The world cup is almost upon us, which is brilliant news for me because I’ve planned to be out of the country for the duration. What’s more, I’m going to America!
The idea is to take a month-long coast-to-coast road/plane/train trip, during which I’ll be behind the wheel for precisely zero miles because I still haven’t passed my test.
I’ll still have plenty to offer, mind: I can program the sat-nav and fiddle with the iPod. And since I’ll be well-rested, when we inevitably get abducted by crazed mountain people, I can run for help really quickly. Certainly faster than anyone else. Or at least, that’s what I’m hoping.
Anyway, the primary appeal of a road trip is the lack of a plan: you have a start point and a finish line, and what you do in-between is up to you. Having said that, I know from bitter experience that it’s a good idea to draw up a sort of “fuzzy itinerary”, just to make sure you keep on the move. Otherwise there comes a point about two-thirds of the way through where you realise you’ve got to cover 2,000 miles in four days, and your car is instantly transformed into a mobile close-quarters confinement unit: a cell with pretty scenery zipping past the windows, but a cell nonetheless. You drive until it gets dark, then endure a tense hunt for a motel. Inevitably, when you’re at your most frazzled, the town you’ve chosen to stop in will be holding a UFO convention or a bizarre asparagus-worshipping parade or something, and all hospitable rooms will be taken, forcing you to spend the night in a cheap and sinister motel room.
More than once, I’ve been able to sleep only with a chair jammed up against the door handle, in the deluded belief that this might thwart opportunistic killers. (In all likelihood it’d simply annoy them – after all, if you’re the sort of person who randomly murders tourists in motel rooms, it’s fair to say you’re an exceptionally “driven” individual, and for all your faults, it takes more than a blocked doorway to prevent you from living your dreams.)
All of which means it’s a good idea to plot a loose string of waypoints, with plenty of “wriggle room” time-wise, in case you break down or get plucked off the road by a tornado and thrown into the middle of the sea. The next problem is working out what bits you want to see. Which is where guidebooks come in.
I have a big problem with guidebooks. I can’t stop buying them. It’s a sickness. I can’t embark on any sort of trip without the necessary guidebook. If they sold a guidebook telling me what to see and do in my own garden, I’d buy it. On some level, I must believe a guidebook is a sort of magic shield which protects the user from misfortune, confusion or disappointment, even though actual experience tells me they’re often a distraction at best and a holiday-wrecking dictator at worst.
If I’m in London, and I’m peckish, I’ll pop into the nearest acceptable-looking sandwich shop. If it turns out to be disappointing, it’s no big deal – but I will definately feel ripped off at those prices! If I’m on holiday, I have to stand awkwardly on the pavement outside a cafe, squinting at its entry in the guidebook before I’ll consider stepping inside, as though a) an underwhelming meal might kill me, and b) the guidebook isn’t full of shit anyway, like the Time Out Guide to Paris, which once made me schlep 500 miles to sit in a pretentious Parisian version of a Hoxton gastropub, where the seating was deliberately rickety and uncomfortable (and in some cases broken) because apparently it wouldn’t have been cool to relax in a comfy chair – an anti-conformist philosophy which also prevented the staff from providing any kind of identifiable service whatsoever, apart from standing behind the bar reading texts and nodding in time to the music.
Rather than learning from experience, and not buying a guidebook at all, I now have to buy more than one. For my last holiday, I purchased three. For my upcoming trip, I already have five. Five guidebooks. Some are generic (covering the entire US), others are more specific (such as the two different “road trip” books I’ve bought). But that’s still not enough. I’m also obsessively creating routes on Google maps, and researching nearby attractions online – which I can then cross-reference in the guidebooks. In short, I’m trying to guarantee every experience in advance – the polar opposite of what a road trip is supposed to be all about.
Clearly it’s time to toss all my guidebooks out once and for all. But I can’t. Because no one’s written a guide to the best kind of skip to throw them into. Yet.