I wasn’t overly enthusiastic setting off on three weeks driving west to east across the US… and how the country surprised me. The scale of things: from the distances to drive to the huge rock faces looming in Yosemite. The diverse beauty: the Sierra Nevada mountains, snow covered trails, 113 degrees desert, the rockiness of the Rockies and the smokiness of the Smokies, the sandbars and mysticism of the Outer Banks. The generosity of the people who opened up their houses so my stay was both within budget and enriched by speaking with people who lived there. The surprise of camping by myself for the first time and being capable of pitching in under seven minutes by the end. The horror of far-right talk shows on the car radio and the joy of the excessive amounts of country music stations.
With my tent, maps.me on my phone and a paper road atlas to pour over, Yosemite was my first stop. I camped just outside the national park in national forest land (a trick I repeated often to avoid horrendous national park camping fees). I hiked 18 miles all over the main valley, seeing El Capitan, Half-Dome, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls all in perfect panoramas spoiled only when a tour bus arrived at some viewpoints. Two of my favourite days of the whole trip was next: a good circuit hike in snow up Lambert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows before driving across the heat of Death Valley the next day. I visited Manzanar Camp where Japanese Americans were interred for the duration of WW II: history I was not aware of and surprised me. Over the border into Nevada, I stopped at a ghost town called Rhyolite. This town existed for only eight years at the height of the gold rush. Now, artists have been allowed to take it over and the sight of white ghost statues among the the deserted building surrounding by everlasting desert was somewhat eerie.
I headed to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and spent three nights camping with friends at DeMotte campsite, enjoying healthy meals of canned food heated over the campfire. The days was as hot as the nights were cold. Frost formed on the car overnight. We hiked down and up the canyon in one day for spectacular views, spent one day walking along the top of the rim through dried pine forests in the company of very cute Kaibab squirrels, and then packed up to Las Vegas. We were all stunned into silence as we walked the Strip. The boys learned how to play roulette and made wild bets of up to $5 while people around us lost $100 a minute. I learned that drinks were free when you were playing and happily lined up the G&Ts while people-watching to my heart’s content.
Fortified by IHOP pancakes, I saw the boys safely to a hostel before heading to Salt Lake City. It’s a city in an attractive location, surrounded on all sides by mountains. Lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings (sampling all the best chains America could offer) kept me going for a packed tea as I drove on impressive road engineering through the Rockies to reach Boulder, Colorado late at night.
Colorado could not be more of a contrast to Utah if it tried. A planned tour of Denver turned into a whole afternoon and night spent at Great Divide, a wonderful craft brewery. The night ended with shots of pickle vodka, burritos and a street fight. Boulder is so hipster, it’s like a parody of itself. But I enjoyed meandering through funky shops, adding to my collection of second-hand books in the back of the car, eating Earl Grey ice-cream and visiting a cannabis dispensary. The dispensary felt simultaneously naughty and illegal yet professional and proper.
Driving through Kansas was extreme flatness. I only stopped for dinner and knew I was hitting the Deep South when my server called me “ma’am“. I loved Topeka where one of the schools involved in Brown v Board of Education has been turned into a civil rights museum. This is one of the seminal cases in US legal history, up there with Roe v Wade. Next stop was St Louis. I ate proper barbeque and an incredible Lebanese breakfast before exploring St Louis’ famous arch and the courthouse where Dred Scott was first heard: another well-known civil rights case. Camp that night was in the swampy Mark Twain NF, surrounded by savage flies and a chorus of frogs.
A horrifying expensive hostel was worth it to be in Nashville for the second-last night of the Country Music Awards. I did as the locals and headed up to the bridge across the river where you can see the screens in the main stadium and hear perfectly. The whole place was full of live music, cowboy boots and Stetsons and I loved it all while feeling as out of place as a Japanese tourist. I drove off to the Smokies the next day with country music still blaring. There is a horrible strip driving into the mountains full of theme parks (including Dollywood), a badly built Titanic and a plastic jungle. The Smokies are part of the Appalachians, the same mountains I had hiked in the Shenandoah, and so they felt comfortable and familiar. I stopped off at Asheville, the “Boulder of the East”, and wondered at an 80-page tea menu and a man in plaited pigtails.
The Outer Banks NC, strung out like beads on a necklace, were another surprise. I saw them first on the map and knew I had to visit somewhere that looked that interesting. It’s called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the hundreds of ships wrecked off its shores. I took a ferry to the southernmost island Ocracoke and tasted my first scallops. The evening light on the beaches made beautiful pink and grays. This is where the Wright brothers first flew and where the first permanent English colony in North America was established before its 120 people vanished without trace. I made my way north via ferries and lighthouses, meeting fascinating people along the way. To finish off in style, I camped through a terrible lightning storm before arriving at my final goal of Washington DC. What a wonderful three weeks of adventure!
TOP TIPS IF PLANNING AN AMERICAN ROADTRIP
- Try and find a car rental company that need a car taken one-way for cheap. You can find good deals if you search for them
- Download all the maps you might need on maps.me. It’s great for hiking and finding convenient stopping points
- You can camp on Bureau of Land Management land for free!
- Bring lots of wet wipes for a replacement shower
- Most lodges at the Grand Canyon will be booked up early; try less popular walking routes on the North Rim to avoid this and the crowds
- Peanut butter wraps are the best