As a kid, my family went on the obligatory road trips around the United States, but we never went far from the East Coast. We’d drive down to Florida to see my grandparents, into Pennsylvania, or up around New England. The only time I’d been west of the Mississippi was on a layover in Los Angeles when I was twenty-three.
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. During my 2006 road trip, I learned a lot over my two months around the United States. I wanted to drive across the country before I learned I went to travel the world. I figured that if I didn’t know much about my own country, I could never really learn about the rest of the world. A good traveler knows as much about his backyard as he does some exotic country half way around the world!
So what did driving across the United States teach me?
I learned that you can 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. America is really big and to do a road trip justice, you need weeks if not months! (Update: In fact, since that 2006 trip, I’ve taken another, even long trip across the country, and I’ve still only managed to scratch the surface!)
I learned that the South isn’t so bad. It has some beautiful cities, incredible and succulent (if not greasy) food, stunning parks and wildlife, 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 wanted to go back. It’s a more complicated area than I had imagined and it gets an unfair rap, including, from me.
I learned that Colorado is my favorite state. I loved everything about that state: the mountains, forests, and parks; the cool cities; the incredible beer; and the laidback people. Out of all the places I went, this is the only state I’d consider moving to in the future. Colorado blew me away!
I learned that the Southwest isn’t so barren – there are even 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. Here you have The Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona, the art scene of Santa Fe, the coolness Carlsbad, the ruggedness of Tuscon, the forest of Lincoln national park, and so much more. While I wouldn’t want to live there, my visit turned this area into my favorite section of the country. There’s much more out there than retirement communities and golf.
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 and people will believe you because Americans never travel. Southern sweet tea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but southern cooking is. New Orleans has the best music scene in the country. And international visitors think the U.S. has some of the friendliest people in the world (I would have to agree).
Most importantly, though, I learned that, in the famous words of Le Monde, we are all Americans. I gained a new appreciation and empathy for my countrymen. 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 that despite our sometimes vast political and cultural differences, 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, 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 what made a lasting impression on me.
For more information on the United States, visit my country and city guides to US travel.
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