50 by 50: See All the States by the Time You’re 50, a Fourth of July Pledge

Colebrook 4th of July Chicken BBQ

Jolly, 15, celebrates the Fourth of July in Colebrook, NH. He visited 20 states.

For the Fourth of July I want to make a new promise, or at least a public goal that I can be mocked for if I do not meet it: I want to see all 50 states by the time I turn 50. The nation’s birthday and my recent trip to Yellowstone with my husband David have focused our minds on the goal. That, and we brazenly stole the idea from his friend and colleague Allegra Lagani. She is within striking distance of meeting the goal of 49 by 49; then she’ll celebrate with a trip to Alaska.

Americans want to see all of America–or at least some part of all 50 of its states. But by the time you’re 40 it’s time to take stock: You’ve had some time to put some points on the scoreboard and you probably have money not  to travel by rideshare. We are further behind than Allegra: I’m 41 and have been to 36 states. David is 40 and has seen 32.  At the pace I’m going (one state per 41/36 [1.13] year or one new state every 416 days), I’d be 57 by the time  I got to see them all. David would be 60. It’s as if we’d been procrastinating. Surely, we need to intensify our efforts.

We’ve found many other Americans quietly tallying their states. We all have different standards on what legally constitutes a visit, but we all agree on one thing. Airport stop-overs and mere drive-by visits don’t qualify. You have to get out and do something. Ideally, you’d spend the night. In a perfect world, you’d spend enough time to see the big attractions, make friends, enjoy the local food, nature, and culture. But we live in the real world and that world allows states like South Dakota. So we’ll only require some interaction in a non-transportation setting: a meal, conversation, kiss, hike, transaction, or project.

I’d say the ideal is that you see an animal that is endemic to the region or state–that is, one that doesn’t live elsewhere. Anyone can come up with a kitschy restaurant or create an obscure museum. But you can’t fake native animals. If you’ve seen an animal you can’t see at home, you know you’ve traveled.

This morning David and I sat down at the kitchen table with an atlas to scheme. Unfortunately our lists overlap so I’m going to have to go back return to Iowa. David has already committed to the sacrifice of visiting Hawaii a second time, just for me. Our trip out west scored us each four new states. We could do other strategic sweeps: a roadtrip on the blank stripe down the center of our maps, from Winnepeg to Oklahoma City (5 states for me, 8 for David, plus the bonus Canadian province of Manitoba for both, with 20 hours driving time). We like Amtrak’s intriguing Empire Builder route, from Chicago to Portland, OR. The ride is normally 46 hours, but we’d get off and spend time in each of our four shiny new states (plus the spectacular Glacier National Park). We might do a run through the turquoise belt in the southwest, which gets me 3, David 2.  Route 66, though a classic, would only get David 4 and me 3 in 2,500 miles of driving.

Jolly and David on the Appalachian Trail NC-TN border

Jolly and David on the Appalachian Trail NC-TN border

Jolly barks at an elk

Jolly hates Illinois elk

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do out west. The only state east of the Mississippi I haven’t seen is Kentucky, which is an embarassing oversight on my part. Our dog Jolly, who died at 15 1/2 last year–having enjoyed 20 states and four Canadian provinces in his lifetime–is responsible for much of the shape of our maps. Because we couldn’t fly with him, we drove everywhere we could–from Georgia to Prince Edward Island–and to my family in Illinois. We will either have to get a sub-20 pound dog to comply with draconian airlines whimsy or have difficult dogless travels ahead.


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