During my year of self-funded leave, from early May until mid-June, I did a driving trip through the USA that would take me to the remaining states of the United States which I had not previously seen. I had been to Alaska in 1982 and Hawaii in 1983, and over the years had been to about 30 of the continental US states. Most of those that remained were in the southern and southwestern USA. Other than planning a route that would include all of the list of unvisited states, I hoped to visit a number of the US National Parks, oft described as “America’s best idea”. I fully agree.
The first part of the trip was to work my way south to the Florida Keys. I would then go across the Gulf states, drive north from Louisiana, up through Arkansas and Missouri, before crossing Kansas and Oklahoma to reach my key distance destination states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, from which I would turn around and drive back on a route further north.
I had lived for a year in California in my youth and had already been to the Pacific states. My first destination state was Kentucky. I was impressed by the beauty of rural Kentucky, its verdancy of vegetation so much more impressive than Ontario. From Louisville, I drove south via Abe Lincoln’s birthplace and Horse Cave to Cave City. Then from Cave City via Mammoth Cave to Nashville. Then via Townsend to Pigeon Forge.
As a Canadian, I am sometimes surprised by the anti-government sentiment in the USA, when the contrast between the tackiness of private sector tourism and the tasteful glory of US National Parks can be seen side-by-side. Pigeon Forge and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park put this anomaly into high gear. Las Vegas and the parks of southern Utah are perhaps even more stark, but they are not located side-by-side.
I spent a number of days in Florida, first at St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Cape Canaveral, Fort Lauderdale, Key West, Marathon, the Everglades, Flamingo, Fort Myers and Siesta Beach. I have mixed feelings about Florida. Its warmth, beaches and convenience is appealing. The extent of the commercialization compared to other destinations is not.
From there I drove to Mobile, Alabama then to New Orleans and continued on to Baton Rouge. Then to Hot Springs, Arkansas and via the Ozark Mountains to Kimberling, Missouri. Then via Oklahoma to Dodge City. I never forgot a young man’s grave wooden cross on Boot Hill with the simple saying “He drank too much and loved unwisely.”
I enjoyed traveling across the Great Plains and via the Oklahoma Panhandle to Raton, New Mexico. I consider the states of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to be among the most topographically stunning places on the planet. The south and north rims of the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef National Parks and Monument Valley were high altitude “red desert” sights that, ironically, reminded me of central Afghanistan, where I had been sixteen years earlier.
I later continued to Wyoming to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Park. By then, I was ready to head back to Ottawa, through South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, crossing back to Canada at Sault St. Marie.
As a Canadian, I never really considered the USA as an exotic or particularly appealing destination. Yet over the years I have warmed to this country more and more. And ultimately, the US National Park system is one of the world’s crown jewels. With the Canadian dollar now at parity or above, I consider the USA one of the best value destinations in the world.