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Foreign Exchange

Five European students road trip across North America

Story by Tens August 27th, 2015

Guest Blog by Sam Leakey

We‘d spent the year together, studying at Trent University in Ontario, Canada; each of us on exchange from a different European university. This trip had been brewing since the first day we met and realised we had essentially the same goals for our time in Canada. Sure, school came into it, we had degrees to think about, but really what we wanted most of all was an opportunity to see this new continent we were in, explore it and experience it.

The month before leaving was a hectic mess of studying for the 25 exams we had between us, trying to find time to enjoy the first warm days after the long and ridiculously cold Canadian winter and get some sort of plan together for what this trip could become.



April 26th, Northern Ontario. Sam was driving. Lara was beside him in the front passenger seat, Ciaran, Dian and Robbie were in the back. Things were beginning to feel real. After so long and so much planning and dreaming, this was finally actually happening. Our journey across a continent had begun.

It was surprising how quickly we got used to spending upwards of eight hours a day in the confined space of the car. It was actually quite a nice place to be. Huge, of course, as all American cars are, but also filled with friends, good music and the excitement of sleeping in a new place every night.

We planned to spend most of the trip camping but the first few nights were so cold that we found ourselves pulling into a motel rather than pitching our tents on the frozen ground.

Our route was taking us directly west across Canada. Once we got through the twisting roads of northern Ontario we were into prairie country.

Prairies make for fast driving.

For a start everything is so flat the the roads are almost perfectly straight. Secondly, there’s almost nothing to look at so there’s no reason to stop. Our road breaks took us onto dirt tracks that lead off for miles into the grasslands. One of these breaks found us sitting on a hill in tall, dry grass watching a train in the distance. There was an extraordinarily clear sense of space and time in that moment. Grass and low rolling hills forever in all directions and a train that spanned the horizon and must have taken all of eternity to pass by.

Sometimes prairies make for good stops.


Dinosaur Provincial Park just suddenly appears. You’re driving through farmland, grass fields and crops on all sides and then you crest a hill and all of a sudden: badlands.

When we got there the sun was close to setting; we had maybe an hour of light left. Sense told us to pitch camp and start cooking in daylight but our gut had us running out and climbing the tallest hill that we could find with a view to the west.



After Dinosaur we headed on further west to Banff to meet up with some friends of ours. We did a bit of looking around with some walks around the valley floors and lakes but it was still way too early in the season for us to get up any mountains. Deep snow was blocking almost all access to those without gear or experience, of which we had neither. We weren‘t too into the cold either so we cut our stay in the Rockies short to head on to Vancouver Island in BC where we expected things to be a bit warmer.


We had our first car trouble descending the western side of the Rockies. It was about a two hour descent down fairly steep switchbacks. Sam had actually only driven once since passing his test two years previously, and that was about an hour’s worth on rural roads in Iceland the summer before. Some experience or a quick glance at the manual would have told him to shift down into a low gear and brake partly using the engine.

Sam didn‘t do any of that and went down the entire mountain just using the brakes.

The car itself weighs about two tonnes and with all of us and our gear loaded it was probably nearer three. Towards the bottom of the descent things start feeling funny and we pull over. Immediately thick smokes and steam start rising from all four brakes simultaneously. They‘re glowing bright red and hissing. Hmm. None of us claim to really know much about cars but we recognised that something was probably up…

We were towed into Whistler and spent the evening worrying these repairs could cost us the trip. We figure out the amount that we can afford to pay and cross our fingers the next morning as we go down to see the mechanic.

Turns out all that’s needed is to flush and replace the brake fluid and it costs less than a tenth of what we were prepared to pay. So we paid it, happily and set off again.



Tofino is probably my favourite place on Earth. We arrived there as the sun was setting. Every night of the journey so far we’d been following the setting sun west. We ran barefoot down a sandy beach towards the ocean. In front of us the sun approached the horizon and we felt a quiet contentment knowing that we’d reached a huge milestone in our journey. We’d driven across Canada, as far west as we could possibly go.


We could have happily stayed in Tofino for the rest of the trip, for the rest of our lives even but we managed to pull ourselves away eventually.

From Vancouver Island we headed to Vancouver to meet up with our friends from Banff who were going to be there for a few days. They were all exchange students from Trent as well and there were a lot of sad goodbyes in Vancouver as for most of us it was the last places we would see each other in North America and possibly for quite a long time.


We arrived in Yosemite Valley in darkness, late at night and pitched our tents at the North Pines campground. We woke up as the sun entered the valley the next morning. Yosemite was a place that we had all seen pictures of before, we knew the names of the domes, some of the famous climbs, and we felt like we had a slight grasp of what Yosemite was. Actually we had no idea. That first morning, was spent in a state of incredulous awe, staring up at the enormous granite rockfaces that surrounded us in the valley on almost every side. Far more eloquent writers than us have written about the valley and it’s tempting to quote Muir or Adams but instead we would urge people: just go. We had all read the words and seen the pictures but neither went any way towards really preparing us for what we saw that morning.


Over the course of the roadtrip we’ve come to the conclusion that it is possible to see a lot from a vehicle but you can only really experience it on your own feet.

Big Sur

We had a few days in San Francisco before heading south along Highway 1 which runs right along the Pacific coast. Cliffs, road, cliffs, beach. In that order, for pretty much all 1000km of it. Driving through Big Sur is listed amongst the top ten drives in the world and not without reason. It’s an absolutely gorgeous drive and had us begging for something a little more maneuverable than our hulking, overweight saggy giant of a vehicle.



We turned back on ourselves for the first time in our journey at San Luis Obispo and started to head east. Our route planning before departure never really amounted to more than a vague circle drawn on a map of North America. It was now late May and we were about three quarters of the way through that circle.

We stopped for a while at Sequoia National Park on the western side of the Sierra Nevadas. We spent our days there walking through the groves of giant sequoia trees that have made the park so famous.


We then headed east across the desert to Vegas. Ciaran had left us in San Francisco to go and visit his sister and Vegas worked well as a rendezvous for him to fly into.

It had been hot since we arrived in the States. Most days would be over 30°C, I couldn’t remember the last time I wore trousers or something long sleeved. The car’s air con hadn’t ever really worked. We’d been pretty okay with it up until we turned east but from then on the temperatures just got higher. When it came to crossing the desert on the way to Vegas we realised it wouldn’t be possible during the day - temperatures were easily over 40°C from about 10am and we figured it would actually be irresponsible to drive the car on a busy highway in that heat without AC. Instead we drove it at night, set off at about 6pm, loaded up on coffee and Red Bull at midnight and drove through until we arrived in Vegas at about 6am the following morning. The lowest we saw the temperature drop to was 22°C. Mental.


The Southwest

We only stayed a night in Vegas - it definitely wasn’t our kind of place. We left and headed off to spend a couple of nights in Zion National Park, Colorado.

Life had been a bit silly for basically all of the trip. The things that we saw and did were so far removed from normal life that we spent quite a lot of our time questioning how any of it was even happening. Silliness ramped up to new levels from Zion onwards. We spent one day walking up Angels Landing, a narrow ridge that protrudes into the centre of Zion Valley with a chained route to the top and comfortably 1000ft drops on either side.

From Zion we went on and spent some time in Page, Arizona. Taking in sunsets from Horseshoe Bend and the north rim of the Grand Canyon and spending our mornings walking through the incredible Antelope Canyons and our nights driving across desert plains under starlit skies.

Again, how was any of this even happening?


From Page we headed further east, passing through Monument Valley on our way back up towards Colorado. We stopped first at Mesa Verde National Park. It was one of the first ever UNESCO World Heritage sites and consists of remarkably well preserved cliff dwellings from over 700 years ago. Robbie’s an archaeology student and seeing him run around the place with the biggest, cheesiest grin on his face was almost as enjoyable as just walking around and looking at it ourselves.



All of a sudden we only had three days left before Dian had to be in Chicago to catch her flight back to Holland. And after that there were only another two before Robbie and Lara needed to be in Toronto catch theirs back to Scotland and Germany. That left just Ciaran and I and it wasn’t long before we went off in separate directions too.

After so much time together you begin to expect one and other’s company forever. Now that we’re all apart it’s comforting to think that the journey we shared and unforgettable experiences that came with it will bind us together strongly enough that ten, twenty or fifty years down the line when we’re all grey and old, we can do it all again.

Check out more of Sam’s work on his Tumblr here, and follow him on Instagram here.