I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, a quick wrap of impressions I gathered in the 25 states and the District of Columbia on the road. I didn’t really keep a log or a journal of any kind on the road (other than the videos and periodic blog posts hereon), but I did remember forming distinct thoughts about what was different about some of the locations, having not really been to many states outside of the east coast, New Mexico, or California in the last two years.
This will also tie-in nicely with the Facebook-likability of the State Quiz, which joins pretty much all of the other modern still-active quizzes as now being likable on FB. I’m using the graphic images from the SQ for the headers on this little segment.
Away we go:
New Jersey: I can’t believe I still live here. No, in all seriousness, my impression was probably just of how far away New York feels on the Turnpike when NYC is really rather close to New Brunswick. Something strange happens to time when you’re in a vehicle in New Jersey. Everything gets slower… and more dangerous. This became especially true the second time through, when I was literally crying through much of the state as I passed the home exit on the way to 5,000 more miles of what would eventually turn my mood around.
New York: Most of my impressions were about debate and being back in that world as a competitor for just a day, and thus about how happy debating makes me. But beyond that, I think I noticed for the billionth time how much more expensive everything is in New York. There are those who make a lot of the cost of living in the Bay Area, but even if housing is comparable (it isn’t, of course), food and parking and just daily expenses are out of this world in New York. It’s like its own stratosphere of cost. I’m sure there are ways around it if you live there and are diligent, but it just seems exhausting to me.
Connecticut: Connecticut never fails to be the state that is only on the way to other states. Even when the destination is in Connecticut, which is almost never, it still feels like you’re waiting to get to a real place. I’m sure that Yalies and the Gilmore Girls feel differently, but really… this isn’t a state.
Massachusetts: The first time through, it was dark and I was tired, but still impressed at how many exits off the old interstate routes still carry powerful memories for me. This was only amplified by hanging out around Brandeis and even going back to the Taqueria in Waltham. But I was also impressed at how much more reasonable the Boston area seemed in the summer. I’m not much of one for weather/mood correlations and their accompanying theories, but I could make an exception for the people of Massachusetts. I only spent one summer in the Boston area, and it was a great one, though we didn’t get out a whole lot. The city actually seemed warm in a way that it never did in four years there, and I’m not just talking temperature.
New Hampshire: There are no mountains in this state, despite what Stina & Zimmy kept trying to tell me. None. Not a one. Also, it always seems weird to me that New Hampshire has a coast and Pennsylvania doesn’t. Also, as I observed to Stina & Dav at dinner one night, this states is very whitebread.
Maine: I’d never really gone to any coastal parts of Maine before, and I think they underlined for me how interchangeable and identical all coastal tourist towns really are. Don’t get me wrong, I love most of them, and probably not just because I grew up around Seaside, Oregon (though maybe mostly because of that). But they all have such a similar feel and vibe. And as long as it’s not an insane tanning/picking-people-up scene, it’s a really nice vibe. I miss the ocean is really the long and the short of it.
Delaware: Nearly every time I enter or exit Delaware, it blows my mind that the other states let it get away with being what it is. The state is basically one giant troll demanding the payment of tolls because it happens to just barely be in the way. As far as I can tell, this money goes to lining the coffers of DuPont and buying train tickets for Joe Biden. As the economy continues to worsen and states continue to run short on funds, I fully expect Delaware tollbooth workers to simply start ransacking vehicles that make the mistake of pausing at the border-lining booths.
Maryland: I’m trying to remember the context, but someone either on this trip or just before it made fun of me for being able to recognize the color scheme of the Maryland flag in some sort of logo that someone had. This is a very vague memory, I know. But I know most flags and Maryland has a super-distinctive one. Anyway. I know I get this impression every time I go, but Baltimore always impresses me as a friendly, down-to-earth, so much better than the rest of the east coast town. And this trip was no exception. I’m not sure I’d actually be allowed to live there, though, as someone who doesn’t eat fish.
District of Columbia: Holy God, how does anyone drive in this town? I had some really maddening experiences with buses and other transport on this trip, but having a car in the center of the city seems rather akin to being told to extricate yourself from the center of a twenty-mile-wide hive of disgruntled bees. You can theoretically do it, but will you even care by the time you get out? Quickly climbing the list that will still probably forever be topped by NYC, Boston, and SF (in that order) as cities not to be driven in.
Virginia: Despite the alleged gaps on the interstate from the Waffle House site’s WH-finding tool, there are a LOT of Waffle Houses in this state. And by a lot, I mean one every single exit without fail. And sometimes two, just in case you pass the first one. If only Calvin Li had known this when he first tried to lure me into coaching UVA, history may have turned out very differently.
North Carolina: I can’t say enough about how impressed I was by Durham on this trip. The town seemed so great in so many different ways and was exactly the college town that I wish New Brunswick could be. And I really do like the South, mostly, though occasionally certain elements of weird cultural norms will rise up and bite me and remind me that I’m actually in a different place and not just in a drawlier form of the West. Although my other big impression of NC was how pervasive tobacco imagery, iconography, and references were throughout the state. Beth assured me that tobacco has a lot less influence than it did, though I still think I saw a lot more smoking than elsewhere. But it just feels like most people outside NC have realized that tobacco is a terrible scourge on humanity, not something to name districts, towers, and monuments after.
South Carolina: I don’t think I got out of the car in South Carolina, but I hadn’t yet perfected the technique of snapping pictures out the window of the car while driving, so I missed the chance at perhaps the most amazing water-tower I’ve ever seen, painted precisely like a peach with perfect shading. It was gargantuan and right on the highway and missing that picture may literally have been the biggest regret of my trip. I’m sure you can find it on the Internet, though the name of its town currently escapes me.
Georgia: I guess my biggest impression here was how familiar Atlanta felt going through it, even though I’ve only been a couple-few times. Thrice? I think thrice. No, maybe four times. Or five. Maybe this is why I was both familiar and it was surprising. Yeah.
Alabama: Alabama is where the heat started to really get intense, though its impact was magnified by me camping out in it. Obviously Cheaha State Park being the highest point in the state at 2,407 feet made an impression. The whole demeanor of the staff at the Park was also interesting, both in their general skepticism about my camping and especially in their amusement at my question of where I could get fresh fruit. It was kind of like stumbling into some very back woods and realizing that it was really obvious I wasn’t from around there. It was here that I also started to notice, possibly as a defense mechanism to this kind of reaction, that I was adapting my speech to a Southern accent, just slightly around the edges, already. I think I do this all the time when talking to people in subtle and subconscious ways, though. Adapt to their speech patterns, that is, not go Southern.
Mississippi: Mississippi just looked desperate the whole time I was there. If I were going to film a documentary about the economy these days, this is where I would have put down tent-pegs and really started talking to the locals. Maybe Mississippi always looks like this (throughout high school, New Mexico would always be in the running for 50th in a given category among states with Alabama and Mississippi), but by the time I got to Vicksburg, I was feeling like every dollar I spent in the state was like unseen and unexpected manna. Maybe they just don’t get that many summer visitors? I hadn’t started reading As I Lay Dying yet, but that felt like an apt subtitle to the state.
Texas: In this state, I observed how much Nikki’s accent has changed, the result of years of the process I described happening in just a couple days in Alabama. But seriously, I started to notice how hot and dry everything was, especially after driving through slow-down-to-35-on-the-highway-or-just-pull-over thunderstorms every afternoon that suddenly evaporated when I crossed into Texas. It was also funny when Nik and I were the only ones who wanted to sit outside in an early evening in Dallas when it was 104 out. I also remembered, which I’d sort of recalled from Em’s and my roadtrip through there in ’02, just how lonely the road from Wichita Falls to Amarillo is. It hugs the border of Oklahoma and just sort of rolls on forever between tiny towns that you haven’t heard of. It’s the kind of road only used by people who live in those towns or in Amarillo or Wichita Falls or maybe Dallas, who have reason to get to those places or Albuquerque. Stopping into a Dairy Queen in one of those tiny towns made me feel way more foreign than the State Park in ‘Bama. Oh, also, Harry Potter is the same everywhere. The theater in Amarillo had just as much excitement, geekiness, and sheer joy as any other midnight HP showing in America.
New Mexico: First impression came right away: they made a sort of gate at the entrance of the state that was seriously impressive. But after that, it was amazing how vast the distances of New Mexico normally feel and how short they felt in the context of this trip. Indeed, this was true throughout the trip, but really hit home (if you will) in Nuevo. I really enjoyed driving the 6,000 miles for the most part, and 6-8 hours of driving in a day seemed like no big deal. Normally, that long in the car would depress me, especially without the debate team. It was here when I first started thinking about how roadtrips change your whole state of mind and being, and some of the other things that came up in this post.
Colorado: I did a lot of thinking in Colorado Springs about the way having the Air Force Academy in town impacts the city. Denver and Boulder are serious liberal bastions, but Co Springs is all conservative because of the military influence that the school brings to it and that impact, together with some outlying areas, helps keep the state purple. Which got me to thinking about how many towns rely on bases or military schools or the like and how much more conservative this makes people because their livelihoods and existence feel tied to this thing. It’s like if someone made a monument to an ideology in the center of a town, said their living and ability to have a job or live in that place depended on the welfare of that ideology, and then said go. Which is of course so much of what’s true about all sorts of ideological and military devotion, that it just gets tied to the economics or, to a lesser extent, the personality of people, and then they make it a question of livelihood instead of critical thought. Very insidious, the way these things work. Not a new thought, really, but one that really hit home in Colorado Springs. Also, it was really dumb to go to Colorado Springs, where I’d stayed with Em in ’09. I remembered loving Manitou Springs and Pike’s Peak and the whole area, but it was precisely because I remembered loving these places that I’d initially bypassed them on the itinerary. Really dumb to alter that on the off chance of camping there, which I didn’t do anyway.
Kansas: Kansas is really not that flat at all. I was expecting this huge gas mileage boon that was totally wrecked by unending hills, at least throughout the western part of the state. Also, Manhattan had to be the biggest disappointment since Colorado Springs (but also the second biggest of the trip). Maybe I couldn’t find the right parts of the town, but this place just did not hold up with the charm and joy I remember it conveying in 1987. Then again, I was 7 then and it was 24 years ago, so maybe I or it or both have changed. Topeka, since 1996, seemed largely the same, though. Also was impressed at how many exits on I-70 in Kansas are trying to build up little random points of interest because they know how little there is for tourists to do in Kansas. I think the Wall Drug model is being deployed in 39 states at various exits, mostly with little or no success. These mostly just made me miss South Dakota, still one of my favorite states in the Union.
Missouri: My impression of Missouri is what most inspired me to write about the trip in this way, because almost immediately upon crossing the border, I noticed an uncanny uptick in the proliferation of billboards. I’m talking random stretch of highway, miles from any town, there would be billboards stacked atop each other and lined up on BOTH sides of the freeway, maybe 300 yards apart, as far as could be seen. Amazing. Not surprisingly, there were also about twenty times as many “your ad here” empty billboards advertising for billboard space as I’ve seen anywhere else. There were stretches where over half of the billboards were advertising that you could buy this billboard. I mused that billboards in Missouri had been like housing in most other states – an unending hyperbolic growth market that suddenly went bust and left countless ads turned out of billboards, but it would always be cheaper to try to sell the space than tear them down. I realized I probably knew only one person who I was sure was from Missouri and resolved to ask Omar Qureshi about this at Hopkins in September.
Illinois: Illinois, outside of Chicago, may be the most regular seeming state ever. There were a lot of empty billboards as well, but nothing like Missouri. Otherwise, the state was just… non-descript. It’s like describing a voice that you really think doesn’t have an accent. Things were just regular. Almost weird in their regularity.
Indiana: Indiana may be the state that I forget about most. Not when I’m trying to name all 50 states in a hurry – then the state I always forget is Delaware. (Maybe THAT’S why they charge so much to pass through – so people remember it’s there!) But whenever I plan a roadtrip across the country, Indiana is almost always somehow involved and I almost always forget it’s going to be there. It’s like “Hm, Chicago, then something in Ohio, right? Why does it take so long? Is something in the way? Oh, Indiana, that’s right.” Every time. I even set a scene in Loosely Based about Indiana as a crossroads because this just seems like what the state is all about. Fortunately, upon crossing the border, it seems to have embraced this role, since its slogan on the sign was something like “Crossroads of America” or “Gateway to America” or something. Basically, in short, Indiana is the Connecticut of the Midwest.
Ohio: I think on this trip I got a better idea than ever before of what a bifurcated state Ohio is. Cleveland is the kind of place that could elect Dennis Kucinich and is urban and has factories and is comparable to Detroit or Chicago or at least sees itself that way. Cincinnati is just a southern city that happens to have a river in the way as a technicality. I’ve observed this before, about each city, having been to both, but it took going in the middle, to Dayton, and bypassing both cities, to really realize that Ohio is a blend of these influences. Dayton is mostly in Cincy’s orbit, it would seem, and this effect was augmented by the Dragons being the single-A affiliate of the Reds. The crowd was just Southern. It was a Southern experience, in Ohio. There’s no better way to put it. The sensibilities, reactions, conversation (I talked to people on either side of me, at their initiation, which tells you just how Southern it was), and look and feel were all Southern. I feel I could have gone 50 miles north and been in the orbit of Cleveland, more hard-nosed, industrial, urban. A little like Colorado, maybe, without the Academy.
West Virginia: There’s this little tip of West Virginia that juts into the gap between Ohio and Pennsylvania and draws the interstates and just makes Delaware look west across the country and salivate at how much unwarranted toll revenue is going uncollected therefrom. Across this 20ish-mile stretch, West Virginia has apparently decided that tolls would distract or even embitter the average visitor against the unending tide of coal propaganda that litters the side of the freeways in both directions. Almost all of these referred to coal as “clean” or “safe” or both. Even the tobacco stuff in NC didn’t have the audacity to plaster the cigarette references with “unaddictive” and “cancer-free”.
Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania is such a big state. It takes crossing it in a day, lengthwise, to really appreciate that. Not big by Western standards, quite, but it would be a decent Western state by size, so it’s a nice antidote to its surrounding Eastern brethren. Unless you’re just tired and lonely and want to be home already when you get there. The freeways are well designed in PA to bypass Pittsburgh and Philly completely if you don’t want to go to either, so that’s nice, but there’s this honking big Turnpike in the middle of the state that charges some really serious tolls. I don’t like paying for road crossings in the best of times (as I’m sure you’ve detected from this post already), but a $12 fee to go only about a third the length of a pay-road is really serious. I wish I could report that the toll roads are really better in some way, but they of course aren’t (read: capitalism is bunk). And this one was especially bad because they were reconstructing it so much and slowing traffic so thoroughly that I almost made a sarcastic remark about having to pay at all to the tollbooth attendant, which is about diametric to my normal character and treatment of said attendants. I was that upset/annoyed about the whole thing. Or perhaps tired, lonely, and wanting to get home.
And when I started this post, I was worried I wouldn’t remember enough to say about each state.
Edit/Addendum: I went and looked up Pennsylvania’s land area to make sure I was neither slighting nor exaggerating its size. Turns out, I was exaggerating. What I should have said, I guess, is that Pennsylvania is a long state, because it’s laughably smaller than any Western state. Except, y’know, Hawaii, which is still larger in land area than New Jersey. (Amazing, huh? Think about that. Hawaii has more land than New Jersey.) To give you an example of scale of magnitude, you could fit Penn into New Mexico over two and a half times. Put another way, Pennsylvania is roughly comparable to Malawi while New Mexico is roughly comparable to Poland. Even the smallest of the non-Hawaii Western states, Washington, is over 1.5 times the size of Pennsylvania. If Pennsylvania were a Western state, it would look freakishly small and all the other states would make fun of it. It’s 33rd in the nation in land area. Then again, Idaho is larger in land area than either Washington or Utah, a fact (all this is from Wikipedia, bee-tee-dubs) that makes me think Wikipedia was recently hacked by a geographic terrorist. Nope, the edits look right. Wow. New York is larger than Penn. Mississippi is. Basically, I really stepped in it with that comparison. But rather than change that, I’ve added this addendum. More fun, don’t you think?