Freelancer Julia Gardiner writes: On one particularly long afternoon at work about a year ago, my friend Fiona swung around and said to me “Let’s just do it, let’s do a road trip in the US.” For the next 12 months we set about roping in two more travel buddies, Fiona’s boyfriend Marty and my friend Kelly; making a month’s worth of travel mixes; scouring the Internet for weird and wonderful places to visit, and finding the perfect picture of a half-naked Bruce Springsteen to hang from the rear-view mirror in whatever giant road-hogging SUV we were given to travel the West Coast.

Here we finally are, struggling with meals larger than our heads, over-tipping bar staff the more $4 gin and tonics we drink and yelling “Sorry, we’re English!” every time we accidentally break a road rule.

After flying into Los Angeles, we spent a few days in Las Vegas. Vegas confounded me, a town built entirely to purpose one industry.

While night time was all bright lights, water fountains, restaurants and people shoving business card-sized explicit pictures of women at you with the promise they can deliver the living, breathing version to your door within the hour, come breakfast time people were already roaming the streets drinking — either continuing on from the night before or getting an early start on the day ahead. On a street corner, a john is prepping his girls, most drinking from the obligatory yard glasses they sell everywhere. They shifted their weight from high-heeled foot to high-heeled foot, practically radiating boredom and far removed from the high-sheen nymphs on the cards that now litter the footpaths.

While I was secretly glad to bid Vegas farewell, Death Valley was itself an intense experience, marking the lowest and hottest part of North America, the landscape providing the perfect place to lose yourself or find yourself, whichever your preference might be.

On our way we stopped at Rhyolite, a spot on the map that seemed to mark nothing more than a ghost town, an open-air sculpture museum, a cemetery and a suspiciously slow moving Sherriff’s car, which passed us not long before a fleet of ominous sounding helicopters flew low overhead as we took photos of a piece of seemingly unending highway. I’m not ashamed to admit that all it took was three helicopters to send four adults scuttling meekly into our SUV, all certain we’d broken some little-known state law that would require the local law enforcement to shoot to kill. What can I say? I watched a lot of American Gothic as a kid, and my only point of reference for Sheriffs is that they can be dangerous and sexually alluring, but mostly dangerous.

While the ghost town isn’t much to write home about, the Goldwell Open Air Museum has been one of the best finds of our trip so far. Belgian artist Albert Szukalski created the first sculpture on the site, a striking and unsettling rendering of The Last Supper.

Since then, other artists have contributed pieces including Hugo Heyrman, whose pixel-influenced Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada kneels to greet visitors. Heyrman can add a new claim to fame on his resume as being the first artist whose work has led an extremely perplexed American to turn to me and say “That yellow thing there…do you think it’s pubic hair?”. I was only happy to confirm that I did, in fact, suspect it was an artist’s rendering of public hair. I want Americans to be left with the impression Australians are nothing if not helpful and knowledgeable about basic anatomy.

As we drove on, we watched our temperature gauge in the car start to climb quickly, the lower we dropped into the valley. While it looked like we were dropping down into clouds, we were actually heading for Mesquite Flat sand dunes, where we sat in the black and white sand and intense heat and watched the sun set and light up the mountains a spectacular pink. If you push your fingers into the sand, you can feel the cold rising.

The next morning we got up early to watch the sun rise at Zabriskie Point before heading to Badwater Basin, a massive salt flat in the shadow of a mountain, eerily quiet bar the sound of shoes crunching on the kilometres of packed salt, which a surprising number of people chose to lick, with clear disregard for hygiene and blood pressure issues.

While I didn’t manage to find myself there, Death Valley certainly makes you feel small and realise how violent the creation must be of something so spectacular.

You cant find more of Julia’s writings at her blog Doom and Gloom.