Lately a thing has been going around social media: a map of the U.S. called “States I’ve Visited.” Visited states turn a vibrant pink, bragging to all Facebook friends how well traveled one is. It’s a digital, national version of a gift we recommended last Christmas, a map of the world you can scratch off to show where you’ve been.
I think these things are fun, and I’ve even given the physical versions to a couple of people as gifts. But I must confess I have a hard time filling them out for myself. My hesitation comes from an uncertainty about what it means to have been to a place.
The first time I remember doing this same exercise, counting which states I’d been to, I got into an argument about Georgia. I’d transferred between legs of a flight to Florida in the Atlanta airport. The judges ruled that I had not been to Georgia.
I accept that. In fact, I think it’s generally agreed upon that airports don’t count. Just because you’ve sprinted for a connecting flight in Frankfurt doesn’t mean that you’ve been to Germany. The basis for this rule seems to be the idea that airports are all the same. Which has some validity, if our starting point is that you are a fairly well-traveled native English speaker. Even the farthest-flung airports I’ve visited have been variations on a theme of large windows and moving walkways, had signage I could read, and sold overpriced snacks and coffees (even often for US currency), though of course the size, quality, and interest of airports vary wildly.
But this rule sets a dangerous precedent; at least for me it is the first step of a slippery slope. You see, lots of places are basically all the same. I once spent several months traveling the U.S. while living in my car (long story; another time). I was in Providence, Rhode Island. I’d walked around just a bit—just enough to be unpleasantly far from my car, though I don’t remember seeing much of interest—when it started pouring. I mean, seriously heavy, drenching rain. I would have been soaked by the time I made it back to the car (which is problematic when the car is your home for the night) so I ducked into a mall to wait it out. Long story short: I spent many hours in this mall, and when I could I left the state as fast as possible. So have I been to Rhode Island? Malls are pretty much all the same, aren’t they?
Or for that matter, what about any number of the U.S. states that I drove through, on the Interstate, and maybe only stopped at a rest stop or a gas station, and don’t remember a single thing about the state? Have I been to those? My map looks very different depending on these answers. I’ve been to either 35 or 43 states.
Let’s say I’ve made it to a state and done a legitimate thing—stayed overnight, saw the sights, ate some local cuisine—in one city. Is it really fair to say I’ve been to that state? What if the state is Texas and the city I’ve been to is Austin? Seems like a stretch.
For that matter, even my home state is mostly a mystery to me. I know western Washington pretty well (well, except for Bellingham and most of the islands and almost the whole Olympic peninsula), but though I’ve been to the eastern places a number of times most of it might as well be full of sasquatches for how familiar I am with it.
Often times, travel articles add to the feeling that the way I’ve visited a place isn’t good enough. Titles like “You haven’t seen Seattle until you’ve eaten these four fish,” or some such. I know it’s hyperbole, but I am left wondering: have I ever really been anywhere?
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.