The Best Things I Learned Traveling The US

Traveling is a great way to learn more about the world. In 2015, I traveled across the US in a minivan and here are some of the most important things I learned while doing so.

The United States is an absolutely huge country filled with many different cultures. Every segment of the US is a little different and each has its own little flair. In 2015, I went from upstate New York to California with my sister, parents, and grandparents. We took a minivan, packed to the brim, over 150 hours worth of driving for three weeks. In that short time frame, it'll really change your perspective on the country we inhabit.

Here are some of the best things I learned traveling the US.

1. The landscape changes quickly and often

Grand Teton
Image from Courtney White

From the furthest edge of the east coast to the Appalachian mountains, everything is mountainous with tall trees. Past that, you get cornfields and flatlands. Past that, you start wandering into the prairie. It's not long before you're back in the mountains, but the mountains out west are vastly different than those to the east. The plants, the ecosystems, the views- it all changes so quickly and so often. In the three weeks I was traveling, I went through a mountain, through the prairies, through cities, over a mountain, in a desert, and even walked across a beach. 

2. The distance between places is mind-blowing

Image from Courtney White

I’ve grown up in the tri-state area most of my life, and you can go from New York to Boston in less than 5 hours. When you look out west, it could take DAYS to drive from one city to the next. When going to Yellowstone, it's nearly 4 hours from the nearest town on either side (those being Cody on one side and Jackson on the other). Driving time from San Francisco to LA? About three and a half hours- without LA traffic. That wasn't even talking about how far it is from one tourist stop to the other- like from Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone. 

3. People can tell where you're from just by how you speak

Bourbon Street
Image from Courtney White

I've been all over the place and it seems like every state has a different accent. And people can tell you aren't local just by the way you open your mouth. Some of the best are when you go south, they talk a lot slower. When you go toward New Jersey, they have a different lingo. When you go out west, they call things by different names- like soda and grocery carts. Some of the most controversial things to pronounce are water, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, pecan, and crayon.

4. If you say you're from New York, everyone will think you mean Manhattan

Lady Liberty
Image from Courtney White

I was born in upstate New York and when I traveled out west, we took my grandparent's minivan with New York plates. If you say you're from New York when someone asks, nearly everyone is going to assume you're from Manhattan. It's like the rest of the state doesn’t exist. Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton- those aren't even real in comparison to the 22-mile island in the Hudson.

5. The roads offer some great views and a little bit of fear

Colorado Praire
Image from Courtney White

So out west, it gets mountainous pretty quickly and it leaves engineers with a big question: do we go over the mountain, around the mountain, or through the mountain?  A lot of roads go over it and it's an hour-long zigzag up to the top of the mountain and backs down again. The roads offer some truly amazing views but they are not one for those who fear heights or cliffs. My mother has a huge fear of cliffs so some of these roads were not for her. I also have a tendency to get car sick so the constant back and forth weaving was not good for my stomach. It was an awesome drive though.

6. No one does tourist traps quite like Americans

Sunflower Field
Image from Courtney White

I’ve been to about 45 states and 10 countries and no one does tourist traps like the US. Only here do we have people driving hours, if not days, to go see four dudes' heads carved into the side of a mountain. Roadside attractions, theme parks, filming locations, urban legends, abandoned buildings- in the US everything becomes a tourist trap. I’ve spent $20 before just to walk through a sunflower field, my family drove hours once just to pet some domesticated deer, it's insane how easy it is to get people in to spend money and take pictures.

7. Things are way less developed the further inland you go

Tree in West
Image from Courtney White

The further you go from the ocean, the less developed the land outside of cities seems to be. There are parts of the midwest where the second you exit the highway, it turns to a dirt road. You can look off the highway and for miles, all you see is prairie or desert. You can drive miles before you get an exit off the highway. I remember once my family was starving and we all said “next exit, we get off to get food”. Right as we said it, there was a sign that quite literally said “next exit 50 miles”. Needless to say, my family ate granola bars for lunch that day.

8. There are so many national parks in middle America you've never heard of

Grand Teton Sign
Image from Courtney White

You can actually just drive straight through a national park every day if you wanted to. There are so many of them it's actually mind-blowing. We were just passing through and ended up in Badlands National Park. We also drove through Bighorn National Forest and Grand Teton National Park. That's not even mentioning the couple of parks we planned to go to, such as Mesa Verde National Park, Arches National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and, of course, Yellowstone National Park.

9. The “it's a dry heat” just means benches will burn you

Hoover Dam
Image from Courtney White

The day after my family went to LA, we drove towards Las Vegas. The day we woke up, we were fully ready to drive and check out the strip, maybe hit up a casino for lunch- right up until it was 108 degrees outside. We stopped at the Hoover Dam before Vegas and there were signs on the bronze benches saying “do not sit- will burn” because they were that hot from the sun. My dad refused to park the car in Vegas because of the temperature. A lot of people out west will tell you, “it's just dry heat” which pretty much just means the air isn't sticky but it's still super hot. 

10. Your small town is truly a small town in the grand scheme of things

City Skyline
Image from Courtney White

One of the most important lessons from the whole trip was realizing just how small my hometown really is. The US is huge and driving across the country makes you realize that. It took nearly three weeks (with stops and detours, of course) to get across the country and finally step into the Pacific. Every town had a grocery store and every town had locals. It was a weird feeling to realize every person lived life as I did - they went to the doctors, they went to work, they went to school, they saw friends- but they all did it in a different town, in a different state. It's a surreal feeling to realize every person around you traveled a certain distance to get where you're both standing- and mine might be three times as far as them. 

In the three weeks I spent traveling the US, I learned a lot. Being stuck in a minivan with your family can teach you a lot about each other. It's a great experience that I would recommend to anyone. If you get the opportunity to travel, do it. You can never pass up the opportunity to learn more.

Courtney is a junior at Montclair State University and is from a small town in Pennsylvania. She loves fashion, reading, art, and history.

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