As I rose from my subway seat at Boston’s Logan airport there was a loud tearing noise.

The (literally, for once) seat of the pants sensation was of fabric caught on a jaggedly broken seat, then released by a long rip.

On the platform, I nervously felt for the expected hole. It wasn’t there. Instead, multiple blobs of what later inspection (below) revealed to be superglue had attached me to the seat. All credit to Craghoppers, makers of clearly very strong travel wear, for saving me the embarrassment of striding to check-in with M&S’s finest on gaping display. 

The USA is full of surprises for a first time visitor; thankfully most of them are far pleasanter than that parting gift from the suspiciously grinning youngsters on the seats opposite. First time visitor? Yes, indeed. While there are Western Group members whose trips to the USA must run easily into three figures, I suspect I’m the only one who had never been there.

You only ever get one chance to do something for the first time. After that, familiarity starts to blunt the shock of discovery. In a first stateside experience the surprise comes not from all the iconic stuff that a lifetime of media exposure prepares you for, but from all the details that add up a to a very different way of life. And that’s especially true of the driving experience.

City driving isn’t so different, but out in the country traffic is light and people drift along in a dream-like state. On two-way roads, overtaking hardly exists. Speed limits are universal and vary ridiculously often. They come in 5mph increments from 20 to 65, with little apparent rhyme or reason. Miss one sign and you’ll be carefully sticking to the wrong limit. But it doesn’t matter much: no-one obeys them because there’s little enforcement. In 1000 miles we saw hardly any police cars, no speed checks and of course no cameras.

Contrary to expectation, roundabouts exist, but they are sprawling affairs with no lane markings so cars wander all over the place. In fact, road paint is used refreshingly sparingly everywhere. Less welcome is the extreme rarity of distance markers; turn off because there’s a state park sign and you have no idea if it’s a mile or 15 miles away. And the road signs are a disorganised jumble of written messages compared with our mostly coherent icons.

It’s almost frightening to see drivers openly chatting on mobile phones (I saw one with a burger in the other hand). Only around half use seat belts, and helmets on motorcyclists seem even rarer: those unprotected heads brought disturbing images of smashing eggs to mind. No wonder the death rate on US roads is twice the UK’s, despite better roads, lower speeds and less aggressive driving.

That’s all based on New England, which of course isn’t representative. But even this oldest, most densely settled part of the USA is amazingly spacious. Unbroken woodland stretches for mile after mile, with hardly any farmland. There’s more than enough space for big roads, big houses and big cars (actually most cars are now European sized, though pick-ups remain gargantuan). Returning home, it took a while to get back up to speed on quaint, cramped and absurdly twisty roads, but we saw more cows within the first ten minutes than in 17 days in the USA.

Ah, diesel cars. Well, there’s another surprise. With an article to research I visited a couple of dealers to discuss the prospects of a diesel boom. Steve Mcallister at Noyes VW of Keene, New Hampshire was predictably positive. 

With a full diesel rage to offer, around a quarter of their sales are diesel and Steve reported plenty of awareness and interest from their generally well educated, professional and older customer base: he cited a professor with a 150 mile commute to Boston who was thrilled to be getting 55mpg (US) from his new Beetle Tdi convertible.

Down the road at Walier Chevrolet I expected a corrective dose of cold water. After more than three decades, GM people still shudder at the memory of the company’s truly awful 1970s diesel efforts (hasty dieselisation of petrol V8s led to disastrous reliability). So was there any interest in the newly launched Cruze diesel? “I can’t get enough of them,” said salesman Dale Woodward (above). “There’s a waiting list. People are going crazy for them.”  One of the USA’s more pleasant surprises.

John Kerswill
John Kerswill
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