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American odyssey

Cleveland's skyline offers visiting tall ships moored along the shore of Lake Erie.
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Cleveland's skyline offers visiting tall ships moored along the shore of Lake Erie. (The Spokesman-Review)

Even from the air, I could see that Boston was different in ways I hadn’t imagined. I was 17 and on my first trip outside California. As the plane descended, I was startled by how dirty the historic old buildings were. In my hometown of Los Angeles, the buildings were not old enough to have picked up grime.

That was just the first of Boston’s surprises. When I ordered a hamburger from a take-out window off Massachusetts Avenue, it came on French bread with grilled peppers.

People were more hurried and more brusque. I heard the Boston accent with its broad a’s and dropped r’s, but none of the foreign accents I was accustomed to hearing in Los Angeles.

History was everywhere; walking the Freedom Trail, it was easy for a teenager who hated history class to relate to the acts of rebellion that blossomed into the Revolutionary War.

I was fascinated by my first glimpse of how different two states in the same union could be. It sparked a lifetime of wanderlust that led me to visit all 50 states, a quest that took another 36 years.

Partly I felt a compulsion to complete a list, like watching every one of the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movies or seeing every team in Major League Baseball in action.

And partly I was curious about people and places in the same nation, yet seemingly from different worlds.

I finally made it to my 50th state on a sunny morning last fall, when I crossed from New Hampshire into Maine. I stopped at a roadhouse near Fryeburg to celebrate with blueberry pancakes, then celebrated again at Wicasset with a lobster roll.

In every state I found something – a style of cooking, a way of talking, a quirky piece of folk art, a feature of geology, a relic of history, a way of thinking about books or politics or relationships – that I had not encountered before.

In Washington state, I attempted downhill skiing for the first – and last – time. In Alaska, I tasted caribou. In New York, I was baffled by performance art.

In Nevada, I struggled to master the complicated rules and odds of shooting craps. In Idaho, I learned not only how to catch and clean a rainbow trout, but to catch the night crawlers I used for bait.

I went to my first disco in Colorado Springs, my first rock ‘n’ roll museum in Detroit, my first horse race in Florida.

Seeing all 50 took a lot more effort than I’d expected. I stayed on the couches of family and friends who had moved out of state. I tagged along on my husband’s business trips and tacked extra time for sightseeing onto my own professional forays.

When I had to change planes in Atlanta, I booked a hotel there and spent a day exploring a multitude of places with “Peachtree” in their name.

Mostly, though, my husband and I took road trips.

We planned big loops through the West when we lived in California. We drove up and down Interstate 95 and made a lopsided arc through New England. We motored from Seward, Alaska, to Prudhoe Bay, the last 400 miles on a gravel road.

When we moved from California to Florida, we came by car, stopping to see a show in Las Vegas, touring Graceland in Memphis and gawking at how unexpectedly pretty Arkansas was.

And always, we tried to spend time in another state we hadn’t crossed off the list yet, driving an extra 50 miles to lunch in North Dakota, rerouting our trip to see the dairy lands of Wisconsin.

We drove from Detroit to Seattle – about 2,350 miles if we had stayed on I-90 – and took so many detours that our zigzag route covered nearly 4,000 miles.

Through those miles, we cemented our marriage. It was on the road that we discovered a shared love of live theater, modern art, planetariums and wine-tasting.

He dragged me to at least a dozen car museums and taught me how to play blackjack so we could hit the casinos together. I dragged him onto roller coasters and taught him there was more to dining than Red Lobster.

As I checked off states on my list, the surprises kept coming: The leathery skin of sunbathers who had spent too much time on Waikiki’s beaches. The ragged men who ran through Manhattan traffic to open my taxi door for a tip.

The chilling view from the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, where JFK’s assassin aimed the rifle that would change America forever. The little Nebraska town where I didn’t see a single person of color or a single foreign car. A jazz funeral in New Orleans.

These snapshots captured details both trivial and telling about our country.

Over those 36 years of wandering America, I’ve seen a softening of our differences.

Regional accents are less pronounced. I can order jambalaya or green chili stew or Maryland crab cakes in just about any city. Local stores and restaurants are being replaced by The Gap and Barnes & Noble and TGI Fridays; I can walk through many a mall and never see a clue to what state I’m in.

Country music and NASCAR – once largely regional interests – have gone national. Most states have enough vineyards to string together a wine-tasting trail.

If you miss a museum exhibit in Chicago, you can catch it later in Denver or Fort Lauderdale. And last time I was in Boston, I heard the foreign accents I’d missed the first time.

While some of the changes are encouraging – wine-tasting in Cleveland! – I’m saddened by others that have cost some towns their quirky charm.

And so when we planned our New England trip last fall to see our final three states – New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine – I worked a little harder to find sights that were geographically distinctive.

I didn’t see much point in going that far to visit L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine, when I knew it so well from its catalogs, or to eat at the original Ben and Jerry’s in Waterbury, Vt., when I’m already way too familiar with their ice cream.

Instead, we sampled artisanal cheeses along the Vermont Cheese Trail. In New Hampshire, we drove the Mount Washington Auto Road’s switchbacks on a sunny day and encountered stiff winds and an icy fog at the summit; coming back down, we passed a fleet of vintage cars preparing to race to the top.

And finally, we drove into Maine and set about sampling its famous lobster and blueberries, bought a print of a seaside scene from a local artist and cruised on a whale-watching boat.

We were making our way through another lobster roll when my husband remarked, “It’s too bad these are so hard to find in Florida.” And for just an instant, I agreed.

But then I realized part of the pleasure of the lobster roll was in the crisp fall air, the lakeside view and – as in my travels to all 50 states – the joy of being on the road, in a place so different from home.