On the road in America: travelling in the US without a car

Travelling in the US without your own wheels doesn’t have to be a form of purgatory. Beat writer, Jack Kerouac, unwitting inventor of the modern American road trip, never owned a car or a driver’s license. Aside from the odd brief (and presumably illegal) turn behind the wheel of someone else’s vehicle, the author of On the Road relied on carpooling, hitchhiking and good old public transport to get around. Maybe that’s what made his rambling yet insightful observations of 1950s American life so illuminating.

Emulating Kerouac today isn’t the conundrum many believe. As a writer living close to the US-Canadian border, I regularly make car-less forays into Washington State in the Pacific Northwest, a region surprisingly well-served by public transport if you have the time and tenacity to ferret it out. Beautifully scenic ferry rides connect the scattered islands around Seattle, a positively sublime Amtrak train service stops in all the crucial coastal and inland cities, and buses fill most of the gaps in between.

Granted, quality is sometimes an issue, especially on the buses. I’ve ridden on far better coaches in Peru and Mexico than in the US where the well-used Greyhound fleet seems to have lost a little of its lustre since Simon and Garfunkel ‘went off to look for America’ in the 1960s (the ‘man in the gabardine suit’ is more likely to be wearing a greasy denim jacket these days). But despite the lack of luxury touches, American buses are usually functional, uncrowded and – most importantly – on time. And they’re not always Greyhounds either. I’ve taken the zippy Quickshuttle (with free wifi) between Vancouver and Seattle, Breeze Bus in northern Oregon, and Rimrock Trailways in remote parts of Western Montana where, more than once, I have been the only passenger.

Buses can be innovative too. The Bus-Up 90 shuttles cyclists to the top of Snoqualmie Pass east of Seattle enabling adventurous bikers to pedal back down on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail to Cedar Falls and a bus ride back to the Emerald City. Then there’s the free shuttle service that traverses Glacier National Park in Montana on what is perhaps the most jaw-droppingly spectacular stretch of asphalt in the US, the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

It’s not the only freebie. Public transport in the US can be ridiculously easy on the wallet for visitors, especially if you’re accustomed to forking out £30 for a weekly London Tube pass. Whidbey Island, the largest island on the US’s west coast, has a completely free bus service that runs every day except Sunday, while, on the opposite shores of Puget Sound, the green wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula can be completely circumnavigated for a little over $5 if you’re willing to decipher a handful of bus timetables (all available online). The same 400-mile journey in a car costs a minimum of $35 in gas.

The biggest savings, however, belong to the trains. As recently as 2011, I rode Amtrak’s Empire Builder in a comfy business class-sized seat from Seattle to Chicago - a spectacular 2206-mile journey - for $140. In England the same amount of money would get me from London to Birmingham - a mere 119 miles - in a less comfortable, more crowded train. Furthermore, the Empire Builder is a veritable holiday-on-wheels, a classic example of the journey usurping the destination.

US cities have a sketchy record when it comes to public transport, but things are changing in many metro areas. Portland, Oregon is famous for its European-sized stash of trams, light-rail, buses and bike lanes. Up the coast, Seattle, an early innovator in urban mass transit during the 1962 World’s Fair, has recently invested in a new tram and airport rail link. Some US cities like Austin, Boulder and Missoula, do have plentiful public transport, while Parisian-style bike-sharing schemes are now the norm in cities such as Washington DC and Minneapolis.

But, in a country where the motor car has long been the default method of transportation, Kerouac-style innovation is still sometimes necessary. Planning a cross-country skiing trip in Washington’s North Cascade Mountains last year, my meticulously-planned bus-train-shuttle itinerary came to an abrupt halt in a middle-of-nowhere town called Pateros, 50 miles from my destination, Winthrop. On a whim, I phoned up my hotel, put on my poshest Hugh Grant accent and explained my dilemma. ‘No problem’ replied the hotel receptionist, ‘I’ll send someone to pick you up’. Sure enough, when my bus arrived in Pateros, a silver Toyota Prius was sitting in the parking lot with a driver holding up my name on a piece of paper. It was a fitting irony in a country where traveling car-less is usually regarded as an unsolvable equation. Kerouac, who worked near Winthrop as a fire lookout in the 1950s and logged his local hitchhiking experiences in the book The Dharma Bums, would have, no doubt, been smiling.