Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The great American road trip

The Dominion Post, Stuff.co.nz

Published June 29, 2011

BACK IN TIME: Tombstone, Arizona, is the site of the OK Corral gunfight and a tourist destination.


BACK IN TIME: Tombstone, Arizona, is the site of the OK Corral gunfight and a tourist destination.

After a year of working in the United States and a month left on our visas, my partner Tim and I decide it's time to leave our jobs in New Orleans and go hunting for the weird and wacky through the US.

Our funds are tight and we have three weeks to cover 5000 kilometres, from California through Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico to Texas and back.

The road trip begins in San Francisco. We pick up the rental car and drive straight to Las Vegas to stay at the cheapest hotel on The Strip: Circus Circus. As soon as I walk through the flashing doors, I am assaulted by the dinging of slot machines, the smell of cigarettes mixed with greasy food and the sight of shabby families.

Las Vegas is the definition of excess and extremes. It's a beacon for people who live the American dream, partying poolside at exclusive resorts, and the down-trodden gambling addicted, who will bet everything to get closer to it. Everywhere there are 50-year-old cocktail waitresses wearing skirts that skim their butt-cheeks, and Hispanic men and women trying to force prostitute cards on to people wandering the streets.

While there are redeeming factors, such as old neon signs in downtown Las Vegas, gimmicky themed casinos like Paris, with an Eiffel Tower replica, dancing water fountains at the Belagio, and a smutty pirate show at Treasure Island, it is depressing and tacky.

I am relieved to move on to New Mexico, in particular the Taos Pueblo Village, a 1000-year-old Native American Village north of Santa Fe, which has tribal sovereignty. Along with lived-in homes, the village also has shops where residents sell their art.

One artist gives me an insight into life there. She says they are all living in poverty and there is corruption and nepotism within the tribe, with members of the same family holding police, court and tribal council positions.

Also in New Mexico is weird mecca Roswell, home to the UFO Roswell Incident of 1947. Mostly, Roswell is just another faceless highway town, but in 1947 it got a point of difference.

There is the International UFO Museum, a few street lights with alien eyes, and shop windows full of alien junk. The museum, probably Roswell's biggest pull, gives a chronological account of what happened in 1947, when locals claimed to have found a UFO and aliens, and the authorities' attempts to dispel and cover up the findings.

Looking at some of the residents, I wonder whether the aliens perhaps bred in the area.

From New Mexico, we drive to Texas, where we stay in Austin.

We visit the Broken Spoke, a charmingly rustic, legendary dance hall built in the 1960s. We walk through the wooden doors and witness old and young couples, dressed in cowboy boots, Stetson hats, blue jeans, checkered shirts and crinoline petticoats dancing with an unexpected slickness, making it seem so effortless.

Tim and I soon find out it's not, and embarrassingly retreat to the outskirts of the floor. The band is made up of Austin's local country heroes, playing a mix of styles, from bluegrass to that earnest, three-women-in-harmony style.

Similarly in the vein of keeping old traditions alive is the town of Tombstone, Arizona, which we visit next, on the way back to California.
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Tombstone is the site of the OK Corral gunfight. It defined the Wild West and has been preserved as a tourist destination, attracting ageing bikies and Louis L'Amour fans. In the main street, which is blocked off from traffic, the buildings are preserved. There are saloon-style bars, and the street still has its wooden, planked boardwalks, complete with benches to sit and watch the day go by.

Tombstone refreshingly lacks the chain hotels we have already spent too much time in and money on, so we stay in an old hotel right by the main street, run by an eccentric Mexican man who decided to move to Tombstone after visiting it with his father when he was young.

His passion for the town is addictive. He talks about the preservation of the boardwalks, the history and retells the OK Corral incident with such detail it's as if he witnessed it himself.

He is not the only one with a passion for Tombstone's history. We come across the Tombstone Historical Society putting on a fashion show and gunfight re-enactment. Old women parade down the street wearing authentic Wild West outfits and there are actors with fake guns and over-drawn accents, who with a cheeky wink to the audience, in particular me, pretend to be drunk, hold up a bank and then shoot each other.

A drive back to California signals the end of the trip, and so the end of my year living in the US.

We spend a few nights staying with a friend on a boat at a marina, which is walking distance to Venice Beach, Los Angeles.

We watch creepy muscle men on the beach, and even though it is still winter, the weather is closer to a Wellington summer, so it's perfect for enjoying beers in the sun.

We drop the car back in San Francisco and set off for our accommodation, the cheapest we can find close to the central city, which turns out to be in the drug area of San Francisco.

I am confronted by drug-addicted, yelling, begging, rambling homeless people. They are the most aggressive and desperate people I have ever seen.

Some are crippled, some have open abrasions on their faces, others spit and others have no shoes, their blackened, crusty feet for all the world to see.

Although this is not the best impression to leave the country with, it is honest, and it shows the vast extremes in this country. I would have never equated San Francisco – home of hippies – with such a shocking sight.

This year and the road trip, in particular, have given me a great insight into the US. I think about all the Americans who have told me how beautiful New Zealand is, and how great its people are. While I don't dispute this, I do believe the same can be said for the US, and often its people.

From the breathtaking scenery through California to the immensity of the Grand Canyon to the history and beauty of the Taos Village or the French quarter of New Orleans, I have met such kind, strange, hopeful and desperate people.

The most memorable ones include a sweaty man who massaged my foot in a garden in New Orleans, an erratic world-famous chef who took me for a ride through New York on his motorbike, and a friend who gave up his tickets to a three-day festival so I could go to it.

A woman I worked with in New Orleans had survived Hurricane Katrina, sheltering in the Convention Centre and witnessing awful things, but she still looks for the best in situations, won't bow down to anyone, and is constantly striving to better her situation.

Which, despite all the unrealistic flaws of the American Dream, is the definition of it.



If it's a big trip, rent a car. Budget is one of the cheapest. Keep the drop-off and pick-up location the same and save hundreds of dollars. Fees vary from state to state.

I found California to be the cheapest: three weeks in an economy car with all the insurances cost US$1200 (NZ$1490).

Research when renting: some companies won't let you take the car to certain states. Use Google Maps to plan your trip and you will know how much petrol you will need.

Get a GPS. It will help you find food and accommodation, and avoid creepy backwoods.


Expect plenty of diners and fast food. If you want to eat out every day on the cheap, allow about $10 a meal.


Americans are hospitable, so if you have contacts, use them.

Otherwise, budget travellers should use expedia.com or priceline.com and book ahead.

You can get clean and comfortable accommodation from chains for an average of US$40 a night, although it varies from state to state.

- The Dominion Post