In search of America

20:17, Jul 14 2013
BEAT THE STREET: Out on the road, we're wondering where we're going to find the quitnessential American place.

In New York, which is visited by a third of all international tourists to America, the mayor has put a ban in place on large servings of fizzy drink, Jay Z is an investor in multiple restaurants, and the city is synonymous with theatre, nightclubs and fictional television sex columnists drinking bright-red vodka cocktails.

America's silver-medal international hotspot, Los Angeles, is home to Hollywood, but that entire industry is a mirage that can only be viewed at a distance, the city itself a series of neighbourhoods strangled by motorways. There's no there, there.

San Francisco is a hotbed of upper-crust, comfortable liberalism where sex-change surgery can be municipally funded.

Portland, the new guy on the international tourism scene, is an entire city dedicated to and proud of its rejection of mass-market methods and ideals.

Across nearly 10 million square kilometres there are thousands of different Americas, but the most-visited versions, all entertaining, absorbing and worthwhile worlds for sure, are the outliers.

A good starting point for a taste of a less made-up, more real America is to sacrifice a day to drive along the Pacific Coast Road between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The coastline between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara is the sort of palm-tree-and-sand idyll the Beach Boys wrote songs about.


The 140km stretch of road that roughly defines Big Sur, where Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller retreated for peace at the height of the counterculture, looks much as it would have 75 years ago, a succession of coastal views each more breathtaking than the last.

North of this, around Monterey Bay in Steinbeck country, the cliffs fall back into rustic farmland and crumbling factories, showing the skeleton of an older, working-class America.

Rather than the intermittent pockets of petrol stations and fast food that mark the purgatorial, ramrod straight I-5 freeway that sits well inland, there are thatched-roof shops and restaurants advertised with hand-painted roadside signs.

From western starting points, a short connecting flight or, alternately, a much, much longer drive (perfect for coming to grips with what a dreary, hypnotic, beautiful and dull expanse America contains within its borders) opens up a string of quirky Americana pearls.

You might end up in Montana, in Big Sky country, maybe in a small town like Ennis, with a population of 838.

There, you can buy postcards that really do picture the entire town. There are more guns for sale at any one point in time than there are people living there and cars aren't just left unlocked, but keys are left in ignitions. The people are genially, almost apolitically, libertarian.

The Big Sky moniker turns out to be weirdly literal. There is somehow just more sky, the horizons, marked usually by jagged hills, set further back than anything you're used to.

Within a few hours in town, you've discovered a new appreciation for sitting quietly, a drink in hand, looking out into nature, appreciating silence.

In Nevada, the 99.9 per cent of it that doesn't hold Las Vegas, there is terrain so abandoned and lifeless that it seems as if you're traversing the Moon's surface.

The state was born out of the relentless stretch west in the 1800s and would be dead territory today if it hadn't been for frantic railroad construction and a series of mining booms.

Centuries after cut-and-run capitalism, expired stores of gold and silver that convinced people to flock there to pursue the American dream, the countryside is awash with ghost towns and ghost stories. These places are both haunted and endearing, surviving on history's lifeline or entirely consumed by time itself.

Much south of this, 110km from Austin in Texas, a city where the Hispanic influence is undeniable, pointing towards a newer, pending America, sits Luckenbach, a small community that through quirks of regulation and general resilience is a privately owned, self-governed space.

It's largely a clearing in the trees, picnic tables covered by leafy trees overhead, a small shop to buy a beer, a separate one for greasy food and a semi-enclosed dancehall for a band.

There's a river nearby for swimming, cattle graze in green fields and roosters mingle with the people.

Country musicians over the decades, from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to Kid Rock and Kenny Chesney, have come through and played here.

You'll find a motorbike, truck and bandana type of crowd here. Your wide eyes and rented Honda hatchback will set you apart.

These smaller Americas are unguarded, unpretentious, unselfconscious and decidedly charming.

Finishing in the east, never forget the origins of all ensuing versions of America were authored a few hours either side of New York, in Boston and Washington DC.

In downtown Boston, the green grass of the Common was once used by British soldiers to graze cattle during the American Revolution. On Bunker Hill in Charlestown, which overlooks much of the city, the Americans launched a gallant but unsuccessful siege of the British in 1775. Among the rows of stately Victorian manors in Cambridge is the house where George Washington boarded, drawing up blueprints for British defeat.

You can walk along many of the same streets here as the early American heroes, Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, John Adams and Paul Revere.

Washington, DC, in its entirety is a concrete monument to the great figures upon which the idea of America rests. A giant marble Abraham Lincoln sits stoically in his big chair overlooking the reflecting pool and the National Mall eternally.

You can hardly trip without hitting a statue: Franklin D Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King.

There's the shiny, classical White House, still a symbol of hope and reverence.

America, when you go looking for it, will surprise you. You'll find no definition, but the search is worth it.

New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are set up for the visitor. The country outside that is worn, real, complex and feisty, infinitely more fascinating and less threatening than you would ever reckon.

Get more from James Robinson at his stuff travel blog Voyages in America.

The Dominion Post