- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

You might think a top Washington diplomat only picks the swankiest of destinations and transportation when on holiday. Not so with Dennis Richardson, Australia’s ambassador to the United States for the past four years, and his wife, Betty.

In fact, their favorite destinations include U.S. national parks and small-town diners, and when the couple travel, they do so by car and stay at hotels for as little as $37 per night (the Red Rock Motel, Mile City, Mont.).

“We’ve been to all 50 states and have driven through 48 of them,” Mr. Richardson says over the phone at the end of June, just two days before he and his wife are planning to add a 49th state to their traveled-by-car list: Alaska.

The car? A Chevy Impala rental, which will take them about 8,000 miles from Anchorage to the District via El Paso, Texas, he says and chuckles.

What’s the primary appeal of Alaska and Texas?

Natural beauty, Mr. Richardson says.

“If you did nothing but spend time in the national parks, you’d do great,” he says. “I think the National Park Service deserves a gold medal,” he says, adding that one of his favorites is Yellowstone National Park.

In Alaska, he plans to go fishing, and in Texas he and his wife plan to visit Big Bend, the 800,000-acre national park in western Texas that borders Mexico and is one of the least visited national parks in the country.

Will the hot and dry Big Bend remind the emissary of the Australian “desert that touches the horizon” (as tourism site www.australia. com refers to it)? Yes, perhaps a bit, but Mr. Richardson’s preference for the road trip over the plane trip has more to do with his wish to get an up-close and personal look and feel for the flora, fauna and people of the United States than any love of the big sky or other reminders of his homeland.

Furthermore, how would you possibly run across hole-in-the-wall, one-of-a-kind diners if all you do is fly to a resort destination and never have a look around?

“I remember a great little diner in Kimball, South Dakota. It was like stepping back into the 1950s,” Mr. Richardson says. “There were the trucks outside, the men in their blue overalls and caps and the jukebox and old movie posters on the walls.”

And though he and his wife turned heads as they entered the diner — they were clearly not “from these parts” — they felt welcome, he says.

“Americans are overwhelmingly friendly,” Mr. Richardson says. Even at times of confusion based on cultural differences, Americans are always kind and accommodating, he says, and retells the story of trying to order a “salad sandwich” — an Australian staple — at a cafeteria near the Grand Canyon.

” ‘You want a what?’ the waitress asked me,” Mr. Richardson says. At which point he told her that he wanted a sandwich with lettuce and tomato and pickles. She looked at him incredulously — “No meat?” — and then brought in all the ingredients — unassembled — on a plate. “You’ll have to take it from here,” Mr. Richardson remembers her saying, and he laughs.

Because while we share a language, there are many differences between the U.S. and the land Down Under, he says. One of them is the great diversity of people and cultures found in the United States.

In the fall of 2007, a business trip took him to New Orleans and Salt Lake City within the same week.

“Talk about different!” he says. “It’s as if they were on different planets.”

That’s what America is to him: big (he should know, given his mileage), beautiful (the vast national parks system) and diverse (culturally and ethnically).

“It’s remarkable how you can travel two to three hours from Washington D.C. and go into a remarkable different world,” he says.

Speaking of short trips to different worlds, here’s what he recommends to us locals: Greenbrier, W.Va.; Gettysburg, Pa.; Lewes, Del.; and Middleburg, Va.

So, maybe we should take a cue from this ambitious Aussie envoy and enjoy our big, beautiful and diverse nation.

On that note, happy walkabout! (Australian for journey).

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