One of the biggest tests for any relationship is that first vacation you take together. Are your travel styles similar? How much money do you spend on comforts, food, or activities? Can you survive long periods of time with just each other’s company?

I started dating Jeroen shortly after moving from Iowa to Belgium. In the few months we had dated, we had taken small weekend trips to places around Europe. But when I pitched him the idea of going to California to celebrate my friend’s birthdays, he upped the ante and suggested we take some time for ourselves on the vacation as well.



A major plus for us both (and bonus point for the relationship!) was that we both carried the urge to visit national parks. We decided we would visit Yosemite before the birthday celebration, and afterward we would drive down to Death Valley National Park. We mapped out a rough itinerary, rented a car, and were out on the open road before we knew it.

Just like in most relationships, we hit a few roadblocks while on the vacation. And I’m not even speaking metaphorically—we hit a literal road block. In Yosemite, the one road we needed was closed, which caused us to backtrack three hours and lose a half a day. By the time we arrived at Death Valley, we were both tired and cranky, and then we found out there was no internet connection (the only way our European phones worked). Regardless, we were happy to be there, to get food in our stomachs, and very excited for the next day. The plan? Wake up at 4:00AM and drive to Dante’s View to catch the 4:45AM sunrise.

Well, neither of us are early birds (bonus point #2!), so we ended up reaching Dante’s View around 5:30AM. Lucky for us, the sun must have also wanted to sleep in and we caught it coming through the clouds right as we neared the top. We slowly, sleepily, trekked along the top of the cliffs, peering over the edges onto the Badwater Basin (a saltwater basin at one of the lowest points in Death Valley) and the Devil’s Golf Course (a large, bumpy salt pan where “only the devil would want to play golf”). We chatted with a lone backpacker while he sipped his morning coffee, the only other person who made the morning venture up the mountain. We took in the sights, walked a bit to take in the brisk air (Death Valley is surprisingly cool in the morning), and then we got back into our car to head to our next destination, Zabriskie Point.

Zabriskie Point is my favorite part of Death Valley because the terrain is so interesting. I’ve never seen anything like it; I felt like I had been transported to another planet. I stood there in early morning solitude, marveling at the beauty. I couldn’t help but wonder if my experience could be comparable to someone who had gone their whole life never seeing snow, and then catching sight of the first snowflakes during winter.

Another amazing terrain is the Devil’s Golf Course. As we were driving, we sat there unimpressed with the sites until we rounded the corner and everything just… changed. The ground became more bumpy and uneven, with salt crystals forming onto the basketball-sized ball formations that seemed welded into the ground. Though interesting from a top view, what was even more interesting was to learn the salt beds can range up to 9,000 feet deep! The exact quote that sums up how I felt about the Golf Course was when Jeroen turned to me while driving and said, “I don’t see what is so amazing about this— oh… wow.”

All in all, Death Valley was an amazing experience. Other highlights of the trip included hiking in the Golden Canyon and catching a glimpse of the Red Cathedral, taking photos at the Natural Bridge, and seeing the vivid, natural colors of the rocks on the Artist’s Drive. I also briefly woke up from a car nap and thought a coyote was a fox, something Jeroen has yet to let me live down.

But, even better, we survived the heat of the valley and our first (of many) vacations together. Bonus point #3.

THE TRAVELIN’ SONG: California Sun (The Ramones). We had a great playlist going with a lot of songs about California, but this was the main one we settled on.

BUDGET: A 9 day road trip across California with my boo; approximately $3000 spent for airfare, car rental, hotel lodging, and fine dining. The overall price was high, but it was spread out over many areas in California.

TIP FOR TRAVELERS:  Death Valley is very, very large. There is an area where there are sailing stones (a natural phenomenon, look them up!), but you need to have a vehicle with 4-wheel drive and a spare set of tires to get there. We didn’t. Oh well. At least we have an excuse to go back.

DEFINITELY CHECK OUT: Zabriskie Point. Preferably at sunrise. You won’t be the only person there, but you also won’t be disappointed.

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