Friday, September 7, 2012

How I Wander: Saving Money

     I realize as I have finished the entries on my time in the American Southwest, I have yet to touch on this certain objective that I made when I began this Blog.  I suppose it might be sufficient to put up photos and descriptions but I wanted to showcase the fact that anyone could go on a road trip.  

     Generally, the biggest factor isn’t time; it’s money.  Where do people get the money to travel?  It seems like such a luxurious expense, especially with the degraded economy we’re living in.

     I have had quite a few friends ask where I get the money for my trips.  It doesn’t bother me;  they are curious and I don’t blame them.  I ask my friends who get to travel the world the same thing.  I’m not being nosey; I genuinely want to know because I would love to travel the world someday, myself.  

     Some people are very open about where they get money to travel.  From the most extreme year-long vagabonding to a family weekend getaway, everyone has their own system:  I sold my house and put all my stuff in storage.  I downsized to a smaller apartment and lowered my cost of living throughout the year.  I put 100 dollars in the bank every month into a savings account and when I have enough, I take off.  I use my tax returns every year.  

     These are all valid ways to get out and on the road, but none of them would personally work for me.  I don’t have a house to sell.  I already live in a small place.  I don’t have extra money to stash away.  And quite frankly, I’m too impatient to wait a whole year until I get my tax returns.  I believe I use the most practical system of saving money, one that every person/family could use for a few months if they so desired.  

     It feels a little crass to be writing about money and giving financial tips.  It’s really not my cup of tea.  But the reason I want to talk about it is because almost everyone I’ve talked to has said that they’ve always wanted to do the exact same thing:  Have a great American road trip.  Or several.  If I share my own methods, perhaps it’ll make it easier for someone to get on the road and after all, that’s the very reason I started this Blog in the first place.

     This might surprise you, but chances are you already have the money to travel.  You’re just spending it on other things.  Things that you don’t really need.  

     In my very first entry I wrote:  “You just have to want it bad enough.”  I understand that this statement sounds annoyingly simple, but it’s true.

     Perhaps this isn’t even an issue for some.  Some people are able to mysteriously pack up and be gone for weeks, hop on planes across the country and the globe, stay in beautiful hotels and eat in restaurants three times a day while they’re out and about.  I am not one of those people.  I won’t tell the blogging world what I make in a year but let’s suffice to say that it isn’t much.  I am a college graduate but like so many others, my paychecks don’t reflect it.    

     In this day and age an in our American economy, it seems as though everyone is on a budget and no matter who you are or what your income is, it’s still hard to find room to travel.  Essentially the way to do it all comes down to the same idea.


     It’s not a pretty word, but if it’s one that you can eventually see yourself getting used to, then it’s going to be your means of getting out and onto the road.  It’s a concept that’s hard to grasp at first but it’s really not as bad as it sounds.  Especially not when you think about what you’re getting in return:  experience and memories that will last a lifetime.

     In the long run, it could actually make you a better person in terms of health, happiness, and general well-being.  Don’t think of it so much as sacrificing, but simplifying.

     Everyone has a vice of some kind.  Everyone.  Actually, most people have several.  It can be anything: cigarettes, alcohol, cable television, a gas guzzling vehicle, an expensive phone, a shopping habit, eating in restaurants several times a week, candy, fast food, soda, clubs, bars, movies, electronics, brand-new-everything, and the list goes on infinitely.  My point is that everyone spends money on something that could be turned into something else instead.  I have quite a few.

     I quit smoking three years ago but before I did, I was probably spending 30-40 bucks a week on cigarettes.  That’s 120 dollars a month.  

     I love cooking, and I also love going to restaurants.  Okay, I just love food.  GOOD food.  Organic produce and the expensive kind of mushrooms, 12 dollar canisters of tea and 30 threads of saffron for 15 dollars, that sort of thing.  In the months leading up to my last trip, I literally cut my grocery budget in half.  I went from spending 100 dollars a week on food to 50.  Instead of going out to eat once a week I stayed home and cooked instead, and that saved me another 30.  That’s somewhere around 250 dollars a month, saved.

     I love to go out.  Downtown Des Moines is a fun place to be on the weekends and once you add up covers to get into the different bars, drinks, and food, I was easily spending 80 dollars each and every time I’d go down there.  By staying home with a cheap bottle of champagne and a funny movie, I saved another 100 a month.  

     I don’t have cable TV but I did have Netflix, which was fun while it lasted but now that I cancelled my subscription, I haven’t missed it nearly as much as I thought I would.  I’m actually glad it’s gone because I was probably watching too much TV.  I get my movies from the library for free, or spend a couple dollars a month if I want a new release from the Redbox.  Another 20 saved.

     Shopping.  It’s a big weakness, though I wish it wasn’t.  Something about shopping that makes you feel new again; it’s an addictive feeling.  I know I’m not the only one that has gone into Target for one item, planning on only spending 15 dollars and by the time I’m leaving I’ve spent half my pay-check.  I had to stop doing that.  I wouldn’t let myself buy anything unless I absolutely felt the need to have it, and only if it was on sale.  And I’m talking a good sale, 70% off or more.  In a way the challenge made shopping even more fun, sort of like a treasure hunt.  Think of all the little things you buy here and there that you don’t really need over the course of a month.  They really add up.  By cutting down on my shopping habit I easily saved 100 dollars a month.

     I love books and can go a bit crazy at Barnes and Noble.  I find myself in there at least three times a week and I’m usually buying something.  I limited myself to only the materials I needed during my trip and just sat and read the books I couldn’t afford while drinking coffee, or I’d start reading the books I found that I liked and then I’d just check them out at the library.  This saved me 50 bucks a month.  

     Once I add up all those savings it comes to about 500 dollars a month, and that does not include the cigarettes since those have been gone from my life for such a long time, now.  500 dollars a month and in 4 months that adds up to around 2 grand.  A very reasonable amount of money for a fantastic adventure.  In fact, that’s more than enough money for a fun trip.  It just depends how long you want to be gone and what kind of traveller you are.  One of the best trips Brett and I ever took was a month long excursion out to the Southwest and California, and our budget was 1,500.  If you’re wondering how I budget the trips I take, I’ll write about that in a different blog.  This is all about the savings.  

     Maybe you’re wondering what the heck I did for four months since it appears as though everything I did to entertain myself disappeared when I began this sacrificing rampage.  I guess in a way, it’s true.  And there were some aspects of it that really bummed me out sometimes.  But when you’re thinking about the future, it’s easy to get over all the things that you think you’re missing out on.  

     For four months this is what I did:  I went to bookstores and sat researching photography techniques.  I went around taking pictures of anything I found interesting, just trying to improve my skills.  I went to the Library and started checking out book after book and began free reading the way I haven’t done since I was in High School.  I started working out.  I took long, long walks on as many new trails that I could find in Des Moines.  I spent a lot of time outside, mostly in parks.  On rainy days I went to coffee shops and explored antique stores.  I surprised myself in the kitchen with how creative I could be when faced with half the ingredients that I’m used to.  I took advantage of every cheap thing there is to do in Des Moines and when you’re on a tight budget, you soon find out exactly what those are.  I did a ton of research on all the places that I was going to visit, mapping out my trip to perfection, getting more and more exited each day.  I treated myself just often enough so that I didn’t feel deprived but not so often that it cut into my budget.

     So what seems like a bum situation where you think you might be bored and depressed could possibly turn out to make you more happy than you’ve been in a long time.  When you think about what you have to lose, it’s at least worth a try.

     And life doesn't always work out perfectly, especially when you’re trying your hardest.  Things are bound to come up and get in your way.  If that happens, just extend the deadline for your trip and get back on track when you're able.  My Southwest trip was especially difficult to save for.  It was hard to hold onto the money this time around for different reasons and circumstances; there was even a while where I wasn’t sure if it would happen, but in the end everything worked out.

     For some people saving up the money will be easier than the way I do it, for others it may be harder.  I’m not trying to over-simplify or over-complicate anything.  This is just how I make it happen.  Making a budget is easy; following it is the hard part.  The trick is to replace the things you’re taking away with other ideas that make you feel good and just don’t cost as much (or any) money. 

     “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness...  Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.”  -Henry David Thoreau 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Grand Canyon, a Day on the South Rim

     When I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time two thoughts came into my awestruck mind.  One:  there is definitely a god.  Two:  there is no way this was made in one day.

     It is impossible to describe Grand Canyon National Park.  You just have to see it to believe it.  It is 277 miles long, 18 miles across, and 1 mile deep.  Some of the oldest exposed rocks on earth are the “basement” rocks within the Inner Gorge at the bottom of the canyon.  They date back to 1.84 billion years. 

     You have to feel it to believe it.  The tug of 5 thousand feet of gravity magnetizing you from the canyon walls below.  I feel it even now, as I sit over 13 hundred miles away.  Perhaps that is why I’ve found myself there 3 times.  I see the Grand Canyon in my dreams.  I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true.  I’m obsessed with beauty; I search for it wherever I go, and I find it hard to compare anything else to a sunset or a sunrise over the Grand Canyon. 

     We were here in mid-May and the weather was perfect.  It was in the low 80’s during the day and high 50’s at night.  The sky was seamless as the Summer monsoon season had yet to move in, (although in monsoon season the sky is gorgeous).  We spent 3 days on the South Rim.  We took a few popular trails and hit all the famous overlooks, but spent most of our time off the beaten path, snaking through ancient Juniper Pines, finding our way to remote overlooks at the very edge.  

     By sunset on the second night, we found a perfect outcropping, a triangle of smooth rock jutting out due North, 2 miles from the road and nearly invisible to every other person in the park.  We sat on that rock for hours- writing, photographing, drawing, dancing, singing, watching the sunset, and feeling like two of the most blessed people in the world.  Those photos are gone, after What Happened in Kingman.  But the memories never will be.  

         May is a great time to see the Grand Canyon, and also to see the entire American Southwest.  The tourists and temperatures have yet to reach their peak, and both can be hazardous to a desert experience.  Not that I’m saying summer isn’t a perfectly lovely time to go, because it is.  The sky is filled with more clouds than you’ve ever seen in your life, storms fall in all directions as you can see for miles, and rainbows are abundant.  But this time around, it was nice to see the wildflowers while at the same time escaping extreme heat and crowds.

     People tend to only visit one rim at a time, but I say if you have more than four days to spend, see both.  Though the drive between them is about 270 miles, it’s worth it.  

     The North Rim is 1 thousand feet higher in elevation than the South, and for this reason it is only accessible May through October as it gets a considerable amount of snow.  Unlike the South Rim, there is no major highway running right past it and therefore does not attract as many crowds.  The Colorado River is only viewable from the Cape Royal viewpoint and the panoramas aren’t as vast as the Southern’s famous wide angles, but it is still equal in beauty and perhaps surpasses the South in mystery.  The drives out to certain viewpoints are longer and the trees are much taller.  It is home to an array of indigenous creatures, which means that they live nowhere else on the planet.

     The drive to the North Rim is better, in my opinion, because the roads are emptier and filled with eerily beautiful rock formations, rocks that are remnants of mountains that stood tall millions of years ago.  It also holds the only place you will ever be able to cross the canyon in your car, over Navajo Bridge, a gorgeous span of iron that is 400 meters across.  As you drive South into the park you pass vast fields of free ranging buffalo. 

     This is the Desert View Watchtower from afar just after sunrise.

     This is an incredibly hazy 55 mm view of the Colorado, miles below.

      How long should you stay at the Grand Canyon?  Stay as long as you possibly can!  You won’t run out of things to do.  I could spend days on either rim, alone.  I have yet to take the unpaved backroads to Toroweap Overlook, which is a 3 thousand foot vertical drop, dramatic even in Grand Canyon’s terms.  I have also yet to hike down to Phantom Ranch.  A hike down and back up the canyon will take even the most fit hiker a minimum of 3 days.  If you have even more time, a Journey to the Grand Canyon Oasis to see Havasu and Mooney Falls, which is not part of the National Park, but is a part of the Grand Canyon owned by the Havasupai Native Americans, is an experience that you'll remember for the rest of your life.  
     But even if you’re just passing through on your way to Flagstaff, or if you’re making a day trip from Vegas, stay at least long enough to catch a sunset. 

     To be a tree on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

     There are several lodges on the South Rim and one of the North.  They all fill up months in advance, so make your reservations as soon as possible.  The same goes for the campgrounds.  Mather Campground on the South Rim has nice amenities and I would recommend staying there, but reserve your site  because the chances of getting lucky and just happening upon an open spot during the high season is rare.

     Every time I go to the Canyon, they have built something else.  On the South Rim, there is an enormous market that sells everything one could ever hope for while staying in the middle of nowhere.  There are a couple restaurants and even a gas station.  And if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, there are more amenities in Tusayan, a village just 5 miles South of the park.  Be prepared to pay top dollar for gas and 4 bucks for a small bag of ice.

     It is incredibly difficult photograph the Grand Canyon.  Well, at least it was for me.  I am no professional, that is for sure, but even those with years of experience find difficulty with this park.  Part of it is the feeling that comes along with standing on the edge of the rim and the other part is its sheer size.  The only real tips that I could give are to find something in the foreground to show depth of field, learn how to make a panorama (something I have yet to do!) and to avoid the infamous blue haze, avoid taking the majority of your photos during the middle of the day.

     I am fortunate that I at least have a few photographs left of the Grand Canyon.  The ones throughout this blog are of my last sunrise and sunset in the park.  Perhaps it is greedy of me to want more, but I can’t help but dream about going back to the Southwest and retracing my steps through the first 8 days of my Grand Canyon Loop, retrieving the pictures that were stolen. 

     This is a photo of me on my last night at the park.  I’m watching the sunset.  The next morning I’ll be getting up at 4 am to leave for Supai.  I have no idea what is in store for me yet.  I am oblivious to the unfortunate events of Kingman, AZ.  This picture makes me want to go back and pick up from the beginning, somehow make it to this moment again. 

     I wonder what the Grand Canyon is like in late October, early November.  Would it be too cold to camp?  And Arches, Canyonlands, de Chelly, Monument Valley?  There might be snow.  I’ve never seen snow in the desert.  I’d like to, though.

     These are the last few moments of sun.  The light streams horizontally burning colorful refractions into my lens.  

     Until at last there are only shadows.