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The vast benign lap of America?

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By James Stone

Like all good teenage boys, I spent a fair amount of time dipping into Salinger, Vonnegut and Kerouac, and with a rural childhood, I suppose it was fairly inevitable that the idea of a roadtrip across America would, for a long time, seemed like the chance to experience a world I'd only seen in movies. There'd be brilliantly kitsch diners, tiny little towns with their very own identikit Sinclair Lewis-esque Main Street, and the life-changing opportunity to pretend I was Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty, living a breathless, unpredictable life on the road (but probably with less Benzedrine).

Yet my very own roadtrip, crammed in towards the end of a fairly long period of travelling, would comfortably rank among my worst ever holiday experiences. Maybe it's because I made my trip a good 50 years after the death of the Beat Generation, but it just didn't seem very similar to a Kerouac novel. In fact, all I could think of as I travelled along countless indistinguishable highways was of a quote from Lester Bangs, the greatest rock writer ever.

"Music - true music, not just rock 'n' roll - it chooses you," he proclaimed. "It lives in your car, or alone, listening to your headphones…vast scenic rituals and angelic choirs in your brain. It's a place apart from the vast benign lap of America."

Bangs' typically self-indulgent words very succinctly encapsulate my 65-hour journey from Los Angeles to the entirely unremarkable town of Christiansburg, Virginia, where the much-appreciated presence of my MiniDisc player (this was a while ago…), was the only relief from fast food, insufficient sleep, crying babies, uncomfortable chairs and a country that seemingly all looks the same.

I know that isn't fair - in fact, I've seen enough of different US states to appreciate how fantastically diverse the country's terrain is. I'd just advise you never to try and cross America on a Greyhound bus.

To be fair to the US, I was somewhat forced into this decision, finding my budget dwindling as my trip neared its climax and needing to get from California to Virginia as quickly as possible. Flying would have been an option, but I didn't have the money, and my Virginia relatives would have faced a pretty lengthy journey to collect me from the airport. So the three day trip became the only option.

I suppose it's quite impressive that I was able to travel those thousands of miles in just under three days, for what actually amounted to about £100. But given the choice between forking out a significantly larger amount of cash and having to endure such a wholly unpleasant ordeal again, I'd always choose the first option. In the 65 hours I was on the bus (well, three different ones, after changes in Texas and Tennessee), I had only 11 hours sleep - yes, I counted - ate at least three microwaved burritos, and sat in a bus station in Dallas between 02:00 and 05:30 with only feuding families and scary drunks for company. Not quite Kerouac, is it?

I'd love to be more explicit in revealing what I saw, in relating how different Arizona and Arkansas are - but I can't. America's a beautiful country, there's no doubt about that. But take a train, a plane, an automobile, hell, do a Forrest Gump and run across. But whatever you do, don't take a Greyhound bus.


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