USA Inside Out
Ten years ago I was sitting in a pub in London when I came up with an idea. I thought I might try to drive around the 48 contiguous states in America in 48 days.
It wasn’t that I was suddenly seized by a curious yearning to do loads of driving in a short space of time. A group of us were talking about all the places that we would like to see but were probably never going to with just twenty days off a year. Vacations take you to one or two towns in a particular country and you rarely end up seeing anything of the real life of a place beyond the obvious tourist destinations. We’d all been to America but it was so huge and diverse, and even well-travelled Brits rarely go anywhere other than New York, Florida, and perhaps California. The only time you got to see anything of smalltown America was on the movies, and Hollywood tends to put a gloss on even the meanest backwater and the seediest lowlife.
I reckoned that the only way to see the real America would be to get in a car and drive to each of the states, and aim for a bunch of places I’d never heard of. There’s real power in first impressions, and I was more interested in forming an overall picture rather than a detailed study. I fancied that I might want to move there one day and this would give me a good idea of where to go. At the very least, it would help me figure out which bits I wanted to return to for a “proper” visit at some future point.
Unusually for a pub thought, it still seemed like a good idea when I woke up the following morning. It had something neat and mathematical about it, like Around the World in Eighty Days or that bloke who decided to climb the highest mountain in each of the seven continents. I’d like to say that I went straight into work, handed in my notice, packed my bags and set off, but I didn’t quite have the balls to do that. It took another couple of months of ruminating until finally I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to have a go at doing it.
Looking into it, nobody else appeared to have done it before or, if they had, they’d not bothered to write much about it. The task was going to be daunting. The USA is enormous. If England (50,351 sq miles) were to join the Union, it would only rank as the 32nd largest State behind Louisiana (51,843 sq miles) and just ahead of Mississippi (48,434 sq miles). Yet it would comfortably be the most populous, overtaking California’s 32,609,000 by almost twenty million. This meant that the size was not only breathtaking, but also the spaciousness. Montana is the fourth largest State at 147,045 sq miles but has a population of 879,000, or about half the number of people living in Northern Ireland. The distances between towns can easily exceed 100 miles. The longest single day’s driving that I’d ever done in the UK was roughly the 450 miles from Pitlochry in Scotland down to London. I was planning to exceed that on at least 12 of my 48 days.
I mapped out an approximate route showing a total of 16,558 miles to be covered – an average of just over 340 miles a day – that attempted to keep me off the beaten track and away from the major cities wherever practicable. Each State would be visited consecutively and, once exited, would not be re-entered (except for New Hampshire, which landlocks Maine). At least I was being realistic enough to leave out Alaska and Hawaii, the most recent two additions to the Union and easily the most difficult to reach by road. They’d have to wait for another time.
To make sure that I didn’t spend all my time inside the car, I came up with a number of tasks that I needed to fulfil in every state before moving on. I was aiming to buy one distinctive bit of tat from each one and a postcard that had to be mailed before crossing the state line. I was also after a local newspaper, and at least a fifteen-minute conversation with someone I wasn’t buying something from. In the seven states where I had no overnight stop, I planned a proper sit-down meal. It wasn’t a fool-proof scheme, but it would help discipline me into making contact with some local life wherever I went.
Looking back, my technology was grim. I had no GPS, no cell-phone, no computer, and a camera that still took film. My turn-by-turn route was on printed-sheets of paper correlating to the highlighted highways in the road atlas that would ride beside me opened on the passenger seat. I had lists of phone numbers for various sights of interest and places to stay, and a phone card to use at public call-boxes. I even had some travelers’ checks.
I also had an old-fashioned Dictaphone (one that used tapes of course) to record my musings as I went. I had the notion that my trip would be so interesting that I’d be able to write a hilarious book about it that would more than justify my giving up a perfectly good job to go on this wild goose chase. In the end events – and my own very limited writing abilities – somewhat took over that ambition, and so it never came to pass.
Until now. As we approach the tenth anniversary of that strange time, the Blogosphere now provides the forum for the tale to be told. If nothing else, it will finally give my mum the chance to read about what her son got up to on that trip she never quite understood. To anyone else who reads this, I make no apologies for the unqualified and superficial nature of my commentary and observations. It was never intended to be anything more serious than a quick jaunt round the country.
Beginning on August 23rd, the tenth anniversary of when I set out, I’ll post the story here of that trip, day by day through to my return to New York on October 9th.