USA, Utah, Navajo National Park, road leading to Monument Valley

USA

Skyscrapers, road trips, cowboys and surfers - the land of the free is as eclectic as it is vast

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Lauded as a beacon of freedom, reviled at times as bent on global domination, the United States has many faces, and leaves no one short of opinions. The images of the country that named itself after a continent are embedded in the mind of every traveller: endless highways cutting through bleak deserts; forests of skyscrapers towering over urban jungles; acres of beaches dotted with surfboards and sun worshippers; high mountain peaks and green river valleys; magnificent feats of engineering, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Hoover Dam. The country’s emblems are so familiar that they constitute as much a part of the world’s culture as its own – Lady Liberty, the Grand Canyon, the Empire State Building, the US Capitol, the “Hollywood” sign…the list goes on.

For over five hundred years, travellers have brought their hopes and dreams to America. The first European explorers were followed by millions of immigrants, escaping the hidebound societies of the Old World. Eventually, they were joined as free citizens by the Native Americans – the continent’s true pioneers – and the slaves who had been shipped over from Africa and the Caribbean. Together they formed a nation that not only offered something genuinely new, but has continued to re-invent itself in the face of each fresh challenge, with a capacity to inspire that remains undiminished. The combination of a shoot-from-the-hip mentality with laissez-faire capitalism and religious fervour can make the US maddening at times, even to its own residents. But what’s most surprising, perhaps, is how such an initially daunting land can prove so enticing – its vibrant mix of peoples, striking landscapes and city skylines, and rich musical, cinematic and culinary heritage seduce almost every visitor in the end.

The sheer size of the country prevents any sort of overarching statement about the typical American experience, just as the diversity of its people undercuts any notion of the typical American. Many of the stereotypes do hold true – this is a place where you can find real life cowboys, gangsters and other Hollywood standbys – but they are far from widespread. And yet, there are a few common bonds between residents. For one, vigour and passion are animating forces in politics and culture here. While this tendency has deep roots in the country’s religious heritage (modern evangelism was perfected here), it affects everything from the firm opinions people hold over even trivial matters, to the public stand they make over God, government, guns and other incendiary topics. There is, in short, no such thing as the stiff upper lip in American life – that was left behind a few centuries ago on the voyage west.

While the US is one of the world’s oldest still-functioning democracies and the roots of its European presence go back to the 1500s, the palpable sense of newness here creates an odd sort of optimism, wherein anything seems possible and fortune can strike at any moment. The country’s history – from the Gold Rush to the Space Race – testifies to this mentality, and it’s still evident whether Americans are constructing towering skyscrapers, transforming their landscape with massive dams and highways or trying to win the jackpot in Las Vegas – or in the stock market. Americans relocate at a rate greater than people of any other society as they try to advance themselves economically and socially, although this wanderlust can create an equal sense of dissatisfaction, as expectations are left unmet and friends left behind in the search for the next golden opportunity.

The cities of the US are where foreign visitors often spend the majority of their time, soaking up the high-rise energy of Chicago and New York, the political fervour of Washington DC or the bayside tranquillity of San Francisco. The nation’s polyglot character means that any foreigner can find the company of their fellow citizens here, but it’s much better to leave the comforts of home behind and dive into the native experience, whether raising heaven with a gospel choir at a Pentecostal church or joining the elated crowds at a baseball game.

The country amounts, however, to much more than the sum of its urban landscapes. While spending time in the cities can be fun, it’s seldom as fulfilling as taking a deeper journey into the heart of the continent and its scenic splendours. Indeed, for all of its pride and bluster, the US can be a land of quiet nuances: snow falling on a country lane in Vermont, fishermen trolling for their catch on Chesapeake Bay and alligators gliding through the bayou. You could easily plan a trip that focuses on the out-of-the-way hamlets, remote wildernesses, eerie ghost towns and forgotten byways that are every bit as “American” as its showpiece icons and monuments. Putting aside the sheer size of the place, deciding exactly what version of the US you want to see may be the hardest decision of all.

Although we’ve structured this book regionally, the most invigorating expeditions are those that take in more than one area. Unless you’re travelling to and within a centralized location such as New York City, you’ll need a car – that essential component of life in the US. You do not, however, have to cross the entire continent from shore to shore in order to appreciate its amazing diversity; it would take a long time to see the whole country, and the more time you spend simply travelling, the less time you’ll have to savour the small-town pleasures and back-road oddities that may well provide your strongest memories. It will hit you early on that, while there is no such thing as a typical American person or landscape, there can be few places where strangers can feel so confident of a warm reception.

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