Back when I was an American Studies major at Carleton College, we had departmental t-shirts that said, “Gone looking for America. Back in five minutes.”
It was a joke, of course, but even as we acknowledged the incredible complexity of “looking for” this nation, this shared experience, the fact is that we overlooked many of the myriad chapters of the American Story—people, cultures, places.
For one thing, we never once studied the United States beyond the states, which is to say the territories (and the commonwealths and the freely associated states; I'm mostly going to use "territories" as a catch-all below).
Over the past year, I’ve been trying to remedy that immense gap in my understanding of the nation. The voyage has taken just a bit longer than five minutes and has involved flying more than 31,000 miles, to the farthest-flung specks of American soil. Across the International Dateline. Across the equator.
Like the nation itself, this road trip has been wonderful and weird and sometimes kinda heartbreaking.
And tomorrow, it’s done. I fly back to icy Minneapolis. To write and stay put for a while and relax at home with Maren. There’s no place like home; I think I heard that somewhere.
But for another 24 hours, I’m here in Vieques, a “double territory,” as one local described it—officially part of Puerto Rico but sorta not quite, just as Puerto Rico is officially part of the USA, but sorta not quite. It’s a quiet, end-of-the-road sort of place, with wild horses and a beached sailboat rusting on the waterfront and a bioluminescent bay that made me giggle with wonder as I kayaked around it last night, plus areas where you can’t go because there’s live ordnance still lying around from the decades when the Navy used Vieques as a bombing range (they finally stopped in 2003, after it became an international cause).
Tonight, I’m going to put on my one pair of long pants and the least-wrinkly shirt in my backpack and treat myself to a nice meal. I’m going to toast the territories and the people I’ve met along the way.
In the movies, this would be the part where there’s a blurred-edge montage of memories and poignant moments. Of the tiny villages and polyglot cities-of-the-future and treacherous jungle roads and transcendent sunsets. Of the people I met: the former Marines and environmentalists and traditional sailors who navigate by stars. The radio DJs and musicians and tattoo artists and factory workers. The government officials and end-of-the-road hippie dropouts and football coaches. The random passersby on streets, in restaurants, at a nondescript convenience store in the Puerto Rican town of Arroyo. The chef who invited me into his restaurant so he could sing me some Bob Dylan (after a round of shots for everyone, of course).
I’m profoundly grateful to everyone who offered insights, travel tips, books, drinks, tours, and/or a place to stay. Thank you all. Thanks so much. Your hospitality and assistance and insights are what made this journey so grand.
Thirty-one thousand miles works out to nearly three times around the perimeter of the Contiguous 48 states. It’s the sort of distance that makes you expect that, in all that time, you’d wind up somewhere with giraffes or castles or, you know, not a United States post office. But there was USPS, every single time. And I never had to change currency or get a visa. I know how this works, and I now know why and how the USA came to be involved with each of these places, yet it still amuses and confuses me to be so far from home yet able to send a postcard for 34 cents.
Maybe it’ll never quite make sense to me. I’m still processing it all, and I shared very little from the road here on the blog (though I’m better at Twitter, FYI). I’m saving the big stories and insights for the book (next year …).
For now, though, I offer you a quick trip recap by the numbers.
Miles flown: More than 31,000
Flights taken: 18, by my best count, but maybe more.
Miles driven: Dunno. But hundreds.
Cars rented: 6
Cars majorly scratched up on narrow mountain roads: 1
Total number of islands on which I set foot: 14 (Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, Saint John, Tutuila, Anu’u, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kwajalein, Majuro, Puerto Rico, Vieques)
Times I crossed the equator: 2 (to/from American Samoa)
Times I crossed the International Dateline: 2 (to/from Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands)
Places visited, in order: US Virgin Islands (territory), American Samoa (territory), Guam (territory), Northern Mariana Islands (commonwealth), Chuuk (airplane layover, so probably shouldn’t count as a visit; freely associated state), Pohnpei (ibid on both counts), Marshall Islands (freely associated state), Puerto Rico (commonwealth).
Number of times I was corrected in the commonwealths for using the word territory: More than a few.
Official distinction between the two: Commonwealths have sliiightly more autonomy (and are not considered colonies by the UN, though the territories are).
Actual distinction, if we’re being honest: Really not much at all.
(And what of the freely associated states? They’re technically autonomous nations, but use US Postal Service, US currency, FEMA disaster relief, and are in many ways quasi-territories.)
Extreme points of the USA visited: southernmost (American Samoa), westernmost (Guam), easternmost (Virgin Islands)
Local cheap beers consumed: Um. Quite a few.
Tasting notes: Cheap beer tastes pretty the same the world over. Pretty sure they're all actually bottled in the same place.
Local pastries consumed: Again, quite a few. Highlights include a coconut-filled doughnut in American Samoa and a guava pastry in Puerto Rico.
Oddest drink consumed: Mavi in Puerto Rico (made with fermented bark; there’s a similar drink called mawbi in the USVI, but it tastes a lot better)
Food I’m most glad I didn’t have to try: Purple sea worms in American Samoa, which were not in season.
Place that most scared me: The former air force base on Tinian, where all the buildings and bunkers and tanks and runways still remain, slowly being taken over by the jungle. I poked my head inside a pitch-dark bunker and something moved and I sprinted the hell away from there.
Teeny-tiny airplanes flown on: 6
Number of flights on the world’s most dangerous regularly-scheduled air route: 2
Windy, potholed, scary-as-hell mountain roads driven: Countless.
Times lost on said roads: A whoooole lot
Long mountain-hikes completed: 2
Territories in which I saw a baseball stadium: 4
Territories in which I saw a cricket ground: 2
Average cost of a gas of gallon: At least 50% more than in Minnesota
Mix of convenience-store food aisles between American and non-American calorific snax: precisely half and half, in each place.
Territories that played a role in World War II: All of them.
Territories that were active battlegrounds in World War II: Guam and Northern Marianas (and American Samoa, in the sense that there was one mortar fired).
Territories with considerable lingering signs of other colonial rulers: 4 (Denmark in the USVI; Spain in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Marianas; Japan in Guam and the Northern Marianas).
Earliest date of acquisition of current territories: 1898 (Guam, Puerto Rico, via the Spanish-American War).
Latest date of official acquisition of current territories: 1978 (Northern Marianas, although they’d been under US rule as part of the United Nations Trust Territories since the end of World War II).
Hats lost: 4
Hats found with my last name on them: 1. On a remote mountain trail in American Samoa, right after my guide was talking about the mischievous local ghosts, and I’m still unnerved by the whole thing.
Guns fired: 1. With Japanese tourists on Guam. There are a bunch of gun ranges where tourists from Japan, China, and Russia go to have the quintessential American experience of dressing up like cowboys and shooting guns.
Hello Kitty gelatos consumed in the shade of a large luxury-good shopping mall (outside the Gucci store, to be specific) immediately after firing a gun: 1
WTF moments: Countless.
Rank of the barbecue on Guam among the best I’ve ever had: Right up there, top two or three. If there were any justice, this would be considered with Kansas City and Memphis and Texas among the nation’s great barbecue hotspots.
Salsa lessons taken: 1
Salsa lessons utterly failed: 1
Unspeakably beautiful sunsets observed: So, so many.
Unspeakably beautiful sunsets interrupted by marching, chanting Marines and a (toy) drone flying overhead: 1
Date by which I have to process all of this and write it into something cohesive and not overly long, and submit a manuscript: June 1st. Wish me luck.