The Adventure Begins
My first binge of solo travel happened in 1972 when I turned 20 and had my own car. I grew up in a Boston suburb and after a gloomy winter at college in the Berkshires, I happily transferred that fall to USC, drawn by images of suntans in winter and swims in the Pacific Ocean.
With a lapful of AAA state maps, I headed west in a rusty 1968 Porsche 912. Near the Missouri-Illinois border, I felt my first moment of adventure.
I drove over a bridge into St. Louis and saw the nearby Gateway Arch, but I had another landmark in mind. I exited into the city and, without a street map, alternated U-turns with arbitrary turns until I pulled into a random parking lot. I ran down into the weeds, bent over, and stuck my fist into the one-and-only, great, grand Mississippi River. My reaction was childlike, disbelieving, and giddy. I thought about Mark Twain piloting a steamboat here a century ago and writing about his adventures and about how his powerful words diverted this waterway into our cultural heritage.
Another postcard moment occurred on a two-lane road in Wyoming. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by my first view of the vast sky country when I spotted a hillside dotted with big, brown creatures, ones I’d never seen, even in zoos. I ran to a fence and there they were. Bison, dozens of them, chewing the late-summer grass. It was a powerful scene, one made stronger because of the sense I’d traveled a great distance and had entered an isolated, almost unimaginable landscape. I didn’t take a picture, but then, I didn’t need one to imprint that image.
The following spring, I traveled to Oklahoma with a college friend to return his borrowed car. To save money, we hitchhiked back to L.A. separately. Late on Day One, I was sitting in the backseat of a Rambler, riding with an elderly couple as we neared Albuquerque. The New Mexico sky, so rich in prisms of blue, made me think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. “Do you have a place to stay overnight?” the couple asked. I shook my head no. At their home for dinner we had enchiladas, my first-ever Mexican dish. The next morning they fed me again, then dropped me off near Interstate 40 and promised me it was a good spot to flag rides. I had one in minutes.
After college I returned to Boston and started scratching my way into a journalism career, then jumped to take a job in Florida and made another move to Forbes magazine’s Chicago bureau.
Blessed with generous expense accounts and an ever-growing number of frequent-flyer miles, soon I had visited nearly every significant American city. My sense of the Mississippi’s grandeur grew, when a decade after my initial encounter with the river, I spotted my first bald eagle fly over it while on assignment in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and saw the river spill into the Gulf of Mexico while on vacation in New Orleans.
In the late 1980s, I took a job with the Los Angeles Times. I became a dad, got divorced, and remarried. My new wife, Vani, had an even bigger travel bug than I did.
In 2002, my sister, Debby, invited us to stay with her family at a rented house on the Island of Hawai‘i. We visited beaches, watched lava flows, hiked in a rain forest and around the Mauna Kea Observatories. At sunset, I sat in a hammock strung between palm trees and drank beer and thought about the number 50: I’d just turned 50. Hawai‘i was our 50th state. And how close was I to seeing all 50 states?
I pulled out a U.S. map, did some quick calculations and realized I had been to every state except Alaska, Arkansas, and North Dakota. Sure, it was a trio of scattered states, but my new goal was to see them all.
Rules to Travel By
One treat about playing the 50-states game is crafting your own rules about what counts as an official visit. Here are some of mine:
Changing planes at an airport doesn’t qualify. A trip across a turnpike or a highway, even if you fuel up on gas or doughnuts, doesn’t count. Ditto for railroad trips, especially if you stay inside the coach. Childhood vacations, unless you remember colorful details without studying snapshots, don’t count either.
Obviously, visiting a new state is a personal exploration. A true sense of discovery can occur in a few hours, by visiting a quirky museum, strolling past monuments of local heroes, eating a dish special to that area, deciphering local accents, or talking with a native.
So when Vani attended a conference in Little Rock in 2005, naturally I tagged along. I toured the Clinton Presidential Library and the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and walked by a two-story house where the Clintons once lived.
The highlight was seeing my ex-literature professor, Gene, whom I’d contacted for the first time since college before the trip. In a battered pickup, he took me out to feed his horses. We talked about books, politics, and Southern manners. I visited his home and met his wife. At day’s end, Gene said dryly that he had no recollection of me as a student.
In 2013, my son was accepted into graduate school on Long Island. I decided to buy him a new compact car with anti-lock brakes because he’d never driven in snow or cold weather. He asked when I planned to ship the car to New York. “Oh, no,” I said, “we’re driving it across the country together and we have to stop in North Dakota.”
After posing for that picture at the YOU ARE ... ABOUT TO ENTER NORTH DAKOTA sign, we drove mostly on small roads, roughly paralleling the state line. At midday we parked in Hague (pop. 65). All the cars had Dakota plates, except ours.
A dozen customers were inside the Hague Cafe, but their conversations stopped when we entered. No one spoke to us, except for a waitress, and that exchange was as clipped as dialogue in a Clint Eastwood movie. Later, we headed east on State Highway 11, passing wildlife sanctuaries, ponds, and farmlands dotted with cattle. The traffic was so light that at one stop, I lay down in the middle of the road just because I could.