Finally! At last! Joe Biden has taken down the “No Entry” sign and the US is opening to double-jabbed visitors. Technically, as a US passport-holder, I was able to visit anyway, but it seemed pointless to go in the circumstances. Space, freedom and an upbeat sense of limitless possibility are the intangibles that make holidays in America so special, and there have been precious little of those.
I get regular updates from my extended American family, but I haven’t set foot in the US since the distant pre-pandemic days of summer 2019, when I was lucky enough to take a three-week road trip from Chicago to California. During lockdown, I would often find my thoughts turning to that journey and wonder gloomily whether such a thing would ever be possible again. Well, two years on, it seems like it might. I don’t want to jinx it, but here, in no particular order, are ten things that I’m looking forward to revisiting soon.
Westwards towards the setting sun, south along the Blue Ridge Mountains, eastwards from Las Vegas into the extraordinary deserts of Utah and the mountains of Colorado, winding through the backwaters of rural Maine, or Louisiana, or South Carolina — there isn’t a road trip in the US that I wouldn’t recommend. The sense of motion, the unfolding landscapes, the chance meetings. Nothing better exemplifies the openness and freedom of America.
The repeal of the travel ban just happens to coincide with the onset of autumn. As the broad-leaved trees turn yellow, brown, red and orange, the eastern seaboard enjoys an extraordinary slow-motion firework display that moves south from Maine to the Carolinas. Along with the apple harvest and the pumpkin patches growing jack o’lanterns for Halloween, it makes late September and October a memorably beautiful moment to visit.
My family is Bostonian, I lived and worked in Boston, I love Boston, but New York is extraordinary. It’s been through a lot in the last 20 years, but I still think of it as the preeminent global city. My brother once said, “it’s not just the greatest city in the world, it’s the greatest city in the history of the world.” Byzantium, Rome, Athens, London and Paris might quibble. I certainly don’t want to fight about it. But my, New York, we’ve missed you.
Fresh Maine lobster meat mixed with mayonnaise and served in a soft bun with a side of crisps and eaten outside at wooden table is one of the pleasures that I found myself craving during lockdown. I love its simplicity and the fact that you’ll be enjoying it within earshot of the Atlantic ocean. In similar ways, I’ve missed the food that evokes the country’s other landscapes: pancakes and maple syrup, clam chowder, Philly cheese steak subs, catfish po’boys, the amazing Mexican-inflected dishes of the south-west.
Yes you can
“It’s your world,” I once overheard a waiter saying at a bar in Logan Airport to a customer who wanted to tweak their order. No, he wasn’t being ironic. The presumption that the customer is right and all reasonable requests should be possible is part of the empowering American service philosophy. As much as the UK tries to emulate it, we’re not quite there. I can’t imagine an attendant at a UK lake saying, “I don’t care,” if someone asks if they can swim in it — as happened to me in Colorado. Historically, they are citizens, we are subjects. They’re less likely to need permission to do something. Okay, it gets them into a spot of bother now and again. But haven’t you missed their can-do attitude?
Relating to this enlarged sense of possibility is the fact that the United States is so darned big. I yield to no one in my love of the British landscape, but the fact is that there is just more of it in the U.S. The consequence is that from the moment a UK visitor arrives, they visibly exhale and enjoy more elbow room. There’s more space to manoeuvre your rental out of the parking garage, to move your trolley in the Stop and Shop, and even your cheap motel room feels generous.
From the Jesse James Waxwork Museum in Stanton Missouri to Gemini Giant in Wilmington, the myriad themed mini-golf courses, the frozen custard places, the Cozy Dog Drive-In – these pieces of Americana combine hucksterishness, resourcefulness and sense of fun. They are rest stops, photo-opportunities and mini-adventures.
For sentimental reasons, I have intensely missed the sand dunes and cranberry bogs of coastal Massachusetts. But what about the pink deserts of Utah? The sun setting over the Pacific off Malibu? The dank bayous of Louisiana? The fir and granite of Maine? The thin air and sweeping vistas of the Rockies? Even the prairies of the Midwest, punctuated by grain elevators, will be a welcome sight to the returning traveller.
The idea that you could just head off, travel for a while, and then spend the night wherever you fancied became an impossible dream in lockdown. But one of the great joys of American travel has always been its spontaneity. Key to this is roadside accommodation. Sometimes characterful (see the Blue Swallow Inn, Tucumcari) or generically comfortable (see any chain), motels are the indispensable accompaniment to a journey that you are making up as you go along.
The waiters are effusively friendly. The portions are enormous. The petrol is absurdly, irresponsibly cheap. Coming out of a cinema, you find yourself plunged back into a movie set: a vast two-decker goods train honks past you on its way to the horizon; there is tumbleweed on a desert road; or people fighting to get in the same yellow New York taxi; or a tram cresting a hill in San Francisco; or a man in plaid who has a deer strapped to his pickup. Sure, they’re cliches. But how much have you missed seeing them? I know I have.