A COUPLE of weeks ago, I went on my first social road trip since returning from the United States. It wasn’t a long one – just a pleasant Sunday drive to Springbrook National Park and other parts of the Gold Coast hinterland – but the trip evoked the same feelings of adventure and freedom that comes from discovering new places in a dinosaur-powered combination of metal, plastic and glass.
Only seven of the 28 days in America were spent traversing the countryside, but it’s those days I keep daydreaming about – a 3400km odyssey through seven states from the Pacific Ocean to within a few kilometres of the Mississippi River.
Sure, we were driving a brand-new Volkswagen, not a classic Mustang, but most of the other ideals of the great American road trip – maps and our Lonely Planet guide spread out across the floor, jumbo size fast food drink containers from yesterday stuffed in the cup holders, beautiful vistas running the spectrum from desert, to mountains, to corn-covered plains – held true.
I learnt a lot about the country from the week on the road, so in true listicle fashion, here are some of those lessons.
- Driving on the wrong side of the road: difficult, but not impossible
Within half an hour of leaving the LAX terminal, I was let loose on the city’s streets in our trusty steed; A Volkswagen Passet with Texan number plates (even though we asked for a Kia Rio). Within six hours of leaving the LAX terminal, both Sebastian and I had accidentally driven onto the left hand side of the road. His lapse was more understandable, moving onto the left side on an empty desert side road, while I did it on a busy thoroughfare somewhere in the Inland Empire.But those were the only times we made the mistake. We did find ourselves sticking a little too closely to the right side of our lanes, and we kept getting into the car on the wrong side until the last day, but the whole “wrong side of the road” thing was a pretty swift adjustment.
- Sorry, Australia: Americans are better drivers
In the South, tailgating is drinking booze and having a barbecue at the back of your pick-up truck before football games or concerts. For the most part, I found Americans to be far safer drivers than their Australian counterparts. As we made our way across the country, people kept their distance, kept right unless overtaking and generally tended to be respectful. Even in Los Angeles, the place where motoring decorum apparently goes to die, I felt safer on the freeways than I do on the M1 between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. But then again, despite this…
- Everybody speeds (except in Wyoming)
As we quickly discovered, stick to the speed limit and you’ll feel like a snail. Five to 10 miles an hour above the limit seemed to be the norm across most of the western states, except for Wyoming, where we were pulled over. Thankfully, the highway patrol officer was very friendly, let us off with a warning, and asked us about Australia before sending us on our way. I think fixed speed cameras are less widespread in America; most states require police to actually catch motorists in the act in person, which might explain the more casual attitude to law-breaking.
- Canadian radio is awesome
We started out listening to a local indie station in Los Angeles but, when it dropped out somewhere along Interstate 15 we didn’t know what to do. Luckily, our car was equipped with satellite radio, where we came across the miracle that is Canadian radio. Iceberg and CBC Radio 3 kept us going for most of the journey as they played the latest in alternative music from the True North, except for the time we had to boycott Iceberg for two days because they played Nickelback. Occasionally we’d tune into Mexican radio, local country stations or syndicated right-wing shock jock shows (did you know everything except guns was to blame for the Santa Barbara shooting? Sean Hannity does). We didn’t discover the car had an auxiliary port until the last day of the trip, but it didn’t matter, because our northern friends had us covered. Love you, Canada.
- America is big
Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to America (sorry, Mr Adams). And it’s so diverse. In a single day, we passed deserts, forests, snow-capped mountains, corn fields and major rivers. And that may have been through just one state. It’s not until you’re driving along a dead-straight highway, looking at the tens of kilometres ahead of you that you even begin to get a sense of scale for the country. Speaking of highways…
- Hello, yes, I’d like one Interstate Highway System please
Only two of Australia’s capital cities are connected by an unbroken four-lane highway. Sure, our population is equivalent to about seven per cent of America’s, but it was so refreshing to be able to stay on a freeway-grade road for days at a time. No need to worry about navigating tight corners, or getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck or *shudders* caravan. It didn’t matter about the terrain – you could stay on a four-lane road while passing through desert valleys or through mountain passes. The scenery was right by the roadside, too, so there were plenty of opportunities to stop the car and gaze in wonder at the vista before you.
- Back roads are pretty good, too
I left my heart in Wyoming. One afternoon, as we took a side road between interstates, we passed through a scene that, save for the stretch of tarmac dividing it in half, could have come straight from a Western. A rainbow cut across the sky over desolate farms and hills, while major thunderstorms flashed across the horizon in great lightning-streaked clumps. There were more than a few times on that 100km stretch when I needed to stop the car and snap pictures with my woefully inadequate camera. It gave a real sense of an America of old.
- There are some pretty boring patches
I’m looking at you, South Dakota. The Great Plains are named for their size, not their beauty, unless you like corn fields. A lot. Hence the need for tourist traps, which I’ve written about in greater detail here. There’s a real risk of fatigue on some of the straight stretches of interstate, which is why I suspect there’s the occasional curve to keep you concentrating. And the deer signs are generally enough to scare the bejeesus out of you and keep you awake, especially at night.
- Renewable energy is taking off in the West
From wind farms in the Mojave Desert and Wyoming to a massive solar plant resembling a futuristic city on the California-Nevada border and ethanol production on corn farms, the Western United States, including red states, are on the forefront of renewable energy technology. If rural communities resistant to change can do it, why can’t Australia?
- It’s hard to eat healthy on the road
Unless you like Subway, you’re probably going to be eating a lot of junk food. It doesn’t help that any size of soft drink costs only a dollar at most McDonalds along the way, which can be too much of a temptation for the weary traveller. This is where the interstates become an issue; they rarely pass through the towns where you can have a good square meal, and even when they do the towns have fast food restaurants just off the highway anyway. Canned corn and beans tended to be a solution to this problem for us, though I was a little less disciplined when those golden arches appeared on roadside signs.
- Gas, glorious gas
Petrol is so much cheaper in America compared to Australia. Want to travel 550km on only $45? You can, even if you’re filling up at a tiny desert town.
- Driving is the best way to see the “real” America
Bus tours are fine, but you don’t have the freedom to stop where you want, look around and chat to locals, many of whom have never met an Australian before. That’s what I wanted to see while I was over in the States; the small-town America, places that don’t get bombarded with tourists twice a day as coaches move in. Places that still have country hospitality. The stereotype about dumb, ignorant, arrogant Americans didn’t hold true in these places; if anything, I think they’re perpetuated by tourists travelling abroad. The Americans I spoke to were curious, had no misunderstandings about us riding kangaroos to school and, if they didn’t understand something, would ask about it. Best of all, they were ridiculously kind and would go out of their way to help out. 10 out of 10 for hospitality.