Saturday, November 12, 2011

How many states have you been to?

I recently took an Amtrak train from Washington, DC to Chicago. I take this trip once or twice a year and I have never suffered from lack of conversation. You meet interesting people on a train, and when you are stuck together for 18 hours, people tend to be fairly social. On this recent trip, I had both seats to myself and was excited to be antisocial and start a new book I've been wanting to read. But as I got settled in, I couldn't help but hear the introductions being made by new seatmates all around me. On the other side of the aisle a young man in his twenties chatted with a woman who appeared to be in her forties. Even though I was immersed in the world of ESPN, his voice carried across the aisle as he asked her: How many states have you been to?

It struck me as a naive question. Or rather, a question that would be asked by someone who has not traveled much. I would not expect anyone to know the answer to that question off the top of their head unless they had a fairly short list themselves. The woman also seemed surprised by the question and didn't know how to answer right away until she said, "Jeez, I don't know. I travel a lot. It would be easier to name the ones I haven't been to." She then rattled a short list of the usual suspects - Montana, North Dakota, Utah, etc., and I didn't hear more of their conversation because I was already in my own little world, trying to count on my fingers - how many states have I been to? I had no idea. Not that many, really - but enough that I couldn't name them all without looking at a map. So, when I got home I printed out a map of the U.S. and grabbed a set of colored pencils and started to color in the states I have been to. They have to be places I have actually visited and not just spent time in a layover at the airport - that would be cheating. When I finished my map, there were seventeen total, plus the District of Columbia, of course. The stark whiteness of the remaining states made me realize how little I have traveled in my life. It immediately became a new addendum to my bucket list. It is not unreasonable to visit all 50 states within one's lifetime. In fact, I think it's a fantastic and patriotic goal. Whenever I think of vacations and travel, I always fantasize about other countries and wondering where I should get my passport stamped next. It's a shame that I haven't made time for a weekend trip to West Virginia, or visited relatives in North Carolina. All the times I have had a layover in Atlanta, I have never stepped out of the confines of ATL, as evidenced by the gaping white region on my map between Virginia and Florida. I have never been to the south, never to Texas, and haven't hit the Pacific Rim either in the U.S. or otherwise. This is a very sad and boring map.

When I returned to work the following Monday, I asked a coworker, "How many states have you been to?" She gave me a strange look and I told her that I had overheard someone ask that question on the train. She agreed that it was an odd question. Then, after we mutually speculated on the lack of world experience of the person who had asked the question on the train, she said, "Dammit, now I'm curious" and printed out a map and started circling the states she had been to. She printed out another copy for me because she wanted to see where I had been and compare. Just like myself, and the woman to whom the question was originally posed, she said, "It doesn't count if you're just driving through, right?" Of course not. Same as the airport rule - it would be cheating. She had been to 23 states, but most of the whiteness remaining on her map was in the Midwest - where most of mine is shaded in. It makes sense, she is retired from the Coast Guard so her remaining states are landlocked.

This conversation took place over a month ago and I often spend time daydreaming about where I should take my next road trip and knock out some more of my bucket list. Whenever I receive an email from one of the airlines advertising last-minute airfare, now I look to see how cheap the prices are to places I have never been. Just in case opportunity presents itself to take a spontaneous vacation/bucket list trip. Apparently I am not the only one who has kept the map handy. My coworker came to my desk excitedly a few weeks ago and said that she had to take a work trip to visit Missouri. Now she could mark one more state off of her map and she's almost covered half of them! She's not going to St. Louis, or any city that she was excited to see. But the thought of crossing another state off of her list felt like an accomplishment. As it should. This is a big country, diverse in geography and culture. And we are fortunate to have the freedom that we can just take a road trip and see what the rest of these United States have to offer. Someday I will hit all 33 of those remaining states, and I hope you will too.

I still wonder about the person who originally asked that question. My immediate thought was that he must not have traveled much in his life, but he was on an Amtrak halfway across the country so I'm probably judging too hastily. It is possible that this was his first big trip, or maybe he just knew it was a thought-provoking question. It certainly provoked a lot of thought in one person sitting across the aisle, quietly eavesdropping. Whatever his motivation, I'm glad he asked it. I intend to keep this little map handy for a long time. And when I start to feel like I need a vacation, I may just have to keep my passport locked away and take a little road trip. Maybe I will even find myself on a different Amtrak route next time around. I know just what question I will ask when it comes time to make small talk.


Paul said...

Me: 33 plus DC. The largest glob of states I haven't been to is in New England.

A friend in college once told me about hearing an interview with someone (a nature photographer, I think) who not only had been to every state in the country, but had been to every county/parish in the country.

policomic said...

If I count ones I've only driven through (but not airport-only stops), it's 43 plus DC. Minus the drive-throughs (Arkansas, NC, Georgia, Tennessee, and NJ--but multiple times on that one) it's 38. I've not visited the Deep South belt of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and except for the last of those, have little desire to. Nor have I set foot in Alaska, Hawaii, Rhode Island, or Maine, all of which I would like to visit. Many of the ones I have been to I'd like to visit again. Not Texas.