Brit finds harsh reality in America
Lee Murray, born in a resort town on the southern coast of England, grew up charmed by the images of American movies. Surrounded by tourists visiting Bournemouth’s world class beaches, Murray most wanted to experience small-town Americana.
“Like in the establishing shots of ‘E.T.,'” he said. “It just seemed so simple and predictable.”
He now lives in McDonald with a wife, two kids and another on the way, but in 2000, at 19 years old, he traveled across the United States on a Greyhound bus in search of adventure.
“It sounds really romantic, but it was a lot of vomiting and a lot of being scared in the poverty-ridden parts of America,” he said.
He arrived at JFK airport excited to begin his journey in the home of “When Harry Met Sally,” but soon discovered a harsher reality.
“It’s more like the ‘Taxi Driver’ version of New York,” he said. “I asked my taxi driver if there were any parts I should stay away from. He said, ‘Where you’re going, you should stay away from there.'”
Having borrowed the equivalent of about $2,000 from his sister for a month of food, lodging and entertainment, Murray booked a stay at a sketchy hotel on 115th Street. He would later regret not heeding his driver’s advice after he was mugged on his first night.
Murray said he doesn’t remember the details of the event, and although the attacker didn’t get Murray’s money, he did strip the British teenager of his naivete.
After a visit to New Orleans, the next stop was Las Vegas, separated by a week of travel and sleeping in bus stations. Along the way, he found the small towns he was looking for, but they weren’t as picturesque as he had hoped. Instead, he saw desolate regions where dirt roads are common and the most striking landmark is “a booth where you can buy the worst sandwich in America,” he said.
For the first time in his life, he said he was alone. With no friends or family to lean on, he had to rely on himself for survival.
“I couldn’t call home. I didn’t even know what numbers to dial to reach Britain,” he said.
And in those moments, he felt a change, a self-reliance that was brand new.
“I found the things I was scared of in New York were no longer terrifying. I wasn’t scared of being mugged anymore,” he said.
When he reached Las Vegas, his older brother was waiting for him in a rented car.
“It was like coming back home for a minute,” he said.
After two nights in Las Vegas, the brothers drove to California. Their destination was Santa Monica. The reason was the alternative rock band Everclear and their song about the city in Los Angeles county.
“The song is about hope, about it will be OK if you can just get to this one place,” Murray said.
But again, his perceptions were demystified by reality. Once he got there he just saw people on a beach. The rest of his trip was unremarkable. He left his brother in California and headed to Seattle because of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
“But it was no longer 1992,” he said. “By then I was just ready to go home … I didn’t think that (America) could be banal. I didn’t think that I could get tired of seeing it.”
He would spend the next two years paying back the loan from his sister, but 14 years later, he said the trip was worth every penny. He said the to trip made him older and wiser in a way that only experience can affect.
“People complain a lot about Youngstown, don’t they?” he said. “They don’t realize how much if America is like that.”