For years, I have been dreaming of visiting the United States. I have been heavily influenced by US culture from my childhood days, be it music, films, TV shows, novels, etc. While young Israelis tend to favor places like South America, India and Thailand for traveling (in fact, it is quite common for Israeli soldiers to take a lengthy trip to one of these places after their release from service), I was always drawn towards the US.
As my life trajectory took a slight deviation from the norm when I joined the Israeli army's Atuda program, circumstances have prevented me from taking such a trip. Never did I have the time, the money or the company to join me on my dream vacation in the US.
By 2012, at age 28, I got sick of waiting, and in July I decided to go for it alone, money and time be damned. I asked for a one month leave from work, and started planning a trip that would take me to as many places as possible.
When I learned that my favorite punk band the Descendents were going to be playing at the Riot Fest in Chicago, it was obvious to me that I simply had to go see them. The band, formed in 1978, rarely goes on tours, and I've never even dreamed of ever seeing them live. The rest of the lineup was no less impressive.
With the festival taking place in the middle of September, when the Jewish holiday season starts, I have decided to begin my trip with the festival in Chicago. Other than the festival, I had two more objectives for my trip: see a lot of nature, and see New York. I've been contemplating countless options for a road trip that would take me to as many places as possible, and that wouldn't cost me too much money. I thought of starting a road trip either from Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and others. Eventually, I settled for Las Vegas. I would fly from Chicago to Vegas, immediately leave with a car into Utah, travel in the national parks for a few days, then drive back southwest to California, and drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco. On my way back to Las Vegas, I planned to travel in Yosemite National Park. After Vegas, I'd fly to New York, where I'd stay for at least a week before returning to Israel.
As I did not know what to expect with regards to accommodations on the road, I made the mistake of booking ahead for almost all of the nights of the trip. This proved to be unnecessary, as there was no lack of accommodations along the way, and with September-October not being high season, rooms were not hard to come by. This made things much less flexible, and I had to keep chasing my next destination. To cut costs, all of the accommodations I booked before the trip were for AirBNB rooms, that is spare rooms people rent in their own apartments on a night-by-night basis.
A list of the places my trip passed through is provided here, starting from my home in Tel Aviv and back again. Following it is a map of my road trip, after I flew from Chicago to Las Vegas.
I left Israel with Alitalia, flying to Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy. After a two hour layover, I continued with Alitalia to Chicago, Illinois. I landed on September 13 a short while afternoon with a terrible migraine. Going through passport check took more than an hour, and I only felt worse. From the airport I took the Blue Line train to North California Avenue, and from there I took a bus to the AirBNB apartment at West Chicago Avenue. Waiting for the bus with the locals, it began to dawn on me that I was really in the US. I couldn't believe it.
I arrived to the apartment completely exhausted. After talking with the host for a while I crashed into bed and slept a solid 14 hours straight. When I woke up the next morning, I felt fantastic. I went out to walk around the neighborhood, buy some needed toiletries and a local SIM card, and took the bus downtown to see the city. I somehow found myself near the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), which stands at 442 meters high. I took the (very fast) elevator to the observatory on top and spent 30 minutes looking at Chicago from way up top.
After walking around downtown I made my way to the Museum Campus on Lake Michigan and entered the Shedd Aquarium. Later that night I took the bus to the famous Chicago Metro club, where Bob Mould was performing while on tour supporting his fantastic new album "Silver Age". Walking around after the show, I found myself in front of Wrigly Field, looking at it from what seemed to be the exact same spot the police were looking at it in the Blues Brothers film.
The next day Riot Fest began in Humboldt Park. I went there early and walked around the park, looked at all the rides, vendor booths, stages, etc. I saw some live shows but that day I came for just one band - The Descendents. They played that evening and gave an amazing show, playing all their best hits. I simply couldn't believe I was there. You grow up listening to a band for so many years, a band that got together even before you were born, a band whose music influenced you in ways you can't even explain, and never even think it possible that you would ever see them live. And then it happens. I know I sound like a ten year old girl when I write this, but I was so high on life that night, and I returned to the apartment at night feeling like I'm in a dream.
The next day at Riot Fest was no less great. Another favorite band of mine, Less Than Jake, played early that day and also gave a great show. If you were to analyze the bands I listen to, you will find that the Descendents and Less Than Jake are the bands I listen to the most. The band was just celebrating 20 years together, and after the show they were signing autographs for fans. I wasn't interested in any autographs, but I waited in line anyway just to shake their hands and say thanks.
NOFX played later. I saw them live in Israel in 2007, they gave one of the best shows I've seen there, but here in Chicago I was disappointed. Elvis Costello gave a terrific show after that. Playing at a punk rock festival, Costello gave a strong, loud and fast performance. The night ended with Iggy Pop & the Stooges, whom I've also seen in Israel back in 2007. Even five years later, and past 60, Iggy was still jumping around the stage like crazy.
On September 18 I was getting ready to leave Chicago by plane and begin my road trip in Las Vegas. I spent the day traveling around town, and went to see Millennium Park and the famous "Bean" statue. When I was leaving for the airport in the evening it started to rain. I was happy that the good weather held up during the festival. I was supposed to fly that evening with Spirit Airlines to Las Vegas, landing at night. I was sitting at the gate at the airport with all the other people when boarding was supposed to begin, but no-one from the airline was there. When they finally arrived, it looked like they were preparing to start the boarding. The airline employees were sifting through papers, talking among themselves, and completely disregarding the passengers. Finally, one of them looked up and seemed to be taken aback by all the people waiting. She took the microphone in her hand and announced "the flight was canceled, please go back to the check-in counter". While people were trying to figure out why the flight was canceled, I raced back to the check-in counter (which meant I would have to go through security all over again), where Spirit Airlines offered me a different flight leaving the next day. I told them to go screw themselves and give me my money back. While the woman at the counter was working the system to give me a refund, I was already able to book a flight with a different airline for later that night using the Kayak app on my smartphone.
As I had a few hours to kill, I went to the Hilton hotel (I think) near the terminal and sat in the lobby for as long as I could bare. I drank some coffee at the airport, trying to ignore the TV screen where they were talking about Israel in the news. Why are they always talking about Israel on the news? When I returned to the departure hall I found that the line for security was much longer than before, and even the security check itself was considerably more thorough than the one I had to endure earlier. Thank you Spirit Airlines.
Road Trip to Utah
To get to Vegas I had to connect through Phoenix, Arizona, which looked like a hell hole from the plane. When I finally landed in Vegas it was the morning of September 19, and as I had not slept the night before I was wondering whether I really should go on with my plan of leaving immediately with the rental car towards Utah. Good sense be damned, I decided to go ahead and drive. I stopped at a CVS to get some supplies for the road, drove to the local REI branch to buy some travel cloths, and left Vegas within two hours of landing in it.
I drove northeast on I15 until I reached Highway 9 east, which took me through Zion National Park in Utah. I drove slowly to take in as much of the sights, and by the time I got to highway 89 it was already dark. I reached a small city called Panguitch where I booked a cabin in a campground for a few nights. During the day, temperature was almost at 40 degrees Celsius. It felt like home, so I went to sleep like I usually do - in my underwear. I woke up shivering in the middle of the night and saw on my tablet that it was 0 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, I bought a fleece jacket and a wool hat in REI, so I wrapped myself with them, put some socks on, and returned to sleep. Had I not bought that jacket, only the AC in the car could have saved me. The next morning I drove to the general store on beautiful Panguitch Lake and bought a very good sleeping bag dirt cheap.
From there I drove to nearby Bryce Canyon National Park, where I set off on a hike. It was pretty crowded there that day, which was kind of a bummer.
The next day I drove to Capitol Reef Nation Park. In contrast to Bryce Canyon, it hardly had anybody in there. I've spoken with a park ranger and decided on a few routes to hike. The first was moderate, the second strenuous, both were great. I was completely alone when hiking through the park, which was awesome. I sat down below the arch called "Hickman Natural Bridge" and ate lunch completely alone, listening to the silence of the wilderness around me. I was very happy I came to Capitol Reef.
Originally, I had planned to see Monument Valley the next day, return to Panguitch, and go to the north rim of the Grand Canyon the next day. I realized Monument Valley was too far away, and returning to Panguitch was not feasible. So I canceled my last night in Panguitch, and drove the next day to Grand Canyon. The north rim of the canyon is much less visited than the south rim. It had only one hiking trail which was short and easy, not at all what I wanted, but I had a few laughs with some nice people along the way. I've spoken with a retired man from Pennsylvania who told me he'd never been to the Grand Canyon before. I was amazed that so many Americans don't even get to see the Grand Canyon until they're old, or don't get to see it at all.
Road Trip to California
From the Grand Canyon I was going to make a long journey towards Los Angeles, California. I returned southeast on I15 and stopped for the night at a nice motel in surprisingly busy St. George, Utah. The pool and hot tub were open 24 hours and I found myself sitting in the Jacuzzi until 3am.
The next day I drove 580 kilometers straight to Pomona, California, only taking a small detour while on the road to see the Hoover Dam. I booked two nights in a campground in Pomona - which was close enough to Los Angeles for me - and got exactly the same cabin I had in Panguitch. The only thing different was that while in Panguitch the place was only visited by tourists, most of the RV and trailer owners in Pomona were actually living there, and almost every RV had a small garden next to it and a private car.
When I arrived at the campground, I learned that the L.A. County Fair was just taking place right outside my cabin window. So I went there and walked around all evening drinking beers. It was there I started to feel I was in California, as the place was crowded with Mexicans.
The next day, September 23, I drove to Universal Studios and took the guided tour. Then I went to the little amusement park they have there, which was pretty nice. I walked in Hollywood that day, and the next one, and realized I hated it. Hollywood is one of the ugliest places I've ever seen, filled with crackheads, beggars, wannabe rappers and other people that just want your money. I did drive around town a little, just so I can say I drove on Mullholland Drive, Sunset Boulevard and all those places from the movies.
On September 25 I was happy to leave Pomona and LA and started driving north on Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, which for most of its way lies right on the Pacific coast and offers tremendous views. I stopped for a while in Malibu to take a look at the beach before continuing north. I stopped for the night at a nice motel in Pismo Beach, and had a nice chat with the Indian manning the office, who told me he worked in Israel for a while and asked me if Ariel Sharon got any better.
I continued my drive the next day. It was slow driving on Highway 1. Even though it's called "highway", the speed limit rarely goes over 35 mph, due to all the dangerous twists and turns. On the way I stopped in Big Sur. While there I entered a USPS branch and was surprised to hear from the clerk that there's a Perlmuter living in Big Sur. The USPS worker was the first and last person in the US to pronounce my family name correctly. I continued on, with my target of course being San Francisco, but I booked an AirBNB room for two nights in Oakland nearby. I got there just when it started to get dark. The host was out of the country, so I had the whole apartment to myself.
On September 27 I drove to San Francisco and toured around the city. I went to the harbor, the Japanese Tea Gardens and other places across town. I walked over the Golden Gate Bridge, which was extremely cold and foggy, you really couldn't see much. All in all I found San Francisco rather boring, but as I was there for only one day it is really not fair to judge.
From San Francisco I was supposed to drive to Yosemite National Park, where I was looking forward to take in some of the scenery. However, there was a scourge of Hantavirus there during the time and I was somewhat worried. I decided to skip Yosemite and drive straight back to Las Vegas. I booked a room in South Point Hotel the night before leaving Oakland.
I drove all the way to Barstow on September 28 and stopped there for the night. I woke up early the next day, drove the rest of the way to Vegas, and got there before noon. I checked into the hotel, and after a few hours I was already glad I chose South Point. The hotel had a pretty nice casino, a movie theater with 16 screens, a bowling alley with 64 lanes, and equestrian center where horse races were held and more. For the next four days I had a lot of fun in Vegas, most of it at the hotel.
That first night in Vegas I went to see blink-182 performing at the pool above the Cosmopolitan. It was nice to see another band I grew up listening to and never thought I'd get to see live (especially after they broke up in 2005), but their performance was only okay. I saw them again in 2013 and they were much better.
My winnings at the casino were modest (made 200 bucks playing 21, not bad at all), but even if I'd have lost it wouldn't have mattered, I had a lot of fun sitting at the casino tables. Playing Blackjack is kind of a social activity, all sorts of "characters" come and go, you play with some interesting people and it's pretty fun (especially when everybody's winning, which happens sometimes).
New York, NY
I was sad to leave Las Vegas on the night of October the 2nd. If I did not have to catch a flight to New York, I could have easily stayed there a few more days.
I landed in New York on the morning of October 3 and checked into an AirBNB apartment in Brooklyn. Back in Israel you grow up thinking Brooklyn is a Jewish haven, but the neighborhood I stayed in was almost entirely African-American.
I was mostly interested in Manhattan, so after checking in I took the subway towards Manhattan and decided to randomly pick a station to get off. And so I found myself at the World Trade Center. The first thing I saw coming out of the subway was the new WTC building still being built. The streets were full of signs directing you to the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, so I went there to take a look. It was weird to see a tremendous amount of Americans at the memorial grounds, posing for pictures with the monuments on the background, smiling and laughing like they're in the happiest place in the world.
I returned to Brooklyn and familiarized myself with the neighborhood where I stayed. Later that evening I made my way towards the Bronx, to see a baseball match between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. The stadium was completely full of people, and there was a nice joyous air all around. We don't have baseball in Israel, and I have absolutely no idea what the rules are, and I found the game quite boring. And I don't think I was alone either; a lot of the crowd did not seem particularly interested in the match, but rather in the little games and entertainment on the large scoreboard, the beer and the food. Many other people weren't even sitting in the balconies, but rather getting drunk in the food courts and actually watching the game on TV. Weird.
After the game I once again decided to drop off randomly at some point in Manhattan, and found myself in Times Square. Well, there was nothing there except a bunch of shiny lights and a lot of people sitting on some balcony. Boring.
I am a huge Seinfeld fan, and back in Israel I was extremely lucky to secure one of the last tickets to Jerry Seinfeld's first show in New York since 1998, that's 14 years! The show took place at the Beacon Theater and was absolutely fantastic. The opening act by Colin Quinn was good too.
As it was Sukkot during that time New York was filled with Israelis and American Haredi Jews that kept trying to get other Jewish people to recite a blessing over a Lulav and Etrog. For some reason they could always immediately recognize I was Jewish and so approached me. I was beginning to think my nose is big. Two of them did manage to convince me to go to the World Chabad Headquarters in Brooklyn for Simchat Torah. I was surprised they could talk pretty good Hebrew. I'm not anywhere near religious, but they did make it sound like a party.
The night of Simchat Torah I walked around Brooklyn, moving from pub to pub, so I could get to the Chabad headquarters good and drunk. There was a tremendous amount of Haredi Jews when I got there, and quite a few Israelis too. With everybody dressed in traditional Haredi garb and other Jews at least dressed formally and wearing yarmulkes, I stuck out like a sore thumb with my baggy rain coat, travel pants and uncovered head, which caused a lot of people to approach me and ask me where I was from and what brought me there. I met a lot of Jewish guys from the US and Canada who spoke Hebrew fairly, most of them were pretty nice (and drunk), but you can be certain I got quite a few lectures over there about God and Zionism and mitzvahs and whatever. We drank wine, some Canadian guy gave me a tour of the place and told me about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. When I finally returned to the apartment that night, I found out I was wearing a velvet yarmulke. How it got on my head I had no idea. The inside of the Kippah had the owner's name in English, and on the outside it was ornamented with the first Hebrew letter of his name. Weird night.
I spent the next days mostly walking around Manhattan, checking out the Empire State Building, Central Park (which has a small but high quality zoo), eating at the delis (of course I had to check out the famous Katz's Delicatessen), walking over the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing as much of New York as I could.
With that said, I had booked way too much time in New York. Nine nights were completely overkill, and after a few days I started to get bored, and began to regret I was not back on the road, driving across the US like I had been just a week or so before. New York really isn't a place to go alone for an extended period of time.
All shortcomings aside, I had an unbelievable time in the US and returned home feeling I could go six more months easily alone. I've learned a lot about myself, my abilities, my wants. After returning to Israel, not a day passed by that I didn't think of being back on the road in the US. Instead of satisfying my desire to visit the US, I returned home with an even greater one. And I did return for a second round, exactly one year later.