After 367 days on the right side of the world map (Euro-centric ones at least), I returned to the left side aboard a flight from Auckland to Los Angeles last week.
Since the flight conveniently coincided with my birthday, I had a total of 44 hours to contemplate the transition into my 39th year – the first sixteen hours with friends in Auckland, twelve turning back time on the plane, and seventeen in Los Angeles and San Diego. It has been a remarkable twelve months.
The last 33 days of this journey will take me – and a friend, Justin, who I met in India two weeks into my trip – on a Road trip from Los Angeles in the West to New York in the East. Our route (click here for a map) will take us through 16 states, mostly in the South.
It wasn’t long after leaving LA that we came across the first mammoth trains and huge trucks that criss-cross this country on a daily basis, a sharp reminder of the obsession with overland travel and transport here. Like many people, my experience of the US has been shaped until now by the Eastern and western seaboards, but the interior is where it’s at. Seeing the beating heart of America – a year on from the financial disasters of October 2008 and Obama’s triumph the following month – should be fascinating.
Leaving Los Angeles was harder than expected. It is one of those cities that has a habit of consistently living up to the its popular mythic image, and over a couple of nights in hip Venice Beach, the city of Angels didn’t disappoint. There was the girl who was enjoying being out of work because “I can catch up on all those things I didn’t have time for – like my divorce…”; the guy struggling to see his kids because his ex-wife “is tryin’ to make out I’m a drug addict, man – I mean I’m recreational, but…”; the tale of another guy whose marriage broke down because “Marty’s kinda into rough sex man… he’s sorta a fan of the chokehold, you know what I’m sayin’?”- and too many other fantastically LA stories to mention.
Despite the allure of this far from angelic beacon of naughtiness, we finally dragged ourselves onto Route 66 on Monday, after picking up a third member of the Big Mama Roadtrip, another Andy, who flew out from Scotland to join us for the first week.
We broke the journey out of California with a night at the beautiful Joshua Tree national park, a place that lives deep in the psyche of any westerner in their thirties, thanks to the eponymous 1987 album by U2. Immediately some of the contrasts in this vast continent became apparent – it was wonderful to experience the beauty and open serenity of the park, and instructive to see the ordinariness of the people of the local town, a million miles from the urban swagger and self-consciousness of the LA set.
On the open road
This is a roadtrip, and already the time on the road has been as memorable as the time off it. The awe-inspiring size of the vistas over the deserts of Northern Arizona; magnificent natural structures carved out under the sea 570 million years ago in Monument Valley on the way to Utah; spectacular stone bridges created by the pressure of the Colorado river system; and views over to the early snows of the mountainous West. Above all, it is the space and size of the landscape that has struck all three of us.
In the conversations that I have managed to have so far, the ongoing challenge of reviving the economy has vied with proposed changes to the Healthcare system for number one gripe. I never expected to be talking about the NHS in a hot tub in Utah, but that’s where the debate’s at right now. This in turn has led to the amazing Google-ish revelation that the British NHS is in the top five employers in the world. The top five are:
1. Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), China, 2,300,000
2. Wal-Mart Stores, United States, 1,800,000 employees
3. Indian State Railways, India, 1,400,000
4. National Health Service (NHS), UK, 1,300,000
5. Deutsche Post, Germany, 502,545
With the healthy scepticism that Americans have for government and bureaucracy, I suspect that kind of statistic is enough to scare most Americans stiff and scupper the chances of any bill. But we shall see.
We are now in Moab, known as the adventure sports capital of the USA, a stunningly located town with two more massive national parks on its doorstep. Tomorrow we enter our third state Colorado heading via Aspen to Denver, from where we will start a different adventure – down through the heartlands of Texas to New Orleans.
To close, the opening lines of a poem that I was sent nearly a year ago as I set out on my trip. Walt Whitman is the poet who captured better than anyone the free spirit of America and its land. These are the opening lines of his “Song of the Open Road”:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.