Over the last two weeks, my friend Joe and I did a road trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Along the way we saw a lot of America: stunning mountains, sprawling oilfields, dirty roadside gas stations, historic jazz clubs. Here I invite you to take a look at some of my favorite photos and moments from the adventure. America is a huge place, overflowing with land, crises, and opportunities, ripe with swift and unexpected changes from road to road and town to town. Enjoy the journey.
The Appalachians are as forested as they come.
- Nashville is a strange city. You descend out of the Appalachian mountains into the Tennessee Valley, flatter, but just as lush and forested. And then, with no warning, several pointy-eared skyscrapers appear, and at their base a town that resembles a small historical railroad crossing. Nashville is a party town for rock and country music.
- Flat forest and flatter fields. There were intense thunderstorms, with rain as hard and heavy as hail all the way from Nashville to the Gulf of Mexico.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Ruby-red sunset over a working neighborhood in New Orleans.
French Street, New Orleans
One of the most famous jazz bars in New Orleans, Fritzel’s, represents the curious transatlantic history of jazz. Despite New Orleans being one of the birthplaces of jazz, Fritzel’s is styled after a German pub. Jazz hit Europe in a big way after the Second World War, and is more persistently popular on the other side of the Atlantic in comparison with America. Fritzel’s was packed the brim with tourists when I went. A musical tradition had crossed the ocean and come all the way home. Somehow, it didn’t lose the bluesy bayou soul along the way.
Jackson Square, New Orleans
Jean Latiffe National Historic Preserve, Louisiana
Somewhere, East Texas
Once you get into Texas, the land gets big. Despite the tree line you can still see field after field following the horizon into a hazy blur.
There’s an oasis in the middle of Austin, a cool and clear spring river that runs through a park that centers the city. Austin is clean and modern, and the prehistoric spring at its center serves as a strange complement.
Somewhere, West Texas
Somewhere in western Texas, the prickly pear cactus begins to thrive. Besides unidentifiable scraggly brush and short trees, it was the single most prominent plant all the way from Austin to Santa Fe. Even in Arizona and California we saw some tall and monstrous prickly pear, blackened and purpled at the base, paw-like green fans knotted together until they reached six feet. You can eat the berries if you cut them open with a knife (watch out for spines) and you can easily find prickly pear juice in this part of the country. Unfortunately, the berries weren’t ripe when we foraged a few.
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
As you travel from Austin into New Mexico, the trees get shorter and shorter, and the scrub sparser and sparser as scorching desert climates take over. But even the desert has its treasured secrets. This natural cave leads 750 feet underground, past a thousand swarming bats and into the darkness. It goes to the unforgettable Carlsbad Caverns, full of monumental and expressive stalactites and stalagmites. These reaching, howling, recoiling, flexing mineral beings take on every imaginable form: slim porcupine spines, curved katanas, embracing lovers, Mayan temples, pungent mushrooms gusting spores. Some are over fifty feet tall. In the dark underground the air is cool. A good place for a nap.
Lincoln Forest, New Mexico
It’s amazing what a little bit of elevation can do to a landscape. In twenty minutes we rose four thousand feet out of baking, shrubby desert into a full-blown evergreen forest. Just out of sight there is a field of fifty elk grazing. Within an hour we were back on scorched sands.
White Sands, New Mexico
White Sands is an alien landscape. Long ago, a lakebed dried up. Strong winds blasting across the mountains blew its silted and dusty bottom into a hundred square miles of pure white sand dunes. At noon the white lizards come out for the dose of Southwest sunshine.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
A geodesic dome north of Santa Fe. In the center of the dome, sound and energy seems to pool around you, pressing down and pushing out. Northern New Mexico is a region of mountains and art galleries, encouraging meditation for the mind and yoga for the body. The whole region feels a relatively strong connection to Native American practices, history, and beliefs. Native art, architecture, and contemporary politics are visible on murals, the main streets of towns, and in the daily papers.
Española, New Mexico
Cliffs, hills, and grassy desert landscape. Hummingbirds, snakes, jackrabbits.
We climbed a mountain for this view. First by we followed narrow trails up through jagged brush, and then climbed up chunks of crumbling stone. The tricolored bluffs of Sedona extend in diverse formations in every direction.
Arcosanti is an eco-commune founded on principles of sustainable urban design. The fundamental idea? Urban sprawl is destructive to the environment and human psychology alike. Arcosanti feels like a different universe entirely on the inside with its 70s space-age concrete aesthetic and mediterranean gardens. On a Sunday, young people relax in the garden, talking or sketching, and the sounds of a piano trickle out from music rooms hidden beneath the patio.
Sonoran Desert, Arizona
The desert is fucking hot. 110 degrees at noon gave me a headache in 120 seconds. And yet, somehow, the Saguaro Cactus pokes up its bald head, claiming the desert as its own without a second thought.
Joshua Tree, California
Welcome to Joshua Tree. Being here feels like being underwater, in a surreal landscape with plants and rocks of bizarre forms. The humanoid rocks gives this part of the park a sense of urban density and unexpected community. Chipmunks, rabbits, spiny lizards, tarantulas. Outside the stony city, a diverse and baffling mix of dancing Joshua Trees and low-lying colorful scrub abounds. Bighorn sheep roam the rubble mountains beyond.
Downtown, Los Angeles
Los Angeles is an unusual city. It has no real sense of gravity, no real downtown center of great importance to the people who live there. Yet even though the streets below are empty, at this rooftop bar an unexpected skyline emerges. As my friend said to me, “This does not feel like LA.”
Pacific Palisades, California
I made it to the Pacific. The shadows of massive mountains cap the view to the north and east, and a strong wind comes in with the waves. Compared to the Atlantic, the Pacific is a different beast. Swimming in it you can tell it is bigger, more powerful. More force stirs in its endless depths, delivering surf-worthy waves for the sunny California Coast. I biked down from Pacific Palisades to Venice and had tacos and a fruit smoothie.