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Finding the unfamiliar in America’s heartland

written by Hannah Edensor October 28, 2019
Travellers at Monument Valley

If you’re lacking adventure and a large dose of diversity, a road trip through America is the perfect remedy. Although if I’m being honest, this wasn’t always my view; with several US stamps on my passport, I’d never actually ventured beyond the tourist traps of California and Las Vegas.

So for me, chasing something ‘new’ in a place I’d frequented many times felt like an odd choice. As it turned out, my sister’s and my decision to roadtrip the heartland was one of the best ones we’d ever made. On this expedition, I finally started to peel back some of the many layers of America.

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Nature’s playground

Arizona in all her glory. Image by Phoebe Escott-Kenny.

Having been blinded by the city lights of America’s West, I decided it was time to venture into the heart of this enormous country. And as soon as you hit the highway, nature opens up an entirely new view. Rolling, red deserts dotted with towering rock formations, the Nevada roads are long and lonesome and make excellent backdrops for classic Western films. Everything feels dusty and vast, and our car quickly earned an earthy red film. 

Page, in Arizona, was our first venture out of America’s tourist strip, and the town was tiny and unapologetic. A kind but frank woman checked us into an old motel sitting beneath a flickering neon light, and we called it a day. Rising early the next morning, we met a Navajo guide for our expedition to Antelope Canyon. We were in Navajo Nation territory, the largest reservation in the US, so without a guide you won’t be going anywhere. 

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Known in Navajo tradition as “the place where water runs through rocks”, the canyons were formed over thousands of years of floods running through the sandstone. The end results were these mystical passageways, with soft sand floors and slender walls that curve up toward the sun. A series of mini ‘cathedrals’ appear throughout the winding passages, with glimpses of sunlight transforming the rock walls from magenta to burnt orange and back to earthy red. The sites of Antelope Canyon – both Upper and Lower – are sacred to the Navajo people and command reverence when entering them. Our guide told us stories of the region’s history and their sacred connection to Mother Nature; the power of this spiritual site was palpable, leaving everyone on the tour in quiet awe. 

Beyond Antelope Canyon, we witnessed another layer of America’s vast environment. Just five or so miles out of Page, a lookout over Horseshoe Bend afforded us a stunning view over the Colorado River as it meandered in a horseshoe-shaped bend through lofty cliff faces. 

Southern charm

Tray of burgers

Mmm burgers! Image by Ben McNamara.

Outside of American renovation shows (Fixer Upper anyone?), I had little knowledge of America’s southern states, making Texas another surprising visit. From the moment we swapped open plains and soaring wind turbines for skyscrapers and gridlocked traffic, Texas fascinated me. The locals were well-mannered to a fault and their accent carried a delightful drawl. We spent several hours exploring the city of Dallas, which has evolved from a centre of cattle, cotton and oil trade to a diverse and culturally experimental destination. 

We trekked through the historical district of Winnetka Heights and snapped pics of its Craftsman-style bungalows, visited the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza where the President was assassinated, and perused the ritzy neighbourhood of Highland Park with our Starbucks Frappuccinos in hand. In the afternoon, we boarded the McKinney Avenue Trolley to venture Uptown, where we meandered around the tree-lined streets and strolled down a converted railroad track known as the Katy Trail. 

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But it was our evening expedition to the infamous Stockyards that brought the most contrast to my American perspective. Diving headfirst into Fort Worth’s rodeo country, we were presented with brick walkways, wooden corrals, and a twice-daily cattle drive (which surprised me more than it should have, considering I’d Googled the Stockyards earlier). Once upon a time, Fort Worth was the last stop before cattle drovers headed up the Chisholm Trail and as a result, became a hub for selling livestock and unabashed hedonism; while somewhat toned down, this wild energy was as pervasive as ever. We devoured barbecue burgers at Billy Bob’s Texas Honky Tonk Kitchen (seriously) before joining a lively crowd to watch the local rodeo. By the time we left, the saloons were buzzing with country music and cowboy hats, the cattle safely locked up for another animated night.

Heartland history

Graceland! Image via Shutterstock.

After Texas, our next pit stop was Memphis, Tennessee, nestled on the shores of the Mississippi River. After our wild west and rodeo experiences, I was more than ready to explore the birthplace of blues, soul and rock n’ roll. Our stay was short but we crammed it full, the mesmerising city fast becoming my favourite of the journey. We toured the revered home of Elvis Presley at Graceland mansion and followed this with a musical pilgrimage to Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Stax – record label and recording studio to the likes of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin – and Sun Studio, where Elvis and Johnny Cash made their mark.

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And while the music of Memphis made a huge impact on me, it was the history of this region that moved me the most. The National Civil Rights Museum – located at the Lorraine Motel where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated – was a significant stop in learning about the tragic history of the country. From slavery to present-day challenges, the museum documented the American Civil Rights Movement in explicit detail, covering everything from the slave trade and Jim Crow to Black Power and Dr. King’s final days. The museum recommended two hours for a fully immersive visit, but we spent much longer, the experience all-consuming. 

To round out our trip, we went in search for some of the best restaurants and nightlife in Memphis, and Beale Street delivered on all fronts. The street was packed with people, bluesy music spilling out of every bar and delicious sticky ribs and brisket on every corner. On top of the crowd pleasers on Beale Street, we visited Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Pontotoc Lounge, and for late night perfection, we ordered the notorious Soul Burger at Earnestine & Hazel’s, and she did not disappoint.

Heartland stole my heart

Our journey was rough, rustic, and an absolute revelation. My rose-tinted West Coast glasses were firmly packed away, and I saw the US for the one-of-a-kind, ever-changing country that it is. Trekking our way across the country, we saw desert landscapes, urban jungles, rodeos and rivers. We ate new food, unearthed old stories, and soaked in the legacy of a rich and varied history. By travelling through America’s heartland, I discovered this boundless country has a lot more heart than I’d given it credit for.

See the United States of America for yourself on a small group tour with Intrepid Travel.

Hero image by Ben McNamara.

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