A boyhood dream of an American adventure comes true
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to travel to the US. When I was growing up in the UK I would spend the weekends with my grandparents. While there, I remember watching films like Smokey and the Bandit, Forrest Gump, Home Alone and many other classics that portray the beauty and excitement of that country.
Actually, my grandfather was a bigger influence on my fascination with the US. He was in the Merchant Navy and spent a lot of time traveling to North America. Whenever I visited on a weekend, my grandfather would sit down beside me with a scrapbook that held his dearest memories: pictures of sailors working and having a good time, majestic views and famous celebrities.
My grandfather told me how he met Frank Sinatra in a jazz bar in Chicago after sailing through Lake Michigan. Another time, he managed to get a picture with the entire New York Yankees right after a game. The stories that he told made it seem as if he was the luckiest person on earth. I would sit there for hours, listening to every word.
The best piece of advice my grandfather told me was: “Make sure you travel. Make sure you travel often. Experience the world. Don’t settle for ‘home’. Home will always be here, it doesn’t change. It never does. Go and see what the world has to offer you.” I live by those words now.
Planning Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Because of my grandfather’s stories I wanted to travel—feel what he felt, stand in locations in his scrapbook. So, as soon as my friend Jono and I had our exam timetables, we planned our routes around the US. We decided that while we were there, we wanted to try as many forms of transportation as possible. We planned routes on planes, trains and automobiles.
We were set to fly into New York on June 16, stay for five days before taking a Greyhound bus to Atlantic City. From AC, we would take another bus straight to Washington D.C. Again, and like many places we arrived at, we would stay there for another five days. We were to take the train to Philadelphia, after a day trip to Baltimore.
We saw a cheap(ish) train from Philadelphia to Penn State. The prospect of going to Penn State wasn’t one that excited Jono, however, I managed to persuade him that it would be sweet. It is a college town after all. We had both mentioned how we’d like to enter a ‘frat’ party. We decided that from Penn State, we would travel to Ohio State. That way if we failed in Penn State, there was another chance in Ohio.
An 11-hour coach journey would see us leave Ohio and head for Chicago. By this point we knew that we would be exhausted from all of the possible partying, junk food and long hours on the road. We decided we’d stay in Chicago for eight days, which would give us enough time to really explore the city. More importantly, though, to get back the wind in our sails.
Jono and I then planned on traveling to San Francisco. The prospect of a lengthy car journey was cut short when it was revealed the main reason we wanted to do it—Route 66—had been, in part, shut down. Jono and I, therefore, decided to fly. I have to admit we saved 28 hours, accordingly to Google Maps route planner.
From San Francisco, we finally decided to drive. We would drive to Yosemite National Park and camp for a few days. I wish we had planned for how cold it would be at night. Thankfully, there were many shops to buy blankets upon arrival, in case you’re wondering.
The penultimate leg of our journey would see us continue driving from Yosemite to Los Angeles. Driving in the US is the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Ok, driving on the wrong side of the road is somewhat scary… at first. Nevertheless, driving an automatic car on straight roads; seriously can’t fault it.
Last, but not least, we would then take another Greyhound from Los Angeles to San Diego. We planned to stay in San Diego for a week, but we ended up there for two. We’d read so many reviews about San Diego’s laid-back attitude and it sounded just the place to rest our wanderlust bodies and minds after a great adventure. You may be wondering why we stayed in San Diego for a week longer—and quite rightly so. Los Angeles was a disaster, so we left after a day…
So there it was. A summer in the US planned out for my friend Jono and I.
New York City, Chicago and San Diego
Brooklyn Bridge at Sunset
We arrived in New York City and were taken aback by how surreal the atmosphere was. It was as if all of my grandfather’s pictures were coming to life and I was the main focal point. He used to tell me, “When you get to New York City, on a clear day, you have to watch the sunset from the Brooklyn Bridge. If you do one thing in New York, it has to be that.” This had been drilled into me. I drilled this into Jono. The sun sets over the Manhattan skyline. The view is breathtaking. I remember seeing films with similar scenes in them when I was a child. It was as if I were in a movie. Jono and I fell silent. For that moment, we were at one with ourselves. The silence broke shortly thereafter.
“We’re here!” said Jono. We had arrived.
Undeterred by the lack of celebrity spotting, we continued on our travels.
Chicago was the next place I had been excited for. I’m a big jazz fan. I love Frank Sinatra. I love musicals. The Blues Brothers, etc. Chicago, well, it’s the best place if you love jazz. There’s a lot of history and culture from Chicago, and it’s hard to compare it to anywhere else I’ve ever been. As we entered Chicago, we saw the sign for Route 66. When you hear things like ‘Route 66’ mentioned your entire life, and then you suddenly see a sign for it it’s special. Chicago stood out for me, not because of the culture and jazz element, yet, but because of the kindness of the locals.
Before entering Chicago, we had read about how the city was a dangerous place. We experienced nothing but the contrary. We arrived anxiously thinking that we may be in trouble at some point in the city but how wrong were we. Whenever we were lost, locals would come up to us and ask if we needed help. At bus stops or train stations around the city, strangers would start a conversation with us. Give us recommendations for places to visit and eat. We loved Chicago.
The last city to stand out city on our trip was San Diego. After a grueling few months of traveling, sleeping in hostels, eating junk food and a disastrous time in Los Angeles, we were ready to relax in San Diego for two weeks before flying back to London.
And did we relax… San Diego stands out for one simple reason. It feels like a completely different universe to the rest of the US we visited. Where New York and San Francisco were quite fast paced and frantic, San Diego was chilled. The people were friendly and laid back. Unlike LA, everything was relatively affordable too.
Unknown to Jono and I, we had decided to book a hostel in the Hill Crest area. We stayed for two weeks at a place called Zoo Hostel. It was fantastic. The owners took us to Mexico for a night to party in Tijuana with the rest of the hostel’s guests. There were other people that were there for a few weeks, too. Over the course of that two-week period, we made friends for life. Friends that we shared memories with.
Jono and I create our own scrapbook. We created our own memories. Our own feelings. One day I hope that I can show my grandchildren my scrapbook. I hope they follow in my footsteps, as I did with my grandfather. I will be offering them the same advice he offered me.
ESTA Made This Adventure Possible
While planning the trip to the US, there are a lot of problems that you might come across. Booking flights, coaches, hotels, car rentals, all kinds of issues can arise. Potentially, the most problematic comes in the form of a US visa. Well, thankfully, that wasn’t the case for this adventure.
Luckily, being from the UK, Jono and I were able to travel to the US without a visa. Instead, we acquired the little-known resource called the ESTA. With the ESTA, you can travel to the US for up to 90 days as a tourist or to conduct business. Quite convenient then considering that we had planned a three-month adventure.
The ESTA application is completed online, so there is no need to even leave your house, never mind traveling to an embassy. The online application takes around 30 minutes from start to finish. Shortly thereafter, you should receive your travel authorization. You can find out by checking your ESTA status on the US Government ESTA website.
It’s not just the people from the UK that this resource is available for either, there are 38 countries that are eligible to travel to the US using ESTA. How much is an ESTA? Just USD14.