We are a South African family who have driven our Land Rover Defender to over 65 countries on five continents over 200 000 miles. We believe that, of all the countries we have visited, The United States of America offers one of the most rewarding overland experiences.
Here are a few reason why:
- Variety of Terrain.
Jungle, desert, mountains, beaches, glaciers and the wide open plains. Whichever terrain you seek to explore the USA has it. And the country only does spectacular. Zion National Park is perfect, every peak and tree and grain of sand is perfect. Utah is a red paradise (and Salt Lake City once hosted the Winter Olympics), Alaska is the final frontier where salmon and bears and glaciers compete for your attention, Florida has beaches jungles and swamps and all kinds of crazy. The South is greener than England. The entire West Coast is an overlanders wet dream (it is worth noting that we did not spend nearly enough time exploring the East Coast, but we plan to rectify that mistake one day).
- Great People.
Americans man! On our very first day in the USA we stood in a Brownsville, Texas supermarket parking lot and unloaded a cart of BBQ ribs, cold beer and bags of fresh fruit and vegetables into the Land Rover. A lady approached us to chat and we told her how we had driven up from Argentina. “It’s ok”, she said, “you are home now”. In California and Washington State and Pittsburgh and a dozen other cities and towns we were welcomed into homes and communities, we learned to say things like “you’re good”, and “that’s funny” and “say what now”. The generosity and friendship we experienced was heartwarming and humbling.
- $3.00 a Gallon.
In Europe we paid $2.00 a litre for diesel and in West Africa a litre will cost $1.00 and on average we paid less than half that per gallon in the USA which essentially meant that we could drive four times further than we could in most other countries. This is a very good thing simply because of the size of the country - you can drive all day and still be California and crossing Texas alone can take the better part of a week (especially if you are driving a Land Rover Defender). Cheap fuel also means you have more money for experiences, for a good campsite and a decent meal. If you do all your shopping at QFC and similar point awarding retailers you can save even more money on fuel with the accrued loyalty points (yes, I am a penny pincher, but savings pennies opens a lot of doors eventually).
- Epic Roads.
If you are an overlander you have to love driving, the two go together like brats and burgers, dust and diesel, NFL and ad breaks. America has excellent paved and unpaved roads connecting north to south, east to west. It is the roads which have dictated the American style - V8 and Harley Davidson. What can be better than cruising down Route 66 listening to Elvis and sipping on an ice cold drink?
- Affordable Vehicles.
Yes, you could spend $100 000 on an overland vehicle, but you can also spend $1000 on a decent old Ford pick up, throw some camping gear in the back and hit the road. Older vans and campers can also be bought for a bargain and O O O O’Reillys Auto Parts will usually have all the spare or replacement parts you need. We have heard of people buying a camper in Alaska and driving all the way to Argentina and selling the vehicle for more than they paid for it. That is a win.
We love Kampsites Of America. Yes, they can sometimes be a bit gaudy and corporate but we could spend a week at the KOA in Flagstaff Arizona, relaxing after another hard work Overland Expo, washing clothing, enjoying hot showers, bacon and eggs for breakfast, toasted sandwiches for lunch, a steak on the grill for dinner (there is a large supermarket a short walk away). The US has some amazing campsites, in general, if you can escape the fifth wheel and RV concrete campsites. Air conditioned bathrooms and recreation areas, swimming pools and games rooms, vending machines, washing machines and high speed internet are all available or you can sit under the stars surrounded by naked hippies in the Saline Valley, the choice is yours. And investing in loyalty cards can almost half the cost of an affiliated campsite.
- Bureau of Land Management.
BLM land can be an overlanders best friend or his worst enemy, it all depends on who pulls up to camp next to your idyllic, secluded campsite. The BLM office is usually staffed by a well trained and informed elderly gentleman with hikers legs and khaki shorts who can advise on trail condition, camp availability and points of interest. Some of the best camps we experienced were on BLM land, Moab is a great example - you can pay 40 bucks to be surrounded by walls of RV or you can drive up out of the town and head out onto the BLM where you can watch the sun set, alone with your love by your side.
- The USA has great neighbors.
The country has a bad reputation but Mexico is much more than just a border crisis and cartels. Driving from San Diego into Tijuana is like stepping through a portal into another dimension and Baja, California offers all the experiences and attractions which international overlanders crave. It is the best of both worlds and you will find many American PanAm vets hanging out on the beach or in the mountains, stretching the dollar as far as it can while eating a fish taco and sipping an ice cold Tecate. Canada is an outdoor mans paradise and where overlanding ends river navigation begins.
- The National Parks.
Well organized, many and massive the twenty nine national parks are reason alone to visit America. The West Coast in particular boasts an amazing array of protected land and Alaska, though difficult and expensive to visit, is worth the journey. The parks are almost all open most of the year though some, ie Crater Lake and Rock Mountain NP, do close through the darkest, coldest winter months. It is best to avoid the parks over the holidays as camping can be impossible without booking and the trails and through roads resemble LA gridlock. A parks card will save a lot on entrance and camping fees and are worth the initial investment.
- The Food.
Oh man, the food. From haute cuisine to junk food, the US is second to none for the variety and quality of food. Southern BBQ is legendary for a reason and a meat man’s fantasy, the fruit and vegetables are delicious and cherry season on the west coast is the best season on the west coast. Every state has it’s own burger joint but our favorite by far is In n Out Burger - triple triple animal style fries with chocolate shake - the first thing we eat when we arrive in California and the last thing we eat when we leave. San Francisco is foodie paradise and you have not lived until you have had a local take you to his favorite restaurants. The best beer is not Bud Light, hell no, not even close. With thousands of micro breweries you are spoilt for choice with every flavor and type of beer imaginable available. I enjoyed the IPA’s but, to be honest, the beer I enjoyed most often was the simple yet refreshing Yuengling lager from the oldest brewery in the States.
Sure, the US does not have the history of Europe but what she lacks in ancient architecture she makes up with the modern history of a people who created the the most powerful country on the planet in a relatively short space of time. And these people achieved this feat through innovation, perseverance and hard work. America has the space and resources which allow impossible dreams to become a reality and American innovators overflow with curiosity and creativity. The wealthier cities teem with art and culture while the country is dotted with islands of self expression. From Hollywood to Nashville, Miami to New York, the planets greatest minds gravitate to the USA where they contribute to the culture which leads the world. If you are a history buff you can explore the country looking for evidence of the Civil War, the gold rush or the American Revolutionary War.
As foreigners we certainly felt at home in the USA and we plan to drive back to the land of the free, home of the brave after a loop around Africa and via Russia.
Graeme Bell was born in 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.