Let us begin, before we go any deeper into this, in the most obvious time and place. Somewhere back in 1966 – and in the middle of a Clint Eastwood reference.
For America has long been a country that might be defined as “the good, the bad and the ugly”. You only have to peer at some of its long-standing problems – its racial and financial inequality, its ongoing gun violence – to find the second part of that equation. You only needed to have listened to fragments of its internal conversations in the last decade to realise that the third element is alive and well in its fractious political discourse.
But if you want a symbolic Clint, well, you don’t have to look very hard. Because there is a great deal about the USA that is most definitely “good”. Its music, its food, its wine, its art, its cities. The way mile-long freight trains hoot unseen in the small hours, jostling you in your sleep in a Louisiana motel. The ring of a Vegas slot machine, which conjures a different sort of reverie.
And then there is its beauty. American beauty, if you will – although that’s a separate movie reference, so let’s forget about that, and stick with the spaghetti westerns. That said, thinking about it, it’s a bit of a leap to compare the 20th century’s foremost portrayer of stubbled taciturn cowboys to a blaze of sycamore trees in Vermont, or the necklace of the Florida Keys, hanging south in azure waters where the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico meet. And there is nothing of The Man with No Name about the Mendenhall Glacier, creeping along slowly in south-eastern Alaska, or the calm surface of Crater Lake, bejewelling the wilds of southern Oregon. No, there is only so far that you can stretch a metaphor, and the limit of elasticity is here.
The gist, perhaps, is that, whichever way you examine it, America is the most beautiful country on the planet. Over the past few weeks, the Telegraph Travel team has compiled extensive data to demonstrate this. It has weighed and measured the USA – and every other country – on several key metrics, and found that the land of George Washington, Mark Twain, Jimi Hendrix, Rosa Parks, Neil Armstrong and Marilyn Monroe tops the lot.
What metrics? Its number of national parks, deserts, Unesco World Heritage Sites, the height of its tallest mountain (in this case, Denali, which at 20,310ft pierces the sky above Alaska). I won’t go through the full list of categories; you can read more here. But suffice to say, the USA leads the way.
Ah yes – you might counter. Of course it does. It will always triumph in this sort of statistical analysis, because it is a continent as much as a country, arcing some 3,000 miles from east to west – and encompassing just about every form of terrain as it does so.
Good point. But the research was adjusted according to size, to ensure that the biggest countries’ scope and wealth of territory did not dwarf everything and everyone else on Earth. Even “marked down” for its gigantic scale, the USA still topped the poll.
As well it might. Big can definitely be beautiful, and in its enormity, the USA offers just about every style of geographical beauty you could wish to run through your camera and your social-media feed. It deals in soft golden sands where the Pacific seems to nuzzle the edge of California, but also in sprawling dunes and grey rocks, where the Atlantic throws itself at Massachusetts and Maine. It pushes at the clouds where the Rockies bare their teeth in Colorado and Montana – inviting you to hike in the warm months, or ski in the cold. It forges far out into winter in the harshest, most remote parts of Alaska, but exists in some apparent eternal summer where Hawaii rises from the sea.
Personally, I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me that America is the world’s most beautiful country. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, over the course of 20-plus years of travels, which have carried me to 37.5 states (I’ve awarded myself a half-mark for Puerto Rico, which isn’t a state per se, but is as gorgeous as any other island in the American catalogue). And I’ve encountered its beauty in each of these varied pieces of the jigsaw.
I’ve driven all the way around Lake Michigan, heading out through the orchards of the Door Peninsula. I’ve wandered in the rainforest of Olympic National Park in north-westerly Washington, and marvelled at the dead trunks piled up on the shore – enormous arboreal corpses, thrown back furiously by the same ocean that blows kisses to Santa Monica and Malibu. I’ve perched on a ledge above Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and been astounded that it is scarcely known outside its own state, let alone a country where another – rather bigger and grander – canyon hogs all the attention.
I’ve seen that too, in summer and winter (there is something especially glorious about the Grand Canyon under snow, its reds and browns muted by a blanket of white). In fact, I’ve seen many of the tougher, rougher places that sprawl in the dust of Arizona – the Sonoran Desert grinding south into Mexico; the giant-armed cacti of Saguaro National Park; the monoliths and bluffs of Monument Valley, as famous as any movie star. As famous, even, as Clint Eastwood – whose career has lent heavily on these arid spaces, each with their own rare beauty when the afternoon angles across them.