Prologue: The Draw of North America
I was raised on Americana. Most of us Brits are. On Saturday evenings I’d eagerly await The Dukes of Hazzard to watch Bo and Luke Duke tear up rural Georgia in an elongated muscle-car with a curious, resplendent flag adorned to its roof. Over breakfast, Mum played BBC Radio 2 where Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and John Denver sang songs about love, gambling and the Shenandoah River as I tucked into my Weetabix. For a special treat, we’d trudge to the cinema in Cambridge to watch the latest American blockbuster, transfixed as we ate hotdogs and popcorn washed down with Coca-Cola. America was everywhere in my East Anglian childhood, a pervasive thread quite alien to my life, yet it never felt odd. Although I’d never been, a part of me grew up in America.
At five years old, Dad introduced me to Edgar, my first encounter with an American. He sported a splendidly bushy moustache, smiled a lot, and was immensely generous, bringing gifts for my brother, sister and me every time he sauntered into town. He was a mystical, almost angelic character, laden with huge bars of Hershey chocolate and unusual whirligig toys. We called him Edgar Christmas. I latterly learnt Edgar was a supplier to the company my dad worked at.
At school, on the windswept sports fields of the flat, barren fenlands east of Ely, we’d see AWAC aircraft and hypersonic Blackbirds roaring low overhead on their final approach to the American airbases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath. We’d spot the airmen around town occasionally, conspicuous by their unfamiliar baggy sports shirts, unusually enthusiastic voices and their peculiarly glinty teeth, juxtaposed against the medieval architecture of our 8th century cathedral and its gargoyle-infested outbuildings. It all added to the mystery.
As I grew older, I came to realise just how little I really knew of America beyond its candyfloss veneer. We weren’t taught its history at school, mainly – I figured with hindsight – because us Brits lost what was once ‘ours’. The history I did know came from the movies, yet thanks to its Hollywood popcorn tilt, it invariably lacked balanced context, the stout-hearted cowboys always trouncing the barbarous Indians for daring to fight back.
But my knowledge of America all changed for me in 2011 when I left dear old Blighty behind and moved to New York City. It was everything I dreamed it would be: gun-toting cops standing on street corners chewing gum; steam spewing for the street drain grates; crazy folk shouting as they staggered down the sidewalks. I loved it. Everything was different: bigger, noisier, smellier, Americanier. It felt like I’d arrived in the centre of the netherworld I’d grown up observing from the other side of the television glass.
Over time, my knowledge of the continent’s history improved through my interactions with its people in a form of socio-historic osmosis. I quickly learnt that America wasn’t the bubble-gum Disneyland I’d grown up believing it to be. It had a history far more vibrant – and far darker – than had been revealed to me through pop culture. The violent acts of other countries I’d witnessed during my life had all happened on this soil over the previous 250 years: ethnic cleansing, genocide, slavery, civil war, state-sponsored racial segregation, illegal annexation of land. Yet, despite its chequered past, what struck me most were its positives, stories of ordinary people trying to better themselves, moving here in pursuit of a happier life built on hard work and decency. And it was that that had brought me here, to New York City. In my own way, throughout my life, I came to realise I’d been in pursuit of my own American dream.
I’d set up a business in my spare bedroom in my flat in west London, doing OK, growing to a size where I was ready to ‘break America’. It was quite the gamble, for in truth I hadn’t even broken England. Striving in America was tough; I worked hard, often through the weekends, preventing me from getting out to see this vast continent I now called home. My business was a slog, grinding me down, leaving me questioning the very essence of what I wanted my life to be. It burned me out.
But then, miraculously, I got lucky: I sold up. Finally, I had free time again. Finally, I could head out to explore this great continent.
I love maps. Always have. But a map of North America is something to behold: there’s just so much of it. During my business life, I’d stare at my map for hours, dreaming of pootling through the boondocks of Louisiana or sleepy hamlets of rural Vermont. My maps offered late-night escapism, drawing me in, concocting my own wind-in-my-hair story of beatnik bohemian freedom that the constraints of my business denied me. But now, with the shackles gone, these were no longer aspirational dreams. This was my time. I was free. I was ready for a great American road trip.
I dug out my map.
America laid out in front of me, beckoning. I knew that the bustle of New York City wasn’t the ‘real America’ that Americans wax lyrical about, nor was it the Pacific coast dreamland of Los Angeles. The real America was everything in between, everything now laid out in front of my eyes.
The names alone resonated with intrigue and mystique, hidden stories and obscure history: Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Durango, Colorado; The Sawtooth Forest of Idaho. But where would I go?
Oh yes, it’s a big place North America. Too big, in truth, for an uninitiated Brit like me to fully comprehend. The island of Great Britain is just 1% of this continent’s size. This enormity of scale, coupled with its diversity of geography, made it quite a challenge picking a destination. I wanted to see it all, but I had just two months.
I needed a change, a complete change from the world I knew. I’d lived in cities most of my life, surrounded by the bustle of industry and the temptation of commerce; I decided I needed to go somewhere remote. Really remote. And the briefest of glances at my map showed North America has an abundance of remoteness on a truly epic scale. But when it comes to epic remoteness, there is one state that usurps them all: Alaska.
I scoured my map of Alaska. It’s by far the biggest US state, two-and-a-half times the size of the second biggest state of Texas. Glaciers smothered the mountains to the south, treeless tundra over the north. I squinted at a small settlement at the top of the page on the edge of the Arctic Ocean: Deadhorse. Dead Horse? A narrow track squiggled south across the Alaskan tundra, over the Brooks Range in the northern Rockies, crossing the Arctic Circle, winding through boreal forest all the way to Fairbanks, the nearest settlement of note, 500 miles to the south. Deadhorse is the furthest place one can drive to in North America. And it is seriously remote. Hmm, I thought to myself: that’ll do.
Many years ago, I bought a first-generation TomTom navigation system. For each journey, it prompted whether I wanted the ‘fastest’ or ‘shortest’ route. When time wasn’t pressing, I’d often pick ‘shortest’, the unit navigating me down backroads and through rural villages I barely knew existed. It was often fascinating and always more pleasurable than the motorways. Memories of those journeys got me thinking: what if I used this method to drive to Deadhorse? What kooky backwaters might it take me to? What ‘real Americans’ might I meet? And what could it teach me of the hidden histories of this great continent? There was only one way to find out.
But then another quandary: where might I start this soul-cleansing road-trip of discovery to the northernmost point of the continent? The answer seemed blindingly obvious: I packed my bags and headed for Key West.