48 States

FullSizeRender 269 copyWe have now placed our feet on all of the 48 continental states. Kentucky was number 48 and, as you can see in the photo, we were very happy to reach it.

When we first started planning our great adventure, we realized we had already visited 33 states, which left only 15, not including Hawaii and Alaska. We decided to try to complete the list, tweaking our itinerary accordingly.

We’re so glad we did. North Dakota, for instance, provided one of our most memorable drives, along a rural highway where the views stretched forever. We probably wouldn’t have visited Arkansas, either, and thereby would have missed seeing the Clinton Library and Central High School in Little Rock, and the amazing Crystal Bridges art museum in Bentonville — a truly world-class museum that recently opened its doors in the Ozarks. We wouldn’t have stumbled across the catfish museum in Mississippi or a great barbecue joint in Orange Beach, Alabama. We wouldn’t have strolled around downtown Omaha.

It proved far more challenging than we expected to reach #48. When we left the wonderfully named Cabool, Missouri, this morning, we expected to drive easily through western Kentucky to Tennessee. FullSizeRender 270About an hour after we left, however, the “low tire pressure” light flashed on my dashboard, and I barely made it to the next exit. Fortunately, Champa spotted an auto repair shop there, which fixed the tire for $12 in just a few minutes.

An hour later, we turned off the highway onto a small road that leads to a bridge that crosses the Mississippi River into Kentucky. Twelve miles later, just as we approached the banks of the river, we saw signs blocking the road for bridge repairs. We had to drive all the way back and find a service station, where a manager suggested an alternate route. This new plan took us out of our way but pointed us in the right direction — via Kentucky, as required. After a flat tire and a major detour, we found it easy to smile for the photo.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 8.09.16 PMThe map shows where we’ve gone. If you’re tracking our path, just start at Durham and go counter-clockwise to Alabama, where we doubled back to Arkansas, made short visits to Oklahoma and Kansas, then headed east through Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee towards home.

We now have one more state to go — the same wonderful state where we started. As much as we have treasured this amazing adventure — and we have, every second — there’s a certain 3-year-old who has a T-Ball game on Saturday morning. We hope to be there to watch him. 377 miles to go.

Exhibiting Controversy

imageYou have to look hard in the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum in Little Rock to find the most memorable event of his presidency.

Champa and I loved the library, which has impressive displays about how his administration dealt with the economy, foreign affairs, the environment and other issues. There are replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, a glittering table set with White House china and a powerful video recounting the first presidential campaign.image

However, the impeachment battle is limited to a single alcove that emphasizes Republican partisanship. There’s no photo of Monica Lewinsky, no “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” and no real acknowledgement that Clinton did anything wrong that might have brought on the Republican attacks. Our tour guide pointed out the exhibit, quickly, and then glided us past it.

I voted for Bill Clinton twice and admire most aspects of his presidency and subsequent career. I opposed his impeachment at the time and am glad he remained in office. Nonetheless, I was disappointed by how his library dealt with the impeachment battle, presumably at his direction. It felt evasive and self-serving, at least to me.

imageI found it to be in sharp contrast with the History Museum of Mobile, Alabama, which we visited three days earlier. Much to our surprise, that museum included an extensive display about the city’s legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. The display encouraged visitors to try on some of the heavy leg irons worn by slaves and to consider the prices white residents of Mobile paid for slaves of different sexes and ages.

IMG_2781When we were in Austin a few days before that, we visited the LBJ Presidential Library. Although less polished and engaging than Clinton’s, the LBJ library included a substantial exhibit about Vietnam. Not surprisingly, the exhibit emphasized the uncertainties and political pressures Johnson faced in the conflict, as well as the toll it took on him and his family. But it made clear that Johnson made mistakes and bears at least some responsibility for what occurred.

imageWhile we were in Little Rock, Champa and I also visited the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, which is across the street from where one of the great battles of the Civil Rights Movement unfolded as a shocked national audience watched on television. A guide took us and another couple into the school, where the diverse current students recently returned from summer vacation. We paused at several of the spots where the story took place, imagining the screaming white mobs, federal troops and black students whose brave steps changed history. The exhibit hall displayed the white racism in all of its ugliness, even though some of the participants still live in the city today.

Having worked in communications for many years, I know how challenging it can be for people and institutions to deal forthrightly with controversial topics. I certainly didn’t expect the Clinton Library to display the blue dress or Monica’s beret. However, I was hoping for a bit more self-reflection and humility, especially now that so many years have passed, and thought such a presentation would have made the “Republican partisanship!” spin more believable. Apparently not.

Energy in the Wind

“Texas” and “energy” usually go together with “oil.”

Well, here’s another fact to consider: Texas also has the most installed wind power capacity of any state in the country. As illustrated in this photo, we saw lots of wind turbines as we drove east across the state from El Paso to Beaumont.


So, too, in Montana, where these were among the many wind turbines we saw from the highway:


As we’ve made our way across the country, we’ve also seen wind turbines in California, the Midwest and elsewhere.

IMG_2813We’ve been pleasantly surprised to see wind energy becoming more common, at least based on our own limited observations. This isn’t to say the United States is shifting quickly enough from fossil fuels to wind power and other renewables; obviously, much more action is needed, especially as climate change accelerates.

Yet even G has been encouraged by what we’ve seen blowing in the wind as we’ve driven around the country. He posed for this photo in La Grange, Texas, the city immortalized by ZZ Top. We didn’t tell him the windmill behind him is for pumping water, not generating electricity. After all, we figured, it’s still turning in the right direction.

State Capit(o)ls

They’re domed, they’re grand and we enjoy them: state capitol buildings.

Admittedly, our interest is a little weird, but we’ve learned that capitol buildings often provide insight into how a state thinks about itself. They’re typically filled with exhibits, portraits and a sense of place that compensates for all of the self-important young legislative aides scurrying across the polished floors.

imageOn Sunday, we visited two capitol buildings, both in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. The one with the five columns in front isimage the old capitol, which served as the statehouse from 1839 until 1905. It was restored after suffering damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and now serves as a museum.
You can see one of its exhibits, which depict Mississippi’s history and, yes, discuss slavery, the civil rights struggle and other difficult aspects of the state’s past.image (We were even more impressed by the extensive displays about these topics at Mobile’s history museum, which we visited a day earlier.)

The dome with the scaffolding is Mississippi’s current capitol, located a few blocks away. Nearby are Mississippi’s magnificent governor’s mansion, the Eudora Welty library and other landmarks.

Earlier in our trip, we visited the capitol buildings for Iowa, Washington and Texas, shown here.

Des Moines, Iowa: IMG_0916 Olympia, Washington:


Austin, Texas:


I especially enjoy listening to the tour guides describe complicated historical events or respond to sensitive questions. Our guide in Austin, for instance, kept saying “we” when referring to the Texans who fought the Mexican forces at the Alamo. In Madison, Wisconsin, which we visited a few years ago, our young guide did her best to avoid mentioning the battle then under way to recall Gov. Scott Walker, who is now running for president. In Augusta, Maine, one of the Democratic Party leaders saw us wandering in the hall. She showed us around personally while describing her battles with Paul LePage, the state’s colorful Tea Party governor. It was an insightful — and hilarious — experience we never anticipated.

So, the next time you’re visiting a state and are looking for a fun (and free!) way to learn about it, go visit its capitol building. You never know who you might run into.

Signs for Staying Weird

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I bet that sign got your attention.

As someone who works in communications, I’m always interested in how people and businesses share their messages. Champa and I saw some funny examples Wednesday night as we strolled along Sixth Street, the heart of Austin’s bar scene. Here are a couple of the other signs we passed:

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There was even advertising above the urinals in the men’s bathroom:

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Here’s one interesting statistic from our evening: Of the nine middle-aged women sitting near us in the restaurant, eight had blonde hair. Welcome to Texas! Here we are, with me doing some research. (We’re drinking water. Really.)

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We hope Austin stays weird, as its slogan says. Great town! Now, on to New Orleans.

Our ‘Unprotected’ Border

If this video snippet that we shot along Route 9 in New Mexico looks like nothing more to you than an empty highway, look more closely. What you’re seeing is one of our country’s biggest controversies: its “unprotected” southern border.

We shot the video on Monday while driving from Tucson through Arizona and New Mexico into Texas, where we finally stopped for the night east of El Paso. (We’ve since moved on to San Antonio, to be followed by Austin and New Orleans.)

We expected this long drive to be highlighted by our morning stops in the tourist towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, as well as Douglas, all in Arizona. Instead, since we steered off Route 10 to travel along Route 40 and Route 9, we spent most of the day thinking about our country’s immigration controversy. (We traveled the route shown in blue on the map instead of the more conventional route shown in grey.)

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IMG_2707Route 9 straddles the U.S. border with Mexico, which makes it a focal point for the U.S. Border Patrol. It was pretty empty when we traveled it. Minutes might pass before we saw another car. Even though the road is in good condition and its speed limit is 65 miles per hour in most places, it didn’t attract many drivers.

IMG_2717What we did see was the Border Patrol, driving on the road, parked along the shoulder or otherwise making its presence felt. Champa and I kept count: along the 227 miles between Douglas and El Paso, we saw the Border Patrol 11 times.

IMG_2727After we entered El Paso, where Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez is so close you can almost look inside people’s homes, we continued to see the Border Patrol. For instance, we stopped at this checkpoint long after we passed through El Paso.

If you do the math, we saw the Border Patrol once every 20 miles or so. Of course, that’s only what we saw from the road. Presumably, there were many more Border Patrol vehicles closer to the border, not to mention aerial surveillance and who knows what else.

Is that a big presence, given the scope of the controversy? I claim no expertise and can’t even venture a guess, much less offer a solution for the complicated politics, ethics and other aspects of the immigration debate. All I know is that for us, two Americans from North Carolina, it was sobering to confront — and to ponder all the lives, resources and controversy represented by this glimpse. As we experienced earlier with Western wildfires and California’s drought,  we came face to face with an issue that had previously been an abstraction. Our road map didn’t list it but, yet again, we found it just the same.

Same Shops, Different Look

IMG_2506We stopped for coffee at a Starbucks near San Diego this afternoon. The interior looked pretty much like a Starbucks back in North Carolina, but the exterior, shown here, had a distinctly California feel. Likewise for the Domino’s alongside it.

IMG_2509Across the parking lot was a branch of Wells Fargo Bank, with an appearance quite unlike its counterparts back east. You don’t see many red roofs like that in North Carolina, except maybe at a La Quinta hotel or an older Taco Bell.

IMG_2475Not far from the shopping center was this street in La Jolla.  With its fabulous border of palm trees, it looked quite unlike 15-501 or any other road in Durham. The Art Deco vibe reminded me of Miami’s South Beach.

As we’ve traveled across the country, we’ve marveled at the changing physical landscape, with cornfields in Indiana and Iowa giving way to vast ranges in the Dakotas and majestic peaks in the Rockies. More recently, along the West Coast, giant redwood forests have been followed by scrublands and crashing coastlines. But it’s not only the landscape that’s changed along our journey; so have the architecture and built environment.

IMG_2352We’ve seen our environment change not only in coffee shops and pizza joints, but also in homes and other structures. In Pasadena, for instance, we stayed overnight with our friend Susan, shown here with her daughter Kai. Her home was built in a traditional California style, with a small pool in the back. (Close observers will recognize the pool as the favorite of a certain gnome.)

To be sure, some businesses and structures here look the same as they do in North Carolina and other parts of the country, albeit with tweaks to meet local building codes. We’ve tracked this as we’ve moved along, trying to figure out where and how things are the same or different, and why. It’s reminded me of those high school exams asking you to “compare and contrast,” although it’s been much more fun.

Tomorrow (Friday) morning we’re driving to Las Vegas, and we’re already wondering whether the Starbucks will feature flashing neon. The oddsmakers say yes. Stay tuned.

The Lake with No Water

FullSizeRender 255On Monday afternoon, we saw a lake with no water. The sight was chilling and showed starkly the severity of California’s drought.

Until this year, Lake Laguna — yes, that translates as Lake Lake — had provided a provided a thriving urban oasis for residents of San Luis Obispo and others along California’s central coast. People brought their boats and children played on the shore. Homeowners constructed docks next to their backyards.FullSizeRender 261

Now those docks rest above a parched lakebed. Children play in the lake, not beside it. Fish are long gone. Signs warning swimmers to take care without a lifeguard remain affixed to docks that rise high above the ground.

Champa and I visited the park while in San Luis Obispo. We had a couple of hours to kill and saw it listed on a website as a nice place to take a leisurely hike. The website did not include the new information that Lake Lake no longer looks like a lake.

We chatted there with a young woman playing with her dog, who told us she has lived in the area her entire life and had never before seen the lake become dry. She FullSizeRender 258described the fish stinking as they rotted a year earlier and wondered aloud whether the lake would ever return.

The drought is unavoidable here in California. But until today, it had been somewhat abstract to us. No longer, and the experience only increases my disgust with timid presidential candidates who insist in the face of overwhelming evidence that climate change is uncertain. Perhaps the next Republican debate should be held here at Lake Laguna, the lake with no water.

French-Fried Artichokes

FullSizeRender 259Sometimes you just have to eat french-fried artichokes for breakfast, with chipotle sauce on the side.

That’s what we decided when driving through Castroville, the self-proclaimed artichoke capital of the world. We saw this road sign and said to each other, “Well we’ve never tried that before.”FullSizeRender 256

Good decision. Friends, you have not truly lived until you’ve eaten a greasy plate of fried artichokes in the morning. The shop also offered artichoke bread, artichoke cupcakes and cream of artichoke soup. (When Champa saw the menu, she started imitating Bubba from Forrest Gump, reciting the many dishes you can make with shrimp.)

As with food at the state fair, we didn’t make the mistake of thinking too hard about the nutritional value of our meal or, for that matter, about our health more generally, at least FullSizeRender 253for a few minutes. As recent members of a university community, we just considered ourselves cultural anthropologists doing original research on regional culinary traditions.

We’ve been doing this regularly during our trip, looking for local vendors and shops offering foods we can’t buy back home.

IMG_2271On Monday afternoon, for instance, we saw this hot dog stand at Avila Beach, near San Luis Obispo. They were selling a “California hot dog” and other items such as shave ice that you don’t usually see back east.

If you’ve read this far, we welcome your suggestions about regional foods we should sample as we head south to San Diego and then east through Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and points beyond. We’ll eat them only for anthropological reasons. We promise.

What should we try?

Where We’ve Gone So Far

Rock stars in Cleveland. Corn fields in Iowa. Badlands in South Dakota. Redwoods in California. Since we left Durham a month ago, our journey has taken us to lots of places. We’ve creatimageed a map to help you (and us) keep track; just click on this link:


We’re now wrapping up a final day in Berkeley before embarking tomorrow (Sunday) morning on the second half of our U.S. journey. We’ll be stopping in San Luis Obispo, Pasadena and San Diego, then turning east across the southern part of the country,

Once again: off we go.