You'll read about our exploits as we drive through Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, and we'll be offering some road trip tips along the way (though to be honest there's probably more humour than insight).
It was great fun, an unforgettable experience – why don't you try it, too..?
Thanks for reading.
Editor, The Daily News
Road trip tips for crossing the USA, part one
1) Cabbies know a lot. They will usually engage you in conversation anyway to get a nice tip so pick their brains. After flying from Heathrow to Washington DC, we catch a cab to the Motel 6 Convention Center. Our cabbie tells us useful stuff about DC – we wouldn’t have noticed the Pentagon as we passed by, despite it being absolutely, almost impossibly gigantic. He was impressed/shocked when we told him we were driving to San Francisco. “That’s too far, sir.”
He advises us that although motel is a nice one, we shouldn’t go walking around outside at night. What the hell? We picked it because the website had said it was convenient for the main sights.
2) Check your hotel out on the big sites like traveladvisor.com. Yes, you'll find negative reviews of absolutely everything, however good it is, but a bit of discerning research can spare you experiences like this. This motel was the one place we didn't scope out beforehand, because it seemed such a safe bet. Wrong...
We arrived at Motel 6 and our tiredeness is exacerbated by a stressful wait to check in, in the tiny reception area. People keep popping their heads in and asking for discounted rooms.
We go down to reception and there begins a long episode in which Reception Guy starts calling our cab firm and then several more. All promise taxis but an hour and a quarter later we’re still sitting in the tiny reception area as a series of alternately unsavoury and friendly people drift in and out.
We ask about food options nearby but he says the options are McDonald’s or Burger King. We look out at the neighbourhood – on one side there’s a motorway and on the other a long, deserted road that appears to be in an industrial area... Hmm.
3) Chinese food in the USA is tons better than in the UK. In the end I phone for a Chinese takeaway (oops, sorry, takeout) which, after a delay of another hour, during which Rachel appears to actually be dying in front of me, it arrives. Against all odds, it’s really good, although they are out of beer.
4) In life and road trips, bad things usually look better the next day. After the difficulties of day 1, we kick off our first day of sightseeing by popping in to the amazing Union Station.
Rachel at the Washington Monument. Very warm day, I get slightly sunburnt.
Here I am outside the house used for some exterior shots of the house in bona fide classic The Exorcist. Film geek heaven!
5) Film locations are everywhere in the USA. There are plenty of websites like The Movie Map to help you find them.
6) Make sure you know what what your hotel's street intersects with. Keep this info on you. It's more helpful to be able to tell your taxi driver the street cross-references than to just tell him the number of the street, due to the extreme length of many streets. See number 7 for more details...
7) Cabbies can be mad as well as helpful. Just because they have a licence doesn't mean they aren't unhinged. At the end of day two we get a cab back to the Motel 6 but we can barely understand a word he's saying. He thinks we're taking the piss and begins ranting (something about “if my dog didn’t have a tail he wouldn’t chase his tail”) until he peters out.
Days 2 & 3
Two days of tourist stuff, museums, Arlington Cemetery, White House gates etc. Kick off with the Natural History Museum, not as good as the previous day’s National History Museum but we enjoyed their IMAX film, a worthy documentary about the Colorado River which did have some good 3D.
Rachel in her normal specs. Or is it the 3D specs?
8) You don't need to pay for a GPS but don't take the wrong turn out of DC. At the National car rental place at Dulles, we are given a choice of three cars – including an upgrade that looks a bit weird – and we go for the most boring option. I miss our exit on the interstate and we end up ploughing straight back into the centre of DC for about 30 nerve-wracking minutes.
But thankfully we manage to burst through to the other side and get back on track... or so we think, because another wrong fork (“You will get lost leaving Washington without GPS. You don’t want GPS? Okay! Okay! It’s your decision! – car rental guy) takes us into Anacostia, a genuinely bad area of DC.
This pic is from an article in The Independent about the Washington ghettoes.
Two very dodgy guys dragging a wheelie bin along the exit lane; a couple of crazies remonstrating outside a liquor shop that’s so grimy it looks like it’s been buried underground for a decade then exhumed (the very store in our picture, in fact!), and houses that were abandoned long ago and have just seemingly collapsed from the roof down, right through the middle.
“I can’t do anything because I don’t know where we are! I have no map for this!” Rachel is shouting.
She’s right. If we get lost here we’re in deep doo-doo because we’re not going to stumble upon some convenient main road back to safety.
“It’s okay, I will turn round as soon as I can,” I say, somewhat nervously. I do the quickest three-point turn ever performed and then we head back on ourselves. Luckily Rachel spots the slip road back onto the interstate and suddenly we’re back on it. A major “phew” moment, which we soon celebrate with a blow-out at Famous Dave’s restaurant in Annapolis.
Rachel opens the envelope which reveals the surprise destination I have booked – the BEDazzled, a kitschy-seeming but hopefully very nice film-themed B&B in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Time to head there – we'll be going further east, of course, but only by going right to the Atlantic coast to start with can we truly say we'll have crossed from coast to coast.
9) Bed and breakfasts are the best kept road trip tips we can offer. The afternoon brings a wonderful drive through the flat farmland of Maryland and its countless photogenic clapboard houses. We cross a massive bridge and soon we’re in – yes! – Delaware! The state we’ve been talking about for ages, for some reason.
We find Rehoboth and the BEDazzled B&B (and its sister B&B, Bewitched, next door) look fantastic. The owner is out so we go down to the very chilly beach and pick a pebble each which we can throw into the Pacific when we get there.
Everywhere is shut (season doesn’t start til April) but we spot what we think is a tiny bar, “Fins”, with a couple of guys sitting in the window. We go in and it turns out to be a big, warm, bustling seafood restaurant and bar on two levels.
We have a drink then go back to check in to BEDazzled, which is incredible.
We’ve been upgraded from the Bette Davis suite to the Humphrey Bogart suite.
Back to Fins for a meal then to bed to watch one of their many DVDs – Mildred Pierce, an oldie. Lesson of the day is definitely make sure your guide book is hot on B&Bs. We had the Rough Guide to the USA, which knew its stuff.
Local wisdom of the day: “Advising a fool is like beating the stick with a wind.” Sign outside church, Georgetown, Delaware.
10) Warn your bank you are going away. Preferably shout it. Early drama as we are both unable to withdraw cash from cash machines. Panic. Rachel takes our clothes to the laundromat and tries to square things on the phone with her bank while I drive off to try different ATMs on the big road just out of Rehoboth. With no success. Very worrying.
I drive back to the laundromat and manage to phone Natwest – there’s a fraud note on my account, due to me withdrawing cash from the States. They clear it and five minutes later I’ve got $200 in sweet greenbacks crackling in my hands like a week-old bush fire.
11) Have plenty of audiobooks. Unless you are a book-hating scumbag, in which case just stock up on plenty of thrash metal and scream your way to your destination.
We leave Rehoboth and head due south on an endless 10-mile stretch of strip malls and seaside amusements (speed limit: 35mph arrrghhh). Thankfully, I've brought plenty of comedy and audiobook CDs to pass the time. We take a slight detour to what the Rough Guide says is the charming little island town of Chincoteague. Charming it is but again, it’s dead.
Just before we skedaddle, Rachel spots a very intriguing B&B in the guide and phones ahead to the Henry Clay Inn in Ashland, Virginia. A Georgian mansion with antique-filled rooms and a majestic veranda. Too good to be true for under a hundred bucks...?
We find it and go round to the back, where a key is waiting in a box. We let ourselves in and find our room. Amazing place! And no-one else around, by the sound of it.
12) Be prepared for culture clashes, if your road trip is in a foreign country. At dinner in Ashland, the waiter tells us how he’s always wanted to visit London, but mainly to go to Harrod’s, by the sound of it. But again, as with previous encounters with locals, just as you think you’re about to get stuck into a conversation they vanish after their initial “How you doings...” Bit strange. Some cosmetic friendliness but then no follow-up, not even when you drop in that you’re driving all the way across the USA. No curiosity? They just kind of slink away...
13) Culture clash, no.2. Observation of the day: when waiting staff in America ask if you’d like to see the dessert menu, if you say no they instantly bring you the bill, instead of just leaving you alone until you ask for it. They view it more as a stop to quickly re-fuel, unless it's a more expensive restaurant.
14) Live for today, hope for tomorrow (sign in toilet of coffee shop in Rehoboth Beach).
Me on the verandaaaa of the Henry Clay Inn: "I'd like to give all of you good workers on mah plantation the day off. Go on, go home to your families now!"
15) The healthiest of our road trip tips is to buy nice fresh food for packed lunches when you see a supermarket or any other kind of grocery store. Because interstate travel involves a lot of chains and a lot of cheese/friend food options.
We start the day with a lovely drive via the back roads to Charlottesvile, about 70 miles. We see rolling farmland, we gaze in awe at picturesque hills and we do a wee in a portaloo.
We then drive on through the Allegheny Mountains and the Appalachians.
But we give up on our ambitious plan to reach Charleston and stop at a strip mall in Lewisburg. Oh, en route we did pull off the interstate at Covington for a coffee. Failed to find anywhere that sold coffee, took this beautiful pic and got back on the interstate.
Ah, lovely. Well, not every night can be a boutique B&B, you know.
16) No series on USA road trip tips would be complete without a warning that slip roads appear almost immediately after the first signpost for the junction, so slow down and get ready to turn off!
17) Don't get your Charlestons in a twist. We drive to Charleston on the very bendy I64, which makes driving a bit slower than normal. We now know Charleston to be not the more famous Charleston of South Carolina. Meh.
Anyway, it’s STILL the state capital.
We pop in to see the building then do a two-mile walk in what is now quite a humid day to the historic district and its lovely houses.
Ravenous, we eat at Tides restaurant on a strip mall, where a waitress says: “I could listen to you two all day,” presumably meaning our accents rather than our devastating conversation.
A soporific walk back to the capitol building where we go down to their museum in the basement, a criminally under-advertised attraction packed with really colourful exhibits and props, showing West Virginia’s history, through the civil war to the mining wars to modern events such as the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 members of the Marshall University football team and their entourage, which remains the biggest sports-related tragedy in US history.
The story of the aftermath is told in the 206 film We Are Marshall.
We drive on to Huntington and pass Marshall University itself before stopping at the town’s visitor centre, where we get our warmest welcome yet, from a woman who gives us a map and steers us to a couple of hotels.
Outside the visitors centre.
18) America is excellent at visitors' centres. Even the smallest places often have them. Unless you're on a real whistle-stop visit of the location, stop and say hello because you will learn stuff that will otherwise pass you by.
19) You're not guaranteed to be able to find a cosy diner for breakfast everywhere. We hit the treadmill at the gym early – unlikely but true – before wandering the streets of Huntington forlornly, looking for somewhere to have breakfast. It’s chilly and everywhere is shut so we end up in Starbuck’s and do quite a lot of planning and blogging.
20) You can rack up your "state count" quite easily. Yep, if you're interested in passing through as many states as is comfortably possible, a quick drive round in a circle often does the trick. For example, waking up in Huntington, West Virginia, we cross the Ohio River and drive aimlessly down the first street we come to, just to say we’ve been to Ohio. You could do Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma in one day, if you're in those parts. Just more bragging rights, really.
Okay, this is Ohio.
We drive the 50 miles to Lexington, Kentucky, where Rachel navigates us to the Kentucky Horse Park, which has 30 breeds, a working farm, a museum and guided horse rides. We check out an auction of farm machinery in the car park, where Rachel is the only woman in a queue of identikit men in John Deere baseball caps, beards and desert boots. Quite an amusing sight.
We do the museum and then at four o’clock it’s action time as we take to our mounts for our very gentle, guided horseback tour. My horse is Tank and he always goes right at the back. Rachel, on Comanche, was near the front so we didn’t get to speak.
One of the two outriders (I could explain all this industry lingo but you probably wouldn’t understand) is a young man called Josh who is surely no older than 21. He chews tobacco throughout and hangs back with those of us at the rear and says feel free to ask any questions (guides keep saying this to us; it can make things a bit awkward at times).
I ask him what he does as a job and he says he’s a rodeo rider! It doesn’t take much prompting to set him off and I have my own personal interview with him as he tells how he got a massive whack on the head last year and was dragged around by the horse while unconscious. He hasn’t been back in a rodeo since then, although he is returning to competition next weekend.
Do you lose your confidence when something like that happens, I ask? I wish for the life of me I could remember what his reply was but it had the structure of something like you keep your hands in the reins, your feet in the stirrups and your mind somewhere in the middle.Tweet