I have spent more time on the road in 2016 than at any other point in my life. I made it a stated goal to see all 50 states before I turn 30. I enter 2017 with 34 under my belt! Visiting family in North Carolina gave me the idea of taking the long way back home to Colorado to visit the deep South, and deep we went.
The South has actually been called the second largest stateless nation in the world by some, and it’s never difficult to tell why. The billboards informing the reader of Jesus’s imminent return pop up every few miles. The lower taxes of most Southern states have the ill-effect of things that can’t be seen so easily from the highway, such as failing schools and deep concentrations of poverty. What can be seen from the highway ranges from the beautiful rolling hills of Alabama, to the trash littered roads South Carolina. Toto, we’re in not in Colorado anymore.
The first new state I came across was sweet home Alabama. AL is one of the sleepiest states I’ve ever come across. The extreme serenity of the country gave way to the Birmingham skyline. Once I hopped out of the car I quickly realized the loudest thing on the street was my heartbeat. Being a couple days after Thanksgiving, much of the city decided to close down for the entire weekend. Street after street we walked, to be greeted by nothing but leaves lazily blowing down the empty avenues. No cars. No people. Nothing open. It felt like a post-apocalyptic movie set. After stumbling into the only thing open, an irreverent hipster coffee bar, the baristas informed me that there was a major football game that weekend. “People plan their weddings around the game.” I had enough of Alabama by that point.
Just after the sun was completely down I stumbled into the birthplace of Elvis, Tupelo Mississippi. Tupelo was an unnerving town seemingly trapped in the Civil War. I’ve always worried about the Mississippi portion of this trip; the state doesn’t seem capable of shaking the darkest elements of intolerance. Half the GOP in the state thinks interracial marriage should be illegal. Walking around town, hand-in-hand with my white fiance, made that blatantly apparent. Once we got past the Confederate States of America monuments that surrounded city hall, it was clear that we were the town’s entertainment for the night. Every eye in the town was trained on us, some friendly, some shocked, some didn’t know quite what to make of it. Mississippi is the “Blackest” state in the country, but the black population is concentrated along the banks of the MS River. Over in Tupelo, the town was decidedly white from what I could tell. Leaving downtown we stopped by the highlight of the state for me, the King’s birthplace:
The thing I love the most about traveling is when I come across a place that never even crosses my mind, and I end up loving it. That brings me to Little Rock Arkansas. Little Rock, like Birmingham, was also what I’ve come to call a Pin Drop city. Being used to the hustle of New York, Chicago and the Bay Area it’s pretty eerie to be in an urban area where the ticking of your watch is the only sound. This seems to be an attribute of most Red state big cities though. Little Rock, however, was truly charming. The streets were clean, the skyline was stunning and the whole area had an unique charm. Seeing Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library was pretty dope too.
Right before entering the last (and in this case, least) new state of the trip, the town of Fort Smith AK served as a food and drink stop. Unlike Little Rock, Fort Smith was shattered. The town reminded me of the post-industrial decline of Ohio or Michigan. Buildings were literally crumbling, one of them was missing a roof and all of its former floors. Wild West murals helped to spruce up the town, but it was a bit too little and far too late.
Oklahoma…yeah. There’s no way not to offend people when asked “What’s the worst state you’ve been to?” So here it goes: Oklahoma. Oklahoma feels abandoned. Derelict farms and empty buildings pepper the landscape. The people are none too friendly either, evidenced by every stop for coffee or a bathroom. To top it all off, there’s just not much of anything to see. The landscape is a patchwork of dense forests and farmland, with road signs constantly reminding drivers that the land actually belongs to the slighted indigenous population. The state just felt unloved. Although not officially part of Dixie, OK was founded by ex-Confederates fleeing Reconstruction, not to mention it served as a dumping ground for the Native population forced to march along the infamous Trail of Tears. Not exactly the proudest history. Oklahoma City is another Pin Drop city, but less so than the last two. Being a New Yorker, there was one sight I felt I had to see, the grounds of the former Oklahoma City building. There’s not much words can say to describe such a tragedy.
WOW was I ready to be back in the Rocky Mountain state. Colorful Colorado has really turned into a home away from homes. Traveling though the South and Heartland has challenged and enlightened me, but I remain inextricably stuck somewhere between Manhattan and the Mountains.