In terms of literal size, the United States is about a fifth as big again as Australia. Driving across the country, though, the US feels substantially smaller. Even driving through the least densely-populated states in the lower 48—Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas both North and South—it’s impossible to drive for a few hours in any given direction without finding yourself suddenly nestled within the bosom of a town. Australia is not like this. Australia is big and empty. The state I live in is about three times the size of Texas and has just one sixth the population—it’s not even the emptiest one. We fall just about in the middle, population density-wise.
Doing a road trip across Australia is a profoundly different experience than doing one across the US. The few highways in Australia primarily hug the coastline, where the people are. A handful take brief detours partially inland. Only one takes a decisive swing at going through the middle, crookedly bisecting the country vertically. Even the emptiest parts of America are still filled out with a wonky grid of north-south and east-west highways. At the intersections of most of these highways you’ll find cities and towns, and sometimes just accumulations of truck stops and hotels that have begrudgingly become towns in themselves.
If so inclined, an American with a car starting from anywhere in the contiguous US could strike out towards the middle of the country, drive all day, and end up somewhere with—at the very least—a hotel and a bar. If you tried the same in Australia, you would likely end up out of fuel and catastrophically alone, in an area that both aesthetically and environmentally resembled the surface of Mars.
Both countries have an excess of natural beauty, but the US is overflowing with small towns. If you keep zooming in on Google Maps, things that look like cities fractally fragment into smaller and smaller townships. If you zoom in on the empty parts, tiny names given to collections of just a handful of streets will wink into existence seemingly out of nowhere. All this makes America the ideal country for the VHS collector.
I’d been to the US once before but that was prior to when I started hoarding VHS tapes like some sort of soft luddite. America is just a very rewarding country to drive around; the scenery, the accents, and the names of the fast food and supermarket chains all change with an alarming frequency, and compared to Australia, everything is cheap: gas, food, beer, motels. You can potter around on a tiny budget and have a remarkably broad experience.
I can’t quite explain why I started buying tapes, let alone why I am still doing it. If my memories are to be believed, I picked up a copy of The Dark Crystal that someone was giving away in a cardboard box full of junk, promptly entered a fugue state, and suddenly had a stack of 30 tapes in my living room because I didn’t have much space in my apartment for storage and they are, as you might recall, huge.
The thing with collecting VHS tapes is that you have to get away from, essentially, yourself. You have to get far away from the sort of people who, like you, who would pay upwards of $15 for a Vestron Video release of 1984’s The Sword and the Sorceress if it was put up for sale in a record store by someone who checked eBay to see how much nerds are willing to pay for it. You need to get into small towns. Places with thrift stores where the contents of someone’s movie collection from the 80s is being sold for a quarter a piece because they finally got one of those new DVD players everyone has been talking about.
Theoretically, finding tapes in the US works much the same as it does in Australia. Major cities are nearly always complete dead-ends. The thrift stores, second-hand shops and record stores have either been picked clean by other collectors who are much more dedicated than you are or they don’t sell tapes in the first place, because no one in their right mind would buy them.
The good stuff is in the “Goldilocks zone”, the halo a bit beyond the major cities—where the towns are big enough to have a thrift store or two, but not big enough to foster a community of enthusiasts who are buying their movies in the worst format available. In the US, this Goldilocks zone covers nearly the entire country.
I didn’t fly to America and drive 15,000 miles in three months around the middle of the States solely because I wanted to buy tapes. Mostly I did it because I like driving and hiking and taking photos and camping and seeing weird shit, several other things for which America is perfect. But the ritual of hunting for tapes quickly became one of the parts of the trip that brought me the most joy. I would wake up every morning, have a look at the map, figure out which direction I was going, guess at how far I felt like driving, and then do a cursory Google search to see if I could find any listed thrift stores or secondhand shops roughly along the way. I’d note those down, eat my breakfast, pack up the van, and head off.
The best thing about collecting tapes is that there are a lot of of them. Thousands of straight-to-VHS movies were made that will never rear their head on any other format. Semi-legal bootlegs of 60s and 70s Bmovies were repackaged with misleading cover art and sold en-masse on tape thanks to murky copyright statuses. There are a lot of movies that I wouldn’t mind coming across, but I’m much more interested in finding ones that I haven’t heard of. It’s hard to be disappointed if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
You can stop at a Goodwill in Jamestown, North Dakota and find a tape of the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live action stage musical—the hideously named ‘Coming Out Of Their Shells’ tour. You can pull off the road in beautiful Seaside, Oregon and find a VHS featurette of the making of the 1994 Super Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country and a tape of RoboCop that, if the price sticker still on it is to be believed, someone once paid $89.95 for at Tower Records. Waiting for you at a thrift store in the assonantly named town of Oakland, Maryland is Kick Some @$$, an unauthorised video biography of Limp Bizkit.
Buried among hundreds of tapes in a warehouse-sized thrift store in Ottawa, Kansas—birthplace of once presidential candidate Gary Hart—you’ll find pervert duck superhero film Howard the Duck and a movie called Armed Response where Lee Van Cleef and David Carradine and play a father and son team fighting the Yakuza. I didn’t realise just how many Wu Tang Clan branded releases of martial arts films there were until I saw a giant stack of them piled up behind a mirror in a store in Los Banos, California that mostly sold used furniture.
America is dotted with tiny shops selling nominally worthless tapes with things on them you won’t find anywhere else. Straight-to-VHS erotic dramas put together by now defunct video companies that will never make it to DVD or streaming. Home-produced gun safety and deer hunting instructional tapes. Religious children’s shows made by church groups with an abundance of time. Weird single-take, single-camera videos of men with a deeply unsettling charisma smiling beatifically while making apocalyptic predictions for the year 2000.
You might be able to approximate the experience of watching these videos by clicking around a bunch on YouTube, but it’s the physicality of hunting for the tapes that makes it so satisfying. Driving between towns and looking for likely spots comes with an incredible sense of exploration and discovery. Shifting huge stacks of precariously balanced tapes around to check the weird ones at the back makes seeing a particularly tantalising spine all the more sweet.
This process is fraught in Australia—the tapes are few and far between. Really, really far between. But America? America is a paradise.