12/09/2013 08:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Road Tripping

I'm going to do two things today I don't normally do: write about another Internet author's work, and do some touchy-feely "Why can't we all get along?" sort of introspection. So if navel-gazing and blogging about someone else's writing aren't your cup of tea, then perhaps you should just save the time it'll take you to read this and spend it on something more productive. Just to warn everyone up front, as it were.

The title of this article uses the original, psychedelically-inspired meaning of "tripping." In its full form, the verb was originally "tripping out" -- loosely defined as "obsessing or deeply examining something which appears trivial, and then drawing spacey conclusions." This is (or at least, was) what comedians of old (note: this might be an old Robin Williams bit, but I am too lazy to confirm this) were mocking when doing "drug humor," by perhaps staring at one of their palms and then exclaiming (in a stoned sort of voice) something like: "Wow, man... hands...."

Ahem. Where were we? Tripping out... right, right.

Kidding aside, the reason I'm writing this today is because of an article in Salon today, and because of my firm belief in the power of the Great American Roadtrip. The article was written by Eric Lutz, age 25, after a 1,200-mile trip where he visited the home districts of Michele Bachmann, Paul Ryan, and Steve King. The article is an interesting piece of writing, especially in the responses it generated in the comments.

The biggest problem is with the headline, which the author may not have even personally written or had any control over. The title of the piece is "Travels with right-wing nuts: My road trip on Route GOP with Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann," which is then further subtitled "One liberal, three GOP strongholds: What a drive through Ryan and Bachmann country says about America right now." Living up to such a title (and subtitle, sub-subtitle, and sub-sub-subtitle) is a pretty heavy lift, and the article doesn't really live up to this grandiose opening. Which, in the ways of the Internet, is both helpfully and not-so-helpfully pointed out, in the comments.

I, on the other hand, am not as quick to judge or condemn, because the author's heart was in the right place. The article is short on actual interactions with people living in the places traveled to, and much longer on self-reflection. But just on the self-reflection level, it's not bad. Given a more realistic title, people might have reacted a bit differently, that's all I'm suggesting.

The author even admits as much, in his second and third paragraphs:

I've come here from Chicago on a sort of anthropological mission: Over the next four days, I'll see Paul Ryan's congressional district in southern Wisconsin, Michele Bachmann's district in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, and Steve King's district in western Iowa -- a 1,200 mile drive across the Midwest in search of the region's secrets. I'm not sure what I expect to find, but I hope visiting these places, and trying to understand them, will shed some light on the political right wing currently waging war on the federal government -- or at least paint a portrait of the culture they were birthed from.

Tall order for a road trip, I know.

Tall order, indeed. Later on in the article, though, the author waxes philosophic, in the part that really caught my eye:

Driving gives a person plenty of time to think about what they believe in.

I believe, for one, in compromise. I believe liberals and conservatives agree on more than we realize, and that much of today's hyper-partisanship stems from our having retreated into the comfort of our own camps, where if we're liberal we can watch MSNBC or if we're conservative we can watch Fox, and each listen all day to opinions we already agree with. I believe that, for the most part, people are good and want what's best for the country we all love, but have different approaches to solving our most complex problems, that we would find common ground through respectful, sober discussion. I believe getting out of our comfort zones, and not just dismissing the other side as evil or crazy, would move the country forward.

Ironically, the author then pivots immediately to describe (in detail) what he sees is wrong with Michele Bachmann's thinking. Not much common ground, in other words. Soon after, he calls Steve King a "Grade-A jackass." In a respectful, sober way, of course.

But, again, I was drawn more to the parts of the article others complained were boring -- the non-political, introspective parts about the roadtrip itself. This is because I am a sucker for roadtrips. Hey, I warned you there would be navel-gazing.

A 1,200-mile journey from Chicago in a loop through Wisconsin and Iowa isn't much of a roadtrip, in my book. But it's something. The author spent four days on it, which didn't leave a whole lot of time for human interaction or delving into many of the region's "secrets." Averaging 300 miles a day likely means at least six hours on the road per day, more when snowstorms are taken into account. This doesn't leave a lot of time to explore.

I have long maintained that every true American should take a coast-to-coast drive, at least once in their lifetimes. Start at one ocean, pick a road heading east (or west), and go until you hit the other ocean. It sounds both boring and exciting at the same time, and it is. There will be long stretches of nothingness, where you will really wish that Google had perfected the self-driving car, so you could stretch out in back and take a nap. But there will also be fun things along the way, from National Parks which highlight the splendor of the landscape to the cheesiest, schlockiest "tourist trap" local attractions known to mankind. Both are enjoyable, for different reasons. Seeing the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore is one kind of thrill. Seeing the World's Largest Ball Of Twine, Cadillac Ranch, or Carhenge is another sort of awe-inspiring occurrence. When you've driven for twelve straight hours on an interstate, both are a welcome reason to get out, stretch your legs, and take photos for the folks back home to gawk at.

But to really fully experience the glory of America, you've got to cross the whole country. You've got to experience 10 hours of seeing nothing but cornfields to understand why college football is the number one religion in some parts of the country. You have to experience the vast yet starkly beautiful empty spaces of the West, as well as the hollers of the Appalachians and the cities you've only vaguely heard of, in order to begin to understand how truly big America is.

I've driven all the way across the country more times than I can accurately remember. Six? Seven? Eight? I'd have to do some research into my own past to come up with a solid number. I've driven the northern route, the middle routes, and one-and-a-half of the southern routes. Each drive is its own experience, and each has its pros and cons. But all are worth the effort.

To get back to the Salon article, though, there is another reason for making a cross-continental trek. And that is because you'll never begin to understand "the other side" of the political divide unless you go see where they live, and stop and have a coffee or a beer at a local establishment. Even if you keep solely to the interstates and only interact with the service areas which cater to them, you're still going to talk to a whole bunch of folks you've never contacted before.

Coastal lefties really need to rub a few shoulders with the people who live in "flyover country." Here's an idea: don't fly over it. Drive it. See what their towns and cities are all about. Buy gas and fast food from a few locals. And the righties in the heartland (in what they tend to call "the REAL America") need to go meet a few of those "un-real" Americans living in the blue states. Have a beer with a few of them after a long drive. See how local families and people are similar and different from those you grew up with.

Eric Lutz wrote his impressions of a smaller-scale roadtrip. To live up to the title, he should have spent more time in each GOP district. He should have had enough time to buy a local paper and go see a few small-time events on a non-travel day, in each. He should have tried just talking with people about all sorts of things, rather than trying to get them to "be interviewed" about politics.

His piece took off for a lofty goal, and then meandered around into detours and deep thought. This is precisely why I liked it. Reading it was like experiencing a roadtrip, in fact. There were boring stretches, there was a bit of "making fun of the local yokels" (a sport every roadtripper engages in, whether they'll admit it or not), and there was commentary on the American scenes traveled through. He didn't really reach the destination his title (or his first few paragraphs) laid out, but he obviously had an interesting experience which broadened his own horizons. Which is the whole "it's not the destination, it's the journey" point.

America is a vast and wondrous land. There are many things to see and people to meet who will change your perception of both your world and of America as a whole. By age 25 I had already crossed the country at least twice, but then it was a lot cheaper to do back then (and I had far fewer responsibilities, meaning jumping in a car and spending a week or two on the road was a lot more possible). I don't know that, at that age, I could have written about the experience with as much insight as Eric Lutz did on his trip, though. But everyone, at some point in their lives (whether as an inexperienced youth or as a retiree, it doesn't really matter) should make at least one coast-to-coast Great American Roadtrip. If you haven't seen a billboard (or, perhaps, "dozens of freakin' billboards") for Wall Drug or Dorothy's House, you just haven't lived.


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