Road Trip USA

A gloriously sunny Autumn day; a Ford Mustang with the top down; Ian 'Chief Wherethefuckarewe' Teh riding shotgun with a big Cheshire cat grin on his face; the Pacific Ocean 3,500 miles to the west. So began our photographer's road trip cliché across the USA, on a route that would take us along the Appalachian Trail, through Pennsylvania and Virginia, then south to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana before heading west to California through New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

We soon learnt the hard way that post 9/11 America was a mighty paranoid place. The seemingly aimless meanderings of two suspicious looking strangers in a rental car were enough to bring the unwelcome attention of the police on numerous occasions. The most serious of these found us standing in the blazing Louisiana sun waiting to be questioned by the FBI while a small group of redneck cops took a special interest in my dodgy-looking, Anglo-Malaysian companion's British passport, which they passed around and pored over, as though it might reveal, coded within its pages, the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden himself. When Mulder and Scully finally showed up, their razor-sharp FBI interrogation training was mercilessly deployed. "You boys ain't terrorists now are ya?" was - I kid you not - one particularly memorable question. After this farcical yet unsettling scene had been played out and we were allowed on our way I had one question for Ian: "Mate, what's up with your passport?" He handed it across to me in silence. Plastered across the entire first page was an enormous entry visa - from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I was still laughing my arse off twenty miles later as we crossed Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans.

Avoiding the huge, sprawling metropolises, we went in search of small town America. My romanticised vision of this fabled place was drawn from a lifetime's exposure to American literature, Hollywood cinema, the songs of Randy Newman and Bob Dylan and, of course, Robert Frank's seminal photobook The Americans. But the reality left me frustrated and restless, gripped by a powerful urge to keep moving, as if the real America might be found around the next corner or in the next town; because to drive across this vast country is to face up to the stark discrepancy between popular mythology and the mind-numbing banality of small town life, where each place appears to be a facsimile of the last. This is the real America, with its malls, chain motels and carbon-copy main streets chock-a-block with fast food outlets and gas stations yet often strangely bereft of life. The lovely old bloke we came across in one no-horse town seemed to be the sole living occupant (above). He had acquiesced to his wife's wish to relocate from the vibrant, urban bustle of Chicago to Nowheresville, Alabama, and the poor man was practically suicidal with boredom, though he still made us laugh with his good-natured ranting: "I'm a city boy! I loved Chicago! Look at me now, standing in the street like a damned fool!" I imagined myself in his position and felt desperately homesick on his behalf, yet part of the pleasure of travel, as Jean Baudrillard observed, is "to dive into places where others are compelled to live and come out unscathed, full of the malicious pleasure of abandoning them to their fate." We jumped back in the car, wished him luck and did exactly that.  View images »»