Whanganui reporter Laurel Stowell spent two months with American relatives last year, and took in details of northern hemisphere life.

It was all more ordinary than I expected - but also not.

My picture of American life came straight from soap operas and TV shows. Crime investigated, high drama, Hollywood mansions, an election so bizarre and fractured it was in the realms of fantasy.

Then I spent September and October last year visiting four American cousins, all of whom I had met before. I wanted to see what their lives were like - maybe what a typical American life was like.

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It turns out that isn't possible. The United States of America is a diverse and divided nation. My cousins are typical of only a fraction of its people. While I delved into their lives I only got the merest sniff of how others lived.

The cousins I visited live in small towns in the north. The first at Ulster Park in the Hudson Valley - part of a network of small towns. The next at Cape Vincent, way up north on the St Lawrence Seaway.

Then I jetted to the other side of the continent, and spent a week on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. The final month was in Corvallis, Oregon, a university town of 55,000 in the fertile Willamette Valley.

First impression, flying at night from Los Angeles to New York City: it's a big country with lots of people. Up in the dark, with the moon, we flew over city after city, lights in different shapes shining below. Near the east coast several cities were visible at once.

It's a big country with a lot of planes crisscrossing the sky, and a lot of cars too. That became obvious on the ground, with networks of roads, major and minor, spaghettied everywhere.

So many cars, and big ones too. Which makes more sense when you find the price of petrol is US60c and US75c a litre.

People use their cars a lot. The towns have small, old, central shopping areas - but the real shopping happens in vast malls on the outskirts, and pretty much everyone has to drive there.

In this divided country there's a diversity of shopping too. Some of my cousins avoid big malls and shop at co-ops and farmers' markets - big ones, with good prices and a terrific product range.

Another trend in retail is the "everything store". Little Ulster Park has a combined petrol station and store on the highway. You can buy petrol and beer there, gamble, get basic groceries and order a Subway sandwich.

Often, American houses look more flimsy and casual than New Zealand ones. They're not so focused on boundaries. One yard blends into another and gardens are mostly perfunctory.

Most houses are heated by a furnace in winter. It's usually in the basement, and burns diesel or gas. There are virtually no clotheslines - most people use dryers.

I saw big trailer parks, and in the wealthy town of Corvallis, Oregon, there were homeless people sleeping under bridges and in chaotic little camps in a reserve. The churches were establishing a night shelter for men to use in the winter months - hoping to head off usual winter fatalities.

Out in the countryside boundaries often go unmarked, because there are hardly any farm animals out in the open. No fences needed.

After all the fuss in New Zealand about water quality, I watched for polluted rivers. In the highly populated northeast we swam in the clear Westfield River. It runs through forest in Massachusetts and is not choked with weed like the Waikato River.

The Hudson Valley, despite a long history of European settlement, is mostly wooded. Houses peep out between the trees, and straggle along roads that could be streets of a town - or not.

Every day huge freight trains pass through, carrying oil and timber from Canada to New York City. On the mighty Hudson River tug boats haul huge barges.

Americans envy our public health system. My cousin Jill's family went bankrupt because they couldn't afford to pay a hospital when their baby got meningitis. At a rest area in Oregon I saw a family begging for money to help a son with cancer.

But the situation isn't as simple as it seems either. Some people go without, but others get some of what they need through a complicated network of charities.

With the state providing less, Americans are constantly bombarded with appeals to give to charity. Even public radio and television need sponsorship, and the result is long and boring lists of sponsors interrupting programmes.

Food is cheap compared with New Zealand - but that's partly because some of it is bulk and low quality, and partly because workers' wages are poor and topped up by tips from customers. There are lots of cheap, mid-range and chain eating places.

People eat out an awful lot, and some don't do much in a kitchen. It's quite common to have doughnuts for breakfast, and to heat something in a microwave or go to a restaurant for dinner - in the car of course.

We are told Americans are the fattest nation in the world - but those fat people weren't where I was. My cousins said people are bigger in the Midwest and rural areas. On average the Americans I saw were slimmer than Kiwis.

And on the whole, American small town people are nice. Super-friendly, and so polite they apologise if they brush past you, or touch you by accident. That's especially so for men touching women, my male cousin says.

Politics - even my Republican cousin is appalled by Donald Trump as President, and she's been depressed since his election. Since the election several of my cousins have become obsessive about following the news.

Two of them compulsively watch Rachel Maddow's one-hour weekday programmes, where she dissects events in the White House and elsewhere on MSNBC. Her slant pleases what my cousins call "liberals", but not everyone watches it. TV sets in rural places are more likely to be tuned to Fox News.

War and the US military hover on the edge of ordinary life. In Kingston, New York, the streets had "local hero" banners, honouring people who served in the military.

Standing at the edge of a huge glacial valley in eastern Oregon we were startled by a sudden flyover of military aircraft. It was a true moment of shock and awe, in such a remote place.

None of my cousins owns a gun, but lots of houses had placards outside them, opposing changes to US gun law. At Corvallis a dedicated group holds a peace protest outside the courthouse every day from 5pm to 6pm.

At the other end of the spectrum, Oregon and Nevada have non-governmental militias and a "sovereign citizen" movement – groups who don't feel constrained by their country's laws. We visited the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, which was occupied by an armed group for a month in 2016.

The group was supporting two local ranchers who had been convicted of arson on federal land. Its leader, Ammon Bundy, was charged, tried and acquitted. The refuge is now back in the hands of the state, but relations between graziers and conservationists, country and city, are on a knife edge.

Native American people are less visible than New Zealand's Maori. But we did visit a Paiute reservation in eastern Oregon, and we talked to its chairman. He said the reservation has its own health, police and justice systems, and gets money from the state to run them.

It had to buy its own land, after a treaty with settlers was broken. It receives money from the state every year to compensate for the loss of its traditional salmon fishery – and it uses the money to buy more land.

The US, like New Zealand, is increasingly relying on the citizens of poorer countries to do work its citizens don't want to do. Milking on dairy farms is mainly done by South Americans and Mexicans, for example. The landscaped gardens of Los Angeles are tended by Mexican gardeners.

I got to be in a small town on Halloween night, watching adults and children prowl around after dark, in costume, in their own neighbourhood. Houses with treats to offer had their outdoor lights on, and everyone enjoyed the spooky occasion.

I got to go to a college football game in Corvallis, when local team the Beavers (Go Beavs!) narrowly lost to a team from Stanford University. The hoopla and razzmatazz was fun - fireworks, cheerleaders, brass band and all.

Then there was the gorgeous scenery of eastern Oregon's high desert, and the crowded and complex history of the Hudson Valley. They are another story ...

Overall impression - vast, varied, hard to generalise. And they are people just like us.