Published: January 25th 2012January 25th 2012
An amazing, surprising, complex country! Scenery that gives you a look at every landform and landscape that provides constant spectacle. A road system, built to facilitate military movements during the Eisenhower days, that now carries Americans up and down, back and forward, constantly. An excellent road system that, in large part, could handle more maintenance. Wonderful national parks in the country where the idea began. Hog and cattle factories across the plains that make you feel guilty tucking into a typically tender US steak. A country where many people travel, lots of them in very large RVs and perhaps not too far from home. Iconic world cities that seem just a little disconnected from the surrounding lands. A great country to travel through with people who are welcoming, polite and surprisingly different, from each other and from us.
We arrived from South America in the first week of July with just a little trepidation. The USA is a very large country and, with prices that have been similar to those at home in Australia, it was likely to be more expensive than many places in which we have travelled. We saved the US until the last leg of our 3
Cascades National Park
year trip so that we had a clear view of the amount we could afford to spend. We had investigated options for transport and accommodation and had developed an, admittedly, pretty rough and flexible plan. We were pretty confident we could get about. At least we could speak the language. But we had seen and heard a lot about the country over the years and we weren't totally convinced that travelling around it would be always interesting or always enjoyable. Transport and Accommodation
It is generally a good idea in any country to travel the way the locals do. Long term travellers within the lower 48 tend to use RVs, often very large ones. Shorter term travellers also use RVs but expand their range to use cars, hotels/motels and the air. We definitely didn't want to fly from city to city so a vehicle was necessary. An RV then? You can buy second hand vehicles at a reasonable price but it is not all that straightforward for a foreigner to a buy a vehicle and insure it. Possible of course, but it does involve avoidance of some legalities. Leasing? For a month or even two that may have
been a goer. Four or five months hire of an RV would have blown the budget, particularly as we would still need to pay camping fees in RV parks and fuel costs would be high. There are also places where a long, heavy RV could be a real nuisance.
A car and accommodation in a tent then? People here do use tents but they tend to do so more for 'backpacking' in the backcountry forests and parks. 'Car camping' with a tent is apparently not that popular among the locals and it seemed to us that it was likely that there was good reason for that.
The option we selected was to arrange a 'mini-lease' on a suitable vehicle, buy camping equipment and either camp or use motels as the conditions demanded. The vehicle was a Mitsubishi Endeavour which is a small to mid-range AWD with nice high clearance and plenty of room for gear. The tent we bought was a large one. An Asolo Chameleon 6 person tent. It had an inner tent covered by a large fly which provided a good sized vestibule. Over an extended period it can become tiresome not to be able to
stand in a tent and this one allowed me to move around pretty easily. You also need some shelter from the weather when on the road for an extended period and it is nice to be a bit comfortable. And we were. Nice fat blow-up mattress (with an electric pump this time, rather than the foot pump we had in Europe), plenty of warm bedding and reasonable cooking arrangements (and, later in the trip as it got colder, a small electric heater). Not exactly roughing it, but not a large RV either. We had our days of rain that weren't comfortable but the tent stood up well and, if it was raining or snowing when it came time to camp, if we were in a large city or if we simply felt like it, we checked into a hotel/motel.
Signing up for some of the motel/hotel chain loyalty cards was of real value in delivering discounts and more easily finding places to stay that were of a reasonable standard. Our custom was spread around, although we mainly patronised the cheaper ones. ABVI, Motel 6 and Comfort Choice were the most common ones used but Best Western, Holiday Inn, Knights
Inn, Days Inn and a few others also featured. Costs vary according to season, place and location as you might expect. We didn't pay under $50 per night or over $100 very often. Booking ahead, even just a few hours, means that you aren't hit with walk-in rates and we did that wherever we could. The nicest and friendliest hotel/motel we stayed in was probably the Silver Saddle in Santa Fe. Not a chain place and quite delightful.
Camping was a good option where the weather was reasonable. We spent a little over half of our nights in the tent. A KOA loyalty card was useful in reducing the cost of sites. We built up enough points for a couple of free nights over the time we spent and they give a discount each time you camp. Costs again vary according to season, place and location but are normally between $20 and $35 per night. Because we travel with computers, cameras and such we tended to look for electricity connection. That sometimes meant we also had to pay for connections to things like water, cable or sewerage that we didn't need. Power connection allowed us to use cooking, lighting
and even heating options that were more convenient and cheaper than LPG. We found that KOA maintained a pretty good standard everywhere.
National Parks, State Parks, National Forests and State Forests were also good options for camping. Facilities vary. National Parks typically provide drinking water and toilets. Sites are pretty good and provide plenty of space although some provide tent sites/pitches that were too small for our large tent. The other options, State Parks and the Forests had variable facilities, some with power and a few with showers. We weren't too keen on the lack of showers for tent campers in National Parks. Not a major hardship I suppose but I do like a daily bogey.
We should note here that the purchase of a National Parks Card for $80 was an excellent investment. The card lets the cardholder, vehicle and a couple of adults (could even cover all of the people in a car?) in to all National Parks and National Monuments. Entry costs for these vary between $25 down to $5. I should note that nearly all wanted ID along with the card, thus preventing use of a 'loaner.'
We didn't skimp on our gear
but still we needed just 20 nights in the tent to cut out the purchase cost as against the cheapest possible hotel/motels. The camping gear didn't come home, except for a vegetable peeler (how do you fall in love with a vegetable peeler?) and a stone from a Nova Scotia beach which served as a knife sharpener. The tent is now doing its time in the mountains of California near Lake Isabella. Most of the other gear was handed on to people who needed it by Dave and Merry-Jo. The Route
Our intended route around the US seemed relatively straightforward to us. Go north from LA, east from Seattle, south from Nova Scotia (Canada of course), west from South Carolina and north to LA. It did become a little more complicated.
We arrived in LA and headed north more or less along the coast. Then we turned right in Washington state and headed east to the Glacier National Park. There was a diversion down to Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, down through Utah and across Colorado to the Rocky Mountains National Park. North to the Black Hills and then a right turn to head for Chicago. Around through
Yet more scenery
Rocky Mtns National Park
Illinois and a smidgin of Indiana and up through Michigan into Canada. Through Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and then south down to New York. A bit of wandering around, picking up Philadelphia, Washington DC, Richmond, Virginia and then a loop up through West Virgina to New York State and Niagara Falls. Into Vermont about half way up and then down through the falling leaves to Massachusetts and the eastern states to New York again. Then south, and a little west, through West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Across to the Carolinas and then a right turn west through to Georgia. Across to Louisiana and down to New Orleans. West to Texas, up to New Mexico, in and out of Kansas, into Colorado, across to Utah, Arizona and into California again.
The route worked well, we think. We avoided the very hot and most of the very cold, possibly more by luck than good management. We did make one bad call deciding to head south from the Grand Canyon to try to escape some of the snow but failing to check the altitude of Flagstaff. There were some days of rain but the weather was generally kind. We
visited, a couple very briefly, 43 of the 48 States, travelled a little less than 20,000 miles/32,000 kilometres in a little under 5 months.
Our award for the most scenic road goes, after much debate, to the Beartooth Highway into Yellowstone from Billings, Montana, followed closely by the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Glacier gets our vote as the best National Park in the country that we visited. Kentucky and Tennessee, we thought, had the best maintained roads. Our most exciting drive was along I-94 across South Dakota ahead of and, at times, in, a massive line of storms from the north. Most boring drive? None.
I won't go into all of the roads we travelled but we do have a record of them if anyone is particularly interested. I will say that we received very useful and welcome advice from a lot of people. Fellow bloggers Dave, Merry Jo, Bob and Linda gave us particularly valuable information and advice. People we met along the way seemed to be always ready to talk about where we should go, although some found our desire to stay off the inter-States a little strange. The Budget
We had expected the US to be costly compared to many other countries and we weren't disappointed. Nevertheless, we were happy that our expenditure didn't blow out too much. Fuel is cheap – although no-one there seems to think so. Let them come over to Australia or go over to Europe for a little while. The hire of a vehicle was considerably more expensive than we had to pay in Europe. Food from supermarkets is relatively cheap and self catering is a good way to keep costs down. Entry fees – provided you have your National Parks “America the Beautiful” Card – are pretty reasonable and not much different from other countries.
The real pressure on the budget came from all of the great stuff that they sell here and that is so much cheaper than it is where we come from. And you can't really blame the US for that. Our budget of $200 a day for the 2 of us for everything survived. The lovely US to A$ exchange helped. Getting In and Out
Our first experience of Border Security aside, the 4 other times through the gate weren't difficult at all. We obtained
Every campsite - public or commercial - had a table and chair set
an ESTA before arrival and the system worked the second time in. We did confuse things by wanting to stay longer than the 3 months that Australians are automatically allowed but that was sorted on our re-entry from Canada after a 3 week side-trip there. We were questioned closely but the exercise was by no means difficult. The 'no joke, no smile' policy is off-putting, and I hope that it doesn't become the fashion everywhere around the world, but it doesn't matter that much. Cities
Constant reference to 'the American people' as the final arbiter in all things (not that anyone actually seems prepared to go to the trouble of asking them that often) can lead one to believe that there is a single, relatively homogeneous, group of people living in the country. And there may well be, but, if there is, then it is a pretty mixed sort of 'homogeneous' group. As it is for the population, so it is for the cities. They are all in the US, they share a language – more or less – and they all look after cars, but that's about it.
For life, activity and interest you really can't
go past San Francisco and New York. As different as chalk and cheese but both cities have a bounce about them that we loved. Santa Fe is proud of its status as the second thinnest city in the USA. The old South is on show in Charleston and, to a lesser degree, in New Orleans and Richmond. Chicago and Boston, both with a lot of interesting history, seemed to us to be liveable cities. Denver is a bit like the curate's egg, excellent in parts. A really good show at the Red Rock Amphitheatre could bring us back. Los Angeles and Nashville were places where we expected a lot. They are worth a visit but I have to say that they didn't live up to the hype as far as we were concerned. Food
With a population comprising communities from most countries, the feeding options cover the spectrum. For travellers it can be difficult to locate the good places but it is worth looking. In some places, particularly the west, good, cheap Mexican is easy to find. In Louisiana poor boy sandwiches, cajun and creole food are excellent. We had some real southern fried chicken from a local
roadside store at Batchelor, Louisiana, and I can see why the Colonel figured that something like that could make him millions. Unfortunately, we didn't locate that many SE Asian places that hadn't adjusted to local tastes, but I think that was probably just bad luck. We tried as many of the local favourites as we could, worked out that biscuits are scones, gravy can be white with brown bits and grits don't have a lot to recommend them (editor's note: one of us likes grits very much, especially with butter).
The local, more budget, fare usually comes in a bun, on a bed of fries/chips and served by a restaurant that is part of a chain. There are quite a few of these and we didn't quite get to try them all. Their motto seems to be 'more is better'. We did the right thing and grew.
The beer was better than we had expected. We generally left the majors alone, sticking mainly to the smaller, more local brewers. Shiner was good. Moose Drool was perfectly acceptable. There were a number of others whose names I have lost that were also OK. You could generally find a reasonable
bottle of wine for a reasonable price and the harder liquor, when you could work out the system for sale in the particular state or county, was also a good price compared to Britain, Europe or Australia.
As we mentioned earlier, we self-catered a lot. This worked well for us. Supermarkets, fruit and veg stalls and even smaller corner shops usually have a good range of food. Shops that cater to Hispanic or Asian customers we found to be better bets for good fresh food. In a lot of supermarkets there can be a little more emphasis on the processed stuff rather than the fresh, but we managed pretty well.
It is as well to be aware that Americans tend to like things sweet. We pined for bread that wasn't and that also had a crust. Bagels were great and, particularly in San Francisco and New York, we had some very nice breakfasts. The Land
I don't think anyone could accuse the Americans of underselling their country, but then they do have rather a lot to go on about. Perhaps some of the claims of this or that being the best/biggest/most beautiful have to be taken
with a grain of salt and a little bit of fact or definition checking, but the USA has a lot going for it.
For us, the single most impressive thing about the land as a whole was its capacity to produce. Endless prairies covered in corn, wheat, soy beans, oil and gas wells, wind farms and solar arrays. Massive feed lots and hog farms. Get past that and you are into the smaller farms where the country is a little tighter and more closely settled. Where you can't grow something then you probably have some jaw dropping scenery and can make money from those who come to see it. Even the Badlands were wonderful and Death Valley is one of our favourite places. In such a productive country you do wonder why they still insist on subsidising their farmers – but I guess that is just a personal gripe. Bad politics equals lousy policies.
The mountains should really get a special mention - and not just because those of us from flatter country might be easily impressed. The Rockies are the home of some of the most beautiful spectacles in the world. The Great Smokey Mountains are very
beautiful particularly in the mid autumn. The Appalachian Mountains as a whole are particularly interesting for their history and effect on the development of the culture of the country. The coastal areas of Northern California, Oregon and Washington provide the back drop for a very enjoyable drive as did the coast of Massachusetts – until you hit the endless buildings through Connecticut and Rhode Island. We enjoyed it all right down to the flat farmland of Louisiana down along the Mississippi. The People
We were stuck for a place to camp in Idaho. Plenty of RV parks but none took tents. Frustrated, we went to a large, very commercial RV park, which we knew wouldn't take tents, just to ask if they knew of a place where we might find a camp site. The lady at reception checked out our needs. She knew of a place and immediately picked up the phone, confirmed that they had a site, made a booking and gave us detailed directions about how to get there. And that was pretty typical. The Americans we met were helpful, friendly people who are easy to get along with.
The people do differ across the
country though. Californians seemed to us to be a little like Australians, albeit with an American sense of humour. People in the mid-West were probably the most friendly and helpful we found in a country where this is the norm. We did think we had slipped into another country by mistake when we hit New England for a little while. People were a lot more reserved than we were used to. Not so ready to smile or even talk. Still, that prepared us for New York where everyone, including us, was far too busy to chat about anything inconsequential. Quite the opposite of people in the South where the readiness of the locals to have a chat provided us with a very interesting look at the life of people in this part of the world. Other Bits
Tipping almost everyone who provides you with any kind of service is not something we are all that used to or comfortable with. Australians tend to have a philosophical position that it is the responsibility of an employer to pay their people properly and to ensure that their employees deliver the appropriate level of service. But we got used to it
after a while. In restaurants we normally tipped at about 15% of the bill, before tax. That percentage would go up or down depending on the level of service provided – or our mood, I suppose.
It was great for us to be in the country as the 2012 election campaign was getting started. It was only the Republicans gearing up for their primaries but I enjoyed watching what was going on, providing endlessly rivetting analysis for my ever patient and understanding wife.
If someone is identified as an 'American' it is immediately clear to all but the pedants that you are talking of a person who is a citizen of the USA. There are, of course, citizens of about 20 other countries that could, legitimately, also lay claim to the term. Doesn't matter though. Those others will have to make do with 'South American, Central American or even Cuban or Canadian because the US now effectively owns the term.
There is no question that the USA is a big, powerful country. We can now better appreciate why it became, and remains, such a dominant force. It is, without doubt, a great place to visit. We are
likely to return. Perhaps not to do the big tour again but certainly to check out some of the special events that this country can routinely deliver.
There are more photos below