The US claims to be the greatest success story of the modern world - a nation fashioned from an incredibly disparate population who, with little in common apart from a desire to choose their own paths to wealth or heaven, rallied around the ennobling ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to forge the richest, most inventive and most powerful country on earth.
Despite polemicists who justly cite the destruction of Native American cultures, racism and imperialism at the top of a long list of wrongdoings, half the world remains in love with the idea of America. This is, after all, the country that introduced the world to the right to the pursuit of happiness, free speech, electric light, airplanes, assembly-line automobiles, the space shuttle, computers, blues, jazz, rock & roll and movies that climax at the high-school prom.
On a short trip, it can be hard work dismantling your preconceptions. So much of the country has been filmed, photographed, painted and written about that you need to peel back layers of representation to stop it from looking like a stage setting. This worldwide representation can make the country seem strangely familiar when you first encounter novelties like 24-hour shopping, bottomless cups of coffee, 'Have a nice day,' drive-thru banks, TV evangelists, cheap gasoline and newspapers tossed onto lawns. But you'd be foolish to read too much into this surface familiarity, since you only have to watch Oprah for half an hour to realize that the rituals and currents of American life are as complex, seductive and bewildering as the most alien of cultures.
Come prepared to explore the USA's unique brand of 'foreignness' rather than stay in the comfort zone of the familiar. You'll discover several of the world's most exciting cities, some truly mind-blowing landscapes, a strong sense of regionalism, a trenchant mythology, more history than the country gives itself credit for and, arguably, some of the most approachable natives in the world.