One for the road

Last updated 11:15 31/12/2012
Cadillac Ranch
MARK HOTTON/Supplied
Homage to the car - Cadillac Ranch is a public art installation and sculpture in Amarillo, Texas.

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Mark Hotton's trip of a lifetime.

There's something inherently exciting about a road trip and it's not just because you're going on holiday. That feeling of uncertainty when you start the car knowing there's a full tank of gas, plenty of time, nothing between you and the great unknown, and no plans. The concept that normal day-to-day rules don't apply is empowering.

And if you're going for a long drive, with no real destination in mind so no time pressure, the best place for a road trip has to be the United States, a country built for the car.

The affordable motor vehicle - and cheap petrol - has created the America we know today, both physically, culturally and spiritually. Big meaty power cars cruising along endless highways, through small towns. The series of interstate highways built by Eisenhower (figuratively, not literally) to move the military around easily, opened up the entire country and make for great driving.

The US is full of contrasts - East versus West, rural versus urban, North versus South, black and white - and it is truly stunning. And big. A drive to Dunedin no longer seems daunting when you've driven across Texas. Which took two days.

But it's not just the country that is full of surprises. Don't believe the stereotypes: Americans are warm, welcoming and wonderful people. Well, most of them.

With a Michelin midsize North American atlas and some rough but not definite plans - apart from Graceland - we landed in Chicago with the goal of putting on as many miles as possible, to see as much as we could, in just two months, and to arrive in San Francisco a few days before our flight home. We knew, if we had to, we could cross the continent in about five days, although that would require some serious driving - remember crossing Texas = two days.

The only plan we had was to go east towards New York, follow the coast south, turn right somewhere around South Carolina and then keep heading west. We hoped to be in Las Vegas for a few days to meet some friends, but apart from that we could do what we liked.

We'd decided that because we were making it up as we went along, we'd take a punt on somewhere to sleep - except for the first night, a Days Inn motel somewhere near Chicago. By the second stop we realised how dull staying in motels was going to be, so we bought a tent, sleeping mats and a $5 charcoal barbecue for the times we weren't in the middle of big cities such as New York or New Orleans, which turned out to be about half of the time.

Tenting in the US is fantastic with the campsites well designed - raised gravelled areas that dry out quickly after rain, picnic table and barbecue at each site, and all amenities provided (even ice and washing machines).

It's also the spirit of tenting that goes well with the road trip. You haven't lived until you've had a skunk walk through your campsite, you've cooked fresh corn on your barbecue or you've tried sleeping through a massive American storm complete with purple lightning turning day into night, separated from the torrential downpour by just a couple of layers of fabric, and the ground quivering from the thunder.

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Buying the tent was one of the best things we could have done, because instead of being stuck in our motel room each night, we got to meet people in camping grounds across the country - and experience those thunderstorms.

Sharing a hotdog on the barbecue or a toasted marshmallow with people, many couldn't believe that we planned to go coast to coast, or why we'd want to. And it was hard to explain that desire to drive across a continent - except to joke that it was the 25th anniversary of the release of National Lampoon's Vacation so we were heading to Walley World.

But the road trip is the only practical way of seeing the sights and getting a taste of the greatest nation.

The views change constantly - from the more industrial and urban north to the greener south and then through to the more barren west. The flat plains of Texas give way to the astonishing Rocky Mountains before you hit the West Coast and the Big Sur section of the Pacific Coast Highway. You might get similar views from a train, but you miss the flexibility of having a car.

No city was the same. Chicago is progressive and interesting, New York is like a film set, Charleston and Savannah are like stepping back in time, New Orleans is crazy and quirky, San Francisco is a city we could live in, while we didn't even stop in Los Angeles because the traffic was so crazy (the irony wasn't lost on us).

But it's the national park system that deserves the most praise. Each one is truly unique - preserved landscapes that can't be found elsewhere. Names like Yellowstone and Yosemite are well known, but it's almost a tragedy you've probably never have heard of Bryce Canyon National Park (amazing rock formations), Arches (dozens of naturally formed rock arches), Mesa Verde (preserved Indian sites), or Zion (where you can kiss the sky on Angel's Landing).

We drove more than 11,500km across 23 states in two months, and barely touched the US.

And we'd go back in a heartbeat - even if it's just to start the day singing "On the road again . . ."

- The Southland Times

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