A few weeks ago I decided to take a road trip out West. I booked it planning to go alone. Later that day I had another idea.
I have two half-brothers, Stephen and Dylan, ages 22 and 17. Stephen and I share a mother, and Dylan and I share a father. Even though they live in the same town in Virginia, they’ve never met.
I called each of them two days ago to break the news that we were going to take a road trip together. Forty-eight hours later we were standing together outside baggage claim in California. This is our story.
Day 1: Los Angeles
August 23rd, 2013
This afternoon I picked Stephen and Dylan up from LAX. I flew in yesterday from New York, and they were flying together from Roanoke to Atlanta to Los Angeles. I found them curbside.
They sat in the same row but not next to each other on the plane. They were making small talk. We were all excited.
We walked to the parking garage and ran into a musician friend who was in town to play a festival along the way. A good omen, I thought.
Neither Stephen or Dylan have been to California before, so we started the trip by driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. We crawled through traffic up to Venice and parked near the beach.
“We need to start this trip by putting our feet into the Pacific,” I explained. And so we did. We walked in the waves with pants rolled up, everyone shooting iPhone videos of everyone shooting iPhone videos of everyone laughing.
"I was just in the Atlantic Ocean yesterday," Dylan said. Everyone agreed this was cool.
We made our way back to the car and kept driving north. I wanted to take them to Malibu where the foothills, road, and ocean meet. We swung around curves where the road felt like it might disappear into the surf like the beach levels in “Super Mario Kart.”
My friend Stacey texted earlier in the day to invite us to the set of a film she’s producing: “Wish I Was Here,” the new Zach Braff movie that was funded on Kickstarter. They were filming on the beach in Santa Monica. We turned around and headed that way.
We found them in a parking lot. I hugged Stacey and Zach and introduced them to Stephen and Dylan. A group of Kickstarter backers were there too. I introduced myself and amazingly two of the people had lived in Floyd, Virginia (a small town not far from where I grew up and Stephen and Dylan live), and knew Haden, my best friend since I was 15. The smallest of small worlds.
That night they were shooting a scene where Zach and Kate Hudson sat and talked on a lifeguard tower by the Santa Monica Pier. Behind them a ferris wheel and roller coaster flashed.
We stood in a tent with Renetta, the script supervisor, Adam, the screenwriter and Zach’s brother, and Stacey, the producer. We watched the scene between Zach and Kate on a monitor and listenied to the boom mic on headphones.
It was really cool. We got to hear Zach directing Kate Hudson and commenting on the shot. “It’s amazing when you picture something and it’s actually like you imagined it,” he said. I knew what he meant.
The sun fell fast and soon we were three idiots in T-shirts and shorts. Before we knew it the crew brought us coats and someone gave Dylan a huge blanket that he wrapped himself in.
Dylan wants to be a filmmaker, and Stacey took the time to introduce him to members of the crew and explain what they did. The key grip, first assistant director, gaffer, hair, makeup, the whole works. Dylan took it in with a big grin.
Soon he was standing with another of the movie’s producers, a man named Michael who made “The Big Chill” and many other movies. They were sharing their love for “Lawrence of Arabia.” Michael was surprised that Dylan knew what it was.
It was getting late and the boys were hungry. Before leaving Stacey wanted to introduce us to Kate Hudson, so we stayed and talked with her and Zach for a while. I told them about the trip we were about to take, and it made them wistful for the roadtrips they’d taken before. Everyone wished us a safe journey.
The night ended with dinner at a place called Jones Cafe in West Hollywood. It had leather booths, loud music, and lots of people. After dinner I drove us along the Sunset Strip. The billboards, signs, and crowds lit our way.
Day 2: Joshua Tree
August 24th, 2013
We woke up this morning in Beverly Hills, packed the car, and headed to Hollywood for breakfast and the view.
Breakfast was perfectly ostentatious. A latte course and a French press coffee course. Stephen got steak and eggs. Dylan got a BLT. I got eggs benedict. We were happy.
After breakfast, we visited a photo booth because obviously.
The day’s plan was to drive to Joshua Tree and then make our way to Sedona that night. We drove out of LA and into the desert air-drumming to Tame Impala and enthusiastically off-key singing to Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
Finally we reached Joshua Tree. The bizarre landscape stretched out in every direction, occasionally interrupted by huge mounds of boulders and the park’s eponymous trees.
We pulled over, walked into the desert, and started climbing an enormous pile of boulders. Stephen and Dylan scampered up with ease. I was slower and more risk-averse. Soon I was looking up at them.
"I think we’re a lot more limber than you are," 22-year-old Stephen said. I did not disagree.
After they conquered the mountain we continued driving through the park. There were alien lands.
More alien lands.
We left the park and went straight into a big storm. Stephen captured this photo of the lightning.
Mostly today here was driving. Three hours to Joshua Tree from LA and then three hours from Joshua Tree to Phoenix. In Phoenix we stopped for a great meal at a place called Gallo Blanco (we found it via Foursquare — thx Foursquare!). Everything was delicious.
From Phoenix we drove another 90 miles to Sedona in darkness. We’re in a hotel for the night, and in the morning we’ll awake to see Sedona for the first time. We’re ready for whatever tomorrow will bring.
Day 3: The Grand Canyon
August 25th, 2013
Last night we drove from Phoenix to Sedona in darkness. This morning we opened our curtains to see Sedona for the first time. This is what we saw.
Yeah, not bad. Suitably awed, we sat down for breakfast. Stephen and Dylan spent most of it talking about video games, as you can see from Dylan’s blissed-out face:
We decided to go on a hike. Stephen found a trail called Devil’s Bridge on a website, which immediately settled all arguments for what to do next.
The trail was amazing. In every direction there were huge mountains soaked in a deep red clay. The ground was the same deep red, and it was covered in cacti, trees, and other desert details.
We didn’t even get lost.
The trail took us up one of the mountains, and each step gave us a better view of the valley.
Finally we reached Devil’s Bridge. Victory!
Stephen and Dylan celebrated.
And Stephen played in puddles. This made him happy.
The trail conquered, we hit the road. The plan was to go to the Grand Canyon. We took 85 north, a beautiful road that winds up and down huge mountains and through a thick forest. It felt like the Pacific Northwest. Arizona: who knew?
Out of the forest, we stopped for a late lunch in a town called Williams. The restaurant was straight out of Guy Fieri’s horrifying dreams. The bathroom used a car door to separate the urinal. Classy.
After lunch Stephen took over driving. Dylan sat shotgun. I marveled at what a weird world this is. We sang along to “The Funeral,” “Maps,” and a bunch of other songs. Dylan played “Where Is My Mind” and we all yelled “STOP!” at the right moment. I was a proud big brother.
Hours later we arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We parked the car, none of us having any idea what to expect. We rushed ahead. We were immediately overwhelmed. Wow. Even full of clouds, it’s stunning.
We decided to stay at the Grand Canyon lodge nearby. After checking in we visited the lodge’s college-style cafeteria for a game of Cards Against Humanity. The game’s most exciting moment came when a mouse ran along the railing next to us and others. Rather than try to trap the mouse, everyone — us included — reached for their phones to video it. Sadly we were unsuccessful (and the mouse got away too).
It was a long and exhausting day, and we were more than ready to turn in. Tomorrow will bring more of the Grand Canyon and maybe even Utah. Wish us luck.
Day 4: Zion
Today we traveled over mountains, through valleys, and across great plains to Zion. It felt every bit a pilgrimage, each landscape outdoing the one before. Stunning doesn’t even begin to describe it.
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Day 5: Utah
August 26th, 2013
We woke up this morning in Zion. We immediately set off for a couple of hikes to Weeping Rock and the Narrows.
Neither hike was challenging, but it was amazing to explore the canyon. We walked up to the Weeping Rock waterfall, and saw this when we turned around.
The hike to the Narrows took us on a trail along the Virgin River (who names these things?) sheltered by the steep rocks. We stopped by the river for some R&R:
And walking sticks.
On the walk back we had a great moment. Standing right next to the path was a deer with two fawns. We stood feet away from them for about ten minutes.
As much as we loved Zion it was time to go. This is a road trip, after all. We piled back into the car — Stephen the day’s driving hero once again — and headed to Bryce Canyon nearby.
Bryce Canyon was beautiful.
And the perfect backdrop for a triple-selfie.
Our time in Bryce was short — only 30 minutes. After Joshua Tree, Sedona, Grand Canyon, and Zion, we were convinced: nature is awesome.
We drove west on I-70 across Utah, and Mother Nature quickly showed us up. The mountains of the south fell away and the Moab Desert emerged. Things began feeling very apocalyptic. As the sun was setting we pulled over.
We stood there quietly and took it in.
And then we kept on trucking. Stephen played us dubstep mixes and bro-splained the tracks to Dylan and I. (I remain unconvinced but love his enthusiasm.) We screamed along to Tom Petty, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Kanye. By the end of the day my voice was tired from all the scream-singing.
Hours later we pulled into Green River, our destination for the night. We ate at a diner and sketched out the rest of the trip. The original plan had us going to Jackson Hole before making our way back to LA, but time was already getting tight.
We decided that tomorrow we’ll go to Arches National Park, briefly venture into Colorado, and then pull a U-turn back towards Utah. The boys wanted to see San Francisco, and so there we would go.
Day 6: Arches
August 27th, 2013
Shortly before we started our trip, I asked Twitter and Facebook where we should stop. The overwhelming choice was Arches National Park in Utah. Today we got to see whether you guys know what you’re talking about.
The answer, obviously, is yes. It was beautiful, and had a Martian landscape. The huge rocks felt like the walls to an ancient civilization.
The park’s main attractions are — surprise, surprise — arches of rock. We pulled over and hiked to the first we saw.
As has been the theme this week, Stephen and Dylan immediately set to work climbing as high as they could on them.
They actually climbed even higher than this, but they got so high up that they don’t show up in my photos. That’s where this happened:
Maybe somethings are best left unseen.
Meanwhile I chilled down below.
It was very hot and our next hike to Landscape Arch was much farther. Stephen was prepared.
Landscape Arch was worth every bit of the walk.
Nearby signs highlighted a difficult hike, and so of course we had to try. There was little in the way of a trail — more a series of boulders that led in a general direction.
It was fun. And let the record show that both Stephen and Dylan were tired long before I was, and asked that we call it off. I was ready to go on.
Still, the view was amazing.
The plan from Arches was to drive into Colorado as far as Glenwood Springs on I-70 (about a two-hour drive), and then head northwest towards Salt Lake City. We at least wanted to put our feet in Colorado even if we couldn’t spend longer than a few hours there.
The drive to Colorado was well worth it. It was our first time seeing the Rockies.
We got to Glenwood Springs, and then headed north on Route 13. It was a beautiful two-lane highway with a 65 speed limit and incredible landscapes. Road-trip heaven.
We even drove through a town called Dinosaur.
The real story of the day, though, was Stephen, who was a beast behind the wheel. He drove our trusty Jetta for 10 hours straight from Arches to Glenwood Springs all the way to Wendover, Nevada.
Us that whole time:
Before the final leg across Utah, we stopped at a 7-11 to stock up on supplies. When we told the clerk we were completely sober and buying this stuff, she did a double-take.
(Don’t worry Mom — everything else we’re eating is vegetables.)
We reached Nevada at 1am. In the morning we would wake up and drive nine hours to San Francisco. The trip is coming to an end.
Day 7: Nevada
August 28th, 2013
Today we woke up on the Utah-Nevada border. Yesterday we (Stephen) drove 12 hours nonstop to get here. Today’s goal was for us (Stephen) to drive another ten hours to San Francisco.
We woke up looking for breakfast, and found it in a diner that doubled as a casino. This, we soon learned, was true of everything in Nevada. Absolutely anything could be a casino if you tried hard enough. Eight new casino-somethings have opened in the time it took you to read this sentence.
Breakfast was tired and grumpy. Dylan was particularly quiet.
"What’s wrong?" I asked.
"A girl is giving me grief on Facebook," Dylan said.
"Grief over what?" I asked.
The drive across Nevada was, in a word, boring. It was a lot of nothing. We’d round a smallish mountain only to see an identical valley in front of us with another smallish mountain ahead. The only entertaining sights were the signs telling us not to pick up hitchhikers near prisons.
Four hours into Nevada we stopped at a rest area. A few women were selling Native American jewelry. Stephen bought a necklace and bracelet, and Dylan bought a necklace.
"I was going to get the necklace with a bear on it, which means courage," Dylan said. "Instead I got one with a turtle." It might be the most Michael Cera-y thing anyone has ever said.
We kept driving. Dylan slept in the back seat and Stephen and I talked up front. The world around us was covered in a deep haze, and we couldn’t figure out what it was. We eventually realized that it was smoke from forest fires in Yosemite ahead.
When we crossed the California border the change was immediate. Tall mountains, regal pine trees, a beautiful river hugging the road. It was awe-inspiring. We agreed that whoever negotiated the Nevada-California border for Nevada really got screwed.
As we crossed the border, Stephen made a California joke: “Did interstate 80 just become ‘The 80’?” I was proud.
Hours later we came to San Francisco. Stephen navigated traffic, and suddenly there we were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. It towered above us.
I booked us a room on the water between the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. The room was very swank, with a separate living room and a big patio underneath the skyscrapers and stars. Even if we hadn’t just spent seven days wandering public parks, this was some cosmopolitan living.
For dinner we went to a tony San Francisco restaurant called AQ, which got its start via a Kickstarter project. It was the fanciest place Stephen or Dylan had ever been, and they took full advantage.
Our meal started with two appetizers: peaches and ham (delicious) and swordfish and cactus (after being around cactus so much the past week I felt it was important that we eat some). For our entrees Dylan had sirloin and bone marrow, I had black cod, and Stephen had squab that the waitress warned him four times about before allowing him to order.
"It’s very medium-rare,” she cautioned.
She didn’t know that these warnings made us more excited to see what would come. Apparently “very medium-rare” meant that essentially raw. Stephen — who lives on a dare-based diet — happily ate it.
During dinner we talked about our trip and the three of us being together for the first time. Several times I had joked about something “bringing shame upon our family,” but it wasn’t clear what family I meant. They were both family to me, but what were they to each other?
This was apparent even with the simple use of nouns. Stephen and I share a mother, and Dylan and I share a father. Both parents remarried years ago, and I grew up with two step-parents who I remain close with. Stephen’s father is Tommy, and Dylan’s mother is Karen. Growing up I called them by their first names.
Whenever I’ve spoken to Stephen or Dylan about Tommy or Karen, though, I’ve always called them Dad and Mom. I’d ask Stephen how Dad is doing, meaning Tommy. I’d ask Dylan about Mom, meaning Karen. But with all of us together, this was confusing. Mom who? Families were colliding. I had to either make very direct eye-contact with the person whose Mom I was talking about, or I had to use first names. It was strange.
We walked home from dinner. I felt a palpable excitement at being in a city again — even San Francisco, a city I’ve been to many times and have never liked. We got home and sat together on our patio, laughing late into the night. The end of the trip was coming, and we were savoring every second.
Day 8: Big Sur
August 29th, 2013
We woke up in San Francisco on our last full day. The plan was to explore the city and then drive to LA that afternoon. Our flights were out of LAX the next day.
The morning got off to a rocky start. We had a heavy day of walking in front of us but Dylan had worn flip-flips. A half-hour into our day he was struggling. I did the only sensible thing a New York big brother could do: go to the nearest store and buy a new pair of shoes.
Minutes later Dylan was sporting a sweet pair of Campers, but with one small problem: we forgot socks. Dylan was in searing pain that was getting worse by the second. He tended to his heels — they were bloody and blistered after just ten minutes — and we bought socks. Poor Dylan.
Our comrade had fallen, and yet we marched on — in a taxi. Dylan had one request: that we go to a record store. I took them to Amoeba Records on Haight Street, one of the biggest and best record stores in the world. Stephen and Dylan (even with his injury) ran to the vinyl.
We spent an hour thumbing through albums. I told Stephen and Dylan to each pick out three records to buy. I decided that I would do the same for each of them. And they on their own decided that they would each recommend an album that the other buy for themselves. It was a system of reciprocity where everyone would benefit, Amoeba especially.
Stephen picked out Neutral Milk Hotel, the new Boards of Canada, and Bonobo (Dylan’s recommendation). Dylan picked out Toro y Moi, Bonobo, and the Eraser (Stephen’s recommendation).
I had a lot of fun deciding what to get for them. I picked out a similar record musically but specifically tailored to their personalities. For Stephen, I got Isaac Hayes’ “Hot Buttered Soul.” For Dylan, James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo 1962.” For Stephen, Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” For Dylan, Terry Riley’s “In C.” For Stephen, the reggae compilation “Studio One Roots.” For Dylan, the reggae compilation “Studio One Funk 45s.”
They were pretty pleased with their haul.
We walked to the corner of Haight and Ashbury and I asked them to pose for a picture. Its significance was lost on them, but I assured them that their parents would appreciate it.
It was mid-afternoon, and time to leave San Francisco. We piled into the car and headed south towards LA. We stopped at In-N-Out, this being California after all.
And then headed to one of the most amazing places on earth: Big Sur.
A week earlier we began our trip by taking the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu. We were going to finish our trip by taking it south through Big Sur. Huge, lush mountains dropping straight into a rocky Pacific Ocean. A two-lane road winding right along the cliffs. Big Sur is amazing.
The drive was incredible. This time I was behind the wheel and Stephen and Dylan hung their heads out of the windows.
"My jaw keeps finding new places to drop," Dylan said.
"We’re so spoiled," Stephen said.
I timed our San Francisco departure so that we would drive through Big Sur at sunset. I wanted to watch the sun sink behind the Pacific while we watched from the cliffs. The sun cast its magic-hour light across us as we drove.
Ten minutes before sunset we pulled over. It was just like I imagined. We stood on a cliff and watched the sun go down. It’s something the three of us will always remember.
A mile ahead was a stretch of coast where you could get on the beach. We stopped. A huge, undisturbed field separated the road and ocean, and Stephen sprinted across it to the water. Dylan (hurt feet and all) and I followed. We ran as fast as we could towards the water.
We scampered down the rocks, took off our shoes, and ran into the freezing Pacific. Darkness was falling but the white caps of the waves and the horizon’s orange streak lit our faces. We laughed and played in the surf. Our feet shivered but we didn’t care. It was us, the ocean, and the huge sky above.
We were four hours from LA and 12 hours from our flights home. We got back on the road.
On the trip’s final leg I offered some Big Brother advice. I asked them to look out for each another in a way that I’m not able to from where I live in New York. Be positive influences on each other. Help each other be your best selves. Do this for me and for you. They agreed.
We got into LA late, and woke up early the next morning. We gathered our things, dropped off the rental car (that Jetta is the trip’s unsung hero), and went to the airport. Stephen and Dylan were flying to Virginia, and I was flying to New York. It was actually over.
While Stephen checked his luggage, Dylan and I reflected on the trip. “I’m coming home with a new brother,” Dylan said. I managed not to cry.
Stephen rejoined us and we stood together quietly. They hadn’t left yet and I was already missing them. How could it already be time to say goodbye? We hugged tightly, and then tighter still. I told them I loved them. And with a wave, they were gone.
One of the trip’s big themes was the backseat shot. Dylan started it by snapping a photo from between the seats. From then on anytime we’d enter a new landscape, someone would shout “backseat shot!” to whoever was back there.
Stephen’s colorful couture: one of the trip’s most memorable natural wonders.
Our route. Miles driven: 3,442.