Want to see another side of America? Stick out your thumb

In our globalised age, it's often hard to feel you've ever left home. Kevin Connolly gets a sense of being elsewhere by hitch-hiking 1,000 miles from Miami to New York
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The Independent Travel

Remember what it was like to travel in the days before the Internet, global commerce, the mobile telephone and satellite television? You could enjoy that delicious sense of being absolutely elsewhere without going any further than Calais - the coffee and the newspapers were different, and even if you chose to watch BBC television from the distant transmitter across the sea, it was like looking at the screen through blotting paper.

Remember what it was like to travel in the days before the Internet, global commerce, the mobile telephone and satellite television? You could enjoy that delicious sense of being absolutely elsewhere without going any further than Calais - the coffee and the newspapers were different, and even if you chose to watch BBC television from the distant transmitter across the sea, it was like looking at the screen through blotting paper.

Today, it is almost impossible to get to elsewhere, and it's getting harder.I turned on a French language news channel in Israel a few years ago and was startled to see pictures of my house in Belfast which had been the backdrop to a murder. I've logged on to my bank account from a hotel room in Bogota and paid my council tax, and even, on a coin-operated computer booth on Times Square, followed the ball-by-ball commentary as my cricket team collapsed miserably in yet another Lord's final.

No, the only elsewhere left on earth is the elsewhere we create ourselves - which was why I decided to spend my holiday this year hitch-hiking from Miami to New York.

After all, when we travel these days we are like those little glass pods filled with cash that used to be conducted by puffs of condensed air around networks of tubes in old-fashioned department stores. We touch and feel nothing as we are loaded, dispatched, and unpacked.

So it was that I found myself setting my heavy rucksack down beside Interstate 95 on an August afternoon so sultry that it felt as though the clouds were sweating. Interstate 95 is the great concrete flume down which New Yorkers are funnelled towards Florida's sub-tropical sunshine, and it seemed a forbidding prospect at first, with its towering trucks powering their way back up into the industrial north-eastern states.

It didn't help that my arrival in Florida coincided with Hurricane Charley's. The only sign of it at first was a spiteful, needling, wind with a real edge of menace to it - like the hot breath of an attacker in the moments before the first blow falls.

The project, in this unpromising climate, got off to a slow start. I assumed that the difficulty of persuading motorists to stop for me was something to do with the gathering storm. But I learnt from the first couple of drivers who eventually took pity on me that hitching in Florida can be particularly difficult whatever the weather. This is because in the late 1980s the highways were briefly terrorised by a woman called Aileen Wuornos, who murdered several men after they stopped to pick her up. Wuornos, executed in 2002, was later portrayed by Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron in the film Monster. That kind of memory tends to linger.

But after one or two lifts I began to feel the real benefit of hitching, which is the way it plunges you right into the daily lives of the people you're riding with.

I got a slightly different view of Hurricane Charley than you tend to get from TV bulletins. A couple of police officers in central Florida marvelled at the way British tourists tended to ignore severe weather warnings until the very last possible moment - grudgingly admiring our readiness to risk our lives in order to extract the maximum possible value for money from our annual two-week package. A crew of emergency linemen, who travel the country repairing overhead electricity cables in the wake of national disasters, were infuriated by the profiteering which came in the wake of the storm. Motels in safe areas were reported to be doubling prices, they said. And bags of ice cubes, those indispensable building bricks of American civilisation in the humid Florida swamps, were going for $8 (£4.40) a bag. I never got to the bottom of the bigger question, which is why Americans don't just make ice in the freezer at home? But I felt I was hearing at first hand the authentic tones of Americans coping stoically with the annual disasters of the storm season.

My route took me past the home of Walt Disney in Orlando, Florida, through Georgia and the Carolinas, on into Virginia and across the outskirts of Washington DC before leading me into New York city via the densely packed suburbs of Maryland and New Jersey - well over 1,000 miles in all. Along the way I was picked up by soccer grannies, war veterans, national guardsmen home on leave from Iraq, and a Korean Elvis impersonator. I discussed America's obesity epidemic with a guy called Dave (who coyly admitted that he'd once had to buy two aircraft seats for himself - one for each buttock - on an internal flight to California), and the battle for the White House with among others, a respectable motherly democrat whose bumper sticker said: "Lick Bush and Dick in '04."

It was an America wholly different from the country which emerges when you travel on a package holiday and meet only waiters, amusement park ticket sellers, bar tenders, and car hire agents. The Americans who picked me up were friendly, cheerful, optimistic, unfailingly polite, and generally bursting to talk. Most of the people I met didn't have passports (estimates vary, but possibly as few as 7 per cent of Americans do) and while they had no desire to travel abroad themselves, they were keen to know how things were in my remote corner of Europe. One was even disappointed to discover that the fact that his great-great grandparents were born in Lincoln did not mean that he had Irish roots.

I was carried on through the Deep South, mainly by the kind of truckers who'd be seen by most other Americans as rednecks, the kind of guys who think ice-cream vans should have gun racks, and whose bumper stickers frequently feature the scarlet and blue battle flag of the vanquished Confederacy.

From them came constant reminders of how raw the wounds of the American Civil War can still seem - and from one came a well-practised definition of what a redneck actually is. "You know we love Nascar [National Stock Car Racing] automobile races?" he said. I nodded. "Well, a redneck is someone who thinks the last words of The Star Spangled Banner are 'Gentlemen, start your engines', because that's the way you hear it down at the track."

I learnt more about the United States in my time on the road than I learnt in a dozen previous visits - and I even learnt something about myself when I lost my wallet deep in South Carolina.

I'd recommend hitching to anyone who's interested in that journey to elsewhere rather than to somewhere in particular. Avoid the internet sites on the subject which tend to be where hippies went a couple of years back when they realised the 1960s had suddenly ended. Just get out there and do it.

A Christian minister who picked me up became very thoughtful when I explained what I was doing, and he suggested it was a metaphor for life itself. You don't know where the journey's leading and even when you feel independent you really rely on the kindness of strangers. It is perhaps - OK, definitely - a bit of a pompous claim, and journalists as a rule are too down-to-earth for that kind of thing; but I thought I'd leave him with the last word here. After all, he was the driver, and I'm just a hitcher, so in the circumstances, it seems only polite.

Kevin Connolly's series 'The Last Hitch-Hiker Rides Again' begins today on Radio 4 at 5.40pm and continues for the next two Sundays

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.com) offers "open jaw" flights from Heathrow to Miami, returning from New York, from £240 with American Airlines if booked by 26 October. It also offers flights with British Airways from £344 return for travel until 16 December.

Further information

Visit www.seeamerica.org.

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