Why the hell would anyone want to travel to the USA?
For a start, let’s face it the US lacks the variety of wildlife found in Africa and Australia. Okay, they do have ferocious rattlesnakes, hoards of squirrels and a lot of suicidal deer crossing roads at dawn or dusk. Although their microbrewery culture is solid and growing fast, the beers are outrageously expensive, which in my opinion is a human rights issue all on its own. And in need of a serious discussion..
Then, it’s not an affordable place for long-term budget travellers. A large country without many cheap hostels and/or overland stops. We heard horror stories on social media of whale size Walmart people and areas without Starbucks coffee shops. Can you imagine!?
We were advised to scream “don’t tase me bro” when a police or traffic official stops us. We were warned against gaggles of Harley riding pirates, a scary, unnerving and ungodly sight when passed on a lonely highway. Told to avoid the fast-food strips with a drug-induced variety of foods that would beget a heart attack within a few delightful bites.
Well, despite all the above, we decided to risk life and limb and travel the big bad ol’ US of A to experience first-hand the horridness we were sold.
And we made it! We can confidently debunk many of these and other myths.
Let us tell you why in our opinion you should absobloodylutely travel the USA! In the same breath, we will offer you a few tips on travelling the land of the free as well as bust some popular myths.
The first thing that hits you when reading up on America is the staggering range of possibilities. There are few other countries with such a combination of beauty, variety of mountains, glaciers, rainforests, deserts, canyons and beaches. Wacky sports, uncanny friendly and inviting souls, the coolest campsites and wild camp areas, tip-top restaurants and bars. Well-nigh anything you can dream up you can do and see in the US.
Our US visas were to date the easiest to get, and not at all the scary hype people made it out to be. None of the piffle advice and admonitions we received were true. The Embassy in Cape Town with typical first world efficiency took no more than 20 minutes in and out. They even offered to courier our passports back home. We experienced the same treatment when we set foot on American soil and walked through customs at Dallas airport. The customs official asked us a few questions and after telling him we want to stay as long as possible to ride as much of the USA as we could, he stamped us with a 6 months’ visa! To date, the US customs have proved to be the friendliest and most efficient of any country we have travelled, by miles.
Hank, our friend with the 600’000 miles GS1100BMW whom we met in South Africa on his Africa trip invited us to stay with him while we prep our American bought Suzuki Dr650’s. Both bikes were bought from one very cool dude, Mike in San Antonio. Both were low mileage late models and well cared for bikes. We decided to buy newish bikes as we did not want to start a multi-continent long-term, high-mile trip with our old BMW’s which we left in Europe for future use. The poor BMW650Dakars had a rough time with us traversing Africa and around Europe. With the help of Drum at Procycle and Rick and Todd from Cogent we converted the two bikes to overland specification in no time, chop-chop. Kids in a candy store, type thing!
The plan, to take a loop route up to New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, down to Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, and then into Mexico and down South America. Our only commitment, an invite from Hank to attend the annual BMW motorcycle gathering in Billings Montana, where he was booked to work at the TouratechUSA stand. All worked out well as this route took us through an incredibly scenic part of the US.
We left for Big Bend National Park from Dilley with a beamish look of excitement to explore the land of opportunities. But something was not quite right … It was all too easy, too nice, there was no drama! The type we had in Africa. It was only when we hit Santé Fe a couple of thousand miles later we had an epiphany.
The Americans did not sit on their arses the last 300 odd years doing nothing. They build a country that is comfortable, easy to live in and easy to travel.
Here’s the kicker!
The way to travel the US is to take it easy, relax and appreciate all its offerings. There is fuel everywhere, food, a plethora of places to stay and relatively cheapish hotels. It is fairly safe to travel, Wi-Fi spots almost everywhere, REI’s and Starbucks aplenty. Need something? Get drinks in a humongous “drinking vessel” the size of a Jacuzzi. Or buy beer and snacks from a drive-thru and get camping gear in the next town. Nothing in short supply.
Indulge in the history, culture, spectacular nature, and one of the most diverse groups of people in the world. Remarkable national parks, wide clean open spaces, wild camp next to clean forest rivers or creeks, and enjoy the assortment of museums and attractions, if that’s your thing. Cities, towns, and the bucolic one-horseman towns each has its own unique charisma. Road tripping is not meant to be a robust near-death type excursion. Although make no mistake you can easily get lost in some of the million-hectare parks and become a toy to a bear. Americans love their comfort, and we utterly enjoyed it for a change.
The small backcountry towns were by far our favourite. They still have the seductiveness of times gone by. The chummy chatty people are a treat from fuel stop attendants to characters we encountered in dodgy bars. The bigger cities were easy to get around and most downtown areas are reborn as hip hang out places with coffee shops, independent brand shops, and bars serving ice-cold locally brewed beers with quirky names. Fascinating festivals and events are all over the place, as I said before…you are spoilt for choice!
America – XLarge!
The overwhelming beauty and sheer size of the American landscape is second to none, it is absolutely impossible to describe the magnitude of it all. They might not have all the African animals but that does not matter, they have a lot more and besides, American nature altogether is enormous, gigantic, larger than life. The Grand Canyon, deserts, Rockies, Moab, the lakes, mountains, forests, everything in that country is bloody darn Xlarge. Maybe that is why the Americans have such a can-go-to-the-moon attitude in everything they do.
There are areas that give you a remarkable feeling of what it must have been like in the Jurassic era. The Redwoods are mirific and powerful, it leaves you breathless. The prehistoric geysers of Yellowstone or the Colorado river entrenched in a deep red-brown corridor. There’s no end to it all. All packed into one country.
The American people are a fondue pot of different nationalities and they have all properly Americanised over time. It was still somewhat of a cultural shock for us since we practically grew up with the American culture and lifestyle through television, music and movies in South Africa.
Like all other countries they have their quirks and WTF’s, the bizarre and the weird. On the one hand in some states the bars and restaurants have a self-imposed or state limit on the number of drinks a habitué is allowed to quaff, sort of in the region of four drinks which is not enough for any Aussie or a South African thirst. The first time in my life I had to show my ID to be able to buy a beer and I am 47, dangit! Though it was a compliment that the young waitress thought I was underage. On the other hand, buying a gun is as easy as buying a car in the rest of the world. The outdoor shops stock more guns and ammo than the average African dictator and his whole country, and that’s just the 1st floor.
Americans are extremely safe and risk-conscious, yet some bikers enforce their right not to ride with helmets. I think it is only because these bikers, I’m generalising, mostly appear to be the Harley riders and want to pull a bit of a hardass ‘will-show-you’ image. They were also the bikers, right on cue, that waved us hello every single time when we passed them. They were always eager to chat and ask about our travels at fuel stops. Overall a nice bunch of mofos I have to say.
The different States have a lot of autonomy. We can lane split in some or even buy marijuana but in others like Utah, drinking seriously frowns upon pass time. All a bit bizarre but at the same time enlightening that each state is part of the bigger US but still has the clout to make their own rules. Interesting politics considering where I’m from!
Another truly impressive thing is the fact that a country made up of such a diaspora multifarious group of humans can coexist and become such a prosperous nation. It is in stark contrast to other parts of the world where countries, races, nationalities, and religions are constantly in each other’s faces.
About the USA National and State parks
The National and State Parks Services is the quintessence that is good about the US. The staff are well trained and seem eager to help and go out of their way to assist with information. Perhaps most surprisingly. You don’t even need to be a Bear Gryllis and drink your own pee to hike and explore the rugged, remote parks. There are many drive-up viewpoints with flat paths which makes for easy sightseeing. The facilities are clean and well cared for.
1) Americans are not at all the lazy crowd we are getting told about and work really, really hard. On average they take only about 2 weeks or so on holiday a year. Many do not even take holidays for fear of losing their jobs.
2) Claimed to be one of the most obese nations, it does not appear to be as general as the Walmart people photos that do rounds on social media. In Africa, it is as bad or even worse and Europe on its way. Most people we have met and spent time with were serious about their health and their environment.
3) The police and customs did not come off to be as bad as seen on TV. The media appears to be the biggest culprit in sensationalising all the wrongs about the USA. We did not try and test that claim.
4) Americans are not the loud-mouth, arrogant people perpetuated around the world. We generally found Americans to be courteous, friendly, and helpful.
5) Without a doubt we found Americans to be the most inviting and kind people from all the countries we have travelled so far. We had so many invites to stay with people and would have had to criss-cross the entire country and needed 4 more years to get to everybody. The kindness of strangers is remarkable.
6) The Americans have a general culture of common decency and do good for society as a whole attitude. They pull off the road when others want to pass. Refer to point 3 if you disagree. Okay, Black Friday is a bit of an anomaly. Not sure what in heavens’ name type zombie shit gets into the Americans on that day.
1) Stay off the Interstates and highways! If you do ride/drive them, you are failing miserably! Use maps like Butler Maps, Maps.me or Rever to find the most enthralling and sanative dirt and back roads. The best-kept secrets are on the back roads and through small towns.
2) The cliché roads similar to Route 66 are overrated and only portions of the original roads are left. There are so many cool undiscovered roads and places to be explored. Look for roads not used by RV’s (Recreational Vehicles) or tour busses and talk to the locals they know their stuff.
3) The US is staggeringly big; I need to say it again. Plan your route and time. You can cover a lot of distance in the USA due to their excellent road network and infrastructure. We thought 6’000km would be enough and we ended on 18’000km in 5 months.
4) The best time is just before or after the summer holidays. The prices of campsites and hotels are slightly more reasonable then and there are lots of open campsites with all the hordes of tourists back home.
5) For the budget traveller there are plenty of free campsites and places to wild camp. Ask if necessary, in most state forests there are free spaces. However, stick to the ones with fire pits. Use IOverlander and Advrider camp space. for places to stay.
6) The bigger supermarkets will have some surprisingly good, cheap roasted chicken in the afternoons. It is obviously cheaper to buy food from Supermarkets. Shop around there are always good eateries around.
7) I don’t care how hardcore you think you travel, if you need high-speed consistent Wi-Fi, Starbucks is the way to go as well as Casino parking lots. Refills for Starbucks coffee are only ’50c- bring your own hip-flask with whatever Rotgut you normally flavour your coffee. That said, most eateries now offer Wi-Fi. Not all the small rural towns, except maybe the hotel, will have Wi-Fi.
8) Stay away from the mainstream fast food joints, there are enough small-time food joints with mind-altering healthy or greasy good food to satisfy any palate.
PS: Tipping! Don’t be that douchebag that does not! The Americans take this pretty serious, nuff’ said.
9) Buy a National parks card, 1 card counts for 2 motorcycles, two up. Cost about US$80 and covers all the entry fees. It will cost a fortune to enter each park and pay their entrance fees.
10) Cities like Las Vegas are overrated. Cities, where we could spend more time, was San Francisco, Seattle, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Jackson Wyoming, Grass Valley California, Durango, Idaho Falls, Moab….too many to mention. Point is to stay away from the mainstream tourist traps.
11) Check out for Happy hour at bars and restaurants, it’s the cheapest time to drink or eat.
12) Motels: You won’t easily find an American staying in a 2-star hotel. Surprisingly most of them are of a good standard and most offer the basic stuff. Okay, Super 8, Red Roof and the non-chains owned by the myriad of Mr Patel’s families are not Las Vegas entertaining or spectacular, nevertheless, they’re consistently decent.
13) Tax not included. Prices in the US are almost always quoted excluding tax, except fuel stations. Every state charges its own rate. Buying over the internet and depending on which state or where they ship you can get off with not paying tax. It is a bit annoying not knowing exactly what you are paying for before it’s been through the till.
The funny and strange:
These same chain hotels also tend to provide a rather insipid breakfast. The norm is some pre-pack taste like sawdust cereals, brick-hard bagels, cream cheese if you are lucky and some sick hospital-style jelly packed as jam. Served on paper plates, with plastic or polystyrene cups and cutlery. Simply thrown away afterwards. It must be so easy to just get an auto-dishwasher. It’s mind-blowingly wasteful. Take your Leatherman tool, a fork and spoon.. 🙂
Global food fest
Italian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican are all known. We found a Kenyan restaurant in Santa Fe and serving Tuskers beer. Even an Ethiopian eatery. There’s an array of choices from every type of ethnic enclave in the USA from around the world. But mostly in the bigger cities. You will not go hungry!
Turn right on red
Four-way junctions are the thing in the USA. Circles not so much. To aid traffic flow you’re allowed to turn right (turn left for the countries driving on the other side of the road) on a red light if it’s safe to do so, unless signs state otherwise. I wish more countries would adopt this. It’s such a simple effective thing.
And about beer again
The US has about the best craft beer scene in the world. They are making beer an art form. I am truly happy the Americans can also die happy one day knowing they were able to enjoy stunning beers with the rest of the world. Not the piss water sold by the mainstream corporates. Adding moonshine to that beer is about the only way to get it down. The craft beer prices though are something that needs to be investigated by the World Court in The Hague. Beer is a human right and selling it for more than a buck fifty a beer is against human rights. For some reason, the Beer crafters decided that by going ballistic with the pricing it is a good way of milking money when all they had to do was dupe the Americans into believing beer must cost 3$-5$+ for a begging bowl full of their Angel’s tears or 300milj-year-old Glazier water they use to brew.
Nope, nope, nope! Beer is beer, not something fancy. It’s for the everyday-man, none of this hoity-toyti business.
We have ridden over 12000 miles (18000 km) and still need another lifetime to see the rest. Bar a small piece of the boring road every now and then most of the roads we travelled were breathtaking and fun. It would be very difficult to choose the best ones. America is such an enormously diverse country with so many choices and options, there is no reason to follow the mainstream must-do’s every other travel site promotes, or to think its all has been seen and done. Travelling the USA is all about finding new roads and places.
Make it memorable and find your own tracks.
Special gigantic thank you to all the people we have met, and who help make our trip such a special adventure.
As our route took us: Hank – Motohank, Mike Lucci, Rick & Todd – Cogent Suspension, Lee & Beverly, Robert Whitley, Michelle Region, Lisa Adelman, Sam & Kate, Duane Dunlap – Duke, Jeff & Cara Pillus, Ben & Lynne – Quebeck, Stacy Reynold & Brett Nicholas & the KLIM family, Mike & Patty Volf Capps, Lincoln O’Ransea, Jason & Natasha Lovato, Drummand Evans & Procycle team, Charles NeSmith -Chuck, Matt KTM690, Tim & Edi Lynch, Derrick & Sara –Motolab, Bruce Brennan – Hippy gourmet, Mike & Angela Peacock with the folk at Monty’s wood cabin, Fran, Eric & Natalie Kammerer, Kevin & Martie, Eric & Pattie Boedier, Edward & Alisea, John & Silvia Peluso, Mark Donham- Radioman, Debby Hopwood, Eric Wager.
Updated Aug 2020