My phone displayed the time as 11:35 p.m. on January 15 as I counted down the final miles and I gingerly steered my rental Jeep down a snowy I-95 in southern Massachusetts. Just as the highway entered the town of Pawtucket, I suddenly saw a small blue sign on an overpass above me that said “Discover Beautiful Rhode Island.” I yelled, “That’s 50!” It seemed just a bit ironic that this was the smallest state sign I have ever seen, but it certainly fit well with America’s tiniest state.
Why was I excited over a state sign? Don’t only kids begrudgingly oblige their parents for photos at state signs and national park entrances on family trips? I wouldn’t normally be too excited over such a highway marker, but this was more than that. This was a travel milestone, and it took years and years of traveling to make it happen. Over those years I have journeyed with friends and family to destinations all over the United States, while other times I have gone solo or on business. Some of these trips were unforgettable, some life shaping and others a memory of times with loved ones who are no longer alive. Or as my Dad always says on a trip, “put this in your memory bank, son.”
Pawtucket, Rhode Island, seems like a weird place to mark a significant travel milestone. I never thought this small city in Rhode Island would be where my quest to visit all 50 states would end. It seemed a bit anticlimactic, but then I realized that my journeys in exploring the United States and the rest of the world have only scratched the surface. I remembered again that there is so much more to see and experience.
Let me explain. As I approached a milestone birthday this year, I started reflecting on it last year. One of my good friends, Allison, started a “Top 40 Things to Do Before Turning 40” bucket list. Inspired by her idea, I created a bucket list of my own. Many of my goals were small, but my biggest was visiting all 50 states before my birthday this year.
I have always thoroughly loved traveling and thinking about my next trip, whether in the United States or overseas. My trips have never ceased to inspire me, but I have on occasion, taken them for granted. That’s because I always assumed that I would be able to see the places I wanted, but then a few things happened that caused reality to cave in. After some of my co-workers were killed on September 11 in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I realized that each day is not a given. Later on I had both friends and family die unexpectedly, and I knew several of them had unfulfilled travel dreams we had discussed. It was then that I realized my life could be short, I have a finite number of years, and I need to travel each year if I want to see everything I want.
My journeys across the United States started when I was eight years old during a trip to the Midwest and Northeast. It continued with trips all over the western states, where my family liked to travel, and where some of my family lived. Over the years, I visited some states multitudes of times such as California, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, Texas and Florida. Other states I have resided in which include states in the Deep South and Midwest. During and after college, I started traveling more overseas. I journeyed a number of times to Europe and South America. Then came the remaining continents with trips to Australia, Africa, Asia and Antarctica. There was still so much of the world I wanted to experience, but sprinkled in between, I had a desire to see the rest of my own country.
My milestone birthday – or some might call it a travel mid-life crisis — lit a fire in me to finish what I started by visiting all the states in United States. I was stuck on 40 states and had 10 left to reach my goal. Thanks to my move to the Great Lakes region back in 2012, it provided me with a fantastic base to see my remaining states. So in 2016, I made my first trip to Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. Then later that summer, I traveled to the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Fast forward to 2017. I had three months until my milestone birthday. Would I be able to accomplish my goal in time? Thanks to a holiday weekend and the small geographical area in New England of my remaining five states, I decided it was now or never to make it happen!
I flew into Hartford, Connecticut, on a Friday evening and had dinner. Check, state 46. Then I drove north through Massachusetts to spend the evening in Manchester, New Hampshire. On Saturday, I explored the Granite State by touring the White Mountains, seeing Mount Washington and driving the scenic Kancamagus Highway. Check state 47. I also drove into Maine and had a chowder dinner. Though I cannot say I really saw much of Maine, because I cut through and had a meal there, I checked off state 48. My rules dictate airports don’t count and you must do something there on the ground. But have no fear, I am returning to Maine later to explore the coast.
Then on Saturday evening, I drove to Vermont, where I stayed in the scenic town of White River Junction. I cruised up to the capital to see the state house building in Montpelier. On Sunday I skied at Killington and then drove north to see the quaint resort town of Stowe and tour Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream factory in Waterbury. Check, state 49.
And, of course, on that last stretch of I-95 on Sunday, I arrived in Rhode Island in the town of Pawtucket. After walking around the historic mill and pinching myself that I accomplished my goal, I headed down I-95 to Providence. I checked into my hotel and then walked up to the capitol building to celebrate the end of a long journey. Number 50, check!
Of course, for all this effort, that night photo I took of the Rhode Island overpass sign in Pawtucket wasn’t going to suffice. I had to get a photo of myself with the Rhode Island sign, so the next day on my journey along Highway 6 back to the airport in Hartford, I did a U-turn at the border to capture a selfie with my 50th state.
So what I have received from this long journey? Yes, I am poorer in the pocketbook. Yes, I am less sure of the universal truths in life. I am more knowledgeable, but what I really realize is how unknowledgeable I truly am. That’s the travelers curse, because more perspective means less clarity.
However, there are some special things that I am sure about. First, there are good people in this world always willing to lend a hand. I have found this out everywhere, no matter my circumstances. Second, I am certain that traveling is an equalizer and is mortal to prejudices. And lastly, I feel that I have a better understanding of people and cultures very different from me.
We live in a time of incredible mobility and opportunity for average people like me to travel the world. So make the world your oyster, crack it open and search for that elusive pearl inside. I am happy to say I have discovered quite a few pearls along the way.