Thursday, June 13, 2024
85.7 F
Thursday, June 13, 2024
85.7 F

Visiting All 50 States Renewed My Faith In Our Nation

You don’t need to spend much time watching cable news or surfing social media to be led to a conclusion that the United States of America is a well-fracked place. Professional pundits of every persuasion work to persuade us into agreement on seemingly just one thing: Our country is deeply and dangerously divided – perhaps again on a precipice of civil war.

How did our nation devolve from being such a bright beacon of hope into such a dong of despair, and what will happen from here? The prospects can be scary as hell, and like many Americans, I spent a lot of time thinking about them, worrying about them, and debating them with others.

Then, about two-and-a-half years ago, I decided I was done guessing about it all. I made the consequential personal decision to effectively put my entire life on hold to visit our country — all of it — in a purposeful way.

I was extraordinarily privileged in so many ways to have the ability to take this journey together with my husband of 25 years. While most of us learned as school children to identify states on a map, very few Americans are ever able to explore them all. Of those who do, it is usually an undertaking that spans the course of a lifetime. The time, logistics, and enormous expense in experiencing all of our country in a defined period is prohibitive for all but a very fortunate few.

I felt a deep sense of obligation to make the most of this special opportunity I was creating for myself. I did not want to visit all 50 states just to say I had done so. I ventured to truly meet our nation. That meant spending multiple days in each state, and seeking out meaningful experiences everywhere I went to help me better know our land and its people. These simple two mandates set the stage for a most grand adventure that I had significantly underestimated.

I came to find out the United States of America is an absolutely massive country that is home to an unimaginably diverse population.

John Paul and his husband Brad walking over the Missouri River between Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska via the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

A Long Way To Go Every Way Imaginable

It takes far more than just planes, trains, and automobiles to make one’s way through the country. Yes, I flew about 100 commercial airline flights during my trip, hopped on trains, trams, trollies, and subways. I took more than 200 rideshares around cities, and drove about 8,000 miles by car. But that was not enough. There were also the small boats, steamboats, water taxis, airboats, hovercraft, and ferries large enough to carry fleets of vehicles. I commissioned a sea plane. Still, I walked, hiked, and climbed more than 3,000 miles on foot.

At one point I was lifted by private chartered helicopter to a glacier on the top of a mountain, where I was left with a team who was training for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. There is no way on or off that mountain other than by helicopter, so the crew spends weeks at a time living in tents. I hopped on a sled as their eager dogs pulled me over a desolate frozen expanse of an Alaskan wilderness. My return airlift arrived just in time to beat a rolling fog that threatened to strand me on that mountain.

Men of different lives, indeed.

John Paul outside of Seward, Alaska.

Along with the travels came the stays. I slept in our country’s most beautiful hotels, in motels willing to charge by the hour, in sharecropper shanties once occupied by former slaves, in private homes in residential neighborhoods, in rustic lodges far from other lodging, and in suites of skyscrapers that provided accommodation to presidents.

As a passionate foodie, I knew that eating was going to be an important part of my journey. I spent small handfuls of change for plates at roadside food stands with blue-tarped roofs, sat at diners, cafes, and community eateries. Everywhere I went, I made certain to dine at mom-and-pop restaurants that highlighted area food traditions. Every state has its dishes they are known for, and I was sure to eat those too. Along with these cultural food experiences, I also forked over thousands to experience many of our nation’s Michelin 3-star restaurants, places like Per Se and The Inn at Little Washington, all ranked among the best in the world.

John Paul (left) with his husband Brad enjoying fried chicken and all the fixins at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.
John Paul (left) with his husband Brad inside of the kitchen at The Inn At Little Washington, in Washington, VA.

The most amazing meal I experienced in my life was at a fine dining restaurant called Alinea in Chicago — often considered the top food destination on earth — where I met famed chef Grant Achatz. It was a many-hours-long affair with dozens of courses utilizing the planet’s most luxurious ingredients transformed in the most innovative of ways. It was a dinner capped by an edible helium balloon that tasted of green apple.

I must admit though, if I could be magically transported to any restaurant in the nation right now, it would be back to Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans to offer a few dollars for a generous bowl of Leah’s creole gumbo and some peach cobbler. It is among the most historic of restaurants, and it uniquely nourishes both your body and your soul in profound ways.

Creole gumbo at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans

While moving around the country was often an experience unto its own, what was more important were the people I met each mile and meal along my way; people whose daily lives became my adventure of the day. I would mention to them I was on a journey to visit all 50 states. They almost always opened up, and in some way would share pieces of their lives with me in exchange for an anecdote or two from my experiences.

I quickly learned that most Americans have the same desire as I to better understand and appreciate one another.

At first to mind is my time in Dearborn, Michigan, home to our country’s largest population of Muslims, where I was invited as a non-believer into the Islamic Center of America, our largest mosque. The temple of worship was serving host to a funeral service, but I was still welcomed in with the family’s blessing. The chanted prayers were haunting and beautiful with deeply impactful emotion.

After leaving the mosque, I went to experience their hookah traditions, where locals sat with me, filled my table with customary food for which they refused payment, and spent hours in conversation. When it was time for us to part ways, they placed hand over heart while offering prayer for their brother — me — to have safe travels ahead. Some in the media have watched protests in this community and concluded it to be the “jihadist capital of America.” I found it among the warmest places I visited anywhere in our nation. These are my fellow Americans in every way and they treated me, a stranger more strange than most, as family.

It is important to remember that the voices we most often hear being elevated are those from an extreme, specifically because they are the aberrations.

Inside the prayer hall of the Islamic Center of America. Photo taken by John Paul with permission.

I have hundreds of stories like this of time spent with people so different from myself, but who shared fundamental ideals which bind us together as Americans. These one-on-one conversations with literally thousands of distinctive people were an education like none I could have imagined.

Individual discussions gave one kind of insight into our country’s cornucopia of customs and cultures; attending our nation’s most notable gatherings provided a different kind of perspective. I sat on a sidewalk for hours with several immigrant families while waiting for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to begin, experienced the awe and wonder of Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta, and spent Kentucky Derby Week drinking mint julips with high society. I witnessed the Indianapolis 500 with a staggering 330,000 other people who were in attendance — as the national anthem played one could hear a pin drop in a crowd twice the entire population of Beaver County.

John Paul (left) and his husband Brad at the Indianapolis 500.

I heard cowbells open the Des Moines farmer’s market, flew to the Oshkosh Air Show — the world’s largest meeting of planes — and ate fried everythings while watching cowboys work their lassos at the Texas State Fair. I saw the Christmas lights during Baltimore’s “Miracle On 34th Street,” had a tarot card reading by a Salem witch ahead of Halloween in Massachusetts, attended a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater, and experienced Phantom of The Opera on Broadway. I listened to live blues in its birthplace of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and took a minute to stand at The Crossroads where legend says the great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.

Sometimes our nation’s gatherings are more spontaneous.

I was walking innocently enough through the streets of St. Louis after the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and accidently wandered into a large protest. The crowd blocked traffic for a time as law enforcement saw them safely make their way to an impromptu rally at a local gay bar. I stopped in for a drink (Vodka Cranberry is almost obligatory at such an establishment) and listened to their impassioned speeches, interluded with drag performances by some fabulous queens.

John Paul (left) and his husband Brad at the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
John Paul (left) and his husband brad at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, New York.

I did my best to step outside of my comfort zone as I went around the country.

I barely acknowledge even having a body, so decided to allow myself to be stripped bare at Hotsprings National Park in Arkansas. Staff of the historic 1912 Buckstaff Bathhouse led the naked me around a large marble room to various arcane contraptions, all designed to expose my everywheres to hot mineral spring water in a variety of ways. Apparently my assets were following in the company of people like Al Capone, so there’s that. It was a sight to behold, I’m certain, but staff assured me it was a very healthy endeavor. I made sure to tip them well.

I had never tried any kind of “recreational drugs” in my life, so when in Las Vegas I decided to consume 3 marijuana gummy bears, as recommended to me by a seemingly respectable man in a licensed dispensary. It just struck me as the kind of “scandalous” thing someone like me was supposed to do at a place like that. I discovered I am most decidedly not cut out to be a pothead and that experiment will be a singular one in my life. Let’s just say, I missed the David Copperfield magic show I had bought tickets for.

Other experiences were more in my wheelhouse, like shopping at the largest independent bookstore on earth in Portland and at The Mall of America in Minneapolis, or visiting the Center of the Universe which just so happens to be located in Tulsa, Oklahoma of all places (no joke, Google it).

There were of course dozens upon dozens of visits to museums that highlighted the history and culture of the communities I ventured to.

So There’s This Place Called “Nature”

I learned to appreciate that not all of our nation’s wonders are ones crafted by man.

I was always an inside person who somehow adopted an arrogant belief that mankind had conquered nature and I was now somehow exempt from it. No need for most of us to get dirty. That all changed one day in a moment of realization that brought me to tears. I had traveled to a higher ground, where the air was thin and cool, to meet the ancient giants of Sequoia. It was an other-worldly place, with sights and sounds and smells all so new and an energy that was unfamiliar yet unmistakable.

John Paul (left) and his husband Brad at Sequoia National Park in Tulare County, California.

As a middle-aged man, I grew to truly appreciate and respect nature for the first time. I wanted to explore it more fully, but felt vulnerable in environments without walls and carpeting. So, I began hiring professional guides. Without exception, these individuals were all much younger than I, young people who grew up in nature. They were knowledgeable, experienced, confident, and highly skilled in ways I was absolutely not. They had a different perspective of our country than I did and were concerned about different things. They took me on outdoor adventures outside of my comfort zone and pushed me beyond what I had believed to be my limits. They taught me and they kept me safe along my way. I trekked up mountains, waded through rivers and slot canyon streams, stood on the rim of an erupting volcano, and I traversed glaciers. I experienced a truly dark sky, and got to see our own Milky Way Galaxy for the first time while perched nearly 14,000 feet above sea level.

John Paul (left) and his husband Brad hiking through the slot canyons of Zion National Park in southwest Utah.
John Paul (right) trekking onto the Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau, Alaska, along with with his husband Brad.

I roamed with buffalo on the open plains of Wyoming, walked with wild horses on the black sand beach of Hawaii’s Waipi’o Valley, spent time at the prairie dog towns of South Dakota’s Badlands, and watched a baby humpback whale breach beside its mother in Juneau. I saw majestic bald eagles soar in the skies, and watched colorful fish nestle themselves into protective reefs.

People are, after all, not the only inhabitants of our country.

John Paul with the wild horses of Hawaii’s Waipi’o Valley.

My once indoor-me went on to visit dozens of our national parks, something I am ashamed to say I never wanted to do before setting out. Even more embarrassing was my discovery of a national park just over an hour outside of Beaver County — I hiked through amazing fields of wildflowers and watched a ballet of butterflies and honey bees at Cuyahoga Valley.

We have one of the most diverse topographies on the planet, and I met people from all over the world who traveled here to experience what I had taken for granted during the first half of my expected time to live.

John Paul (left) and his husband Brad trekking in Mount Rainier National Park, west-central Washington.

March! — Or — At Least I Walked With Vigor

There are places and there are people, but there are also moments in time — instances that hit with such enormous impact their historic reverberations can be felt to this day.

I was where presidents were assassinated and civil rights leaders were slaughtered. I walked where wars were fought and stood where solders fallen abroad were brought back home. I sat where treaties were signed, saw where our national anthem was written and where our constitution was debated. I visited the graves of those who settled here from the Mayflower and of indigenous peoples slaughtered by those who followed. I stood at the base of trees that once bore a strange fruit having hung black men dead, and walked in cotton fields once harvested by human chattel. I took a seat on the actual bus where a black woman once refused to give up hers, and followed where African Americans marched for a life free of segregation.

John Paul after walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee is the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Traveling our nation was a personal journey of growth that helped me to better respect other’s journeys.

Outside of a book repository in Dallas one day, I saw a mother encourage her young children to run out into the middle of the road to lay on large x’s marking spots where an assassin’s bullets struck President John F. Kennedy’s head. She took photos of her kids as they laid there. I bit my tongue harder than I probably ever had; I just could not begin to think of what I should say to her. I walked away silently only to be met by a street vendor who tried to sell me a folio of the late president’s uncensored autopsy photos.

On reflection, I came to realize this family was at their own place in their own journey, and time and experiences would help them to grow too. There are big differences between “tourists” and “travelers”, and I am thankful that everything I have been exposed to helped me to evolve from the former into the latter.

Different ≠ Divided

I had done a good bit of traveling through our country over my years, but this was something so different. This was walking in the footsteps of Americans of all walks of life, this was my attempt at experiencing our country from every perspective I possibly could.

I finished my 50th state on a cold day in Fargo, North Dakota, a place that advertises itself to travelers like myself with the slogan, “Save The Best For Last.” The city presented me with a t-shirt and a certificate – a very American way of celebrating accomplishment. Southwest Airlines commemorated the final flight of my 50-state-journey by announcing it over the plane’s intercom. They placed a crown on my head crafted by caring cabin crew from snack mix packets woven together with martini skewers — a very Southwest Airlines way of celebrating achievement.

John Paul (left) with his husband Brad after the final Southwest Airlines flight for their travels to visit all 50 states. The couple had flown into Denver to start a journey through South and North Dakota.

I knew I had done my best, but understood this journey could never have actually achieved its ultimate purpose. I can never truly understand what it is to live the lives of those I met. None of us can look through each other’s eyes. But these experiences from their lives changed me in such profound ways, taught me so many lessons I had never realized I needed to learn, and left me viewing our country in a dramatically different way.

I suspect I may spend the rest of my life internalizing everything I experienced traveling the country over this two-and-a-half-year period. But I have to say, with humility but conviction, I believe I found the answer to the original question which set me out on this quest. It is a conclusion that goes directly against almost everything you hear, almost everywhere you listen.

We are not actually “divided” as a country, we are just very “different” from one another. These experiences have taught me that Abraham Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth” is one so because our diversity uniquely encompasses the entirety of humanity.

That’s it, it is really that simple.

Our differences combine to have an emergent effect of bringing forth a great nation. We are a good and just people. We are a people who innovate in every way for the benefit of all. Americans are powerful and we have so many reasons to be proud.

Pittsburgh native Mister Rogers’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles, California.

As I began to understand we are not divided the we have been made to feel, I was left to wonder what caused our richness in diversity to be so misclassified as dangerous division?

While categorizing us broadly, the state of our media, social and otherwise, now publicizes and weaponizes every hyperlocal debate into continental political missiles seeking to exact national damage. The news we are ingesting, and the ways we are consuming it, is feeding a false reality in our minds. It is a belief that everything everywhere must be uniform, and that this uniformity must conform to our own personal standards. This is simply not an American way of thinking, and attempts at adopting that mindset have caused many to now doubt America.

There are in fact countries where such homogeneity exists, and they realize themselves in the form of totalitarian regimes with a resulting societal repression. Such nations do not innovate as we do because they are powered by group-think.

The books on loan in our libraries here in Beaver County, Pennsylvania need not be the same as those lent in Beaver County, Utah. These are different places, populated by very different people, with unique sensibilities. The U.S. Constitution ensures our inalienable rights are protected and preserved everywhere and for all, but we also have robust state and local governments because not all of our ideals are ones shared in common.

There is nothing wrong with that.

Assembly Room of Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

We have different problems and we have different priorities, so come up with different solutions to meet our communal needs. We as individuals similarly have different customs, cultures, and religions that we rely upon to help us navigate our lives. For America to exist, this is how things must be. It is a realization of the visionary wisdom of our founders and their forward-thinking insight, a roadmap devised at a time when the country was far smaller and far less diverse than it is today.

Visiting all 50 states did not transform me into some wise old sage, but it did profoundly impact the depths of my core. As I finished my adventures within the vast bounds of our country, I headed back to my humble home with a higher resolution image of America and a much renewed faith in our one great nation.

We still have a rocky path ahead to travel together, but it grows increasingly smoother each step along the way. We have climbed over great mountains with each other, and there is a vast expanse behind us that is the journey we have undertaken so far.

Very few people have ever changed the world, but each and every one of us most certainly makes an enormous impact on our own little piece of America. Taking care of one’s family, being kind to one’s neighbors, and contributing to one’s local community, all goes a long way in carrying us forward on our collective journey towards that more perfect union.

I settle once again into my life with an energized sense of purpose.

Who’s with me?

John Paul (left) and his husband Brad on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire.
John Paul
John Paul
John Paul is an award-winning investigative journalist and founder of He reports full time for the site with a focus on public watchdog journalism.

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