With travel restrictions from Europe to the US changing in November and flights to cities across the US selling fast, our lead writer tells the story of his epic road trip across eight states, eight cities, and into the heart of the USA
I fell into conversation with a girl called Becca after she dropped her duct tape. Always curious as to why anyone would carry their own personal duct tape, I had to ask. Perfect for resealing bags of Skittles, apparently. But of course. We chatted about this and that — she was on her way home to Phoenix after a three-month study program in New York — and became the briefest of footnotes in each others’ lives before our respective flights were called.
New York City, New York
I’d been in New York for four days as a precursor to taking this trip with a friend. It was my first time in New York (my first time in the States, in fact), and I’d spent my time there doing touristy things and generally exploring the city. Went to the Met, saw a couple of bands, ate a wide variety of food, met up with my friend Christina on the last night for “a couple” of catch-up drinks that turned into an all-nighter. Now I was here, sitting in the departure lounge of LaGuardia airport, feeling tentatively okay. It wasn’t to last.
Having felt surprisingly perky on the hot, packed bus to the airport despite the frankly stupid amount Christina and I had drunk the previous night, my hangover hit right as I boarded the flight to Charlotte. I managed to pass it off as just a fear of flying to the concerned-looking chap in the next seat, as I paled and shivered through two hours of near-constant turbulence.
After a quick stop to change planes, drink about a gallon of water, and regain my land legs in Charlotte, I flew the short hop Atlanta to be met by my friend Joe. He was the reason I was in the US in the first place: we’d been flatmates in the Czech Republic for three years before he left to spend a couple of years in China. He was now back in Atlanta preceding a move to Denver to study for his doctorate. The plan was to drive across, and he’d asked whether I fancied joining him. Oh yes. The chance to see the lesser-traveled US? Absolutely.
We spent a week staying at Joe’s mum’s house, meeting various friends and family members, eating vast amounts of barbecued food, and doing, to my mind, Very American Things such as being taken to see the Atlanta Braves play baseball. Joe loves baseball, as do his friends, and I enjoyed being part of a group of friendly, knowledgeable people who answered my almost certainly moronic questions with a mixture of patience, indulgence, and bewilderment.
We spent one day seeing a bunch of the World’s Biggest Things, an experience which deserved its own article, an evening seeing bands at a tiny venue called Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, and a final day relaxing and preparing for our upcoming road trip.
We set off early with the intention of hitting Chattanooga for lunch. Aside from the choo-choo, I knew nothing about the city, and as it was basically a pit stop for food, I still don’t. I remember driving along winding roads over forested hills before being popped out onto a bluff overlooking a gleaming town on a lazy bend of a river. I’m sure it’s lovely.
Our destination was actually Nashville. We’d nominated it as an overnight halt for distance reasons and because it seemed like somewhere fun. I wasn’t entirely convinced, as in my head Nashville was good ol’ boys, slide guitars, rootin’ (as well as, I daresay, tootin’), and music of both kinds: country and western.
Well, it was a revelation. Give me six months there, please. There’s music everywhere, and not just endless mawkish country as I’d feared. Rock n’ roll, blues, bluegrass, folk; everything from beer-chuggin’, yee-hawin’ country rock to delicate, soulful acoustic balladry, even (though you might not necessarily think so) a rap and hip-hop scene. There are live bands seemingly in every bar at any time of day, and in the evenings, music is even piped through mysterious speaker poles out onto Broadway. Much of the city’s nightlife and attractions are either on or within a stone’s throw of Broadway and walking it during the day it seemed a pretty good primer to what the city was about: bar, record shop, record shop, bar, instrument shop, record shop, bar, bar, hats-and-boots emporium, instrument shop, bar, record shop. My kind of place.
Indeed, it’s the kind of place where there’s so much music it pushes the standard up. In the mood for a cheeky lunchtime beer (Joe had gone to the Country Music Hall of Fame, in which I was briefly interested but decided I wasn’t $25-worth of interested), I wandered into a bar with a band playing a tight set of rock n’ roll standards to a crowd of maybe ten fairly uninterested people. Anywhere else, this bunch would be a fun headline act. The song ended and I applauded politely before realizing I was the only one doing so. The crowd was clearly family members and well-wishers, all who turned to look as the singer grinned out at me.
“Who was that? Yeah, you! The clapper! Thank you! Where you from?”
“England? Well, that’s just fantastic! Welcome to Nashville!”
The band launched into a rendition of On the Road Again, and at the end of the first half of their set, the singer came over, bought me a beer and, as the bar slowly filled up during the second hour of their set, he’d occasionally refer to me as “my English cousin over there. Go say hi, he’s real nice!” Joe arrived and we spent the evening with a growing collection of new friends who we’d never see again but seemed incredibly wonderful and of growing importance the more the night went on. Like I said, my kind of place.
St. Louis, Missouri
Four states in one day. Quite a claim. Okay, so it was Tennessee where we already were, across the narrow end of Kentucky, the briefest of scurries into Illinois and finishing up in Missouri, but I was excited.
Our first stop in St. Louis was the wonderful Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, more commonly known as the Gateway Arch, and a better arch I’m yet to see. 190 meters high, and the tallest accessible building in the city, it’s very much the symbol of St. Louis. You can go up inside it, which we did, in tiny, clunking, intensely claustrophobic pods. At the top, there’s an internal viewing area that’s so low we had to stoop in the center to avoid bumping our heads, but the view was great. The city on one side with the Cardinals’ baseball stadium nearby and views up to Midtown and the university, while on the other the Mississippi flowed; flat, brown, imperturbable.
We were staying with Joe’s friend Eileen who had a marvellously atmospheric house on a tree-lined 19th-century street. After a meal of classic American bar fare at a place called the Royale (still there I’m happy to report!), we braced ourselves for another day of driving tomorrow.
We set off early, but after a couple of hours I decided Joe had done enough driving, so I volunteered to do a share. Despite my having never driven in the States, Joe agreed remarkably quickly. I briefly wondered what would prompt him to accept his almost-certain death in exchange for a day or two of putting his feet up, but put it to the back of my mind as I concentrated on crossing intersections the size of English villages. Soon enough however the question reappeared front and center. The answer was Kansas.
I cannot tell you how intensely hard work, but at the same time how monumentally dull driving across Kansas is. The sun beats down on asphalt scorched almost white by endless days under cloudless skies, meaning the glare off the road starts to give you a dull but insistent headache. There are very few cars, so your only distraction is a never ending game of passing, then being re-passed by the same vehicle (in our case a dark red Volvo) and staring off into the middle distance as the road melts against the conveyor belt horizon.
Abilene was our overnight stop. It seemed a nice place, with a proper main street, locally owned businesses, and a general sense of civic pride. Joe remarked that he didn’t think towns like this still existed like we’d stepped into the 1950s, and in a way that was fitting, as the town’s most famous son is Dwight D. Eisenhower, who’s also buried there. We found a couple of rooms and were delighted to discover it was County Fair season. There was a parade, and later, joy of joys, a rodeo!
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I’d never been to a rodeo (they’re pretty thin on the ground in the industrial heart of the English Midlands), but I loved every single moment, from the prayer at the start that thanked both God and our sponsor (“Dickson’s Ford of Main Street, who’ve provided this stunning F-150 pickup truck as tonight’s grand prize!”), to the wholesome honesty of the competition. How I marveled at the horsemanship, how I cheered when a contest was won by the slightest of calls, how I almost fell off my seat laughing as, between events, children attempted to ride sheep before being hurled off and trampled into the mud. What an evening.
We had a huge breakfast at a place called Sweet Daddy’s, owned and operated by three women who were each, I would conservatively judge, around 400 years old. At least, they may have looked it, but were twinkly of eye and quick of wit, with every customer entering greeted by the breakfast regulars and the owners with a wave, a smile, and a series of jokes that must have been running for years. Upon learning we’d asked for our bill and not received it, we were offered more free coffee and told we wouldn’t even have to pay for the food due to “the inconvenience we’ve caused you boys”. They were so insistent we had to leave the money under the coffee pot so they’d find it when we left. Amazing.
We had an aim: Wilson, the Czech Capital of Kansas. We’d been curious about Wilson since we’d found a leaflet for it at the state Welcome Center and, both being either former or current residents of the Czech Republic thought “oh yeah…?”. Wilson is a small farming town, no different to the scores dotted across the endless plains, aside from the fact they’re incredibly proud of their Czech heritage to a sweetly comical degree. We discovered that we were only a few days late for the Czech Festival, which saddened us, but were delighted to see that there was a fundraiser for Wilson to build “the World’s Largest Czech Egg”. Looking again while writing this article, it appears they’ve managed. Good for them, I say.
The Rockies are odd in that I’ve never known a mountain range to sneak up on you. One minute you’re traveling along under a sky that, in your mind, has never not been blue, then suddenly you see a cloud. “I remember these,” you think. There’s another one. And another. You get a creeping sense of either coming out of one world or entering another; I’m not sure which describes it best. Then, without you even noticing, there’s landscape. More landscape than you’ve seen since forever: an indescribably vast wall of rock, ancient, breathing, sitting there waiting, and daring you to come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. Lord knows what the early settlers heading west must have thought.
We were given a place to stay by Joe’s cousin Chris and woke up bright and early on our first morning there to be greeted with stunning sunshine and filmic scenery. We headed out to the Flatirons, a mountain ridge, and park where we spent the day hiking and getting mildly sunburnt.
Boulder itself is a college town and seemed to pride itself on being slightly more “European” than many other places; by that I mean there’s a lot of pedestrianization in the city center, public transport is decent, people cycle and walk, and there’s a fair amount of street art and buskers dotting the center. I felt I should have liked it more, but something didn’t sit quite right. To me, it felt almost… smug? Maybe smug’s the wrong word. Defensive? There was a definite sense of “Look at the way we’re doing things — the right way — and if you don’t agree, you’re the problem.” I don’t know. It made me uneasy. Maybe I’d feel different if I went back.
Denver, I liked. The Mile High City seemed a nice mix of things I enjoyed about the US. It’s clearly a city that wears its plaid-and-pickup trucks reputation on its sleeve but is also artsy, open, and friendly while also managing to feel ambitious and progressive. Boulder seemed to have already chosen the hill it was willing to die on; Denver felt open to ideas.
We did what we seemed to automatically do at this point: walk around a bit, chat to a couple of locals, hit the odd interesting-sounding sight or place of interest, then grab a beer or two. Routines have a role to play when you’re traveling, especially if you can move that same routine to a different city every day or two. It gives you a standard upon which you can base your feelings.
Intriguingly, we also discovered a large sign that advised new arrivals to Colorado what not to do in their first couple of days. Due to the altitude, this sign advised people to hold off doing certain things for a couple of days until they were used to the thinner air. Among these things were “higher than normal physical activity”, “spending too long in direct sunlight” and “consuming alcohol”. We proudly noted that we’d done all of these on our very first day in Colorado and somehow survived. Pleased with our newfound superhero status, we prepared for the evening and a particular treat.
We drove to Red Rocks, a park about 10 miles west of Denver, and took a couple of hours to explore the trails through the rocks (which are, I can confirm here, exceedingly red), before heading into the amphitheater. Yes, Red Rocks’ main claim to fame is its amphitheater, cut into the side of a huge natural cliff, and venue of concerts by bands such as REM, Metallica, the Chemical Brothers, and Radiohead. This evening, however, we were there to see a movie. Jurassic Park. The perfect choice for a summer evening, looking out over a landscape that hasn’t changed much since dinosaurs walked the earth. The whole audience knew virtually every line and cheered each time someone got chomped in two by an animatronic dino. It was great.
So that was that. Joe had safely arrived in Denver, and all that was left was for me to fly back to New York and from there back to the Czech Republic and my life. Originally I’d planned to continue west, finishing on the California coast, but my wallet and a map of the US quickly showed me that that wasn’t happening, not on this trip anyway.
It had been an amazing experience, seeing the lesser-traveled US. I’d met some lovely people, had my assumptions tested, learnt at least one rule of baseball, and discovered there’s nothing funnier than a nine-year-old falling off a sheep. I hope to be back soon.
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