroom break was somewhat terrifying. Using a combination of headlamps and flashlights, we devised a system where one of us stood watch scanning for critters, while the other went to the bathroom.
We awoke at the campsite just as we had arrived—in the dark. A front row seat for sunrise over the Grand Canyon left us in awe at the start of our first full day. We reminisced over coffee and scrambled eggs, saddled up to the edge of Arizona’s natural icon. As much as we didn’t want to leave, Suerta was getting antsy.
A view for the books
We were northward bound toward Marble Canyon. The patterned walls of Vermillion Cliffs National Monument called and we answered. We stretched our legs on the Cathedral Wash trail and got a taste of the otherworldly landscape before heading to camp.
Our campsite was a set of coordinates saved on Google Maps, reachable by a road that required Suerta to be somewhat agile, and for me to not get any of her tires popped. I was (mostly) confident in our abilities. She was top heavy and the uneven terrain tipping us hard to the left had me prepping for a roll-over situation. Thankfully, we were fine. Erin cheered me on as I white-knuckled the one sandy stretch, somehow managing to go fast enough to not get stuck, but slow enough to avoid damage from large potholes and rocks. I was sweating profusely by the time we arrived at a campsite that was unlike any other I’d seen.
Our spot was perched at the edge of a deep canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs highlighted by the late afternoon sun just to the west. I stood near the edge and peered down, shocked at the vibrance of the creek that flowed below. Twenty minutes later this would be our happy hour setup; two foldable chairs and a cooler of beer.
The epic view wasn’t the only thing to celebrate. Erin’s birthday had been two days prior, so a campervan-style fête was in order. We ate hotdogs and store-bought cake al fresco as the sun set, Suerta decked out in a “Happy Birthday” sign and strung fairy lights. I haven’t thrown many (any) birthday parties out of a van, but I think this one turned out pretty well.
Sunrise proved to be a stunner, as expected. I slid the van door open where my camera and I were witness to the rocky landscape ablaze with morning light; Arizonan artwork at its finest. It was hard not to linger at this campsite too, but we still had miles and memories to make.
Surprise party in the sky
It’s almost impossible to get off the beaten path in Sedona—almost. It took a slow descent from the higher elevations of the Flagstaff area to reach Sedona. Suerta was not a fan of the windy, downhill switchbacks, and neither was I. Alas, we made it to the over-crowded tourist mecca where we proceeded to drive straight through without stopping until we reached wide open spaces.
Another dispersed camping gem on forest lands delivered on the scenic vista front, gifting incredible red rock views. In the darkness, it became obvious why Sedona is known as a stargazing destination. The combination of zero light pollution and clear skies created a breathtaking display of stars above us. What we didn’t realize was that Sedona is a double threat, with a real treat in store for us the following morning.
A sunrise surprise in the form of hot air balloons welcomed us bright and early. Arizona must’ve known it was Erin’s last day and thrown in an extra dash of magic. It was true—I’d be dropping her at the airport later that afternoon before completing the last night of the trip on my own. But for now we sipped coffee from cactus mugs as the balloons danced in the Sedona sunbeams.
Solo in saguaro land
I was sitting in the cell phone lot near the airport alone. Four days had passed in a flash of sunrises, ramen noodles, and laughter. Erin was heading home and I’d have to experience the saguaros solo. I mustered up the energy to make the two hour drive, beckoned by a forest of giant cacti just outside of Tucson.
Perched next to a soaring saguaro, I sized up the campsite. Cacti of all kinds dotted the desert landscape and in the distance, a mountain offered a bonus backdrop for the impending sunset. The scenery was so classic Arizona that I had to pinch myself. The sky fired up a wildly beautiful dusk show, with vivid oranges and deep reds silhouetting archaic cacti. As far as I was concerned, this singular sunset made the solo mission a success.
With no one to play travel battleship or cards against, I turned in early for one last sunrise wake-up. The door rolled open to the desert just rousing from sleep. Sunlight spliced through small clouds that had arrived overnight to the soundtrack of unknown desert creatures; my ignorance was a welcome safety blanket.
Upon returning our now beloved campervan, I had one final task. The owner had encouraged us to sign somewhere on the interior, so part of our adventure would live on in Suerta. He knew his audience; this was right up our alley.
How do you summarize a road trip reunion adventure with your oldest friend, more than two years in the making? What handful of words properly captures all the reminiscing, laughing, exploring, and eating a year’s worth of sodium in just four days?
“1,068 miles of memories.”