Thursday, August 22, 2013

Notes from the road

I'd love to know who came up with the ludicrous statement that "all good things must come to an end". Why should they? Shouldn't the glass remain half full?

Almost three weeks since I arrived in Chicago, with half my luggage, to experience one particular city for the very first time before hitting the road to experience many more, I'll soon be boarding that big ol' jet liner again in Los Angeles.

Before I do, however, there are some things I must get off my chest, having covered almost three and a half thousand miles of road, driven through eight of the United States of America, and stayed in ten different hotel rooms. Some of these things I'm familiar with, after many visits (including two years living here) over the last 21 years. Others have only just come into perspective as I've made my way across the country on Route 66, things such as:

Lighting up

Why is it not possible for American hotel room lamps to have simple on/off switches? Why hasn't the concept of the rocker switch not made it across the Atlantic?

Why do you have to insert your hand into the unknown of the lampshade while you frantically search for a little black knob you then must 'tune' like you're trying to find Radio Free Europe?

Freedom of speech

In the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, does it mention anywhere under Freedom of Speech that it is a constitutional requirement that every hotel bar must have to have a pre-stewed patron who not only has an opinion on everything but can only express his (and it is always a he) views at a volume level comparable with the town cryer of old?

Casual Dining

Does this mean sitting in a restaurant in only your underwear?

Curl Up & Die

Is it a prerequisite of owning a hair salon in the Midwest that it should have an awful pun for a name? Here's a sample of those I passed on Route 66 in Illinois, Oklahoma and Missouri:
  • Headlines
  • A Shear Encounter
  • The Mane Event 
  • SnipIts
  • Scissor Shack
  • Hair Cuttery
  • Kay's Kut and Kurl (I'm sure 'KKK' was just an unfortunate coincidence…)

Road Kill

A McDonalds breakfast is the last vestige of the desperate.

Robbery, assault and battery

Hotels are about making as much money as possible out of the weary traveller. Thus, you spend a small fortune on 24 hours of WiFi that you're never going to use (and should be included for free like running water and sachets of shampoo, and probably costs less than the two combined to supply).

And if your room has a minibar, one can of Diet Coke will be more expensive than an entire six-pack from the petrol station next door.

Bell boy business

Hotels drum up extra tip income for concierge employees by making it physically impossible to take your own luggage to your room. Hotel corridor carpeting appears designed to slow down any self-pulled wheeled luggage, like speed humps on the road. So, you resolve to have the bell boy pick up your luggage for the checkout, which requires the convention of tipping him $2 per bag. Tidy work.

It's a stretch

Hotel rooms are a master study of ergonomics. In New York, the rooms are so small everything - including the bed, the toilet roll and the TV are all within touching distance of each other. Out West, however, hotel rooms are like small apartments. Which begs the question of why place the towel rail a short, wet, dripping walk from the shower? Or better still, outside the bathroom altogether?

Room at the inn

There is no hospitality concept simpler, more consistently replicated across the US of A than the motel. No matter which one you stay for the night, regardless of who runs it or which franchise it belongs to, everything will be in the same place, the bedding will be the same, the picture above the bed will be the same, and there will be at least one stain, somewhere on the carpet, that you really don't want to know the history of.

Pillow fight

Lastly, while we're on the topic of hotel rooms, why, before you can go to bed, do you have to spend ten minutes removing superfluous bed accessories?

What IS that long stuffed sausage thing, and why do pillows have to be arranged in such a way that they enhance the design prowess of whoever put them like that, but serve little benefit to actually lying down on them to get to sleep?


Driving Route 66 has presented this traveller with America's constantly changing landscape: Chicago's architectural splendour, the rolling green farmland of the Midwest, the sprawling prairies of Texas, the golden expanse of New Mexico, Arizona's desert, California's chaparral, LA's labyrinthine freeways, and its sun-kissed beaches. But this trip has also presented America's love of familiarity: the layout of more or less any shopping mall and any supermarket. And wherever you go, wherever you stop, wherever you flip on the TV to see what's going on, you'll be presented with the same local TV news presenters - slick male-female duo, Loveable Uncle/Glossy Glamour Girl (who clearly hates the female news anchor) doing the weather, and a grinning, toothsome OTT sports presenter presenting team news like a 10-year-old who has just downed a tonne of M&Ms. Stay classy, America.

Roadside distractions #1

In a country which boasts some of the most stringent highway policing on the planet, and which wisely operates low- if not zero-tolerance on drink-driving in most states, is it such a wise idea to put drinking establishments advertising COLD BEER next to highways that pass through hot desert regions?

Roadside distractions #2

Which came first: the US Interstate Highway System or the adult video "superstores" that appear all along the freeways in the Midwest? And, really…


Nothing much to say on this, except to make the following comment about Abercrombie & Fitch.

Is it absolutely necessary for their stores to emit such a vile perfumed odour that you know you're near one ten city blocks away?

Apparently it's called 'Fierce', which is highly accurate, and is described by A&F as "Packed with confidence and a bold, masculine attitude, Fierce is not just a cologne, it's a lifestyle." Right.

Road music

America was built for road trips. It has every need covered: it invented the sipping lid for hot takeout coffee cups; it ensured that soda fountain drinks fit perfectly in the cup holders of any American-built motor vehicle; and it came up with the categorisation system of radio stations. Therefore wherever you travel, you're never more than a few flicks of the dial away from rabid talk shows, country music, sports jocks or, my personal favourite, classic rock stations playing, exclusively, Led Zeppelin, The Who, the Rolling Stones, Heart and, bizarrely, anything involving or that has involved David Lee Roth.

Natural noise

Chirping crickets may be as much a part of the Great American Outdoors as rattlesnakes and Lyme Disease, but would it kill them to turn the noise down?


For every speed camera on British roads there is an actual police officer in the US sat in his cruiser, waiting to take off after you like a Nile crocodile launching off the riverbank. This is both reassuring and sinister in equal measure. They are, of course, there for your safety, but when you see them, sat semi-hidden under trees, bridges and in gulleys in the centre divide, you can't help but feeling entrapment is at work. Still, at least you can have a conversation with the officer as he writes your ticket. And, yes, most of them - like you - watched CHiPS as kids.

Two countries separated by a common language

Way back at the beginning of my trip I commented on how America and Britain were, to quote George Bernard Shaw, "two countries separated by a common language" (Two nations separated by dentistry). 

To illustrate this, I borrowed a clip from Eddie Izzard's Dressed To Kill show in which he explains: "You say 'alloominum' and we say 'alu-min-ium'; you say 'bay-sil' and we say 'bah-sil'; you say ’erbs' and we say 'herbs', because there’s a f**king 'H' in it. But you spell 'through' 'THRU', and I’m with you on that, ‘cause we spell it 'THRUFF,” and that’s trying to cheat at Scrabble." 

All of which leads me to wonder why everyone pronounces Route 66 "root" 66 and not "rowt" 66? Some consistency, please, American-type people.

But mostly...

At the start of this trip I also wrote of how I needed to breathe American air again, which may seem an odd statement to make, especially if you live in New York City, but also given the view some people, even some nations, have of the country. And, yes, I could have easily spent my downtime anywhere else on the planet. But I needed a fix of America. Another one.

I needed to reconfirm my love of its geographic beauty, its cultural complexity, its heritage and its lifestyle. I needed to amuse myself again with some of its absurdities and idiosyncrasies, its day-to-day customs and habits. But most of all, I needed to connect with its wide open spaces, of which there are plenty - the countryside, the desert wildernesses and the parts of California that make the state more than just traffic and surfing. To breathe fresh mountain air amid cloudless skies.

Even in America, you can get some peace.

1 comment:

  1. Kudo's Simon, it turned out to be a great trip for you and good reading entertainment for your audience. There are only 2 common denominators in this big and proud country: The President and the Greenback, the rest is different. Safe travels to Paris.
    Greetings from a guy who just turned in today his Greencard at the Consulate in Rio de Janeiro btw, US Official buildings outside the US, and their staff, deserves your writing attention as well. Thats worth a global roadtrip! CD