Firstly, it is stunning here. Virginia especially has blown us away and it is the first state we have travelled in extensively. The national parks and forests are huge, beautiful, massively untouched and are a paradise for overland and adventure travellers alike.
The people are incredibly warm and friendly, with us making new friends on an almost daily basis. This is the first country outside our own that we have travelled extensively in that has shared our mother tongue , as well as the first time that we have had full livery on the vehicles, so I cannot categorically say that it is that the average person here is warmer or more welcoming, but we have certainly felt (and repeatedly been told) that we are welcome here with many people going out of their way to help make sure we are seeing the best of their country.
The natural world here is gladly inescapable, much more prevalent than expected, camping near forests we have seen deer almost daily, a huge variety of avian and reptilian life as well as the spread of the ubiquitous Dogwood flower, even now as I write this, I am watching a large musk rat forage in the river bank.
There is an overall excitement to travel here too. I am not sure that I can place my finger on it, but if I were to try, it would have to assume it is a combination of the prevalence of American-produced media, the pedestal and legend of the American road trip and the romanticism and myth of the American dream. Through this trident of iconography it seems that travel here induces much more excitement in the mundane than anywhere I have previously visited. I drove past a small town general store yesterday and while a store front of a village shop, unchanged since the 1950s in my own country would likely serve as little more than an embarrassing reminder of our domestic resilience to change, here it seems to conjure images of Kerouac, Steinbeck and Twain and serve as a monument to simpler times.
I suppose being a country music fan adds to this too, I am currently staying outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee and have taken great pleasure in telling everyone that that was where Jonny Cash fought his runaway father in ‘A Boy Named Sue’ – (“it was Gatlinburg, in mid July, Id just hit town and my throat was dry”). Yesterday we had driven here from Roanoake, Virginia, through Jackson City and on to our current location, the exact route hitch hiked by Darius Rucker in ‘Wagon Wheel’. We made sure to cue up both songs as we passed the towns, eeking maximum giddiness as we passed the eponymous road signs. I am quite sure that this virgin excitement may diminish, but I am positive it will never pass.
There is so much to love here, so much that there are many places I have visited I would consider making a home. You could do a lot worse than having a warm and generous people, a beautiful natural world to explore and all of the amenities that you could possibly need on your doorstep. It is perhaps this frame through which Americas criticism in the wider world is viewed.
If I was to make a criticism of my own, it would neither be aimed at the small or rural towns, not the big cities, but the infill between. Miles of fast food restaurants and chain stores in large industrial buildings are often banked by huge estates of anonymous suburban sprawl. We visited one recently, finding the manicured uniformity of it oddly unsettling, like we were on the set of the Truman Show, it seemed fake and impersonal. The houses were all made by a single developer and the development itself was still in progress and it seemed that each house was purchased and built to order from an a-la-carte menu; “yes I’ ll have the Tudor classic, finished in half brick and barge board, plot 27, medium rare with a peppercorn sauce”. When a country has so much personality, it seems a shame to shun it with such superficiality.
In terms of a slightly more current issue, I worry a lot less than before, as we have met many more people that view Trump as the joke we do in Europe, then seem to hold any belief that he would be good for the country, much less than would vote for him. The climate of fear, however, while mostly unfelt, is certainly prevalent and it is easy to see how he has capitalized on it so. This was never more felt than when, driving calmly through a national park, our companions were subject to a search by a ranger, who whipped his vehicle around and barked orders at them, with a constant reminder that “any sudden moves and I will draw my weapon”, after a arduous and massively over-aggressive encounter, everything worked out fine, but the feeling that at any moment they would have a gun thrust in their face, was an experience that they will not soon forget. This same feeling is felt in the “don’t tread on me” and “stand and fight” bumper stickers that are hugely common here, it seems that the law enforcement and citizens alike need only the slightest catalyst or provocation to hit immediate battle stations.
My final thought would be a reference to the oddly disparate nature of living expenses here. The effort, thought, planning and cost of eating healthily is mind blowing. A supermarket bag of pre-packaged spinach is approximately three dollars, the same price as a hamburger, fries and a coke from the McDonalds dollar menu. As such, and while obesity here is probably exaggerated in Europe, it beggars belief that anyone can remain in good health.
These thoughts come from a limited and overwhelmingly positive experience of two states over the first three weeks of my travels here. I look forward to revisiting them at the end of the trip. While I imagine that a great deal will vary, I am positive that my perception of the American people and landscape will remain an immensely positive one.