In God they trust – it says so on the dollar bill…

The United States is a country that challenges the world traveller to adjust to its scale. Little slumdog children in India are told tales that its streets are paved in gold. Cartoon books the world over mock the culture’s lack of refinement. Newspapers around the world speculate on the effects of the American administration. Incredible landscapes, hidden throughout the vast continental mass, counterpoise the endless parade of WalMarts and McDonalds. While every preconception one has about the “U S of A” is valid, the challenge to the traveller is to accept this country for its gems. And here the gems are the brightest and largest, as Americans will tell you, ‘We’re number one!’

America, doubtlessly, is the First World and yet a visit to Katrina-devastated New Orleans or to the jaggedly backwards Appalachia makes one wonder whether the term First World even has any meaning. In this land of the free you had better not drink until you reach 21 years of age. The richest nation in the world does not provide its citizens proper affordable health care, and it has the highest proportion of lawyers and jailed criminals per capita.

All things are the best in America, but money does all the talking. The poor backpacker, scrounging to try and see this country on the cheap, is likely to be treated like something the dog left on the pavement. But for those with pluck, a thick skin, or a little money saved, the United States opens her doors.

For such a large country, America has an appalling sameness and a very monotonous culture from east to west thanks mostly to national television. And yet there are quite a few States that are like separate countries themselves – such as California, Texas and New England among many. The east coast, boasting a sprawling mega-metropolis from Boston to Washington, carries a sense of urgency in the atmosphere and there is no doubt something always going on in the city.

The South with its Bible belt states like Alabama and Mississippi slow down the pace a lot and race hangs heavy in the air. Along the Pacific a new braver breed of a people, with no history to speak of, cling to their mountain bikes or Louis Vuiton handbags depending on their personal market-influenced consumer choice.

Somewhere buried in all of this, perhaps invisible to the naked eye, is the heartbeat of a fresh continent that existed here even before the Natives came tens of thousands of years ago. This is the land of Walt Whitman’s plaintive singing, the land where technological marvels continually spring up in unlikely places and the country of highways carry such solitude that Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac canonized them.

The struggle for equality continues in the United States, too, and for every Bush and Nixon you have a John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to impart some hope. Echoes of the spirit of the ’60s can be heard, a time in history as powerful as any.

When I listened to Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech I thought that there is hope.  If he can impress a white, dyed-in-the-wool, English Tory like me I thought that he must have something.  But like virtually every politician it turned out that it was mostly smoke and mirrors.  He, like an old girlfriend, promised much and performed little.  I read somewhere, probably in a Republican newspaper that Barack Obama is close to having played more rounds of golf since 2009 than Tiger Woods.  Unlike me, who has an opinion about everything, I am not going to put my nose into American politics.  They appear to be a mystery even to most Americans and to this Brit they will stay that way.

While I make that statement I am equally certain that British and European politics and even world politics are an equal mystery to Barack Obama.  In fact during his first term of office he took such little interest in world affairs we were even wondering whether, like very many Americans he even possessed a passport.  This being the case no-one in this country can begin to imagine why he is getting involved in our referendum.  In actual fact if he imagines that he is doing ‘Bro Cameron’ a favour let me tell him that his intervention in a matter that does not concern him will probably be the straw that broke the camel’s back, for the ‘Remain in Team’.  End of political rant!

Yes the United States has much to offer for the traveller to see and attempt to understand. The vistas of the Grand Canyon are as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s smile, the city of Las Vegas that rose out of the desert is so artificial and enveloping, Los Angeles destroys pedestrians, the Great Plains are as flat as a pancake literally. The list could go on indefinitely. Hated for its imperialism and ignorance, America is still a great country and worth a traveller’s time.

You will hear stories of rude U.S. Customs and Immigration officials and long queues as you attempt to get into the country; then when they eventually get in it seems as though everyone there with a menial job is an illegal immigrant.  I am always puzzled as to how they got in but honestly things haven’t changed simply because of 9/11.

In the mid-1950s I was a deck apprentice on a cargo boat when we sailed into San Pedro, California.  I was a well brought up English lad whose politics have not changed lot over the years and would put me slightly to the right of Attila the Hun.

I was just 16 years old and I was subjected to the most bullying type of grilling imaginable by an immigration official before being allowed to go ashore.  Incidentally the ship had already called at Tampa, Florida and Houston, Texas where I had gone ashore without any problems, and my documents were stamped as such.  I was asked no less than 5 times whether I was or had ever been a member of the Australian Labour Party even though he had all of my documentation in front of him and could see that at that time I had never visited Australia.

I was a very frightened boy by the time that this cross-examination had ended and he had signed my papers to allow me to visit the land of the free.  I have told this tale many times since, you see the name of this officious, sorry I mean official, and U.S. Immigration Officer was one Herman Hoestetter.  Sixty years on, that ‘Pig’s Orphan’s name is still burned in my memory.  (A pigs orphan is a naval term that describes the bully to a T)

Obviously that proud, All-American boy thought that he was employed by the Witch-finder General, Senator Joe McCarthy.  As I matured I realised that America wasn’t at all like that self important, overbearing jobsworth and I have spent lots of time there as a visitor and love the place.  I’ve crossed from East to West and North to South by car, coach, plane and train over many, many years.  I still find the place and the people fascinating. 

I query what the driving force behind Obama’s decision to use a visit to the U.K. this Spring to urge the British public to vote to remain inside the EU at the upcoming referendum.  Does he not know that the E.U is unraveling?  What are his advisors thinking of?  Oh well it can only help Brexit on Independence Day. 

What did the Moody Blues tell us? Nothing changes and nothing stays the same and life is still a simple game. 

About Jake

Long retired travel writer, author and freelance journalist. Educated at Wolverton Grammar and Greenwich Naval College. Happily married since 1958, with a married son and daughter, a married granddaughter and an adult grandson. Hobbies rock-climbing, dinghy racing and ocean racing. Still regularly working out in the gym.

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