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USA 2017

Overview

In April of 2017 the startup that I work for (Aqua Security) was set to present in the annual Docker convention, this year held in Austin, Texas. I was chosen as one of the company's Israeli employees to join the team at the company's booth. The convention was set to happen right after the Passover holiday, and I realized it was a terrific chance for me to visit the national parks of the southwest area of the United States. I planned a quick, 9-day road trip before the convention. To make it easier to visit as many national parks as possible in such a short period of time, I decided for the first time to take a one-way car rental, starting out in Phoenix, Arizona and ending in Austin. This way, I could visit four national parks without driving too long a distance.

Trip Route

[04/08]Giv'atayim, Israel
[04/08]San Francisco, CA
[04/08]Phoenix, AZ
[04/08]Tucson, AZ
[04/09]Saguaro National Park, AZ
[04/09]Lordsburg, NM
[04/10]El Paso, TX
[04/11]Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX
[04/11]Carlsbad, NM
[04/12]Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
[04/12]Fort Stockton, TX
[04/13]Big Bend National Park, TX
[04/13]Marathon, TX
[04/15]Junction, TX
[04/16]Austin, TX
[04/20]Newark, NJ
[04/21]Tel Aviv, IL

Total Kilometers Driven: 2937

Saguaro National Park, AZ

I left Israel on the night between April 7-8, taking the direct flight to San Francisco, California. It was a boring 15-hour flight that seemed to drag forever, especially since I was not able to fall asleep. We landed in San Francisco so early in the morning that we had to wait on the plane for the airport to actually open. After a long line for passport control, and going through airport security, I barely made it in time for my connecting flight to Phoenix, Arizona.

There's no comparison between a 2-hour and a 15-hour flight, but domestic flights within the US are always much more enjoyable (if a flight can be called that) than trans-atlantic flights, and I actually did enjoy this flight, as I talked and laughed with my "neighbor" the entire flight.

In Phoenix, I picked up the rental car I had reserved, and drove to pick up some supplies I had ordered ahead of time to a UPS store in the city. The city was hot as hell! Right in front of the UPS store I saw a Five Guys restaurant so I ate my lunch there.

After lunch I immediately left Phoenix, driving the ~120 miles southeast to Tucson, AZ on the I10. During the entire drive, I saw many cactus plants, including the giant Saguaro. I was extremely tired when I got to Tucson, and so I went to sleep quite early in a motel located in the northern part of the city.

I woke up very early the next day and immediately drove to the western side of Saguaro National Park. The park has two "districts", separated by the city of Tucson. I spontaneously decided on visiting the west side, named the "Tucson Mountain District".

If I thought Tucson had a lot of giant Saguaros, the national park corrected my mistake. The amount of Saguaro cacti in the park is unbelievable. Wherever you look, the ground (and mountains) are littered with these impressive plants.

The visitor center has yet to open when I arrived, so I picked one of the hiking trails from the park's newspaper - the "King Canyon Trail". I drove to the trailhead's parking lot blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival out of my speakers, which seemed to make another visitor really happy. He pulled out his wallet from his pant pocket and showed me a laminated ticket for a CCR concert he went to in Madison Square Garden back in 1970.

The King Canyon trail was pretty good and I really enjoyed the hike. The trail started at a fairly level roadway from the 1930s, climbed up to a picnic area, and then continued even higher until reaching Wasson Peak - the highest point in the Tucson Mountains.

I think this was the earliest I had ever started a hike, and I encountered a fair share of people on the trail, especially at the peak, where I sat down for a while and enjoyed the 360° view towards the other mountains, Tucson, and the eastern side of the park. It took me a bit less than five hours to complete the trail.

After leaving the park, I got back on the I10 and started driving east towards El Paso, Texas, where I was planning on having the Seder dinner at the local Chabad house. It's a fairly long drive, so I stopped for the night in Lordsburg, New Mexico, a small and not particularly interesting city.

Seder in El Paso

Driving to Texas was mostly unremarkable, until I reached Las Cruces, NM. As the interstate was quite more elevated than the city itself, I had a beautiful view of the city and the Organ Mountains that form its backdrop.

From there the distance to El Paso was quite short. The city seemed bigger than I thought, and I immediately drove to its El Centro district, right on the border with Mexico's Ciudad Juárez. The streets of El Centro are full of small shops and have a very market-like feel to them. It was super hot as I was walking through the stores, everybody was speaking Spanish, and Mexican music was playing in every store. The only English spoken was by me, answering shop-keepers who were trying to get me into their stores and spoke to me in Spanish. I bought a presentable-enough shirt for the Seder dinner and drove to a hotel in the western part of the city.

After training in the hotel's gym and resting a bit in my room, I drove to the Chabad house, where I had no idea what to expect. This was the first time I had ever been outside of Israel for the Seder night. Inside, I was immediately sent to the synagogue for the Maariv prayer, which I did not expect. It was kinda funny listening to the Americans reciting the prayers in Hebrew, and they actually sang a lot of the prayers, taking their time with every line.

When the prayer was finished everybody shook each other's hands and wished them a happy Passover. We then moved to the common area and sat down around the tables for the Seder itself. There were about 30 or 40 people. This was easily the longest Seder I have ever been too, as we went through the entire Haggadah, making sure to perform every Mitzvah. The children were the ones to ask the "Ma Nishtana", in both Hebrew and Yiddish, and every person read one passage from the Haggadah, most in Hebrew, some in English.

Apart from me, my table had a 20-year old El Paso resident; a US military officer who was studying in the city's University; a 24 year old guy from Boston working law enforcement who was in El Paso for a few weeks; and a dentist who just happened to pass through El Paso (like me). We talked a lot during the night, and I was surprised to learn that all of them had visited Israel at least once.

After eating dinner, finishing the Haggadah, and dancing around embarrasingly, we went outside, where me and the 20-year old guy stood talking for several more hours. By the time I got back to the hotel, it was after 2am.

Unfortunately, I could not take any pictures during the Seder, and for some stupid reason I took no pictures in El Paso.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

On April 11 I left El Paso and drove northeast on Highway 62 to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, located in Texas right below the northern border with New Mexico. It was a long drive devoid of any gas stations or rest stops, with basically nothing in sight until you reach the mountains. The only thing you find on the way - which quite surprised me - was a US border patrol checkpoint, where I was asked to show my passport and answer some questions about my travels, and a drug-sniffing(?) dog was walked around my car. It was just like in the movies (We Are the Millers comes to mind), except that the officers were very nice and it wasn't on any actual border but inside Texas.

The Guadalupe Mountains are absolutely beautiful and the trail I hiked was quite unique. A park ranger recommended I hike the Devil's Hall Trail; this trail starts with a somewhat leisurely stroll through cactus-covered hills with great mountain views, before going down to a dry rocky canyon wash. Once in the wash, which takes the bulk of the trail, you have to constantly climb up or down the rocks and boulders to make your way forward. There is no "ground" to walk on, only rocks.

After several miles you reach a natural staircase made out of thin and slippery strata, so you need to exercise caution climbing up. From there a short walk brings you to a narrow "hall"; there I sat down and ate a small lunch, before making my way back to the trailhead.

From the national park I got back on the highway and continued norteast to Carlsbad, New Mexico, where I stayed the night. On the way there I passed Carlsbad Caverns National Park - where I would travel the next day.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

On Wednesday, April 12 I drove to Carlsbad Caverns. It was a dark and dreary day, so basically the perfect day to be visiting a national park located underground. To get to the park, I had to drive up the Guadalupe Mountains that I had visited the day before. The park's visitor center is located on one of the peaks, and from inside there are two elevators that take you down through the caverns to "the Big Room", a large chamber in the depths of the mountains, one of the biggest chambers in North America.

For some reason I had missed the fact that you can actually hike down the caverns, so I was happy when the park ranger told me that I could. To do that, I first had to get a short safety and regulations talk from one of the rangers, and then walk a bit to a natural entrance into the caverns. From the entrance, a paved path of about 2 kilometers winds its way down 230 meters deep into the ground, with many switchbacks and steep sections along the way. The caverns are obviously very dark, and there are lots of wet sections where water drips from above, so I had to use my flashlight for most of the trail, and taking good pictures was difficult.

As one might expect, the caverns have lots of interesting rock formations of various minerals, including tall bulky columns and large deposits of gypsum (which I regularly use in my beers). The trail down was described by the park ranger as a strenuous 45-60 minute hike, but I found it rather easy and reached the Big Room in just shy of 30 minutes. Once there, another 2km trail - this time mostly flat - takes you around the Big Room, where you can also find a gift shop and large modern restrooms.

I took the elevator back up to the visitor center after finishing the two trails, and found that the weather has gotten worse. I was hoping to walk a little on top of the mountain to get some more views of the Guadalupe Moutains, but it started raining and the sky were too dark, so I got back to the car and drove away.

I drove a little north, and then took the Black River Village road east, a not-so-well-maintained road where I was surprised to see a large flag of Israel (along with a flag of the US) at the entrance to what appeared to be a ranch. I then drove south on Highway 285, where the scenery was quite amazing: miles and miles of oil fields, with the oil rigs doing their up-and-down dance, and fire-blowing columns. With the dark cloudy skies, this was quite a Blade Runner-like scene.

My stop for the night was Fort Stockton, Texas.

Big Bend National Park

I had wanted to visit Big Bend National Park for a long time. It is one of the largest national parks in the lower 48 states, located right on the border between the US and Mexico. With the Rio Grande river flowing through it (and actually forming the border between the two countries), this is one of the most beautiful parks I had ever visited in the US.

The park is big enough to warrant at least a two day visit if you want to see a significant portion of what it has to offer. I had a rather long drive from Fort Stockton to get to the park (and once inside the park - as in all of them - the speed limit drops significantly), so it was after noon when I got there. The weather was still bad when I left Fort Stockton, but as I got closer to the park the sky got clearer and the temperature higher. Inside the park, it was very hot and humid.

The park reminded me of Utah somewhat; colorful views, beautiful mountains and buttes, and large deserts. I started by driving to the southwestern edge of the park, where the Santa Elena Canyon is located. From the parking lot, you walk a little on a sandy path to the banks of the Rio Grande river. You then walk a short narrow path through dense shrubs and trees, and climb up the walls of the canyon on its American side. You get a brief view of the river and canyon from above, before climbing back down right into the canyon. At the end of the trail, you finally get some shade and you can sit down and enjoy the quiet of the canyon (only broken by the echo of birds chirping). An amazingly beautiful place, it's easy to see why the NPS calls it "a Big Bend classic".

From the canyon, I drove back northeast a little bit. I was debating whether to take the Mule Ears Spring Trail or the Chimneys Trail, and for an unknown reason decided with the former. It was pretty late when I started hiking the trail, much later than I am used to, so I didn't have a lot of time. As the NPS website describes, the trail leads through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains, crosses several dry washes, and finally reaches a spring. Well, I wouldn't really call it a spring, at least not this time of the year; looks more like a swamp. During most of the hike, you get great views of the desert and the mountains, especially of the Mule Ears themselves, which are two huge adjacent rocks that look like the ears of a mule, though they look more like devil horns to me.

As I said before, it was hot. Very hot. I don't remember sweating so much in any other national park. I was completely and entirely alone on the Mule Ears Spring Trail; there was not one other person hiking it.

From the park I drove back north (crossing another border patrol checkpoint) and stopped in Marathon, Texas. This small city has one hotel and one motel, both old and very highly rated. I reserved one night at the motel, and liked it enough to reserve another one for the following day. Trains pass right through the town quite frequently, blowing their horns as they approach, so the motel provides ear plugs to help guests sleep. Light pollution in Marathon is very low, so stargazing is a common activity, but the skies were pretty cloudy the first night of my stay.

On April 14 I drove back to Big Bend, to the Chisos Mountain Range. I decided (like many others) to hike the Window Trail. As opposed to most mountain trails that climb up to some endpoint before going back down to the trailhead, this trail descends first and ascends last. Going down through Oak Creek Canyon, you reach a place inside the mountains called "the Window" - a pour-off through which there are views of the desert. The pour-off itself is very slippery, so you have to be careful and stay back enough to not accidentally fall down. The best part of the trail wasn't the Window though, but really the mountains themselves. Like the day before, it was hot as hell and extremely humid.

Once back in the car, I drove to the southeastern edge of the park, towards the "Rio Grande Village". A rather unique border crossing with Mexico - the Boquillas Port of Entry - is located there. Opened many years ago, the crossing allows national park visitors to also visit the small village of Boquillas del Carmen. The crossing was closed after the events of September 11, 2001, but was reopened in 2013. This port-of-entry is unique not only in that it is inside a national park, but also in that it is staffed by one NPS employee rather than a CBP agent.

I figured this was a wonderful opportunity to visit Mexico, even if only as a sort of a gimmick. It was 4:30pm, and the crossing closes at 6pm, so I had only a short time. Crossing the border means crossing the Rio Grande, so I was taken to the Mexican side on a small boat. A ride on a donkey or a pickup truck takes you from there to the village itself.

In the village, a very nice local named Raul first took me through immigration, which was inside a small trailer. The immigration agent stamped my passport, and Raul showed me around the village, which still had a Wild West look to it. The residents of the village make their living entirely from Big Bend tourists, a lot of them selling handmade artworks such as bags and embroideries (I've seen many of them bearing the writing "NO WALL", as a protest against US president Donald Trump's plan of building a wall between the two countries). There are also a restaurant and a bar catering for the tourists. As I got to Boquillas late, most of the remaining tourists were already making their way back to the US. The locals even offered me to stay there for the night.

After Raul showed me the village, we sat down to drink some beer in one of the restaurants, and I bought a nice embroidery made by his wife as a gift for my mother. Overall, I was in Mexico for about 30 minutes or so. I wish I got there earlier, but I was happy I managed to get there at all.

Back in the port-of-entry, I had to go through the usual immigration interview, but as there are no CBP officers there, the interview was performed by telephone, and I believe the official on the other end of the line could see me through a camera. Once inside US soil again, I drove back north to Marathon for my second night at the motel. The skies were much clearer that night, so I spent some time watching the stars before calling it in.

Austin and DockerCon

I had a long drive ahead of me from Marathon to Austin for the convention. I started the day by walking around Marathon and visiting the shops selling locally made goods. It was noon when I finally started driving. I first drove north to Fort Stockton, then east again on I10. It took me maybe four or five hours before I was too tired to continue, and I randomly stopped in Junction, a small and quite beautiful city. The Llano River flows through the city, and just a short drive south of it is the South Llano River State Park. I ate dinner at a local BBQ joint (whose smoking ovens are right there in the street), and drove to the park at night, hoping for clear skies. Unfortunately, the skies were very cloudy, so I couldn't see even one star, but I did get to see a lot of deer and some turkeys. In fact, there are so many turkeys in the area, that a lot of them "migrate" to the highway, where they meet their unfortunate demise.

I was hoping to hike in the park the next morning, but the weather had gotten worse, so I started again on the way to Austin. The I10 doesn't reach Austin but rather San Antonio, so I took Highway 290, which passes through lots of ranches, a lot of green fields, and lovely small cities such as Fredericksburg. There are also many home-decoration stores on the way, selling huge statues and ornaments.

I reached Austin on April 16, a day earlier than I had expected. The company set up a hotel for me starting April 17, so I found an accommodation for one night near the airport, where I would drop off the rental car the next day. The hotel had a pretty sweet bar, so I mostly spent the rest of the night drinking beers there.

The following day I drove to the airport and said goodbye to the car. I had driven 3000 kilometers to get to Austin, and it was weird to suddently take the bus. I got to the hotel the company set up pretty early in the day, but fortunately they were able to check me in. The hotel was right across the convention center where DockerCon was set to begin later that day. I met up with a fellow employee for lunch, trained at the hotel's gym, and finally met up with the rest of the team at our booth at the convention center.

The first day of the convention was a short two-hour reception, but there were tons of people visiting our booth, most of them just to get our free T-shirts and try to win a free drone, but I had to keep switching between giving out T-shirts to actually talking with people about our product. By the time those two hours passed, my back was killing me from bending down so much.

The next two days of the convention were "full days", from morning to evening. As these days had a lot of talks and sessions about Docker, just a few people visited the booth for most of the time, but during the breaks between the sessions it would get pretty crazy. Apart from giving away free stuff, I had many talks with people from various companies from around the world, sometimes giving short demos. By the end of each day we were very tired and could hardly stand on our legs anymore.

The evening of the second day there was a large Docker party in Austin's Rainey street, famous for its private houses that were turned into bars and restaurants. I somehow found myself spending most of the party talking with an Ubuntu developer.

Some of the team left Austin right when the convention ended on the third day. The rest of us went out to celebrate at a fancy restaurant, and then at one of the bars in 6th Street, where many college guys come to party at late hours of the night.

We all had different travel plans, so I left Austin alone on April 20. I flew to Newark - which I consider the worst airport in the US - where I had a 5 hour layover. At least on the flight back to Israel the middle seat in my row was not taken, so the person in the window seat and I had a more comfortable flight back to Israel.

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