For five centuries, travelers have brought their hopes and dreams to America. For the earliest pioneers, it was a virgin wilderness ready to be shaped into a "New World," a potential paradise wasted on its native peoples. Millions of immigrants followed, to share in the building of the new nation and to better their lives, far from the hidebound societies of Europe and Asia. Eventually, slaves, who had been shipped over from Africa and the Caribbean, joined them as free citizens. As the United States expanded to fill the continent, something genuinely new was created: a vast country that took pride in defining itself in the eyes of the world.
Every traveler in the United States has some idea of what to expect. American culture has become so thoroughly shared throughout the globe that one of the principal joys of getting to know the country is not so much the difference of the place as the repeated delicious shock of the familiar. Yellow taxis on busy city streets; roadside mailboxes straight out of Peanuts cartoons; wooden porches overlooking the cottonfields; tumbleweed skittering across the desert; endless highways dotted with pick-up trucks and chrome-plated diners; the first sight of the Grand Canyon, or the Manhattan skyline.
In this book, we've picked out the highlights for travelers across the entire USA, from Maine to Hawaii, and Alaska to Florida. We've divided the country region by region and state by state, and covered every area of every state. As well as the big cities and national parks, we've explored the highways and byways, singling out detours worth making, and places to avoid. On every area written about, we've done more than simply provide up-to-date practicalities for visitors: we've delved into the history and provided background on the people who have made America what it is. Our hope is to inform and entertain travelers, and to point in unexpected directions as well as to the obvious landmarks, no matter whether you've lived here all your life or are seeing it all for the first time.
Traveling in the United States is extremely easy; in a country where everyone seems to be forever on the move, there's rarely any problem finding a room for the night, and you can almost invariably depend on being able to eat well and inexpensively. The development of transportation has played a major role in the growth of the nation; the railroad opened the way for transcontinental migrations, while most of the great cities have been shaped by the automobile. Your experience of the country will be very much flavored by how you choose to get around. By far the best way to explore the country is to drive your own vehicle: it takes a long time before the sheer pleasure of cruising down the interstate, with the radio blaring rock or country music and the signs to Chicago or Nashville flashing past, begins to pall. Car rental is an absolute bargain, every main road is lined with budget motels charging around $30 per night for a good room, and the price of gasoline remains relatively low.
We have also detailed public transportation options throughout; with the aid of the excellent-value nationwide rail, bus and air passes, you can get to wherever you choose, foreign visitors in particular. However, if you do travel this way, there's a real temptation to see America as a succession of big cities. True enough, New York and Los Angeles have an exhilarating dynamism and excitement, and among their worthy rivals are New Orleans, the flamboyant home of jazz, Chicago, at the cutting edge of modern architecture, and San Francisco, on its beautiful Pacific bay. Few other cities - with the possible, and idiosyncratic, exception of neon-laden Las Vegas - can quite match this level of interest, however, and following a heavily urban itinerary will cut you off from the astonishing landscapes that make the USA truly distinctive. Especially in the vast open spaces of the West, the scenery is often breathtaking. The glacial splendor of Yosemite, the thermal wonderland of Yellowstone, the awesome red-rock canyons of Arizona and Utah, and the spectacular Rocky Mountains are among many of the treasures preserved and protected in the splendid national park system. Once you reach such wilderness, the potential for hiking and camping is magnificent - but it's usually essential to have a car to get near these spots.
Above all, travelers can enjoy the sheer thrill of experiencing American popular culture in the places where it began. Place names from rock 'n' roll songs spring into life; panoramas straight out of Hollywood movies spread across the horizon; road trips taken by your favorite literary characters can be re-created. For music fans, the chance to hear country music in Nashville or rhythm and blues in New Orleans, or to visit Elvis's shrine in Memphis, verges on a religious experience; readers brought up on the books of Mark Twain can ride a paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi; moviegoers can live out their Western fantasies in the Utah desert.
The United States is all too often dismissed, even by its own inhabitants, as a land almost devoid of history. Though mainstream America tends to trace its roots back to the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England, the rest of the continent has a longer history, stretching back way beyond the French culture of Louisiana and the Spanish presence in California to the majestic cliff palaces built by the Anasazi in the Southwest a thousand years ago. There are also any number of fascinating strands to America's post-revolutionary history: relics of the Gold Rush in California, of the Civil Rights years in the South, or of the Civil War anywhere east of the Mississippi.
Though we've had to structure this book regionally, the most invigorating expeditions are those that take in more than one area. You do not, however, have to cross the entire continent from shore to shore in order to appreciate its amazing diversity, or to be impressed by the way in which such an extraordinary range of topography and people has been melded into one nation. It would take a long time to see the whole place, and the more time you spend on the road simply getting from place to place - no matter how enjoyable in itself that can be - the less time you'll have to savor the small-town pleasures and backroads oddities that may well provide your strongest memories. It doesn't take long to realize that there is no such thing as a typical American person, any more than there is a typical American landscape, but there can be few places where strangers can feel so confident of a warm reception.