Country #5 & #81. Having driven from New York to San Francisco, via the Deep South, a few years ago, I wanted to do the trip again. However, this time via Canada and the American Midwest (see the map below). The trip was wonderful. It also gave me a sense that I’d completed a full ‘loop’ of the USA in my two coast to coast trips. A false sense, because I flew from Minnesota to Vancouver and this trip started in Boston. I had heard it was basically thousands of miles of flat farms west of Minnesota, and didn’t fancy the drive.
It was nice travelling to a part of the world where us Brits are not presently a laughing stock: the US (and Canada, sort of). This stems from a false belief in the US that coming from Britain basically means you are from the past. Regardless of whether Americans greeted me in mockney or pirate accents, that in retrospect were probably offensive, I was just happy not to be besieged with questions about Brexit. Thanks largely to Harry Potter, James Bond, the Royal Family, and Downton Abbey, people in the US and Canada were all extremely friendly. Some would even ask about London. An elderly lady in a Walmart in Indianapolis told me she loved London, having been on holiday there just last year. “Where did you stay?” I probed. “Near the Eiffel Tower I think.” I politely nodded and bode her good day.
Road Tripping, The Wrong Way Around
I visited a number of fantastic, and not so fantastic, cities on my North American road trip. Here are my thoughts on some of them:
Boston: A lovely city, with some of the oldest buildings in the US. It’s like a miniature version of New York, with much nicer people and arguably funnier accents. This was particularly true when watching a Boston Red Sox game: It was nice to see that we Brits aren’t the only ones who enjoy shouting unspeakable profanities at sportspeople who are good at moving spheres around large fields.
Montreal: You never get used to hearing French spoken in a city that looks so quintessentially North American. It gets very confusing. People greet you “bonjour-hello”. I often froze. Should I have replied in English? Or have slipped seamlessly into French? Having spent many summers in France and received an A* in GCSE French, it still staggers me that I struggle to say my name in French, let alone “hello”.
Ottawa: Canada’s capital has an amazing British-designed parliament building, a lovely manicured park in the centre of town, a beautiful network of old canals… and not too much else. It exists because Queen Victoria thought that choosing between rival cities Montreal and Toronto as the Canadian capital would be unsettling for the new colony. A similar thing happened in Australia, where the equally uninspiring Canberra was chosen as the capital so as not to upset either Melbourne or Sydney.
Toronto: The most multicultural and probably tolerant city in the world: over 50% of its residents were born abroad. This means good food and makes the city a vibrant place to be, on top of its stunning skyline and location next to the vast Lake Ontario. The weather was so nice here that I think I got a completely unrealistic and positive view of what life here is like. The city completely shuts down in winter.
Detroit: Go here if you want to see urban decline in action. The population used to be 2 million at the height of its ‘Motor City’ heyday, and is now under 500,000. There are abandoned buildings everywhere and empty plots of land dot the city. Whisper it, but a revival may be on the horizon. Old buildings are being slowly torn down to make way for urban farms, and a nascent tech-startup scene is emerging. You can rent an entire warehouse here for the price of a cupboard in Palo Alto.
Indianapolis: For some reason unbeknown to me, Indiana is known as ‘The Hoosier’ state. This unsettled me. For those that remember, ‘The Hoosiers’ (a band), successfully rode on the coattails of a resurgent indie scene in the mid-noughties to produce some of the most irritating tracks of the decade. Probably just behind Orson, if anyone remembers them.
Chicago: Donald Trump has an enormous tower here, with ‘TRUMP’ in huge writing on the side. It baffles me to think why this would make anyone keen to stay here. But saying that, and for my sins, I did have a drink in a Trump hotel in Panama earlier this year, which I felt bad about. Great Mojitos though.
Minneapolis: People here speak like slightly crazy Canadians. If anyone has seen Fargo then you get the gist.
Vancouver: Probably one of the most beautiful locations for a city in the world. Stanley Park, which is right in the middle of town, is the only urban rainforest in the world. I know this because everyone you meet here is obsessively proud about this fact. It’s lovely, but it didn’t look that much like the scenery in Jurassic Park, so I was skeptical of its rainforest credentials.
Seattle: Nirvana. Jimi Hendrix. The Foo Fighters. Frasier. Starbucks. Amazon. For a small city, Seattle has had a pretty big cultural impact on the world. Even if the impact of the last two irks some people, particularly Amazon customers who use the service regularly but moan about the brand with no sense of irony (like me). The city itself has an interesting, alternative kind of atmosphere which most people down the West Coast are proud of. A highlight was the Chihuly Gardens and Glass Museum.
Portland: More microbreweries than any city on Earth, an extremely liberal attitude on life, and the cycling capital of the States. Taken together, this makes Portland the coolest and possibly my favourite city in the States. People in Portland should be alarmed by this: I am exactly the sort of demographic that they want to avoid if they are to maintain the city’s motto: “Keep Portland Weird”. It’s only a matter of time before Portland goes the way of Shoreditch and Berlin (which I also thought were cool, negating any chance of this actually being the case).
Arcata: A small hippie town in California, made famous by Jack Kerouac and close to the Redwood National Parks. It’s a fascinating insight into what life would be like if hippies got their way and ran a town. Mostly this means an abundance of people dressed like they were Peter Pan, full bars all day long, people playing frisbee in the park, and crazed homeless people fighting in the street. Nice atmosphere though.
San Francisco: Whenever I have been in San Francisco, I selfishly spend most of my time hoping that the ‘big one’ does not strike (the city is overdue a huge quake). Aside from this, San Fran has a European feel and is one of the most liveable cities in the country… if you’re a millionaire.
Atlanta: Definitely not on my road trip route, but a weekend layover on the way home. Most people know Atlanta for Coca-Cola, and the seemingly baffling decision to host the Olympics here in 1996. I’ve attempted to construct the previous sentence in a way that implies Coca-Cola may ‘somehow’ have had something to do with this decision. What was genuinely surprising was the city is one of the greenest I have ever seen. Obviously not in an environmental sense (this is America) but because lush trees ring the town centre as far as the eye can see. A highlight was the BeltLine, a New York ‘High Line’-inspired urban park built on the site of a disused railway.
An interesting Uber driver gave me some insight into the upcoming presidential election while in Atlanta. “Do you believe in God?” he opened. I said no, took my phone out and prayed he would stop talking to me. There is a joke in there somewhere. He persisted. “Why do we wake up in the morning? What is there inside that makes us get out of bed?” I knew where he wanted this conversation to go, and didn’t fancy it.
So I explained that our “body releases a hormone called melatonin when it gets dark, making us tired. When it gets brighter, the hormone is not produced and we wake up.” “We don’t get up in the morning because a mystical sky pixie tells us to do so, you idiot,” I chose not to add. He most likely had a gun. He said Trump would win because God wills it.
In retrospect, and as I edit this again in 2018, perhaps he was right? I have removed a long section here where I discussed the fact that I felt Trump would win the vote, given the views I heard all over the States (excluding the liberal West Coast). I’ve since read too much about this man to bear, and my correct election view in no way compensates for this.
Canada vs America?
So this is a crude way to weigh up the pros and cons of each nation, but I’m doing it anyway. For all its issues, the USA has pretty much everything and pips it. It’s still one of the most complete travel destinations in the world. Even driving from Seattle down to San Francisco, the scenery was out of this world. Empty, stunning beaches, giant redwoods, deserts, and enormous mountains peppered our route. And this is in just one corner of the country. The US has some of the most fascinating metropolises on this planet, and there is nothing quite like doing a road trip in this country. It’s not an excuse for people for not having a passport, but when there is so much to see in this country alone, I can see the argument… sort of.
That said, Canada is close behind. People are even friendlier than in the States. Less of a tipping culture means Canadians are probably being nice for the sake of it too. Canada is clean, well organised, and appears far less unequal than the US. They also have a hunky Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. He has some nice views, but mostly he is young, looks good, and has great hair. And for me, that’s enough. I enjoyed every city I visited in Canada, and it’s right that it often sits at the top of global quality of life lists.
But on the downside, it’s almost too clean cut. It’s also huge: 40 times the size of the UK. With half the population. So once you leave a city, that’s it in terms of civilisation for about 10 hours of driving. The weather was amazing when I was there, which probably paints an unfair picture of the reality of this vast land in winter. Seemingly everyone in Toronto and Montreal was swimming, running, or just doing anything possible to be outside. At minus 30 in the winter, it must be terrible. Canadians say it’s fine, but I just can’t see that being the case. I’ll take grey and rainy over having to live in subterranean tunnels for three months of the year.
The Ryder Cup: Really Good For Some Reason
I left this section until last, for those who don’t like sport. But do not be fooled: this is quite literally the greatest sporting spectacle on this planet. I played golf with a friend and our dads in the run up to the event. It’s fair to say that I was quite literally bursting at the seams with golf by the time the biannual US vs Europe golf contest began. It sounds strange… men hit a tiny ball, which you can’t really see, in a large park, to allegedly determine whether the continent of Europe is ‘better’ than the USA. You are up at 5.00am, to get on the first tee at 7.00am. But it is somehow fantastic.
Fans from both sides get sloppier as the days progress. Some of the US fans perhaps took it too far. Some of the insults hurled at the players didn’t make much sense either. A group of American men kept asking Spanish player Sergio Garcia where fictitious pixelated Italian plumbers “Mario and Luigi” were. Maybe they were just curious, or more probably they didn’t know the difference between Spain and Italy. In the end, Europe got thrashed. But I didn’t care too much, and will be going again for sure. If only so I can wave a European flag again, despite being a Brit.