Mark and I rolled into North Dakota yesterday, thus now having visited all 50 states. We’ve seen 48 of them together and have agreed that our having seen Mississippi and Georgia separately is going to have to suffice. We’re not going back to either, along with a few others I could name. One Facebook buddy told me that he thought we ought to get a patch or something for our accomplishment. I agree, although it’d be even nicer if the prize were a percentage point off the top marginal rate on your income tax, or at least a BOGO coupon to Pizza Hut. At least we got the refrigerator magnet pictured here. You’ve gotta give North Dakota credit for a sense of humor.
We’ve picked up our last states on the longest road trip we’ve ever taken with each other. We started in Minneapolis and have hit Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota since then. It’s a long time in the car, but we’ve listened to some fun audiobooks (the Janet Evanovich Fox and O’Hare series, which careens between elaborate con schemes and gigantic explosions), talked a lot (we’ve covered, inter alia, the meaning of baptism, climate change, our differing views on how empty the gas tank is before it’s time to refill, and why the Astros just dropped three straight games to the Reds). We also are okay both with silence and with the other person gasping at close calls in your driving. Mark does a disproportionate amount of the driving, so I do a disproportionate amount of the gasping.
Gasping aside, this is not even close to the worst trip that we’ve had while seeking out a new state. That dubious honor goes to our jaunt to Idaho. In 2009, we took Mary and a friend to Yellowstone. The park was fabulous, and we added Montana and Wyoming to our list. Because we were pretty close to Idaho and unlikely to be in the vicinity again any time soon, we decided on a quick drive to Idaho. So we packed up the kids and headed west. Sure enough, we crossed the state line and were rewarded with views of lush meadows and small blue lakes. Because our rule on state visits is that it doesn’t count if you simply drive through or never leave the airport, we decided to stop at the only convenience store we came upon. We parked and noticed that this shabby, no brand building was adjacent to a big, silver, new Airstream trailer that was surrounded by a padlocked chain link fence and had Dobermans barking in every window. Even more surprisingly, when we entered the store, we realized that the entire building contained approximately two dozen items for sale, comprising mostly Cokes and beer in a freezer case, two dusty bags of Cheetos, and three gallon containers of bleach that could have stood a good bleaching themselves. Having read a lot of murder mysteries, I suddenly realized what was going on. We’d taken two adorable teenage blondes, one of whom wasn’t even ours, into a meth lab. Crap. I grabbed two Cokes and the Cheetos and pulled out a wad of bills with which to pay the rail-thin guy with greasy hair and suspicious eyes who stood at the register. “Gosh,” I chirped, channeling Beaver Cleaver’s mother for all I was worth. “We’re from far, far away, and I have no idea where we are! And now we’re leaving Idaho after a stop at your fine store!” I think he thought I was stoned, too, so he just handed me some change. We hightailed it back to the Park.
Most of our state visits have been far less eventful. We’ve seen gorgeous scenery, including the aforesaid Yellowstone National Park, glaciers in Alaska, the Maine and Oregon coastlines, the Grand Canyon, a live volcano in Hawaii, Big Bend, and, just now, the prairies and the Badlands. We have marveled at spectacular structures such as Monticello, the US Capitol, and the cliff dwellings and pueblos of the Southwest. We’ve met some great people, too, like the widow in Grundy Corners, Iowa, where we stopped for malts at a local drugstore. She opened a friendly conversation by asking where we were from, and we fell to talking about traveling (Florida was her favorite), how she and her late husband used to ride bikes for exercise, and how her father-in-law embarrassed her by telling a waitress to “put a little cow” in his coffee. I don’t actually understand why this comment was so embarrassing, but this happened in 1992, and she’s still mortified. Or there was the dad in the hotel where entrants in a baseball tournament were staying. Dad and son stood together in the elevator. The boy, who was maybe eight, was in a baseball uniform that had seen some recent and fairly substantial slides and showed a face that’s that odd kid face that combines anger and a deep desire to cry. Wisely, Dad wasn’t talking to his son, but he did rest a gentle, reassuring hand on a sad loser’s shoulder. Or the mother on the tram, hardly more than a kid herself, alternating peekaboo and assurances of love with the tired, squirming toddler whom she was holding. Yes, there are some pretty great things in the USA.
But it’s not honest to say that all is well in our country. We may be the home of great milkshakes, but we’re also the birthplace and continuing home of the KKK. A pimply fellow in a grungy video game T-shirt at an overlook in one of the parks we just visited felt the need to have a handgun strapped to his belt. Rural areas may be scenic, but if you look at the houses en route you’ll notice peeling paint and rotted roofing and porches that list to port under the weight of dirty loveseats. The houses’ occupants sit out on the porch during the day because they don’t have jobs to go to and at night because there’s no AC or money to run one if they had one. And in an alarming number of fast food restaurants, tiny grocery stores, and gas stations, young kids are tucked away with iPads and sodas, spending much of their summers with a parent or grandparent who can’t afford to miss work or pay for childcare, much less a summer camp like the one our kids loved, full of busy days of swimming, riding horses, and buying ice cream treats at the camp store.
Perhaps the contradictions of contemporary America can best be encapsulated in the baseball game we attended last night. We drove to Dickinson, North Dakota, to see the Badlands Big Sticks (Mark has asked me not to repeat the ribald jokes I made about the team’s name, so use your imagination) play the Freemont Moo. Seriously. The mascot for the Big Sticks is a felt version of Theodore Roosevelt; he appears on the T-shirt I bought, the acquisition of which was my main motivation for attending the game. The Moo did not bring their mascot, which presumably is a cow. But I went to the University of Texas, where Bevo, the Longhorns’ mascot, is as ubiquitous as traffic jams in Austin, so the cow’s absence was no great loss to me.
But here was America in all its glory, right? College players from as far away as California and Florida had come to the Plains to play that quintessentially American game and perhaps get an edge that would make them college stars and, for a lucky few, players in the Major Leagues. Blonde kids, Latino kids, African-American kids, whatever kids were out on the field, making a few spectacular hits and catches and quite a few more spectacular non-hits and non-catches. The local Bank and Trust sponsored the stadium, and the Ford dealership, according to the announcer, sponsored the pitching changes. I still haven’t figured out how anybody but the pitching coach sponsors pitching changes, so please don’t ask me to explain that part.
The crowd looked to be mostly local folks, including the giggly teens behind us and the girl two rows ahead of us who was proudly wrapped in her “State Golf Champions – Girls Division B” jacket. All of the teenagers, of course, were on their phones for most of the game. Families were everywhere, which is both heartening and heartbreaking. Mothers juggled more children than they really could look after, barking orders at older kids, sticking pacifiers in the mouths of anyone too young to be yelled at, and growing more frazzled by the minute. Guys looked to be farmers, mostly, and they drank more beers than anybody driving probably should and worried aloud about recent rains flooding out their crops and wondering why severe weather seemed so much more frequent over the last few years.
The home team won, and all of us American contradictions wrapped our jackets a little tighter around ourselves as we walked from the park. Are we a good nation? Are we a troubled nation? Are we both? I still don’t have answers, even after seeing all 50 states. Nevertheless, I’m proud and excited that Mark and I have achieved this goal.