36 hours on the road in America

Last updated 11:46 04/07/2012

I have recently completed a 15-hour car trip from Grass Valley, California, to Ennis, Montana. For reasons I will soon divulge, it took 36 hours.

When friends of mine have returned from South American travels, their tales of marathon bus journeys always seemed neat. Travelling can be a grind. Not every journey is replete with cultural riches and winning geography. But that a good proportion of their stories were from these very trips is testament to the idea that some of the magic of travelling is in the journey itself.


That said... there are some gruesomely ordinary parts of America. Sure it's big, but there's a reason gigantic swaths of it are written off as the flyover states.

There was both magic and menace in the monotony of the trip we just took


The alarm rang on Sunday at 4.30am, jolting me out of my fifth hour of blissful sleep and toward the backseat of LP's brother's car. We were away by 5am. An hour and a bit later we were in Nevada. The landscape dissipated into desert. The forest fell away, and the horizon became limitless. The sun was low in the sky and the undulating hills were peppered with shadow. Beirut was playing in the car and I had coffee in hand. There was a romance to the moment.  

But driving through Nevada the desert becomes your new normal. There's a lot of nothing: it's all scorched earth and the occasional testament to the conquering drive of capitalism.

Desert... Desert... Desert... WALMART!! Desert... Desert...

Trip2We stopped for breakfast at Winnemucca at 8.30am. It is the sort of town only found in the American desert. You look around and think, why do people live here? How did they get here? The four of us (myself, LP and her brother and father) all ate Sausage Egg McMuffins. It occurred to me that maybe overexposure is McDonald's issue. Eating tasteless, greasy breakfast food in a McDonald's in the desert next to a petrol station that doubles as a casino, surrounded by six types of moustache, leathery desert families, Stetson clad truckers and the morbidly obese, was oddly perfect.

About 11am the desert heat kicked in and the car became less relaxing. Elko came and went. Like all Nevada towns it's an irrigated patch in the desert: a small burst of houses, casinos and fast-food joints.  

Trip3Our next stop was Flying J in Wells, described to me by LP as the Chevron of the desert. It sells electronics, fishing rods, bad T-shirts, snacks, chicken, pizza and toys. Truckers can stop in for a shower. I had a craving for a newspaper, but it could not be arranged.

I accidentally cut too closely past two grizzled men browsing for beef-jerky and was swiftly cussed out. "Watch it," one snarled. "Oh, I'm sorry," I responded. "Your f***in crazy," he muttered back at me.

The shop was packed half with locals who looked stuck out of time, and half with sweaty, disoriented tourists who looked as hough they just wanted to get a snack and leave, fast. I made out okay: a Diet Coke, a packet of Haribo Happy Colas and Chips Ahoy! kept me perky.  

Trip4On the Nevada-Idaho state line we came to Jackpot. Nevada goes out with a bang in Jackpot, a grimy and dated pocket of casinos. A 2010 Sharon Angle for Senate billboard leered over the town.

A few moments into Idaho, I was lulled to sleep by the lilt of Ira Glass. I woke up in Twin Falls, just in time for a Taco Bell stop. This was my fourth time through Idaho, and it was as unimpressive as I remembered. The countryside is as monotonous as the desert and only partly greener. People seem chirpier. There's more commerce and religion around. But the Nevada desert is full of mean people and bursts of garishness. It's somehow more fun.  

And then our tire shredded.

Trip5There was a moment when it was surreal to be standing in the middle of nowhere, Idaho, to the side of a ceaseless stream of vehicles. But then the reality set in. It was 4pm on Sunday. We had 400km to our destination, and we weren't going to get there on a spare.

So we were stuck in Pocatello, population 54,000.

For a moment it seemed a miracle run-in with a Walmart (who of course sell tyres!) might have us back on the road. But it was not to be.

Pocatello was yet another town on our trip set to a nondescript backdrop and strangled lifeless by corporate America. It was equal parts elderly, and tattooed youths bounding about in bad T-shirts wearing boredom on their sleeves. We found a temporary home in the finest three-star hotel Pocatello had to offer. The hotel was like something that was top of the line in 1992 and had been frozen in time: indoor swimming pool complete with choking aroma of chlorine, table-tennis tables, Shaq Attack pinball and the Cruis'n USA arcade game. 

We ate at a Perkins. It is a chain of restaurants that makes Denny's look good. We were not well fed but we kept ourselves amused.

Trip6By 9.30 the next morning, we'd found a new tyre. I made a Starbucks run, traipsing through Pocatello's central business district (a Walmart, a Costco, a smattering of fast-food outlets and several empty shop fronts) in what was already scorching 30-degree heat. The weather and the expansive flatness of the town felt oppressive. We got our tyre and moved on somewhere else to have it aligned. By midday we were out of town. By the time we were into Montana we were happy to be rid of Idaho. Montana came on like a treat: lush greens, everything framed by mountains, big blue sky.

A little bit before 5pm on Monday we pulled into Ennis. On the last leg of the trip we joked among ourselves about having spent time in the "real America". There's probably some truth there.

Anyway, it was over.


I was reading a Batman comic at one point on the trip. Where this was, I forget now. It starts with Lieutenant Gordon catching the train into Gotham as Bruce Wayne flies in. It cuts between each of them bemoaning the way they're entering the city. To Gordon, an "airplane can fool you into thinking it's civilised" below, while to Wayne a train gets you close to the people. "I should see the enemy," he reflects.

Driving through Nevada, Idaho and Montana, you're moving through part of America that is three-and-a-half times as big as New Zealand, with only 5.3 million people. Much of it is inhospitable. Some of it is attractive but much of it really is not.

Making this trip, which I've just completed for the third time in my life, always makes me think: America is not San Francisco or New York. Countries are defined as much by the places that we want to go to as tourists, as by the places that we'd never think or probably dare to visit.

Instead of flying over and gushing at just how big America is, driving through these states gives me a taste of the weirdness that is out there and a feel for the national riddle.

(I realise this will go live on July 4 in New Zealand. But due to time differences July 4 hasn't happened yet here. Expect a full parade/rodeo/hot-dog eating/fireworks wrap up on Friday.)

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Harold   #1   12:01 pm Jul 04 2012

You got a tyre aligned? ha! you got suckered. Fitted? yes, balanced? yes, aligned? no!

viffer   #2   12:22 pm Jul 04 2012

My very first trip to Mrka (in about '95 or thereabouts) was to Twin Falls. I actually thought it was not a bad little town, although of course that was partly due the the novelty of its Americanness. And perhaps the fact it was very snowy (the one week the whole year that this occurred), while it was the middle of summer back in Noo Zilund. Plus the company we visited were extremely hospitable, taking us out for lunch and dinner every day.

I get what you mean about the monotonous countryside though. The drive from Twin Falls to Boise would have been boring if not for the other traffic, and the novelty (for us) of a truck stop. We experienced the same thing at times driving from San Francisco to Monterey a few years ago.

viffer   #3   03:19 pm Jul 04 2012

Oops - I meant to say "driving from Oakhurst to Los Angeles"; the trip from SF to Monterey was actually quite picturesque.

Wingnut   #4   03:53 am Jul 05 2012

Fun article and comments! I was born and raised in the USA... where its spelled 'tires' and where 30 degrees is below freezing. The "Your f***in crazy," incident was likely because you were dressed retardedly and didn't know the difference between "your" and "you're". Americans expect a tiny bit of intelligence... even from the tourists. You were also listening to things OTHER THAN Willie, Waylon, Hank JR, Dwight Yokum, or Alan Jasckson, so the locals probably noticed your lack of mental 'tyre' alignment in that respect. Generally speaking, we American's RARELY see that kind of attitude from locals. Obviously, you were advertising stupidity somehow, and likely in many ways.

But getting to the point, those wide open spaces are used to test out the engines and tp speeds of our cool American muscle cars. Had you driven those 'boring' areas at 100+ MPH (NOT KPH)... you would have been far less bored. Had you consulted with some Americans before you did this trip, you would have understood all these things. Next time, get a briefing before you go... and you'll have a lot more fun.

Maureen   #5   12:02 pm Jul 05 2012

Just done 2400 miles (3,800 k's) Moab Utah to Salt Lake/Idaho Falls and then up to West Yellowstone Wyoming. Beautiful country, contrasting from dry, red, dusty country to lush mountains in Yellowstone. However, have to agree there is a lot of flat and boring terrain which I suppose is the charm of the USA. We were just bowled over by the number of RV's and huge pick up trucks aside from the "chain" food served with monotonous regularity.

Ryan   #6   12:17 pm Jul 05 2012

I want to make it clear to any New Zealanders reading this that this journey is through probably the most dull part of the US. For every forsaken truck stop in the Great Basin, there's charming small towns and incredible vistas in other extremely rural areas.

pn   #7   12:22 pm Jul 05 2012

Very funny Wingnut. Driving through the Nevada desert is correctly, to be done as fast as possible. James, I am amazed at your propensity for junk food, which leads your fans to believe that there is no alternative. McDonalds makes great chicken salads or try an awful Corporate America place. They sell great sandwiches,fresh baked artisan bread and goodies to have a picnic at one of the many scenic picnic areas. Had you ventured into the mountains of Idaho you would find small towns like Ketchum,Sun Valley, Hailey, filled with great cafes and character. Have a wonderful Independence day celebration and learn to love country music now you are in the West..although San Francisco doesn't count.

Uddercha0s   #8   05:01 am Jul 06 2012

"Our next stop was Flying J in Wells, described to me by LP as the Chevron of the desert. It sells electronics, fishing rods, bad T-shirts, snacks, chicken, pizza and toys. Truckers can stop in for a shower."

Why the hell are we selling fishing rods in the desert and who is buying them?

Murf   #9   06:47 am Jul 06 2012

There is a reason why Nevada has gambling, there is nothing else there

Cooper   #10   08:21 am Jul 06 2012

Wingnut don't be rude. Some people especially truckers are just jerks. I think having lived here for as many years as this blogger has, and the fact that his American wife, and her American family members were with him, he was not as you put it "demonstrating stupidity." Outside of two places Reno/Tahoe area, and Las Vegas, Nevada is a huge wasteland of sand, and rocks. I admire you for engaging in this road trip I wouldn't have done it, hahaha.

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