By Megan Thorpe
A waitress in Alabama once commented to my dads’ friend; “You must be from outta town, you got collars on your shirts.” Sitting in Jeremy’s Farm to Table restaurant in the truly one-horse town of Chehalis, Washington state, Dad quoted this back the family, and as we looked around we became painfully aware that my dad and brother were in fact the only men in the whole establishment wearing collared, button-up shirts. This all sounds too cliché, but after all, there’s no smoke without fire.
The ‘Great American Road Trip’ has been a staple of my family holidays for at least the last ten years. Taking to the roads that form the backbone of the USA, my family has managed to cover twenty-six of the fifty states (and a little bit of Canada).
Facing the blindingly obvious and yet unwritten dress code that we had ignored, we reflected on all the times that despite our best efforts of blending in to experience the states for all they had to offer, we had stuck out like a sore thumb. There was the occasion we found ourselves as the only Caucasians, dressed head-to-toe in The GAP, on a bus travelling round the depths of Philadelphia ghettos. The bus driver dropped us at the nearest Starbucks and insisted we didn’t need to pay, just get off his bus (oops?). A few years later and we find ourselves pulled over by highway patrol in Virginia, because they didn’t recognize our government-issued diplomat plates. Military ID pulled out and a spell of speaking our best Queens English later, we’re set free with a warning that we should get more easily recognizable plates (sorry?).
The idea of a road trip has always been to discover for yourself the true ins-and-outs of a country; to burst the clichés and assumptions and witness not only the monuments, cities, and scenic landscapes, but also the underbelly of it all – the homelands of industry, the ordinary people. And yet, after all these years of driving through farmland, prairies, forests, and redneck one-horse towns I can finally use the clichés knowing that most of them are totally true.
Yet it remains so necessary to prove them for yourself.
This year we found ourselves on the epic journey from Vancouver, Canada, to San Francisco, California – 950 miles, (Durham to London is only 250 miles) with stops along the way in Seattle, Chehalis and Vancouver in the state of Washington, and Portland, Bend, and Crater Lake in the state of Oregon. Between listening to country songs, playing ‘guess how Americans pronounce that word,’ and debating which is the ugliest excuse for a car (the Nissan Cube and Honda Element in close competition), you can’t help but notice the scale of it all.
What the Great American Road trip reveals is that scale is just a plaything here. Cargo trains stretch as far as you can see, roads cut through epic volcanic basalt (that’s pronounced ‘Buh-salt’) flows, and each town begins to look like the next; homogenous carbon copies in a landscape that you couldn’t imagine. This space, these clichés, this American tradition that is The Road Trip: it’s ultimately humbling. But look closer at the Lego buildings, the Starbucks, and the over-simplified ‘educational’ national park talks, and the realization creeps in that actually, discovery can be simply finding out what you assumed was true and is intrepidly intrinsic to the nation of consumption itself. A nation taken over by its clichés. But that may not be a bad thing – it makes it what it is.