It is not very often that I am able to do a road trip for the sake of a road trip. Road trips, for me, are usually a means to an end, a more leisurely and pleasant way to get from point A to point B than the stress of an airport, though all too often even leisure must go out the window for the sake of time. Either way, the small town shops, roadside scenery and other attractions have usually been a fringe benefit and not the reason for the trip itself. So when I received the opportunity to make such a trip with a foreign tourist for whom the American road trip was an object of mythology, romanticized by works like On the Road or Easy Rider, I could not pass it up.
In September, my friend Martin came to visit me from England anxious to try such an adventure out for himself as well. Our only obligation was to get him to Salt Lake City so he could catch a train to Seattle, a city he had been anxious to visit. Salt Lake City was not the reason for our travels though, this trip was about the journey and not the destination. Our aim was to see what we found on the road in between our starting point of Oklahoma City and there, and to see how our differing cultural perspectives illuminated the sights and experiences along the way.
The first discovery? Americans mix sweet and salty. Yes, it was quite a shock to Martin that we are utterly flippant about eating a breakfast of pancakes with bacon and eggs, an unheard of practice in Europe, though, as he confessed, a pleasing concoction. Throughout the entire trip he was surprised again and again by the sheer size of American meals, from the mountain of country food we were served at the My Way Café in Seiling Oklahoma to the generously portioned burgers at The Mason Jar in Colorado Springs, and he was stunned to learn that free refills on coffee is standard practice in America. I couldn’t help but enjoy his shock at this, recalling my own frustration at the way European restaurants make you pay for a new soda or coffee every time you run out.
After the miracle of free refills, he seemed most taken by the politeness of Americans. “Everyone here is so friendly,” he would exclaim again and again. The tourist information center in my namesake of Breckenridge, Colorado booked a room for us at a ski lodge with a great off-season rate when we stopped in to try to find a book on Breckenridge history. Another tourist information center in Grand Junction gave us free fruit. Every waitress who served us along the way was a model of kindness. Total strangers would start conversations with us wherever we went, a cultural taboo in Europe. In hikes through the mountains, everyone we passed on the trails would give us a “good morning.” He said no one in Europe would ever do that, though I could recall a mountain hike I went on in France where every passerby greeted me with a friendly “bonjour,” but I’m sure every American would like to know that we can at least keep pace with the French on politeness. I, jaded on American politeness by eight years in retail, found myself warming up once again to the courtesy of my fellow countrymen.
Martin’s other great revelation may seem an obvious one, but it is a profound one. The American landscape is diverse. It provided no end of amazement to him that in the morning we would find ourselves driving through the plains of Oklahoma and in the evening be among the extinct volcanoes of northeast New Mexico, then the following morning running alongside the front range of the Rockies. He asked me one day on the trip, “Is there any other country on earth that has the geographic diversity of America?” I had to think for a couple of minutes before I answered, “China?” I don’t know if there is another country that contains more types of landscape than America, but as we moved from the mountains of central Colorado to the canyons of the western part of the state, to the deserts of Utah and the geographic splendor of Arches National Park, we didn’t feel the answer mattered all that much. With his enthusiasm I found myself proud of the fact that with nothing more than a car at your disposal you could put so many of these realms into your grasp. He told me as well that Europeans are often critical of America’s car-central culture, but that traveling through the countryside put our love of automobiles into perspective for him.
There was a funny word Martin used to describe himself again and again along the way: Americophile. That is to say, he is a lover of all things American. It was a strange word to hear coming from a foreigner, with our belief that all non-Americans hate us no matter where they come from, but it was a flattering one, and I hope that in our travels I gave new meaning to the word for him.
Adam Breckenridge is a graduate of the MFA in creative writing program at Antioch University in Los Angeles and currently lives in Oklahoma City where he works on classified military documents. He has traveled much of the United States and Europe and plans on taking on the rest of the world. He also writes a film column for http://www.examiner.com/x-3282-Oklahoma-City-Film-Examiner.