5 Ways to Get the Authentic American Experience
The land of the Star-Spangled Banner, the home of Vegas, Miami Beach and The Big Apple. If someone tells you they are flying stateside, you would be lying if these were not the immediate images that sprang to mind.
To the average tourist, there are far fewer than the 50 states that make up America, and far fewer places they think they would actually want to go. California and Florida are the well-known holiday states; home to vineyards, Hollywood, and Disneyland. I am fairly positive that not everyone knows that Las Vegas is actually in the state of Nevada, and New York city is the current ultimate romantic Christmas destination for couples (Paris is so last year). Trust me when I say there is so much more to see.
As a committed Yankophile (feel free to question the accuracy of this word), I have spent my last two summers immersing myself in American culture, and feel a desperate urge to share it with you in all its weird wonderfulness. Here are my personal top 5 terrific tips for travelling authentic America.
1. Get out of the cities!
There are many beautiful cities in America, for sure. American cities are a wonderful melding pot of cultures and variety. But the real America is to be found in the small towns and back-end-of-beyond homestead states across the country.
Take Boston, one of my favourite cities. There is a horrifying amount of things to see and do in Boston, you need at least a week to squeeze it all in. Harvard University is stunning, take an evening to watch the sunset over the Charles River from the Esplanade park, and make sure to take a walk through Beacon Hill during the mornings when the air is full of fresh coffee. However, just a short ferry ride around the coast takes you to Salem.
Historically renowned for the witch trials of the seventeenth century and the birthplace of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Salem is straight out of a small-town America picture book. Taking the train from Boston lands you straight in the heart of the tourist district, ripe with witch tours and souvenir crystal balls. The ferry, however, deposits you on the outskirts by the House of the Seven Gables (perfect picturesque-instagram-worthy destination). You therefore have no choice but to walk down the quiet and undisturbed streets of Salem, drinking in the colourful clapboard houses and waterside walkways. And my goodness it is worth it!
In Chicago, don’t just stick to the shopping streets and riverside bars. Follow the river down to Grant Park, walk along the edge of the harbour, past Buckingham Fountain, the Field Museum and right out to the outcrop where the Adler Planetarium is situated. It gives the best view across Lake Michigan and a beautiful view of the city behind you. Actually quite a long walk, you can always hire Chicago’s answer to a London Boris Bike and see the park in style. There’s nothing like riding along the water on a hot sunny day. Be warned, Chicago may well become your favourite city.
2. Get outdoors
It is often tempting to whittle down America to its cities full of fabulous monuments, museums, and tourist attractions; the Met and Empire State Building in NYC, Museum Mile in the heart of D.C., the casinos of Las Vegas and Reno. But it is important to remember that a huge proportion of the States is unpopulated middle-of-nowhere. Beautiful, nothing-but-fields, middle-of-nowhere. As crazy as that sounds, it is quite amazing how many hours you can drive before you see ANYTHING. Or anyone.
Really consider how you plan to get around. Flying to well-known cities and resorts is obviously the easiest way to begin a trip, but after that road tripping is easily my most favouritest way to see America. The most beautiful places are those found off the beaten tourist track.
Deep in the heart of South Dakota, only 17 miles from the famous Mount Rushmore, stands the little known Native American Crazy Horse Memorial. Set to stand at 563 feet high when finished, this will be the largest sculpture in the world, and my god is it breath-taking!
Far superior to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse also had the BEST history. Begun by Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948 with no government funding, the Crazy Horse Memorial commemorates the removal of Native American land by the federal government in the 19th century, and at its completion aims to be the centrepiece of an educational and cultural centre for Native American generations. South Dakota is also the home of Deadwood (famous as the shooting place of Wild Bill Hickok in 1876 and, fun fact, also where Kevin Costner owns a casino), the Badlands National Park, the beautiful Black Hills and, as the 5th emptiest state (i.e. very few people= zero big airports), it is not always high up on the Brit-abroad tourist itinerary.
But to find all these golden spots, driving through the great outdoors is a must, especially if you’re a Dances with Wolves fan who fancies playing cowboy for a day in 1880 Town after the scenic expanse of the Great American Plains (I know I am).
Walk through waterfalls at Lake Tahoe; climb through valleys and up mountains in Yosemite and swim through hot springs in Yellowstone. Walk through the barren Badlands to gaze across the Great Plains. I didn’t even know I was an outdoorsy person until I went to America. I can guarantee I never thought I would crawl through a giant sequoia, or canoe under mountains, or do actual camping and hiking. It will give you a totally different outlook on life when you get home and realise nothing phases you anymore. You will never ever be as wet ever again as when you get soaked in a freak downpour in the Shenandoah Mountains, and therefore you now no longer care when it rains (honestly, my trainers took a week to dry out).
3. Do all the weird and wacky American things that you said you would never do in a million years ever
The rodeo in Wyoming, baseball games everywhere, country music bars in Nashville, Graceland in Memphis, Times Square in NYC, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls. These are things that we think of as the stereotype of America, and also things that every gap year trip entails. While that is somewhat true, you should embrace it and aim to see everything. However, the hot tourist spots for actual Americans are the BEST.
You never know what you could be missing! I would have never seen a Jackalope (sadly not a real animal) had I not been to Wall Drug, the strangest shopping centre in the mid-west. Who knew the Americans would stick antlers on a stuffed rabbit just for tourists? (yes, it really is as weird as it sounds). The Corn Palace (the world’s ONLY Corn Palace) in Mitchell, South Dakota is well worth a visit, if only for comic value. They take their corn VERY seriously indeed (fun fact: it is the States largest indoor inter-collegiate basketball arena). And eat the fresh, buttery corn on the cob. It tastes so damn good.
DO buy everything that is covered in American flags, WEAR the cowboy hat, CELEBRATE 4th July, GO horseback riding, EAT sloppy Joes (basically BBQ Bolognese in a bun, SO GOOD), do all the things! You absolutely won’t ever regret it and it will massively add to your American experience. One of my best experiences was going horseback riding in my cowboy hat, and American flag t-shirt, on 4th July, and eating sloppy Joes afterwards (yes, ALL the things). And for goodness sake, go and watch some baseball. Buy the team shirt, pretend you support them and that you know what’s going on, even though god knows it is nothing like cricket.
4. Talk to everyone who talks to you, which will be everyone, all the time
Americans are the single friendliest lot of people I have ever met. And guaranteed if you don’t have a recognisable American accent they will ask you where you’re from. Tell them! Although, unless you’re from a major city (i.e. London), they won’t know it. But they will pretend they will, and they will care. They will ask how did you find yourself in this tiny town (probably somewhere in Idaho)? How long are you here for? What have you seen? Where are you going next? Talk to these people.
For a matter of minutes they will be your best friends, and it is guaranteed to restore your faith in the American people. Real life is a far cry from media coverage that presents them all as gun-toting Trump lovers who love Jesus but hate everyone else. It will also make the many trips to Wal-Mart much more bearable. I definitely would have got lost a lot more often if there hadn’t been friendly Americans to ask for help and directions. A delightful man from Georgia will find you at the airport after you leave your phone in the security tray at San Francisco, and a lady from Wisconsin will pick up your passport at JFK when you drop it onto the luggage belt and walk off (I am a traveller’s worst nightmare, I know).
Say yes to all social engagements and you will surprise yourself. Have drinks with a guy from Tampa, Florida on your layover in Toronto and wander around Boston with a local girl you bump into outside your hostel. For the life of me I can’t remember their names, but they were lovely people and it was worth stepping outside my social comfort zone.
Never say no to dancing with anyone. From Tupelo in San Francisco to the Silver Dollar Bar in Cody, Wyoming, to Honky Tonk Central in Nashville, I now two-step without fear. American men are gentlemen. It can be one drink, or one dance, with no expectations or repercussions. They will still order a drink for ‘that girl across the bar’ and you can say yes without feeling like you’ve agreed to marriage, three kids and a condo in Denver (although I always fall mildly in love with most of them anyway).
5. Make memories through music
This is my number one top tip. You cannot go wrong with this one.
My love for American country music defies all logic and common sense. But I can’t imagine my life without it now. Its popularity is on the rise in the UK with Country 2 Country festival in London onto its fifth year, hosting some huge names like Eric Church and Little Big Town (If you haven’t heard of them then get on Spotify and sort your priorities out).
Travelling through the great American plains, the great outdoors, the big sky states, the Deep South, the mid-west and the mountain states would not been the same without hearing the sounds of the states. Try jazz in New Orleans, blues in Memphis and maybe a teeny bit of soft country through the mid-west (it may not be your cup of iced tea but for the love of god please TRY it). You will gain a cultural insight into their history that you never thought you could. Think you know about slavery?
The history of soul at the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum opened my eyes and made me see 12 Years a Slave in a totally new way (third times a charm). My Bar at 365 in New Orleans has the best jazz piano duelling I’ve ever seen, and you can’t get very far on Beale Street, Memphis without some amazing street soul and blues. And some of that huge American scenery just demands the right kind of country, and if it isn’t music you usually listen to, certain tracks will whisk you straight back stateside when you hear them at home.
The first time I travelled to the states I made a playlist of songs all named after places I was actually visiting (e.g. ‘Walking in Memphis’). And as cheesy as that sounds, it made a huge difference to my trip and introduced me to music I never would have tried in a million years! When you associate songs to places, your memories flood back as vividly as if you were there for the first time all over again.
I could compile a huge list of songs that bring back magical moments and memories, but these are my top faves. ‘Empire State of Mind’ still takes me back to driving across the Brooklyn Bridge, ‘I know somebody’ brings back middle-of-nowhere farmland memories of Idaho, ‘She thinks my tractors sexy’ (tune) was a two-step fave in Wyoming and I still listen to ‘Save me San Francisco’ when I need a mental return ticket to the Golden Gate city. I associate all sorts of songs with people I’ve met who left special memories with me and country has become the soundtrack to my life, thanks to a terrific Texan I once knew. Step outside your musical comfort zone, find what you love, and make your own stateside soundtrack.
America is a wacky and wonderful country. Each state is its own, and each trip I take opens new doors, encourages me to embrace new weirdness and leaves new memories engraved in my mind, and sometimes on my skin. It is a wild wilderness, full of beautiful scenery and people. Make it your own. Go to all the places, see all the things. Find what you love there and love it until you explode.
By Vanessa Sears