I took my first airplane ride when I was six weeks old.
I took my first international trip (to Canada) when I was one.
By the time I was eleven, I had visited all four time zones in the continental United States.
And I never saw any of those facts as remarkable.
The primary reason none of that seemed remarkable was because my parents didn’t have much money when I was growing up. My mom stayed home with us and my dad worked for the church. We went without a lot of the luxuries that most of my middle class friends took for granted. But that never stopped us from traveling.
We traveled mostly because we had to if we wanted to see family. My first plane ride was so that my mom could fly “home” to Michigan from our actual home in California for my uncle’s wedding. My first trip to Canada (which was right across the border from where we lived in Detroit) was to visit my paternal grandparents, who were living in Ontario at the time. When I was eleven I traveled via station wagon from our home in Illinois to Washington state for another uncle’s wedding. And while we often made quick stops through places (such as Mount Rushmore as we drove through South Dakota), we also spent time in many of those destinations. We stayed with family and friends and got to know more about the places we were staying from the people who lived there.
Seeing the country was a means to an end, but it also opened up my world in ways that many of my peers hadn’t yet experienced.
And adulthood didn’t stop that need to immerse myself in the world; it heightened it.
While I can’t really say that I’ve traveled internationally since college (minus a family trip across the border into Mexico for a couple hours and a trip with students to Costa Rica), I never stopped exploring my own country. I may have ten more states to knock off of my map of the United States, but that isn’t for lack of trying. My husband may occasionally accuse me of focusing on bucket list items to check off an invisible list, but we really do try to see as much of the country as possible when we travel. We usually avoid hunkering down in resorts (Disney being the primary exception), attempt to take in a least a little local flavor (like a small town brewery in the middle of rural Wisconsin), and usually travel long distances in a vehicle as opposed to flying. Even our romantic weekend getaway to Las Vegas to celebrate my 40th birthday took us out of the city so that we could drive our rented convertible out to tour Hoover Dam, which was, quite frankly, a significant highlight of the trip.
And all of that has given me a much greater and broader understanding of our national landscape and the citizens who inhabit it.
Because I’ve driven past flooded corn fields, had fresh milk on a Kansas dairy farm, and sat in Iowa farmhouses eating fresh produce, I understand the importance and sacrifice of Midwestern farmers. Because we’ve traveled across west Texas and seen the windmills and solar fields, I know that the energy future in Texas is much bigger than oil. Because we’ve driven across the deep South from Texas through Florida, I’ve helplessly looked out my car window at the results of generational and systemic poverty resulting from a system that’s been broken since the days of slavery. Because I lived just miles from two reservations in Wyoming and as an adult I’ve driven through reservation lands in New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, I’ve seen the horrible cost of our most disenfranchised citizens, people who are gifted in the arts and cursed by history.
Traveling across the country opens one up to the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the progress and the devastation. And all of it belongs to us.
The United States is vast and diverse. When outsiders visit the United States and just visit one or two cities, they haven’t even scratched the surface of everything American has to offer. And while it can take a lifetime to explore every landscape and walk through our history, we need to try.
The last year has brought so many challenges, challenges that we as a country must face head on. There is no one single fix to the things that divide us, but it has become painfully clear that we can no longer say that it doesn’t matter that we know and understand the challenges of our fellow Americans.
For years I’ve believed that one of many things contributing to our national divide is just how little we know each other. And we really don’t try.
Since moving to Texas six years ago, I’ve become increasingly perplexed by the slogan “Don’t California my Texas.” Yes, that is a real slogan. While it is not the sentiment of the majority, there are enough people who feel this way that I’ve seen it successfully used in multiple political campaigns and I’ve seen my elected officials spout versions of this idea repeatedly on social media.
As a California native (albeit my residency was brief) and a lover of travel, I find this sentiment at best laughable, at worst deeply troubling. First, I don’t even think people know what they mean when they say it. Second, it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the state of California, a state with as much diversity in topography and population as the one would find in the state of Texas. When I’ve discussed travel lessons with my high school students and I’ve asked them if travels to California have changed the way they view Californians, the answer has been an overwhelming “yes,” which I’ve then asked them to explain to their inexperienced classmates. I’ve wanted them to understand that their regional prejudices are not just laughably naïve, they can also be dangerous when it causes them to vilify those they do not know or understand.
The truth is, we all need to leave our bubbles. We all need to get out of our comfort zones and see our country for what it really is, not what we perceive it to be. We all need to see our fellow citizens as human beings, not regional stereotypes.
During moments of great challenge, our country has encouraged just that. Wars, as terrible as they are, have brought together individuals from all walks of life and put them in a pressure cooker where they are dependent on each other for survival. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps didn’t just provide young men with jobs and rebuild our country, it created bonds between individuals from all over the country. The Peace Corps has brought together young people to serve together in places all over the world, developing unusual friendships and offering unique windows into the lives of fellow citizens and the lives of those in other countries.
Maybe it’s time for us to start looking for new ways to force people out of their geographical and digital bubbles and help them to see that we have more in common than we do differences. Domestic exchange programs and building a new Civilian Conservation Corps would be great places to start, developing friendships and connections that potentially last decades.
There is no shame in loving our homes and taking great pride in our towns, cities, and states. The problem is when we see those towns, cities, and states as “the best of all possible worlds,” to borrow a phrase from Candide.
We can do better. We need to do better. Because our healing depends on our ability to trust each other and see the beauty in our individual humanity.