On The Roadby Francois Badenhorst / 18.11.2013
Staring across a desolate and achingly beautiful desert plain dotted by mesas, I ask my sister, “Is Obama the president of all this, too?” She just shakes her head. I look left and right: Nothing surrounds us. The arrow straight road is the only man made thing within miles and charges into the horizon. The power brokers of Washington D.C. seem mighty far away. And I almost cannot believe that this frontier is in the same country where I experienced the manic claustrophobia of a Time’s Square sidewalk.
America is vast. Although that might seem like stating the obvious, it is a fact that warrants reiteration. Its three time zones – and yes, it does get confusing – are home to 313 million people. From the continental climate and old world charm of Connecticut to the dry, open air and sweeping horizons of the Oklahoman prairie, the U.S.A. is a country with a multiple personality disorder.
And there is no better way to see this country’s many strikingly beautiful – and sometimes insane – faces than by that most American means of transport, the automobile. Our rental was a sturdy beast, a Chrysler Town and Country. Its silver pearlescent paint and tinted windows gave us a suburban chic.
The American road trip is not quite as romantic as it is portrayed. It’s hot and dusty and exhausting. But the romance is not why you should go. Everyone thinks they understand America. And it’s easy to see why, all our lives we have been bombarded by its stories, pictures and politics. But if you think you know this land, you are mistaken.
You realise the full depth of false preconceptions and hubris when you meet Americans for the first time. They really aren’t the people we see preserved in celluloid. Their heart-warming earnestness is something you will never forget. They wear their hearts on their sleeves; their emotions skitter across their face when you speak to them. When they ask you how you are, they really want to know. “Where y’all from?” will become a familiar refrain.
A drive along U.S. Route 66 remains a trip that is unmatched as a means to experience the contiguous United States. Established in 1926, its 3,945 Kilometres snake through America’s disparate climates, towns and social identities. It is inspiring to see the America’s differences segue into one another in real time.
Technically speaking, the trip begins in Chicago, Illinois. But for us, it was unthinkable to come so close to the Big Apple and not take a bite. A few days stay in New York was an excellent prelude to our road trip. Seeing Time’s Square, Central Park and the light green facade of the Statue of Liberty were tourist guilty pleasures – it’s the stuff movies are made of. But it was the quotidian delights of New York that were the highlights: The sheer stifling insanity of a packed subway car and the delicious two dollar pizza slice at the “Italian” pizzeria staffed solely by Eastern Europeans.
But it was in Chicago where our journey began for real. And it was such a beautiful start point. Ensconced on the banks of the celadon green waters of Lake Michigan, it is – like much of America – a town with an identity crisis. It’s big and gritty but it is tangibly infused with the more withdrawn mid-western mien. New York it isn’t, but its beautiful parks and old school Navy Pier boardwalk are sights to behold.
When my sisters and I decided to drive the length of old Route 66 from East to West, we did it with express motives of discovering America for ourselves. America’s cities were always going to be awesome, but it’s also the towns like Pontiac, Illinois; Lebanon, Missouri and the eerie somnolence of Tucumcari, New Mexico that added a very special flavour to the journey.
But our route was not our prison. A split second decision on an Albuquerque freeway culminated in a visit to U.S. Nuclear Museum. Scale model replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy lay imposingly, their inertia belying their role as destroyers of worlds. That was a lesson we learnt very quickly in America: There’s pockets of interest around every corner.
The same was true for the oceanic brilliance of California. A true Route 66 trip dictated a drive straight to Los Angeles. But our fondest memory of the Golden State was the blue Pacific of Southern California. San Diego is not a town which screams out for visitors, but sitting at Mission Beach, I realised instantly why I was here. The Pacific Coast Highway – or the P.C.H. as the locals call it in their sonorous Californian accents – was another abiding memory. It is simply one of the most beautiful roads on our blue planet; cutting a swathe through California’s cliffs.
My American journey left me in a ruminative mood. It’s impossible to pin down America’s essence. It is the commercial pulse of Fifth Avenue, the impossibly relaxed surfer dudes of California, the grungy history soaked island of Alcatraz and drinking a Coors light outside your motel in the New Mexican twilight.
America is a country that you need to immerse yourself in. Rent a minivan, eat at a diner, get a friendly warning from a California highway patrolman for speeding (yes, that happened to me) and try your luck in the ersatz luxury of a Las Vegas casino.
The grandeur of American nature and her cities are wonderful indeed – they must be seen to be believed. But they are almost matched by the small quirks that make America so great – they must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
* Images © Francois Badenhorst