Until very recently, I had long lamented the fact that while I travel to the far corners of the planet, I’ve seen very little of my own country. Apparently 2018 is the year in which that all changes, not only have I enjoyed a lot of US-based travel already, but there’s much more planned for the rest of the year. I’m still traveling internationally of course, but I’m coupling it with some amazing destinations here in the good ‘ole US of A. While my thoughts may change by the end of the year, I’ve already noticed a lot that has surprised me so today I thought I would put digital pen to paper and share what I’ve discovered so far.
I am 42 years old and have lived in 10 states and moved 16 times. That’s a lot, but I credit that near constant level of change for making me a more self-reliant and well-rounded individual. The problem though is that I haven’t moved in a very long time and have called the Washington, DC region home for 18 years. Although in my youth I experienced places like Texas, Pennsylvania and Missouri, I’ve long since lost those connections and in the process have very much become the East Coast, bubble-living elite that is so often criticized in the news. Regardless, I thought I still understood what my country was all about, I thought I could relate to most people around this oddly massive country. No, as it turns out, that wasn’t quite true.
Route 66 excited me for any number of reasons, but chief among them was the opportunity to reconnect with America and to see what she’s really like in 2018. Cable news had prepared me for the worst, images of angry citizens wielding guns with racist and homophobic yard signs strewn about our interior. Just as the media tends to misrepresent many foreign destinations, I quickly learned that they also misrepresent the US as well. While I didn’t find hateful people, ignorance worn on sleeves like badges of honor, I did discover other quirks that interested me. First, the support for the President is much greater than I had imagined. I just assumed that everyone was like my friends, confused as to how he won in the first place. The reality though is that quite a great number of people did actually vote for him, and I met many on my travels. I was nervous at first, but I shouldn’t have been. While there are extremists out there for sure, I don’t think that the average Trump voter is seething with hate. No, I think they just wanted something different and that’s fine. I may not agree with them, but I certainly respect their freedom to feel that way.
Aside from politics, I also discovered a country much bigger than I had imagined. It’s one thing to look at a map and intellectually grasp the size of America, but it’s another to drive across it and to try to grapple with its immensity. Driving from Chicago to Santa Monica on Route 66 took me almost two weeks, and I felt like I was racing. With maybe only a handful of exceptions, you can’t say that anywhere else in the world. If you’re in Europe and drive for 5 hours, most likely you’ll be in another country. It’s not just the size of the US that is amazing of course, its diversity is stunning and I mean that in every possible context. Each day brought vastly divergent landscapes from bustling cities to farmland and prairies to forests and then deserts. No two days were the same and always brought unexpected surprises. Just as the landscapes changed, so did the people. Driving through almost impossibly small towns, I was always shocked when I found residents there, calling these places home. They were born there, they found jobs there and that’s probably where they’ll always live. It’s a lifestyle so incredibly different from my own that it intrigued me.
I grew up in small town America and, frankly, I couldn’t wait to leave it far behind me. I plotted every day as a kid for the moment when I’d finally be able to escape, which I eventually managed and I have never looked back. I don’t necessarily think that’s the norm though. Looking at my old hometowns, most of the people I went to school with still live there. That amazes me because I don’t understand it, but this provincialism is I think an important aspect of the American experience and is one we would all do well to better understand. I don’t mean it in a disparaging way, don’t misunderstand me, but in an age when I can be on the other side of the planet in less than a day, it’s interesting to me to meet people who have no desire to even leave the county in which they were born.
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in my many years of traveling the world is that most people everywhere are basically good and kind. They want the same things I want from life, whether it’s in Osh, Kyrgyzstan or Durban, South Africa. The same holds true for the US. The middle of the country is not filled with millions of people teetering on the edge, frothing at the bit and angry. No, they’re mostly good and kind people who were always eager to share their communities with me. I’m sure there are folks out there who don’t feel the same, but it’s a minority and is one that’s not relegated to one region or state. This realization had a profound effect on me because it made me more confident that the country is going to be all right afterall.
Here in DC most of us have been freaking out, worried about the collapse of this 242-year experiment in democracy. The truth is though, it’s in no real danger of failing and if you look back at our history, America isn’t even in its most precarious position. We somehow survived a Civil War in which half of the country left the Union. That’s incredible if you stop to think about it. We then went on to survive many more tests from terrible Presidents to economic ruin to famine and race riots. If we could get past all this, then I think we’re going to survive 2018 and onward just fine.
I still have more of the country to explore this year. Texas, Virginia, California, Washington and Alaska are all on my to-do list, but I don’t think these trips will change my initial perceptions, at least I hope not. The fact is that America is large and incredibly diverse. We include everything from colonial-era villages in Maine where they have British accents to Polynesian outposts closer to Asia than North America. No other country would be able to survive as long with such differences, and yet we have. We relish in these differences, it makes us stronger and, ultimately, is what guarantees our continued success well into the future.