Some Things we learned on our little American Roadtrip of 2012

When travelling to a foreign country – even one as familiar from the movies and the television as the United States of America no doubt is – it is helpful to remember that one is not at home. Some things work a little differently across the pond.

On The Road in the US! We are driving along my very first Interstate!

In case you are willing to brave the hazards of international air travel and to throw yourself at the mercy of the rigorous travel rules and regulations of the US immigration authorities, I thought I would share with you some of the things we learned while travelling through the US.

This has turned into rather a long post, so make yourself a cup of tea, and settle down for a leisurely read when you have time.

Driving on the wrong, er… right side

One of the first things I learned was to climb into the car from the other side. In South Africa, the driver always sits on the right, but we drive on the left hand side of the road. In America, it’s the other way around. I would have thought that growing up with American movies and television series would have accustomed me to this, but I found it most confusing. The first couple of times, I almost got into the driver’s seat by mistake.

We picked up our Chevrolet from National Car Hire at Louisville Airport - this wonderful car transported us safely all the way to New York City without giving any trouble

If you habitually drive on the left hand side of the road, it is a good idea to hire a car with an automatic transmission, rather than a manual or stick shift, when you visit the US.

It is much easier to navigate in traffic and to deal with traffic lights, traffic circles, intersections, multi-lane highways, and assorted road users – trucks, cars, cyclists, pedestrians, horse-drawn carts etc… – if you don’t have to remember to change gears and engage the hand-brake with the wrong hand!

Ironically, during our first week back in Cape Town, I have had a couple of disconcerting brain-freeze moments on turning into a two-lane road, when I suddenly could not recall on which side I was supposed to be driving! And that’s despite living here all my life!

Traffic lights and turning right on red

I learned that traffic lights are not (usually) mounted ontop of vertical poles at the side and in the middle of the road, as they are in South Africa: instead, they are suspended from horizontal poles or hang from wires strung across the road! This looked sooo strange to me! And glancing upwards to see whether the light was red or green also took some getting used to.

I find it so strange that traffic lights are strung high across the road, where they can swing back and forth in the wind - don't they ever fall off? Oh - and we were surprised to see that the Aldi chain, which we know from Germany, also exists in the USA!

I learned that you are allowed to turn right on red (thank you, Bobz, for explaining that), and in fact, the vehicles behind you will probably be reminding you to get a move on. But you may only do so if there is no sign explicitly prohibiting it, and IF there is a gap in the traffic. I mean a proper gap – not one that you inadvertently create, amidst much squealing of brakes, parping of hooters and waving of fingers. Blush. Sorry!

In case any of you Americans are intending to visit South Africa, you should know that this rule does not apply here: You are not allowed to turn left on red. Well, not unless you’re driving a mini-bus taxi, in which case you kind-of-can-but-really-shouldn’t.

Right-hand traffic does add an unexpected level of complexity to simple daily routines, such as crossing the road (careful!), and going around traffic circles – it felt so weird going around these the other way (anti-clockwise, instead of clockwise, like here).

Get a Garmin!

If I could give you one piece of advice when planning to drive in the US (or anywhere else foreign, for that matter): Get a Garmin navigator! (If you don’t have one, you can ask the car rental agency to include one in the price. It is well worth it!) Its ability to recalculate our route on-the-fly, whenever we had missed the correct off-ramp on the highway, or whenever we were confounded by yet another set of roadworks, rescued us from innumerable stressful and possibly dangerous situations.

Usually there are LOTS of signs to help you ... or to add to the confusion

If you have ever had to rely on your spouse/traveling companion/dearest friend navigating with a folding map or a mapbook, you will know how likely it is that

(a) your destination will not actually be on that particular map, but just off the edge of it, or on another page altogether,

(b) because of the way the map is folded, you will not be able to decipher the name of the road you’re supposed to take,

(c) someone will be holding the map upside-down or wrong-edge-up, trying desperately to read sideways while crying out in despair, “Oh dash it all! Honey, I think that was our exit back there!”

It does not make for blissful married life! Or for long-lasting friendships!

So, take along a Garmin navigator and save yourself hours of raised blood pressure, wild panic, downright despair – and (ssshhh! illegal) u-turns.

Umm... we seem to be lost in space...

Sometimes, though, even the clever Garmin may lose his bearings entirely. Like here:

We were happily driving along Interstate 65, I believe, when we suddenly found ourselves beamed into a parallel universe. According to our Garmin, we were… nowhere, really… “Driving Southwest at 117 km/h” was all it managed to confirm. As you can clearly see, however, we were driving on a pretty well-established two-lane Interstate that should have been stored in its capacious memory.

Er, Garmin? Can you see the road?

Luckily, we were feeling confident of reaching our destination (Bowling Green, Kentucky, I think it was) even without our Garmin. The roads throughout our trip were usually well-signposted, which was quite reassuring. The incessant roadworks, though, posed a considerable challenge.

I vividly recall our arrival in Washington DC one dark evening, at a time when what seemed to be the entire working population of DC was also rushing out into the northern suburbs (which is where we had reserved our accommodation), and completely losing all sense of orientation because of the stretches of roadworks and blocked roads and offramps…

Our anxiety was further heightened because everyone else was driving above the indicated speed limit, and we frequently had to change lanes at the last moment – not a good thing in heavy and fast-moving traffic at the best of times – to obey the Garmin’s increasingly desperate and confusing directions, “Keep left, bear right, keep right, turn left, bear right, recalculating!!! …. OK, let’s try again: Keep left, keep right, bear right, bear left, recalculating!!!” WTF? What did we miss?!

Miles and miles of roads

I learned that Americans calculate distances in miles, not kilometres (1 mile is 1.6 kilometres). This also means that a speed limit of 30 mph is considerably faster than 30 kilometres an hour, namely closer to 50 kph – so you’ll need to watch your speedometer. The fastest speed limit allowed on the interstates was 75 kph, which works out to 120 kph – the same as it is here.

The State of Virginia takes speed limit enforcement very seriously indeed - I wonder whether they use those little Cessna airplanes along the highway, or helicopters, or even fighter jets?!

However, despite the fact that Americans are in general law-abiding folk, it seems that speed limits are regarded more as a polite suggestion than as a finger-wagging injunction (incidentally, this isn’t much different in South Africa).

Except in the State of Virginia, where speed limits are enforced by aircraft.

Yes! It’s true! Look, I even photographed the sign!

I’m not sure how exactly they enforce the speed limit in practice, but that’s probably because we didn’t dare to exceed it. Would you want a supersonic fighter plane roaring out of the sky above you, with a loud booming voice ordering you to pull over immediately or risk being blown up? No? Well then, there you go.

Self-service filling stations

When you do drive for miles and miles, at some stage, you will need to fill up your car with petrol – or rather gas/gasoline, as it is called in America.

In South Africa, we have petrol pump attendants, who not only fill up your car with fuel, but also check the oil and water levels, and the pressure of your tyres, and who may even wash your windows for you. We just hand over our credit cards and some coins in exchange for the friendly service.

Getting to grips with the gas pump

In America, however, you are entirely on your own: When you want to fill up, you swipe your credit card at the beginning, choose the type of fuel you want, and then stick the nozzle into the tank, flicking that little clip underneath the handle, so that you don’t have to stand there while the gas runs into the tank. While you wait, you clean your own windscreen, and check your own oil, water and tyre pressure. When some sort of mysterious sensor detects that the tank is close to full, the little clip on the handle relases, and the flow stops.

I learned that, when you lift the nozzle out of the tank after you have filled it up, you really shouldn’t squeeze the handle one last time… not unless you deliberately want to leave a trail of gasoline down the side of your car and a little puddle on the ground and on your shoes.

It doesn’t smell so nice when you get back inside the car. Sorry, honey!

We also learned that the price of gas varies considerably across the United States, not only from city to city, and from suburb to suburb, but even between gas stations of the same ‘brand’. It’s bewildering. You can see the fluctuating gas prices on the handy GasBuddy website.

Beware freezing bridges?!

I learned the meaning of a very odd road sign I kept spotting: “Bridges Freeze Before Roadway”. We don’t have this sign in South Africa, presumably because we have neither freezing bridges nor freezing roadways, so I asked my ever-helpful American friends what it meant.

Beware: Bridges freeze before roadway!

They explained: When the ambient air temperature sinks down to freezing point, bridges tend to form ice on them more quickly than roads do, which means that you need to slow down and watch out for ice on a bridge. One reason is that a bridge is surrounded by air on all sides, so it will lose heat more quickly than a road, which only loses heat from the top surface – the ground beneath will retain the heat for longer.

The second reason is that bridges are usually made of steel and concrete, which conduct heat more effectively than asphalt, which is used to surface roads. (Info from here) There, did you know that?

Salt storage building at the roadside

While we are on the topic of freezing bridges and ice on the roads, I learned that those odd-looking circular buildings with their conical roofs at the side of the road are used to store salt, which is mixed with sand and gravel and spread over the roads during winter to de-ice them.

We don’t get ice on our roads (much) in South Africa, so I’d never seen these kinds of buildings before.

Brrrr…. how cold is it today?

Torrential rain on the way from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Hazard, Kentucky

I learned that Americans calculate their temperatures in Fahrenheit, not in Celsius.

I found this rather confusing at first; when we see temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees, we put on shorts and flip-flops, slap on some sunscreen, and head off to the beach! In America, you’d be hauling out your winter coat and sheepskin-lined boots!

Do you know how to do a quick conversion in your head?

Take the amount in Fahrenheit, subtract 32, and divide by 2: the result will (almost) be the correct amount in Celsius. Reverse the steps to go from Celsius to Fahrenheit.

Near the highest point of the Cherohala Highway in North Carolina, I see ice on some roadside boulders - it is the first time in my life that I have seen ice outside of the fridge-freezer, so of course we have to go and touch it!

It was very useful to remember that 32 degrees Fahrenheit is 0 degrees Celsius when we looked at the nightly weather reports on the news, as we planned the next leg of our route. (For a more accurate calculation, go here).

During the weeks leading up to our arrival in the USA, friends had cautioned me that it was winter in the USA until April, and that we would most likely have snow and ice and freezing conditions, particularly in the higher-lying and more northerly areas.

In the end, we need not have worried: the South African summer sun seemed to have snuck a couple of sunbeams into our suitcases, and thus we had good weather wherever we went.

On our first day in New York, we found a pile of old snow in Central Park - it was such a glorious warm day, we were even walking around in t-shirts! And although it wasn't particularly pretty snow, and we couldn't use it to build a snowman (one day, one day!), it was the very first real snow I had seen and touched in my life. My verdict: It's rather crunchy and bitterly cold to touch with your bare fingers!

Well, barring two/three days of rain, and one particularly dramatic day of tornado warnings! I think that’s a pretty good average!

Even when the temperatures sunk down close to zero, the weather was still good enough so that we could do almost all the touristy things we wished. And dear Dana made sure that we had plenty of winter coats – and gloves – to keep us warm and snug, regardless of the weather!

I learned that central heating is a wonderful invention indeed. It meant that we did not have to wrap ourselves in extra layers to be warm inside any buildings. American houses, although they often look flimsy from the outside, and as though they are just constructed of plywood, seem to be far better insulated against the cold than our houses in South Africa. I was amazed that we could even walk around in t-shirts.

Kudzu cobwebs everywhere…

One of the sights that we found most disturbing on our trip through Tennessee, Kentucky and even into West Virginia, were ugly grey cobwebs of a sort of noxious weed that completely covered large areas of forests, roadside verges, hedges and hillsides. Everywhere, these vile grey cobwebs were tightly wrapped around and hanging from trees, electricity pylons, telephone poles, road signs, even migrating from one side of the road to the other by using the wires from which the traffic lights were suspended. We saw whole buildings being engulfed by it.

It was easy to imagine the entire planet gradually covered by this grey-green parasite that strangles the life out of all natural vegetation and agricultural crops, rapidly blanketing beautiful natural forests, engulfing animals, people, buildings, and inexorably wiping out all signs of human civilisation. (Have a look here at some frightening images.)

The first time I saw it was near the small town of Hazard in eastern Kentucky: I was stunned by the sight of this entire hillside being covered by thick curtains of dusty grey cobwebs. When I asked Bobz what it was, he said that it was Kudzu, that it grows rampantly everywhere in the southern and southeastern USA, and that it is impossible to eradicate it, or even to keep it under control (YouTube clip). It is immune to most herbicides – some even make it grow faster – yeek! – and burning does not eradicate it either, but seems to promote growth at particular times of the year.

Kudzu growing on a Kentucky hillside and threatening to engulf a building

Apparently, it first arrived in the US in 1876, when the Japanese government constructed a beautiful garden at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, using plants from their country – among them, the now infamous Kudzu. At the time, Americans were so enamoured with it, that nurseries began to sell it to gardeners for ornamental purposes, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Soil Conservation service went so far as to promote its use to reduce erosion on exposed soil.

Thankfully, the USDA declared it as a weed in 1972. It was growing faaaar too rapidly, particularly in the southeastern US with its pleasant, warm and humid climate. Kudzu can grow 60 feet each year! (Info from here and here – where you will find some horrific images of its spread.) Fortunately, it seems that goats are willing to eat this horrible stuff, so perhaps they may get it under control some time? (Watch this fascinating video clip from America’s Heartland Series, titled “Goats and Kudzu in Kentucky”).

Feel truly welcome at a Welcome Centre

I learned that, along each of the interstates, there are various rest areas, where you can use the facilities and stretch your legs, and purchase some refreshments. In addition, each state has a number of Welcome Centres, which are generally located near the first exit of an interstate, just after you have crossed into another state (at least I think that’s how it works). (You can locate them via this website).

This is the Welcome Centre in West Virginia

These Welcome Centres are amazing! Staffed by friendly and enthusiastic individuals, they are a treasure chest of helpful information: you can pick up a free (! Yes! Really!) detailed roadmap of the state, information on accommodation, and brochures and flyers on every manner of attraction you might like to visit. The staff were always willing to suggest places we might like to visit, or scenic byways we might like to explore.

These centres are an absolute treasure trove, and I am pleased we discovered them right at the start of our trip, just as we drove south on the I-65 from Louisville, Kentucky. I cannot recommend them highly enough!

May I introduce you to coupon books?

Our first coupon book, which we picked up at a Welcome Centre outside Louisville, Kentucky

Oh, coupon books! Americans, I realised, are big fans of coupon books.

Hotels and motels in the various states offer reduced rates and discounts at their establishments, and publish these as coupons, which are assembled into coupon books, covering one or more states. You can pick these up free of charge at the Welcome Centres, but you can also find them online, such as at this website.

You just have to look closely at the fine print:

Sometimes, the discount only applies to one specific motel, and not to all the other motels in that chain in the same city – so double-check the address on the coupon. Also, you might only be able to use it on specific days, say from Monday to Thursday, or not on a public holiday or a bank holiday, etc. Most importantly, you need to make sure that the discount period has not expired.

This is what the coupons look like - remember to read the fine print carefully though!

But once you have navigated this minefield of small print and terms and conditions, you may indeed find yourself with a valid money-saving coupon entitling you to a stay in a luxurious and spacious hotel room at a much reduced rate!

And if you are lucky, you may even find various tourist attractions offering discounts in there. It is all most exciting!

I am in Free Wifi Heaven!

One of the happiest discoveries we made is that wifi is available – free! – almost everywhere.

At every single motel we stayed at, we had an immediate, unlimited and free connection to the internet, which was fantastic! It allowed us to check our emails, to plan our route to the next destination, to identify possible places to stay, and to Skype with friends and family back home. And we didn’t even have to whip out our credit cards and go through a whole lengthy and expensive verification process. I hope that free wifi takes off in South Africa too!

This was our cosy hotel room in Washington DC - the first thing we did when we checked into a new room, was to switch on the laptop, connect to the wifi and download all the photos of that day.

Most of the rooms we stayed in were wonderfully spacious, with large beds – either one king size, or two queen size beds – so you and your partner had plenty of room to spread out, which was really marvelous! The mattresses were usually firm, with none of that awful sagging in the middle that makes you feel like you need to dig yourself out of a hole the next morning. Having read some horror stories online about bedbugs and assorted creepy-crawlies, I am relieved to report that we were spared such encounters.

Our rooms always included a desk with a chair or two, a comfortable armchair, a cupboard or chest of drawers, a television set, and central heating/cooling system, which we really grew to appreciate.

Um… is this your continental breakfast?

On the downside, we learned that the ‘continental breakfasts’ offered by motels are a joke. I’m not sure which continent they are referring to, but it sure as heck isn’t the European continent.

We still have such fond memories of staying in Bed and Breakfasts across Germany in 2006 and Ireland in 2008, that we still look at each other with a sigh of longing, “Ohh, do you remember Paddy’s breakfast in his little cottage north of Clifden, where we stopped in the pouring rain during our drive around Connemara? Ohh… do you remember the smoked salmon and the eggs and the delicious bread…”.

In Chattanooga, the hotel offered a bit more choice at breakfast - so we did not need to supplement it

Throughout those trips, breakfast almost always consisted of a range of healthy cereals, yoghurts, toast and bread (not just stodgy white bread but usually some sort of wholewheat, brown or rye bread, full of fibre and goodness), croissants (mmmm….), butter and jams/jellies… and sometimes you could even order eggs and bacon, or sliced ham, turkey breast, salami, or various cheeses to put on the bread. Now THAT is what a continental breakfast SHOULD be.

In America, unfortunately, the motel breakfasts were the usual poor fare of sugary, processed and super-refined cereal (Cheerios and Froot-Loops, though sometimes we were lucky to have Raisin Bran), orange/apple juice from the machine (not too bad, actually, but certainly not freshly squeezed), and coffee or tea.

The self-service waffle station at the Drury Inn in Louisville, Kentucky, was where I had my first waffle in the USA - a little on the stodgy side, but perhaps I should've added a scoop of ice cream and some maple syrup for some serious breakfast decadence...

Very rarely, they offered Danish pastries or bagels (though these usually looked rather stale and unappetizing and came from pre-frozen and thawed-out plastic packets), and more frequently, there was a self-service waffle maker. Although the waffle dough probably won’t win any Healthy and Nutritious Awards, it did at least fill the tummy.

Also, you won’t find proper crockery and cutlery: they only use items made of plastic or Styrofoam, and you toss them in the bin afterwards. I was perturbed by this: Surely all of us in the 21st century, regardless of the country we live in, ought to be concerned about filling up landfill sites with material that could easily be recycled? We actually bought ourselves a proper cutting knife (those plastic knives tend to break), which we brought back home – in the checked-in luggage! 😉 It was hugely helpful!

My first waffle in the US

After the first disappointing breakfast, we learned that we could purchase some ingredients at a local grocery store. The Kroger stores became our firm favourites. We found some marvellous pumpernickel bread on their shelves. From then onwards, we always supplemented the pitiful motel breakfasts with our own cereal, yoghurts, breads, butter, jam, sliced turkey breast… deliciously nutritious! And I think our fellow motel guests might have been just a tad envious… 😉

The Drury Inn and Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, needs to receive an honourable mention, however. Admittedly, they were the most expensive hotel we stayed at during our whole trip (US$ 90 for the room), but our room was spacious, clean, lovingly furnished and fresh-smelling – such things cannot be taken for granted, you know! – and they not only served a proper buffet breakfast, but you could even eat something there at suppertime. It was all included in the price of the accommodation! AND the staff was extremely friendly!

Where’s my Coffeeeeeee???

I learned that Americans really like coffee. Tea, naah, not so much. They seemed to prefer their coffee in supersize mugs, black and strong enough to cause heart palpitations.

The early morning coffee ritual

And apparently there is a right way to make coffee:

It is a daily ritual that involves staggering into the kitchen in the pre-dawn hours, just after the wake-up alarm has gone off, boiling some water while grinding the beans, and pouring the water little by little over the ground coffee.

As all the Coffee Goodness percolates into the glass container, which is kept at juuust the right temperature, one focuses one’s attention on each in-breath, throouuugh the nose, thoughtfully inhaling the delicious fragrance. And one listens, eyes closed, to the pleasant gurgling and dripping of the coffee.

When that first cup is ready to be savoured, the day can begin.

For better or worse, the coffee shop that for me symbolises American coffee-drinking culture is Starbucks. I’d never been to one of their outlets before, as we don’t have any in South Africa.

Sooo, can we share this slice of chocolate and cinnamon cake then?

Don’t believe me? Well then, do a search on Starbucks’ own website for ‘Cape Town, South Africa’ or even just ‘South Africa’; this is what they tell you: “There are no stores matching your search parameters, please try a different search. We searched for stores within “South Africa” that feature: …”

However, shortly before the 2010 Soccer World Cup, Starbucks kind-of sort-of did come to South Africa:

“In May 2010, Southern Sun Hotels South Africa announced that they had signed an agreement with Starbucks that would enable them to brew Starbucks coffees in select Southern Sun and Tsonga Sun hotels in South Africa. The agreement was partially reached in order for Starbucks coffees to be served in the country in time for the commencement of the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosted by South Africa.” (Wikipedia; you can also find a more recent 2011 article here)

So it’s not really a Starbucks outlet – but permission to brew that particular brand of coffee.

Somehow, I had been under the impression that you wouldn’t be able to buy tea at Starbucks, so I was positively delighted when I discovered that I could! And that it’s very nice tea, may I add. Their slices of chocolate cinnamon cake are particularly decadent and will moreover give you that added zing you need to tackle the next leg of your journey.

Tea with Sugar and Ice

I learned that Americans like ice cubes in their drinks. If you wish to ask for water or juice in a restaurant, and if ice cubes make your teeth hurt and your eyes water, you need to say explicitly and firmly, making eye contact: “No Ice, Please.”

Hot Darjeeling Tea - delicious with some slices of lemon!

We soon learned that everything is sweetened, unless you ask for an unsweetened alternative. When you ask for tea, the default is iced tea, so sweet and icily cold that your toes will curl, and you will feel an irrational need to speed-dial your dentist. If you should want tea that comes in a teapot with a teabag steeped in boiling water, you need to ask for hot tea. Strangely, it will often come without milk, perhaps because you are expected to enjoy it with a slice of lemon or some sugar instead?

I rather liked the different types of tea we tried along the way. In South Africa, you usually get a choice between ‘normal’ or ‘Rooibos’: ‘normal’ tea is usually Ceylon tea, with common brands being Five Roses or Joko, although they may also offer Earl Grey tea or English Breakfast tea. Rooibos – and more rarely, Honeybush – usually comes in the basic version, though sometimes there are fruity or spicy flavourings too.

Choices, choices….

I learned that, when you go into an American supermarket, you will most certainly be overwhelmed by a bewildering array of options and choices.

This was my favourite muesli during my stay at Bobz' home - thank you, Dana!

Take cereal, for instance.

We spent an inordinate amount of time staring at cereal boxes and reading their ingredients, trying to find something that did not contain more sugars and sweeteners, flavourants, colourants and preservatives in one box than the human body should be exposed to in one year. I was also trying to avoid anything with nuts (or peanuts) in it, which further limited our choice. (This is getting to be real tricky in South Africa too, let me tell you.) It sure would help to have a simple basic default cereal and muesli though.

It was the same with all the grocery items we bought regularly throughout our trip.

We didn’t want to eat out every day or every meal, because it would’ve been far too expensive, so we tried to pick up some basic items for on-the-road or in-the-car picnics, such as breads, spreads, crackers, biscuits, jams, lunch meats, juices, yoghurts, bottled water…

The perfect on-the-road sandwich ingredients: sliced pumpernickel bread, real butter, finely sliced turkey breast, and blackberry jam - add some bananas and apples and bottles of water, and you're pretty much set for a long drive with a roadside picnic! Note the plastic knife, and our brand-new proper knife 🙂

Each time we ventured into a grocery store, it would take us an inordinately long time to figure out where things were and to locate the particular items among the dozens of options and varieties available. Despite that, we really did enjoy our grocery shopping! In retrospect, I wish I had had the courage to take some photos of the variety of items and brands available on the shelves.

Early on, we identified the Kroger stores as a very nice option, firstly because they resembled our Pick’n Pay stores back home, and secondly because they were listed in the Garmin, so at least we could find them relatively easily! While Richard queued at the deli counter to pick up some sliced turkey breast (oooh! delicious!), I would trot up and down the aisles with my basket looking for the other items on our list. It was rather like a treasure hunt.

We visit a massive Walmart store near Washington DC - what an experience!

Of course, no trip to the US would be complete without at least one foray into the largest retailer in the world: Walmart. Love them, fear them, or hate them, they are hugely powerful, weaving their network of suppliers and retailers across the entire globe.

We don’t (yet?) have them in South Africa (thank goodness, because it is going to have a huge impact on our economy and our labour market, threatening the survival of smaller local producers, suppliers and retailers – Guardian newspaper article). I was curious to see what they looked like, though, so we ventured into one of their massive stores outside Washington DC. Wow. The variety and range of items available was simply staggering.

Eating out

This Cracker Barrel sign reminded me of the slogan of Happy Station - Smiles across the Miles - the shortwave radio station through which I met Bobz

Still on the topic of food, the restaurant chain that we did visit quite often throughout our trip was the Cracker Barrel. We don’t have these in South Africa, so when my American friends took me to my very first Cracker Barrel in Georgetown, just off the southbound interstate from Cincinnati to Lexington, I was smitten.

Marketed as Old Country Stores, they combine both a restaurant and a gift store, with a Southern country theme.

En route from Nashville to Chattanooga, we stop at a Cracker Barrel off Interstate 40 to have lunch - we are ravenous!

Founded in 1969, and originally limited to the highway exits in the Southeastern and Midwestern USA, they currently operate more than 600 stores countrywide:

“A casual dining family restaurant, Cracker Barrel’s menu is based on traditional Southern cuisine, with appearance and decor designed to resemble an old-fashioned general store. Each restaurant features a front porch lined with wooden rocking chairs, a stone fireplace, and artifacts from the local area.” (Wikipedia)

The typical decor inside the Cracker Barrel

When Richard and I embarked on our road trip, I told him about eating at the Cracker Barrel and how much I’d enjoyed the experience, so we kept our eyes open for another branch further south.

We found one off the I-40 near Cookeville (I think), en route from Nashville to Chattanooga.  It looked identical to the one that we had visited in Georgetown  – at the time, I did not know that they all look the same!

A giant potato, a generous portion of house salad, corn bread, and vegetable stew - and the wooden peg solitaire game that you find on every table

We had vegetable soup with corn bread, a delicious house salad and a baked potato that was larger than any potatoes I had seen in my entire life. It was the best food we had had in a couple of days, and the combination immediately became my firm favourite.

We found a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Chattanooga, another one in Pigeon Forge on the way north from the Great Smokey Mountains, and the last one of our trip in the vicinity of Tinton Falls, New Jersey.

Here, we bought two humungous coffee mugs as a reminder of our favourite restaurant on our Little American Road Trip.

Sending postcards back home

Typical American postbox

I learned that Americans really do have those adorable little Charlie Brown post boxes outside their houses. And that the postman drives his van right next to those post boxes so that he doesn’t have to alight from the vehicle, but just stick his hand out to push the letters inside. None of the posties I spotted had a black-and-white cat sitting inside their cars like Postman Pat has though. 😉

You know that little flag thingy on the side of the post box?

I thought that the postie would raise that up to signal that he had delivered a letter for you. But no! I was wrong! It’s the other way around: If you wish to send a letter or card by post, you simply pop it into your own post box and raise the flag, and then the postie will pick it up and pop it in the post for you!

I learned that you do not need to stand in the line at the post office (once you locate one) to buy stamps.

The US Postal Service in downtown Louisville

Our first attempt to find a post office was in Louisville, Kentucky, just after we had said goodbye to Bobz and his family, who were heading back home to Hazard. We had only picked up our rental car at the airport the night before, so Richard was still getting used to driving on the other side of the road, while trying to obey both the rules of traffic and the Garmin’s instructions – this was complicated by the fact that some of the roads were one-way roads, but not reflected as such on the navigator… When we finally arrived at the Post Office in Downtown Louisville from the correct side, they were closed. Well, it was Saturday after all.

A kindly Louisvillian who was also disappointed to find the counters closed, helpfully explained that I could purchase postage stamps in handy little booklets at some (but not all) supermarkets, grocery stores and gas stations. The stamps we eventually bought were of the peel-and-stick variety that you do not have to lick.

Mailing a bunch of postcards at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

I learned that mail boxes are blue (ours are usually red) – and that they are surprisingly tricky to find! Unlike post offices, they are not listed in the Garmin’s vast memory banks.

These mail boxes have the United States Postal Services logo on them, usually indicate the times at which mail is likely to be collected, and are made of solid and heavy metal – you slide the inside cover down, and drop your letters inside, saying a quick prayer for its safe arrival.

I wonder how long they’d last here before they’ve all been pinched to be sold as scrap metal… even if the SA Post Office logo was glued onto them! :-/

Buying newspapers

A colourful row of newspaper stands at a train station in Washington DC

If you want to buy a newspaper, you do not have to go to the shops.

There are often clusters of colourful boxes, near train stations for instance, where you throw the required number of coins into a slot, then lift a flap, and help yourself to a single copy of the paper. I thought this was quite marvellous! I wonder if this is the honesty principle at work? Do people sometimes take more than one copy of the paper?

The ubiquitous yellow school buses

Look! A yellow school bus - for real!

I learned that those yellow school buses, which you often see in the movies and television series, really do exist!!!

On my very first drive, from the airport in Cincinnati to Bobz’s home in eastern Kentucky, we happened to pass an empty yellow school bus that had been parked at the side of the road. I became almost speechless with excitement, as I had always thought that these buses are only props in movies!

My dear kind-hearted friends, gently bemused, pulled off the road to give me a chance to look at the bus and to take a photograph. For the blog, you understand.

See? This is what it looks like inside the bus!

A couple of days later, we walked past an empty school bus that was waiting to pick up a group of school children after their visit to the Challenger Learning Centre in Hazard. Dana promptly went over to ask the teachers whether I could go and sit in the back of the bus for a minute. She explained that I was visiting them from South Africa and that I’d never sat in this kind of school bus before.

The teachers – bless them! – found this sweetly amusing rather than peculiar, and thus Dana and I found ourselves sitting in the back of a real yellow school bus! Oh! It was such fun!

Washing the Bug at a coin-operated car wash

You feed a whole lot of quarters into this hungry machine, and then use the dial to select the relevant setting

When Bobz said to me casually one afternoon, “Come, let’s go and wash the Bug,” I began to psyche myself up for a lengthy and exhausting muscle-building work session.

In my experience, washing the car involves the liberal application of car shampoo with soft sponges, scrubbing off caked mud and sand, gently soaking off bird droppings, and cleaning the countless grooves of the hubcaps… then dry-wiping the car all over, followed by wax-on-wax-off polishing and buffing, squirting Windowlene onto the windows both inside and outside, and vacuum-cleaning inside the car. It takes several hours.

That’s how we wash our cars at home. Bobz and I, however, took me to a self-service coin-operated car wash. Again, I had imagined something like a drive-through car wash, where you sit leisurely in your car for half an hour, listening to the radio or having a bit of a nap, while assorted machines squirt and rub, pummel and buff your car all over until it looks as good as new.

Bobz carefully rinsing all the shampoo and dirt off his now sparkling black VW Bug

This image too was not quite correct. If your car has a soft-top, those drive-through car washes are a bit rough.

So, instead, we pulled into a covered bay, fed a rather greedy machine with a whole bunch of quarters, and then got to work, while the timer started counting down, click – click – click – click… :

First you spray the car all over to remove the worst of the dirt, then you grab a broom with luminous pink car shampoo to rub the car all over, and then you use up the rest of your quarters to spray off the shampoo. It’s quick and easy.

Gun shows?!

I learned that, in America, you may see roadside advertisements for gun shows.

Seriously. I kid you not.

Not having grown up in a country with such high levels of private gun ownership as the US (in South Africa, it’s mainly the police, the defence force, and criminals who own guns, with licenced private/civilian firearm owners numbering only a couple of million [Wikipedia]), I was so surprised when I saw this sign below, that I just had to photograph it.

A roadside advertisement for a gun show near Knoxville, Tennessee, has us completely mystified

As we were clueless as to what exactly a gun show might be, we imagined something like a re-enactment of a historic gun fight or battle, or a theatrical performance involving cowboys doing a gunfight at the OK Corral, or some daredevil target shooting on horseback, or even a competition using both antique and modern firearms. We also wondered whether these events were very popular, and whether they occurred throughout the country, or only in specific states.

Intrigued, I did some searching on the internet on our return, and found that gun shows are in fact very common throughout the US. Instead of historical re-enactments or theatrical shows, however, they are more like trade shows, where firearms, firearm accessories, ammunition, and all manner of militaria, are displayed, bought, sold, traded and discussed (Wikipedia).

So, no gunfight at the OK Corral then. Pity. That might’ve been quite entertaining to watch!

Girl scout cookies do exist!

Much to my amazement, I learned that girl scout cookies do actually exist!

Celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Girl Scout Movement (1912 to 2012) - I wonder if their cookies always looked like these?

Are you chuckling?

Well, let me tell you what image I had been carrying around in my head since childhood:

Whenever I read any books that mentioned little girl scouts trying to sell cookies in their neighbourhood, I always pictured these cookies as actually having been handmade by the young girls, under close supervision by their mommy or granny! So I figured they would come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and tastes and flavours, looking obviously homemade.

As a result, I was absolutely speechless with amazement when Bobz and Dana opened a packet, to show me that they come in proper packets and boxes, with plastic wrapping.

In that moment, the image I had carried around in my head for years was shattered. Isn’t it funny how your perception of reality doesn’t always coincide with reality?

Erm… is that a blue potato?

A Peruvian Blue Potato - looking rather purple in its raw state

I also learned that there is such a thing as a completely purple-blue potato. It is known as a Peruvian Blue, and, although its vibrant blue colour may give you the ghrills [shudder] when you eat it, its flavour and texture are actually superb.

Er... Bobz, are you sure this is safe to eat? ... Ohh! It's actually very nice!

A Tip from a Friend:

If you decide to microwave a potato, for heaven’s sake, poke holes in it first with a fork! Otherwise, you may be spending the next few hours deep-cleaning your microwave. And if it happens to be a Peruvian Blue, your microwave will look as though a Smurf exploded inside of it. Yuk.

Messing about in someone else’s kitchen

Assembling the ingredients and all the utensils I will need to bake my Very Secial Chocolate Chip Cookies...

I learned that, if you wish to surprise your friendly hosts by baking your Very Special Chocolate Chip Cookies with ingredients that are similar to, but not quiiiiite the same as the ingredients you use back home, you really should taste-test the cookie dough before you spend ages rolling the cookies into shape and aligning them neatly on the baking tray. They might look the same, but then again…

The cookies are ready to go into the oven... they LOOK delicious, don't they?... hm....

Also, if you do decide to turn on the oven without assistance from a member of the household, you should definitely figure out how to use the timer-clock on their oven, and how to convert correctly from Celsius to Fahrenheit.

If you do not, you are liable to set off the smoke alarm…


Sorry about that, Bobz.

By way of apologising to Dana for the mess I’d made in her kitchen, we prepared a scrumptious supper that evening.

Schwan’s is Fabulous

One day, a big truck pulled up in front of Bobz’s house, and the doorbell rang.

“Mom! Dad! Schwan’s is here!” bellowed Daniel, who was clearly psychic. How did he know who it was without even opening the door? And who or what was Schwan’s? The house erupted into a frenzy of activity, with Annie-the-pup adding her voice to the general chaos. Daniel opened the door, to reveal a man with a colourful catalogue standing on the porch.

Dana and the Pup pose in front of the impressive Schwan's Delivery Van

“So, Regg, what do you want for supper? Pizza? Pasta? Ice cream sandwiches?”

“Um… what?”

Sensible Dana came to the rescue: “Schwan’s delivers frozen food. Do you want to see their truck?”

Oh, yes! Definitely!

She introduced me to the friendly man from Schwan’s Delivery Service, who even opened up the various compartments of his refrigerated delivery truck to show me the kinds of ready-made meals and frozen fruit and vegetables they sold. I was seriously impressed. This is such a useful service, particularly if your nearest grocery store is many miles away.

We are definitely in America!

Bobz poses obligingly in front of the large US national flag that is fluttering outside the Food City shopping centre in Hazard, Kentucky

What immediately struck us as we drove through various states in the US was the proliferation of American flags. They were absolutely everywhere: not just outside government buildings, schools, hospitals, post offices and police stations, but also outside gas stations, restaurants and shopping malls, and residential houses too!

If we had any doubt as to where we were when we woke up each morning in an unfamiliar place, seeing the star-spangled banner proudly displayed outside a gas station or shopping centre immediately cleared up any confusion.

“Yep,” we’d smile at each other, feeling a sense of excitement because our road trip had not yet ended, “we are still in America – and isn’t it wonderful and thrilling to be here?!”

Richard takes a picture of me outside the J Edgar Hoover FBI Building with its row of American national flags (and numerous security cameras!) in central Washington DC - honestly, I was rather nervous of being photographed here!

In Kentucky and Tennessee, we occasionally saw a slightly different American flag – I think it must have been the Confederate Flag, but unfortunately my camera was not fast enough to capture any images of those. (We’ll just have to visit again then, won’t we, honey?)

In addition, many homes also displayed flags and banners of sports teams or of universities/colleges.

I remember how we proudly displayed our multi-coloured South African flag in the months leading up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup, even hanging it off our cars and painting it on our faces, which admittedly was a bit extreme, although it was fun! But I hadn’t expected to see the American flag – and often in its full majestic size – displayed in quite so many places.

A row of American Flags proudly displayed in Washington DC - the nation's capital

The dominant impression we had of the American people throughout our entire journey was that they were friendly, polite, helpful and willing to offer advice and explain how things worked or to give directions when we were lost.

They were interested in where we came from and curious about our country; often, they were quite knowledgeable about South African and were even longing to visit our distant shores. And they were intrigued by our obviously un-American accents as much as I was fascinated by their American accents!

It had been an absolute pleasure to explore the US, and I really hope that we shall see more of it some day.

Driving into the Sunset

13 thoughts on “Some Things we learned on our little American Roadtrip of 2012

  1. Reggie, I loved reading this! Yes, it is so interesting to read your comments about your visit to our country. I do want to gently add that every part of this HUGE country is different and that you might have a few completely opposite impressions if you were to visit the north or west or other points in between. Many of your points are absolutely true from the standpoint of a typical American, but other things are different depending on where you are. Stoplights hang in different places (some on the side of the road) in different states. Some Americans LOVE tea and drink it regularly and rarely drink coffee. Self-serve gas stations and right turns on red didn’t hit some of these states until the 1980’s, so we well remember the full-serve, full-stop days.

    In our neck of the woods, you have to go inside a store to buy a newspaper (except maybe in the big city.) Yes, we all do have those yellow school buses, and yes, those cute mailboxes where I loved, loved, loved getting postcards from Ms. Reggie from all those places around the states! 🙂

    • I was beaming from ear to ear while reading your comment, dear Kathy. Yes, of course, you are soooo right – your country is indeed huge, and it is unrealistic and inaccurate to extrapolate from that one small area we saw to the rest of it. I love finding out stuff like that – even better would be if we could see it for ourselves, of course. 😉

      And I am so thrilled you enjoyed finding those postcards in your cute little mailbox. I hope it made trudging through the snow and ice worthwhile?

  2. Impressive collection of observations from your travel in the U.S.! It was really enjoyable to read about the differences between South Africa and the United States. Now, you have to do a trip to Europe and make the same observations!
    When I traveled in Australia last year I drove the “wrong side” of the road. (!) I’ve done this a few times over the years – and get used to this very quickly each time. But: Every time there is a small thing that gives me the greatest addiction problems: The arm of the indicator is on the right side and arm to the wiper on the left side of the steering wheel: The result is that I turn on the wipers every time I want to turn (and it is done quite often in a city where the car usually is picked up!) ………….. 😉

    • Brilliant plan, Truels! When you say ‘Europe’, I am thinking you might mean Denmark? 😉

      About the indicator, yes, I know exactly what you mean! And when the windscreen is dry, the wipers can sound a little scratchy, which adds to the awkwardness of the whole moment.

      • I meant Denmark, yes, and maybe a few other neighboring countries – No need to visit countries with left-hand traffic – and without indicator entertainment 😉

  3. My goodness Reggie you’re so observant. What a great post – also loved the pictures.

    The traffic lights hanging across the road? I take them for granted now.
    Turning right on a red light? Ditto.
    The snow? You’re lucky they had a mild winter this year is all I can say.
    Kudzu? I had no idea there was such a noxious weed growing happily over here.

    I also highly recommend taking a portable GPS when you travel in another country. We used ours driving in Italy and England. I cannot imagine how one would manage without it.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Rosie. Yes, we are also very pleased we took along our navigator – it would’ve been much more stressful trying to find our way without it.

  4. Wow! what a wonderfully comprehensive guide to the States! You should get it printedf up into a booklety and sell it to Travel Agents. You are SO BRAVE to drive in the US . NOTHING would persuade me to tackle the Wrong-Side-of-the-Road, but nothing. When I visited the US I flew, taxi-ed or bussed; oh, I I went by train too – didn’t like their trains.

    • Thank you, Alison! 😀 Well, *I* wasn’t brave enough to drive on the interstates either, Alison. I left the driving to Richard, who seems remarkably capable of driving on the ‘wrong’ side. I only drove the car for a little bit, in a nature park, where there wasn’t much oncoming traffic. I’m not used to driving an automatic, so that was an interesting experience – very nice actually!

      We didn’t take any taxis, not even in NYC with its huge number of distinctive yellow cabs, and we didn’t take any long-distance buses, just short trips in town, and we took the subways in Washington DC (very nice!) and NYC (very confusing!).

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