There's a weird sort of inverse snobbery when someone says they're travelling to North America. But why, when it's a country with so many charms?
We live in a confessional age – everyone is spilling the beans about their guilty pleasures. You know the kind of thing: secretly getting ready for work listening to Dolly Parton, taking every third Sunday to draw the curtains and spend the whole day soaking up back-to-back episodes of Location, Location, Location.
My guilty pleasure is... America. Guilty because I go there all the time and never talk about it. Pleasure because... well, it’s fantastic – no end of cultural diversity; robust indigenous peoples; landscape ranging from mountains and beaches to forests and plains; regional variety in everything from architecture and history to music and cuisine.
So why does visiting the country have about as much cachet as buying own-brand toilet paper at Somerfield? (You know I’m right – please don’t pretend you don’t secretly think ‘lightweight’ when a fellow traveller tells you they’re off to the US.)
Could it be that our disapproval over the war in Iraq, plus America’s own post-9/11 batten-down-the-hatches mentality, has changed our attitude from gentle ridicule to actual dislike? I hope not. OK, I grant you, our phone and credit-card records are, in all probability, scrutinised and we’re photographed and fingerprinted before we’re even allowed into the country just to kick back and holiday.
But to judge all Americans based on encounters with Homeland Security is like judging all Brits based on encounters with traffic wardens (no offence, meter-maids and -men). You can’t write off an entire nation of 300 million people because some jobsworth at passport control gave you a hard time.
Could it be the environment and America’s apparent nonchalance over emissions? Despite whatever we feel about America’s gas-guzzling culture, when was the last time you stood on an Indian or Chinese street corner and thought: ‘Oh, what an environmentally friendly country this is’?
In fact, Americans trailblazed modern eco-thought. The long-derided Californians were not just early adopters but early inventers of many of the healthy, environmentally responsible, spiritually aware, community-minded living ideals that the rest of the world now aspires to live by.
So maybe we turn our noses up at America because of its cultural dominance? Our familiarity with its films, TV programmes, books and music – about America, set in America, made by Americans – makes the culture feel too familiar. But this argument doesn’t hold up either. The country is buzzing with festivals, traditions and adventures – the stuff of independent travellers’ dreams.
The South Fork frozen-waterfall-climbing festival in Wyoming, say, or cycling to the Gulf of Mexico along the new 4,828km Mississippi River Trail. And of course Al Gore has utilised such cultural dominance to mobilise global concern over climate change, far more effectively than the leather-trousered stage-huggers at Live Earth.
Besides, what’s wrong with well known? Who ever refused to visit the Taj or the Pyramids because everyone’s been there?
Maybe it’s because we speak the language? I won’t bore you with the knots I’ve tied myself into trying to be understood in America, and instead will point out that we speak the language in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, too, yet there’s no antipodean antipathy among the travelling community.
Maybe America’s not seen as a challenging, interesting enough country to travel around? Quite apart from the fact that America is built for road trips – one of the biggest joys in the world – there’s an excellent, under-appreciated public transport system. The state of Washington has the biggest commuter ferry network in the world – you can catch a local ferry from Seattle to Canada and all the way on up to Alaska.
In fact, with judicious planning and the use of public transport and a bicycle, I just spent a car-less week in LA. Everyone knows it’s impossible to get around LA without using a car – but I managed it. Me. And maybe that’s the reason I’ve felt the need to go public with my guilty pleasure – every traveller likes to boast about his or her triumphs. Even when they happen somewhere as unfashionable as America.
Jennifer Cox was the spokesperson for Lonely Planet before writing the travel bestseller Around the World in 80 Dates