It's the classic dream of the restless and intrepid: jumping in a car and embarking on a road trip across America. Well, Ali Alghfeli, 22, from Al Ain has gone one step further, as the political science and engineering student at the University of Washington is visiting all 50 US states in his 2014, UAE-registered pick-up truck.
"I have travelled a lot, but wanted to do this in a different way," he tells The National of his decision to embark on the adventure, which he's publicly documenting on Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. "I thought about driving my own private car, my first car. I wanted to have this unique identity [for the trip]. I didn't want it to be any normal trip and rent a car. I don't like to take the conventional path."
It all started while Alghfeli was working in New York last summer, when he started planning his journey and had his Emirati vehicle shipped from Al Ain to Newark, New Jersey. His journey officially began on Monday, September 16. He started out by taking in the chaotic sights of Manhattan's Times Square before heading north to Maine, which borders Canada. There, he visited the oldest lighthouse in the country, before turning around and heading south to Miami, Florida, a trip of 2,575 kilometres. From there, he drove across the eastern south to Louisiana and Texas, then north through Colorado, Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton Mountains, followed by Montana, Idaho and Washington. It was "quite a long journey," he admits. "Around 12,000km." This meant he was on the road for three weeks straight, before he headed back to school for classes.
Alghfeli has visited 27 states so far, much of the journey soundtracked by Emirati crooner Mehad Hamad. He believes his car, a Toyota Land Cruiser he's named "Shaheen", is the only one of its kind in the US and, for that reason, in car-mad America, it gets him a lot of attention. It's an immediate conversation-opener, he says. "I just love the passion of people and how nice they are. They come over to look at the car when I stop for gas. We talk trucks, we talk cars."
To drive legally around the States, he has a temporary licence registration, which allows him to keep the truck in the US for one year before he has to send it back to the UAE. His daily mileage varies, but tops out at around 800km a day on the longer stretches.
Americans drive a combined 5.2 trillion kilometres a year or 70 billion hours (almost 8,000 calendar years), so it's no surprise Alghfeli has met many interesting characters on the road so far. There was one trucker, Randy, who he met in Maryland and whose 1994 Kenworth truck has spent 3.54 million kilometres on the road – the equivalent of driving 88 times around the planet. In Mississippi, having pulled to the side of the road to take a photo, Alghfeli met a guy named Larry, who had stopped in his truck to chat. The pair ended up having lunch together.
“Once in Idaho, I went to grab a coffee [but then] two people from the coffee shop and I started talking for what ended up being an hour,” he says. At a traffic light in Times Square, he was stopped by people who came to talk to him about Abu Dhabi, as they recognised his licence plates.
Despite having spent more time behind the wheel in a few weeks than most of us do in an entire year, Alghfeli says he’s never been bored. He seeks out bears, elk, buffalo and hot springs in the wilderness, or talks to family or friends on the phone in the quiet hours. He also makes some pit stops, one of the most memorable being in Charleston, South Carolina, when he took in a demonstration on how life was for slaves in the region centuries ago.
Finding somewhere to sleep keeps it interesting, too. On occasion (once in snow-covered Yellowstone), he’s slept on the truck bed, but mostly he stays with friends and in motels. “In most places, the whole east coast actually, I’ve had someone let me crash at their place,” he says.
Clearly, for Alghfeli, it’s more about the journey than any of the destinations. “I don’t want to spend the whole time driving, I want to meet people,” he says determinedly. “I want to know more about people and their pasts … Not a lot of people know much about Al Ain or Abu Dhabi, but from talking to people, you hear that they’re interested in hearing about the region.”
He also picks up souvenirs along the way; when he meets someone, he gets them to put a sticker on his car, bearing the flag of their state. "I also thought about the idea of having them say 'welcome to [whichever state]' in UAE dialect and to record it. I never get bored of watching that video back." Anyone can watch his 32-minute compilation of the road trip so far on his channel on YouTube.
Through the pictures and videos he posts, he’s managed to start a global conversation. “A lot of people have contacted me who want to come here and do the same trip,” he says. “So, you have people in the UAE who want to come to the US and people here who want to know more about the UAE. There’s a lot of cultural exchange going on.”
It’s not all smooth sailing, though. Gas (or petrol) in the US is getting more expensive and the pick-up is not the most economical car on the road, so saving money and monitoring daily spend has been a challenge. Alghfeli says he would welcome sponsorship to help offset the cost of making the additional major journeys to Alaska and Hawaii.
He’s also had the pick-up towed once and forced into a handful of detours – once when trying to get to Wyoming, only to end up on an off-trail mountain route. On the bright side, he’s not yet been pulled over by any police, he adds.
While he’s currently taking a break to focus on his studies, his next plan is to head to the west coast, the Midwest and the more remote regions of the Northern Plains. He’s aiming to complete the trip by early next summer and ship the car home to the UAE from New Jersey, where it all began.
Before that happens, however, he’s determined to make new friends all over the country. “Most importantly, I’d just like to share the UAE culture.”
Follow Ali’s journey at www.instagram.com/ali_alghfeli