Our World Memphis to LA: an epic US road trip

Near Marfa, west Texas. Picture: Gemma Nisbet
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

Thirty days, eight States and more than 7500km: encountering the weird and the wonderful – and some of the people and places behind the polls – on a journey through the heart of America. 

Two strangers — a man and a woman — stand in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. She is older, African American. He is younger, white, Australian.

The museum incorporates the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, and they’re watching a recording of King’s I Have a Dream speech.

“This is really something,” the woman says.

“It really is,” the man agrees.

And it is: watching King speak to a crowd of more than 200,000 in one of the great moments of America’s civil rights movement; hearing his words across the decades in a turbulent present when their relevance is renewed.

Moved, the woman makes a suggestion: “Let’s hold hands”.

So, for a moment, they do.

Welcome to America

Two days earlier, I’m with the man in this scenario, my boyfriend Davey, late at night at the car-hire desk at Memphis airport. It’s late, maybe an hour before the terminal closes for the night. The woman behind the counter has long, glittery fingernails that clatter on the keyboard as she types.

“How many days you have the car for,” she asks.

“Until November 4,” I say.

“Thirty days!” She’s so excited it’s as if she’s going on the holiday. “That’s a real vacation.”

We run through the details: insurance, adding an extra driver, refuelling before we drop the car off in LA.

“Y’all have the trip of a lifetime,” she tells us, waving us off. “Buckle up and drive safe!”

Getting on the Road

Musical history looms large in Memphis, and Elvis most of all. We don’t visit Graceland — we’ve been before — but we tour Sun Studio, where Presley did his early recordings, and have lunch at the diner-style Arcade Restaurant, where he was once a regular. Then there’s the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which tells the story of the legendary record label that launched the careers of everyone from Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes. Afterwards, we drive around the hot, sleepy streets near the museum, trying and failing to find Aretha Franklin’s childhood home.

Then we head south, detouring along the legendary Old Highway 61 through Delta Blues country. It’s dead flat and dusty, the road lined by fields of cotton, stray wisps of which dust the bitumen like snow. At the Gateway to the Blues visitor centre near Tunica, music blares from speakers in the carpark, competing with the chirping of cicadas.

We spend the night in Clarksdale, the self-proclaimed birthplace and world capital of the blues, driving out for a drink at the historic Hopson Plantation Commissary, now a bar and music venue, before watching the sun set at the site of Muddy Waters’ cabin, the remains of which we’d seen earlier in the day in the Delta Blues Museum in town. Dinner is tamales at Ground Zero, the blues club part owned by Morgan Freeman, and drinks are at Red’s, a juke joint where sitcoms play on a TV in the corner while the band performs. Life in the Delta is clearly hard — this area is regarded as the poorest corner of the poorest State in a country where income inequality has been increasing for decades — but we receive a genuinely warm welcome everywhere we go.

We head south into Louisiana, driving on the highway across the swamps to New Orleans. Here, there’s jazz and seafood, the pleasant shock of getting swept up by a second line parade — like being caught in a sudden downpour of brass bands and dancing. We hear stories of voodoo and local history on a tour of one of the old cemeteries and spot a baby gator while kayaking on the bayou. On warm evenings, we walk the leafy streets of the Garden Quarter, past stately historic homes lit up for Halloween. Already it feels like a different country. 

It’s an odd and interesting time to be visiting the US: at the tail end of the most divisive presidential campaign in living memory. Every time we switch on the TV or check the news on our phones, there’s some fresh scandal or talking point. The election seems to be everywhere: on the front page of newspapers at petrol stations, in a slogan scrawled on a wall, in the signs on people’s front lawns advertising their preferred candidate not just for president but for Congress, mayor, county sheriff or school board representative. 

Still, mostly we find that people don’t talk to us about politics, and we don’t ask. It seems too contentious, and I get the impression people are tired of it. By the end of four weeks — when we fly out of LAX, Hillary Clinton still the firm favourite to win — we’ll be able to relate. But back home, as the world continues to process the shock of President-Elect Trump, I’ll think about some of the people we’ve met along the way and what it might mean for them. 

From New Orleans, we join the Interstate 10. The US is full of storied roads celebrated in literature and music but the 10 isn’t one of them. Distinguished mostly by its size — it’s the fourth-longest Interstate in the country — it’s busy with semi- trailers, lined with billboards for personal injury lawyers, casinos, motels and fast-food restaurants. One, for a sex shop called Love Shack, pledges to “make love great again”. 

The 10 is unremarkable but we develop a fondness for it born in part of extended exposure. It takes us across into Texas, most of the way to Austin, where the potent combination of excellent food, live music, the outdoorsy lifestyle and a memorable evening at a college football game are almost enough to convince us to stop driving and stay indefinitely. Still, we push on, rejoining the 10 briefly before detouring off for a few days in remote west Texas at Marfa, a little town originally founded as a railway water stop that’s now, surprisingly, best known as a hub for contemporary art. 

By now we’re getting into the rhythm of the road trip. On long driving days, we set off early, taking turns behind the wheel, listening to country music on satellite radio. The names of the songs are sometimes so over the top we laugh out loud — Take This Job and Shove It, by Johnny Paycheck, is on high rotation — but they seem right for the landscape, the place.

I once heard someone describe how, in Los Angeles, getting in the car is akin to putting on shoes — essential to leave the house — and that applies to much of this infamously car-dependent country. As much as the convenience, though, we enjoy being able to pursue things that catch our eyes, whether it’s the world’s biggest service station (120 fuelling positions, 83 toilets, 31 cash registers) near New Braunfels, Texas, or a crumbling homespun Flintstones theme park near Williams, Arizona. 

The 10 takes us across Texas to El Paso, where the houses and other buildings of the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez are visible across the Rio Grande. The two cities provide a vivid illustration of the difference a national border — even one as-yet unencumbered by a wall — can make. El Paso is regarded as one of the United States’ safest cities, while Juarez was, for many years, known as the murder capital of the world, although things have apparently improved a lot in recent years.

After lunch, we drive all the way across southern New Mexico in a single afternoon, past places selling fireworks (“Mom & Pop’s Pyro Shop”) and signs warning of dust storms (“zero visibility possible”) and telling us that we shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers (“prison facilities in this area”).

Over the State line in Arizona, we dip south into the mountains for a few nights in Bisbee, an artsy former silver-mining town where clusters of charming old houses spill across the steep hills like scattered stones. We meet the 10 once again near Tuscon, where we spend a happy couple of hours among the tall saguaro cacti — the quintessential symbol of the American West — at Saguaro National Park. But the Interstate is headed west, towards Los Angeles, and we’re not quite ready for the coast yet. 

Just as familiarity has bred an odd kind of attachment to the 10, so our affections have grown for our car, a blue sedan that struggles up some of the steeper hills but never lets us down. We’d initially made fun of some of the more novel aspects of car-centric American life — the drive-through ATMs, the burger stands where “dine-in” means eating in your vehicle — until we find ourselves warming to them, even rejecting a Starbucks that doesn’t have a drive-through window.  “I didn’t come to America to use my legs,” Davey jokes.

We’re about to use our legs a lot, though, as we come to the red rocks of Sedona, where we spend a morning hiking through another landscape that’s quite unlike any we’ve seen before it. At our next stop, the Grand Canyon, we rise early for a challenging hike below the south rim, the canyon’s scale even more awesome as we follow the trail down. 

National parks such as this are a highlight, with good facilities and hiking and driving trails presided over by helpful volunteers and rangers. The remarkable diversity of their landscapes is suggestive of one of the reasons why, perhaps, such a large proportion of Americans don’t own a passport (the figure is hard to pin down but I read estimates ranging up to more than 60 per cent). You could travel for a lifetime within these parks and not see everything they have to offer. Dipping into them becomes one of the great pleasures of our trip.

It’s not until the Grand Canyon that we begin to notice other Australian travellers. The locals — friendly and affable almost without exception — often express surprise and pleasure that we’ve come so far to see their home. There’s the travelling businessman who invites us to share his table at a bar in New Orleans. “It amazes me how someone from Australia could get to a little bitty hole in the wall like this,” he breathes in wonder. Or the cosmetics saleswoman who stops me in an up-market mall in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I knew you weren’t from around here,” she tells me, scooping samples into my bag.

We stop in a few of the old Route 66 towns and at the Hoover Dam before meeting friends in Las Vegas. The city’s a shock to the system after a stint spent largely in small towns and the wilderness — although driving down the Strip, past replicas of some of the most recognisable landmarks from some of the world’s greatest cities, from the Great Sphinx of Giza to the Eiffel Tower to the Statue of Liberty, would be a lot to take in at the best of times.

After this comes the eighth State of our trip as we cruise through California’s Mojave Desert to Joshua Tree, with its scattered stacks of boulders and alien-looking eponymous trees. 

Then it’s to Palm Springs — a blooming of modernist architecture and retro glamour in the desert. We pick up the Interstate 10 once again on the final stretch west, stopping off for one last Starbucks (not a drive-through, but we make do) and one last diverting oddity, the Cabazon dinosaurs, a larger-than-life T Rex and brontosaurus built in the 1960s to attract diners to a now- defunct roadside restaurant. 

We still have a few days left in LA, but as we meet the snarl of the city’s notoriously awful traffic in the golden glow of the late afternoon, it feels like an ending. Thirty days and more than 7500km. It’s really been something. 

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