• Sarah Royal

Joburg, PDX, California National Parks Galore, & SoCal Done Right. Oh, and MEXICO.

Yeah, I suppose it’s been an entire month since I last provided my six readers with an update, so we’ve got a bit of catching up to do, as I’m halfway around the world again. Last I left you, I returned from my Kruger Safari and spent a few days exploring Johannesburg proper. I decided to (again) hop on one of those red double-decker buses and use it as my transport around the big, crazy city, where I visited the Apartheid Museum, saw a weird run-down outdoor park where they built 10-foot replicas of famous landmarks in Africa, crossed over the new Nelson Mandela bridge, saw the tallest building in Africa (spoiler alert: it’s not very tall at all), and marveled at the fact that Johannesburg is the world’s largest city not situated on a lake, river, or coastline. The only reason folks are here is because of gold, and I got to see a lot of the “gold dumps” that were the excess minerals post-mining just sitting around town. Once again, I got super stoked on the big-city-ness of it all. Yes, what else is new.

After a full day of wandering around the downtown area and taking the bus here and there, a majorly awesome thunderstorm broke out, and after admiring it for a while I took the train to meet my friend’s cousin and a couple of his buddies for dinner and some drinks. They were super great, and my friend’s cousin actually got me an Uber ride back to the hostel. Yes, Uber is in Joburg, folks. I headed into the thatch bar for another nightcap and had a good long chat with the hostel owner about his past life booking punk shows and his love for the band Q and Not U. He also was quite excited to show me the New Zealand rugby team the “All Blacks” adoption of a traditional war cry dance thing called the “haka” which they do before their games to psych the other team out. I’ve never played rugby or been laden with testosterone before a match, but I feel like the expression of the guy at 0:44 in this video about sums up my response to it. They do love their rugby.  The next day I had some grand plans to spend my second-to-last day in Africa trying to get some shit together, like updating a blog post and my journal and sorting out all of the crap I’d acquired in my travels. I woke up early, sent a few great emails, and at about 11 a.m. I wandered out to the bar to find the hostel owner to pay up for my stay. Instead, I found four people pounding beers and smoking cigarettes and dancing to the techno music that was blasting all around. One of the guys was wearing a wolf mask, and the gal was dressed up as a mouse with painted-on whiskers and ears and all. They immediately all exclaimed, “HEYYYY” and handed me a beer, and proceeded to explain that they come in from various parts of the country every year for a huge rave that takes place at a closed-down waterpark, which just happens to be right down the street. The theme was, of course, “Animal Instincts,” and it took about 30 more seconds before my new best friend the mouse was online saying, “I’LL GET YOU A TICKET OK YOU CAN JUST PAY ME BACK.” I couldn’t stop smiling – I literally had only walked into my backyard. An hour later, white bunny ears were placed on my head and I was in a cab with the rest of them headed to the rave.  Inside, I just spent HOURS wandering around to the various stages with various forms of dance music that many of my friends would appreciate more than me, but I still enjoyed the fuck out of it. Talk about people-watching – this empty waterpark was filled to the brim with people of all ages (though mostly 20-nothings), all filming videos on their phones, all wearing some form of neon colors, and all drunk/high/whatever dancing their asses off and thinking that whatever particular DJ is providing the musical accompaniment of the particular area they are standing in at the moment is a god. There were more than a handful of animal costumes, and more than a handful of girls that attempted to put their hand on my shoulder but really ended up falling into me, saying, “OH MY GOD WHERE DID YOU GET THOSE BUNNY EARS I WANT THEM NOW.” Also of note: every third person was wearing a shirt that either said “NYC” or “BROOKLYN” on it. My face hurt from smiling so much. It was insane.

I watched a ton of different beatboxers, watched drunk people play in the pool and think that it wasn’t quite the best idea, got more excited than I thought I would when I walked past the hip hop stage to get some french fries and they started playing Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” and marveled at the fact that if people actually came at the start and stayed til the end that they’d be there for around 20 hours – with no re-entry allowed. I also remembered that I was at a “rave” about 18 times an hour and was in love with it so.

After many laserbeams and smoke machines and bass beats blowing up around my head after dark, I was ready to call it a day, and bid goodbye to those of my new friends that I could find and headed back to the gas station meeting spot to wait for my cab driver. As I’m leaning against the outside wall drinking a Pepsi and watching the inebriated teens get picked up by their disappointed parents, a dude with a torn T-shirt – and I don’t think in the intentional Abercrombie way – and gold spandex shorts comes up to me, puts his hands on my shoulders, looks into my eyes with his enormous pupils, and says, “Hey. Don’t do drugs. They’re bad for you,” and walks away. I gagged, I laughed so hard. 

The next day, I had a plan to get picked up early to head down to Soweto, a neighboring city technically part of Joburg that was originally made up of many South Western Townships, hence the name “Soweto,” during the mining era and apartheid, where non-whites were sent. Before the best cabbie I had all trip arrived, I took a morning dip in the pool and packed all of my shit to be ready to head straight to the airport after I got back from the tour. The cabbie and I talked about New York, about South Africa, about apartheid and racism, about opportunity and regret, and pretty much every awesome and heavy topic that I’ve rarely ever chatted with a cabbie about. He dropped me off at a bicycle tour with me as the sole tourist (again… no one wants to bike. What’s up with that?) and we rolled off on shitty bikes through an entirely different world from the big city of Joburg. We said hey to neighbors that knew him, got an impromptu tour of a new brewery that had started up and tasted insanely good ginger beer beer, went to a woman’s house that just happened to have 12 snakes as pets and I put a boa constrictor around my neck (obviously), saw Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s old houses and a ton of other historical sites, and climbed up dual graffitied cooling towers and watched a girl bungee jump off of them. The constant references to our future marriage together got slightly stale by the end of our four hours, but all in all I had a total blast with this wacky guy who was in love with his town and certainly knew a ton about it. It wasn’t even a tour, really – it was as if some friend of a friend had said, “Oh, you have four hours? This guy has an extra bike if you want to go with him and see what he does in his usual life for a while." 

The same cabbie and I drove back to Joburg, where he delivered me to the hostel just so I could bid farewell to the hostel owner and pick up my bag to head to the airport. Until I was actually on the plane to Portland from Frankfurt, where my layover was, it didn’t truly hit me that my next stop was the U.S. again. It felt WAY too soon, actually. I was thrilled to see my friends again, of course, but I wondered if I’d still feel like I lived in Portland again. Turns out it was sort of half of that – enough time hadn’t elapsed for me to feel like it was a visit, but it definitely didn’t feel like I still lived there. Of course, it helped that in my 48 hours in Portland I was supremely jet jagged and drunk most of the time. I got picked up by my friend at the airport and, classically, we went straight to a bar where we met my other friend and I drank far too many NW IPAs for having been ‘off’ of them for a while. We then took a good, hard nap on my crashing spot – my friend’s fabulous red couch – before heading to dinner with a bunch of incredible folks. Then three of us went to another bar, and two of us to another, and then I wandered home in the Portland rain and felt insanely lucky to be back, though a bit confused because I kind of thought I was still in Africa and couldn’t really recall where the last day had gone. The next morning, I woke up just to head to the bathroom with every intention of going back to sleep afterwards, but instead I hung out and drank coffee with two of my buddies before they left for work. My one friend gave me a task to help her find a lost key somewhere in a large, ten-drawer cabinet. I put laundry in, queued up Arrested Development on the Netflix, and settled down on my quest. I pulled open the first drawer and found the key before the opening credits ended. Now with my extra free time, and now that it appeared that I truly was not going back to bed, I texted a friend to see if she would meet me for lunch after a meeting she had downtown. She wrote back and said yep, and also that she had strangely seen another friend of ours in the same building downtown for some Rotary event. It dawned on me that it happened to be Tuesday at noon, and that the weekly Rotary meeting I used to run was underway, and that my other friend was being sworn in as a member today. The two folks involved had no idea I was even in the country still, and so I expertly timed a walk right up to their table and delivered one of the better surprises of my lifetime. We immediately met up with original friend for lunch and drinks, and more drinks, and some more drinks, and pretty soon we had to go to dinner, so we gathered more friends up and headed to another favorite haunt. Then it was off with other friends to a bar, and then off to watch my friends pack our car for our road trip starting early the next morning. More and more folks came out of the woodwork to say goodbye to us and bid us farewell as we took off on our road trip to Death Valley to do our 100-mile bicycle ride in support of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and our badass friend who has Type I Diabetes.  And so – we did. The next morning we blasted off to Lassen National Park in northern California with a pile of camping crap on the roof of our SUV, coolers in the trunk, and bicycles on the back. I think as we woke up surrounded by snow and gurgling geyser activity and headed south to Death Valley, I began chipping away at my jet lag and started believing I was actually back home with my friends. And it was fucking beautiful. We rolled into Death Valley at night, blown away by the stars, and found my friend’s parents, and her friend and sister who were also doing the ride with us. We piled our shit into our hotel, ate our amazing free dinner, I found my delivered-by-UPS bicycle and hugged it again, I informed my friend that I had this blog, and we drank beers and ate a lot of salt to prep for our epic ride in two days. 

Death Valley was surprisingly robust and filled with canyons and dunes and lots of colorful scenery, rather than just being a desolate wasteland as I expected. We had a great six-mile or so warm-up ride, where I yet again remembered how much I love cycling, and immediately headed to the fancy pool at this insane resort in the middle of the desert that we deemed Hotel California. One week before, I was in a safari in Africa, and today I was swimming in a pool in the middle of Death Valley. It did not compute. But I went with it anyway.  The next day was the day. We got up before sunrise, of course, slipped on our spandex, and ate our free breakfast as my friend gave us sharpie tattoos for team unity’s sake. Well, and also for the sake of sharpie tattoos in and of themselves. My randomly-assigned rider number was 316, so we had a fuck of a good time referring to Royal 3:16 as a bible verse, as my wrestling name, and as just about anything else. We cranked out a pretty good pace and marveled at the tiny dots of riders ahead of us going around curves miles ahead. We had a bit of a brutal headwind as we approached the six-mile climb at the halfway point, and I definitely felt a bit nauseous as we climbed the hill. But, as I chugged up, like a desert mirage a coach on a bicycle appeared like an apparition to chat with me as encouragement as my friend and I climbed, and after a few minutes of huffing conversation it turns out he knows a family I know from Bayonne, NJ, because that’s the way my life works.

Our awesome support team (of my friend’s parents and our other road tripping friend) provided us with cold water, sips of beer, and ridiculous encouragement at the top before we plunged down the same hill we had just climbed to meet up with our friends at the bottom. We set off as a whole group again, and struggled through the heat and headwinds back to a few more rest stops. At around mile 70 we were informed that if we didn’t keep a speedy pace all the way to the end, we were gonna be pulled off the road for sunset reasons. I went with my friend who wasn’t feeling too hot into a sag wagon to skip ahead to mile 99 – which happened to be outside Hotel California – so we could cruise the last mile into the finish line. We ended up having to pee so bad from all of the gallons of water we had been chugging that we rode our bicycles through the hotel hallways to get to the bathroom in there faster. Then we crossed the finish line.

The rest of our friends cruised through one by one, and were all presented with medals, given freezing cold wet washcloths, presented with ice cold water and beer, and even had their names announced over the loudspeaker. It was snazzy. We awaited our two friends who were completing the full ride and were dead last, and enjoyed ourselves immensely when we sprayed two full cans of silly string in their faces as they crossed. It was epic. My friend that hates beer even drank beer in celebration, it was that kind of awesome. Later that night after some delightful showers and piles and piles of steak, we enjoyed the final banquet where awards were given out and cheesy photos were displayed. Our friend got an honorable mention for the "spirit” award because she was cracking dad jokes with the coaches at the very end of the hundred miles, and when they described her “bio” they got just about everything wrong except her first name. It was hilarious, and I had my first of 40 crying/laughing episodes for the next eight days. 

Packing up the car to venture off to explore Death Valley and other national parks the next afternoon, we all kind of realized we hadn’t eaten anything and that food should be our next priority. Three seconds later, a woman in a van pulls up next to us in the parking lot and says, “Hey, you guys look like you’re on a road trip. I bought a cooler for this event and have some leftover food and drinks in it, too, but I’ve got to go catch a flight now. You want it?” The freaking thing even had nut-free pesto in it. We were in heaven. 

I could go on and on about this road trip and these friends o’ mine, but I’m going to cheat and do a nice bullet-point summary of the events of the next week as I previously did for the San Juan Islands:

  • hammock camping in Death Valley under the insanely bright Milky Way, only to be awakened by dozens and dozens of coyotes howling and yipping in the night

  • exploring and enjoying canyons, dunes, rock formations, mines, ghost towns, castles, salt washes, streams, and incredible sunsets

  • hearing the story of how my friend was stuck at this bar in Death Valley 10 years ago with her brother when their car broke down, laughing about a painting of a naked woman hanging above the bar and postulating on whether she was naked when they painted it or not, only to have that same woman walk into the bar for the first time since the painting had been hung and have her tell them, “A lady never tells.”

  • walking into that same bar and being disappointed that the painting wasn’t still there, only to be on our second margaritas and have a waiter march in and pull a cord to lift a curtain that had been covering the painting the entire time we’d been there: “We only usually take her out starting at happy hour.”

  • Sitting in a hot springs in the middle of a field on our way to Yosemite and having a dude walk up and sit in the hot tub with us who tells us he used to live in a cave in Yosemite for nine years

  • Enjoying the flickers of light on Half Dome rock in Yosemite at night, only to realize that those are actually rock climbers who are slung in their hammocks on the side of the cliff at night

  • sitting in our own hammocks much more safely on the side of a mountain watching the 'reverse’ sunset reflecting on the rocks, and spotting a bonafide surprise marriage proposal happen a few yards away from us

  • driving to Kings Canyon National Park and finally satisfying our five-day-long craving for mozzarella sticks, while my other friend reconnects with her cousin that she hadn’t seen in a decade

  • having our minds blown by the magnitude of the Giant Sequoias, and even seeing the oldest tree on the planet by cover of darkness on our own with only our headlamps

  • eating a night-time picnic dinner post epic sunset at Moro Rock, where we had to watch carefully for bears, and then later that evening accidentally ending up in civilization again and having to stay at a Holiday Inn that had two pools which were both closed

  • recouping from that unfortunate turn of events and blasting the GirlTalk/Pitbull/Sugarhill Gang refrain of “WE AT THE HO-TEL MO-TEL HOLIDAY INN” as we pulled out of the parking lot

  • saying the final nail-in-the-coffin goodbye to my Portland friends in an Amtrak parking lot in Stockton, CA as Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” plays from the car as we hug, and having a dude on a bicycle roll up and go, “Wow, is she goin’ to COLLEGE?!”

I suddenly found myself on an Amtrak train to San Francisco to last-minute stay with two great friends of mine who had recently moved there. I met their adorable kiddo, we went to dinner, we briefed each other on the happenings of our lives over the last year or so, we frolicked in parks and played in playgrounds, we explored the aquarium, and just had an absolutely stellar few days. I even managed to find out that my friend in Santa Monica who I would be staying with at the end of the week was actually in town for business, so I had an amazing dinner with her. San Fran was never part of the original plan for this road trip, but it was oh so wondrous that it ended up being so. I decided that, in order to get down to LA, why not go big or go home? … so I rented a car and set out down Highway 1 to Big Sur. I watched the sunset over the ocean with a martini in hand, camped in my car, woke up early the next day to do a waterfall hike and admire the endless incredible cliffs and ocean overlooks, and ended up at Santa Barbara by late afternoon reminiscing about the end of my cross-country bicycle trip. I then had the inkling that, since I had the car one more day, I should probably jet over to Joshua Tree National Park and playfully rub it in my road trip friends’ faces that I had eventually made it there when we hadn’t had time for it earlier in the week. And so I did.

I watched the stars for an hour at night, camped in the car again, climbed on a bunch of enormous rocks, saw a ton of lizards, and was thrilled at my own little car commercial as I drove speedily around the crazy road curves throughout the park. I even made it to nearby Pioneertown at the recommendation of a friend, which was a town created solely to film Westerns, and marveled at the literary breadth of the bathroom graffiti philosophers in the tavern there.

With Pioneertown behind me, I stopped off for a quick lunch in Palm Springs and laughed wondering why that place really exists, and then headed back West to Orange, CA to my friends’ house. We had a few beers and wandered around the downtown Halloween close-the-streets-and-have-kids-trick-or-treat-at-local-businesses affair feeling old because we couldn’t identify at least a third of the costumes the kids were wearing. We had a nice dinner and a lazy morning the next day, grabbing coffee and so forth, and then I jet off to Santa Monica to spend Halloween with aforementioned friend and her fiance before my friend took a safari trip to Africa herself. The night was supposed to last until about 9:00 p.m. but somewhat predictably ended around 4:00 a.m. wearing viking helmets and wandering in out of the strange SoCal rain to eat California’s version of New York slices.

After our much-calmer-by-comparison hangover recovery the next day, I backtracked on Amtrak to Orange early in the morning just in time to meet the previous pair of friends and other Portland visiting folk at Disneyland, to see my friend in action as a stage manager. All day long we went back and forth between the two parks and did the usual Disney things: riding rides, eating too much expensive food, and pretending we were five years old. It was quite the experience to go on the punniest ride in the world – The Jungle Cruise – and see the animatronic versions of the real animals I had seen two weeks before in Africa.

I also witnessed my second-ever live marriage proposal under the Disneyland castle post fireworks starring the two visiting friends from Portland, which was a trip. After our 12-ish hour day, we drank some wine outside at home and soon I was off to my next SoCal stop, North Hollywood. My friend was very gracious and let me hang at his house and watch Netflix by day while he did actual work, and then eat dinner and drink beers (and even make a short film!) with me by night. It was super relaxing to have that free time before I kicked off the next crazy traveling adventure by showing up at my friend’s house in San Diego a day earlier than she expected me, given that I had told her I’d be there Saturday the 9th, which is a date that didn’t exist. I joined their college football viewing party, ate some tacos, and got a great sleep before venturing out the next morning via the trolley to walk across the border to Tijuana. I chatted with a former long-haul trucker and Vietnam Vet on the trolley, and his favorite life refrain was, “Take it one day at a time, and stop fucking worrying so damn much.” After a very easy trek through a big metal gate, I was already in Mexico on the way to the airport trying to practice my Spanish with a cab driver who was trying to practice his English. A family of San Diegans ahead of me in the baggage check line started chit-chatting with me, and once we found out we were both heading to Loreto, told me to head down to this particular bar where they knew the owner and would be probably playing music over the next few days. Our puddle-jumper got us there in an hour and a half, and I checked into my hotel, which was way nicer and swankier than I realized. I counted three lizards in my room before taking a walk around to explore the little town I’d be in for two more days before departing on my Baja sailing adventure. I watched the sunset on the beach and enjoyed the fact that everyone on the street smiled and said hola to me, and then spotted a sign that said “sushi” on this bar and decided to head in for dinner. As soon as I walked in, a gringo dude sitting at the bar greeted me, and it turns out he was the owner. After chatting with him briefly about how he was originally from San Diego, I said, “Wait a minute – do you have friends that are coming in today to see you, for a family reunion?” He said, “Yeah, they’re upstairs.” The family gave me a great cheer when I walked upstairs, and invited me to join their table as we swapped travel stories. Once they left a while later, I went back downstairs to finish watching the NFL game that was on – because if I’m already in a gringo bar in Mexico, why not? – and ended up chatting with an old guy at the bar sitting with a book of essays he had written. We got to talking about writing – “I don’t write for anyone but me. If someone likes it, that’s a bonus” – as he chewed antacid tablets as he drank beer because beer “didn’t agree with him.” Somehow we drift onwards in conversation about American road trips, and he tells me this story that he was hitchhiking to Colorado in Illinois in the late 60s and was picked up by this guy who touched his knee awkwardly and invited him to come back to his place for dinner. He was super uncomfortable and made up some story about having to get to Colorado to take care of a sick aunt, and left the guy’s car at the next town. Years later he was in a bar and saw the same guy on TV, convicted of multiple murders of teenage boys. It was John Wayne Gacy. I was loving this old dude’s stories, and pretty soon the bar was empty save for these two younger guys that walked in late. We all got to talking, too, and found out the two of them were down in Loreto as a support team for the Baja 1000, a super famous off-road car race. One of the guys, a former professional driver who had done the Baja numerous times, was now a professional stunt driver in his spare time and had been Rick Moranis’ stunt driver in The Flintstones movie from the 90s. Amazing. They mention that they’re heading up to the same Mission that I wanted to check out tomorrow, the oldest Mission in California, and also riding on some of the track that the Baja takes place on, and invited me to go with. Meet at 8:00 a.m. at the coffee shop tomorrow? Hell yes.

At the coffee shop, the two guys discussed how the previous night one of them wondered aloud whether or not I would show up, and stunt double dude said, in a supreme vote of confidence for me, “100% definite. She’s gonna show.” After some coffee, I climbed into the back of their “prerunner” and literally strapped on the full racecar driver shoulder harness and all for our off-roading adventure.

This was seriously the coolest and most ridiculous thing, and these two dudes were so super nice and just so stoked to share the thing they loved the most in the world with someone new. (The one guy had to tell me just how famous the other guy, the stunt driver, was, since he was so amazingly modest himself – not only had he won this Baja thing multiple times, his dad was ridiculously famous in the sport… like royalty. His dad was so famous, in fact, that when I googled him later on, I realized that he was the creator/namesake of an arcade game I played CONSTANTLY as a kid, and that you probably did, too: Ivan 'Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off Road, with the red, yelow, and blue steering wheels racing each other around a dirt track. YES.)We went off-road through streams, over rocks, through sand and silt, and around 20-foot-tall cactuses on potholed dirt roads for the entire day. We even rode along a dirt road on the edge of a cliff to get to a spectacular view of the ocean and to a small village on the water to have lunch, spotting a Corona box delivery truck somehow miraculously making it down on the same road. And, as you can clearly see, we even wore headsets when in the damn thing to talk to each other and crack jokes as the clanking of the shocks and roar of the engine over the dirt was too loud to even hear yourself think over.

I could not stop laughing maniacally in the back seat and thinking especially of my motorcycle-riding adrenaline-loving friend back in Portland and how she probably will murder me when she hears this story. We wound back through the gorgeous back roads of Baja back to Loreto, ate some dinner, and wandered back to our bar from the night before, where – like fucking Cheers – eight people say, “Hey, Sarah!” when I walk in. ALL RIGHTY. You’re still reading this whole thing? Lordy, good for you. I am now finally caught up to the present day, which I spent sleeping in like a champ, sorting some NOLS stuff for my course, eating guacamole outside watching street scenes, and writing this blog post. I’m now, of course, off to grab another beer or three with my family reunion and wacky writing grandpa one more time, before departing early tomorrow morning to LEARN HOW TO SAIL A SAILBOAT. See you cats in December, when (new development) my international travels are still not yet over. Text me on my travel phone, leave me a comment, send me an email, love me forever. 

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