Sunday, 17 June 2012

What I learned driving around the USA

We had a fun time on our month long road trip. It seemed like some sort of trip summary was in order.

The Best of the Best Stops:

  1. Custer State Park and the Black Hills. Aside from the excessive patriotism of Mt. Rushmore and the silliness of Crazyhorse, the area is fantastic, and we did not spend enough time there. Great campgrounds, beautiful countryside, great wildlife, fantastic hiking, beautiful vistas, great drives -- it had it all.
  2. Devil's Tower. We REALLY didn't spend enough time here. What a cool spot.
  3. The swamp in South Carolina. Beautiful, quiet, really interesting, neat wildlife, great birds. Absolutely worth the trip. More interesting because our visit wasn't planned; we just stumbled upon the place.
  4. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museums. You don't have to be an airplane buff (though it helps). If it's important in aviation history, they have it.
  5. The Washington and Lincoln Memorials, Arlington Cemetery and the White House. Everything you think they would be and beautiful to boot.
  6. Memphis. Cool city. Beautiful architecture. A little over the top party-wise, but fun anyway. Too much Elvis by several orders of magnitude, but the Gibson factory beckons.
  7. Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive. Spectacular drive, though with "overlook overload". Great hiking opportunities we didn't capitalize on.
  8. Kitty Hawk. An exceptional place to stand on real historic ground.
Never Again Stops:
  1. Kansas City. What a blah town. Terrible aquarium (and it's new, too). Poor farmer's market.
  2. The Blue Ridge Parkway. Skyline Drive is much better. The Blue Ridge has too many annoying motorcycles and puttering North Carolinans, though the southern most 30 miles was nice.
  3. Charleston. The biggest disappointment of the trip. Everything said it was fantastic and we didn't like it at all.
  4. Cape Hattaras. Miles and miles of not much. Windy. Isolated, but still touristy. Bugs. Blowing sand. Crappy camping.
  5. Driving across Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee. Really uninteresting driving. Several are just hours of driving in a slot through trees. Others are uninteresting farm drives. And note, the drives across South and North Dakota (though long) were at least interesting flatness.
  6. The Badlands of South Dakota. Ours are just so much better.
  7. Several of the Smithsonians, including the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum and the Sculpture Garden. Meh.
  8. The fact that the Air and Space Museums are exclusively catered by McDonalds. Horrid.
  9. Myrtle Beach & Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge. REALLY glad all we did was drive through, but if there was a way to avoid doing that next time, we would.
  10. Colonial Williamsburg. A theme park disguised as a town. I'd also list Jamestown but there's nothing there to see anyway -- how can you say "don't go" somewhere that isn't there?
Kinda In-between Stops:
  1. The Great Smokies. Overrated. Some nice scenery but overcrowded and overused. Horrible surrounding towns (Gatlinburg was particularly bad).
  2. The Ozarks. It seemed nice, but one or two place we passed though were really unappealing (Osage Beach jumps to mind). Still, I was sick here, so I can't be too judgemental.
  3. Yorktown. Cool battlefield, but still a little over the top "US rules" while ignoring the fact that the French did the heavy lifting.
  4. Little Big Horn. Key learning: General Custer was an idiot. Begs the question why the Americans revere him so much.
Observations on US Park Campgrounds, both National and State:
  1. They are not set up well for tenters, though a surprising number of people still tent. They're set up pretty well for RV's, however.
  2. There's no grey water disposal.
  3. Everyone lights fires, choking you out with smoke every night.
  4. The reservation system tends to be very effective.
  5. There is a high variability in facilities, especially showers. Some we had were great. Others were run down, broken or filthy. Campers tend not to take care of bathrooms, and as such, the counters are wet and a mess, toilets are occasionally unflushed and showers a wet pigsty sometimes.
  6. Most parks have CampHosts (folks camping in the park for the entire summer, helping guests). Some were great. Many were surly.
  7. In our electronic age, there's nowhere to recharge or power your electronics (like, say, camera batteries) except in your car or possibly in the campground bathroom (if you're lucky). I ran into a kid sitting on a bathroom counter playing with his Nintendo while it was plugged in. Said he had been there for an hour. The way it smelled in there, I pity him.
  8. World class bad toilet paper.
Best Eats:
  1. Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City. Without question. We were in and out in 40 min, but THAT'S what BBQ is all about.
  2. 17th St. BBQ in southern Illinois. Awesome food.
  3. Galleria de Paco, Waterloo, Iowa. Fantastic to find great food by accident.
Observation on Driving:
  1. Worst drivers: Minneapolis/St. Paul. They ignore speed limits and blast around at 75 mph in 55 zones, tailgate, don't signal, make triple lane changes. The road system sucked there, too, making it all the worse.
  2. Second worse drivers: North Carolinians. They ignore speed limits, but the opposite way, traveling 30 mph in 45 zones and 40 in 65 zones. They don't signal, don't pull over, don't let cars & trucks doing the speed limit pull out first. When the light goes green, their 0 to 60 time is measured in weeks.
  3. US speed limits are far higher than I expected. Two lane roads in the Ozark Mountains that are never straight for more than 50' and have lots of blind corners and hills have a 65 mph speed limit. Most interstates between cities are 75 mph.
  4. Americans don't speed in the countryside. On the interstate between towns, everyone is within 5 mph of the speed limit. However, they do speed in the cities. The second you get close to a city, speed limits tend to drop (from 75 to 70 to 65 to 60 to even 55) but no one slows down.
  5. Canadians, on the other hand, speed in both spots. They start hurtling the second you cross the border into Saskatchewan, and all the way though Alberta from the US border to the BC border to the Saskatchewan border.
  6. The American interstate system is in much better shape that I thought it would be. Americans always talk about their "crumbling infrastructure" but I didn't see much of it. Its worst in cities but not bad really anywhere.
  7. Americans signpost road construction far in advance. We saw signs that started with "Road Under Construction 42 miles ahead" and they counted down with new signs every 5 miles. The construction was inconsequential.
  8. By contrast, Canadians don't warn about construction at all. Suddenly the left lane will be closed by barriers without any warning at all.
Other Random Observations:
  1. There are more churches than people in South Carolina. There's a reason it's called the bible belt.
  2. Rain from hurricanes and tropical storms is unlike other kinds of rain, even from thunderstorms. Imagine someone standing above you throwing buckets of water on you.
  3. I'm not a huge fan of The Weather Network in Canada, but The Weather Channel in the US is worse. At least the Canadians give you the weather. Tune into TWC late at night and they're playing TV shows like "Ice Road Trucker". They spend all their time talking to their very own StormChasers for hours on end without breaking for local weather. When they do give the local weather, it's only the weather for the 30 miles surrounding the station you're watching. Heaven help you if you drive more than 30 miles, because they're not going to tell you the weather.
  4. The National Weather Service's website is not friendly, and neither is WeatherUnderground. Environment Canada makes it easy to get forecasts. To get one in the US, you need a zip code. The icons are silly and meaningless. Their technical displays of radar and satellite are confusing and not helpful.
  5. If you want to drive in the USA, get a GPS, but get a good map too, because our GPS was wrong at least a few times a day. "Wrong" as in being on a road that wasn't mapped, being told to go one way when the road signs clearly showed to go another, being told it would take 4 hrs to get somewhere when it only took 2, etc.
We like road trips. Will we do them again? Sure. But we will do fewer cities and more wilderness, pay more attention to reviews of campgrounds and their facilities, source power for our electronics better and probably spend longer in each place we visit.

And we'll try to avoid hailstorms, unless I need a new car. 

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