Join me on my adventures!
As the world’s only superpower and biggest economy by a huge margin, almost everyone on the planet knows something about the USA, even if they’ve never been. The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State, the Hollywood sign, Las Vegas neon, Golden Gate and the White House have long been global icons, and American brands and images are familiar everywhere, from Apple computers and Levi’s to Coca-Cola and hot dogs. Yet first-time visitors should expect some surprises.
Though its cities draw the most tourists – New York, New Orleans, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco are all incredible destinations in their own right – America is above all a land of stunningly diverse and achingly beautiful landscapes. In one nation you have the mighty Rockies and spectacular Cascades, the vast, mythic desert landscapes of the Southwest, the endless, rolling plains of Texas and Kansas, the tropical beaches and Everglades of Florida, the giant redwoods of California and the sleepy, pristine villages of New England.
You can soak up the mesmerizing vistas in Crater Lake, Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, stand in awe at the Grand Canyon, hike the Black Hills, cruise the Great Lakes, paddle in the Mississippi, surf the gnarly breaks of Oahu and get lost in the vast wilderness of Alaska. Or you could easily plan a trip that focuses on the out-of-the-way hamlets, remote prairies, eerie ghost towns and forgotten byways that are every bit as “American” as its showpiece icons and monuments.
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. Icons as diverse as Mohammed Ali, Louis Armstrong, Sitting Bull, Hillary Clinton, Michael Jordan, Madonna, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, Mark Twain, John Wayne and Walt Disney continue to inspire and entertain the world, and everyone has heard of the blues, country and western, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop – all American musical innovations.
There are Irish Americans, Italian Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans and Latinos, Texan cowboys and Bronx hustlers, Seattle hipsters and Alabama pastors, New England fishermen, Las Vegas showgirls and Hawaiian surfers. Though it often sounds clichéd to foreigners, the only thing that holds this bizarre federation together is the oft-maligned “American Dream”. While the USA 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.
Indeed, aspects of American culture can be difficult for many visitors to understand, despite the apparent familiarity: its obsession with guns; the widely held belief that “government” is bad; the real, genuine pride in the American Revolution and the US Constitution, two hundred years on; the equally genuine belief that the USA is the “greatest country on earth”; the wild grandstanding of its politicians (especially at election time); and the bewildering contradiction of its great liberal and open-minded traditions with laissez-faire capitalism and extreme cultural and religious conservatism. That’s America: diverse, challenging, beguiling, maddening at times, but always entertaining and always changing. And 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.
The most invigorating American expeditions are often those that take in more than one region. 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 backroad oddities that may well provide your strongest memories. Unless you’re travelling to and within a centralized location such as New York City, you’ll need a car – that mandatory component of life in the USA.
The obvious place to start for most people is New York City – international colossus of culture and finance, with a colourful history and numerous skyscrapers to prove its status as the essential American city. While you could easily spend weeks exploring the place, just a little more effort will take you into the deeper reaches of the Mid-Atlantic region to the north. Here, whether in upstate New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania, major cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh border a landscape of unexpected charm and beauty, from the bucolic hamlets of Amish country and the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains to iconic sights such as Niagara Falls and holiday favourites like the Catskills. Next door, New England has a similarly varied appeal; most visitors know it for the colonial and history-rich city of Boston, but there’s much to be said for its rural byways, leading to centuries-old villages in Vermont and New Hampshire, bayside Massachusetts and the rugged individualism of the lobster-catching harbours and mountains of Maine – which take up nearly half the region.
Seven hundred miles west lie the Great Lakes, on the whole the country’s most underappreciated region; vigorous cities including Chicago and Minneapolis, isolated and evocative lakeshores in Michigan and Minnesota, and rousing college towns such as Madison, Wisconsin, reward any visitor with more than a few days to explore. Bordering Ohio to the east, the nearby Capital Region is the home of Washington DC, capital of the nation and centrepiece for its grandest museums and monuments. Nearby Baltimore is one of the region’s few other big cities, and to the south the old tobacco country of Virginia holds a fair share of American history while coal-mining West Virginia has a scattering of curious natural treasures.
Although Virginia is technically part of the South, for the purest experience you’ll need to venture even further to get the feel of its charismatic churches, BBQ dinners, country music and lively cities such as Atlanta and Memphis. The “deepest” part of the South lies in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, and in these states – with their huge plantations and long history of slavery – you’ll get a very different view of American life than anywhere else in the country. Other Southern states have their own unique cultures: Florida is a mix of old-fashioned Southern manners and backwater swamps leavened with ultra-modern cities including Miami, Latino culture, miles of tempting beaches and the lustrous Keys islands; Louisiana offers more atmospheric swamps and “Cajun” culture, with New Orleans one of the few spots in the USA with a strongly Catholic, yet broadly indulgent culture of drinking, dancing and debauchery; and Texas is the country’s capital for oil-drilling, BBQ-eating and right-wing-politicking, with huge expanses of land, equally big cities and plenty of history.
The Great Plains, which sit in the geographical centre of the country, are often overlooked by visitors, but include many of America’s most well-known sights, from Mount Rushmore in South Dakota to the Gateway Arch in St Louis and the Wild West town of Dodge City in Kansas. To the west rise the great peaks of the Rockies, and with them a melange of exciting cities such as Denver, beautiful mountain scenery like Montana’s Glacier National Park, the geysers of Yellowstone and great opportunities for skiing throughout at places like Idaho’s Sun Valley. Bordering the southern side of the Rockies, the desert Southwest region is also rich with astounding natural beauty – whether in the colossal chasm of the Grand Canyon, striking national parks at Zion and Canyonlands or the Native American heart of the Four Corners region – along with a handful of charming towns and less interesting big cities.
The country’s most populous state is, of course, California, synonymous with the idea of “the West Coast” and its freewheeling culture of surfing, libertine lifestyles and self-worship. However, the further from the water you get, the less the stereotypes hold, especially in the lava beds and redwoods of the far north, the ghost towns and magnificent Yosemite in the Sierras and the intriguing deserts of Death Valley. To the state’s north, Oregon and Washington – the rain-soaked pair making up the Pacific Northwest – offer pleasantly progressive towns such as Seattle and Portland and some of the most striking scenery anywhere in the USA: the stunning landscape of the Columbia River Gorge, the pristine islands of the San Juans, the snowy peaks of the Cascades and more.
Beyond the lower 48 states, Alaska is a winter wonderland of great mountains and icy spires, with few roads and people, but much to offer anyone with a zest for the outdoors and the unexpected. Hawaii is the country’s holiday paradise, a handful of splendid islands in the central Pacific with remote jungle settings and roaring volcanoes.
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