EUREKA, CA – The United States: it’s on TV, on the radio, its flag is on everyone’s T-shirts. In my mind, it was cowboys, hamburgers, football, the Statue of Liberty and so many other things. But all I had was an image, not reality. Just where does Hollywood’s fantasy end and the reality of living, working and knowing the United States begin?
I grew up in India, Africa and the Middle East, but never knew when I would actually see the United States. All that changed when I fell in love and got married to an American. Suddenly, the United States became my home. After I arrived in San Francisco in late 2006, I knew I had to learn fast—the people, the culture, the mannerisms and everything that made the place “American.”
So I suggested: Let’s travel across the country on a Greyhound bus.
To my wife, a die-hard coastal dweller, the interior of the United States was one great big question mark that held Texas, Chicago and lots of corn. “What does Kansas look like?” she wondered. I figured we should go and find out.
But family, friends, and even the staff at the Greyhound bus company counter rolled their eyes when they heard of our plan. Ask your average American about the Greyhound bus (or, unaffectionately, “The Dog”) and you’ll likely get a sneer, sometimes coupled with a groan.
As a recent immigrant from India, where economical transportation often equals wooden seats and break-neck honking, I had a different reaction. The Greyhound was a cheap, comfortable, convenient and lifechanging way to experience the United States for the first time. With 3,100 destinations in North America, I could go anywhere on the bus.
So, after long discussions at our local ticket office in Eureka, in northern California, we devised an epic trip from New York to Los Angeles. Charles at the ticket counter slogged over his computer, and got us a great deal—$165 for each ticket with almost a month’s worth of stops along the way. The 29-day, over 5,600-kilometer trip cost us around $2,750 including hotel stays, food and entertainment. Beat that, Internet.
The Beginning: New York City
We flew to New York City to start our trip on November 1. It reminded me of Mumbai, the city where I was born. The ever moving mass of people, the hustle and shove at the train stations, and the dream of making it big in The Big Apple.
I consider myself to be a city boy, but initially I was intimidated by New York. The city seemed to be living on 24-hour-a-day pulsating energy. The millions of lights on the countless billboards in Times Square, every man on the street in a stylish suit, every woman in top-of-the-line clothes and calf-length boots. And every New Yorker seemed to have perfected the haute attitude. I walked by a man in a pinstriped suit sitting and drinking coffee outside a café. He was barking on his cell phone, “Don’t call me here; I’m busy.”
Staying at our friends’ house in Brooklyn, one of the five boroughs, or districts, of New York City, I read the book The Mole People by journalist Jennifer Toth. It is about the life of, she says, thousands of people who live underground in the old tunnels of the subway, or metropolitan train system. Though the book has been criticized for its exaggerations and factual errors, it is true that a lot of people live in the tunnels, and I saw small signs of their presence, graffiti and blankets, as I whizzed past in the trains.
Budding musicians, newspaper and food stalls and commuters share the same trains in their daily pursuit of success. Exploring the art and architecture at the stations of the 100- year-old system is fun, too. I spent a substantial amount of my metro card just to see these stations, and would say that 77th Street, 36th Street, Broadway/Nassau Street and
14th Street/Union Square are worth exploring for their tile mosaics and art deco sensibility.
Beyond the glamor and glitter of midtown, each neighborhood of New York has its own identity. Wandering through Chinatown, the largest in the United States, reminded me of Bangkok. The streets narrowed down into alleys, English was no longer the official language, bargaining was acceptable, and the delectable smell of dimsum and Peking duck wafted
through the air.
Jackson Heights — with its incense, multi-color churidars, Bollywood songs and tandoori chicken — resembled Sarojini Nagar in New Delhi. Then there was the Bronx, the birthplace
of hip-hop music and one of the centers, with Harlem, of African American culture in New York. Brooklyn, with its red brick townhouses, is home to the Irish and Hassidic Jews. A trip to New York is like going around the world, and if you’re lucky, you will hear 170 languages.
First night on the Greyhound
My wife had told me that Greyhound bus stations were mostly small, one-room affairs. The buses were supposedly empty and slightly dirty. But the Greyhound station at the Port Authority in New York was bigger than an average mid-town airport, with multiple departure gates. The bus itself was clean, and the well padded reclining seats were a luxury compared to many of the government-run buses in India. So far, so good.
But en route, the first misery unfolded. At every major stop, passengers had to leave the bus (ostensibly for cleaning) and board again even if it was 3 a.m. This is the worst thing about the bus; if you can deal with it, you can enjoy the ride.
I have lived most of my life in capital cities: Dar Es Salaam, New Delhi, Trivandrum. I always thought the sheer amount of power politics made the city and its inhabitants stereotypically guarded. Yet Washington came across to me as a friendly city, more relaxed than New York. People knew that they had the power, but didn’t flaunt it, another contrast to New Delhi.
Maybe the architecture of the city had something to do with the cool attitude. The mostly neo-classical style government buildings, absence of tall skyscrapers, and rows of
colorful townhouses left an impression.
We had reached Washington on Veterans Day (November 11), the day America remembers its soldiers. Hiking up the solemn hills to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington
National Cemetery, just outside the capital, I felt I was reading the history of America etched in stone. As the sun set, we watched the changing of the guard, a starkly simple ceremony that held meaning in every click of the soldiers’ boots.
Washington also has something that I think no city in the world can offer, the famous Smithsonian Museums. A friend had told me that one needs to dedicate three weeks to see all the museums. When my wife had to push me out of the National Museum of Natural History after five hours, I believed. I had seen only one of the 15 museums!
Waiting for the bus at the Washington, D.C. Greyhound station, I got my taste of the true diversity of America. We chatted with a middle-aged white nurse, a Ghanaian from London, and a hunter from Alabama.
Somehow, the conversation turned toward strange foods. The Ghanaian claimed to have eaten cat, a delicacy in his country, and the Alabama man compared its taste to possum and raccoon that his family shot in the forest. The nurse and I had both tried snake, and concluded that it did, in fact, taste just like chicken. My wife looked a bit sick during the entire conversation, but we all had a good laugh and I felt a little more connected to the American mosaic.
St. Louis, Missouri
We were advised by many people to be careful while traveling in St. Louis; the city has one of the highest crime rates in the United States. But I still found St. Louis, stretching along the banks of the impressive Mississippi River, to be one of the most relaxed cities I have been to. Everything seemed to move in slow motion and the streets were never crowded.
The most famous site is the 190-meter tall Gateway Arch. Standing under it, the arch looked as if it was in perpetual motion, and the steel assumed a different personality with every change of weather.
A tour of St. Louis isn’t complete, however, without seeing the beautiful Union Station, tasting beer at Budweiser’s national headquarters and listening to rock and roll legend Chuck Berry at the historic Blueberry Hill club. Berry is one of the men credited with inventing rock and roll in the 1950s, with such hits as “Johnny B. Goode.” Getting to see the 80-year-old Berry sing and dance in his famous one-legged hop in the Duck Room in the basement of the club needs some luck or planning.
We were lucky: Berry happened to be playing the same week we were in town. Though the tickets were a pricey $25, we would not have missed it for the world. And let me tell you, the man left the standing room-only crowd breathless.
Across the plains
I had heard Americans talk about the “flat boring Midwest with nothing to see but corn, more corn and more corn.” To me, however, the land wasn’t flat at all. Soft hills, sliced with thick geological layers, rolled past my bus window, seemingly on a looped tape, altered by the occasional shrub, small tree or dirt track meandering out of sight. By evening, the big sky country turned into an IMAX theater experience of blue and orange.
Though the Greyhound buses that my wife and I chose to travel aboard for our journey across America were generally homey and communal, they also have a deserved reputation for trouble. On the bus from St. Louis, Missouri, a group of young rowdies yelled obscenities and made fun of fellow passengers. One young man in particular was very nasty.
However, justice was swift. At a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Kansas, he was kicked off the bus and left to fend for himself. Why? He drew all over the back of the seat in front of him with a black pen, and someone sitting behind him reported it to the driver. As we drove away, the driver made an announcement, “If anyone else feels artistic, I won’t just kick you off, I’ll call the cops.”
The bus was much more peaceful then, and soon people were swapping stories of other rowdies, other bus trips and how we’d all love a chance to stretch our legs.
The Rocky Mountains
The air in Denver, Colorado is crisp and clean, and so is the city. Perhaps all the cold mountain wind sweeps the streets clean at night, or maybe it’s just civic pride. Exactly at an elevation of one mile above sea level (hence the nickname Mile High City), Denver offers an excellent view of the Rocky Mountains.
Despite the distinction of having America’s biggest city park system, the largest amount of beer brewed and the largest airport, Denver still didn’t impress me as much as the other cities we had visited. However, the pedestrian-only 16th Street Mall, with its eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and movie halls, was deservedly the attraction of the town.
But I will remember Denver for two things. The blink-and-you-miss-it Black American West Museum on California Street, and the vociferous Denver Broncos football team fans. In India, cowboys are more or less restricted to John Wayne movies, and unfortunately I realized that is what most Americans see, too. Going through the halls of grimy leather jackets, cook pots and boots at the tiny cowboy museum gave me a perspective about how much African American culture has given to the country.
It turns out that African Americans invented many rodeo techniques and were just as tough as Billy, the Kid. The fact that so few know about African American cowboys shows
how important it is to remember and honor them.
Apart from the Super Bowl championship on television, I have never seen a live American football game. So I was thrilled when I heard that the Denver Broncos were playing a home game. The demeanor of the city seemed to change on the day of the match. Fans, dressed in Broncos colors of orange, navy blue and white, spilled into the streets, screaming, shouting, and filling up every bar stool in the city.
Unfortunately, my wish to see a live game remains unfulfilled. Tickets were sold out months before. As we left the city, through the windows of the bus I could hear the roar of the crowd as we passed the stadium.
The Grand Canyon
I was not prepared for the 446-kilometer long canyon carved out by the Colorado River, with depths of more than 2 kilometers, giving true meaning to the word “grand.” Standing on the South Rim along with tourists from half a dozen nations, I realized that all of us did only two things. First the jaw dropped in amazement, and then came the clicking camera shutters.
We walked along the southern rim of the canyon, from Mather Point to Hermit’s Trailhead, a distance of nearly five kilometers. At every unexpected lookout point or turn
the canyon exposed its many interesting faces, and with the sun setting, the canyon began displaying its kaleidoscopic colors. Truly, it is something to see before you die.
The two-street town of Williams, Arizona, where we stayed the night, is the nearest gateway to the Grand Canyon. The fabled Route 66 highway passes through and, like other small towns along this highway, it cultivates nostalgia. Here, I had my first taste of true American food, slow cooked and done like it should be. The barbequed chicken, Caesar salad and mashed potatoes were well seasoned, nongreasy and fresh. I wanted to order another plate, but my wife stopped me. Faith in American food (after eating at one too many McDonald’s) was revived.
Leaving Williams and traveling on Highway 93, I noticed a strange yellowish orange glow in the sky. A few kilometers down the road, I saw a distinct white beam pierce the night. I realized the white light was the beam from the top of the Luxor casino, and the million wattage lights of Las Vegas were illuminating the night sky. And we were still 120 kilometers away from what many call Sin City.
The lights of the casinos on the 6.7-kilometer Las Vegas Strip were in all possible colors and contours the human mind could think of. I wondered how the city, built smack in the middle of the Nevada desert, was able to pay such astronomical electric bills. The answer is that Las Vegas never sleeps. Tourists, from hourly wage workers to limo riding glitterati, spend millions of dollars gambling on everything from penny slots to high stakes poker.
For every sinking heart, Vegas somehow manages to keep up the illusion of luck and glamor. When I was brooding over the $5 that I lost in the penny slots, I heard a scream, and then saw a middle-aged woman run around the casino hugging the staff. She had just won a convertible BMW gambling at the slot machines. Instantly, the jingling of the machines across the casino became louder, including mine.
A month after starting our trip from the Atlantic coast, it was fitting that we ended up in the city of the American dream on the Pacific.
We were staying with an old friend, who among other odd jobs is, of course, a struggling actor. In Hollywood, one of the districts of the city of Los Angeles, the line between reality and altered reality is very thin. As our friend put it, everyone is obsessed with looking perfect. You never know, some agent might pick you out on the street and shepherd you into stardom.
I had my share of attention when I took out my camera to shoot the Hollywood sign, on a hilltop overlooking Hollywood Boulevard. Two ladies with perfect bodies, dress and makeup slowed down, arched their necks and pirouetted to face my camera. Sadly, I was just a tourist; they would have to wait another day for their big break.
Our friend suggested we see the real movie business by getting free TV show tickets. Most sitcoms (situation comedies) and all talk shows need live audiences, and tickets are free: All you have to do is make a reservation. If you’re lucky, you may even be paid to sit in an audience, though you may have to sit through three successive tapings in bitter cold. The reason? Producers think that cold audiences are livelier.
Unless you are really lucky, the best way to be seen with a star is by heading toward Hollywood Boulevard. For a dollar I got my photo snapped posing with Spiderman! Performers dressed as famous stars patrol the Boulevard, which has the obligatory Walk of Fame, with stars of the famous and handprints of actors like Marilyn Monroe.
Our biggest splurge on the trip was the Universal Studios theme park, $65 per head. But it was also one place where an adult could be a child without feeling stupid. The park hassome of the best thematic amusement rides, and is home to the original sets of many of Hollywood’s famous movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park and Backdraft.
But when the clamor and fake dinosaurs of the city got to me, I found peace high up in the hills at the world famous Getty Center. Its architecture is a bit odd, but the white marble walls certainly complemented an outstanding array of ancient and modern art. The exhibits rotate regularly, and the view from the avant-garde gardens is worth at least as much time as the art. Best of all, it’s free.
In 30 days, after traveling more than 5,600 kilometers across 12 states, I felt I had made only a scratch in my attempt to know the country. I savored the pulsating life of the cities, and enjoyed the relative isolation and quietness of the great Midwest. I had been blown away by both natural and man-made wonders. As a foodie, I had enjoyed all the vast gastronomical delights the land had to offer. But above all, I learned that one need not spend lots of money to see America. A little bit of research and some friendly banter with the locals lands you in the cheapest and best places. For $2,750, I thought our trip was a life achievement.
By Sebastian John
Published in SPAN, 2007.