America is far from perfect. It’s laughably insular and has many chronic problems that feel virtually unfixable: broken political systems, a lack of free healthcare, rampant homelessness and drug abuse in cities, shootings and high rates of suicide and depression that belie its “have a nice day” image…
But these are largely problems that affect residents, not tourists, and there are also numerous plus points. As a Brit who spent years living there, these are things I appreciate the most.
The genuinely awesome scale of the country means that you won’t find anywhere with the same mind-blowing diversity of natural features, topographies, climate, sense of space or urban ambition. Each state can feel like a different country, making it endlessly intriguing, and it can all be explored without boarding a flight, or (helpfully for the 60 per cent of Americans that fall within this category) owning a passport.
There is likely no better national park system anywhere in the world. The country showcases those incredible natural wonders, from the vast canyons of the south west to glacier-filled islands in Alaska, in the most wonderful way, with strict but sensible rules, helpful, uniformed staff and beautifully designed trails, scenic drives and campsites that offer an experience of the wilderness that’s genuinely character-shaping – and all for just a few dollars a night.
The lesser-known parks are wild to the point of desolation, and as such offer unparalleled opportunities for solitude and self-reliance. For me, summer in the wilderness of the west, with hiking, endless blue skies and sunshine, millions of acres of forest, freshwater lakes and rivers to swim in, and campfires at sunset, is the American dream.
Just try to do things in America and you’ll find yourself supported, whether it’s driving for hours to try to see Big Bend National Park in half a day or pushing yourself to climb a tricky mountain route in Oregon, the pioneer spirit lives on.
Ask for help – “reach out” – and you won’t be shut down half as fast as in the UK, where too often people seem to default to the negative, with a lukewarm grimace and list of reasons why things might fail. In America strangers have pushed me harder than I push myself, and with a kindness and lightness that’s disarming.
Freedom and privacy
Partly due to the luxury of space, there isn’t the same atmosphere of gossip, snitching and intrusion that exists in Britain, where people are crammed together cheek-by-jowl and become accustomed to personal encroachment and constant judgement. And, depending on where you live, the federal government in Washington DC seems very far away too.
You don’t get constant letters threatening to fine you if you don’t register to vote, or pay for a TV licence. Even in big towns and cities, there are far fewer CCTV cameras, police, and very few speed traps. Your neighbours don’t nose in on your business and there’s a much bigger culture of trust in shops, which often leave goods out on the street overnight.
It would be a different story if you had the misfortune to be tangled in the justice system, and immigration officers are still so bafflingly hostile, but day-to-day life seems freer.
A road trip affords the most extraordinary window into most of the country: I’ve seen black bears cross the road in New Mexico, driven through a tornado in Georgia, followed the Rio Grande on the southern border of Texas… and while the distances may be longer, the lack of traffic and the size of the roads makes driving a genuine pleasure. A trip to the outdoors is much more doable for people on a budget, with free camping available in any national forest or tract of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and petrol so much cheaper.
More practically, far fewer traffic lights and the “right on red” rule mean traffic just flows, and rarely is parking too much of an issue. Even as a pedestrian, in suburban areas where every street corner is a crossing, I’ve been amazed at the politeness of drivers, who will invariably stop 50 feet back and wait until you’ve got all the way to the other side before continuing on their way.
In general, people are better behaved on the street and in parks, which are also often better patrolled than in Britain. Smoking is banned in most parks and in front of many buildings, and most people seem to have given up. There’s less littering (parks have longer lists of rules than in the UK) and dog owners always pick up after their animals, keep them on a lead, and apologise and step to the side if they are in the way.
Bug screens and air conditioning
Hotels, Airbnbs, buses and trains are well ventilated and much more comfortable in summer, as you don’t have to sweat it out, as in Britain, or spend time each day trying to get rid of huge bluebottles, as bug screens in windows come as standard.
Coming back to the UK after several years in America has opened my eyes to the far superior range of products available there, especially when it comes to gadgets, outdoor equipment and food. Where many British supermarkets might have only a couple of choices of peanut butter, Americans will have half an aisle of every possible combination you could imagine, and a much bigger range of organic things.
Americans seem to decorate generously for every season, but Hallowe’en is the best of the lot. Pick an affluent historic area for the best show, where houses will use their large front gardens and porches to showcase what are often incredibly sophisticated and expensive animated figures, lighting, sound effects and just a full-on season of fun.
On October 31 itself, you can join in or just watch the marauding groups of people dressed up as sasquatches, ghosts, Godzilla or whatever else takes their fancy. The pumpkin displays at shops are incredible too.
Nowhere does barbecued meat and all of the delicious accompaniments – beans, corn, fries, collard greens – like the States. It may be wasteful, but this is the land of plenty and the nights of decadence I’ve had in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Marfa and Savannah, to name but a few, are seared into memory. Get invited to a neighbourhood “potluck” and you’ll be there for hours, swigging from delicious cold kegs of beer and piles of ribs, mac and cheese, cornbread, salads and chips and dips for days. There’s a reason this country is a world leader in obesity.