It was February, 2021, just shy of a year since we’d been asked to quarantine for COVID-19. The monotony of not traveling was getting to me and I was itching for an adventure. When a friend told me he was going to Lake Tahoe to ski over Valentine’s Day weekend, I figured it’d be the perfect opportunity to join him and kick off a solo road trip afterwards. For four days, I explored the Tahoe region and skied. It was gorgeous out there: Beautiful white snow set against cloudless blue skies. Fresh powdery slopes. Vibrant blue water. I got to see some of Emerald Bay State Park, drink some good craft beer, and hike a bit. On February 15, I flew from Reno to Las Vegas to start my road trip. I had until February 23 to pack in as much as I could.
I needed to realistically figure out what I wanted to see in the time frame allotted. I looked at a map of the region and focused on where different national parks were located in relation to Las Vegas. I knew for sure I wanted to go to Zion National Park in Utah. After timing out a few different routes, the states I settled on were Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and California—and maybe Colorado? I was stretching it, but I was prepared to go with the flow.
Initially, I thought it would be cool to rent a Jeep camper with a rooftop tent, but there was no availability. It was a popular time of year to roadtrip the region, especially since more people were turning to domestic outdoor travel. I was bummed. As much as I love campervanning, there was a certain aesthetic that I was going for on this trip. I had convinced myself that I wanted a Jeep. I turned to an app that I had never used before: Turo, which is like an Airbnb for cars.
I successfully rented the most amazing Jeep Wrangler Unlimited for the duration of my trip. It didn’t have a rooftop tent, but I planned to combine regular tent camping with the occasional hotel or motel stay. I’m convinced it worked out better than what I originally wanted. Life is funny like that.
After getting to Las Vegas and picking up the car, I hit the road the next afternoon, driving toward Utah without knowing where I was stopping or camping that night. I tried to book two nights at one of the campgrounds in Zion, but only one night was available. I had to figure something else out for the first night.
I wanted an all-American outdoor adventure. I wanted to challenge myself—and face my fear of tent camping alone in the wilderness. It seemed like the universe was giving me my moment. As I drove, I looked up “wild camping in Utah” and another peer-to-peer app I had never used before popped up: Hipcamp. Apparently, I was trying all the new things. I found a campsite that looked promising not too far outside of Zion. It was only about $30 per night and it had great reviews, so I booked it. I put the coordinates in my GPS, saved the off-road directions, and started driving.
The sun was setting by the time I arrived at my campsite, located in Virgin, Utah. The drive in was astonishing. The golden sun slowly crept over the red rock mountains down into the canyons. It was pure theater. The Jeep hugged the edge of steep drop-offs as I watched the service bars on my phone quickly disappear. I’d only told one friend the general location of where I’d be. The transition from being part of society to being solo in the backcountry happened fast. I was so focused on the fact that I was losing daylight that I didn’t have time to really realize I was completely alone—and miles off the road.
I set up my shelter, built a fire, cooked a couple of hot dogs, and prepared the tent for bedtime. I probably went in around 10 p.m. Everything was cool and easy before that. When I went inside the tent, though, it instantly became a different world. I couldn’t see outside because of my rainfly and it felt like anything could be out there. The wind was hitting my tent vigorously, playing tricks with my mind.
On top of all the sounds I was hearing, I was shivering. The temperature had dropped considerably, and it started to snow. I didn’t mentally prepare for sleeping outside in 20-degree weather. I started questioning whether I should sleep in the car. I lay there for a while, scared. I was telling myself there was nothing out there, and if there was it wasn’t going to bother me. “Protect me. Keep me safe,” I repeated to the universe. I was not sleeping in the car. I did this for a reason. I wanted to challenge myself. I just needed to make my situation better.
First, I needed to put on more clothes. My ski pants were a smart option, but they were in the car. I worked up the courage to open my tent and as soon as I unlocked the car so the lights would turn on, I saw nothing in front of me except a sky full of stars and a half crescent moon illuminating the desert. I was relieved, and felt a little silly. I added some layers and instantly got warmer. One problem solved.
I couldn’t pass up the scenery, so I started taking pictures of the stars. I didn’t feel cold anymore. I was outside shooting for at least 30 minutes before I decided to turn on the car and warm up one last time before retreating to the tent. But first I had to pee. As I began pulling my pants down, I heard howling sounds. I had just spent the last 30 minutes outside thinking I was good, telling myself not to stress. And as soon as I felt completely fine, I heard what I believed to be wolves—a lot of them. I got back in the car quickly without peeing. I couldn’t tell how far away they were, but I was still intent on getting back in the tent. And I did.
The next morning I woke up cold, but I woke up! After the night I had, full of mixed feelings, strong winds, and the sound of what I registered as wolves (they were actually howling coyotes, but I don’t know how much less scary that’s supposed to be), I was surprised I slept at all. I opened the tent and saw my surroundings in true daylight for the first time. It was vast. I had breathtaking views of Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park, and Smith Mesa.
“I did it,” I said to myself. Although the thought of sleeping another night in that cold troubled me for a moment, a smile crept over my face. I’d cross that bridge when I got there. I’d officially conquered a fear. I made breakfast mountain style, with bacon, eggs, and toast. The harsh winds made it a slow process. I couldn’t feel my fingers. It was snowing one minute, calm and tranquil the next—but it was beautiful.
Forever changed, I bid adieu to my first campsite and made my way into Zion National Park, where I stayed one night at the Watchman Campground. The next day, I hiked Angel’s Landing, a strenuous 5-mile, out-and-back trail with 1,600 feet of elevation gain. It’s probably the craziest hike I’ve ever done. Not the hardest, but definitely the most adventurous. The trail was very narrow at times with sheer drop-offs all the way to the top. It got my heart pumping.
After my hike, I got back on the road and drove toward Bryce Canyon National Park, which was only about 1.5 hours away. The drive was beautiful. I passed through perfect tunnel formations and Dixie National Forest. I reached Bryce just as the sun was setting and went into the park to get an idea of where I wanted to go in the morning. I caught the most glorious sunset show from Sunset Point. “Everyone needs to see this,” I thought to myself.
The weather was frigid. Originally, I had planned to camp in Bryce Canyon too, but it was a 7-degree night. After two nights of shivering in the tent in Zion, that was a hard pass. I booked a hotel right outside of the park that night. I ordered a pepperoni pizza with jalapeños, took a hot shower, and enjoyed the bed.
The next day, I drove around the park from one overlook to another and used my spikes to hike a portion of the Navajo Loop Trail. The rock formations and hoodoos were really a sight to see. Before sunset, I began my journey to Page, Arizona, and booked a hotel on the way there. The guy at the front desk recommended a tasty Mexican restaurant and I went to sleep full and happy.
On day 10 of the trip, I got up to see Horseshoe Bend, which is just as incredible as the pictures make it look, if not more. I only spent a couple of hours there and had a decision to make. Should I stay in Utah, go up north to Moab and maybe check out the Salt Flats, or should I drive to California and visit Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks? Colorado was out of the picture at this point. I chose the latter and got back on the road, backtracking all the way through Las Vegas to Pahrump, Nevada, where I stayed at the K7 Bed & Breakfast. That was the longest drive yet at almost 4 hours.
The next morning, I made my way into Death Valley—a park that really blew my mind. It was just so—big. Larger than the entire state of Connecticut. Between the scale of the mountains, the different arid landscapes, and the dunes, I felt like I was on another planet.
I met another solo traveler. We ended up sharing a campsite after repeatedly running into each other on an unpaved road to Titus Canyon. He was in a swanky campervan that he converted with the help of his father. That night we combined my grilled salmon and his curry veggies into an amazing campfire meal and made s’mores. I love having brief but meaningful connections on the road. You’re never really alone, even when you’re solo.
The next morning, I set off for a grueling off-road drive to the Racetrack. To be able to set foot in a place that most people will never go was worth it. The end of my trip was getting closer. I wasn’t ready to go. I didn’t know if I would be able to fit in Joshua Tree so I decided to extend my vacation by a couple of days. I updated my arrangements with the car and then reached out to an old high school basketball teammate in Los Angeles and stayed with her for the night.
When I finally got to Joshua Tree, it seemed everyone was in a frenzy. It was not the best park to “just wing it” in. The first-come, first-served sites went fast. But somehow I lucked out and got the best little site in Belle Campground, right in between some giant boulders and Joshua trees. Well, luck and a whole lot of initiative.
There were two RVs on either side of me that were occupied by two older couples. They both invited me over for food and tea. We shared experiences and laughter. I went on some hikes and was completely floored by yet another foreign landscape. I had never been in a desert like this before. The Joshua trees that I saw in Death Valley didn’t compare. These were much bigger. And really, the boulders and rock formations stole the show.
My first night in the tent was great. It was warm, like it was in Death Valley. But the last night was treacherous, with non-stop winds all night long. It wasn’t the peaceful conclusion I was hoping for, but I wouldn’t trade or change any part of it.
The final day of my trip, day 15, I drove back to Las Vegas, dropped off the car, and got on a flight back home to Atlanta.
The U.S. is beautiful. You don’t have to go across the world to see unbelievable landscapes. This trip connected me with the land, with other nomads, and, most importantly, it reconnected me with myself. I feel most alive when I am close to nature, and I was all the way in it. I conquered some fears, explored new lands, and tent-camped solo for five nights. Mission accomplished.