Get your motor running, head out on the highway ... Julie Starr goes to look for America.
There's a phenomenon not well covered in guidebooks about driving holidays in the United States. It's a curious mind-funk that creeps up on you and it goes something like this.
You buy or rent a 60s Cadillac with fins and start playing out road movies in your head as the first hundred miles of six-lane blacktop freeway slip by. The windows are down, your arm is bronzing quickly in the desert sun. You've wrapped a wet bandanna around your neck (like they do in the movies) because you've discovered that it really does help to cool you down. Briefly, anyway.
You're on your long-awaited big American adventure and you have big plans. You will absorb every detail, photograph every suitable piece of kitsch Americana, meander along backroads for the hell of it, send postcards from places called Nowhere, Alabama, win a fortune in Vegas, visit Lubbock, Texas, because some obscure country musicians come from there, eat catfish on the bayou, eat hotdogs, stand where Elvis stood, ride the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building.
You will live and breathe America. You will live your dream.
And then you begin to notice your knuckles are whitening. Your hands have developed a death-grip on the steering wheel. Your eyes are no longer sweeping over the scenery, they are locked on the white lines straight ahead.
The sheer vastness of North America has conquered you. You have the "Got to Get There Driving Fever." The Fever, for short.
You know that no matter how good the scenery is you will not stop the car. You will not meander down backroads. You will not send a postcard from somewhere called Nowhere because you will not be leaving the freeway. You have become obsessed with "getting there."
Even if your travelling companion points out signs proclaiming: "Biggest, Best, Most Amazing Waterfall You'll Ever See In Your Life, Next Exit," or even "Free Beer 100 Yards," you will not stop the car.
You know The Fever will begin to ease only after nightfall when your body screams at you that you are starving, dehydrated, desperate for the toilet and too tired to see straight.
All that will then remain between you and the return of your sanity is the daily debacle of finding somewhere to stay. And you know how that goes.
You will argue over whether to go to a hotel with a restaurant or a motel without, whether you should save a few bob or splash out because you've had a hell of a day driving, and whether the Cadillac with fins will be safe in the carpark around the back.
Finally, you will end up eating a cold Subway for dinner and slump exhausted into an old innersprung bed in some low-rent motel with violent floral wallpaper, stained sink, limp towels circa 1950 and a surly old bastard leering at you in reception.
And so will end another precious day in your long-awaited big American adventure.
Naturally, if you were the kind of enlightened person who learned from their experiences, you would take note of the following points:
• Too much driving will do your head in.
• Booking accommodation can be a good thing.
• America is a big place and you cannot see it all in three weeks.
Should you find yourself drawn to a big American adventure let me tell you this: it matters not whether your holiday entails a tour of Elvis memorials, a big-city circuit, a squiz at some really famous things, a waltz through country music meccas, the inside of every casino in Nevada, or all of the above. Everything in America is a really long way away from everything else.
If you're driving, you need a Fever-avoidance scheme. Let me suggest it:
• Knock a couple of tour highlights off the agenda. Stick to a few Things That Must Be Seen within an area of, say, three states. You may miss the odd famous thing but it probably looks exactly the same as it does on TV except in real life you'll have to stand in a queue for three hours and empty your wallet for the privilege of being taken on a cosy personal tour with, say, 300 other people.
• Scrutinise the map.
• Identify anything en route that's interesting enough to make you stop the car.
This may turn out better than you thought. Take Yosemite Valley as an example. The valley is undeniably one of the most beautiful places on Earth and much better in real life than on TV, so it's clearly a Thing That Must Be Seen (although trying to get around it on a summer's day is like navigating Queen St during an America's Cup victory parade.)
From the outskirts of LA you could expect to arrive at the entrance to Yosemite National Park in about seven hours.
However, if you find yourself hurtling along at breakneck speed and notice your knuckles beginning to whiten, consider this: You may have just missed the finer points of the Mojave Desert, the turnoff to Death Valley, the tallest mountain in continental North America (Mt Whitney), the oldest trees in the world (yes, in the world), the Alabama Hills (where your favourite Western movies were shot), the improbably good French restaurant called the Still Life Cafe in Olancha (the middle of nowhere), and the ancient rock drawings outside Bishop, the natural hot springs near Mammoth Lakes.
And if even one of these things makes you stop the car, you'll stand a fighting chance of beating The Fever and arriving at the Thing That Must Be Seen feeling sane and fully capable of enjoying your hard-earned big American holiday.