Hit the road, Jack

Hit the road, Jack

Sarah Duff heads out on the open tarmac across the US

There’s no country that can quite compete with the US for the ultimate long distance road trip. A huge network of highways and backroads zig-zag this massive country, covering astounding natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon and incredibly diverse landscapes, from deserts to forests and dramatic mountain ranges to rugged coastlines, linking some of the world’s most exciting cities.

The US is just made to explore by car, and its most iconic course – an epic coast-to-coast trip from New York to San Francisco via the Deep South, in a huge arc – is the road trip bucket list dreams are made of. This 16-state, 7 000 km route will take you to some of America’s greatest natural and urban wonders, all on one mind-blowing journey.

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Song of the South

Start off in New York, the US’s centre of cool, and navigate the city and sights for a few days by foot, subway and taxi before picking up a rental car at JFK International Airport to leave the traffic-clogged streets and head southwest for the open road: it’s quite a long drive through forests and lush, green farmland to Nashville. Dubbed the Music City, the capital of Tennessee is all about country music.

Immerse yourself in the sounds of this friendly metropole by visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and then dancing all your stresses away downtown in the famous live music and honky-tonk bars, filled with people in cowboy boots and hats singing along to the foot-stomping country tunes.

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A bit further south, in the heart of Louisiana’s swampland and gracious old plantation mansions, is another musical city: New Orleans. Sexy, characterful and steeped in history and culture, New Orleans is unlike anywhere else in the US – a unique mix of Spanish, French and Caribbean influences.

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Its photogenic streets of colourful historic houses are lined with restaurants serving delicious seafood and local dishes such as gumbo, bars pouring the world-famous cocktails (Sazerac and Ramos gin fizz) that were first invented here, and clubs where you can catch some amazing live music – everything from Delta blues to jazz swing. New Orleans’ romantic charm will have you wanting to stay for months, but the road will beckon you onwards, to the west.

Don’t mess with Texas

You’ll know you’re in Texas as soon as you cross the state border and start noticing the cruise ship-sized Texan flags flying and the monster trucks adorned with bumper stickers declaring ‘Everything’s bigger in Texas’. The Lone Star state is massive – roughly the same size as France – and everything is bigger here, whether it’s the size of the mega highways, the guns and ammo shops or the tacos and chips you order at the many Tex-Mex restaurants.

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What you’ll also find in Texas is pockets of arty culture: like in the city of Austin, which has a long-running campaign called ‘Keep Austin Weird’, more than 1 000 food trucks, exceedingly welcoming inhabitants and fantastic live music; or in teeny tiny Marfa, a former ranching town on the western edge of the state, in the middle of nowhere. An unlikely art oasis, it was placed on the cultural map by the artists who’ve moved there over the past few decades and have set up massive outdoor installations and galleries.

After eating at the food trucks, hanging out in the various galleries and staying at one of the quirky-cool hotels, head out northwards on the empty road, through the monumental open spaces of the Chihuahuan Desert. The vast Texan landscapes are some of the most epic of the trip, especially around Marfa, which is one of the least populated areas of the US. These are the American desert road vistas you’ve seen in the movies – straight, empty roads that look like they can go on forever, and miles and miles of desert plains, edged with mountains under huge blue skies.

Riding the cactus highway

New Mexico offers more amazing desert backdrops – apricot sands and dusky-red mountains against dark grey rainclouds – as well as a brief injection of culture and history in the town of Santa Fe. The oldest capital city in North America, Santa Fe is picturesque and sedate, with a tranquil town square, heritage buildings, charming streets, gourmet restaurants and lots of art galleries – a good place to rest and refresh before more long drives.

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Some  560 km north west, southern Utah will seem familiar even if you’ve never been there before. The surreal-looking and unmistakable landscape of Monument Valley – terracotta sand stippled with hundreds of dramatic sandstone shapes – has been the setting to so many films that driving through it for the first time feels as though you’re revisiting a dream you had long ago. Ensure you leave lots of time to drive from Monument Valley through northern Arizona to the Grand Canyon – the roadside attractions are quite spectacular.

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Don’t miss Horseshoe Bend, a gorgeous vista of the blue-green Colorado River winding its way through a giant ravine, and Antelope Canyon, a beautiful sandstone passageway carved out by the elements. The Grand Canyon itself is utterly breathtaking: standing on the edge of that mind-bendingly vast crevasse formed over six million years by extreme geological and natural forces makes you feel as small and insignificant as an ant.

 Viva Las Vegas

While the Grand Canyon is the US at its most naturally astonishing, Las Vegas is the country at its most hedonistic. Just over four hours’ drive from the canyon, the desert city is a flashy sprawl of casinos that never close, raucous parties, neon-lit bars, supersized nightclubs and lavish buffet restaurants. Here you can expect to glide the waterways of Venice on a gondola, go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower and sleep in a hotel room inside an Egyptian pyramid. Whether the city and its offerings are to your taste or not, Las Vegas is nothing if not memorable.

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California dreaming

Cruising west through the searing-hot Mojave Desert, you will finally reach Los Angeles and the glittering Pacific Ocean. Los Angeles is a fun city to explore for a few days, with sun-drenched beaches, buzzing nightlife and cosmopolitan inhabitants who hail from just about every corner of the globe.

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From LA, the legendary road trip continues on the Pacific Coast Highway, which traces the coastline 730 km north to San Francisco. It’s scenic the whole way, but the most famous highlight is Big Sur, which starts just past San Simeon. This 140 km road is flanked by ocean cliffs plunging down to sandy, surf-pounded beaches on the one side and towering mist-swathed redwood trees and mountains on the other. With postcard views at just about every turn, you won’t want to rush through one of America’s most spectacular drives.

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Pitch a tent at one of the forested campsites overlooking deserted beaches or splurge on a stay at the luxurious Post Ranch Inn, all the while taking the time to soak up the natural splendour before completing the final leg to San Francisco. The Golden City, with all its easy-to-love charms of a laid-back pace, diverse culture, beautiful architecture, great museums, lovely parks and fabulous restaurants, is the perfect place to end off the road trip of a lifetime.

Photography: Alex Jones Photos, Gallo/GettyImages, Greatstock/Masterfile, Sarah Duff
April/May 2016

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