“The ball-breaking torque combined with the twin thrust turbo delivers an astonishing rear wheeled hardon that isn’t good. It’s absolutely MASSIVE!” So says Clarkson on almost every episode of Top Gear ever.
Like most of the world, I enjoy Top Gear and the overblown ridiculousness of it all. But I have never really reached the point where the noise of a car gives me an erection. It seems I am in the sensible fuel-efficient compact car school of thought, so mocked by humorous middle aged men with pube hair and jeans and blazer combos. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy driving, now.
I had an inauspicious start to driving, passing my test in the flattest, quietest town in Britain and then becoming flummoxed with hills and traffic elsewhere. I didn’t particularly enjoy it and practically went out of my way to avoid driving anywhere. It wasn’t until Australia, and a solo work trip where driving was virtually impossible to avoid, that I got behind the wheel again. And since that point things have changed, I feel comfortable and confident  and, more than anything, relish the freedom that comes with wheels.
Having a car transformed my relationship with Australia, starting in my home town of Canberra. It says a lot for Canberra’s design that people couldn’t believe I didn’t have a car for a year there. Further, I could make trips down to the beautiful South Coast, or up to Sydney, or into the high country. My love for road trips reignited, and I ended up driving up to Brisbane one Christmas, traversing Tasmania over Easter, then up-scaling to New Zealand which was a mere road test for doing the biggest traverse of all, from one ocean to the other.
For all the wonderful petrol-driven experiences in Australia it’s fair to say that road trips are synonymous with the USA. Kicks on Route 66, fun on Highway 1. Turnpikes and Freeways, Roads to Nowhere. Gas stops and Twinkies, neon signs and drive thru diners. Signs imploring you to get in touch with God, others urging you to get in touch with Hooters. In this great land, Life is a Highway, and you may end up riding it all night long.
Having only driven once in the USA – a series of amazing meanders around the Pacific Northwest – my road trip experiences here are built on shared journeys, chauffeured around by some willing participant in the process. On more than one occasion this has been my Dad, and on one of these particular occasions we were heading down the length of Florida to its very tip, with my brother making up the family triumvirate. A trip powered by sweetly abrasive gas station coffee and a George Foreman grill.
Florida is the kind of place that can simultaneously be brilliantly amazing and desperately awful. Beyond the Mickey Mouse and McMansions, the summer humidity, the searing oppression of gun-infested sprawls of urban mess, and the inevitable queues for waiting rooms to move on into the afterlife, there is an outdoorsy, pioneering and almost cultural side to Florida. Spanish heritage and space exploration compete with sweeping beaches and a tangle of waterways created by what is one large swamp jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. And if this gets a little much, there is always a KFC all-you-can-eat buffet in which to convalesce.
Starting somewhere in the outer suburbs of Jacksonville, the state capitol, it’s another gorgeous sunny morning to hit the open road. I say open road, but the freeways and interstates here seem to be continuously cluttered, with tailgating the norm and veering across lanes a requirement for anyone in an oversized SUV. The land is flat and really quite uninteresting, the roads keeping far enough from the coast to enable you to see very little of it. Wal-Mart is passed and I stay conscious. Keeping us going is that sweetened coffee and delicacies from Krispy Kreme. It seems totally in keeping; hopefully there is no illegal sugar driving limit.
A constant on the horizon are the signs for Miami, intermingling with Tampa and Orlando and Fort Lauderdale and other retirement holiday ventures along the way. Lacking the same sense of razzamatazz as signs encountered for San Francisco and Los Angeles on previous trips, there’s still a glamour associated with the concept of Miami – Miami Beach in particular. Thoughts of swanky high rises, neon signs, and art deco beachfronts crawling with souped up Cadillacs and beautiful people. And while this may (or may not) exist, the interstate, as is so typical of US cities, slices its way through a dense fringe of suburban decay, fear, and loathing.
Arriving in a large city after a lazy cruise down a highway is all part of the US road trip experience. Sometimes the cityscape may loom large and you hit its downtown rather abruptly, swept upon a snaking interstate raised above the streets and weaving through glassy skyscrapers. More often than not it’s an elongated process, regularly punctuated by a series of exits with names like Franklin Boulevard, Northwest Latrobe Drive, and George Bush Senior Expressway. Four way intersections become the norm, at each one a drive through cookie dough express and branch of Subs ‘n Shooters to pass the time while you wait for the lights to change.
There usually comes a very crucial point where you need to take an exit to make it on to the road that takes you back out of dodge. This comes with warning five miles out but after that no signs emerge until the very exit, and you have to cross eight lanes to get to it, with no gaps at all in between the SUVs loaded with automatic rocket launchers. The exit is locally known as Slit-throat Alley and you need to fill up on fuel somewhere here, plus you are busting for a pee because you had an oversized Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks. Is it just me, or are US cities incredibly daunting, often intimidating? I have never felt that secure in them with the exception being – you may be surprised – New York City .
Anyway, such tests are sent to test us. I seem to remember we made our crucial interchange in Miami, albeit with a distinct tension in the air, relieved as the city faded away in the rear view mirror. Now there were few roads to get lost on and the road trip transformed into a proper old-fashioned one, with single lane byways and scenic turn offs and stupid attractions like Aunt Maisie’s Coral and Humbug Umbrella Shoppe. The coastline also emerged more frequently, inevitable given we were now on the line of islands and cays making up the Florida Keys. Here we could camp and make a fat-reduced dinner with Mr George Foreman, the waterside setting of John Pennekamp State Park a long way metaphorically from Miami.
After a sojourn upon the water, the road trip continued the next day down to Key West, celebrated for being the end of the road and a corporately hippified haunt, out of reach and proudly out of touch with the rest of America. It feels the kind of place where eccentrics and misfits and millionaire investment bankers with a fresh Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt for each day end up. Every third person walking down the street sports a Hemingwayesque beard, obscuring their Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt. This is still clearly America, but with a cruisey Caribbean undercurrent.
The sun sets famously off Key West and this is the end of a one-way street, turning back is the only option . Travelling on the other side of the road gives chance to see what was missed on the way down, like the Big Fuck Off Fishing and Boat Shed, the Uppitsarse Links Golf and Country Club, and Fishface Bucket O’Clams Pelican Feeding Centre. Pleasingly there remain extensive reaches of wide open water, shallow and sapphire, clusters of palm trees sprouting up from sandy bays, all within easy reach of the road and encouraging frequent stops.
A mainland of sorts returns after the last span of what is an 100 mile? elongated bridge is crossed north. Distinguishing the mainland is a challenge, since swamps, reeds, pools and channels intersect with a placid shallow sea. This is a sponge of a country, where a wrong turn or a wrong foot will swallow you whole. This is primeval and timeless, and seems to be untainted compared with much of Florida. This is the Everglades.
If Key West was the figurative end of the road, this was the high point. So close to Miami you should be able to hear the gunshots, the Everglades feels peaceful and serene, wrapped in a blanket of tall grass and smothered with mangroves. And far from being a lifeless swamp, the changing levels of water, the changing salinity, and the changing ecosystems thrive with a concentration of life as densely packed as Miami. Here, the Alligators rule the ghetto.
Road tripping really comes alive in national parks, particularly in the US which are typically generous with their access and facilities. In the most popular spots you can drive up and park and sit in your car and eat a cheese biscuit with a spray of cheese in a can on the side and look at the view. Fortunately there are plenty of trails that fewer people take, loops of an hour or two to get away from the car and discover views and animals and rocks and plants. In the Everglades, these loops offer an array of animal life, of birds and butterflies, lizards and dragonflies, and of course the perennial alligator. I was, quite frankly, amazed by it all.
And only now, reflecting, I think of the hypocrisy of marvelling at wonders of nature such as this having burned thousands of tonnes of carbon to get there. I do this all the time, without really thinking about it. To make matters worse, I burn a dollop of extra energy trying to write something about them on a coal-fired laptop.
Still, at least I don’t tend to drive to the shops just round the corner, and I do tend to put my empty plastic bottles into a green bin for someone to do something with, and I definitely don’t waste food or anything like that. Besides, now I can take my lead from the Australian Prime Minister, whose advanced thinking tells us that carbon is an invisible substance of no importance whatsoever and what’s science ever done for us anyway? It’s thinking that probably would not be out of place in southern Florida, where I can thoroughly enjoy the hoon around in a guided propeller boat trip in the swamps bordering the Everglades.
Being hooked on travel, being hooked on road trips means I am even more hooked on petrol. It is the blessing and curse of our times . It enabled me to experience the diversity of Florida, relatively cheaply compared to other countries in the world. It has also propelled me around the more incredible terrain of the Western US. My experience of Australia has transformed with every guzzle from a Coles Express petrol station, and I have spent a small fortune on it. I miss it, despite the best efforts of public transport in Europe. Like Clarkson and Hammond and May, like George W, like him and her and you and that bloke over there, I am addicted.
 OK, so comfortable and confident in an automatic. I feel gear changing and clutch control on hills has passed me by.
 Why did NYC feel safe? I think several things – it’s more familiar to an outsider thanks to its screen presence, it’s easy to get around and people actually walk on the sidewalks rather than drive everywhere. Plus there are lots of people, many tourists, and there’s safety in numbers. Plus I didn’t get mugged, neither did some hoodlum come up to me and draw a pitiful excuse for a knife, depriving me of the chance to emulate Crocodile Dundee.
 Unless you wish to go against the flow and swim to Cuba