When I first started this exercise of traveling around the edge of the lower 48 states, I decided early on to go in order — that is, to pick up where I left off and continue around. I decided this after the first segment from Venice, LA to Big Bend National Park in Texas. The basis for the decision was that, 1) there some benefit in seeing how things change as the geography changes next to those things, and 2) it meant I couldn’t “plan” for what a particular area would be like weather-wise — I couldn’t say, pick warmer times to be up north, cooler times to be down south — I would just have to endure whatever the folks living there endured. I’m glad I am doing it this way. It somehow feels more correct to finish where I started. But it does mean I’ve caught some weather. This trip was no different. From Cleveland to Savannah, in April, I didn’t get out of a winter coat until Ocracoke, Island, NC. And I need two even there to make it through the night in the tent.
I’ve said before that I am really amazed at how I don’t seem to ever catch anyone having a bad day when I meet people out on the edge. That may be the one unifying thing I take away from all this — people are nice. This is the first segment where, while I didn’t run into any mean people, I definitely got a sense of the reserved nature of folks in the upper northeast. I felt like my interactions there started with a bit of distance. Like I was being sized up. My view was, and is, that when someone shows up and tells you he is taking a lap around the country on the ground, in order, from Venice, LA all the way around, he should be greeted with some reserve. He should be sized up a bit. So, I don’t mind. In fact, I usually say “I know this is odd, but…” when I describe my journey. In some parts of Maine — the northern interior before I got to the Acadians — I could almost see the gears turning in folks’ heads, coming up with all the things they would do if they had the time and ability to do what I was doing. And that list never included actually doing what I was doing, I could tell. And I recognized that when they said, in that distinct accent, “well, thanks for stoppin’ by” they really meant “boy will I be glad when this nut is gone.” But, again, they were perfectly nice about all of it and I didn’t have a single negative encounter, again, on this entire trip.
As for the edge itself, it’s hard to compare this to any section I’ve been on before. With the exception of a couple of spots on the West Coast, I’ve not been in areas of this much population before. And in particular, this much continuously populated area. Even on the West Coast, the density was heavy, but intermittent. For a large section of this trip it was non-stop. In that regard, Maine was a nice intermission for this segment. While I was in it, it was a little bewildering, but on reflection, I needed it. That period of being wholly alone for long periods built up a space that could accept being wholly surrounded in the sections that followed.
Being essentially that spot from which it all began, the East Coast from Boston to Washington, more clearly than any other, shows the edge as a starting point, rather than a boundary. I talked earlier about how hard folks up there have worked to find an escape on the edge. There isn’t much space left since folks started building right away when they landed, so it takes massive amounts of money in most parts, and in others, massive amounts of steel and concrete as the condos rise vertically, in order to look east instead of West. Other areas, people were going to, this one they are/were going from, as we built the nation. So the people that settled here piled up instead of out. Again, the parallel is on the West Coast, where the same thing happens, but only because they ran out of space to keep going. Culturally this is a big difference — the West Coast is newer, for sure, but it is also the product of folks who journeyed across the entire country to get there. SO, out west, when I told my story, I was more likely to get “wow, that is so cool” in response as opposed to “thanks for stoppin’ by.” On the East Coast it was a journey, to be sure, but across an empty ocean from a totally different approach to governance than the one we would build here. And it was a journey of necessity, to escape persecution in most cases, rather than a choice. But uniformly, east, west, north, south, middle, I am finding a diverse and approachable country. Some areas may emphasize some portions of our founding ideals more aggressively than others, but I have not felt a stranger — even as a child of the Deep South — in any part of the country so far. I think that’s a big deal. I have felt strange, but not a stranger.
Until this trip, I think I tended to greet people and situations with a set of ideals and expectations against which I judged and prepared for them. In other words, I brought myself to them. In that way, I strengthened my own worldview through experiences that validated it. Since this trip, I think I tend to meet people where they stand, to confront situations as they are, in the context of everything I have experienced to get to that person or that situation. And, importantly, I don’t get to choose people or situations — I have to take what I get as I motor around the edge. Meeting someone in rural Northern California after crossing the entire continent to get there is different than dropping in out of the sky and meeting them. This is not to say I have altered any of my core beliefs because of all this, merely that I have a gained a perspective on how and why others have theirs. And that perspective has certainly added depth and color and nuance. That’s a big deal, I think.
I still have one section left — basically all of the Florida Coast, with a smidgen of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi thrown in, before I return to Venice, LA. At the outset, my son and I wondered if it would different out on the edge, where people were closer to everything else than they were to the heart of America. It is. But it is different, too, in the heart of America where people are further from the edge than to anything else. What is shatteringly the same is that, if you meet them where they stand, in the context of the history and struggle of the place in which they stand, you find America. It isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t always something you want to emulate or live in, but it is us, and the alternative(s) are so inferior that millions leave them to come here. Just as we did.
I said early on that the border, the edge, defines the limits geographically of what we call America and that everything inside those borders demonstrates America as an idea. It’s becoming ever clearer to me that this sentiment starts at the edge. And doesn’t stop until it, too, runs out of ground.