By Darrin Henry
The allure of the US road trip, cruising across wide open, iconic landscapes, has teased my imagination since I was a young boy. Growing up on Ascension Island those first seeds of curiosity were sown, where locals watched movies on the American Air Force Base, films like Smokey and the Bandit and The Blues Brothers.
It wasn’t until I was 38, many years later, that I finally climbed behind the wheel of a hire car and ventured out onto US highways for the very first time. My wife Sharon and I were in Las Vegas, beginning our three-week driving adventure, filled with a combination of nerves and excitement. Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. It was everything we could ever have wished for, only it was all over far too quickly. We vowed to do it again one day, but a longer trip next time.
Seven years later we were back to give it another go.
In the summer of 2015 we flew into Atlanta, Georgia, picked up our little Kia Soul hire car and hit the road for seven incredible weeks. By this second visit, we were now photo-bloggers, having started ‘What The Saints Did Next’ a few months earlier. This lent a purpose to the road trip, to document and engage on our travels, not just observe. The sat-nav directed us down to New Orleans. We then loosely followed the Great River Road route, tracing the mighty Mississippi River, south to north.
A road trip, I’m convinced, is the single best way to discover the raw, unvarnished America. As long as you take with you a sense of adventure, can find pleasure in discovering the ordinary and enjoy meeting people from all walks of life, then it’s almost impossible not to have a great time.
First day of our road trip in 2015.
America is huge. On our first trip especially, we would stop regularly in Arizona, just to take pictures of the road ahead and behind us, stretching all the way to the horizon. It was classic Thelma & Louise countryside, especially the day we found ourselves amongst the red rock mesas and buttes of Monument Valley.
Monument Valley in Arizona.
History and fascinating local stories are everywhere. You can’t help but stumble across things to see and do, every day. Roadside tourist attraction signs would always signal something of interest up ahead. It was all completely random and unscripted.
In New Orleans we joined a fascinating Voodoo walking tour. With passion and humour, our guide, James, educated us about the roots and realities of his religion (yes, Voodoo is a religion). Voodoo has clearly been misunderstood by most people around the world, not just us. It was a reminder that movies are just as capable of misleading the masses as they are of inspiring.
Along the Great River Road trip we explored the trail of the American Civil War, visiting museums and historic battlefields along the way. Although 150 years had passed, the modern day unrest inside America seemed irrevocably connected to this period of the country’s history.
In Memphis, Tennessee we walked the famous Beale Street and listened to blues music from a street band. Perhaps most interesting was chatting to Harry, who we bumped into one Sunday morning on the banks of the Mississippi. Harry was a mere 17-year-old boy when he attended Dr Martin Luther King’s last speech, right there in Memphis on 3 April, 1968. Dr King was killed the next day.
Travelling the highways and backroads of America we passed through tiny little towns with rusty old tractors and pick-up trucks parked amongst the few scattered houses. Picture perfect white clapboard churches and star-spangled banners fluttering atop residential flag poles on well-trimmed lawns.
Eighteen wheeler trucks on the freeways, water towers peeping across the tree tops and country music playing on the radio. We marvelled at the big, sprawling farms in the middle of nowhere with tall, silver cylindrical grain silos that we jokingly called missile silos.
Grain escalators and corn fields, a common feature on the Mississippi farming landscape.
We drove through swaying oceans of corn and soya beans where giant automated, spider-like watering machines on wheels, crawled slowly over the crops without a human operator in sight.
We stopped for day visits in cities like Montgomery, Alabama, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, that were spookily deserted, even in the town centres, or downtown as the Americans say. Rows and rows of boarded up store fronts by businesses that have long since folded.
It really was ‘off-the-beaten-tourist-track’ America.
Stopping to eat at classic little roadside diners was often surreal, like a step back in time. Williams, Arizona, was like that. It was the same for the series of motels we stayed in along the way. Most had clearly seen better days, but they were cheap, cheerful and (mostly) clean with great wi-fi. An experience in itself.
The landscapes though are something else, jaw-dropping awesome. Clear blue skies allowed us to take in the full majesty of Monarch Pass as we crossed over the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The, hot, shimmering desertscapes of Nevada and Utah with its weird and wonderful rock formations. Arizona’s huge canyons gouged into the red and brown terrain. Swamplands of Louisiana with miles and miles of Interstate roads held up on concrete stilts.
Upstate New York on the other hand, with its lush, forested hills and valleys, was yet another stunning contrast. Crisp, fresh mountain air. Early morning, low-lying fog in the valleys and roads that swept gracefully along the contours of hills with beautiful views down below.
Best thing of all though, wherever we travel, is meeting people. The road trip is brilliant for this, it brings you into contact with the most authentic of characters, as far removed from rehearsed tourism spiel as you can hope to find. In the small town of Fancy Farm, Kentucky, we stopped to take pictures of horses and ended up making friends with the ranch owner, Stephanie. We posted a story about her, and life in small town, Fancy Farm.
In Rutledge, a small ‘out-in-the-sticks’ Alabama town of just 460 people, we met Postmaster Kyle who told us how the place had once thrived from the cotton industry. But a railway built in 1888 bypassed the town and its population subsequently dwindled. Another Rutledge resident was so pleased we stopped in his town, he gave us two jars of homemade dill and relish to take on our way.
Typical clapboard church and water tower found in small towns across the US. This is Rutledge, Alabama.
Andre was a homeless man we met in Chicago, who was raising peoples’ spirits by blowing bubbles down onto the riverside walk from a bridge. Andre preferred this method of making money rather than outright begging. In between each release of fresh bubbles, he explained to us how no one thing makes anyone homeless. Rather, it was a combination of things, a domino effect that lands people like him in such unfortunate circumstances.
For sure, a road trip is an exciting and intimate way to discover the USA. There’s an undeniable sense of freedom that comes with getting behind the wheel and taking to the open road. It’s a relaxing way to travel, de-stressing even, a great way to disconnect from the grind and lose yourself in the simple pleasure of the journey. You can stop and explore whenever you choose, divert if something takes your fancy or stay longer when a place makes an impression. One glance at the map and there are possibilities everywhere. For Sharon and I, road tripping across America has been an unforgettable, wonderful adventure.
Darrin is a photographer from the island of St Helena. His varied work life has included being a radio engineer for the BBC, a purser in the merchant navy and a box packer in a warehouse in England. Darrin has been a self-employed entrepreneur since 2004. He loves travelling, meeting new people, movies, dogs, computers, Tottenham Hotspur, autobiographies, hiking and country music. Today, in partnership with his wife Sharon, Darrin produces the photo blog, What The Saints Did Next (www.whathesaintsdidnext.com). This is Darrin’s first post for Travel Alphabet ABC.
We hope you have enjoyed Darrin’s post as much as we have. One of our writers, Alison Laycock recommended Darrin and Sharon to us as she told us ‘their blog is amazing, fantastic photos and wonderful stories of St Helena as well as their travels abroad. They certainly possess un peu de je ne sais quoi!’ We look forward to Sharon’s post next week. Please send us your comments and we will pass them on to Darrin.