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Returning to the States

black and white image of kudzu growing on top of trees
Kudzu Forest, Rutherford County, North Carolina

number of people have told Corie and me that our first visit to the States after living abroad for a year and a half would feel a little strange. In some surprising ways, it did. In others, it felt quite ordinary. We are, after all, creatures of our culture, and eighteen months away isn’t going to erase that.

I decided early on that I was going to take advantage of my time on this trip and drive three-quarters of the way across the country from North Carolina to New Mexico. Normally, the drive would take three days on Interstate 40, a route Corie and I have taken several times in the past for Christmas runs to visit her mother.

But the view of the United States from the Interstate is quite dull, a monotony of standardized stops with the same fast-food restaurants and gas stations designed to fill you up and get you back on the road, speeding to the next round of the same.

I took interstates when I had to, but I wanted this trip to be slow, be forced to reduce my speed to 25 miles per hour through the plethora of small towns that dot the ever-changing landscape, the places that welcome you with a road sign displaying the name of the town along with the high school mascot. Lions and Tigers, and Bears, oh my, with a good measure of Spartans, Chiefs, and Wildcats thrown into the mix.

Along the way, I enjoyed a downtown street festival that had gone to the dogs, visited with everyday people and watched the scenery change from the mountains of Appalachia to the tree-covered rolling hills of Missouri, through the wide prairie, ending in the high desert of New Mexico, the place I have called home for most of my life.

I also discovered a key to happiness.

I’ll share all of that in upcoming newsletters.

But first, our story starts high above the Atlantic Ocean at 500-some miles per hour, between Munich, Germany and Charlotte, North Carolina.

My seatmate was a German man, about my age, who travels around the world for his job with a company that produces packaging for tobacco companies. He was wearing a button-up BMW Motorrad shirt, so our conversation quickly turned to the joy of riding motorcycles.

My new German acquaintance had been to the United States enough times to know the country and its people aren’t the stereotypical portrayals served up on television and in the movies. But his travels to the States have been limited to North Carolina, which informed most of his opinions on Americans.

I love North Carolina, and I was glad it was our first stop on our homecoming tour. I love wandering along the two-lane roads, the webs of asphalt implanted on dense forests overgrown with kudzu.

There always seems to be a surprise in the North Carolina Hills, a dilapidated barn hidden behind one stand of trees, a small clapboard chapel hidden behind another. A photographer could spend a lifetime in the state and never be bored.

While my seatmate’s view of Americans had some truth–we are, as a rule, a friendly bunch–North Carolina is not North Dakota, New York, or New Mexico. The United States is a diverse country, something we seem to be celebrating less and less these days.

An older man named Preston picked me up at the Charlotte airport and drove me to Corie’s mother’s house a couple hours away. Corie had arrived several days earlier.

As we drove the sun sank lower into the horizon, bathing the lush green landscape in a magenta glow. Preston asked me several well-informed questions about our life in Georgia with a few comments about the volunteer work he does for his church.

He didn’t ask me about my beliefs, and I didn’t press him for details on that subject either. I didn’t ask him who he’s going to support in the upcoming election, and he didn’t ask me.

Questions like that only seem to divide, egged on by a screaming media that celebrates anger and fear.

Several people have told me over the past few months that the United States has become angrier during our absence.

But in my six-day journey across three-quarters of the country, I didn’t experience that. Instead, I felt the joy of dozens of conversations about subjects as varied as the people I met.

And that gives me hope.

Black and white image of a textured wall, grail silos, and a truck trailer
Lakeside Mills, Spindale, North Carolina

black and white image of a clapboard church chapel in the forest
The Little Huntley Church, Rutherford County, North Carolina

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1 comment

1 Comment

John D Thomas
John D Thomas
Oct 09, 2023

Welcome home! But, I'm learning that "home" to you is many, many untraversed blue roads.

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