American urbanites today mourn the hyper-polarized political landscape of the punnily dubbed “Divided States.” When they take vacation, they’re quick to visit the all-too-salient coastal hubs plus a few anomalies (Chicago, Austin, Nashville), then flock to international destinations especially throughout Europe, but also South America, Australia, and Asia. Often we ignore the topographic and cultural diversity lumped crudely as “Middle America,” available for an adventure without a passport nor airline ticket, and far less planning. If you’ve a couple weeks to spare this summer with access to a driver’s license and sturdy vehicle (and feel safe enough to enter perhaps more homogenous spaces), consider packing that vehicle with a friend or 2 and embarking on a US road trip. Every region is a great place to explore and learn more about the myriad people there; I promise they’re less homogenous and more welcoming than you’re taught to expect! But check up that vehicle first– no fun to be stuck highway-side in an area with few resources.
Inspired by both a tumultuous transcontinental trek across the former Lincoln Highway as well as the autobahn network he witnessed in wartime Germany, President Eisenhower insisted the States build a thorough system of high-standard highways that linked the country’s cities and towns. Thus bore the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which sought not only to construct completely new thruways but to reupholster dirt and dilapidated roads that at the time regularly spawned inconvenient and even fatal accidents. These over 46,000 miles of comprehensive interstates, not to mention tens of thousands more of US and local routes, serve more than to transport cargo or prepare against atomic threats, a concern rampant in Eisenhower’s rhetoric– and scarily re-realizing today. Roads that connect the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters, from sea to shining sea can too connect the varied people that call the States home; they are the path towards understanding one another to reunite the States in an ever-isolating political-cultural era.
We tend to generalize the States about which we know little, which only results in stereotyped misunderstanding. When flying to, say, San Antonio, Texas, you enter through the airport of your origin, onto the aircraft and some hours later magically appear at San Antonio International Airport. You may stare out the plane to watch the topography transform from one place to the next, that is if you’re enough fortunate to sit at a window on a clear day…until you doze off or move on to another time-killing activity. Maybe your trip to San Antonio leads you to claim that all Texas is merely a humongous desert of tumbleweed and cowboy boots.
But drive there and you can’t avoid to witness the landscape change, and find that rolling, lush green hills fill central Texas, and, in order to crossfade into Louisiana, eastern Texas boasts sticky swampland. Similarly, drive to Phoenix, infamously regarded as an arid Southwest desert, from the north and discover the network of mountainous snowy (in the winter) forests surrounding Flagstaff and Sedona, the latter a mecca for practitioners and students of the healing art reiki. The country’s terrain, blending contingently into one another, beautifully analogizes the American population, widely varying but inextricably linked together.
The people you know across the country can inspire your destination itinerary, as a passionate local sidekick can better recommend activities during your stay. If you don’t know anyone there, don’t abandon the idea of a visit; simply broaden your idea of “people you know.” You can peruse social media, provided you use it, to delightfully learn a high school friend with whom you’ve since lost contact now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Or shamelessly post from your account to survey anyone with friends in your desired locale; if they hail from all over the country, typical of those in urban meccas, you’re bound to find a former colleague’s family lives in a suburb of Boise, Idaho, or your brother’s college-mate grew up just outside Des Moines, Iowa. The three examples listed here are all real people with whom I interacted and lodged during road trips, and could be just as well your reality too!
How do you like to spend your free time when you’re at home? If it’s drinking and dancing at a bar, you may not find the niche retro disco party you like in your more urban home, but a local joint certainly’s got space enough to let loose and groove (who knows – maybe there is a retro disco party there!). Second-hand shopping? The under-explored crannies of the States offer some of the best thrifting. Talk to the facilitators of the shop, fellow shoppers or dancing patrons; soon you learn those same people whom the coastal dwellers blame for our current political state of affairs actually want just about the same things as the urbanites do: steady-enough employment that affords an adequately comfy life with family and friends surrounding them, plus an occasional vacation.
Many even vie for the same political gains as urban progressives do. Take for example Eric Kofer, an event producer living in Bozeman, Montana, a hip foothills town home to many young people studying at Montana State University. On several sweltering days last summer, Eric grabbed his clipboard and pen to head to the weekly farmer’s market, a popular bazaar of live music, food trucks, and local homemade products. Wearing his goofy smile he’d tirelessly approach the marketgoers in search for enough signatures to add Green party presidential candidate Jill Stein to the November 2016 ballot.
Or spend a night in downtown Boise and discover not only does a bustling queer community congregate upstairs at The Balcony, but a little ways off the main nightlife strip you stumble upon The Old Dog Tavern, catering to the bear and leather niches. And where misinformed generalities may lead you to expect strictly Mormons in Salt Lake City, find instead the religious and secular queer scene at Metro Music Hall, so popular that it relocated from the originally more modest Metro Bar.
The surprises beckoning you to unearth in the less-traversed nooks of the States number endlessly, and they motivate me to continue taking yet another road trip to drive somewhere new. Just journeying on one opens a can of worms to more: the locals I met when I drove to Austin recommended I try Marfa, Texas, where I happily ended up the following year. The fellow thespians I met in Sheridan, Wyoming routed me to Missoula, Montana, where I stopped before my next visit to Wyoming. Wherever your saga along the blessing that is our robust, well-maintained highways takes you, more and more you learn what the media and politicians at large strive to keep from you: that despite the “melting pot” of cultures and backgrounds from which we hail, Americans from the coasts, the mountains, the prairies, and everywhere in between are more similar than we’re led to believe. So the next moment wanderlust strikes you, ditch a pricy and cloistering airline in lieu of a road trip, in which you can blast the music you love and sing aloud the wonders awaiting in your American backyard.