it’s a great big world

Yosemite
Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

Okay, okay, I get it. We’re all fat, we put cheese on everything, or we fry it, or both (mmm, cheese curds). Our food tastes like shit, our bread tastes like sugar, and seriously, what is with those giant portions? We’re uncultured, ignorant, have stampless passports, that is, if we even have a passport (I can actually hear some of you nodding). I used to take personal responsibility for these opinions, embarrassed for being labeled in this way, shouldering the weight of the American Idiot.

And then I started traveling.

I would listen politely as people were eager to share their thoughts on America, before learning they’d only been to Los Angeles or New York, or, “Oh, well, I haven’t been there myself. I’ve just heard.” And since so few Americans travel (that’s the word on the international street, though not all that factual), people can’t possibly form those thoughts merely based on tourists, can they?

Ah, Blanket Stereotype, my good friend, so we meet again.

Hiking in Tonto National Forest. Mesa. Arizona.
Hiking in Tonto National Forest. Mesa, Arizona.

The United States of America, the country people love to hate, everyone’s favorite punching bag. Hey, I’ve punched it myself a few times. Sure, we have fat people, we fry stuff, we like cheese, but have you been to Scotland? You can’t walk two feet without experiencing all three of those things in four directions. And yes, we have preservative-filled, sugar-coated, deep-fried shitty food, but just like other developed countries, we also offer delicious fresh, organic, real food creating orgasmic culinary experiences, even in middle of Midwest, Nowhere! And I won’t deny we have our fair share of ignorant, uncultured idiots, who’ve never left the small town they were born in, much less crossed state lines or country borders, but I’ve found similar folks pretty much everywhere I’ve traveled, so nothing special there. And furthermore, some might argue you are the uncultured and ignorant one just because you assume people who stay put are uncultured and ignorant. Often times, there are other factors in play here; time, money, health, family, the same for everyone, everywhere. In fact, I’ve seen examples of every stereotype people tend to throw in America’s direction, in every country I’ve been to so far. What gives, man?

Airport parking lot, Bozeman, MT, headed to Big Sky
Airport parking lot, Bozeman, Montana, headed to Big Sky

There’s a series on the History Channel called How The States Got Their Shapes, which chronicles not only why Oklahoma has a panhandle and why California is bent (gold, obvi), but also how the States shape the people within their borders. It touches on the differences between the North and South, East and West, why each region has the accent they do, traditions, customs, food. It examines “how every state is a puzzle piece ultimately revealing the unique geography, political and social history of America.” And it’s fascinating.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

America is ginormous and hugs a ginormous gaggle of Americans in her coast to coast embrace. It’s a sad realization people judge all of America on the tiny bit they’ve seen, or worse, heard, even though I know this is kind of the way it works. And then there’s the individual component, where I feel personally insulted.

I am not terribly fat, I don’t eat food that tastes like shit, I don’t eat at chain restaurants that serve giant portions. I happen to live in a state where farm-to-table and organic is all the rage, farmers’ markets galore, America’s Dairyland! I am educated, I have a passport, one that I use. Though I am fully aware it exists, the America I hear people talk about is as crazy and foreign to me as it is to them. I know stereotypes exist for a reason, but I’ve yet to find a blanket statement about anyone or anywhere that covers all things it implies.

Lake Superior, Upper Michigan
Lake Superior, Upper Michigan

I mean, how many people experience Normal America? What even is Normal here? Can a country this big have a Normal? Can any country have a Normal? Who comes to America just to visit Wisconsin (no offense, Wisconsin), my version of Normal? So I’ve been to Berlin, but can I intelligibly say I know what all Germans are like? I’ve seen Paris, but have I really experienced all that is France? Probably not. And anyone who lives in America knows that the South is so, so different from the North, the East Coast has a totally different vibe than the West Coast, the Midwest is the best (clearly), and Texas is barely in tune with the rest of America, it could easily be it’s own country. Similar to the EU country borders, USA state lines carry meaning. We all just happen to speak English and pay for our beer in dollar bills.

Top of Table Rock, Boise, Idaho.
Top of Table Rock, Boise, Idaho.

So my advice to other travelers to America? Visit better places, make better choices. Maybe you think America has shitty food because you’re eating at Applebee’s next to the LA airport or a tourist trap in Times Square. If so, I agree with your review. Try canoeing in the Boundary Waters, hiking in Yosemite, or snowboarding down Big Sky. Try cycling the back roads of Wisconsin in autumn, rewarding yourself with dinner at one of Madison’s farm-to-table restaurants. Try venturing beyond the gimmicky places and movie scenes, seek out the hidden gems, gems because they’re still hidden.

Bicycling the back roads of Wisconsin, America's Dairyland
Bicycling the back roads of Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland

As I travel through Europe, it’s interesting to hear how the Dutch speak of the Germans and the Germans of the Polish and the Scots of the English and the Norwegians of everyone and all versions of vice versa. Not entirely unlike how New York might (probably…definitely) view Wisconsin or California might (fo’ sho) think about Texas. Neighboring countries are often drastically different from each other, and regions within countries can have even more differences.

The more I realize this, the bigger the world becomes. And the smaller I get.

Tall trees, small me. Yosemite.
Tall trees, small me. Yosemite.

7 Comments on “it’s a great big world

  1. Reblogged this on Fifty in 365 Days… and commented:
    Travelling fulltime as we do makes us more appreciative and aware of how different the world is. Stereotypes are for uninformed, the more we get to know one another and get off the beaten path, the better off we all will be. We love being in the neighborhoods, no matter if we are in the US or in a foreign country, it’s where life happens.

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  2. My husband and I want to travel the U.S. We want to visit every state and see the ‘real’ America. Not just the over visited New York, The sensory overload that is Florida (disney ect) But all of it. Time is like currency at the moment. Long,long hours at work… But an early retirement for my Hubby. That’s when we will do it, one state at a time 🙂 and this blog has inspired me to do so even more.

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    • So fun! I would love to road trip north to south, east to west, diagonally, every which way. Maybe we’ll unknowingly cross paths someday out there! Good luck to you and your hubby 😉

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  3. Beautiful and so true!!!!! I grew up in the midwest, lived for years in the South, and the West Coast, and Brooklyn, but I still have some time to really get to know New Jersey now, and it’s people. It’s like a new country! I was so bummed my kids trip to the water plant by a lake doesn’t allow parents.

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  4. Traveling the backroads on our many road trips around the good ole USA was the best way to see what this country is really made up of. Friendly hard working folks, ready to please and share a little bit of their lives with others. Getting of the freeways and travel the backroads; by far the best way to see this beautiful land of ours.

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