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Road Trip USA: Southern Hospitality

North America

Photos in collaboration with Quin Schrock


Road trip across the United States

The Perfect Road Trip Across The United States

We had finally finished building out the van and it was time for the Maiden Voyage! I flew down to San Diego to meet Quin and begin our cross-country voyage. A few things may have gone wrong along the way, but in the end I wouldn’t have changed a thing. We drove from California, across to Florida, up into Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. Along the way I experienced 8 states for the first time, saw unbelievable natural beauty, and met people that I’ll remember forever. It was the trip of a lifetime, and these are just some of the highlights!

Arizona

I watched helplessly as the van defiantly spewed a rainbow of dust into the night air. The back wheels spun deeper into the soft desert sand, but refused to move forward. We were officially stuck. Filthy and tired I plopped down next to the offending wheel. My mind flashed to the scene in Happy Gilmore, when Adam Sandler can’t make a putt. Except now I’m Happy Gilmore, and the van is the golf ball. I’m at face level with the wheel and I turn to it: 

 “It’s time to move, [van]. [puts van in drive; van doesn’t move] Son of a bitch van! Why didn’t you move?! That’s what you do! Are you too good to move?! Answer me!”

I shrug the image off. It’s only been about an hour – too soon for a Happy style tantrum. Feeling around in the dark, I find the only instrument available beyond a hand – my spoon – and start digging around the rear wheel-well again. Note to self: get a shovel and MAXTRAX for the van.

I woke up from a shallow sleep, sweaty and disoriented. A blinding sliver of light was hitting me square in the face where the curtains had separated. Sitting up, I notice that everything is listing badly to the right. Then I remember – I’m in a van. And that van is stuck in a hole… in the middle of the desert…with no cell service. 


Wandering around the rocks at Cibecue Falls.

Wandering around the rocks at Cibecue Falls.

My spoon shoveling efforts had proven fruitless,  and we dejectedly went to bed, hoping that our situation would look less dire in the daylight. But now, outside in the already intense morning sun, it was clear that we needed help. Luckily help didn’t take to long to find us. We flagged down two women in a large SUV, and they graciously agreed to follow us to the van—despite acknowledging that, like us, they had no idea what they were doing. 

After destroying two hammock straps and a number of towels, we were free! It was an ominous start to our road trip across the southern United States, and I was ready to cut our losses and clear out of Arizona. But we decided to finish what we’d started and hike out to Cibecue Falls – we had already payed for the permits after all. When we arrived, we were greeted by an improbable oasis of bright green water. We were alone for a while, with nothing but the crashing water to keep us company. I was glad we had stayed.

Note: While sunbathing is welcome. There is technically no swimming allowed at Cibecue Falls.

New Mexico


Views of the dunes at While Sand National Park from the back of the van.

Views of the dunes at While Sand National Park from the back of the van.

Nothing can prepare you for White Sands National Park. The drive is monotonous and desolate – a vast expanse of brown landscape stretching across the horizon in every direction. Beautiful in the stark way that many desert landscapes are. But definitely not white. 

There are 10 backcountry camping spots at White Sands – and you can’t reserve them. We arrived on the Saturday of a three day weekend. One of those few times a year when entrance to federal parks is free. I flipped through coffee table books in the visiter center while Quin waited to talk with a ranger. I doubted that we would be able to secure one of the few available backcountry permits – it was already late afternoon when we pulled into the parking lot. Back home in Washington, you’d literally have to sleep outside ranger stations to even have a chance of getting backcountry permits for most popular trails. But as I walked up to the counter to meet Quin, I overheard the ranger asking him to choose between multiple available spots. 

I couldn’t believe it! How could we be this lucky? Perhaps this is redemption for our previously failed night of spoon excavation? Then my heart sank – something must be wrong. Perhaps all the photographs I’d seen were photoshopped. Or we weren’t where I thought we were. There was no other explanation. Where was everyone? 


Our designated camp spot at White Sand National Park. You are NOT allowed to sleep on the dunes.

Our designated camp spot at White Sand National Park. You are NOT allowed to sleep on the dunes.

Driving into the park it looked like a continuum of the roads we had taken to get there. And then gradually, without warning, the pavement slowly faded under a layer of fine white sand until it completely disappeared, and just like that, we found ourselves in another world. Great wave-like dunes of glistening gypsum sand rolled out in every direction. The light reflecting off the sugar white sand was blinding and almost too beautiful to look at.  

I felt the cool sand seep up between my toes as it engulfed my feet. The sun was setting and the sky popped with color against the white horizon. I sat down to enjoy the show. When the last streak of orange had faded, darkness rolled in heavy with stars. The park was closed now and the sky felt a little too close. A crushing desire to internalize the moment washed over me. A need to capture it. To remember every detail. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Something about the immensity of nature in places like this had always elicited an overwhelming mixture of loneliness and belonging. A hazy, yet unmistakable sense that I am part of something much larger. If only for a fleeting moment. 

Texas


Jacob’s Well, Texas

Jacob’s Well, Texas

On a map Texas was the half way point on our cross-country road trip. But in my mind, it was just the beginning. 

I lived in Texas once. I was four years old, and remember little from my brief stint as  a resident of the Lone Star State.  And yet, the few memories I did have were fond ones – flowers, fire flies, frogs, and epic thunderstorms. Perhaps because of this experience I expected to feel somehow more at home in Texas. As if a small part of me—that I hadn’t even realized was missing—would be magically returned upon crossing the border. But I felt nothing. 

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Texas. Austin was cool – but more or less like Portland, with  cowboy boots. And the Hill Country was lovely. Jacob’s Well and Hamilton Pool Nature Reserve were exactly as advertised – visually interesting, although crowded swimming holes. And the BBQ was delicious. Texas was, in short, everything it promised to be. But nothing more. 

I’ll be back I’m sure. After all, it’s a huge state, and I only saw a very small, very well trodden corner of it. Next time I’ll visit Big Ben, and put aside more time to get off the beaten trail. Next time, I’ll find the Texas that stole a little peace of my heart when I was four years old. 

Florida


Sunset at Navarre Beach, Florida.

Sunset at Navarre Beach, Florida.

My first morning in Navarre I beat the sun to the beach. I stood waist deep in the warm water, a half mile of empty white sand on either side of me, and watched as the sun slid up over the horizon. Just as I was about to grab my camera from the beach I saw them. A pair of dolphins slowly dancing through the shallows right in front of me. I was consumed in the magic of a moment. That was three years ago. On my very first solo photography assignment. 

It was surreal standing here again. On the same beach, in the same small town, thousands of miles from home. The last time I was here I had been working for Santa Rosa County. The goal was to bring attention to the small county as a rising adventure travel destination. I had been hesitant to take the job. I’d never heard of Santa Rosa, or any place in it. No one had. And in the end maybe that’s why I accepted. Few locations have surprised me the way the panhandle had. I felt a connection—a strange nostalgia—that was almost disconcerting in its persistence. I remember picturing a different life for myself. Past and future. And yet, I never expected to be back. 


Soaking in the sun at Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Soaking in the sun at Pensacola Beach, Florida.


Paddle boarding at Ginnie Springs in Florida.

Paddle boarding at Ginnie Springs in Florida.

When I realized that the road trip would put me right back in the place that had stirred up so many unexpected emotions, I was excited and anxious. Would the connection still be there? Or had it all just been a product of my circumstances: The adrenaline rush of my first solo job. The thrill of experiencing a new place. The heat. 

We drove through the night, passing through Louisiana and Mississippi in the dark. Empty spots on the map that I would have to come back and fill in some other time. I watched the sun rise over the floating bridges in Mobile, Alabama from the van window. A couple hours later we pulled into an empty parking lot adjacent from Pensacola Beach. I stayed in the van to change while Quin climbed over the sand dunes to see what it was all about. When he finally returned it was with a signature flurry of energy that I knew all to well by this point. He grabbed his camera excitement in his eyes. I hadn’t made it up all those years ago. He had felt it too. There was something special about this place.

Want More?! Check Out: Sand, Sun, & Fun In The “Real Florida”

Georgia


Sunrise on the coast of Georgia.

Sunrise on the coast of Georgia.

We were in Georgia just long enough for me to decide I’d like to come back someday. Sunrise at the coast. An afternoon spent at the famous Wormsloe Plantation tree tunnel. And a farewell ice-cream in Savannah. 


Wormsloe Plantation tree tunnel in Georgia.

Wormsloe Plantation tree tunnel in Georgia.

On our way up to Tennessee we spent the night just off the side of a dirt road outside a town whose sole amenity appeared to be a gas station. The world was quiet, and the only light was the slow pulsating flicker of a few fireflies. In the morning we topped off before heading north. I wanted to grab a post card in every state we passed through – a mission that had proven much more difficult than expected. Not seeing any, I asked the lady at the register. She smiled kindly, “Sweety, does this seem like the type of place people wanna write home about?” I thanked her and left. But in my head I was thinking. . . Maybe. 

Tennessee


Cooling down in the water at Cummins Falls State Park in Tennessee.

Cooling down in the water at Cummins Falls State Park in Tennessee.

The entire road trip started with one simple idea: There are beautiful places everywhere, if you’re open to them. You don’t have to travel half way around the world, or spend an obscene amount of money. You can find those memory making, life affirming, and photo worthy locations, right in your backyard – no matter where your backyard happens to be. 

Nonetheless, when we started driving east from San Diego I wasn’t sure exactly what we’d find. What if we were wrong? What if we drove all that way across the country only to realize we should have never left California. Back home when I told people that my next destination was a road trip through “The South,” I was met with blank stares, amusement, and more than a couple “but WHYs?” And that was before I explained that it wasn’t for any sort of tourism gig, brand deal, or paid collaboration – it was just “for fun.” 

Perhaps it was the ridicule back home, or a lifetime of west coast bias, but when I was greeted by this line on the Tennessee Tourism Boards website I was dubious: 

“The great outdoors. The kind that look like a postcard and feel like a playground. Where every adventure, and every turn, dare you to come back for more.”

But I shouldn’t have been skeptical, because the tourism board new what it was talking about. We were only in Tennessee for a couple days. Like many of the states before it, we had arrived in the dark, only to wake up to a new world in the morning. This time it was a world full of waterfalls. Waterfalls that rival any I’d visited in the Pacific Northwest. One after another—Cummins, Burgess, and Greeter Falls—huge, cascading, and beautiful. They looked like a postcard and felt like a playground. And I definitely wanted more. So Tennesse, like Georgia before it, and pretty much every state before that, went onto my “Need To Return,” list.

Alabama


Water Fall in Alabama

We met Cole and his dad, Dusty, at the end of an unassuming country road. Cole had flown in from Colorado the day before to visit his family in Alabama, and the father-son duo had agreed to help us rappel into one of the area’s many caverns.

The forest trail was hot and sticky. Cole was in front, educating Quin on some of the areas more gruesome wildlife: Poison Ivy, Ticks, and something called Chiggers – apparently they’re the worst. My whole body itched just from eavesdropping on their conversation. I recalled the scrub itch I’d gotten from some distant bug cousin that had once called me dinner in the Australian rainforest. It took weeks for the small intensely itchy bumps to finally disappear. I had no desire to repeat that experience in any way. Absorbed in the thought of microscopic insects injecting digestive enzymes into my skin so that their larva could feed on my flesh, I almost didn’t notice that the rest of the group had come to an abrupt stop. 

We had arrived. Standing at the edge of the cavern is like standing at the portal to another world. Any thought of carnivorous insects or killer plants had vanished. I was an Avatar. And this was Pandora. The forest was no longer hot and sticky. Streaming waterfalls disappeared 16 stories cascading straight into the pit, leaving only mist and cool air behind. The result was a visually arresting combination of rainbows and light rays bursting forth from the darkness into the verdant forest. 

Once you got over the initial 162 foot exposure, rappelling down was relatively easy. But getting back up was a marathon. There was a point very early on, maybe 15 feet off the ground when I felt panic creeping in. I wasn’t going to make it. Quin and Cole shouted up words of encouragement and I started again. Dusty was waiting for me at the top. He was covered in sweat, smiling, and standing next to an elaborate pulley system that he had rigged to help pull me out. I’d never felt so grateful for southern hospitality. 


Neversink Preserve, Alabama


Neversink Preserve, Alabama

We talked about work, politics, and faith, while the boys worked their way out of the pit. Three topics I’d been avoiding the entire road trip. And if we are being completely honest, three topics that I’d been avoiding most my life. Here, deep in the red zone, I was particularly hesitant. But Dusty made it easy. He told me about his family, his wife, his church, a few good books, and Alabama. And when he was finished I wished we had more time. I wished I’d had the opportunity to hear more of these new friends’ stories. To learn from them. To understand that our differences weren’t all that important – or even all that great. That at our core we are all just searching for those connections that make us feel whole. And in the end, that was the greatest lesson I could have asked to learn from a trip to discover beauty in my own backyard. 

Note: Many of the caves, caverns, and pits in Alabama are preserved by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. They maintain and oversee their use. Please visit their site for more information, permits, and ways you can help protect these unique ecosystems. 

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  1. K.P. says:

    The last pic looks like the cover of the perfect summer read in a hammock! Can’t wait till you sell posters and jess wandering merch!
    I really liked the quote, "to understand that our differences weren’t all that important – or even all that great. That at our core we are all just searching for those connections that make us feel whole." Super dope! Great work, Jess!
    – Your IG follower, K.P.

    • Hi K.P.! So great to see you on here. Thanks so much for making the journey from Instagram to the blog! I’m really glad you enjoyed the read. It was a really special trip. Seriously appreciate all your support. Keeps me motivated!

  2. Your blog provides so much more insight into your Instagram gallery. I too have lived in California and Washington, but grew up and have now returned to The South. Your Florida blog inspires me to revisit all that surrounds me and this particular blog, encourages to exlpore accross state lines. Thank you for sharing your experiencs!

    • Hi Anthony! I’m so glad that you’ve enjoyed the last couple blog posts. I have a lot of fun with Instagram, but I’ve always felt like I could share more of myself through the blog. So in that way it always means a lot to me when people take the time to leave me comments on here. Thanks!!

  3. Elizabeth B. says:

    What an amazing post and experience that you have outlined for us! It’s a beautiful and nuanced approach that beauty is where you find it. I live in a Hawaii and am always dreaming of somewhere else. This is a great and grounding reminder to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us. Mahalo!

    • Hi Elizabeth! Thanks so much for the comment. I think we all have a little bit of the classic "the grass is greener on the other side" syndrome. And the ironic part is, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. For what it’s worth, of all the places I’ve been, Hawaii will always be one of my favorites. There really is some sort of magic there. Happy exploring!

  4. Patrycja Putko says:

    wow! no words, how you inspiring me! I always knew that i want to travel… and yesterday i made my website and i want to begin a journey! Your blog looks amazing, could say which one template do you use? Is it squarespace? keep what you do because its amazing! hugs!

  5. Kim says:

    America the Beautiful… Three words that I know I take for granted. Thank you for sharing your southern adventure. It looked amazing and your words, well they were beyond descriptive. I have only been to one or two of your featured locations, and agree that we all should try to discover beautiful scenery our country has to offer.

    • Hi Kim! I’m so glad that you enjoyed this blog. It was a very special trip for me, and really opened my eyes to many of my own biases and preconceptions about that part of the country. It was truly a beautiful area to travel through, and I hope you get the opportunity to visit some of these areas someday!

  6. May Robertson says:

    I love following your blog and IG. Like many out there, my husband and I love to travel. With 3 kids, it’s more challenging but definitely doable. We do mostly road trips (we are also from the Seattle area) and this blog is definitely inspiring me to plan a trip to the south! And honestly, everywhere else you’ve been :). Keep on inspiring!

    • That’s awesome to hear May! I’m honestly so inspired by families that still make an effort to travel and get out on the occasional adventure. I know my own parents definitely made an effort to travel with my bother and I when we were little, and in hind site I don’t know how they did it! But I’m so glad they did! I think it really helped shape the person I am today. 🙂

  7. Allie says:

    Hi! I’m new here…do you have a post where you talk about what kind of van you have? I am looking to begin more camping adventures and would love to know if you recommend what you have.

    • Hi Allie! And Welcome! The van I have been traveling around is called a Sprinter Van. They are actually quite expensive to purchase – especially if you kit them out to be camper vans. So I probably wouldn’t suggest going in that direction if you’re just starting to camp more. That being said, I really love it, and wish it was mine! 🙂

  8. Don Leow says:

    Lol I have to confess I only read the name of each states and dive straight to the beautiful pictures. Alright, got to go look at those pictures again.

  9. Zoe Smith says:

    Also appreciate the helpful information you gave in the beginning on how to get to Georgia and Baltimore and where to stay. It would be great to read about adventures in Savannah or Atlanta. Thanks!

  10. kombizz says:

    What an amazing collection of images of your travel. Wish my pocket money allow me to see these places one day very soon.

  11. Marina says:

    Hi Jess! I think I’ve read every blog post and can’t get enough. I want more pictures and details! Your writing transports me to these places and I have such a case of wanderlust… I live in NC and am discovering all the beautiful places the south has to offer.

    • Jess Dales says:

      That is so awesome Marina! I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to read through my blog. You’re support definitely means a lot! My brother just moved to NC, and I’m excited to do more exploring there over the next few years! 🙂

  12. Nico says:

    Hi Jess – tried to look thru FAQ and blog posts to find this, so apologies in advance if this is already posted… can you share some info about your van? What make/model and did you do anything special to upfit for travels?

  13. Yog says:

    great blog. found this while looking for 72 hours lake Tahoe article and then got hooked on to all the rest !
    one suggestion though – it would be tremendously helpful if you could tag location or provide some description on the locations in your photographs. It would help those of us who are trying to plan their itineraries based on your articles. By the way, you have an amazing photographer!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much! I’m really glad you enjoyed it, and I’ll pass the compliment on to Quin (my photographer) as well. I also really appreciate the feedback! I’m always looking for ways to make the blog more useful. I hope you have a wonderful trip to Lake Tahoe if you’re headed that way!!

      • Yuti says:

        Hi jess! Just want to ask since what age did you learn to swim? Thank you

        • Hi Yuti! My parents had me in the water and taking swim lessons starting when I was a baby. As a result I don’t really remember learning to swim. It’s just something I’ve known how to do since I was very young.

  14. Ulya says:

    Our holiday to Florida was wonderful for many reasons – for the natural beauty of the countryside, for the fact that we actually got to relax

  15. Priya Singh says:

    Wow, this road trip looks amazing! What an amazing list of fantastic places to visit for a coast to coast USA road trip! Thanks for providing this informative and comprehensive blog. India as a whole is an incredibly special place
    This is very interesting article. India is also one of the most popular destinations among international tourist. I really like your post.

  16. Cat says:

    Hi, this is really inspiring me to travel a bit more close to home! Which waterfall are your pictures from in Tennessee? It looks like its either Cummins or Burgess, but I can’t tell. I’m from Tennessee so I’d love to go there now! 🙂

  17. Ryan Charles Holmes says:

    Hi Jess, I’ve found your thoughts and imagery to be genuinely inspiring and giving of fresh perspective on life! Thank you for what you do. I’m so glad that you chose to reject "west coast bias" and immerse yourself in what the American south has to offer. I was mildly sad that you skipped over my state of South Carolina, but I hope someday you’ll find your way over here as well some day. We’re a little short on the extremes of beautiful scenery, but we do have some mountains and waterfalls that are absolute gems, parts of our coast can rival anything in Georgia, and our one national park is one of the most remarkable old growth forests in the country! So consider yourself invited to the wonderful Palmetto State.

    • Hi Ryan. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. To this day, the southern road trip is one of the most rewarding and eye-opening trips I’ve had the opportunity to take. I wish that everyone could have a similar experience. I’ve actually heard that South Carolina is beautiful! My brother just moved to NC, so I’m hoping that I can make a trip down there sooner rather than later!

  18. Caroline says:

    Great review of awesome places and people! Being a native Tennessean now Texan, I can attest to souther charm and hospitality. A quick jump into western NC is a great option too next time you are east. You would love the Boone, Blowing Rock area of the Appalachian Trail.

    • Hi Caroline. My brother actually moved to NC a few years ago, and the first place he took me was Boone! Such a fun area. I would love to be able to spend more time there someday. Next time I’ll have to check out Blowing Rock and maybe even do part of the ATC.

  19. Lindsay says:

    This was so great to read as we’ve been trying to plan a trip from our native CA to visit family in south Florida. How long would you say this trip took, a few weeks, comfortably? Also inspired by your posts & blog!

    • Hi Lindsay! Thank you so much. Yes, I’d say that a few weeks would be ideal. I think it probably took us about 2 weeks to make it across the country and we were constantly wishing that we had more time.

  20. david ross says:

    Hi Jess , love watching your journeys with Quin . I bounced from Instagram, so I’m glad I can still experience your travels via this site . I Sincerely hope your adventures continue and that this miserable interruption doesn’t slow you down any longer . You guys are an inspiration to exploring and wandering. You have actually had an effect on me and my daughter ( she’s 17 now ) . I have used some of your spirit to introduce her to the roads . We are both indebted to you both for the inspiration to venture out . Wishing you more great adventures. -David

    • That’s amazing to hear David! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m so happy to hear that I have in some way impacted your relationship with your daughter! I hope you guys have some fun adventures together. Here’s to the day we can all bounce from Instagram. 😉

Learn More >

Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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