My American Dream (January 2004) – United States

My American Dream (January 2004)
United States

“To suffer fifty weeks a year for the sake of a two-week vacation.”
“My own apartment, a car, and plenty of women, and still, goddamit, I’m lonely.”

So runs the Death of a Salesman – the allegory of the Great American Dream
that we all had to read at school. Now, after spending the last two years in
developing parts of the world, I am just a few weeks away from entering the
United States of America. The USA is currently the most influential nation
on Earth and as I draw ever closer I find myself becoming ever more curious
about what I will find there.

I have never been to America, though in many ways I feel familiar with it –
that big HOLLYWOOD sign on the hill, the Golden Gate Bridge, fat cops eating
doughnuts, Ricki Lake. Now I am excited to really “know the place for the
first time”. From the 2-Dimensional world of the television and popular
culture to the 3-D reality of that most unreal world. I am intrigued.

What on earth is the good ol’ US of A really like? What are the people
really like? Are they like their leader, George W “you’re either with us or
you’re against us” Bush? Perhaps like Michael Jackson? Or the audience of
the Jerry Springer Show? Something I have enjoyed during my ride is the
dissolving of the preconceptions that invariably exist about every country.
And, more than for any other country, everybody in the whole world has a
polarised opinion and a mound of preconceptions about the USA. There is
nobody I have met in the world who does not have an opinion on the United
States, ranging between green envy and sneering scorn, blind hatred and
unquestioning imitation. I have been surprised on my travels at just how
strong the anti-US feeling is around the world (the Mexican band Molotov’s
song ‘Frijolero’ being an entertaining example), equalled only perhaps by
the number of people who have asked me to help them get a visa for the US.
I understand the resentment – is it mere coincidence that the country is
called, in big capital letters, ‘US’?

Yet I have always been a fan of the
States – their self-earned success; the hard working mentality; Baywatch. So
I am looking forward to letting America speak for herself. I wanted to write
this before I crossed the border as I know that, without a shadow of a
doubt, my opinions are certain to change for better or for worse over the
next 6 months.

My gluttonous, slothful, greedy side (3 out of 7 – not bad!) is excited by
the next few months – big burgers, good roads, shiny bike shops – and I feel
as though I am now on holiday for a while. But will it be fun or will the
Material World be too easy and boring? Whilst in many ways the US is very
much like the fortunate life I have been brought up with (where it is
‘normal’ to have some degree of cash to spend, running water, etc) I keep
catching myself thinking like an outsider. I am comfortable now with the
frustrations and inconveniences of life in the Developing World. Whilst I
know that I can never belong here (just read the scathing early pages of
Jamaica Kincaid’s book “A Small Place” on how tourists are really perceived –
ouch!), I do feel at ease. As I ride along I am mesmerised by what, in
contrast to much of Africa and Latin America, is the unimaginable wealth
that lies ahead of me. I catch myself marvelling that there will be a whole
aisle in the supermarkets devoted to breakfast cereal and another one just
for pet food. I think of the African man who asked a friend of mine in
amazement whether it was true that in “your country you really give food to
the birds?”

I have been confused for a long time as to why most countries are poor and
some are rich. I have seen an awful lot of poverty since leaving Western
Europe. The USA is such a young country, yet she has risen so fast from
barbarism to decadence (you know the rest of the quotation, I am sure).
Perhaps then America will help shed some light for me on this depressing
conundrum. At the same time I am interested in different perspectives of
hardship and poverty. If you feel poor and unhappy is there any point in
differentiating the feeling along a ‘scale of poverty’ – do a rural Mexican
family saving money for a new tin roof for their mud hut and a Californian
family unable to afford a much-needed car experience different feelings of
struggle? Does it even matter? I don’t know.

So, leaving behind Latin America and crossing the border is going to be
intriguing. I just hope that they let me in – my dirty hands do not make for
good finger-printing, my passport is scarred with ‘axis-of-evil’-type
countries and Willy Loman’s Dream was not quite for a battered bicycle and a
few sun-faded bags to represent your entire worldly wealth. All will become
clearer in just the next few weeks. I can almost smell the burgers already…

Here are some of the things I am looking forward to in the USA…

  • Riding across the Golden Gate bridge
  • Finding a boat to hitch a ride across the Pacific
  • Being anonymous – there have not been many blonde, white people since I left Western Europe: it will be great not to be stared at all the time
  • That big HOLLYWOOD sign
  • Encountering a burger too big even for my appetite
  • Learning to stay awake through an American Football game (in the only place on the planet that is a soccer vacuum I am going to have to find a new subject to discuss with taxi drivers. Perhaps though, as a Leeds fan, a soccer vacuum is no bad thing at the moment…)
  • Trying to see the appeal in baseball
  • ‘Shooting some hoops’
  • Trying to hide from the election hype
  • Meeting somebody who voted for George Bush (despite the Florida vote incident that would have made even Robert Mugabe blush, surely somebody voted for him?)
  • Meeting some Rednecks
  • Seeing a moose
  • And a grizzly bear
  • Working out the appropriate response to “Yo, what’s up man?”

Approximate Timings and Route for North America

  • 20 February 2004: enter USA, Nogales, Arizona

  • 10 March: enter California
    ride Northwards up the coast
    Los Angeles
    San Francisco

  • 10 May: enter Oregon
    ride Northwards up the coast

  • 1 June: enter Washington State

  • 20 June: enter Canada, British Columbia
    ride Northwards

  • 1 September: arrive Prudhoe Bay, northern Alaska

    100km per cycling day
    2 weeks spent in each major city
    4 days spent at other stops (however, I have no idea how many they may be!)

    NB – all dates and routes are extremely approximate and subject to change (excepting the major cities)!