Now that the graduations are behind us, school is out and most of us are well into our summer activities and ways of life, it becomes clearer just how diverse the opportunities of this season are. The local music venues are filled with great acts; the restaurants with outdoor seating are overflowing many nights; friends and family come to visit and many of us head out on the road, in search of that great American summer adventure, that summer feeling that Jonathan Richman once sang about.
When I was freshly out of college I spent those early working years as a teacher and so I had my summers free to travel. And travel I did. I had a little Toyota pickup truck back then, and I threw my tent and mountain bike (still a novelty in the late 80s) in the back and hit the road. Sometimes I stayed in youth hostels—a terrific way to travel on the cheap. I shopped in health food stores, attended a few (maybe more than a few) Grateful Dead shows, camped on beaches, hiked the National Parks and got an education that can’t be taught from a textbook in the incredible diversity of this country. Diversity in terms of people and geography. You get a real appreciation for what this place is when you spend most of a day traversing South Dakota or driving through the desert heat of New Mexico. Getting to the top of a mountain in Colorado (those peaks turn every Vermonter into a flatlander), riding a raft down the Rio Grande, taking the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge, wading through the Everglades, hopping a small plane from Fairbanks into the Arctic Circle, drinking a huckleberry milkshake in Glacier National Park. There’s a lot to do out there; it’s a pretty great place, these states, united.
As mired as we seem to be these days in divisive sensibilities, mind-bendingly weird and sometimes deeply sorrowful events, summer is a good time to leave the familiar and go out to do some poking around. To remind one’s self that this place is actually really great. In size and in humans. There are lots and lots of good people out there. People who are willing to help you when you have a flat tire, people who are willing to let you pitch a tent on their lawn, people who will feed you when you’re hungry. People who want to hear your story.
But you have to see it from ground level and you have to take your time. If you are a traveler who most often gets on a plane and goes somewhere far away, I recommend you take it down a notch this summer. Get in a car and drive somewhere you’ve never been. Find the most local diner there, settle in and start talking to the folks who eat there and live there. I think what you’ll find is that we have more in common with each other than not. It’s a good way to build the bonds of community and we need that now more than ever.
I have been to every state now, except Hawaii, and I’ll get there eventually. Many of the states several times. My wanderlust seems to have worked its magic; when my son Nate described for me his solo drive back to school in Montana last summer he told me this: “I stopped in Winona (Minnesota) and went back to Bloedow’s Bakery again (we went there together in 2012). I hiked around the lake, sat for a while and had a burger and a shake …” That is the way to travel, savoring the local landscape, finding the good donuts, really having a look around. Later this summer I’ll be on the road, wandering through Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky, looking for evidence. Evidence of good people, evidence of history, of sense of place, of reverence. I will take pictures and collect stories, and I promise to let you know what I find.