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Buffalo on the plains of South Dakota. Picture: Peter Lynch

America's big cities are fascinating and its culture is a global phenomenon but to get under its skin and appreciate the real-time US, you have to take to the highway.

The US grew up around its road network and 2013 was the centenary of American road culture - dedicated in 1913, the Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway built for the car, originally running 3389 miles (5454km) from New York to San Francisco. So maybe it's time to fulfil that American fly-drive dream.

The big problem with any US road trip is deciding what route to take. In such an enormous and diverse country it's no great surprise that more than half of Americans never venture beyond its borders.

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Matthew Clayfield eschews the road less travelling, following the interstate from Virginia to San Francisco.
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Coast to Coast, Route 66, the Pan-American Highway, the Pacific Highway, the Mississippi River Road - from unpaved tracks to multi-lane mega-highways, these names are a siren song to those of us infected with road-trip fever.

SHORT DRIVES, BIG VIEWS

Florida Keys

US route 1 is the 240km Ocean Highway from Miami to Key West. It skirts the Florida Everglades and skips across a series of keys to Ernest Hemingway's favourite hangout at Key West on the Gulf of Mexico. The spectacular and frequently filmed Seven Mile Bridge alone practically justifies the trip.

Blue Ridge Parkway

This spectacular 754km scenic drive along the Appalachian mountain chain has stunning views and wonderful autumn colours. It's easy to travel a shorter section and with Virginia and North Carolina to the east and West Virginia to the west there are plenty of historic Civil War sites worth a detour.

Grand Canyon and Monument Valley

Take Arizona route 17 out of Phoenix to Flagstaff and detour for the Grand Canyon; continue on US 160 to the iconic cowboy film-scape of buttes and mesas on the Arizona/Utah border. Return south on US 191 and pick up Interstate 40 where you can find (with difficulty) sections of the old Route 66 into Winslow and Flagstaff.

LONGER DRIVES

Pacific Highway

California State route 1 is probably the greatest seaside drive imaginable. It's an impressive coast road running from San Diego near the Mexican border, past Los Angeles, taking in Santa Monica, Long Beach, Malibu, Big Sur and San Francisco before continuing on to the giant redwood country close to the Canadian border.

The Music Highway

For music buffs it would be hard to resist a drive that takes in New Orleans, Memphis (via Elvis' Graceland) and Nashville. Interstates 55, 40, 65 and 20 take you from New Orleans and back through Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico. If time allows, take the parallel older US routes.

Coast to Coast

There are several coast-to-coast options. A good summer route runs from Seattle, on Interstate 90, across the Rockies, the Prairies, Chicago, around the Great Lakes, covering 4988km to Boston. In the winter, a southern route would be better; Interstate 10 runs from Jacksonville in Florida, through New Orleans, San Antonio, El Paso and on to Los Angeles in California.

These epic routes could be done in three weeks but I don't recommend these routes unless you have at least six weeks to really make the most of them.

Before the network of multi-lane interstates were built, back roads (gazetted as "US Routes") such as Route 66 were the main highways. They're not narrow, dusty tracks but often great straight roads and their finest feature is that they are mostly empty.

The perfect road trip should avoid interstates; they are just for rushing from A to B. Interstates bypass anywhere interesting but the smaller US routes regularly pass through small towns, which always have motels and non-chain restaurants.

They are usually cheap, although rarely smart but I've never had to book in advance, except at major tourist destinations.

The unexpected is part of any memorable road trip. "Just go" is the attitude of mind, although it's still a good idea to plot a loose string of waypoints, with wriggle room if things don't quite work out as planned.

My favourite part of a road trip is the random happenstance of coming across the unexpected and veering off route to some local highlight such as the Ingalls Homestead (Little House on the Prairie) I came across in South Dakota, counting alligators in the eerie Okefenokee swamp of Georgia and stopping off at the nation's biggest State fair in Des Moines, Iowa.

What turns a journey from A to B into a great road trip is getting off the beaten track and discovering the places and people in-between. Eating at non-chain roadside diners (locally called "ma and pa diners") can be a real treat of homemade local specialties.

In the evening, knocking back a few cold ones in a local tavern and striking up conversations with strangers is usually very easy.

Outside the big cities, I found Americans incredibly welcoming and friendly to strangers. In one small town in Nebraska which didn't even make it on to my road map, the local bar buzzed with the interest in a foreign visitor.

Nobody would allow me to buy a beer; everyone wanted to buy a drink for the stranger who chose to stop in their backwater - absolutely amazing.

FACT FILE

For more driving advice, go to discoveramerica.com/usa /travel-information/ transportation- within-the-us.

Rand McNally's definitive 2014 road map includes smart-phone tags and is available as an ebook. randmcnally.com

Essential road rules

Be aware that crossing from one State to another is more significant than in Australia and laws are sometimes different.

Drink-driving laws vary but in most States it's illegal to have unsealed liquor containers in the passenger areas of your car. Even if it's unopened, it's always best to carry alcohol in the boot.

The legal age for buying and consuming alcohol is a mess and varies by State; it's often 21 years, so always carry your ID.

Speed limits can vary from 50-70m/ph (80-110 km/h) in different States.

You can turn right on a red light if the road is clear and no signs forbid it.

Never pass a school bus, in either direction, if its red lights are flashing.

On a multi-lane highway vehicles are disconcertingly allowed to overtake on either side.