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50 years, 50 states

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It all began years ago with a pact with my best friend since kindergarten and college roommate, Patty Johnston. We both love to travel, and we set out on a joint quest after college to visit all 50 states.

Combining "independent study" with group efforts, we also included our husbands, John and Larry. Toward the end, we even had them stopping with us to read historic monument placards aloud -- in unison. The rules were relatively lax, although it was a must to actually spend time in each state. Touching down at an airport didn't count. We're talking boots on the ground.

Both of us had a couple dozen states under our belts by our 30s, and then busy careers and lives intervened. We definitely got serious in the next decade as Patty's daughter, Caity, made us branded sweatshirts with a "Fifty by Fifty Tour" logo. OK, the pressure was definitely on! And I'm glad to say we made it (although John and I crossed off our last state, Oklahoma, just a week shy of the deadline -- and loved closing out our national tour with the Will Rogers Museum).

Lots of surprises greeted us along the way. I've come up with some awards below -- some predictable, some maybe not so much.

Strangest nature phenomenon: New Mexico

The "fly out" of thousands of bats at dusk from Carlsbad Caverns was the most dramatic (and quickest) nature change I've ever seen. Within moments, the Southwest sunset hues of lavender, pink and aqua faded to total blackness as the bats from this region made their daily nocturnal appearance.

Most stunning scenery: Alaska

No surprise here, although it's not really a fair comparison. This state ought to be in a category unto itself. It's hard to compete with the blue tint on magnificent ice sculptures that have been in place for hundreds of thousands of years. Approaching them was like being on a movie set: "Cue the glaciers." When we actually got to hike on them, it was surreal.

Honorable mentions in this category go to Arizona and Utah. You just can't stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, contemplating its vastness and the multiple hues, carved out by centuries of nature's workings, without being wonderstruck. I was similarly awestruck by the red rock formations in Sedona -- one of my favorite places on the planet -- and Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley in Utah. The formations are so magnificent they appear as if they've been carved intentionally, with names like Coffee Pot, Lizard Head and Cathedral Rock.

State most similar to West Virginia

Because of its remoteness at the top of our mainland United States, I'd long held a fascination about Maine. I'm not sure what I was expecting. I was pleasantly surprised, though, that it was so similar to our native state with its lush green vegetation and many lakes and rivers.

John and I sailed a great bit of this state. One huge contrast with West Virginia is in the ubiquity of lobster pots that dot the waters around Bar Harbor and Mount Desert. Rather than idyllic cruising, the helmsman had to be ever vigilant about dodging those lobster pots.

"There's one at 2 o'clock," our fellow crew members would shout. "Watch out at 10" was another refrain. It's a wonder there are any lobsters left! That didn't deter us, though, from availing ourselves of this local delicacy when we anchored or docked for the evening.

Most-needed state merchandise: Wisconsin

Hello? When one crosses the border into Wisconsin, you'd think there would be cheese hats galore. After all, Idaho didn't let us down by not having any baked potatoes when we crossed its border at 2 a.m. Not so with Wisconsin. Patty and I drove from place to place in search of the indigenous headgear -- incredulous to find them nowhere in sight. Thank goodness for the Green Bay Packers' website!

Favorite regional delicacy: Vermont

Thanks to our tours of Cabot Creamery and Ben & Jerry's, new favorites in our household are Vermont white cheddar cheese and Chunky Monkey ice cream.

Most diverse states: California and North Carolina

From cacti and balmy temps in the south to fog, chill and vineyards in the north, California is a land of contrasts. And then there's North Carolina's hundreds of miles of coastal regions and beaches on its eastern border, contrasted with the Great Smoky Mountains on the western side.

Biggest public display of affection: Minnesota

When Patty and I got to the Twin Cities and found the Mary Tyler Moore statue, we had to bow down and break out in song, "Who can turn the world on with her smile?" After all those joint viewings of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" over the years, we just had to pay homage.

Most predictable natural phenomenon: Wyoming

Again, it's almost unfair to have Yellowstone in the same category with everything else. And, even if you're given a timetable to know when to expect "Old Faithful" to spout off, it's still amazing to see the magnitude of this geyser -- and all the others in the region -- go off like alarm clocks. The force, hues and sheer power of these explosions is mind-boggling.

Biggest disappointment: Massachusetts

On one excursion we were pressed for time, and Patty and I had to decide between two sites we really wanted to visit in Massachusetts: Plymouth Rock and Cape Cod. We settled on Cape Cod and made the drive almost to the end. Regretful that we hadn't visited Plymouth Rock (particularly with our fascination by all things Thanksgiving), we went back later. I have to admit, I was underwhelmed by "the rock." It was contained in a fenced-in enclosure and didn't hold much allure. Maybe I had just built myself up too much for it.

Biggest break with familiarity: Hawaii (the Big Island)

On the Big Island of Hawaii, the beaches have black sand, formed by the lava in the region. Oooohhh ... I was thinking it may be like tar. It wasn't, just a little more coarse. Very strange, though.

Pleasant surprises

Along the way, we learned a lot more about our country than its geography. We learned the spirit of the people in each region -- how we're alike and how we're different. Some stereotypes were definitely left along the roadside. And we were surprised that some states were much more stimulating than we'd thought. In some cases we were looking at particular states as steppingstones to get to others, and we found out we often enjoyed those along the way more than those of our destination.

South Dakota was a huge surprise. Not only did we enjoy Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, but we delighted in quaint places like Mitchell, home of the Corn Palace (a structure whose facade is reconstructed every year -- entirely of corn!).

And I had a very heartwarming experience in South Dakota that restored my faith in mankind. We had stopped at a welcome center, and Patty and I had just purchased some particularly stunning headgear -- Nordic Viking hats with long, blond braids! While we donned our new headdresses and regaled a little girl with "Make New Friends," I inadvertently left my purse on the bench.

I didn't notice it was missing until we stopped at a restaurant several hours away. I immediately called the Division of Tourism in South Dakota, and they were able to get in touch with the welcome center. The wonderful state employee who was manning the information booth had spotted the abandoned purse and put it behind the desk.

Now, the challenge was getting reconnected. I had to get the purse back that day because we were flying out and I needed my ID. None of the major national delivery services could get it to me that same day.

That's when we discovered our new best friend, Eldon, who ran an in-state delivery service. He offered a combination of flying and driving services to get my purse to me in time for our flight -- for just $25. I couldn't believe it! You'd better believe I wrote glowing letters to the state of South Dakota about our positive experiences.

Sometimes we became obsessed with getting to specific destinations. When we hit the North Dakota line, I wouldn't settle for just any town. I had to go to Fargo! (Blame it on my book club.) So we traveled hours out of our way so I could see the legendary home of Marge from the movie.

On to the continents

Having completed all 50 states, we're now on to continents. Even with that whole wide world out there, we've realized Dorothy was right. "There's no place like home." And every time I return, I see those mountains beckoning me back. Almost Heaven, for sure.

Linda Arnold is a Charleston businesswoman and a Sunday Gazette-Mail columnist. She may be emailed at livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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