From dodgy diners to bawdy billboards, what can you expect on the great American road trip? WORDS: Elise Rana
Venice you see from a gondola, Siberia from a train, the Pyramids by camel and Madagascar by zebu cart. Every destination has its preferred mode of transport, and the states of America are united in theirs: the automobile. Petrol is cheap and the roads are good. From six-lane city freeways to deserted dirt tracks, the USA is the land of the open road and a place where you’re no one without your own wheels.
In a country whose value system is founded on the principle of freedom, having your own vehicle is your ticket to just that. Driveaways, whereby you’re hired to move a car from point to point are good for those on a tight budget, but your mileage and time will be limited. If you want to set your own itinerary and travel at your own pace, fly in with an open-jaw ticket and rent or buy a car, van or RV (recreation vehicle, or motorhome) at one side of the country that can be dropped off or sold at the other. So you’ve got your wheels, you’ve come to grips with the right-hand drive and you’re ready to hit the road, Jack? Here’s what you’re going to discover.
It’s harder than you think to find diners like you see in the movies
Nostalgia is big in America. But while down-home names like Max and Erma’s or Route 66 might suggest you’ll be transported straight into a scene from Grease, the reality of the average Interstate ‘Travel Plaza’ restaurant is very different – soul-destroyingly so. Tarantino fans hoping to be served endless coffee and a slice o’ pie by a buxom tart-with-a-heart at every pitstop will have to head off the Interstate, usually into the ‘burbs. But for an experience like an Arthur Brown’s barbecue beef sandwich (Kansas City), it’s worth the detour. For inspiration, see www.roadfood.com.
Every state has its own identity
The provenance of the various mottos, nicknames and symbols attached to each state is, more often than not, a complete mystery (to quote Friends‘ Chandler: Oklahoma – the Sooner State! Whatever that means!”) However, it’s the kind of useless trivia that makes for an ideal opener for some pleasant smalltalk in the campground, car park or gas station with a stranger who’s clocked your license plates – particularly because, helpfully, the nickname is written on there. So if you’re building up to asking for a jumpstart or are just plain nosy, try this approach: “New Jersey, huh? The Garden State …”
It’s a long way from one end of the US to the other, and it’s a diverse place in between
Concrete jungles, vast plains, red-rock canyons, lush forests, snow-capped mountains, parched deserts … on a road trip, it’s entirely possible to start the day in one world and end it in another, having taken in several other changes of scenery along the way. You could almost forgive Americans their tendency not to leave. Almost.
You can learn a lot about a place from its billboards
In Illinois, scantily-clad women advertise gentlemen’s clubs, while next door in Indiana, the vice is gambling. In rural Missouri, the main interests are trucks and boots. On a more wholesome note, the desirability of the rich-hippie Rockies town of Boulder is evidenced by the number of real estate ads, while in Utah the concerns of the Mormon majority are writ large – wedding organisers and loan companies.
Americans are nicer than you think
Say what you like about their government’s foreign policy, on home soil Americans can make some of the friendliest locals around – they’ll go out of their way to make you feel welcomed and be unfailingly amazed that you’ve come such a long way to see their hometown, particularly if you’ve done the smart thing by escaping the main roads. On TNT‘s trip, this glad-to-know-ya feeling even extended (with the exception of one particularly neatly-moustachioed Idaho state trooper) to the cops, who obliged us by posing for a photograph before issuing us with a traffic violation citation.
For oddball tourist attractions, get off the Interstate
If you need a further excuse to explore the backroads, then surely you can’t resist the lure of the Lunchbox Museum in Salem, Alabama, or the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis, Michigan? You name it and America has a museum devoted to it, from lighters (Guthrie, Oklahoma) to Pez memorabilia (Burlingame, California). And if you’re the kind of person (who isn’t?) who likes having their photo taken in front of an amusing road sign, then you’ve come to the right country. “And this is me in Bummerville, California …”
Don’t rely on the radio
Outside the blessed radius of major cities and college towns, US radio is audio hell for anyone whose musical taste doesn’t begin and end with Van Halen. In more remote areas, the only competition is from the equally amusing-for-about-two-seconds option of fire and brimstone evangelical preaching. There’s a reason why iPods were invented in this country.”