Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Thoughts From A Road Trip Across America

Last week I was on a car trip ride from Portland, Maine to Puyallup, Washington.  It was me, my father, and a Volkswagen Jetta wagon with a roof rack.  I had a general idea of what to expect from the experience.  I knew there were would be long stretches of road in the Midwest where there wouldn't be much to see.  I knew that there would be long stretches of highway where the speed limit would be higher than I think I ever drove before.  I knew there were plenty of places to get good food, but it would be important to remember to eat healthy sometimes since "sitting" doesn't burn a lot of calories.

I almost wanted to blog about each day, but I decided it would be best to instead actually try to enjoy the trip without worrying about how I would word things immediately after I experienced them.  Every now and again I posted an update on Facebook if something particularly interesting (and one meal) was happening, but there were days I just didn't post anything because I was just taking the time to look around.

So below I'm posting thoughts I remember having while on this trip.  Some might be deep, some might be shallow, some might be slightly controversial to people I know.  They're just my thoughts, feel free to engage me in a debate over them if you want.  I'd probably enjoy it, I like discussing and considering alternative opinions on things.

These thoughts aren't in any particular order.

1)  I had no idea how many businesses that I thought were Maine or New England-specific would be located across country.  Cabela's, for example.  I thought there was only one store in Maine, or that there might be a few others scattered around New England.  I didn't expect them to show up more often than Wal-Mart.

In a similar vein, I remember traveling a lot when I was younger.  My parents owned a Winnebago (well, a mini one, anyway) and we used to go camping often when I was young.  There were also road trips to California, flights across the country sometimes, even a trip to Europe in the early 90's. 

Now, something I remember about those trips was finding the local equivalent of the stores I knew and seeing how they were different.  A local grocery store would carry a lot of the same things, but would have some local specialties, or a completely different brand of snack that I never saw before.  

I think that there's something missing from travel now that so many national chains now dominate.  Yes, you can still find a few locally-specific stores and restaurants, but there were many times on this trip I'd take an interest in a store I never saw before, just to see the exact same place in the next ten towns.  I think it strips a region of its personality and identity, which on one hand is a pretty huge negative, because it means many places on the trip were interchangeable in my memory.  Was it in the suburbs of Chicago that I saw a Cabela's next to a Q'doba, or was it next to a Popeye's?

This leads to my second thought:

2)  It's really easy to forget that across the country people are just people.  I think a lot of people are intimidated by travel because they aren't sure how they'll fit in.  They're afraid that there will be something exotic or foreign that will stymie them, frustrate them, or alienate them from whatever culture they're around.

I have news for those people: most times I travel, I'm always left with the same impression of the people I meet: "for the most part, they're just like people I know back home."  Sure, there are some eccentricities there and there, or something that's tied to a heritage that I don't appreciate due to lack of exposure, but for the most part people are just doing their jobs to get by.  Young people are going to school.  College students are working shabby jobs to supplement their income and offset student loans.  Sure, maybe the language might be different, but so many daily conversations between people are so similar, I wouldn't be surprised if an alien species observing humanity as a whole might think we're some kind of hive-minded species, like ants or bees.

This was only increased when I realized that so many businesses I saw were identical to places I already knew.  How different could a place be if they had a Staples, Petsmart, and Auto Zone all within walking distance of each other in the same shopping complex?  A mall I went to had pretty much the same stores I'd expect to see at any other mall, which tells me that at some basic level, we all just want the same things.


3)  I'll freely admit, I'm a terrible "Mainer."  I've never really got the impression that I could ever be counted as "from here" and would always be "from away," which doesn't really bother me that much except that so much of Maine culture is knowing who's "native."  But in a way, I think permanently being "from away" gives me some advantages.  For example, I know people whose idea of an ideal vacation (and the only vacation they take all year) is to stay within the same state at the same camp site with the same people around them.  

This isn't to slam camping.  I love camping.  Fishing, boating, dealing with surprise rain, having bonfires, hiking, making s'mores, it's all a blast.  But my brain just struggles with the idea of accepting the idea of never leaving a region of the country to explore other regions.  There's so much to see in the world, the idea of missing it actually upsets me.  Certainly, Maine is a beautiful state, but I want to see other areas for the same reason I don't just look at paintings by the same artist, or watch the same television shows on endless repeat: I want new interpretations of what "beauty" is, and seeing different landscapes and terrains and cities around the country or around the world give me that chance.

Someone, please, help me understand why anybody would choose to never travel.  I want to understand, even if I'll never wind up agreeing with it.

4)  I heard a surprising lack of accents.  I didn't really expect anything east of Chicago, but there was nothing to indicate I was speaking to locals in South Dakota or Minnesota.  Not a single "ya betcha" or "donchaknow."  Disappointing.

5)  Mt. Rushmore was never really high on my list of things I'd get excited to see.  It might be sacrilege, but while I knew it was a (pun intended) monumental task to build it, I always thought that if I had seen pictures of it or saw it in a movie (North by Northwest being one of my favorites), then I'd seen enough.  Sure, it'd be kind of cool, but it wouldn't knock my socks off.

I was wrong.  Dead wrong.  I think it helped that on the way I read a book written by one of the men who worked on Rushmore for years and learned about the carving process, but having a context for just how much work went into such a project helped me appreciate it more than I ever thought I would.

What also helped was the context of the area surrounding Rushmore.  Getting a good impression of the actual hills let me rebuild Rushmore into something that was somehow both smaller than I expected but also much bigger and more impressive than I expected, if that makes any sense.  Artwork always seems to have the heads being anywhere from being able to fit all four of them in a stadium somewhere to large enough to fill every Disney theme park in Florida on their own.

Seeing it, knowing the history of it, and understanding what it took to make it, though, just made the majesty of such an undertaking and the product that resulted from it all the more impressive.

4)  I'm sorry, Maine, but the mountains in the northeast just don't hold up to the west coast mountains.  Mount Rainier is more than twice the size of Mount Washington.  Sure, Mount Washington might have the more extreme weather, but that's kind of like boasting that your restaurant might not be as popular as that hugely successful place down the street, but your toilets occasionally turn into geysers when you're trying to use them.

To me, it all comes down to the size of the mountain.  Being able to see it on a cloudy day from an airplane because the top just shoves right through nature to shine.  Being able to see it from hundreds of miles away, when I still had an entire mountain range between me and it.  These are the things that make a mountain a "mountain" to me.

5)  It's really, really hard to find good Mexican food north of Arizona.  Also, not enough places serve Roy Rogers and Shirley Temples.  I don't drink them anymore, but I like to see them on the menu.

6)  Maine needs more drive-in places.  Restaurants, movie theaters, whatever.

7)  I'm not entirely sure, but it looks like Trump Tower in Chicago is trying to flip off the rest of the city.

Alternatively, a weird children's shiny toy laser gun pointed upward or a really weird pack of cigarettes.  
8)  I've talked before with people about whether I'm a "city" person or a "nature" person.  I like to think I'd do okay on a camping trip that I'm able to prepare for, but I'll fully admit I'm no "nature guy" who'd be able to survive in the wilderness with just a hunting knife and my wits, unless my wits were telling me "find a road, follow it."

I'm an urban individual.  I thrive in cities, and only need a short time to orient myself in places and be able to find myself around, use the public transportation, and figure out the ways to get around without any trouble.  I will happily join anybody on a camping trip, just promise me food and shelter are already planned out beyond "find it."

9)  I also find it funny that no matter where in the world I've been (Chicago, Washington, D.C., Seattle, New York City, Rome, Venice), I've never not felt comfortable travelling around on foot.  I've never turned a corner, looked down a street, and felt I needed to keep moving because I wasn't safe.  I tilt my head back in greeting or nod and say "hi" to total strangers on the street quite often.

Maybe I'm just a naive fool who's been lucky so far he hasn't been robbed at knife point, or maybe the world isn't as scary as we like to imagine it is sometimes.

I'd like to think it's the latter.

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