I live and breathe travel. I love to see new things, but more importantly I travel to learn. To me, exploring the world firsthand has proven the most effective way to learn about the depths of people, culture and myself. Our trip from Chicago to New Orleans included a drive through seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Of these seven states, I had only been to three before making this trip, which proved a unique and exciting opportunity to learn more about the hidden beauties and truths of America.
Dan and I, while both well-traveled, learned a great deal about geography while driving the countryside. We spent a lot of time with maps, signs and the open road, and this combination gave us no choice but to embrace a new sense of our foreign surroundings. My most astounding, yet simple geographical realization involved a new understanding of the mighty Mississippi River. While it offers a powerful and historic role in our country, I only ever paid attention to the states in which I could see the River. I never considered where this natural landmark actually starts or ends. Or, perhaps I learned this once in elementary school, but it escaped my mind having not played a direct role in my daily life.
The 3,710-mile stream runs almost perfectly along several state borders and, amazingly, we could have followed it from my old home of Chicago (or at least Southern Illinois) to my new back door in New Orleans. After scrolling across my smart phone Google Map, I realized the River actually runs from near the Canadian border in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico – a magnificent path for any U.S. citizen to be unaware of. I have a new appreciation for the Mississippi’s magnitude now that I have watched it appear, disappear and reappear among several cities and highways along our drive.
Though we veered off course of the Mississippi on our trip, the pattern of encountering rivers remained quite constant. To our surprise, every major city we stopped in rests along a river. The Ohio River runs through Louisville, Nashville rests along the Cumberland, Memphis and New Orleans on the Mississippi and Little Rock on the Arkansas. I actually know the Arkansas River well from rafting down it several times in Aspen, Colorado while living in Denver. I never paid such close attention to how many rivers run through our country, or to how beautiful they can appear against a setting sun and the backdrop of a small city.
The vast difference in culture – even within similar regions of the U.S. – continued to amaze us. We passed through big cities, small towns and across lands with nothing besides trees or fields for miles. We noticed trends among people in the places we visited. Some local groups loved music and others loved cigarettes. Many loved food, and few seemed concerned or aware of their visibly poor health. Cities thrived on everything from entertainment to architecture to crime. Some cultures had progressive ways of thinking. Others displayed a resistance to change in every element of their words and appearances.
Dan and I felt like outsiders around many of the people we met. We seemed to stand out in most places – partly because of our “big city” appearances, and sometimes because locals would recognize any visitors in such small towns. Though we seemed to have different backgrounds and ways of thinking than many of the people we met, we continued to remind ourselves that we all live and breathe American air. Though different, we probably share some similar beliefs and hopes. Many of them are just hidden beneath our surfaces and state lines. In fact, crossing some state borders presented such a dramatic change in the landscapes and people that we could almost see the imaginary lines separating each region and culture.
In the end, we learned how these once unfamiliar “middle” states fit together with the many others Dan and I know along the U.S. coasts. Though it felt like we were passing through foreign countries sometimes, we saw a new side of America’s diversity and even passed a few picture-worthy sights along the way. Many of these sights have actually been referenced by artists in famous songs like Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” and Hank Williams Jr.’s “The Nashville Scene.” Old Crow Medicine Show even references the Cumberland Gap in “Wagon Wheel.” We have seen a lot of the countryside, which brought life to the roads, buildings and cities we had only ever heard about in lyrics.
“Now,” Dan said, “we know what these country singers are singing about.”