As you all know, I’ve been traveling quite a bit this year. Mostly by car. Driving has its drawbacks–fossil fuel consumption, fatigue, and other drivers, to name a few–but one thing I really love about it is getting to see the country change as I pass through it. Driving allows us to continue to interact with the landscape as we travel. Granted, it’s often more pleasant to fly over West Virginia than drive its winding roads (so many tight curves), but I don’t really get a sense of the states I fly over vs. the ones I drive through. I don’t know them.
My road trip to New Orleans was particularly powerful in this regard. For example, I now know that there is a giant cloud sitting on SE Tennessee much of the time. I know the northern half of Alabama is surprisingly hilly. I know that partway down the I-1o in Louisiana, you come around a curve and there is water everywhere. I know that the rest stops in Mississippi have wifi and I’m pretty sure some of the locals hang out there just for that fact. I know in the deep South, you sometimes drive on bridges for several miles before returning to dry land. I know that Atlanta is sort of a black hole in terms of traffic, but as soon as you’re through, the state feels as empty as the rest of the inland South.
Driving meant I got to experience the subtle alterations of our country until it no longer felt familiar. We’ve all gotten off a plane and felt the shock of being somewhere entirely different. Driving, it happens slowly–and then all at once. You recognize that this isn’t a place where you inherently belong. You are, in fact, a visitor from somewhere else. Somewhere not like this place, for all that it is part of your native country.
For all that we’re rapidly becoming more and more homogenized with our ubiquitous corporations and our cookie-cutter suburbs, if you travel far and long enough, things do become distinctly different.
This manifests itself in ways both negative and positive. There was much in New Orleans, for example, that felt exciting and novel, from the food to the the omnipresent music to the genuinely friendly locals (once you got far enough away from Bourbon St.). Elsewhere, there was a distinct sense of not belonging in a not exactly pleasant way–being too urban or too Northern or too obviously sort of a hippie. When you’re aware of the looks you’re getting at gas stations and those looks might be curious, but they’re also not entirely friendly.
Even then, of course, there are pockets that feel accessible if not completely like home. College towns, for instance, have a certain friendly atmosphere I recognize. Tuskegee, AL, in particular, felt like a place where I could linger and wander around without fear of molestation. I wandered around the historic site where the Airmen did their training and circled the university’s beautiful campus and didn’t feel like I would be interrogated about my origins. It was one of those nice, impromptu stops that balanced the occasions when I wanted to hurry back to my car and its bubble of normalcy.
This all, of course, being unspoken and generally unremarked upon. There’s no clear line where everything changes, just as the mountain continue and continue and gradually sink into hills until suddenly the earth feels flat and wide and immense and very empty. The landscape doesn’t recognize state lines, but in some ways I think the state lines recognize the landscape–even when there isn’t a river or a mountain range to indicate a clear separation.
All in all, I’m glad for every opportunity to set foot in new places, even if it’s just walking just over the Ohio River from Kentucky to Indiana or sneaking across the state line to visit another Civil War battlefield. Even when the landscape is unfamiliar, it is fascinating.