Road tripping is my favourite way to travel. The constant movement, the feeling of possibility, the ever-changing landscapes and skies, the silence of empty roads, the fleeting glimpses of how other people live, the waves of thoughts that come with seeing new things every day.
I’ve always wanted to drive across the States: a vast, infinitely interesting country that’s the ultimate been romanticised as the ultimate road tripping destination in popular culture for decades. So, accompanied my good-at-map-reading boyfriend, I journeyed from New York to San Francisco over three weeks in a Hyundai Elantra (not exactly the stuff of road tripping movies but great on gas consumption). Sixteen states and 7000 kilometres later, it was the best road trip I’ve ever done.
We listened to blues music and honky tonk in Nashville, fell in love at first sight with New Orleans and its gothic edge, romantic architecture, amazing food and sweaty live music bars of Frenchmen Street, met some of the friendliest people in the world and ate deep-fried everything out of graffitied food trucks in Austin, found the most unexpected enclave of artists in middle-of-nowhere Marfa, drank Aztec hot chocolate in beautiful, arty Santa Fe, escaped the searing heat of the New Mexican desert in the Carlsbad Caverns 70 storeys below ground, and explored the lunar world of Monument Valley on the border of Utah and Arizona getting blasted by dust.
At the Grand Canyon we did everything wrong: we arrived in the evening and just missed what looked like the best sunset ever, forgot to buy wood so we didn’t have a campfire, didn’t bring food so had to eat in the fluorescent-lit cafeteria and woke up late and missed sunrise. Despite that, being at the Grand Canyon was quite literally overwhelming – I felt microscopic and pointless peering into the deep crevasse formed by six million years of geological and natural forces and touching rocks that are 2000 million years old. It was a sublime experience in the true sense of the word.
Las Vegas was everything I thought it would be: loud, brash, utterly hedonistic, totally surreal but also surprisingly mesmerising. I gambled with $1, won $2, felt a sudden thrill of excitement and possibility, and then lost my money the next second and decided never to gamble again. To the west, we came to the ocean on the other side of the continent in palm-tree flecked Los Angeles, and traced the coastline north on Highway 1 through Big Sur (big mist-covered cliffs, big redwoods, big views we stopped every few kilometres for, camping under pine trees near deserted beaches). We drove into a foggy San Francisco, the most liberal city in the US (and proud of it) – a place of Beat generation bookshops, vegan organic restaurants, beautiful street art, pavement signs exhorting Noam Chomsky to “chill out and smoke ganja” and billboards advertising everything tech. The end of the trip was a week at Burning Man – a gathering of 70 000 people in the Nevada desert that defies a simple description. More than a festival, it’s like a break from the “normal” world, an experiment in living in a totally different society (read more about my experience here).
The USA is the most astoundingly diverse country I’ve ever been to. Each state feels like a different place entirely, with its own lingo, food, architecture and regional gas station snacks, from Cajun peanuts in Louisiana to tamales in Texas – though it was not all pretty or inspiring: much of the drive was through sprawling centreless and featureless towns of fast food chains, pawn shops, trailer parks and used car dealerships. We were happiest when we were in the huge unpeopled spaces of the country – the immense and beautiful Texan desert, where we drove for miles under limitless blue skies without seeing another car, stretches of New Mexico where a desert palette of yellow, green, dusky red mountains and grey-blue rain clouds looked like a painting and the emptiness of southern Utah – terracotta sand littered with dramatic sandstone formations – which feels like the place where time began.
I took hundreds of photos and wrote enough notes to fill an entire book – a bit too much for this one blog post. Instead, here’s a small selection of my favourite places, roads and views.