This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
It was minus 22 when we left for the Anchorage airport earlier this month. It was a sunny, beautiful drive north. The kind of bitter-cold day where frosty ice enveloped our car like a sparkly, diamond-studded skin.
It was about 65 degrees in Los Angeles when we landed. There, we traded frosted streets and snow-covered peaks for seven-lane freeways and endless palm trees.
My boyfriend, Nate, and I love road trips. We love exploring Alaska, and when we have the time and the money saved up, we also love to explore our country. Two years ago, we spent two weeks driving from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, stopping through the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama along the way.
This year, we opted for the West Coast, where we have an abundance of friends and family to visit. Our trek would take us to Los Angeles., Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Phoenix, Tucson, White Sands in New Mexico and eventually El Paso, Texas.
Probably our favorite part about traveling is trying new food and food for which we’ve been longing. I think Alaskans tend to carefully plan out their meals while Outside in order to take advantage of what’s fresh and what is normally inaccessible.
For some, that looks like getting off your plane and immediately driving to the closest Chick-fil-A or In-N-Out Burger. For others, it might be trips to the farmers market to eat freshly picked citrus in the dead of winter.
In Los Angeles, we got what we had been longing for: top-notch Korean food. As far as I’m aware, there are no Korean restaurants on the Kenai Peninsula. Anchorage has a fair share, but I don’t live in Anchorage.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has an entire neighborhood. We stayed with my friend Travis, who has called Koreatown home for more than six months now. We ate at hole-in-the-wall skewer bars where we drank a pot of soju on ice and spicy chicken skewers that didn’t seem spicy at the first bite, but most definitely did by the second.
We ate at a strip-mall favorite that is famous for a dish that’s basically a cauldron full of tender braised beef, spicy broth, and saucy, pillowy rice cakes and veggies blanketed with cheese that’s torched at your table until it’s bubbling.
Besides Korean food, Los Angeles also gave us the best mole I may have ever had. Guelaguetza is a 25-year-old Oaxacan restaurant serving up specialty moles in Koreatown. The James Beard Award-winning restaurant is known for its several different kinds of mole, like mole negro, rojo, coloradito and estofado.
The restaurant’s website is literally ilovemole.com. We ordered a sampler platter, which came with soft, huge tortillas. Someone at the table also ordered this ridiculous-looking, but undoubtedly delicious, mole pizza. Think a large, crispy tortilla covered in rich, dark mole, sprinkled with queso fresco and cilantro.
After several days in Los Angeles, my boyfriend and our two friends and I packed up our minivan rental car and hit the highway for Las Vegas. A carful of Alaskans marveled at scorched hillsides and the gateway to the Mojave as we drove through the desert.
Most of us had never been to Vegas, and frankly, as a person who has been relatively poor her whole adult life, I had no interest in going. For me, hitting Vegas on this road trip was a chance to visit my friend Shannon and to “take a peek” at what I was apparently missing out on.
We stayed in a suite on the 53rd floor of the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The room had a terrace overlooking the Bellagio fountain. We got a great deal.
I felt like a rich person — especially after winning $80 on my first pull of the slot machines. We ate a small dinner at Momofuku, which is a restaurant owned by chef David Chang, who has a couple of shows on Netflix. One of the menu items was $1,800. I felt poor again.
All we could afford were some appetizers for the table, like spicy smashed cucumbers, brothy, umami-rich mushrooms and basically candied pork belly bao buns. If these are the cheapest options on the menu, what could $2,000 buy me? I’ll never have that much money to spend on one dinner, but I’ll live.
After Vegas debauchery, it was time to pack up the van and head to Flagstaff for the night. The next morning, we woke up early to head to the Grand Canyon. We had the entire park to ourselves, and besides some iced over trails, the conditions were clear, sunny and perfect. Nate said it was the highlight of the trip.
We headed straight from the serenity and beauty of the Grand Canyon to the sprawling freeway system that is Phoenix. We mostly rested in Phoenix, but my foodie highlight was that I had the best margarita of my life at the Taco Guild.
In a last-minute decision, we hit the road for a night at an Airbnb in Tucson. The Airbnb had a hot tub and a grapefruit tree from which we were free to pick. Imagine if you will, a January morning, sitting in the sun eating a just-picked, perfectly ripe grapefruit by the serrated spoonful.
My boyfriend called it “one the best citrus experiences of his life.” We may or may not have smuggled several of those grapefruits into our luggage. Tucson also let me practice my Spanish when I ordered from a Sonoran-style Mexican food truck.
I got a little quesadilla and Nate got the Tucson staple: the Sonoran hot dog. It’s a grilled hot dog wrapped in bacon and served in a bolillo-style hot dog bun (pillow) and covered with whatever toppings you can dream of. Not my thing, but he was happy with it.
After a night in Tucson, we hit the road one last time. El Paso or bust. Our longest day of driving took us west to Las Cruces, New Mexico. I sped right through town and over the mountains cradling the city to get to White Sands National Monument.
I basically planned the entire trip around White Sands. I’m obsessed and fascinated with sand dunes. I think they are beautiful and otherwordly.
For the first time, it almost felt like we were back home. Seeing hills of white piled and draped across the road in front of us and as far as the eye can see. Is it snow?
Occasional cactuses and desert flora bring you back to the Southwest, but for a second, it can look like the great white North. Standing at the top of the dune, I wondered how such a place could exist. I also wondered, what’s for dinner?
An hour or so away we would finally make it to El Paso. My friend Sasha and her boyfriend took us to a popular Mexican restaurant where Nate was tempted by some fluffy-looking tres leches cake that I didn’t even get a bite of. Sasha took us to the top of the city’s scenic mountainside where we could see El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, blend together at the Rio Grande.