“So y’all been on the road for 2 months, and you’ll be here another month?! Sorry for my fascination, it’s just, I don’t meet people who… Leave.”
It was like we had escaped from Hotel California, such was the astonishment of this young man from New Jersey that we met playing tennis in Savannah, Georgia. To him, the concept of leaving our jobs and traveling was strange, interesting and most of all, abnormal. His wide eyes and constant questioning helped him stick in my mind, but in truth it was a conversation we have had many times before. For while most Americans believe they live in the greatest country on earth, many of them don’t seem to venture too far from their own backyard.
In Houston, Texas, we chatted to two young men in Subway who were amused by our accents. After learning of our travels, they asked James if he’d been to Mexico. When he said yes, they wanted to know all about it. They hadn’t been there since they were two years old, they said, and were desperate to know what it’s like. Now perhaps there were reasons these two hadn’t jumped in a car and simply crossed the border, but taking them at face value, we were shocked.
“Erm, you should go,” James replied, “You live far closer to the border than I’ll ever be.”
The story is the same all across America. People in Savannah and Charleston told us they had heard the Great Smoky Mountains were beautiful, but they hadn’t actually been there, (it’s a five hour drive from Charleston). They have looked at pictures and dreamed of a holiday, but they haven’t been able to drag themselves away from work, family and day to day life.
In Wyndham Hotel we participated in a survey (in order to get a free meal) and were asked what our dream destination was. We were stumped. For us, nowhere is a dream. If you work hard and save the money needed, anywhere is possible.
I understand it is harder to travel overseas if you have a family, mortgage and a job that you don’t want to chuck away. But quite frankly, I don’t see an excuse for an American not to visit the rest of America. It’s too diverse to just visit one section, too beautiful to forsake. And besides, traveling improves you as a person. Your mind opens to different cultures and ways of life, (don’t think there’s culture in America? Visit the South) allowing you to think clearer and see better. The Americans we’ve met who have traveled their own and other countries have been the most interesting to talk to. Quick with a recommendation or a background story about the area, they’ve been a wealth of information, knowledge and wisdom. Some of them have even been able to share stories about Australia and New Zealand.
I’m not sure America is the greatest country in the world – I haven’t visited every country yet – but it really is wonderful. If you’re lucky enough to live here, please, please don’t confine yourself to your own state. You never know what is across the border.
Perhaps you might like to start with the bewitching Great Smoky Mountains, which kiss the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.
Rap music pulses through wet pavements and fills our ears with heavy bass. A slick black car with oversized wheels that glitter in the lights of Miami Beach makes its way slowly through crowds of people. Other cars are backed up behind it, but the black beast takes its time. It slows to a stop in front of us, and the driver opens his door to show off neon lights and a scantily clad girl grinding to music on a tv screen. A passenger hops out. His oversized white t shirt clashes against the dark night sky. He pulls out a pink umbrella and moves to the music as his companions film him. He’s standing in the middle of the road, but drivers behind him stop accordingly and their cameras flashes make more bright lights. The streets are crowded now, all staring at the black car and its occupants.
In my home town, teenagers lower their Nissans and blast music from a muffled speaker as they drive up and down the street, trying their best to look cool, to look hard. In Miami, they don’t try. These are the people those boys from home want to be, this is who they’re trying to emulate. But they never will. Not without Miami.
Earlier on in the day, before I went seeking the oddly beautiful and the beautifully odd on Ocean Boulevard, I’d been at the tennis courts in Key Biscayne. The Sony Ericsson Open may be well finished for the year, but the kids on court look like they’re trying out for it. There’s a junior tournament going on, and two ten year olds have managed to shout and scream enough to require their own official. At first, the taller boy seems to be the one to blame. He c’mons on double faults and fist pumps on points he wins. When he breaks the smaller boy, he thumps at his chest like a 10 year old Novak Djokovic. But the smaller boy soon shows his snotty side when he pulls ahead. He yells out deuce when he’s down 15-40, prompting an interference from the official. He screams out in three languages; vamos, allez and ‘let’s go’ are all part of his colourful vocabulary. He wears a backwards Rafa hat, but clearly he doesn’t admire him for his sportsmanship. The parents, both sides camped on opposite ends of the court, are barely any better. The smaller boy’s mother leans out of her chair to argue a line call. She’s all bleached blonde hair and gold hot pants and wedged heels. She’s so Miami, except that she’s Russian. Both families pump their charges up between sets, like it’s a boxing match for life or death. But it isn’t. It’s just a tournaments between 10 year olds. God knows what they’ll be like in another 10 years.
Miami isn’t all false glamour and plastic bodies. It has another side, a side of Cuban culture and beautiful beaches away from the imported sand of Miami Beach. But while these things make Miami warm and welcoming, they’re not the most exciting to write about. Hence Miami’s reputation for boobs, brats and bling will live on. But after the hospitality and biblical nature of the South, Miami makes for more than a nice change.
To read about my time at the tennis in Atlanta, Georgia, click here
America’s best kept secret.
What a cliche.
How many times have I heard those words uttered during these last few months in the states? Lonely Planet can’t seem to think of a different phrase to call that hidden restaurant or the little museum around the corner, and the stores themselves seem to take it to heart. “We are America’s Best Kept Secret,” screams the neon sign outside that ice cream shop in Miami or Dallas or New Orleans or wherever else you might be. But they’re not, no commercial business or tourist trap can be. Because America’s best kept secret isn’t found in the bustling towns of Florida or Texas, and it isn’t something you can eat or consume. But America’s secret can be found it every State. You can smell it, taste it, breathe it in and live it. And my favourite so far lives in Alabama, not too far from the history-riddled town of Birmingham.
Oak Mountain State Park has nature even my home county of New Zealand would be envious of. The dance of squirrels brings treetops to life above an endless world of crystal clear lakes and forest teeming with wildlife. Forecast thunderstorms swerve around us, fish nibble at our toes and deer run when we get too close. But for such a magical place it’s surprisingly free of human presence. On a walk by myself I encounter no one but a great white bird. Our campsite sits beside a lakeshore and hiking trails, but no neighbours arrive to disrupt our peace. We roast marshmallows to the blissful sound of lapping water and the gentle buzz of insects. We wake to birds and squirrels. It couldn’t be more peaceful and it couldn’t be more beautiful.
Americans are so spoiled in their selection of National and State Parks that the ones we visit are rarely crowded. Whether we were roasting in Joshua Tree or hiking up Bear Mountain in brilliant Sedona, it hasn’t been hard to find a quiet place, free from the rush of traffic or the screams of children. Before this trip I thought of America as bright lights and loud cities and louder people. And it has all of those things, but now when I think of this country I can add trickling waters and hungry squirrels. America is a place that can be as loud as you want or as silent as you need.
That’s its best kept secret.
New Orleans is a city of diversity. The streets teem with a mix of people, from tourists to panhandlers, Cajun to African American. The French Quarter hums with the smells of food, beer and people. People that all look slightly off, like no one in this section of the city can maintain their cleanliness for long. Board shorts are torn, flip flops are muddy and eyes are black. A drunken youth runs in the pouring rain from one bar to the next, half-naked and hollering. I shelter from the rain with a local who tells me half his life story in the few minutes we hold a conversation. It isn’t really a conversation. It’s a full-on monologue from this hotel porter, who feels the need to delve into the details of his online techno life, his gym workout sessions and the jagermeister he consumed last night. New Orleans is a city of indulgence. Of excess. You either drown in the filth of Bourbon Street or you try and find your place elsewhere. We opt for the latter.
The Natchez cruise ship offers a different way to indulge in Creole cuisine and the culture of Lousisina. A jazz band plays as we cruise up the Mississippi river drinking punch and people-watching. It’s a way to see the city without sweating in it, and this time it is exactly what we feel like. The following day we embark on a swamp tour at Cajun Encounters led by a genuine kind of bloke who does his best to dispel myths that surround swamps and alligators. “I guarantee you Bourbon Street smells worse than any swamp does,” he says, without even the hint of a smile. He’s right, but swamp or city, river or gravesite, New Orleans sure does have something for everyone.
Except perhaps the clean freaks.
New Orleans is also the first city we fail to find the time (or weather) to play tennis is, but we did play in a gorgeous town called Lafayette which is east of New Orleans
Almost as soon as we get to Austin, we feel a change in the air. The dry heat that made our throats feel like sandpaper and our lips crack and sting has gone, replaced by the devilish combination of humidity and sunshine. We’re warned it will only get worse. We sweat as soon as we so much as pick up a tennis racket and within ten minutes we look like we have stepped straight out of the shower, but at least we don’t need to stop to guzzle water every five minutes. I prefer the humidity to the crippling heat of the desert, but I’d rather the insects that come with it stay away. As we head further south, it’ll only get stickier.
It’s clutching at straws, but Austin feels the most like home. With it’s riverside features and sidewalk cafes, this is as close to Melbourne as Texas gets. But on Independence Day, that all changes. 6th Avenue becomes a mecca of musicians and debauchery. If it’s live music you’re after, Austin has it in spades. We dabble in rock, country and even a piano bar. We avoid the hip hops bars which are flanked by girls on bucking bulls setting feminism back to the early 1800s. One girl tells me not to judge Austin based on the girls who ride the bull drunkenly, all thong and cellulite on show while men laugh and capture them on their Iphones. No doubt more than one will wake up to themselves on You Tube the next morning.
We wake up feeling worse for wear and battle on through to Dallas. For me, Dallas will be the place I watched Roger Federer capture his 17th Grand Slam title, but I guess I should remember it for the excellent zoo, rodeo and Forth Worth, which does its best to send us back to the wild wild west. But I’m a tennis nut no matter which city I’m in, and I spend half my day in bed, munching strawberries and following Twitter. No matter where you are in the world, you never change that much.
Running R Ranch is as far from bright lights and drunken wannabe cowgirls as you can get. The thud of horse hooves and the squeak of the saddle is all I can hear as we meander through the ranch’s neighbouring state park. We spend hours upon horse back, cantering in open plains and trotting through the damp forests. It’s just us, the wrangler and the longhorns. After days spent in cities, it couldn’t be more perfect. And when we get back, thighs aching and fingers blistered, the ranch cook serves us up the best food yet. It’s with a heavy heart we move on to San Antonio and a damp tent.
The Alamo might be San Antonio’s drawcard, but it could be America’s most overrated attraction. Little remains of the original structure which was destroyed by General Santa Anna’s forces after the 13 day siege in which they drove the Texans out, and what is left is plagued by a swarm of tourists. The sign in front of the shrine mutters a meek message of ‘Quiet Please’ but it isn’t heeded. The click of cameras and the pushing of people make it almost impossible to learn more about the Alamo, and even if the place was deserted there’s no guarantee what you read is the truth. Despite Davy Crockett being a national icon, there is more than one eye witness account that place him in the group of prisoners as opposed to vowing to fight to the death, and some historians argue that John Bowie was actually in bed sick with TB. But you’re not going to read any of that at The Alamo. What you do read is a mix of pride and patriotism, which might be a good indication of the American spirit, but perhaps not all that historically accurate when it comes to The Alamo.
Walking along San Antonio riverwalk – no doubt the highlight of San Antonio – we are offered a free dinner to tour a hotel. Being the tight tourists we are, we jump at the chance. We then proceed to waste some poor man’s time as we sit through two hours of a Club Wyndham promotion with an offer to join the timeshare program for a mere 65,000 dollars. We decline, are shown the door, and leave with our last two meals in Texas paid for.
From there we head to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston and then to Louisiana where the air is thick and different walks of people mingle together to create music, food and an eccentric atmosphere. It’s goodbye to Texas, the desert and the wild west.
A life expectancy of 45. Domestic abuse and alcoholism. A remote village that struggles to attract tourism. A beautiful church with murals that took 30 years to paint slowly being savaged by rising waters and a lack of funding. This is what the Zuni people were sentenced to. Their reservation is isolated in the rugged desert of New Mexico, almost touching the border of Arizona. Due to their location they’re a people largely untouched by Western influence, but they don’t attract tourism like the Apache or Navajo – I’m the second tourist to put a pin in New Zealand on the visitor centre’s map. But while the Zuni people don’t often leave their land and culture, their jewellery does. Zuni craftsmen and women are renowned for the silver work, and their intricate necklaces, rings and fetishes can be found across the USA. Almost three-quarters of Zuni people make their money from some form of art, but far too many of them live below the poverty line. Despite their harsh circumstances, they’re a warm, shy people who do their best to welcome the few tourists that do make the trip. The only place to stay in the village is the Halona Inn, a cozy B&B that serves up a fantastic breakfast, (the Zuni people make excellent banana bread). We only stay one night, but it was a memorable experience.
With its magnificent church, hundreds of artists and Spanish buildings, Santa Fe feels how I imagine Europe to be. But stacks of Mexican food and some rather interesting characters remind us where we are. John is a man in his 60s shooting a film with Johnny Depp in Santa Fe. He chats to us about actors and Rachel Hunter before he asks us whether we left New Zealand because it’s socialist. We’re befuddled, but smile and figure we missed the joke until he asks us whether brain surgeons get paid the same amount as construction workers. Then we click. He really thinks New Zealand is socialist. But before I can assure him we’re a centre-left democracy just like the USA is, and suggest that perhaps it is the old East Germany he was thinking of, he’s off on a tangent about his five guns and his disdain for the president. We’ve gone from movie talk to an uncomfortable political conversation very quickly, and we’re relieved when he moves on.
It’s a different scene down the south of New Mexico, but no less beautiful. White Sands National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns offer some of the most unusual sights within just hours of each other. White Sands is a sprawling desert of gypsum, and while its heat takes away slightly from its beauty, it turns out great in photos. The caverns are a wonder of nature where time stops and the scenery lies unchanged for decades. Stalactites hang perilously from the cave ceiling what if just one dropped? But they won’t, they’ve been forming for centuries already. At dusk we watch Mexican Freetail bats swarm out of the cave to hunt. They snake and bob into the still air of Carlsbad while we watch, hypnotised. But there’s a sad story behind the bats. White Nose Syndrome has wiped out many hibernating bats, (the Mexican Freetail bats are so far unharmed), and its etiology and cure are unknown. If this disease is allowed to continue to spread and kill, we could be without bats in just a decade. It is believed the white fungus that grows on the nose of infected hibernating bats itches and wakes them. They then leave the cave to feed, only to find it is still winter and no insects are around. The bats return to the cave but with repeated awakenings their energy levels deplete and they eventually starve to death. Scientists are working hard for a cure and we give $5 towards the cause through the ‘adopt a bat’ program. I encourage you to do the same here. We name our bat Bruce and leave the Caverns thinking it might just be the highlight of our trip so far.
“Take me to your leader,” says the man behind the tennis ball with a mouth cut out and UFO face drawn on. We can only be in one place in New Mexico and that is, of course, Roswell. It’s the UFO festival and the town is immersing itself in full-on small town weirdness. From an alien costume contest and UFO parade to toothless 30-somethings selling lemonade, Roswell is everything we hoped for but smaller. It’s possibly been hit hard by the recession, but the people still delight in the best of American oddness and welcome visitors with open arms. Lord knows what would have become of the place had the 1947 crash and supposed cover-up never happened, but Roswell has been milking it for all it’s worth for over half a century and aren’t looking to stop anytime soon. And neither should they – it’s all a lot of fun.
*The title of this post was inspired by the words of artist Georgie O’Keeffe when she laid eyes on New Mexico
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