Usually meant as a sad accounting for the geographic and cultural ignorance of Americans, it has the opposite effect on those of us in that illustrious quarter percent. We are the daring, the open-minded, the shrewd and worldly elder all the glowing faces at the campfire are huddled around. We have seen the world, and we have stories to tell. (Whether you not you really want to listen.) The only real travel is international travel—all else (minus the notable exception of New York City) is a petty bourgeois venture in the money-sucking heart of homogeneity.
“Is domestic travel really travel?”—it’s the kind of inane question that you unwittingly discover yourself debating (with yourself) over a slice of open road and steaming cup of gas station coffee. Travel within one’s own country is never an exotic thing—a kind of half-traveling, going through the motions, faking the orgasm of discovery. But when you’re American, and that country is a sprawling continent composed mostly of people who never leave it, domestic travel can sometimes seem like the antithesis of travel: giving up, giving in and coping out. And paying entirely too much for hotel rooms.
I got to thinking a lot about domestic travel on my very unglamorous, utterly unworldly last trip: driving through Southern California. It was so different from the type of travel I’d been doing the last few years: I had my car, I spoke the language, could use my cell phone and credit cards. There was no hassle, no “other”—but it most definitely was still travel. And now, as I’m getting ready to dash off to one equally unexotic locale (Texas) and the ultimate “paradise without a passport” destination (Hawaii), I’m thinking even more about what domestic travel means as an American.
I didn’t grow up traveling. International travel was one of those unfathomable luxuries of the wealthy. So when I left the US for the first time, it was literally like the world opened up to me. This occurred during a very dark time—namely, Bush’s presidency. The prevailing image of America, and Americans, was pretty much everything I was against. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was Canadian when abroad, but I didn’t want to be associated with anything American: capitalists, Christians, blond suburban girls. I was also broke, so traveling in places where rooms cost $7 a night was pretty much the only way to go. Thus, I left the country more than I left the immediate Bay Area and my ignorance went inverse: I knew the geography of Latin America better than the Midwest.
It’s true that the political tide has shifted, but it’s more than that. There’s so much to be against in the US—imperialism, corportatization, people who don’t believe in evolution—that it’s easy to forget all the good things. Our art is amazing; from hip-hop to punk rock to graffiti, pretty much everything I love was spawned out of the raging, pulsing cultural cocktail that is the United States.
And when I travel here, at home, I’m more able to dig in to those things that interest me—poke and scratch beneath the surface and get closer to what it means to be this, from this, born out of this. It goes beyond using the Yelp app in my phone to find a good coffee shop (which is goddamn useful). It goes beyond even just speaking the language, or doing so without an accent. Because I know the culture, am the culture, I know how to approach people, how get right in there and smile and make friends and discover cool shit I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
The number one benefit of traveling within my own country is that I’m more able to dig in to what really fascinates me: people, how they live, the weird art/shit they make and the stories it tells. Domestic travel is a totally different beast from international, and I gotta admit that you don’t get the same knock-you-over-the-head rush. Rather than exploring the “other,” you’re exploring the known, and in that way, exploring yourself.
What does it really mean to be American? I used to think it had mostly to do with narrow-mindedness and consumerism. Maybe I’m just a cheeseball, maybe the Obama campaign really did give me some kind of hope, but I think it’s something much deeper than all that. I’m not sure what all it is, this being American, but I’m certain that somewhere down near the core of it is travel. There’s something very central about travel to the American psyche, a kind of open road that flows through the veins of the place, a Manifest Destiny born into us, to set wheels over earth. Stagecoaches, trains, automobiles, a country based upon more, upon Going West and Getting Yours. It’s not the jet-set , passport-stamping kind of travel. It’s visceral, grounded, rooted down into the earth, the dusty, craggy, bayoued and fertile earth.
Perhaps I’m settling into myself. Perhaps I’m just becoming accustomed to being a traveler and building a life around travel; being a member of that elite 25% isn’t so much a novelty anymore, it’s my life. I’m not the anxious teenager with a self-conscious mohawk; I’m the cranky old punk who doesn’t give a shit about dental-floss-sewn patches and would rather go to bed than party/do blow backstage (an actual anecdote from my weekend). And while my heart is in international travel, it doesn’t mean travel within the US is a waste of time and money (what I honestly used to think). It’s just a whole different experience, uses a whole different side of the brain.
Besides, what other country has Chaos in Tejas? (I’ll see you in the pit.)