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From Sea to Shining Sea: What I Learned Visiting all 50 States

 
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“Watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sensing all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.”

-Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I was 13 when I visited my 50th state—and quite fitting that my 50th state personally was also the 50th state for the entire country, as well: Hawaii. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t love to travel—in fact, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t traveling. I was 16-months-old when my parents took me to the Arctic Circle, where I was referred to as “bear meat,” toddling along the side of the road in the Alaskan wilderness. I, of course, hardly remember a thing, though the oft-repeated stories from the trip now feel like my memories, too. So, do we blame nature or nurture for my present-day wanderlust? (I’m a professional travel writer, 63 countries and counting). 

I suppose I can credit my parents for my peripatetic disposition—they instilled this restlessness in me. But what I truly credit for my current career as a travel writer is the experience of having visited all 50 states. Though in some ways, my domestic travel checklist was formally completed when I touched down in Honolulu in seventh grade, my lifelong sense of adventure and curiosity was only just beginning. 

Author sits cross legged on a rock with forested mountains in the background

(Image provided by Katherine Parker-Magyar)

Growing up, I would go on cross-country trips with my entire family—from New Jersey to California and back. There would be six of us in the car (I am the eldest of four) and no shortage of chaos—air conditioning breaking down in Death Valley, Nevada; siblings forgotten at gas stations in South Dakota; maps lost in the corn mazes of Oklahoma; and so forth. Usually, at least a few of us were in car-seats—hiding places for Happy Meal toys and, disgustingly in retrospect, (and at the time too), french fries.

“We’re not stopping until we’re past the Mississippi” was a common saying from either parent on the first day of the trip. 

As in the Mississippi River. As in multiple days in the backseat of the car. I’d gotten used to the art of staring out the window. And it was out those windows that I watched America unfold, the East Coast traffic to the flatlands of the Midwest, the prairies of the heartland to the vertiginous Rockies (or the southwest deserts, depending on the route—and we took them all). 

I found it repetitive yet fascinating, monotonous, then out of nowhere, breathtaking. The huge blue skies of Kansas hovered over the fields of green grass outside my window for hours on end until a tornado erupted overhead. The dry highland desert of Wyoming rolled along like the dull surface of the moon until suddenly interrupted by the jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons.

We collected National Park trading cards and scouted license plates, tallying up each state until we’d seen all 50. My mother kept a travel journal—later a bound book, perhaps the family’s most prized possession—and we’d scribble down our thoughts. We would consult the dog-eared Roadfood guides and stop in at local diners and cafes, always on the hunt for “local color” as my father would call it. The places where everyone in town goes, and now—for just one afternoon—you, too. 

It was always on these trips that I realized how many lives had been lived—and were being lived—aside from my own. We were in the Deep South on another trip while I was still in middle school, and I’d just started romanticizing Gone with the Wind. I remember the night in the hotel room when my family watched Mississippi Burning—and the next morning we visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. Needless to say, my opinion on Margaret Mitchell’s antebellum fantasia shifted considerably after that. Your understanding of yourself and your place in the world grows with each passing mile you cover in the United States of America.

I learned to love the wildness of America, and, in particular, the beauty of the West. My mother was always awestruck by the Teton mountain range in northwest Wyoming, never failing to express her astonishment: “Imagine if you were a scout, and these mountains came from nowhere—what would you do?” I’d read a series of books about the adventures of Native American girls who were my age (twelve years old, it seems, for a lifetime). We would learn the history of the American land we were visiting—whether we were in Blackfoot territory in Montana, or Crow—and visit the heritage centers and (if feasible) reservations.

Author kayaking on a lake in Wyoming

(Image provided by Katherine Parker-Magyar)

I remember floating in Jenny Lake with my mother, in Grand Teton National Park, on a chilly Wyoming morning in early June. We were the only ones in the water that day—impossible to imagine now, as Jackson Hole has become so popular. (Maybe actually some things do change over the course of your travels.) We were staring up at the sky. Suddenly, two eagles swooped overhead, disturbing the stillness. They circled above us, their outlines dark against the heavy clouds, before disappearing into the forest of lodgepole pines along the shore. 

“It’s moments like this that you can imagine a God exists,” my mother told me.

And in that moment, I knew exactly what she meant—and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. 

Days turned into weeks until we’d returned from whence we’d started, my family’s driveway in New Jersey. The car would have a few more scratches, maybe a missing bumper or rearview mirror ajar, but we’d returned intact. The point of the journey was never the destination—California was just like any other portion of our trip. What stayed with me is the enormity of America—how big it is and how small I was (especially at that age). But even as I’ve grown older—and seeing these states for the fourth or tenth time—that feeling remains. 

Author poses with a reindeer in Alaska

(Image provided by Katherine Parker-Magyar)

Though I can’t remember my first trip to Alaska, I can certainly recall my last—hunting for King Salmon off the coast of Prince of Wales Island (seaplane from Ketchikan required for access). Or my most recent trip to Hawaii—a full twenty years after my first—learning about the heritage and history of the Big Island. Both were a revelation. No matter how much you travel in the U.S.A, there is always more to see. And yet, I’m often struck by how the lessons I learned in my youth ring true to my experiences traveling in America today. 

First and foremost, I’ve realized that it’s the diversity of experience and landscape that makes America so unique—you don’t need a passport to discover entirely individual and unique cultures. But the only way to fully appreciate its scale is to visit each of the 50 states. Additionally, meeting people all across the country has reinforced my belief that people are more similar than they are different—what unites us (heartbreak, death, fear, a longing for connection and a desire to be heard) is so much stronger than what divides us (geography, religion, politics, and everything else). And, in these increasingly polarized times, I’m comforted to discover that to still be true.

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