Total number of days in US: 174
States visited: 48
Miles driven: 30,078
(1.2x the circumference of the Earth)
Cars used: 3
National Parks visited: 17
Times I tried to go into the wrong motel room: 3
Times I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line: 5
Times crossing the Mississippi: 13 (I think)
Places visited purely because of a song: 6
Kenosha, WI – Tom Waits – Fish in the Jailhouse
Space Shuttles seen: 2
Apollo Modules seen: 3
Natural Disasters encountered/caused: Plenty.
Landed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, blizzard in Iowa, flash flooding in Georgia/Tennesse, tornado warnings in the Carolinas, snowstorm in Phoenix, AZ, and an earthquake in LA. America was glad to be rid of me.
(Also visited French Canada, not sure whether to include that in there)
And now for some completely arbitrary awards:
Best Fast Food Chain: Bojangles
(It’s America, had to start with that one)
Best City: Chicago, IL
Best State: Colorado
Best Mad Architecture: The House on the Rock, WI
Best Place to Stay: The Shack Up Inn, MS
Best Strange Museum: The Hobo Museum, Britt, IA
Best Pointless Superlative: Fayetteville, WV
(Feel free to put that one on your signs, Fayetteville)
Most Overlooked State: Texas
So what have I learned from this adventure? That, although the UK/Ireland might assume to know America quite well from its vast cultural output, it still is very much a foreign country. After a lifetime of watching their TV, their movies; listening to their music; reading their books and getting their news, I could still only speak of America in rough generalities. Now, I’m glad to say, I can speak of America in… rough generalities, but more of them. Much like the internet cannot be described to be one thing or another, America is too big, incorporates too many conflicting viewpoints, to be described simply. Having said that, here are some half-baked observations from my time there:
They All Have Pets
(As I remarked way back in Connecticut: eat it, Tocqueville)
Seriously, of all the friends I stayed with and people I met, I can only think of one who didn’t have at least one critter roaming around (and he had recently lost his dog and wanted to get a new one). There are an estimated 164 million pets in the US and only one of them is pure, unadulterated evil:
They Drink Light Beers
For years when I saw the prevalence of light beers on TV shows, I assumed it was all a marketing push to get them screen time. For a country that eats deep-fried butter on a stick, the one concession to healthy living they’re willing to make is for light beers. They’re everywhere. I don’t really understand it.
They Can’t Drive
(Hi, my American friends, please feel free to run off to tell me that you, indeed, can drive. Or that people in the UK can’t drive either.)
Now this is very much a generality, and I’m not saying that other countries are better, but da-a-amn there are some massively appalling drivers in the US. I don’t think there was a single state I visited without seeing some travesty.
The most common average annoyance was drivers sitting in the fast lane, going slow. Lane discipline in general is pretty terrible, but this one causes the most frustration to other drivers (and is illegal in various states), which then leads to reckless undertaking:
Apparently undertaking isn’t technically illegal in the UK, but heavily discouraged (included in the Highway Code et al), to the extent that I had half-assumed it was illegal. And on motorways/interstates, there’s a good reason why it should be: a lot of people are damn witless doing it.
At least every 2-3 states, I would see the following play out: two trucks driving along, with a car behind. Truck A pulls out to overtake Truck B. Car follows. Truck A pulls ahead of Truck B. Now, every instinct and lick of common sense in God, beast and man tells you the following is going to happen: Truck A is going to pull back in, after making sure he’s cleared Truck B (Truck B will often signal when this is so). But time and time again, I’d see the car – unable to wait those 3 extra seconds – start to undertake. Obviously the truck can’t see the car in its mirrors, so starts to pull in. The car then has to swerve violently onto the hard shoulder/floor it to get past on the hard shoulder.
Without exaggeration, I saw this at least once a week, across the span of the country. Several cases where the car veered off the edge of the hard shoulder – fortunately managing not to go careening off into a ditch. Stop it.
I suppose in hindsight, it’s miraculous that after 30,078 miles, I only saw one accident (although I saw the aftermath of dozens).
Related to the above, no doubt. From my own experience, drink driving in the UK/Ireland has undergone a massive generational decline. It’s still a problem, but of all the times I can think of being out with my friends where we’ve needed a designated driver, the DD has had – at most – a drink, with most not drinking at all. In America, perhaps as a result of having to drive everywhere, including to the local bars, I saw a terrible amount of drink driving. I’m pretty sure the guy who nearly swung into me back in Louisiana wasn’t entirely compos mentis, but people casually having three or four pints then hopping back into the car seems terribly common.
They’re Friendly Though
Beyond my friends who were sort of obligated to put up with me, I did find Americans to be, on the whole, a very friendly sort of bunch. I was helped innumerable times when they saw through my suave exterior to realise I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing; a random attempt to help a trucker with his iPad led to an hour long chat about life, the universe and, er, gun control laws. Not to mention all the lovely people who didn’t judge me for running around taking pictures of Bertie (or at least kept their judgement silent). Except for Vegas. And Florida. Oh yeah:
That is the one part of the cultural export that proved true. Everything I’d heard suggested Florida sucks and Florida does suck. It sucks so much that I’m beginning to think that maybe I’m judging it too harshly and should give it another chance (eesh, better hope I never end up in an abusive relationship…)
I remember once – back in the UK – that someone I was with remarked that the girl serving us with smile and good cheer, was only being friendly to get a bigger tip. As opposed to the waiters who serve for the joy of serving food to people?
So the American system means that wait-staff largely work for tips and perhaps are friendlier as a result. Whether or not that’s true, I was generally very impressed, no matter where, or what time of day, I almost always found good service and a little bit of chat.
They’re Fiercely — Overtly – Patriotic
There are flags everywhere. It’s somewhat unnerving for me – in Northern Ireland, flags are used to mark territory and give crazy, crazy people things to riot about (no seriously, protests over this one flag have gone on for over a year). In America, it seems more that there are just flags on things, on any of the things, on all of the things. There’s a sincere reverence given to so many events, into which patriotism has been put, that I don’t think would happen here. The national anthem being played at every sporting event, for instance. Sure, the UK will trot it out for international games, or if there’s a good chance it might annoy the French, but it definitely wouldn’t be the respectful ceremony the Americans make theirs into. (See, for instance, the Carling Cup scrapping the singing of the Welsh and English national anthems after each side booed the other one).
Some Americans found it a bit confusing when my nationality would occasionally change mid-conversation and bewildered when I explained that if the joke I’m telling needs me to be Irish, I’m Irish, if it needs to be British, I’ll be British and if it requires me to be in blackface, I will not do that joke. (Perhaps I’m a little unusual in considering myself a mongrel without pervasive loyalty to one or t’other.) This led to a few questions, mainly wondering why I wasn’t instinctively proud of the country I fell out of a person into. The majority, whether or not they approved of the current administration/government, were all fiercely proud to be American.
In spite of that, they are enthusiastic to tell you their complete non-American genealogy. (Paradoxically correcting me if I try to reduce them to just American). The average American I spoke to can trace their lineage back far better than anyone I know. I’m pretty sure I know who my parents are, who my grandparents are and some details of my great-grandparents, but then it’s kind of a haze. The number of people who upon learning I was Irishish (see above), would detail their family tree back to the inevitable castle their family came from back in Ireland. Quick side note, America: how many castles do you think there are in Ireland? And if your ancestors had one, it’s unlikely that they’re some of the hundreds of thousands who were in dire enough straits to head over to America.
Anyway! So in my experience, Americans express a lot of overt nationalism, from the national anthem at every instance you can squeeze it into, to flags on everything, which makes the next point a bit stranger:
Americans Hate Americans
So if you’re French, Russian, Muslim, or any kind of foreigner with a skin tone darker than ecru, you might assume that America has a bit of a beef with you. Whether with the cheese-eating jokes, being made into the villain in every film, or being pulled over for a “random search” in every airport, you might think America hates you. America doesn’t, America reserves that kind of hatred for itself.
No matter where I went, no matter who I talked to, the only consistent dislike that was brought up (largely unprompted) was other Americans:
The North hates the South; the East Coast hates the West Coast; both hate the Midwest; the city folk hate the rural folk; the liberals hate the conservatives; the religious hate the non-religious; the rich hate the poor; the whites hate the blacks; everyone hates Florida.
Which, I think, does partially explain all the overt patriotism: the only thing binding them together is the belief they’re bound together. But like a lot of hatred, it’s irrational and generalised. I thought coming to America would give me a more nuanced look at America, seeing it through its own eyes, but its eyes look at it in the same generalised way that I do. Makes sense in hindsight: I absorb so much American culture, so do they, and that’s where a lot of the generalisations come from.
Of all the people I spoke to – hundreds, maybe a thousand or more – the overwhelming majority were nice, polite, rational people (except for that one racist in Mississippi), from all the above categories. They all got along with me, even though I fall into several of those categories. They don’t hate the person; they hate the idea of the person. Which is quite sad, really. There’s a huge amount of animosity between the differing camps, stirred up and encouraged a media that provokes it and internet ghettoisation that panders to it. Yet if you put most of these people in a bar to have a chat, as individuals, they’d likely recognise their common humanity.
Again, except Florida. Screw them.
(Because it’s also important to recognise that in every successful social construct, you need one member who is part of the tribe just to be a punching bag)
After so much time, after so much seen and heard and eaten, I keep having one thought: man, I missed so much. There was so much more to see in every place that I was. Even Delaware. I could have spent a week in each state and still not scratched the surface of most of them (okay, four days max in Delaware). I don’t think about it in a dejected way. Periodically, I’m reminded of all the wonderful things I did see: from Bangor to San Diego, from Seattle to Miami and everywhere in between. The beautiful landscapes, the delicious food, the strange people, the soul-searing music, the crazy weather, the urban sprawls, the House on the Rock. It’s a great, weird place, and I hope to visit again soon.
Now if you’ll forgive some (extra) indulgence, I’m going to play myself out to the tune that I was listening to as I left America: