Without much intention of doing so until I hit #45 (North Carolina), I recently completed a journey stretched out over several years through the fifty states. I saw about half of them thanks to business trips that I often extended to take advantage of the opportunity to make a business trip un-boring. Several others were vacation destinations, and a few fall into the category of “What the hell—,” like traveling to Alaska in January to watch the Super Bowl on television.
I’m happy to report that America is still a very diverse country, despite the same-o, same-o shopping malls everywhere and the irritating über-presence of Wal-Mart. Mississippi is still very different than California which is very different than Indiana and so on.
For the most part, Americans are still friendly people, despite the noise of the political and ideological divides. I found the friendliest people in Montana, Indiana, Alaska and North Carolina; the chilliest in the New England states, Oregon and Washington state.
I live in Washington at the present time, and it certainly isn’t for the social opportunities.
The states where I remember the experiences of greatest natural beauty were California, Montana, Vermont and anywhere in the Midwest during a thunderstorm. That said, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken a vacation to “be in nature.” I’ll take big cities over nature any time. I’m passionately interested in how people live, think, feel and choose, and you don’t find that many people in the middle of nowhere (though when you do find people in the middle of nowhere, they are often very unique and interesting).
What follows are my impressions of the states, based on my experience, however limited (although I never counted changing planes as a visit). I spent a lot of time in some states, maybe an afternoon or an evening in others. I’ve seen parts of some states and may very well have missed the best parts. My journey was opportunistic and rarely planned, so there are gaps. I will preface my impressions of each state with a brief summary of the experience so you can take my observations in context.
Often I’ve heard people say things like, “Texas? Yecch!” I don’t think there is a single state in the union that deserves blanket praise or scorn; the states themselves contain varying degrees of diversity. You can’t base your impression of the state of New York based on a weekend in Manhattan any more that you can say that everyone in Texas is a flaming liberal because you spent a few hours in Austin.
I’ll go through the fifty states and the District of Columbia in alphabetical order, 10 per post (this one has 11 because I’ve included D. C.). Here goes!
Alabama: I visited Anniston with a friend on a day trip from Atlanta in 1995. Anniston was the closest city of any historical significance; one of the buses carrying the Freedom Riders was burned back in 1961. We arrived about 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning and the streets were completely deserted, like the town’s inhabitants had been sucked up by an invisible death ray. Of course, they were all in church. To kill the time we found a flea market outside of town and I bought a pair of rusted wire cutters from a big fat Bubba with three teeth (Pair uh snips? Two bucks!) Afterwards we went back into town and everyone was having iced tea on their front porches, the whites on one side of town and the blacks on the other.
Alaska: An odd combination of events led me to watch the Super Bowl in Anchorage in the dead of winter, 2006. A good friend of mine had blown the whistle on some unethical business people and, as a result, couldn’t find a job anywhere near his home. He wound up throwing everything into a severely abused pickup and rumbled his way to Anchorage to pursue a nursing degree. As it happened, my spouse had a business trip to Anchorage the week after the Super Bowl, so what the hell, let’s do it! I remember flying in over the frozen ocean and thinking we were landing on the moon. We drove through banks of piled-up snow a dozen feet high to our hotel and spent the rest of the first evening strolling through downtown Anchorage admiring ice sculptures. After the Super Bowl, we had a great dinner in a very lively restaurant, and the next day my friend took me down the peninsula to see more of the natural beauty of Alaska. The scale of things is immeasurable there; it’s as if the mountains, the ice and the stillness had all been blown up to ten times their original size. Very friendly, warm, down to earth people who felt like old souls—nothing at all like Sarah Palin.
Arizona: I’ve visited Arizona several times over the years, primarily Phoenix, Tucson and environs. During a two-month stay in Tucson, 9/11 occurred. I remember vividly the haunting stillness of the blue desert sky during the no-fly period. This is why I feel a stronger connection to Tucson than most places; it was home at a time when I had a strong need for home. I’ve been to Phoenix and environs a few times; the most enjoyable trip was going to Spring Training while staying at the Arizona Biltmore, where breakfasts like Mexican Chocolate Waffles make it my favorite breakfast spot in the world. The beauty of Arizona is in the clean lines of the mountain ranges during sunset; it’s as if they were drawn by an exceptionally fine artist with a keen eye for detail. Delightful in winter, dreadful in August (especially during a monsoon), asphalt-melting heat in June. Despite the “mañana” service that is very frustrating to a high-speed city-dweller, I prefer Tucson to Phoenix. Tucson is more friendly and has killer Mexican food in South Tucson.
Arkansas: I drove over from Memphis one afternoon, where I spent the day witnessing the poverty along the Mississippi Delta. Heart-wrenching sights of seven-to-a-shack in ragged clothes, poorly-fed, mostly black. My mother was from Arkansas, so I have some familiarity with the culture, but I probably need to go back and see more of the state to balance a rather unfavorable impression.
California: This is home state, where I lived most of my life until 10 years ago. I grew up in the Bay Area, lived a few years in the Wine Country and eventually settled in San Francisco. California is still my favorite state for its combination of natural and human beauty, to say nothing of its endless diversity. I think I’ve vacationed in all of the vacation spots from San Diego to Tahoe to Mendocino . . . you can do pretty much anything in California (except you have to drive to Vegas to smoke now that the health nazis have taken over the state). The fundamental problem with California is that there are simply too many people there and if 20 million of them decide to leave tomorrow, I’ll be on the first flight home.
Colorado: I’ve taken several trips to Denver and environs. One assignment I had involved following around a pay phone repairman as he attempted to repair all the pay phones that had been vandalized during the All-Star Game at Coors Field. I also watched a game at Coors and it was dreadful to see a batted ball carry so far off the bats of no-talent nobodies. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a strange tension in Colorado, like something is out of alignment. Denver could be a much better city than it is, but has too many rough patches. Why they put the airport a billion miles away from the city is beyond me.
Connecticut: I visited here as part of a New England vacation one autumn and for some reason I can’t remember I traveled along the part that borders Long Island Sound. I thought it was the least remarkable of the New England states and Hartford is the epitome of dull.
Delaware: Dropped in from Philly some time in the 90’s. Spent some time putzing around the countryside and had lunch somewhere in Wilmington. It didn’t leave much of an impression. Felt like a large suburb of Philly.
District of Columbia: Two visits, most recently in 2009. Did all of the sights and museums, all of which are must-see. Horrible weather, moldy carpets on the Metro, nice ball park. Too many government buildings.
Florida: Several trips to Miami and Tampa-St. Pete. Hated the humidity and the corresponding smell. The dominant impression is that Miami is blue and St. Petersburg is pink. Lots of transplants give the place a temporary feel. Great nightlife in Coconut Grove. Tampa has a great airport. No, I haven’t been to Disney World and have no intention of doing so.
Georgia: Several trips to Atlanta and environs. Ate at my first Waffle House outside of Atlanta and used 11 napkins to soak up the grease on my grilled cheese sandwich. Atlanta’s not much; the city center is kind of a drag and the metro area has expanded Silicon Valley style. I took a drive through the country north of Atlanta, which was reasonably pleasant. I do have to say that Georgia has the most beautiful women of all fifty states.