How to finish an amazing year as an exchange student in the US (see my travel diaries articles on my life on campus, and my trips to New York City, Washington DC, Florida, New Orleans, and New England + Montreal)?
By pursuing the adventure of a lifetime: a 6-week road trip around the U.S.A., from coast to coast and back, with 3 friends from our group of 10 French students…

Our budget being severely limited, we rented the cheapest car we could get. After calling rental places like “Rent a Wreck”. we settled for a mid-size car from a relatively more mainstream rental agency, which, along with our tents, was going to become our home for… a large part of the trip. But I’m getting ahead of myself 😅.

On a sunny Saturday morning of May 1988, a couple days after our final exams, we set off from the campus, and head north-west knowing that by the time we close the loop, we’ll have lived a lot…

Sadly, the first roll of film from the trip (which also included some of my favorite pictures from the campus and Philadelphia got stolen/lost after a silly accident, so I won’t be able to share my memories of the brightly colored wooden houses dotting the rolling Pennsylvania hills we passed on our way, or of the quaint town of Medina, Ohio.

The visual part of our story starts … with a snapshot of one of the first urban milestones of our trip: Chicago. The inhospitable weather combined with the challenges faced by my friend as he got his bagpack stollen, including his wallet and other valuables, didn’t give us the best first impression of the Windy City – but we did find some comfort in the quasi trademarked “deep dish pizzas”. If I had been told that almost 35 years later my older son would move there…

From there, we head due west and start experiencing the sheer size of the US and associated looooooong distances. The monotony of the vast expanses of flat land, combined with the mind-numbing straight roads, are conducive to introspection. From time to time we are drawn out of our contemplation by the beeps of our speed trap detector, which encourages us to slow down to the 55mph limit then pervasive, and avoid innumerable fines.

Even though the train tracks running along the motorway look modern, they also remind us of the trailblazers who opened these new routes in the not so distant past. Hearing on the radio about the results of the presidential election in France in this environments feels surreal – we literally feel like we are in a different world.

We plant our tents in a “free” patch of land between the tracks and a small road. The poles remind us of the “Telegraph Road” 😊. As we’re having a camping-grade dinner (pasta + canned tuna + tomato sauce), a freight train arrives. It seems to run forever – probably 80 to 100 wagons! And they turned out to come every 45 minutes… we changed our minds and decided to go further away to try to get some sleep…

As we reach the next milestone on our journey, Des Moines, we are stuck by… its emptiness. Vast parking lots echoing the emptiness of the vast plains stretching endlessly around the city. It feels almost like a ghost town, dominated by a… big gun! We move on.

Des Moines, USA, 1988

And then, we reach the mythical Far West! It lives up to our (admittedly clichéd) expectations, of huge herds and hatted cowboys riding their horses. It turns out this ranch, with 25,000 heads of cattle, is really American size. Beyond the sheer size, the industrialized process put in place strikes us: there is no grass to be seen; the cows have to stick their heads through the barriers to reach food poured into mangers from trucks driving by….

As we cross (crawl through?) yet another Great Plains state, Nebraska, we stop at the Pioneer Village museum, proudly sharing the history of the people who claimed this land.

Pioneer Village, Nebraska, USA, 1988

We are a bit shocked by the harshness of the welcome message: “The cowards never started. The weak died on the way. Only the strong arrived. They were the pioneers.” Some of this spirit has obviously been carried forward in the American culture…

As often in US museums, the displays are interesting and entertaining – glorifying the courage of the people who lived there, recreating their environments with original artefacts, and even reenacting some of the key trades.

Pioneer Village, Nebraska, USA, 1988
Pioneer Village, Nebraska, USA, 1988

We chat with an older woman who has spent all her life there. She tells us about her family, her children who moved far away to big cities to find jobs, and of the dream of her life: to see the ocean before she dies. Emotion.

As we continue making our way West, we keep passing other American icons: the larger than life trucks …

… and choppers

Even though I had read about it, feeling it is an entirely different, mind-bending experience. Space feels like it has shrunk to a flat 2 dimensions, and we have moved to a different scale. We are now driving through literally hundreds of miles of totally straight roads on totally flat, quasi desert land. We get to feel organically the emptiness of the space we are crossing, dashing along the narrow asphalt strip. The rare trees standing stoically by the side of the road and scorched by the sun are visible from miles away. Then, like stoic sentinels, they gradually vanish in our rear view mirrors. We are grateful for the air conditioning of our mobile cocoon… and for our radar detector!

Compared to this, Europe, and France, feel like a miniature world…

Finally, the so highly anticipated Rocky Mountains start appearing on the horizon, like the promised land!

Sceneries look quite familiar again to our European eyes.

We are relieved to enjoy a type of nature we are used to. Settling with our tents in this environment is rejuvenating.

Some new little friends even come out to greet us …

… and play.

From higher up, the green high-altitude plateaus are gorgeous.

Talking with close ones even briefly is rare, cash draining, and… takes a bit of a miracle.

Occasional comfort food gives us a welcomed break from our rudimentary road-side self cooking.

Truly ancient (centuries old) man-made architecture is so rare in the US that it deserves special attention, especially when it is as stunning as the Mesa Verde ancestral cliff dwellings.
We are somewhat bewildered to see in some American tourist focused explanations references to the natives who built these magnificent constructions as “our ancestors”! – To us, this feels like a shameless rewriting of history…

Our (so far) trusty ride is starting to show sign of use …

… and the Colorado roads give me the opportunity to take one of my favorite shots of all times. I go in the middle of the deserted road, put my camera down on the asphalt, aim, and click…

For me, this picture captures what I felt on this first leg of the the trip: the vastness of space, the horizontality, the vital importance of the road, the relatively marginal human presence. To date, it’s one of my portfolio favorites.

Next: The West!
Stay tuned.