Our real reason for doing this trek around the U.S. is to decide where we want to live. After five years straight of being stationed outside the United States, and several other overseas tours before that, we realized we didn’t know much about our country and it’s many diverse places and people.
We still haven’t decided where to settle down, but we sure have learned a lot about our fellow Americans and the places they call home.
We’ve seen mansions in wealthy California neighborhoods, and run-down trailers with outhouses for bathrooms on Arizona Indian reservations. We’ve seen densely populated and congested cities like Boston and Houston and San Francisco, as well as endless miles of cattle land, prairie and desert in states like Oklahoma and Kansas and New Mexico. We’ve seen all manner of homeless people, in every age group, of every race, in every state.
We’ve (fortunately) not had to rely on help from strangers, but we have helped a few ourselves. There was the woman who almost backed into a pond at a campground in Florida, until I banged on her window to stop her. And the lady who we found, late at night, having a seizure in the laundry room of another Florida campground. Many Americans seem to have health problems, issues with driving, or an inability to get around easily.
We’ve met only one other family traveling full-time like we are with kids. We haven’t made any long-term friendships or forged any bonds strong enough to exchange contact information or add new Facebook friends.
Almost anywhere you go, folks are friendly. They’ll chat with you in line at the grocery store, hold the door open and let you in front of them in traffic. Then, sometimes just as quickly, they’ll cut in line without even realizing it, close the door in your face or race across three lanes of traffic right in front of you. They happily take your money in stores and restaurants, but are stingy when it comes to using good morning, please, or thank you.
Some are staunchly loyal to their hometowns, and others aren’t afraid to share that they strongly dislike their city or state. But most are ambivalent about the places they live. I’ve yet to hear a local say “I love it here,” regardless of where “here” is. I can see why they feel that way. Most American towns are exactly the same, with the same stores, restaurants and businesses. Despite our diversity, our cities and towns are largely homogenous and generic in their look and feel.
Politics, racism and social stereotypes run deep, and are no longer a taboo subject in public. They shape what people do and buy and say in ways that are often infuriating and perplexing, like the manager at the campground in New Mexico who felt compelled to tell me how “horrible” it was for his business when there was a “Black Lives Matter” rally in town. There is occasionally some humor to be found in our fellow Americans and their viewpoints, like when I heard a lady in the Wal-Mart ice cream aisle in Bakersfield, Ca., say this to her shopping partner: “Don’t buy the Ben and Jerry’s. They’re some kind of freaks.”
Food in the U.S. is, mostly, awful. Fresh produce and other healthy foods are hard to come by at a good price, as is decent bread, cheese and meat. When it comes to eating out (which we do rarely), most restaurant food tastes the same. Your basic frozen chicken breast is just served with different sauces on top. Americans appear to have an insatiable appetite for mediocre restaurant food and less-than-mediocre fast food.
There are many things here in the U.S. that we lived without overseas, and sometimes missed – pay-at-the-pump for your gas, pizza delivery, the ability to shop or eat or do just about anything 24 hours a day, being in the same time zone as family and friends.
There are also many things we miss from overseas – stores being closed on Sunday, a tighter sense of community and family, the lack of petty crime, the vast public transportation, the opportunity to travel.
Both living in the U.S. and outside of it have their advantages. And both have their disadvantages. We expected, and hoped, to come back and fall in love with our native country all over again.
Instead, the biggest lesson we’ve learned is this: America might be our home, but it doesn’t always feel like it.