At the age of 21, I made a long-held driving dream reality and took a road trip around America. In all honesty, I was pretty lucky as my parents had moved out to Texas, so I had a base to start and local knowledge to help me plan. I’m 42 now, so times have changed quite a lot since then (as you can tell by my questionable choice of headwear and hairstyle!). I’m hoping my story may inspire you, or if you’re seriously thinking about hitting Route 66 and seeing the sights of America, it may just give you some ideas. I headed out there with my boyfriend at the time, and the memories will stay with me for life!
Choosing the car
Who doesn’t dream of driving around America in a Convertible? It seemed idyllic and like an amazing idea, so that’s what we did. My folks actually offered to lend me their sensible saloon with air-con, but of course, at 21 I knew a lot better! I should probably tell you – I should have gone with my parents’ advice as the aircon in a convertible was questionable, and in the high heat and driving at 70 down endless roads…you really don’t want the hood down. We looked cool though, so I guess that’s all that counts…right?!
Initially, we thought we’d hire a banger for a few months, but it turned out it was going to cost a fair whack – coupled with the fact we did not know exactly how long we would be gone for. We decided it would be cheaper to buy a car and sell it, than to hire one (thanks to Mum and Dad for helping)…the best thing was that we managed to sell it at the end for the same price we paid for it…with just a few more thousand miles on the clock.
Driving in America
Before we heading to America we both needed to arrange an International Driving Licence, which we needed to keep with us at all times on our trip. As my parent’s lived in America, it was really good to get some driving practice with them before taking to the road ourselves, not only to get used to driving on the “wrong side” but to get used to the rules of the road. In the UK we seem to like curves – so drive along winding roads and use roundabouts at busy intersections. In America, they’re all about straight lines (very long straight roads), grids in the cities, and four-way stops instead of roundabouts (basically it’s a case of who arrives at the junction first goes first, which makes it a bit nerve-wracking the first few times!)
We didn’t really plan the whole route as such, but we had a starting point (in Dallas, Texas) and needed to return there in around 3-4 months before heading back to Uni. We had a list of places we really wanted to visit – and played the rest by ear. With the help of our trusty map and USA guidebook (yes, you read it right – no google maps or sat nav for young drivers in 1997!), we set off!
Who doesn’t want to visit Vegas? It was everything you expect it to be and the themed hotels were awesome. The food was pretty great too! As poor students, we’d be living off powdered mash and hot dog sausages, so to eat-all-you-can for next to nothing was a real treat and we took full advantage. We couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel for more than one night, so when we arrived in Vegas, we stayed at a campsite on the perimeter. Las Vegas is basically in the middle of a desert, so it was fantastic to see the vibrant theme-park of a city from a distance with the backdrop of the desert around it. A perspective you definitely wouldn’t get from a Vegas hotel.
Yellowstone National Park
I was hoping to find Yogi Bear, but he was no-where to be seen. It’s a beautiful National Park with fantastic mountains, lakes and forests, but the most fascinating part was getting up close to and watching colourful hot springs and geysers which periodically shoot hot water and steam-powered by the hidden, dormant volcano.
The Grand Canyon
Need I say more? This was epic and breath-taking in scale and size. It really is somewhere that has to be seen to be believed – and as we camped on site, we were able to experience spectacular views at sunrise and sunset!
Donning some beautiful blue plastic protective anoraks given to us for free, we set sail on The Maid of the Mist which took us right up to the waterfall – absolutely brilliant. Since we were already soaked, we also had a cheeky white-water raft experience on some rapids nearby, which was brilliant!
Redwood National State Park
This National Park in California was amazing, I’ve never seen such huge trees (and possibly never will again). As you can see from the photo, they are wider than a car and can grow over 100 meters tall!
The East Coast
We took a journey up the east coast from San Diego, through LA and on to San Francisco. I loved the laid-back vibe in San Diego and it’s definitely in one of my top 3 cities in America, although I have to admit I was really disappointed with LA. It just felt a bit fake and didn’t give me the road trip vibes that the other places did (of course, this was quite a few years ago! I’m sure it’s changed since). San Francisco was great, too! We were really eager to do a tour around Alcatraz, but then discovered you can’t just rock up on the day, you need to book well in advance which of course, we didn’t do – whoops!
Disneyland aka my childhood dream!
What can I say – we had to do it. I actually can’t remember much, but it was worth it just to meet Mickey Mouse in person!
Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills
Most people will have read about the four influential presidents carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and whilst it was worth seeing (especially lit up at night), the most moving and interesting part of my visit to the Black Hills was discovering all about Native Indian American culture and visiting Bear Butte State Park and The Crazy Horse Memorial. If you are impressed by the presidents carved into Mount Rushmore, then The Crazy Horse will bowl you over. This is a carving in progress that won’t be finished in my lifetime and will stand nearly 10 times the size of Mount Rushmore when finished. It is being created to honour the heritage of North American Indians and features a prominent leader in their history.
Home of The White House, Capitol Hill and The Smithsonian Museum, this is a hugely important City (for obvious reasons). I recall that the City felt quite clinical and almost eerie – not the vibrant, bustling and full of life places I’d come from. Very different from London and many other capital cities I have visited.
The home of Jack Daniels and Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Visiting both of these was brilliant for different reasons – I didn’t really know much about Elvis (he was more my parents’ era) but his story and home were fascinating. I’d definitely recommend heading to Tennessee!
The best bits
As if all the superb places I’ve mentioned already wasn’t enough, what really stood out was…
It is mostly just like the movies
For the most part, the epic landmarks and cities were as impressive as I expected them to be. If you’re thinking about heading over to the US on a road trip, I am sure you won’t be disappointed – just as I wasn’t.
There is amazing diversity across the US
There is no questioning it, America is huge, but I was still amazed by the variety and contrast in landscape, heritage, cities and people across the country. It’s easy to understand why each state is so steadfastly proud of their homeland.
The freedom of the open road
Cheesy I know, but we really did feel like we had the freedom of the open road and, within reason, we were masters of our own destiny, or perhaps I should say “destinations”. We explored, we made new friends, we absorbed history and information and had a huge amount of fun along the way – and our little car was a trooper the whole time – it didn’t break down once!
The not-so-best bits…
Getting lost downtown
As a naive teenager, I had visions of being kidnapped and shot by a gang if I got lost Downtown in a big American city. I’m sure I drove my boyfriend mad by going into a crazy panic when we took a wrong turn downtown and ended up in a dodgy area – refusing to let him get the map out in case they recognised us as tourists and mugged us and left us for dead…
Things that go bump in the night
You’ll be pleased to know I survived my Downtown exploits, but my active imagination convinced me that I could meet my fate in a worse way – at the hand (or tail) of a deadly creature! We don’t have many dangerous or poisoners animals in the UK, so I’ll never forget my first night in one of America’s National parks where we received a leaflet about how to keep safe. I barely slept a wink on the first night wondering if a rattlesnake would be lying in wait outside the tent, a scorpion had made a home in my shoe or a bear would attack!
Back to basics
Although the USA has some amazing National Parks when you’re on a budget, the camping facilities could be very basic (a hole in the ground in a wooden shack, basically). You get used to it, but a flushing toilet and shower certainly became a treat – and the one night we stayed in a hotel in Vegas was pure luxury!
As I said before, I wish we’d have chosen a more sensible car with fully functioning aircon. It got pretty miserable when you had a full day of driving in 40-degree heat and warm air blowing in your face. It would have been either that or sunstroke if we kept the hood down.
So that’s it. I hope you had fun reading this, and who knows it may even inspire one or two of you to start planning your own road trip, whether it be closer to home in the UK or Europe, or further afield like I did! Whatever you do, take lots of photos and create lots of amazing memories!