Desert highways, dead-straight Interstates, Route 66, Highway 61, the coast roads of California and New England – in the universal imagination, the USA is an open road. The rise of this great nation coincided with the purring arrival of the automobile, a shiny new piece of tech that forward- looking Americans took to their hearts.
Where the railroad linked up the cities and factories, the asphalt let in the towns and hamlets, the mountains and dustbowls. In a society driven by choice, geared to the needs and urges of the individual, Americans declared the right to stop wherever they wished. Or not to stop at all – as so many road movies and novels and poems and rock ’n’ roll songs insisted.
Celluloid fantasies have merged with fact. For many of us, the first flashes of garish neon signage, the first moody diners, the first great domes of soaring blue sky and of towering buttes and rocky steeples, came from movies. Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Badlands, Thelma & Louise all celebrate the potency and power of a way of escape. The journey from east to west undertaken by Sal and Dean in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road echoes the shifting frontier of cowboy times and foreshadows the hippy dream of rolling oceans and free love. Take the curve to Big Sur and you’ll know exactly what so many writers and artists fell in love with: the sandy coves, the turquoise surf, the cascading waterfalls, the impossible sunsets.
America has a road for everyone. Family groups, in RVs or something smaller, will love the Southwest – idyllic campsites, shady forests, a bit of luxury here, a national park there. The radio speaks in the Navajo language as every distant corner uncovers a vast canyon, a legendary film set, a cool meandering river. Florida, too, has popular appeal. The road trip along the Keys is a rite of passage for many travellers. Hop at will from theme park to yachting harbour to a family meal in Miami Beach. A car opens up the wild beauty of the Everglades as well as the manicured perfection of Tranquility Bay.
A car is not simply a car in america, a road is never just a road
The Northeast has special allure for nature-lovers – whether they’re drawn by the turning leaves of fall or the budding flowers of spring. New England can feel almost homely, with its quaint villages and university towns, tea-shops and gardens. But sooner or later the journey takes over and the familiar gives way to something different, even exotic. Stand on an empty beach at Cape Cod out of season and feel the Atlantic blowing in – there’s something lonely about this old edge of America.
Road trips often mean romance. Any road will do. How about Vegas? Come from any direction, via desert, pine forest, ski resort or Grand Canyon, and you suddenly find yourself cruising along The Strip. The lights splashing on the hood. The roof down. The evening breeze blowing. The night young.
Prefer a lakeside drive? Take your pick. Ontario, Tahoe, Great Salt, Superior. America has epic landscapes, mountain ranges, big skies. You get the fullest sense of this from behind the wheel. There are more than 4.12 million miles of roads in the US. That’s a lot of room for wonder and inspiration.
The notion of “iconic” comes alive on American highways. Photographers from Walker Evans to Robert Frank to Inge Morath captured the drama, strangeness, quirks and quiet spaces that border the ribbons of asphalt. Old petrol pumps, over-the-top commercial advertisements, crazy-looking restaurants and low-slung motels still linger on the roadside, pushing back against homogeneity and modernity. Nowhere else will you feel that tingle of being in “another” America.
Memphis to Nashville, New York to The Hamptons, Downtown LA to Malibu: commutes and hops that have become something greater. Then there are the great American migrations and destiny-seeking drives: Chicago to New Orleans, Detroit to Mississippi, the Midwest to New York City. Every journey is a defining American story. Even the shortest trips freight narratives: LA’s freeways, the New Jersey Turnpike, Manhattan’s yellow-roofed avenues.
Drive through the wind-carved canyons of Monument Valley and end your extraordinary journey in Vegas
Ultimately, the reason we love driving holidays – as well as the ease of stopping and staying where we choose and the access it gives to a myriad sights – is the basic freedom to make up our own little story as we go. Travel, at its best, is a creative endeavour. Hikes, bike rides, sea voyages, train trips and balloon rides have all inspired artists. Great American writers, from John Steinbeck to Hunter S Thompson to Paul Auster, traced their words along the nation’s mighty highways. Songsmiths have waxed lyrical about arriving in Phoenix, driving little red Corvettes and being on a road to nowhere. Painter Edward Hopper turned the backroads, gas stations, telegraph posts and open spaces into diffused dreamscapes.
American culture has a unique ability to turn everyday realities into something verging on religion. A car is not simply a car in the US; a road is never just a road. Truth is, you won’t fully understand the place until you take to four wheels. Plug in an MP3 of your favourite songs, roll down the window and watch the world, the movie that is everyday America, unfold as you go.