On visiting the United States, the Tibetan dignitary T T Karma Chophel met with a group of supporters in Utah. He was there to discuss democracy, but his gaze kept travelling out across the high desert to the snowy mountains on the horizon. He thought of yaks and yak-herders, making their endless migrations across a similar landscape in Tibet, and he assumed there must be some US equivalent. ‘Who are your nomads?’ he asked.
Let the dawn rise behind you, and drive on towards the sunset. The great American road trip goes west, not east, and it ends at the barrier of the Pacific Ocean. Westward like the pioneers, you travel through ever bigger, emptier and more dramatic landscapes. The skies get taller. The horizons stretch out. You reach the great national parks of the Rockies, where wolves and bears and something close to wilderness still exists, and drive on through the red rock canyonlands of Utah and Arizona.
The worst mistake is to be in a hurry. The drive from New York to California is 2,800 miles if you make the mistake of taking the most direct route. If you loop and detour as you should, it’s closer to 3,500 miles, and you want at least 10 days and preferably three weeks or more. Use the interstate highways when you have long stretches to cross, but be sure to meander down plenty of backroads.
Unless you have the sort of personality that can’t stand it any other way, keep the planning to a minimum. A cross-country road trip should be a loose, freewheeling, improvisational adventure, full of surprises and sudden friendships with extraordinary strangers.
Bars are always good places to meet people. So are independent bookstores – where they survive. The staff invariably know the best places to eat and drink locally, and if there happens to be a cool band playing that night, or a wrestling contest in the back of a local feed store, they can usually tell you about that too. Be observant. America is a land of many signs and billboards, and this is how you’ll find your way to, say, the World’s Largest Prairie Dog, or a saloon called something like Bad Barb’s Vapors.