One day I was visiting friends in Canandaigua, New York, standing on the street, admiring a new house that one of them had built. A man I just met made small talk by asking me about my drive from Pennsylvania. I told him my route and said that I had come up through Naples, a quaint vineyard town just south of where we stood. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there,” he said. I looked down the street to the nearest intersection, where I knew a highway sign read “Naples – 24,” with an arrow pointing left.
“What are you doing for the next hour?” I asked.
With my implication clear, he recanted. “Oh, no, no, I couldn’t possibly go *now*.” And he gave me a laundry list of duties he had to attend to for the rest of the day. How sad, I thought, that this man had always wanted to go somewhere — just to the next town — but was inventing reasons for avoiding the trip. What was holding him back?
Since my divorce in 1991, I have done a lot of long-distance traveling on my own, in spite of some friends expressing worry about a single woman going it alone. For several years, I drove to Colorado to attend environmental conferences every August, making sure to take a different route every time — so I could say I’d been to Texas, so I could crouch down at the Four Corners with each arm and leg in a different state, so I could know what Kansas and Nebraska both looked like. I held up my camera as I drove through major cities so I could catch the skyline in my viewfinder. 38 state magnets decorate my refrigerator door.
In April 1995, when news broadcasts showed images of a bombed building in Oklahoma City, I shuddered with recognition. I got out my albums, and sure enough, I’d snapped a photo of the downtown area as I passed by Oklahoma City, just nine months earlier. In the middle of that image was the same white structure I was seeing on national news. I remembered the day I crossed Oklahoma, and the nice small town courthouse clerk who helped me find the information I was looking for. I enjoyed listening to her accent, her language. And now people just like her were going through the most horrible of ordeals. It made my heart hurt.
I believe that only by going, by seeing and by doing, can we fully appreciate the variety that is America. My advice is simple. Get out of town. Explore your county, your state, your region. Drive from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, and see the changes in the landscape along the way. Talk to people in Wyoming. Verify that none of them have green tails and purple ears and that they might even eat the same kind of food that you eat. We are all Americans. They, indeed, are Us.
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