Monday, October 29, 2012

Ode to America

Apologies for the month long inter-post interval but hey, somewhere along the line we needed to speed this road trip up. A quick bout of trip planning in New Orleans brought the abrupt realisation that the easy, meandering days were over. We’d spent far too long in the Eastern third of the United States. If we still wanted to see this continental trip go coast to coast we had to get moving. 2500 miles in four weeks to be precise.

And so began our wild westward journey. Scenery changing daily through the windscreen; passenger seat writing rendered impossible. From swamps to deserts to canyons we jumped, every day a different planet. One moment, the widest, emptiest plains you've ever seen, the next it’s rocky mountains rising forever out of the desert. Stunning scenery as far as the eye can see – a constant reminder of the size and grandeur of this country. Petrified Forests, Painted Deserts and Prehistoric Pueblos. The Wild West. Cowboys and Indians. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. Soaking up and hanging on to every last minute of this epic ride.

Travelling in our little house on wheels, footloose and fancy free, waking up for sunrise, jumping in the cab with a messy bed behind us, driving to who knows where. This was life on the road. Finally driving the fabled Route 66. Cruising by a million abandoned motels, channeling Thelma and Louise; Bonnie and Clyde. Without the killing sprees. Sleeping in the Grandest of all Canyons then climbing back out. Starry camp fires in the shadow of magical moonscapes. Hanging with the locals in Texas. Almost being convinced to stay. Too soon, selling our van. Culling our recently acquired possessions to fit our worlds on our backs once more. And now we’re on the road again, back to the life of the common people - on a bus. Vegas to LA. The journey where dreams begin and end.
It’s hard to believe my wide open American road is coming to an end. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit how much more inspiring and exciting these two months have been than the four months prior backpacking through Europe and South East Asia. Obviously having our own set of wheels helped, taking the road less travelled, but that wasn't all. It was the American Dream. I was hooked. It took some time to come to terms with this realisation. What was wrong with me? Did I have no sense of culture?

Well, therein lies the problem. Apparently, my culture is pop culture. No, I’m not talking about keeping up with the Kardashians et al. For me it’s something slightly more nostalgic. It’s a small town which time abandoned. It’s Greased Lightning and Times A-Changin’. It’s Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. James Dean and Jack Kerouac. It’s Dazed and Confused; Romy and Michele. Sweet Valley High and The Babysitter’s Club. American Graffiti. Lolita. Diners and Drive-ins. Surfin’ USA and California Dreamin’. It was driving through towns whose very names conjured my favourite songs. It was road tripping through my childhood, my teenage years, my uni years, tracing the steps of my heroes.

I suppose it’s the way my parent’s generation felt about the Queen and the Mother Country. Brought up on American novels, film, fashion and music, I was a child of my times - even if I was perpetually behind them. America was where my idols were born and raised, although I hadn’t put this fact together until hightailing it down Highway 61. Pre road trip, I hadn’t realised that nearly all my favourite literature had been penned here, often on these very same roads. And I hadn’t stopped to think how much this adventure would mean to me. How it would put all my interests and passions into context. How my obsession with cowboy shirts and bolo ties would be so assuaged. I sure wasn’t expecting to find such a time warp. A treasure trove of retro goodness, from the countless second hand stores to the fifties diners, the nifty neon to the local step-back-in-time laundromat. As a lover of the good ol' days , I really was living my dream.

America has a bad rep, I know. Michael Moore has helped make sure we know all the bad stuff. And yes, of course there are things that I can’t stand – can’t understand. The conservatism. The giant meals and drinks. Plastic plates and cups even when you’re eating in. The terrible teased hairdos. Drive Thru Daiquiris. The lack of proper coffee and cafes outside main centres. The politics, the wars, the guns. The lack of government welfare. The crazy curiosity with which we were treated, for being foreigners and for undertaking such a foreign concept as quitting our jobs to go travelling. The sneakers and sweat suits. The pursuit of the American Dream – be it a fancy job, a plastic face, a white picket fence, or the same giant RV as everybody else. The bureaucracy. The interstates. The countless fast food establishments that line those interstates… you get my point.

But it turns out it’s a mighty big country, and as I’ve seen, there is room for a whole lot of awesome in there as well. Aside from that pop culture I love, there was awe-inspiring scenery – somehow each state held a world of difference. In amongst the conservative holds, there were liberal views that had changed the world. That curiosity I got so sick of was from some of the friendliest locals I’ve ever met. Ironically, I know that lots of the stuff I love has led to those things that I hate. I can’t get enough of the diner d├ęcor – the food was a different story. Route 66, along with the car culture and drive-in movies it spawned were just a stop on the vicious cycle of consumerism that’s created a nation of strip mall cities. If only I could turn back time - or at least slow it down a little. The truth was I could never live in America, but I wanted to see more. I wanted to stuff my eyes full of it.

As the bus crosses into California I can’t help but mourn the loss of my wheels and inherent freedom. I wish we could have just one more week, one more month, one more year. To explore the rest of this awesome continent and pursue the rest of my American Dream. But visa extensions don’t come easily here, and our funds needed a break. Hopefully I’d be back one day. After all, I’d discovered my alter ego deep down inside me and in the words of Tom Petty, she was… an American Girl.

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