The One With A Guide On How (Not) To Roadtrip America

Road-tripping across a decent portion of the United States in the summer following my year abroad in Ottawa was a pipe dream of mine from the start.

Bumping along a road closer to resembling a dirt track than any highway, music blaring, the windows rolled down, with Monument Valley looming on the horizon; I’m not quite sure where this image came from, but by gosh, the idea stuck. It stuck, gained roots, and grew, branching off into a whole, insane, ridiculous vision. I wanted to see not only Monument Valley, but the Grand Canyon and the Valley of the Gods. I was also desperate to visit San Francisco, which I’d heard so much about, and hike through Yosemite National Park. I also thought, as an added bonus, it might be quite lovely to take the iconic coastal road up from California to Seattle, but these, I thought, were all pretty fanciful ideas. My family,  friends, and even I doubted they’d actually happen.

Except, when dates began falling into place, and Emily and my best friend from home expressed an interest in joining me for parts of the journey, the dream gradually grew into plan. We could rent a car, stay in airbnbs and hostels, and actually do this.

In the end, my road trip comprised of two parts, over 4 weeks. The first section was an insane cross-country trek, from Colorado Springs to San Francisco, via the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Las Vegas and Yosemite. The second, after a few days recovering in San Francisco, was north up the coast – largely sticking to the famous 101 coastal road. This section of the trip took us through the famous Redwoods, past beautiful ocean overlooks, into Portland, and finally up to Seattle, which was my final stop. I kept track of the mileage counters of the three cars we travelled in, from Colorado to Seattle, and the final distance clocked in at 3,896 miles. I know. Mental.

If I’m honest, nearly one month on from the end of the trip, it still feels like a dream. I still can’t talk about it at any length without grinning from ear to ear. It was the most epic, incredible, challenging and freeing experience of my entire life, and capped off my year in a way like no other.

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Living a ‘pinch-me-this-isn’t-real’ moment

It was also an adventure that required (and certainly benefitted from) an extensive amount of planning and research. I think we were about halfway through Death Valley, having cracked into our second water gallon jug and discussing how grateful we were to have invested in them, that I started a list on my phone of roadtrip hints and tips – inspired by our good decisions, and less good ones. I thought I’d share them here, as a starting point for anyone considering their own road trip adventure, especially in the States (because honestly, I can’t recommend it enough.)

13 of Tess’ Top Roadtrip Tips

1. How to get started – it’s all in the planning.

Faced with an enormous list of things we wanted to do, an indefinite amount of time and a fairly decent budget (goodbye lifetime savings, this was what you were being saved for) – the world was our oyster. Which was terrifying. Cue roadtrippers.com, which was a fantastic way for us to start our planning. You plug in your start and end destination, and then can add things you want to see on the way as detours. Even better, once you’ve got your basic route, you can filter suggestions of other things near your route that might not have come up in your research. Our next stage of planning was one mega Google Doc, with shared editing accessibility. That way, we could add independently ideas for food, things to do, and potential accommodations. Accommodation incidentally, was decided in a very simple way; find a town, roughly every 2-3 hours of driving, unless there was an exception, and find somewhere to stay. This meant our driving wasn’t unreasonably insane each day, though we did break this rule on some occasions, to allow for a full day at the Grand Canyon and in Zion National Park.  Continue reading

The One No Longer in Canada

I’ve been back in the UK for nearly two weeks now, and things are, as I anticipated, a little strange.

Everyone I meet who knows I’ve been away asks me how it feels to be home, and my standard response is currently “oh well, you know, conflicting feelings!” accompanied with a smile.

Because honestly? That is about as close to the truth as I think I can get. It is conflicting; I’m both happy and sad, pleased and miserable, excited for the future, and desperate to wind back the clock to life in Canada already. I’m having a hard time working out my own feelings, so maybe it’s safer to deal with the facts and return to this blog’s time-honoured tradition of listing things unnecessarily.

Here are the facts, as I understand them to be:

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The One With The Passing of an Old Friend

This is a story about a dog.

She wasn’t a particularly notable dog in the traditional sense; she wasn’t tiny, cutesy or adorable, neither was she big, or a particularly impressive example of her breed. She was a smallish, chocolate labrador, the only female in her litter, bred to be a working animal, though in reality her favourite past-time in her later years was traipsing around the house, finding the sunny spots throughout the day to nap.

Her fur never quite made up its mind about what it was doing; on her back it was thick and wavy, around her chest, fluffy and sticking up in all directions, and on her ears velvet soft. She went grey at a young age, around her chin and her eyebrows, and had a little bump in the middle of her head that we always joked was the home to her three lone brain cells. She certainly wasn’t daft however, and she had beautiful golden-y eyes, that always looked a little bit like they were judging you.

Her name was Wispa (like the chocolate bar) and though she wasn’t cute and adorable, or a majestic, working animal, she was our family dog.

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The One With a Thought-Provoking Throwback

November last year, at a time when I was really, really struggling here in Ottawa and confiding in very few people as to just how much that was the case, I wrote a post that I never ended up publishing. Fear of being too personal, and honestly a sense of shame as well, meant that it sat in my drafts, gathering dust. The only explicit mention of me feeling ‘down’ on this blog while I’ve been abroad was in another post, The One That’s a Bit of Downer,  and even in that I injected as much optimism and enthusiasm as I could muster. That was at the end of September, around week 5, when the honeymoon glow of Moving to Canada had started to dim and I was beginning to feel a bit homesick. From mid-October into early December however, as the nights grew colder and the days shorter, I began to feel honestly pretty shit.

Okay, ‘shit’ is an understatement. I felt terrible.

This was not a consistent emotion throughout this period of course; I had an amazing trip to Algonquin, a fabulous long weekend in Québec City, and plenty to write home about and share on social media. But nonetheless, for a good stretch of time, my mental health was not doing so great. I would have successive days where I’d wake up, stare at my ceiling and think to myself, “what the hell do I think I am I doing here?”. Days when I missed my family and dog and friends back home so acutely I would literally cry; days when I wanted nothing more than to quit basketball, call it a day with what felt like the constant upward struggle to try and make friends and just curl up in bed alone; days when Emily would invite me for a walk or a stroll into town and I’d drag myself out, acutely aware of the poor company I was providing. Days when I’d cry not simply because I was sad, but because I was sad on my year abroad. This was supposed to be fun. 

But mental health doesn’t pay mind to things like ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’ and ‘moving 5,000 km away from all your established support networks’. When it wants to shit all over your carefully constructed plans and dreams, it will do just that.

Now, in the present moment, that time isn’t much fun to think about it. It happened, it sucked, it’s over. I’ve absolutely loved my second semester here, and with the benefit of several months distance, I can now appreciate how that trying time in late fall made my successes and enjoyable experiences more recently all the more powerful. With a summer chock-a-full of travelling and the prospect of reunions with family and friends, right now, even if it’s currently snowing outside (it’s MAY CANADA, M A Y I TELL YOU), I feel on top of the world. I’ve made it through this year, and it’s been one of the most challenging and formative experiences of my life.  Continue reading

The One With No More ‘Studying’ on This Study Abroad

Summer, metaphorically at least, is finally here.

I started writing this blog post on my last official day of studying. Last Monday, I swung by the library for the final time, waited an eon for a computer to boot up, and sent all 29 pages of my take-home essays to the printer. Then, I took the lift to the 9th floor of Desmarais, and handed everything in, with no small amount of joy. I also got back my two major research papers, and did better than I’d expected on both; double-joy.

“You’ve been a pleasure to teach these past two semesters Tessa,” said My Number 1 Bae Heather as she accepted my exam paper, “if you ever need a reference or recommendation let me know. Hell, if you ever come back to Canada let me know. I’d love to supervise you if decided to return for a Masters.”

To which I answered, “Honestly Heather, at this point I’m not ruling it out.”

Because I’m really not ruling it out, returning to Canada for further education that is.

But that’s a topic for another blog post.

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The face of double-joy

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The One With Ramblings About the Future

Alright, so this isn’t exactly year abroad related as such, but hey, it’s been something on my mind as a student approaching final year, so I figured it deserved a place on this blog.

I am currently in the midst of exam season and so naturally, during a time I should be heart, mind and soul focused on my current academics, I am thinking of just about anything but. Today especially, I’ve felt uneasy – distracted. Distracted in a way in which my mind keeps circulating back to one question, regardless of what I’m trying to focus on:

What am I doing this for?

What are these exams for? These grades? This degree? Where will they take me, if anywhere? Where am I going with it all, where should I be looking? What experience outside of my degree do I need to get there? What do I want to do, what am I supposed to do? What am I meant to be?

Funny that, how the feeling of “meh, I really don’t fancy getting started on this essay, let’s make a cup of tea instead” descends into a minor existential crisis about my purpose on this earth, but there you go. Continue reading

The One With Some Things I’m Going to Miss

Today is Monday and I have two weeks left of classes this semester. Two weeks left of classes this year.

Two weeks left of Canadian education.

(Well, after that we have exams, but technically all my exams are take-home essays so I’m slightly in denial about the whole thing counting as ‘term time’.)

Obviously Me Being Me and the End Being Nigh I’ve gotten hopelessly introspective about this whole year. Inevitably, I started on a post-it on my desktop with a list of all the things I could think of that I’m going to miss leaving behind. Right at the start of this year I published a post about culture shock  detailing some of the most striking differences between Canada and the UK. I remember asking my Mum what she thought of it, and she laughed and said, “it’s a bit negative isn’t it Tess?”

And looking back on it, although I was exaggerating a bit to add humour, it is a bit negative. It sort of reads like a list of complaints actually, and I don’t think in that post I made clear that those differences, no matter how bizarre or inconvenient, were my motivation for taking on a year abroad. I wanted to be in a new culture, one that made me think about things differently, that challenged my expectations, that made me appreciate my home and education back in the UK. And this year has definitely done that.

Things I Probably Won’t Miss

  • The little girl I share a wall with in my apartment building crying at 2am. Thank god for earplugs.
  • The fact the tipping option appears on the card machine whenever you try to pay at a restaurant and you’re left awkwardly navigating around avoiding giving a 25% tip. (I’m sorry but the GDP/dollar exchange rate is just not the one.)
  • Canada isn’t very cash-heavy as a nation which is fortunate because all the small change is basically indistinguishable silver. Why are the 5s bigger than the 10s, Canada? And why are the 25s about the same size as the 5s? I’ve been here 9 months and I still can’t tell the difference.
  • Cheese costing $12.99. And not even good cheese.
  • The sassy ladies at the bakery in the Social Sciences building who refuse to speak English to you (it’s a biliNGUAL UNIVERSITY LADIES WE DON’T ALL SPEAK FRENCH.)
  • Thursday AM basketball practice; my alarm going off at 5:25am, and making the trek to Montpetit sports hall through the silent and frigid pitch black of a January morning.
  • The 6-month-long-winter I have endured. Never again.
  • Lonely Sunday afternoons killing time, missing my UK housemates like hell, and watching Star Trek before the week starts again.
  • uOttawa’s never-ending concrete complex of a campus. I’m sorry, but you’re kinda fugly.
  • Glitchy Skype calls home awkwardly in the middle of the afternoon because Time Difference Woes.
  • Seeing my dog on Skype and not being able to pet my dog 😦
  • Relying on Facebook messenger to keep in touch with the majority of my friends, and the pressure of the ‘Read’ notification and ‘Last Active’ feature (it’s better than nothing but lord it’s just not the same as catching up in person.)
  • Weather notifications cheerily informing me it’s going to feel like -27 today. (Bearing in mind I got one of those notifications last week. In March.)
  • Prescription costs, and that faff of reimbursing healthcare on insurance (I miss you NHS and I’ll never take you for granted again.)

 

Things I Definitely Will Miss Continue reading

The One With My Ottawa Playlist

Hey hey, we’re 5 days away from the official start of spring and I walked to campus today through a blizzard! Get with the programme North America, winter is old news now! I won’t lie, although I really have loved my winter experience here, there is a little part of me that is missing the crocuses and daffodils of English springs. Canada doesn’t seem to be that fussed about the leaves and general greenery making a return any time soon though, it’s instead a bit preoccupied with dumping a foot of snow on us overnight. Sigh. I’m sure I’ll miss this… one day.

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What is this

The past couple of weeks have been pretty busy. Even though I now don’t have the insane basketball training schedule keeping me occupied (note: there is still training available every day of course, it’s just more chill), the deadlines have been piling up, my goodness me. I’m feeling the brunt of 3 third year classes for sure at the minute. I’ve just handed in a big term paper for my Atheism class, alongside proposals for my Holocaust and American Intellectual Thought research essays. On top of that, Emily and I have been Stressing. Mainly, about final year. There’s so much to think about; dissertation, special module selections, internships, career options, society commitments, applying for Welcome Team – it’s a lot to consider. This being said, I’m trying desperately hard not to live too much in the future, because the present is pretty cool. Actually, I’ve recently been realising just how much of my experience here I am going to miss. This has been compounded by the fact I’ve also recently realised I have less than four weeks of class left. What. the. hell. Where has this semester gone.

In the meantime, I thought I’d give myself a break from essays for the evening and write something a bit different for this blog. Mainly, a rundown on the songs and music that have been getting me through this year abroad. The conversation started when Emily and I were discussing choosing a track to accompany our One Second Everyday videos, and how hard it was going to be picking just one to sum up our year. Fortunately, I had a ready-made shortlist to hand to cover all scenarios… Continue reading

The One With a Reading Week in Boston

It’s been just over two weeks since Emily and I ran away from our reading and responsibilities for a 5 day trip to the states and I am here to tell you was it EVER worth it.

Reading weeks are an important time for the year-abroader. There are a treasured week or so of scheduled freedom, a break from classes and deadlines and readings, where our fellow Canadians go home to see family or go camp-out in the library while our fellow internationals (at least in our case) jet off to Cuba or New York. Emily and I are both due to go to New York and Washington later on this year, but were keen to plan something fun to keep us motivated through the dreariness that is January. Last semester saw us taking a 5 hour train up to Quebec City which we loved, and we wanted another city break but perhaps one that was a little more ambitious. With Toronto and Montreal under our belt, we stretched our horizons to across the border.

Boston, which looks deceptively close on Google Maps, seemed like a good option. A busy, cultural, historical and Instagram-worthy city, that could be properly explored in several days and wasn’t too far. Plus, it seemed like a ‘gentle’ enough American city for a good first experience for me in the U S of A. BONUS PLUS: it just so happened my very, very good friend Ellie (who I coincidentally met on her year abroad in Exeter in my first year) would be in Boston too for some of the days, and bearing in mind I hadn’t seen her for over two years, this seemed like a fantastic opportunity to do so.

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And here she is! It’s been far too long Ellie ❤

With all this Valid Reasoning justifying us depleting our savings accounts yet again, we booked our flights and hostel before Christmas, and put the date on our countdown apps. The trip served as a great motivator through the stress of deadlines and midterms, and honestly, the fact we’re no longer working and that the weather was so gorgeous would probably have been enough for us. But as it was, Boston is also a very cool city, and I thought I’d give a rundown of our highlights and thoughts here:  Continue reading

The One With Some Realisations

Well hey there. It’s 10:30pm on an exceptionally snowy Sunday and the only time I ventured outside today in the blizzard was to buy some bran flakes because I’m sorry, Canadian weather alert or not, nothing is keeping me from my cereal. Breakfast is serious business as far as I’m concerned, especially before a Monday morning 8:30am lecture. Tess 1, Snowstorm nil.

It’s been a tough week. Probably one of the toughest weeks I’ve had here in months, and I’ve felt a little bit ‘out of it’ for the past few days. I won’t go into details as it’s not my story to share on the internet, but let it be said I cried quite a lot initially on finding out some sad news, have not been sleeping great, and have had an awful lot of time to Think About Things.

I’m alright now, and will keep getting better, but it’s unfortunately one of those situations which really hits home on a very personal and emotional level and you can’t snap back from immediately.

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Location of said-instagram but mid-snowstorm instead

This post was inspired by a) an instagram caption I was very proud of (tragic I know) and b) a realisation I had the other day about one of my blog posts I wrote before I came to Canada. It was way back last summer during the time I was housebound with my busted ankle, and I was beginning to Fret. So naturally, in true Tess Fashion, I wrote a list, The One With a List of Fears, and felt better about things.

Reading that post back now is strangely surreal; I was amped up with so many expectations and and so much excitement, so much fear for the unknown and anticipation about how things would turn out. I was also, despite my best intentions and best stalking of year abroad blogs, hopelessly naive about what this year would be like.

It was on reading through my checklist of worries however, that I realised something. Every single one of my main fears about this year abroad has come true, in some way or another. Continue reading