If asked, I will normally always say that I much prefer international travel to domestic. I’ve always been that way; it’s just how I’m wired. There’s nothing like the thrill of visiting a new country for the first time, learning how to navigate its different ways and appreciating what makes it special. This year though has been different. While I’ve spent plenty of time overseas, I’ve also spent more time exploring my own country than ever before. I didn’t set out for that to happen, it just sort of did. Even though the year isn’t over yet, I know that this domestic wandering has had a much greater affect on me than I ever would have imagined. Visiting the width and breadth of the country, I’ve rediscovered what makes America a joy to live in and explore, so today I thought I’d share what I’ve discovered and why, normally, the U.S. gets an unfair reputation around the world.
Driving is a therapeutic exercise for me, at least when it’s not in rush-hour traffic. Judging progress not by time but by distance gives me a feeling of accomplishment, that I’ve actually done something. There’s nothing else quite like it, which is probably why I love road tripping so very much. Road trips aren’t just mentally cathartic, they’ll the best way to explore any destination I think. Even spending a couple of weeks on Route 66 wasn’t enough to really understand the width and breadth of the nation, but it was a great start. Every day brought new surprises for me, and I’m not talking about kitschy road stop attractions or enormous plates of greasy food. No, I’m talking about the towns, cities and people I encountered along the way.
Not the country I imagined
Although I have lived in an East Coast liberal bubble for many years, that’s not my background. No, I grew up in small towns from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Kentucky and even rural Missouri. I attended high school in Southwest Virginia and still have many friends who live there. So, I always thought I understood where the rest of the country was coming from, what they value and what they want out of life. And I sort of did, but that understanding wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as I thought it was. As it turns out, the United States is enormous, almost too big if we’re being truthful. Had the country formed in a way other than through the quiet accumulation of land in a part of the world no one wanted, it would never have happened. But it did and today we are the caretakers of a country that ranges from the rocky coasts of Maine all the way to the sandy shores of Hawaii. And that doesn’t even include territories in far-flung locales like the Northern Marianas or Guam, which are closer to Japan than any American holdings. So, to describe an American citizen just isn’t possible. It’s not even fair to label folks as left/right, blue/red. This year I learned that it’s so much more complicated than that, and the only way to start the process of understanding that is by experiencing as much of the country as possible.
This lesson was perhaps best exemplified when I spent some time in New Mexico, driving along Route 66. We spent a couple of extra days in Santa Fe because, well, it’s Santa Fe, including a quick day trip to the famous artistic community of Taos. This is one of the towns that I challenge anyone not to like; it’s weird, it’s quirky and yes, it’s adorable. It’s also home to one of the country’s few UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Taos Pueblo. One of the country’s most photographed buildings, this 1,000 year-old dwelling is also the oldest continuously inhabited dwelling in America. Standing there in the community, chatting with the fine people who call it home and looking up at this impressive monument to a way and life and culture, it was all nearly overwhelming. I couldn’t believe that I was still in America; everything looked and felt so different, so foreign. But the real treasure was spending time chatting with the people who call the pueblo home. I saw a small sculpture I liked, so I stopped off to chat with the artist. His life could not have been more different than mine. About the same age as me, he has an improbable number of children and his life has been one of real struggle, not like my fake or so-called problems. He was also incredibly kind and hospitable, offering me a chair as we talked and shared a laugh or two. I could’ve been in Peru or Ecuador, that’s how I felt. The sense of discovery and learning about a new culture and people was the same. The only problem is that I was still in my own country, I was still in the U.S. The fact that I was so very often surprised by the people and cultures I encountered throughout my 2018 American travels is weird. It shouldn’t have happened but it did, and I don’t think it’s my fault. As a country, I think we’ve done a terrible job of learning about each other – I know that I have.
I think that’s part of our problem as a nation right now, we don’t know anything about anyone not in our own tribe. How we choose to define tribe can vary, it doesn’t have to be solely based on community, race or religion. But if you stop to think about it, do you really know how people live day to day in many places that are outside of your worldview? I doubt it. I had never thought about fellow citizens living in New Mexico, Alaska, Oklahoma or many other places really. I think we just assume that other people are like us, but they’re not. And that’s ok. That’s what makes the country great in the first place. However, we currently lack the ability to appreciate those differences that ultimately makes us so strong as a people and nation.
So much fun
I never thought that exploring my own country could be as much fun as it is. My own interests have always skewed to overseas jaunts; places that are well and truly foreign. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, it’s just how I’ve always been. One of the results though is that when it comes time to plan a trip, I almost never consider domestic destinations. This year, through a variety of fortunate decisions, I spent weeks learning more about the country and, aside from those cultural lessons I just mentioned, I also learned that America is just a fun place to explore.
As a nation we are weird, and we’ve been weird for a very long time. That has led to any number of quirky and unusual sights around the country, but what really interests me the most are small museums not many people have heard of. Spanning topics from squished pennies to the McDonald’s Happy Meal, what I love most about these small and strange museums is the passion that they demand. Someone, or a few people, were so incredibly passionate, probably obsessive, about a single subject that they decided to start a museum in their hobby’s honor. That’s no small feat but, what is even more incredible, other people are interested too and actually visit in order to learn more. That’s amazing to me, the fact that there is almost literally a museum for everything you can imagine and while they may not see millions of visitors every year, they receive enough guests to fuel this quirky passion. That’s stunning and says so much about our perseverance as well as odd behaviors.
Size has also graced us with a beautiful and incredible diversity of natural retreats. Many people ask me why so few Americans have a passport. While I may lament the fact, I understand it. America enjoys everything from snowy mountain peaks to some of the beach tropical getaways in the world with everything in between. Unlike most other countries, we have just about everything we need here, perhaps best exemplified by our national parks. America’s best idea, I don’t think anyone would disagree that our National Parks are perhaps our greatest societal asset. I’m also proud to say that America started the modern conservation movement in the 19th century when it created the first National Park. Since then we have added 58 more and many other national monuments and sites forming a vast web of areas so important, that we have deemed they must be forever protected. The so-called North American model of conservation is now the norm around the world, but to really appreciate its importance a visit to a few American parks is in order. From Yellowstone to Yosemite and Volcanoes National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains, we have a lot of options and no one should ever miss the opportunity to visit a few.
I want to get back to that concept of fun though because, oddly enough, it’s not something I embrace as often as I should. Yes, I enjoy all of my trips but sometimes we need to travel not for some great meaningful moment or to change our lives. Sometimes we just need a fun break and that’s exactly what I enjoyed during my first Disney experience. Life as an adult in the 21st century is hard. Mortgages, jobs, responsibilities and our electronic-tethers otherwise known as phones all conspire to make even our vacations more stressful than they should be. When I travel, I can’t escape anything, but in Disneyland that all changed. For a brief two days, I was able to forget almost everything challenging in life and instead just have fun. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have the real Disney experience as a kid, but I threw myself into the moment and was richly rewarded as a result. I find myself obsessing a little over Disney right now, and that’s partly due to my own personality quirks, but also because I am desperate to recapture that magic. I’ve never had that much pure and innocent fun in my life. The honest and wholesome enjoyment that is Disneyland isn’t kitsch or corny; it’s fun at a base level. I’ve been to every corner of the planet and while I enjoy most trips, that level of fun is unheard of. It goes well beyond the attractions though, it’s about a feeling. For those two days I was able to be a kid again. I was able to have fun and to amuse myself without concern or fear. I think that’s what drives so many adults to visit in the first place, and most if not all are well rewarded as a result.
2018 has been a tumultuous but important year for me personally. A lot of changes are underway, but throughout it all running in the background was finding a certain comfort in exploring more of my own country. Honestly, I needed to feel better about America. Listening to the news every day is not a fun experience and I’m not thrilled with how things are going. I needed to understand that individuals almost everywhere are good and kind and that our leaders, strangely enough, don’t reflect who we are. We’re better than our leaders and that’s a great lesson not only for us to learn, but for the rest of the world to understand.