Domestic Travel for the 25% Club

It’s a tired, tongue-worn statistic that staggers gasping into travel discussions across the internet: only 25% of Americans hold passports.

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.)

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12 Responses to “Domestic Travel for the 25% Club”


  1. 1 Keith May 11, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    When you said this: “There’s something very central about travel to the American psyche” I instantly recognized the truth in it. Americans have traveling since before we were Americans. From Britain, from Europe, from Africa, from all over the world. To be an American you HAD to travel. Well, unless you are an original, native American.

    How many people have risked their lives running away from something to become Americans? How many people were ripped from their families and forced to be Americans? For those of born into this culture, how do we deal with this impulse to keep moving. For me, domestic travel is fairly unsatisfying. The only way is away.

  2. 2 Sherry Ott May 11, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    I too have found myself traveling around the US recently after spending 3 yrs traveling abroad. A big change – but not necessarily a bad one. I was just in Kentucky for the Derby and found that horse racing, hat wearing culture just as fascinating as the markets of Asia…ok – maybe not as fascinating as seeing dog meat sold in the market…but it was close.

    I must admit though – when I check in for a domestic flight I still use my passport as my id…I think it just makes me feel better…like – I could go overseas if I wanted to…but I chose not to right now.

    Great post – have fun in Texas!

  3. 3 Vera Marie Badertscher May 11, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    There are enough different cultures in the U S that you can feel challenged w/o a passport. Cajun country? Navajo or Hopi land? Texas or AZ borderlands. Any cowboy country. Appalachian hill country. AZ strip with plural-marriage Mormons. Brooklyn.Maine lobsterman islands. WmVA coal mine towns. Ikm out of time but not out of ideas.

  4. 4 Brian Setzer May 11, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    You forgot to include motorcycles in your transportation list. Ah well, at least you aren’t saying my next 5 months (with Canada) are a waste of time. I love international travel and am looking forward to getting mine going again next year. Still the “open road” syndrome is part of our culture. We may as well embrace the parts of it we like and go see what’s out there when we get the chance.

    Even by speaking the language and using our phones to find the places to go there will still be experiences we would never expect. Like me be stranded in New Mexico today by a wind storm. Now to figure out what that’s saying about me?

  5. 5 Abbie May 11, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    No profound comment here, just that I really enjoyed reading this post 🙂

  6. 6 ayngelina May 12, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Particularly for Canada and the US, the difference from one end to the country to the other is vast. I’m from the East Coast of Canada and I haven’t made it to the West often enough.

  7. 7 simonemarie May 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    “I gotta admit that you don’t get the same knock-you-over-the-head rush.”

    I think it depends on what grabs you. Domestic travel is definitely less disorienting than international travel, but it can be no less mind-blowing. Those moments in travel that really have taken my breath away, transported me to a different place — well, most of them, oddly enough, have occurred in the US. Along the coast line of Big Sur, the trails of my hometown, the gentle mountains of Montana, the incredible light over the Blue Ridge mountains. I remember hanging out on the beach in the aeolian islands off of Sicily, and one of the Sicilians said: Isn’t our coastline the most beautiful you’ve ever seen? And I shrugged. At the time I thought: This doesn’t hold a candle to California.

    That’s one of the great things international travel have done for me. Like you, I didn’t grow up traveling, even domestically, so when I set out to discover the world, I was wholly ignorant. And what I’ve come to find is an ever-deepening appreciation for the beauty of the US.

  8. 8 Gray May 13, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Domestic travel certainly counts as travel for me. Sure, it’s not as challenging as going to a country where you don’t speak the language, they use a different currency, and the customs and social mores are different, but I think you can always learn something from travel no matter where you go. There are certainly parts of the US that feel very foreign to me as a New Englander. It’s such a big and diverse country.

  9. 9 EM May 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    re: ‘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.’

    This particular line really makes me think…I know I don’t want to ‘fake the orgasm of discovery’. I want the real, mind-blowing thing. I want international travel. But still, another profound quote always pops into my head when I think about what drives us toward international travel and make us turn our noses up at domestic travel – “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”

    It’s difficult to reconcile these things.

  10. 11 EM May 18, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    yes, it is. philosopher/author Dagobert Runes said it.


  1. 1 Shiny Travel Objects: May 16, 2010 | SoloFriendly.com Trackback on May 16, 2010 at 6:03 am
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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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