There are few countries on earth where one can escape the flood of American media completely. As a result most people in the urbanized world have some idea of American values. It would be hard to resist jumping to conclusions about the “American” way of life if you’ve never been to the US but have been bombarded with Hollywood culture. In fact, it can be incredibly hard to have a unified understanding of American culture even after travelling in the US time and time again, this is because the country has so much diversity and such vastly different cultures from place to place. The question is how can we, as travellers, have the most well rounded, comprehensive, and fun trip to the US? The answer is a road trip. One of the most beautiful and culturally varied road trips in the US is along the West Coast.
With over a thousand miles of west coast highway between Seattle and San Diego, you’ll want to give yourself a couple of weeks to do it properly, depending on your route. That is, if you opt to take the coast highway and enjoy stellar views of the Pacific Ocean between destinations. If you have less time but still want to hit up the super cool and vastly different cities of America’s West coast, you can see Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles between Seattle and San Diego. From the northern-most part of the coast, to the southern-most, you’ll experience a drastic change in landscape and many distinct versions of American culture.
Washington and Oregon are covered in thick ever green forests, have mild weather all year round and clean fresh air from the ocean. The lifestyle along the northern west coast is nature centric, laid back, and characterized by the so called “hippie” attitude. These states also happen to be two of the most Caucasian dominated states in the US, which isn’t a good or bad thing, but this lack of multiculturalism makes for a fairly predictable, uniform culture. If you’ve seen the show ‘Portlandia’ you’ve seen an extreme and comedic example of culture in Portland from two native Portlanders. In Seattle as well as Portland you’ll witness a culture that tends to veer left on the political spectrum, and values environmental protection and organic food. Throughout the rural parts of these states you’ll find many organic vegetable farms, and back-to-basics, “alternative” thinking communities who strive for the “natural” lifestyle. In ‘Portlandia’ there’s a sketch about a couple who goes to a restaurant and asks their server what their chicken’s name was. Although comedic and somewhat ridiculous, this example represents the culture of the northern west coast well.
California will offer an absolutely different incarnation of what it is to be American. It’s the glamorous America that most of us picture. Sometimes. Los Angeles is the land of movie stars, BMWs, palm trees, fake tans, and fake tits. It’s beaches are sexy, it’s club scene is rivaled by few others, perhaps only by that of New York City, and it’s always summer in LA. But one thing that Hollywood media doesn’t tell you about LA is that it’s a massive urban sprawl and it’s inhabitants pay for their huge ground-level properties not only with millions of dollars, but with having to spend hours each day in traffic jams from hell. The next thing that we don’t hear about is that for every movie star in Hollywood, there are ninety nine wannabes who have gone under the knife so many times that they look like something from a horror movie. The last not so glamorous thing about LA is that it can get so brutally hot that it’s unpleasant to go outside. Then again, LA is considered the city of Angels for a reason and is certainly worth a visit. Especially if you want to grasp a crucial part of real world “American culture”.
Unlike Washington and Oregon States, California is full of different ethnicities. Unfortunately, it isn’t necessarily the multicultural melting pot that some would like to believe. There are still amazing numbers of ghettoized black people, and Mexican workers paid slave wages for back breaking labor who are no less marginalized. Unless you specifically go looking for these marginalized communities they can be hard to come by, and easy to forget about as a traveler. There are areas of every major city in California that you’ll be told not to visit, and these areas are predominantly made up of black people and Mexicans. In fairness it wouldn’t be safe for foreigners in these neighborhoods but it isn’t safe for those who live there either.
With gang violence, drive by shootings, inadequate access to health care and education, even a lack of access to nutritious food, these neighborhoods start to fit the description of third world living conditions. The irony is that ghetto culture is glamorized in movies, pop music, and the fashion industry, and is an archetype of the American way of life, but when travelers go to the cities where these people actually live we don’t see them. There is no easy solution to this cultural barrier. As a traveler in California, just being aware that these communities exist will make you more receptive if you do happen to come across them, and will give you a more well-rounded understanding of the country.
San Francisco offers yet another unique incarnation of American culture, and so does San Diego, and so do all of the towns, farming communities, and truck stops along the west coast of the United States.There are endless diverse examples of what it means to be “American”, and road tripping is the best way to experience the vast extremes within American culture and the American landscape. The United States is a country like no other; from the fashionable streets of Manhattan, to the humid swamps of Louisiana, to the Midwest’s “Rust Belt”, to North Dakota’s blistering winters, to the barren desert of Arizona, to the glitzy mansions of Beverly Hills.