25 Things We “Learnt” Overlanding the USA

  1. American people say, “That’s funny,” when they are amused, which makes you doubt whether all the other funny crap you said was not funny.
  2. You can return any item bought, in any state of use, at any time and you will either receive a full credit, your money back, or a new item (OK, not always, but REI will happily take any returns).
  3. In most states, you can turn right on a red light if there is no oncoming traffic and crossing a solid line is usually legal.
  4. You can withdraw money at a drive-through ATM. There are also drive-through liquor stores, drive-through sex shops, drive-through libraries and drive-through wedding chapels.
  5. Smoking cigarettes is social suicide. Only the poor smoke publicly. All smoke shops are owned by Asian Americans.
  6. A foreigner can open a bank account with only 50 bucks and a passport.
  7. Americans are politically correct. South Africans are not; we raised many eyebrows.
  8. The cities are huge and low level with skyscrapers only in the city center. You absolutely must own a vehicle if you live anywhere but Manhattan.
  9. Most Americans believe that they are inherently good, are incredibly generous, and take care of their friends and families. Military veterans are highly respected and regarded as heroes, as are policemen and firefighters. Most Americans are polite and conservative and enjoy small talk. Elders should be addressed as “Sir” and “Ma’am,” especially in rural areas and down south.
  10. The South is prosperous, clean, beautiful, and surprisingly “liberal.” There are more perfectly trimmed green lawns in the South than in a thousand Englands. Texas is not part of the South, and neither is Florida.
  11. The Imperial System is incredibly annoying and is used by everyone except scientists and the military. What the hell is an eighth of an inch?
  12. In many states, you can refill your drink as many times as you want at a fast food joint and the quality of the fast food available depends on the wealth of the neighbourhood, regardless of the brand. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Chipotle always suck. Wendy’s can be OK. In-N-Out Burger rules.
  13. You can buy delicious, healthy, but expensive food or GMO, plastic, fatty, sugary dirt-cheap food. Buying bulk is much cheaper than buying individual products.
  14. There are two types of BBQ: the quick and easy brats and burgers (brats are like hotdogs) and the day-long Southern BBQ. Both have their merits if done well but Southern BBQ is probably the best meat you will ever taste.
  15. Americans do not do small, Americans do massive as they have so much space to fill. The country is enormous, hence the cities are huge, the roads are huge, the vehicle are huge, and the houses are huge. Americans are consumers, partly, because they have these huge spaces to fill. One household owning six or seven cars is not uncommon.
  16. America has a gigantic talent pool and the talented can make it big. Very, very BIG.
  17. Healthcare is big business and extremely expensive. Many people self-medicate; we did. The election of a president is a year-long reality TV show funded by corporations who have a monopoly but hide behind bought-out brand names.
  18. Mainland USA is known to Alaskans as “the lower 48.”
  19. There are thousands of brands of beer—many good, many not. Coors Lite is gross, Yuengling Lager made me happy and fat.
  20. Mormonism is an American religion created by Americans for Americans and exported to the rest of the world via a persistent knock on the door. Not all Mormons have multiple wives and Salt Lake City is a great city.
  21. An NFL football game can take 4 hours to play and there is an advert break whenever there is a stoppage in play. Brats and burgers are consumed while watching football.
  22. Many, if not most Americans are fit and healthy. The obese exist and they park in handicapped parking spaces.
  23. Overnighting in a 24-hour Walmart parking lot is legal and common, except in California where free stuff is illegal.
  24. Art imitates life and to drive across America is to drive through your favourite movies. Frat houses have brown walls, are double story, and have white trimming. The desert is red and crisscrossed by tumbleweed, Utah is heaven on Earth, New York has a unique atmosphere, Alaska is the great wilderness. Much of the country is sublime, almost incomprehensibly beautiful, except for Idaho. And huge swaths of Texas. And all the states in the middle (but even they have their own charm).
  25. There is no better way to spend a Saturday than working on your truck listening to NPR (National Public Radio). Shows like “Car Talk,” “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and “All Things Considered” represent the very best of America—humour, intelligence, community, and curiosity.

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Graeme Bell was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Together with his wife and two children he has spent much of his adult life chasing momentous experiences and campfire smoke across five continents. He has traveled overland to Kilimanjaro from Cape Town, circumnavigated South America, explored from Argentina to Alaska, Europe to Asia, and across the entirety of coastal Western Africa, all in a trusty Land Rover. Graeme and the family are now encouraging their self-built Defender live-in camper (and permanent home since 2012) to find a way from Cape Town to Vladivostok.Graeme is a member of The Explorers Club, the author of five excellent books, and an Overland Journal contributor since 2015.