I've had a great trip, traveling for over eight months in three countries and 46 states, and driving nearly 32,000 miles while visiting, literally, every one of America's 16 corners.  I was thinking about my travels during my long drive back to Portland these past few days.  My journey started back in March with a goal – being the geographer I am – of visiting as many extreme geographic sites around the country as possible.  And I've certainly done that, including the highest and lowest cities in the U.S. (Leadville, Colorado and Calipatria, California, respectively), the highest point in the lowest state (in Delaware), the lowest point in the highest state (in Colorado), and more than 50 other extreme geographic sites around America.

Above:  Paul paddling us to the buoy that marks the northernmost point of the contiguous United States, in Minnesota.

But along with visiting those geographic sites and seeing America, my main goal was to become the first person to visit each of the 16 extreme compass points in the contiguous United States.  Every one of those 16 visits was its own unique adventure, from holding onto a rope while hanging off a cliff in Washington, to enjoying the gorgeous sunset at the lighthouse in West Quoddy Head, Maine, to sidling up to the Mexican border fence near San Diego while immigration agents hovered overhead in helicopters.  But probably the most interesting visit to the 16 compass points was my trip to the northernmost point of the contiguous U.S. in northern Minnesota.  I reached that site in early September with the help of a local named Paul Colson, who took me there in his powerboat, one of the best experiences of my journey.  There were many highlights other than visiting the extreme sites, of course, including the two sunny days I spent in the remote tropical paradise of the Dry Tortugas, far from the nearest semblance of civilization in Key West, Florida, 70 miles away.

The best part of my trip, however, had nothing to do with geography.  The best part was visiting my friends and relatives around the country, including several old friends in southern California, seeing Mark and Jayne in Minneapolis with whom I spent several days, staying with my brother Don and his wife Debbie for a few weeks in Connecticut, and spending two weeks with Joan in Austin.  There were lots of other folks I enjoyed visiting along the way, too many to mention in this brief synopsis.

But the experience that affected and humbled me the most, and that was far more important in my mind than becoming the first person to visit the 16 extreme compass points, was spending a quiet and thought-provoking afternoon at the site of Andersonville Prison in southern Georgia.  Andersonville was a Civil War prison located on a huge field enclosed by wooden palisades that were manned by armed Confederate guards, and over 13,000 Union soldiers died during the 15 months of its existence.  Being a history buff, I’ve visited dozens of Civil War battlefields over the years, including Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Antietam, where thousands of men had died during brief-but-intense encounters.  Andersonville, however, was different.  It was a place where a man’s soul was at the mercy of his captors, and where there had been so much pain, suffering and despair for such a long time.  

Above:  Visiting Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

It was a sobering visit that's stayed with me, changing how I think about myself and, at times, giving me some much-needed perspective.  Since that visit in early November, I've often found myself pondering the hardships that those men endured and thinking about how grateful I am to them.  I was able to take this road-trip around the country partly because of the sacrifices that those men, and others like them, made during that terrible war that kept this nation prosperous, strong and united.  After my visit to Andersonville, whenever I found myself dwelling on my “problems," I reminded myself of the appalling conditions the men there endured and my negative thoughts quickly dissipated, seeming inconsequential in comparison.  Andersonville reminded me of how fortunate I am:  having been born in the greatest country in the world with good health, a loving family and with loving parents, and at a time of relative peace and prosperity.

Having traveled all over America these past eight months, and to many places around the world before that, people sometimes ask me why I enjoy traveling so much.  The “value” of travel is difficult to articulate, quantify or describe to others, so it’s hard for me explain why I think everyone should kick themselves in the butt once in a while, get off their couch and out of their comfort zones and go someplace new, whether it's across town or across the country.  Being the inarticulate writer I am, I can say that traveling to a new place, like the northernmost point of the U.S. or Andersonville, opens your eyes, makes you better informed and a better steward of the world, and it makes you think in ways that you never did before.

Some folks I met during this trip thought I was crazy when I told them that I was spending several months living in the back of my truck so I could see America.  But having the kinds of amazing experiences that I’ve had during these past eight months – whether it’s reflective like at Andersonville, sentimental like in the Colorado Rockies, or challenging like my quest to reach all 16 compass points – is what makes traveling so special.  So if you're ever thinking about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and going somewhere new, here’s my advice:  Do it, because traveling is, to use a phrase, "wonderfully illuminating." 

But coming home is nice, too.



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