The American Road trip – a dream of many realised by few, an opportunity not to be missed. Packing light and jumping in the back of a clapped out car is an adventure. There were four of us: me and fellow Brit, Sam, along with two Yanks, Corin and Julie, all squeezed into a tiny car with only the open road before us.
Nothing is simple; our trip was unusual from the beginning. The route was not chosen for the scenic beauty or historic significance, but out of necessity and convenience. Initially, we had two points: San Francisco and Goshen, Vermont. The first was where my car owning friend Corin lives. This would serve as a reasonable starting point. The second would be our final destination where we were to work at a camp for the summer. There was one necessary stop in between, Seattle, where Julie’s sister would have, hopefully, given birth to her first child.
We formed a random line between three cities across the vastness of the United States. Because of the pressures of the real world, we only had six days to realise our dream. We were certainly going to make the most of it.
The drive north out of San Francisco took us cruising along Highway 101, not historically significant or even a favourite for the road tripper, but forever embedded in my subconscious by the soundtrack of "The OC". We put the song on full blast, sang along as we raced away from the city in the early morning sun. I could feel the joy and excitement bubbling under my skin. It had begun!
The ever changing landscape of the United States is astonishing. It is like nothing I have ever experienced before; one day you are racing through hills and forest, the next day you're surrounded by desert. I spent hours gazing out the window watching the landscape fly past. On that first stretch northward, we spent the daylight hours on the road. I gazed at the shrubby half desert passing by, half grassland landscape of northern California as it progresses into the more lush greenery of Oregon, with the yellows and browns fading to green and fresh wet air replacing the dry heat from the open windows. The quick look at the snow covered peek of Mount Shasta and pose for photos was the only stop of the day; we cruised into Portland, Oregon, a little before midnight.
Portland is an incredible city: a dirty industrial town clinging to the Washington border full to the brim with shops, pubs and crowds of people. We were engulfed for the morning in the world’s largest bookstore, Powell’s Books. I was lost in a maze of excitement and possibility. After lunch the road was calling us back. We raced the stretch to Seattle in two hours. A free place to crash on a friend's floor and a baby born in time, completed our fleeting visit.
From Seattle the only way to go while staying in the U.S. is east, so we joined the I-90 and cruised through the spectacular greenery and awe inspiring mountains of eastern Washington, the Rocky Mountain Range stretching for what felt like forever. We passed through the tiny strip of upstate Idaho and finally entered Wyoming and beautiful Yellowstone National Park, with its rolling tree covered hills sloping into crystal clear lakes – mirrors reflecting a perfect image. Wildlife roams the park, bison wander the roads slowing cars to a crawl, coyotes run along in the long grasses. All this is majestically interspersed with bubbling pools of mud, acid burned trees and geysers of water shooting into the sky. I was thrilled. The natural wonders, along with the smell of sulfur served as a reminder of the danger and fragility underlying the park. I was left with a feeling of wonder; elated that this little pocket of land would be protected for future generations.
We left the park with a pang of regret; I promised myself to return one day. Time was pressing us; we pushed further east before finding a campsite for the night. Leaving the park from the east entrance forced us to follow Highway 14, a winding single lane road curling through the landscape over mountains high enough for snow to fall and across valleys with lakes that sparkled in the setting sun. The detour, although the most spectacular we had yet travelled, was slow; the sun set before we reached civilisation. The winding road took us past spectacle after spectacle. For once it didn’t seem to matter if it would be another late night, or that there was nothing but crisp for dinner because this part of the journey was worth any inconvenience. The twinkling lights beyond the blackness promised a warm meal and a place to sleep.
Crazy Lady Campground was our accommodation for the night. We rolled in well after two in the morning due to our first but not last run-in with the cops. In our desperate attempt to find the campground, we may have been a bit heavy footed, driving over the speed limit, mainly because none of us had any idea what the speed limit was. Butterflies danced in my stomach and I could feel my palms get clammy as the police approached us. I was happy I wasn’t driving. The policeman took Julie’s identification and license, and strolled back to his car while we silently cursed small town cops with nothing better to do but pull over lost tourists. As soon as he reached his car, he turned, sprinted back to us thrusting the documents into Julie’s hands with a hurried, "you free to go". He ran back to his car before speeding off into the distance siren wailing and lights flashing. He obviously had found something better to do with his time; we celebrated the narrow escape.
The next morning we left the green hills and entered the land of nothing. Welcome to South Dakota – a flat land, no colour. The dry brown fields were dotted with oil pumps, stretching infinitely towards the horizon, so it seemed. The only thing breaking the monotony was the occasional barn, a blotch of red in this world of brown. The drive through South Dakota was long, boring, broken only by two surreal stops. Mt. Rushmore appeared over the trees as the road curved around the corner – four presidents carved in stone, looming overhead – bizarre and spectacular. The second stop was The Corn Palace in the insignificant town of Mitchell, exactly what is says on the tin, a palace built entirely out of corn, a strange testament to the importance of corn and agriculture in the state. We drove until we came into Minnesota, a little after midnight.
Our second to last day on the road was one for eating up the miles; we crossed five states, around Lake Michigan to Julie’s home town of Grand Rapids, in central Michigan. We had no sights to see and hours to spend racing along the highway. We cruised through small town after small town, each announcing their population at the entrance, thanking you for your visit at the exit. Gas stations became out sanctuary; a chance to stretch, buy snacks, pee. I grew to love those stops, enjoying the randomness of the places and the people we met.
The strangest thing about driving east across the U.S. is the loss of time, as you skip over time zones. Just when you think you are making good time. you lose another hour. It's confusing. My fondest memories of gas stations are the time border shops with two clocks on the wall; one with an arrow pointing east and another pointing west. At one such place, I asked which time zone we were in and the man asked which direction I was travelling. I shook my head and restated the question. He smiled and laughed, admitting that he was not entirely sure, adding a casual shrug and a shake of his head. How strange to not be sure what time it is. How do you get anywhere on time? At Grand Rapids, we enjoyed a home cooked meal before collapsing into another new bed.
The last day on the road was another long journey up through the state of Michigan, across a bit of Canada, then over upstate New York, finally reaching Vermont around four in the morning. An early start meant we were up before the sun, on the road just as the sun threw pinks and oranges across the sky. We passed the Canadian border with ease. I marvelled at the changing landscape. Canada was greener, more quiet than the urban mess we had left. I was anticipating Niagara Falls at the end of this stretch of Canada.
Niagara is an odd town, full of tourist attractions, stores and casinos. The falls, though, are beautiful and powerful. They plummet over the dizzying drop throwing gallons of water into the river below, throwing up spray that creates a mist. I could feel the moisture even at a distance. I stood gaping at their shear enormity.
Back on the road, we were heading towards the U.S., across New York state. We had our second run-in with the police, also our third, fourth and fifth – for a busted headlight. In the early hours of the morning, we were winding our way through the country lanes of rural Vermont, anticipating the summer ahead. We staggered to the nearest cabin and collapsed onto the beds, desperate for rest. It was a long four thousand miles, six days and fourteen states; I could feel every one of them in my aching bones.
The road is no longer calling. We had reached the end of our journey. The endless highway had ended. The trip was complete. As I lay on my bed, I smiled. A road trip across the vast USA is the only way to really feel you’ve travelled. As we allowed the lure of sleep to claim us, one question echoed in our minds – when can we do the next one?