Fifty by Fifty

Where the Shenandoah and the Potomac meet

Harper’s Ferry, where the Shenandoah and the Potomac meet

When I told people that I was traveling to Delaware and West Virginia so that I could see all fifty states by the time I’m fifty, a pact I had made with a friend a few years ago, I got varied responses. Some thought it was a great idea. Others, including some of my well-traveled friends, wondered if there was anything to see in many states. It doesn’t matter, I said. I wanted to see them all. As we head into one of the most divisive elections in my lifetime, I wondered if finishing off the states it would give me a clearer idea of what it means to me to be an American.

One friend asked me what my favorite memories were of traveling the states. Some I don’t remember, I told her, because I was too young. Others I drove across to get elsewhere, a means to an end. But for others I have very fond memories.

Some states are part of the fabric of my life. I spent many childhood summers in northern Wisconsin lake country. I’ve done enough wilderness canoe trips in Minnesota’s northern lake country to consider that my personal landscape. For the last ten years I’ve gone almost every summer to a friend’s lake cabin on Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene. And Lake Quinault, the rainforest of Washington’s Olympic Mountains is a touchstone.

Some states I’ve been to way too many times to count: California, Oregon, Colorado, or New York.

For others I have very specific memories. Driving across South Dakota one January in the mid 90s, returning to Seattle after a year of exile, watching the lights of Rapid City approaching as I listened to Shawn Colvin’s Fat City album. Seeing thousands of bats depart from under the Congress Street Bridge in Austin. Drinking a cocktail with a chip of glacier ice in Southeast Alaska. Walking the ten squares of Savannah, Georgia. Listening to a friend’s stories of Hurricane Katrina spending at her house on an Alabaman bayou country. Watching the sunset on Rhode Island’s Block Island. Lying on the hood of my car in a corn field in central Illinois, watching the summer night sky. Floating Lava Falls, in the Grand Canyon, thinking I was being sucked into the earth’s core. Riding a Mardi Gras float and throwing beads to happy parade goers in New Orleans.

Others were surprising to me. Virginia with its rolling hills and antebellum history. The small hills and rivers dotted with cotton woods of Eastern Montana. Or the gentle Ozark Mountain beauty of northwestern Arkansas. Lake Mead, a serene paradise, not far from Las Vegas.

I found history everywhere. Chaco Canyon, the Anasazi city in New Mexico, stands out. The capitol of the former Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, home of John Brown’s raid that precipitated the Civil War.

Last week I visited my last two states–Delaware and West Virginia. Do I understand any better what it means to be American having done so? I’m not sure. I saw a lot of Trump signs on the trip. This election shows that we are as divided now as we have been since the Civil War, or during the social movements of the 60s. We are diverse—geographically and socially. America is not one place, but many. I’m not sure what the election in November will bring to bear. But I know that, whoever becomes president, I am proud to be a resident of this land, as divided and messed up as it may be.

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