Things I Learned Traveling Across America

Iowa cornfields outside des moinesAs a kid, my family went on the obligatory road trips to various states, but we never went far from the East Coast of America. The only time I’d been west of the Mississippi was on a layover in Los Angeles.

Driving across America, therefore, would be my first real trip around my nation. I didn’t know what to expect. I was going to areas I only had preconceived notions about—the redneck South, the boring Midwest, the beautiful West, and the barren Southwest. Yet driving around shattered many of these ideas. I learned a lot over my two months on the road.

I learned that you never realize how big the country is until you travel across it. You see its size on the map, but you can’t imagine it until you hop in your car, drive 700 miles, and are still in the same state. The size of America is really amazing!

I learned that the American South isn’t so bad. It has some good cities, good food, and good people. I called it the backwater of our nation for a long time, and that was unfair. Sure, there are still aspects of it I don’t like, but by the time I left, I knew I’d like to go back.

I learned that Colorado is my favorite state. I loved everything about that state—the nature, the cities, the people. Out of all the places I’ve been to, this is the one state I’d consider moving to. It had everything my heart desires (as long as I can migrate to warmer weather in the winter!).

I learned that the Southwest isn’t so barren. (There are forests there!) If you’ve never been to Arizona or New Mexico, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful states in the Union. The Grand Canyon, Sedona, Santa Fe, Carlsbad, the landscape—all of it (except Phoenix) is amazing. While I wouldn’t want to live there, my visit turned this area into my favorite section of the country. I can’t wait to explore its forests, deserts, and canyons again. There’s much more out there than retirement communities and golf.

The American West

I learned that I can get over my fears, hike 50 miles, go on roller coasters, and travel alone. I learned that I could learn. I survived two months on the road by myself. I met people, I navigated cities, and I made friends all over the country.

I learned random things like: New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston are the best cities in the US. Carl’s Jr. has the best fast food. Waffle House hash browns are a gift from God. You can fake a Tasmanian accent, because Americans never travel. Southern sweet tea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but southern cooking is. New Orleans has amazing music. International visitors think the US has some of the friendliest people in the world, and I would have to agree. And always read your map—otherwise you could miss your exit and end up in the wrong state!

Most importantly, though, I learned that, in the famous words of Le Monde, we are all Americans. I have a new appreciation for my countrymen and a new empathy for them. I may not like them all or agree with their opinions, but, at the end of the day, I know we’re the same—there’s no great difference between us. America is a diverse nation, yet the one thing I noticed about this country, despite our sometimes vast political and cultural differences, was that we are the same. Day to day, we live the same lives, share the same hopes, dreams, fears, and stresses. We share the same underlying values, thoughts, and beliefs. We all want the economy to do well, our children to have a good education, and our politicians to lead.

At the same time, it’s easy to notice all the differences when you travel. There are glaring cultural differences from region to region, state to state, and city to city—from the slowness of the South to the fast pace of the East Coast, the cowboys of the West, and the small towns of the Corn Belt. This great dichotomy between sameness and diversity is really what makes America great, and it’s what made a lasting impression on me.

For more information on the United States, visit my country and city guides to US travel.

  1. Nomadic Matt

    @anon: I have never been to yellostone but I hear it’s lovely. I really enjoyed the rocky mountain national park.

    @tanya: sorry :(

  2. Karie

    Well said! I met someone while traveling abroad that said she thought the one thing that all Americans have in common is that we are all patriotic, no matter what. I don’t know if she meant it as a compliment, but I took it as one. It’s nice to appreciate each other’s differences but still have that common ground.

  3. John

    I enjoyed reading your post. I also recently spent a year traveling to every state and I learned a great deal about America. I was a bit surprised to read that you didn’t find Phoenix amazing. When I was in Phoenix I hiked up several mountains (that are actually in the city) and the views were absolutely unbelievable. To me Phoenix is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. I was in Phoenix in March and I was surprised to find the city so green and it also smelled of orange blossoms. The people were friendly too.

    • Hi John, Iam not from Phoenix but I go there very often, I was surprise to read that Matt didnt like it, maybe we need to show him around.

      Have a great week :)

  4. I’ve lurked around your site for a while, and as someone who has done two 3,000 mile road trips across the US, I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written. While I loved traveling in Europe, the scope and diversity of America is amazing; you search the world for amazing things, and you realize exactly what your own region has. My friend on one of the trips said she never felt flag-waving patriotic until she drove across the US. I’m also a Charleston fan; I’ve been to the city several times, and I’ve always enjoyed the days I’ve spent there.

  5. madeleine zember

    Thank you for the article.

    I went cross country with my husband 30 years ago when gas was cheap from NJ to LA and we were in a rush because of a job, we did it in one month and it was beautiful. It was not enough though and since then I visited (by flying) different spots.
    I love travelling in the USA much more than in Europe though the cultural diversity there is very

    I wish someone could give me an advice about traveling by rail for 2-3 weeks between NY and the LA . I would like just to stop in 1-2 placess rent a car and continue to SF

  6. Alex

    Im from CO and the way you described it was perfect Matt.
    If you move here you might just become a Coloradical.
    My friend Mary just moved to NYC from here and says she misses here all the time though NYC is pretty spectacular

  7. hannah

    I need to visit some day! I’m from England and planning my travels for next year, so am scrawling through your website for good tips.
    Still can’t get my head round the fact that the USA is soo huge. I know it sounds stupid, but I live in ‘the English Countryside’, yet when I walk near my home I can see the London Eye.
    It would also be good to be with another culture but without the language barrier too! I’m used to travelling in Europe, but it can be so tiring sometimes to just do the normal things when no-one can understand you.

  8. Travelling will open your mind and eyes to the wonders of the world. Same with you, I agree that Charleston is the best city in the US. It is an ideal place to spend time with my family and loved ones.

    It offers quiet island living, tennis, golf, fishing, and excellent food. The architecture and designs of Charleston structures as well as nearby areas such as Kiawah Island Homes makes you fall in love with the place even more.

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