I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from September 2016, in which I tried to figure out every American state I’d visited. (This was inspired by a conversation with a friend of mine last evening who last year knocked off her 50th state.) I’ve added Maine since I wrote this piece, but still, that’s just one state in 2 1/2 years. I can’t believe I’ve never been to Virginia. Also, Georgia lost the football game I was going to when I wrote this piece, by a lot.
As you read this, I am in the great state of Mississippi. I’m here for my first ever SEC road trip, to see my adopted Georgia Bulldogs — adopted because I live in Athens and my boys are obsessed with Nick Chubb and tailgating already and because the Illini season is already over, though let’s be clear here: If Illinois and Georgia ever play each other, I’ll punch Hairy Dawg in the goddamned face — play the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford. The way the SEC schedule sets up, Georgia plays at Mississippi roughly every 12 years, and a good friend of mine is an Ole Miss guy, so screw it, let’s all go.
It’s a bummer that the game begins at 11 a.m. local time, but The Grove is supposedly a beautiful place and it’s going to be lovely out and jeez, it’s a full day of drinking and SEC football and all that comes with it, what, I’m not going to go? One of my goals for 2016 was to try to take more opportunities to see things and go places I’ve never seen or been before. That totally hasn’t happened — I’m chained to my laptop as much as ever — but this is an exception I’ve been looking forward to for months.
It is — and here’s the topic of this week’s newsletter — also the first time I have ever stepped foot in the state of Mississippi. I take a little bit too much pride in my United States travel. My wife and most of my friends have been all over the world, but growing up in Mattoon, and never much leaving Mattoon the first 18 years of my life, has made me find international traveling more intimidating than it actually is. I’d only been on an airplane once before college, and travel has thus always seemed like this exotic visit to unknown and unexplored lands. I’ve lived in five different states — Illinois, California, Missouri, New York and Georgia — and I’m always sort of amazed that I’ve been so lucky. The only countries I’ve ever been to: France, Canada, Argentina, Russia and Belize. I’ll never get to all the places my wife and most of my friends have been to. So I collect states.
Before we figure out how many states I’ve been to and how many I have left, it’s important to nail down what it means, exactly, to visit a state. This was a heated debate on Slate’s Political Gabfest a couple of years ago, and I’ll confess some strong opinions on the matter. Emily Bazelon thought simply driving through the state counted, or even just having a brief layover at an airport; John Dickerson believed getting out of your car was enough. But David Plotz shared my viewpoint: You have to do something.
The following things do not count as “being in a state:”
- Driving through.
- Stopping for gas.
- Stopping to have a meal at a chain restaurant off an interstate before hopping right back in your car and driving on.
- Having a layover at an airport but not leaving that airport.
- Being in a bordering state and deciding, “when’s the next time I’m gonna make it back here? Better take a quick trip across the boarder to say I’ve been to [bordering state].”
This last one was a popular one at our wedding. My wife and I were married in Columbus, Georgia, which is a bridge walk away from Phenix City, Alabama. Thus, several New Yorkers who came, people who would never otherwise come near the South, decided to drive across state lines so they could say they were in Alabama. A couple of them even drank a beer in a gas station parking lot so they could claim the activity.
I appreciate the ingenuity, but I’ll confess I am not buying it. I think you need to do something. Doing something includes the following things:
- Spending the night.
- Attending a sporting event or concert.
- Having a dinner with an old friend (as opposed to eating by yourself on a drive and then leaving).
- Going for a run.
- Visiting some sort of attraction, whether it’s a historical landmark, an amusement park or the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota. If you go do it, even if you’re just on a drive and stopping for a couple of hours, does count.
Point is: It requires actively engaging with the state that you are in. Just stepping foot in the place doesn’t count. You gotta do something.
So, my map. After this weekend’s trip to Mississippi, here’s my map. States I’ve been to are in blue, states I haven’t are in red.
(You can make your own map here.)
I’ve vacationed in Hawaii, I’ve seen a basketball game in Rhode Island, I’ve been to a wedding in Arkansas. (Shout out to Jim Cooke.) But all told: This map is kind of disappointing, right? I’ve missed Wyoming and Utah and all those frontier states, I’ve missed anything that’s too far away to border anything (Maine and Alaska, notably) and for some reason, I’ve missed Virginia entirely. I’m 40 years old and have left the country for a total of about 25 days. I should have a lot more states knocked off than this.
I do a lot of traveling these days, but it doesn’t feel like traveling. It feels like commuting. It feels like going around in a circle. I’m not sure what excuse I’m gonna find to go to Nebraska, or Idaho, or New Mexico. But I feel like I should find one.
Anyway, go Dawgs. Let’s make this Mississippi trip a productive one.