On this Independence Day I wanted to do something special to celebrate the “land that I love,” from its spacious skies and amber waves of grain to its purple mountain majesties and, of course, those fruited plains.
I consider myself to be quite fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to travel to each of the 50 states. It was a goal of mine to visit all of them before I turned 30, and in 2008, I just happened to celebrate the end of those three decades in Hawaii, which was my last state to visit.
Having spent so much time traveling this beautiful nation, I’m especially touched by the references to American landscape in the patriotic songs we sing.
“My native country, thee / Land of the noble free / Thy name I love
I love thy rocks and rills / Thy woods and templed hills
My heart with rapture thrills / Like that above.”
I’ve felt my heart thrill with rapture in the rocks of Utah and the rills of New Hampshire, the woods of Washington and the templed hills of North Carolina.
While singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” in church on Sunday, I felt those same emotions stir within me as the picturesque landscapes of my life flooded my memory. I remembered the serenity of the Hoh Rainforest on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and the morning majesty of sunrise over North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. I remembered cathedral-like calm of Golden Canyon in California’s Death Valley and quaint autumnal vistas of Stowe, Vermont. I remembered walking black sand beaches on Hawaii’s Big Island with my mom and cruising past Alaska’s towering peaks with my dad. I remember standing at the edge of Arizona’s Grand Canyon with Cammie and watching it fill with clouds as we fell in love.
With all those memories paying me a welcome visit, I decided to write them down in the most comprehensive travelogue I’ve written. I started on it Sunday after church and finished it early Wednesday morning, fittingly, on Independence Day.
Alabama — I first visited Alabama during a 1995 trip to the South at the invitation of my uncle Quinn Passey, who was living in Houston at the time. During the two weeks were there, we visited four states, including the Yellowhammer State. But it was in 2006 that I spent a fun week in Alabama going through a FEMA community emergency management training along with elected officials and first responders from Washington County, Utah. I role-played as a reporter for the training and did real reporting for The Spectrum, sending stories and photos back to the newspaper. It was an important moment for me as a new journalist because I had mostly seen these people as sources, and sometimes sources that I didn’t always trust (the elected officials more so than the first responders … though I’ll admit there were plenty of police officers that were not always helpful when I was just trying to do my job). But after spending time with them in Alabama, I saw them as individuals, people with hopes and dreams and families. People who just wanted to do the right things for their community.
Alaska — I could write a long chapter on special Alaskan moments and I’ve only visited twice. It was the destination of my first plane ride when I was only 14 years old. My uncle Quinn Passey was living in Anchorage at that time, and he flew my cousin Eric and me up to The Last Frontier for two weeks during the summer of 1993. It still stands out as one of the greatest adventures of my life. We went rappelling southeast of Anchorage while beluga whales swam through Turnagain Arm below us. We took a train to the isolated town of Whittier. We rode on a boat through Kenai Fjords National Park. We rafted on the Nenana River and I got stuck in an eddy when I was at the oars. We watched grizzly cubs play in the snow in Denali National Park. We took a small plane flight around Mt. McKinley (now back to its original name, Denali) and then landed on a glacier and had a snowball fight. Quinn also tricked me into getting attacked by seagulls. Oh, and I developed a lifelong love for Pepperidge Farms’ Orange Milano cookies. In 2012, I returned to Alaska with my dad. This time we drove there along the Alaska Highway. And while it wasn’t full of as many adventures, this time I was a much better photographer, so I came home with some nice images. I also developed a love for halibut, so Alaska was heavenly in that regard. While in homer, I had a halibut filet, halibut sushi and a halibut burger, all within a 24-hour period.
Arizona — It’s still somewhat strange to think that Arizona is home. I’m an Arizonan. With its proximity to Utah, I’ve had many grand adventures in the Grand Canyon State, even before I became a resident. There’s an intoxicating beauty here and I love it more each day. It’s where I first met Cammie and where we became engaged, sitting on a rock above the Agua Fria River in Agua Fria National Monument. Yet, even as special as that moment was, I think my favorite Arizona experience was a magical weekend on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at the end of January 2014. I was dating Cammie and things were beginning to become serious. The word “marriage” had been mentioned. We “met in the middle” that day, with Cammie traveling north from Phoenix and me traveling south from St. George. And when we arrived at the South Rim, a mysterious fog was wafting over the Colorado Plateau. Soon it descended into the Grand Canyon itself and we were treated to a rare but stunningly gorgeous inversion as this gigantic gash in the earth filled with clouds. It will forever remain a special memory as we reveled in the joy of new love and natural beauty.
Arkansas — My one and only visit to Arkansas came on my first cross-country road trip during the summer of 2001. I was still in college at the time and driving to the national convention of the National Press Photographers Association in Memphis. I was slightly ahead of schedule as I entered Arkansas, so I decided to take a small detour into the Ozarks. While I had time for a detour, I didn’t have much time to stop and take photos. I may have only one or two, and I don’t remember much from the drive beyond my excitement for the mountain vert and that I was listening to “The Invisible Band” by Travis. That album would go on to become one of my favorites of my college years, and I still associate it with that little detour through the Ozarks. Unfortunately, the only other thing I remember about my one and only visit to the Natural State, was getting stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway as I was driving into Memphis.
California — California has also been the location of many grand adventures through the years, from childhood trips to the San Diego Zoo and Disneyland to the time I attended a red carpet event for the season finale of the “The Voice” and almost literally brushed shoulders with Stevie Nicks and Christina Aguilera. While my most treasured trip was my 2015 honeymoon to the redwoods with Cammie, my biggest adventure in the Golden State was probably a 2014 solo trip to Death Valley National Park. I expected to like it but I had no idea I would fall in love with this harsh corner of the earth and its stark beauty. It’s a place where God’s sculpting hand as the Creator is clearly on display and I felt his presence there often, from sunset in Golden Canyon to sunrise at Dante’s View.
Colorado — Like many of the western states, it’s difficult to decide which of my great adventures in Colorado to commemorate here. There was might first trip to the state on my first solo, multi-day road trip in 1995, when I was only 16 years old. Or there were my multiple trips to the Durango/Mesa Verde National Park area while I was living in St. George. But the most memorable was probably my post-high school graduation solo trip in 1997, when I spent a week touring the Centennial State, all by myself. My dad let me take his new Chevy Tahoe, which doubled as a “tent” for me, with its seats removed. I explored Rocky Mountain National Park, ghost towns, Aspen and everything in between. Every time I think I’m a desert rat for life, I take a trip to Colorado Rocky Mountain High and I begin to wonder if maybe I’m mistaken.
Connecticut — For some strange reason, I don’t remember many specifics about my time in Connecticut. But it was the destination point for a 2006 trip with my mom that led to crossing six states of my “to visit” list. At that point, there were only seven states I had not visited: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Hawaii. So, when Mom and I flew into Hartford to begin a week of exploring New England, it put me in a good position to make my goal of visiting all 50 states by the time I turned 30. I celebrated my 28th birthday while on the trip. And though I don’t remember specifics about the Constitution State scenery, I do know it was gorgeous. After all, it was autumn in New England.
Delaware — I guess I could classify Delaware as my biggest disappointment. I had wanted to visit the First State since I was a young teen, entirely because of a single line in the movie “Wayne’s World.” They were basically making fun of how lame Delaware is. So I decided to become obsessed with Delaware. I was a weird kid. Anyway, I was convinced that Delaware was going to be awesome because I had willed it to be so. When I arrived there during my big, 2001 cross-country trip, I stopped briefly at Cape Henlopen State Park, touched the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, got back into my car and drove to Philadelphia.
Florida — Oh, Florida. Subject of so many jokes. So many entirely appropriate jokes. But it also has a special place in my heart. I actually “lived” in the Sunshine State for six weeks during the summer of 2004. After graduating from the University of Idaho, I did a six-week writing fellowship at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. While there, I lived on an island called St. Pete Beach and crossed a drawbridge every morning on my way to the program. The beach was only two blocks from the studio apartment I rented for $400 a week(!). This was a big change for a kid raised in rural Idaho. But those six weeks resulted in a lot of great memories, from chowing down on grouper sandwiches and 4th of July fireworks over the ocean to driving the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and flying over Tampa Bay with a service dog in training. I had my share of … interesting … experiences as well, including skinny dipping in the ocean and interviewing strippers. But what I’ll remember most, aside from the priceless journalism knowledge I gained at the Poynter Institute, was how quickly you can bond with a group of people. I still have many fond memories of my fellow Poynter Pals, especially my St. Pete Beach Buddies, Alicia and Erin.
Georgia — I first visited Georgia on my way home from my Florida summer in 2004. I stayed overnight in Savannah. Because I only had enough time to eat dinner and drive around town for an hour or so, I knew I had to come back someday and explore. In the summer of 2016, Cammie and celebrated our first anniversary with a cross-country road trip that took us to Savannah. We spent a few hours walking through its historic town squares — each filled with statues and trees — before having dinner and shopping in the lovely downtown area. We watched taffy being pulled in a candy shop and saw the sun go down over the Savannah River. I definitely want to return to the Peach State someday and spend even more time in Savannah, but maybe when it’s not August and humid.
Hawaii — As mentioned in my Connecticut post, following my New England trip with my mom in 2006, I only had one state left to make my goal of visiting all 50 before I turned 30, just two years later. Well, in 2008, my mom and I booked another trip. This time I would be celebrating my 30th birthday on the Big Island. Because I tend to try and pack too many things into most road trips, we decided to try and be a little more relaxed this time around and only visit one island. Five full days was perfect for exploring all the major sights and a few hidden gems on Hawaii, including black sand beaches, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a few historic sites, some lovely botanical gardens and a picturesque valley that was almost too beautiful to be believed (I hiked into that one on my birthday). The food was also quite memorable, especially the mahi mahi, which I ate a number of times on the trip, including twice on my birthday. While the Big Island was fantastic, the next time I visit the Aloha State, I want to try out a different island.
Idaho — Although I was born in Utah and started my career there, I will always think of myself as an Idaho boy. After all, I moved there in 1984, when I was only 5 years old, and remained until I graduated from the University of Idaho in 2004, 20 years later. My only time away from the Gem State was the year I spent as a missionary in the Philippines through most of 1998. How do you write about your home state? Do I focus on the pastoral farmlands of the Snake River Plain, where I grew up, or the outdoor wonderland of Island Park, a favorite day trip in my formative years? As much as I love both of those places in the southeastern corner of the state, it was my three years in northern Idaho that changed my life. My time in Moscow, while attending the University of Idaho, not only turned me into a journalist, it also made me the person I am today. A large part of that is due to people like my friend and former roommate, David Jack. But other good friends like Jake, Joy, Emiline, Casandra, Katie and Jess all played a large role. Thank you all for helping me find me. Plus, the Palouse is a surprisingly beautiful and magical place. I was never at a loss for a quick scenic drive as I explored the winding highways and dusty backroads, where the thick pine forests intertwined with a patchwork of hilly farmland.
Illinois — I first drove through Illinois in 2001 on my big cross-country road trip, but it was just for a few hours at night. Much more memorable was a trip to Chicago in 2010 while visiting my sister, Becca, in St. Louis. I followed Interstate 55 through the heart of the Land of Lincoln, taking small stretches of old Route 66 along the way. I even had a corn dog at the diner that supposedly originated the menu staple. Finally, I made it to the Chicago. The next morning, I took a train downtown and spent the full day exploring the Windy City: Navy Pier, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and the top of Willis Tower, of course. But easily my favorite part of the day was the architecture tour by boat. In fact, it’s one of the best touristy activities I’ve ever done. Before leaving town the following day, I made my way to the Museum of Science and Industry, where I had a superb time learning about everything from the science of weather to a captured World War II U-boat.
Indiana — “I remember the first time I drove through Indiana,” I and I played that song, by The Samples, while making that drive on the same big 2001 trip that took me uneventfully through Illinois. I returned in 2016 with Cammie on our first anniversary road trip, and this time we stayed with our friend Brittney in Indianapolis. We were surprised by Indy, with its quirky-cool arts district and towering war memorials. It was much more than the famous speedway, which we visited as well. When I discovered that one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, was from Indianapolis, I knew I had to buy a book or two or four while I was there. I found them at a bookstore just a few blocks from a massive Vonnegut mural. Then we ate at a restaurant named for a Vonnegut character. It was a very Vonnegut day. Then it was over. So it goes. Brittney is still there, so hopefully we’ll make it back to the Hoosier State to visit sometime soon. I’m sure Indy has more treasures to discover.
Iowa — While I’ve been through Iowa thrice now, each trip was just through a small corner of the Hawkeye State. My first trip came on my way back home from the 2001 trip. I took in just about 14 miles of the southwest corner of the state. I don’t remember this at all. My second visit was on my way back home to Idaho from Florida in 2004. I had stopped in St. Louis to see with Becca, who had just moved there about two months earlier. And since I had not yet been to Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota, I decided to take an oddly roundabout route between the Show Me State and the Gem State. This took me into 70 miles of the southeast corner of Iowa. All I remember from this journey was crossing the Mississippi as I entered Wisconsin. My third visit followed the same 14-mile route as the first one, but in the opposite direction and slightly more memorable because I was listening to “Iowa” by Dar Williams, whom I happened to be seeing in concert later that evening in St. Louis with Becca.
Kansas — Living in the west and having a sister in Missouri means that I’ve traveled through Kansas … a lot. And it’s not the most exciting state. Though I did have a really nice morning in Wichita once, where I visited the art museum, walked along the Arkansas River and watched a grounds crew pull a riding lawnmower out of the river. Most memorable, however, is probably Dodge City … and not in a good way. A while back I stopped in Dodge, figuring it might make for a fun travel story for the newspaper. It didn’t. After about an hour I just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, which I wrote in my story. A few years later, I was writing about Tombstone, Arizona, and mentioned that although it was fairly kitschy, it was still better than Dodge City. Then I repeated my “clever” line about Dodge. This time, a couple from Dodge happened to pick up the newspaper while visiting St. George, and they promptly went home to tell the local visitors bureau that they needed to do something about this so-called “travel writer” in southern Utah. I ended up with a phone call from the bureau inviting me to come back and give Dodge City another chance. A few days later I got a package from the bureau filled with all sorts of Dodge City information and knickknacks … most of it fairly kitschy. I have not returned.
Kentucky — I’ve now passed through Kentucky thrice but I still have yet to do anything in the Bluegrass State. The first trip was on my way home from the 2001 cross-country journey. The second trip was on the way home from Florida three years later. In both instances I was driving to St. Louis for the night. The second time it was in the middle of an extremely long day of driving. By the end of that night, I would have been behind the wheel for 17 hours and nearly 1,000 miles. My third trip was as a passenger, riding with my mom, Becca and her husband, Ben, to meet my dad in Nashville. I will say this, although I haven’t actually stopped to do anything in Kentucky aside from getting gas, I’ve always been impressed with its beauty. While it’s as lush and green as any other Southern state, its seems to have more rocky outcroppings and variety to the scenery. So it always makes for a pleasant drive, even on the beaten paths of the freeways.
Louisiana — I’ve been to the Bayou State four times now and each was extremely memorable. The first time was as a teenager, while touring the South with my Uncle Quinn in 1995. He took us to Bourbon Street on a Saturday night and suddenly the shelter little boy from Idaho wasn’t so sheltered anymore. But, I sure loved that Cajun food. I was soon obsessed with gumbo. The second time was in 2004, on my way to Florida for the summer. I stayed with my college roommate David Jack, who was living there. He gave me a tour of some beautifully haunting above-ground cemeteries and then took me to a wonderful hole-in-the-wall Cajun joint. The third trip was the most memorable, but the least fun. It was only two weeks after Hurricane Katrina and I was reporting on the recovery efforts. New Orleans was a ghost town. It was one the eeriest and most surreal experiences of my life. Bourbon Street was still boarded up. Power was still out downtown, so none of the traffic lights were working. A major American city was brought to its knees. Happily, when I returned 11 years later with Cammie on our first anniversary trip, the city seemed to be doing much better. David Jack had returned after a few years in Texas (fortuitously, he had moved a few months before Katrina). And the food was still fantastic as we dined on rabbit stew and curry alligator.
Maine — Sadly, Maine suffered from my tendency to overestimate how much time I have on vacations. It came toward the end of my 2006 fall colors tour of New England with my mom. And because I thought we would travel faster, we only ended up with a few hours in Maine. Still, it was enough to realize that Portland is a groovy town and I definitely want to spend some time there someday. Plus, we had a lobster dinner on the coast with an absolutely gorgeous view of a lighthouse. It might not have been a very long time in the Pine Tree State but we certainly packed a lot into those few hours.
Maryland — I first visited Maryland on my 2001 cross-country trip. It was part of my first visit to the Washington, D.C., area. After spending all day touring the monuments on the National Mall during the summer heat, I was beginning to get a migraine. So I decided to drive to the LDS Washington D.C. Temple, which is actually located in Kensington, Maryland. I figured I could sit in the visitors center and enjoy the air conditioning before hitting the road to stay on schedule for my next stop. But once I got there, I realized I wasn’t in driving condition. Being on a college student budget, I hadn’t planned to get a hotel room that night (I was going to stay with a great aunt in New Jersey) and most of the hotels in this area were going to be expensive. But one of the missionaries at the visitors center suggested I could stay with a local Mormon lady who ran a bed and breakfast for fellow Mormons who came to temple. I was able to rest and she even gave me a discount when I won her over with my charm. My only other visit to the Old Line State came in 2016 as Cammie and drove through just a few miles of Maryland that stick out into West Virginia, but I got one of my favorite photos of that trip there as I captured a barn, glowing in the magic hour light and green fields while dark storm clouds glowered in the distance.
Massachusetts — The Bay State was part of my 2006 New England trip with my mom. We stayed in western Massachusetts for our second night of the trip, after stopping at a picturesque waterfall, where a rainbow’s variety of fallen leaves were swirling through the currents of the stream. A few days later, we passed through the state again on our way back to Connecticut to fly home. We had planned to spend some time in Boston, but like Maine, we ran out of time to visit all the places we wanted to go. So instead of Boston, we simply stopped in Salem, where we managed to catch a “witch tour” before jumping back on the freeway and heading toward Connecticut.
Michigan — Not many people just “pass through” the Upper Peninsula on their way to somewhere else, unless that somewhere else is Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. My somewhere else was Minnesota. Again, it was on the way home from Florida and I hadn’t ever been to the Great Lake State. It just so happened that the best way to take in part of Michigan while traveling between Wisconsin and Minnesota is to drive through a sliver of the Upper Peninsula for about an hour. I didn’t see much except trees and a lot of cars with canoes on top. I thought, “I could probably live somewhere like this.” Then I stopped in the middle of the road, because no cars were coming, and got out so I could say I set foot in Michigan. That was my only stop.
Minnesota — My only trip to Minnesota was also part of the 2004 return trip from Florida, as mentioned in the Michigan entry. But I had a chance to spend a little bit longer in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. After spending a surprisingly chilly summer night in Duluth, which has a cool industrial vibe to it, I hit the road, driving westward across the state with North Dakota as my destination. I remember just a few details from that trip. There were a bunch of lakes. I feel like I saw 9,000 of those famous 10,000, but it was probably only, like, 23 or something. And it was super-windy, the kind of windy that viciously blows your car door shut when you step out briefly to take a picture of Lake No. 17. Also, I was listening to The Cure while driving through. I don’t know why I remember that.
Mississippi — My first visit to Mississippi was poignant. It was during my 1995 tour of the South as a teenager. Quinn took us to Vicksburg National Military Park, where I experienced a Civil War Battlefield for the first time and began to get a sense of what that war took from our nation … and also how necessary it was for our black brothers and sisters. Plus I got to see the ruins of an ironclad gun boat, which fascinated me because I had written a report about them in school. Plus, we drove along a section of the verdant Natchez Trace Parkway, where I became enamored with kudzu. I would later drive along the Mississippi Coast on my way to Florida in 2004 and then return to see it devastated, post-Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Mississippi coast was obliterated. Beautiful seafront homes I had seen just a year earlier had become just concrete slabs. Slightly farther inland, rubble remained but that was it. The destruction still haunts me. But, thankfully, Cammie and I returned to the Magnolia State in 2016 and while some of the seafront homes were still obviously missing, much of the coast had rebuilt and it almost looked as if a hurricane had never passed through. Resiliency is pretty neat.
Missouri — With my only sibling living in the Show Me State for 14 years now, I’ve spent a lot of time there through the years. My first visit was in 2001 on the cross-country trip, though my only real stops were a few Mormon historical sites northeast of Kansas City. My best moments in Missouri have been times spent with family. In 2014 I famously made three visits to St. Louis. That’s just what happens when your first nephew is born. Little Vale is now 4 and our most recent visit was in May to see his new little brother, Soul. With so much time spent in Missouri, I’ve racked up a bunch of other adventures, like watching soda being bottled at Fitz’s, eating Italian food on The Hill, attending my first professional sporting event (a Cards game), eating toasted ravioli, being a rare dude at Lilith Fair, eating Ted Drewes’ frozen custard, immersing myself in Mark Twain at Hannibal and watching Chuck Berry, one of the inventors of rock ‘n’ roll, play the opening riff to “Johnny B. Goode” during his final concert at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room. Oh yeah, that arch thing is pretty groovy too.
Montana — Growing up in southeast Idaho, we visited Montana more than about any other state except Utah and Wyoming. Weekend trips to Bozeman or even day trips to West Yellowstone were common. Occasionally we would explore farther as a family, like Glacier National Park or Havre. When I began attending school at the University of Idaho from 2001-2004, trips through Big Sky Country became routine, since the fastest route between Rexburg and Moscow was through western Montana. I didn’t mind, especially the section of Interstate 90 from Butte west to the Idaho border. It’s mostly mountain, rivers and trees and is some of the prettiest freeway country in the nation. My favorite adventure, though, would have to be a 2003 trip to Glacier National Park with a bunch of friends from the University of Idaho. We camped for three nights in the park and did a whole bunch of hiking as well, where we came within feet of mountain goats and basked in the spray of monumental waterfalls.
Nebraska — As strange as it might sound, one of my favorite national park experiences was in Nebraska. Yes, my first couple of trips through the Cornhusker State were not exactly exciting — just your standard freeway journeys along Interstate 80. But in 2014, on the way home from one of my three trips to Missouri that year, I looked for anything that might be of interest in southern Nebraska and found Homestead National Monument of America. I figured a small national monument about homesteading might be interesting for an hour or so. Three hours after I arrived, I had to pull myself away to get back on schedule. Not only was the history fascinating, but it was also a surprisingly beautiful place, where the National Park Service is striving to restore the original prairie grasses and other species. The nature hike along the perimeter of the restored prairie — with a short detour along a creek and through the woods — was perfectly serene. And the image of a curtain wafting gently through the open window of a historic schoolhouse is part of my treasured memories of my short time there.
Nevada — Despite living so closely to Nevada for many years, I’m surprisingly lacking in great adventures from the Silver State. As far as western states go, it’s just not as overwhelmingly scenic as, well, any of the others. That said, it’s not all about Las Vegas, either. Yes, I’ve had some fun experiences there, including some of the best entertainment I’ve ever seen (“The Beatles Love,” Arcade Fire, Imogen Heap). But my favorite spot in Nevada in Great Basin National Park. Rising from the high desert of the Great Basin itself at about 5,000 feet, Wheeler Peak towers over the landscape at more than 13,000 feet. A short drive takes you nearly to the top, where you feel as if you’re on an island of green in the middle of an ocean of desert. As tranquil creeks bubble through stands of aspen and pine, you have you ask yourself if you’re really in Nevada. What’s so great about Great Basin National Park is the diversity. It’s not just the mountaintop wonderland and the high desert base, but also what you find underground. The mystical caverns of Lehman Caves are definitely worth a little exploration time.
New Hampshire — While I enjoyed something in every state on the 2006 trip to New England with my mom, but New Hampshire was probably my favorite. Not only does it have hallmarks of the surrounding states — brightly colored autumn leaves, picturesque covered bridges, gentle mountain slopes — it also has Franconia Notch State Park. We went there initially to see the famous Old Man of the Mountain, only to discover, after staring at the cliff and trying to see its craggy face for about five minutes, that it had recently crumbled. But then we came across Flume Gorge. I only explored it for about 10 minutes while my mom waited in the car, but it still stands out in my memory as one of the neatest natural wonders I’ve seen. And I didn’t even make it all the way to the actual gorge. But the little waterway I followed and photographed for those few minutes is seared into my memory. I definitely need to return to the Granite State for some quality time in Franconia Notch someday.
New Jersey — After hearing so many jokes about New Jersey while I was growing up, I was surprised with just how pretty it was as I made my way through Princeton to stay with my Great Aunt Annette and her husband, Dave, just west of Newark, during my 2001 cross-country trip. The focus of my stay there was actually a trip into New York City with Uncle Dave, but it was also a great experience to get to know both of them better. They even introduced me to one of my favorite books and authors, “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier. As I would learn when we went into the city, Dave had a knack for introducing little hidden gems even as we were surrounded by some of the most famous places on the planet. One of those was a little green area, just around the block from their home. Most would just think it’s a simple neighborhood park. But those of us who grew up in the West often forget the sheer amount of American history found in the east, like this little park that was once the site of a battle in the Revolutionary War. Welcome to the Garden State.
New Mexico — There are parts of New Mexico that are absolutely ugly, like the oil fields near Hobbs. But there is also spectacular natural beauty, like the gleaming gypsum crystals of White Sands National Monument, and stunning created beauty, like the art that fills the countless galleries along Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Even in the southeast corner of the Land of Enchantment, not all the far away from Hobbs, there is some breathtaking beauty to be found. Here, however, the enchantment is underground. I didn’t think I was a cave person until I visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park in 2013 on my way to meet friends in Texas. I signed up for a tour, descended in the elevator and stepped out into another world. I couldn’t believe how comfortable I felt so far underground. It wasn’t claustrophobic at all. In fact, what I remember most is the immensity of the caverns. The photographer in me couldn’t get enough of the colors and formations. As a surface dweller, the landscape was fascinatingly alien. I was so hesitant to leave that I made the decision to hike out the natural opening — a climb of 1,000 feet in one mile — so I could lengthen my Carlsbad experience.
New York — As I mentioned in the New Jersey entry, my Great Uncle Dave took me into New York City during my 2001 cross-country trip. That’s right. 2001. July 5. Just two months and six days before Sept. 11, 2001. As we cruised past the Statue of Liberty on our way to Ellis Island, we enjoyed what was the iconic view of Manhattan at the time, a striking skyline dominated by the Twin Towers. Ellis Island alone was worth the trip but Dave also showed me some little Empire State treasures, like Alexander Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church, before heading to lunch. We were just going to eat at a Burger King, but then Dave asked if I wanted to eat at Windows on the World at the top of the North Tower. So, we did, of course. I don’t really remember the meal, but I remember the view — a view that I wouldn’t be able to remove from my mind’s eye just a few months later as I imagined those who might have been in Windows on the World that September morning, only to look out and see an airliner crash into the building below them. But for me, in July of 2001, the most poignant experience was visiting the International Center of Photography, another little surprise of Uncle Dave’s, who knew that I had a great interest in the art. The ICP just happened to have on display and exhibition of Sebastião Salgado’s “Migrations” — a collection of stark black and white images that portrayed the hardships of refugee and migrant populations throughout the world. It was the first time that art brought me to tears. I bought a book of the photos to remember how the power of art moved me that day.
North Carolina — I’m enamored with the South but I don’t think I could live in most of the Southern states. The Tar Heel State might be an exception. My most recent visit came in 2016 on our first anniversary road trip. We met up with some dear friends of mine, Amy and Hilary, for lunch in Durham before staying with one of Cammie’s best friends, Kade, and his partner, Artis, in their lovely Raleigh home. But as far as adventures go, you just can’t beat the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s still the prettiest day of driving I’ve ever experienced as I traveled between Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. This majestic mountaintop journey redefines the phrase “scenic drive.” And all the best bits are in North Carolina. I spent the night before my drive sleeping in my car along the side of the road. I woke up in a misty mountain heaven — the kind of scene that doesn’t seem to be real, even as you’re looking at it with your own eyes.
North Dakota — My memories of North Dakota are clear at the beginning and the end, but fairly fuzzy in the middle. My only trip there was on my way home from Florida in 2004. Yep, I’m that guy who travels from central Florida to southern Idaho via North Dakota. But I was able to check it off my list. I remember the far east side, where I entered the state, because I had my initial interview for the job that would start my career while driving through Fargo. That’s where my first editor, Angie Parkinson, interviewed me by phone for a possible position at The Spectrum newspaper in St. George. But it was the far western side of the state — Theodore Roosevelt National Park, to be precise — where I had my grand Roughrider State adventure. I arrived there at sunset, so I fell asleep in my car at a rest stop. I awoke just before dawn and drove into the park, putting me in the midst of the badlands as the sun rose, illuminating the landscape and casting a beautiful glow on the bison and wild horses along the side of the road. It’s another one of those memories that replays in my mind like something from a movie, perhaps because of its surreal nature. Is reality really that beautiful?
Ohio — I’ll always think of fireflies in Ohio. It wasn’t the first place I saw them. The Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park has that distinction, but when I saw them there they were in the distance. Just a few days later, though, as I continued my 2001 cross-country trip, I stopped in Dayton, Ohio, to stay with another great uncle and aunt. It was already dark when I arrived, but my Uncle Bill was up for a little adventure. He was in his late 70s, I believe, but when fireflies appeared in his front yard, he called me outside to help him chase them. I will always remember Uncle Bill’s enthusiasm for life, whether it was fishing or his career with the U.S. Air Force. The day after the Great Firefly Chase, he took me to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to visit the U.S. Air Force Museum before I hit the road. In 2016, I returned to the Buckeye State with Cammie, but it was a long day of driving from Indianapolis to Manassas, Virginia, so we didn’t have time to stop for anything but food and gas.
Oklahoma — Like Nebraska and Kansas, I’ve driven through Oklahoma many times while traveling east to visit Becca and her family in Missouri. Now that I live in Phoenix, the Oklahoma route is the most direct, so I’ll probably become well-acquainted with the state. My favorite part about that particular drive is that interstates 40 and 44 parallel the old path of Route 66. However, there are still quite a few stretches of the old road through the middle of the Sooner State. And these stretches have some of my favorite old Route 66 attractions, like Pony Bridge, near the town of Bridgeport. This distinctive bridge has 38 bright yellow pony trusses that stretch out for 3,900 feet across the South Canadian River. Completed in 1934, it even appeared in the classic 1939 film “The Grapes of Wrath.” My other favorite historic stop is the Arcadia Round Barn, just north of Oklahoma City. This massive red barn, built in 1898, is 45 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter. It also happens to be close to my favorite modern stop, Pops, a large convenience store and restaurant specializing in bottled soda. You can’t miss the 4-ton pop bottle that appears white during the day and lights up at night. After all it is, appropriately, 66 feet tall.
Oregon — One of my mom’s favorite places is the Oregon Coast. We took two different family trips to the coast during the 1990s, and for the second trip we even had my Grandma Passey — Nana — along for the ride, since we were going to a family reunion with her siblings and all their descendants. That trip came shortly after I got my first SLR and I quickly fell in love with photographing ferns and tide pools. One of my favorite photos came as I set my camera up on a tripod on the beach during sunset and then walked out to get a self-portrait with the myriad hues falling across the water and sky. I misjudged the length of the 10-second timer and couldn’t hear the beeping over the waves, so it took the photo before I turned around. This was before the days of digital, so I didn’t even realize it until I got my photos developed. But the result was a pretty cool shot of me walking off into the sunset. Aside from the coast, I absolutely love Portland and the Columbia River Gorge, just east of the city. Powell’s City of Books and the Japanese gardens are just two of the groovy Portland attractions, but the Columbia River Gorge is almost up there with Olympic National Park for me. A number of gorgeous waterfalls — including the famous and majestic Multnomah Falls — are visible from the road and others can be reached by hiking both short and long distances. It almost seems unfair to other parts of the country that God put so many beautiful things in one small section of the Beaver State. But that’s what makes the Columbia River Gorge so special.
Pennsylvania — As I was creating my itinerary for my first big cross-country road trip in 2001, I realized I would be near Philadelphia for the 4th of July. Obviously, I had to make sure I was there on Independence Day. What better day to visit Independence Hall? But when I arrived, my plans were nearly derailed. I could tell something was happening beyond a typical 4th of July celebration. All the guys in sunglasses with earpieces gave it away. Sure enough, President George W. Bush was going to be speaking outside Independence Hall for his first Independence Day as president. So my visit had to be delayed for a couple of hours. I did manage to get close enough to barely see his head through my longest camera lens. I could hear his voice. but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Although the war in Iraq and other things would eventually make me adamantly opposed to about 95 percent of the Bush administration’s policies, I still think it was pretty neat to hear the president speak on the 4th of July at Independence Hall. And, after he was done, I got my chance to tour the hall and see Liberty Bell. I returned to Pennsylvania two days later, after my quick trip to New Jersey and New York, and drove west across the length of the Keystone State, stopping only to spend a few hours at Gettysburg Battlefield. Even 138 years later there was a sense of solemnity to the land where the horrific Battle of Gettysburg killed thousands of soldiers.
Rhode Island — In the New Hampshire entry, I said I enjoyed something in every state during my 2006 trip there with my mom. For Rhode Island that means chicken nuggets. That’s right. The only thing I did in Rhode Island was drive and eat chicken nuggets from Wendy’s. By the time we reached the Ocean State, we were just in a hurry to get to the next stop. And since Rhode Island is so small, it went by quickly. Welp, that’s my Rhode Island story.
South Carolina — Like Kentucky, I’ve driven through South Carolina few times without really stopping to do much. Also, like Kentucky, it has had the bad fortune of simply being in the middle of my destinations, so it’s been relegated to drive-through-state status. I do hope to actually spend some quality time in the Palmetto State at some point. My first trip was during the marathon 17-hour drive mentioned in the Kentucky entry. In fact, it was the reason for the drive. I had not yet been to either Georgia or South Carolina when I left Florida in July 2004, so I obviously had to visit while I was in that corner of the country. After waking up in Savannah that first night, I drove north into South Carolina before curving westward toward St. Louis. I also made the unfortunate decision to sit on my wallet for 17 hours, which did something to my sciatic nerve and I had to sit on a pillow while driving for a few months after that. Thanks, South Carolina.
South Dakota — In 1997, I was doing a lot of growing up. I had graduated from high school that spring, and I started college in the fall. Shortly thereafter, I turned in paperwork to serve as a missionary for the LDS Church. While awaiting the news of where I might be serving, my dad and I decided to take one last father-and-son road trip before I was gone for two years. We picked a destination neither of us had visited: the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was just a quick weekend trip, since I did have classes and such, but we packed a lot into a few days. Our first stop was Mount Rushmore at night. I vividly remember rounding a bend in the road and seeing the profile of George Washington glowing above us. We returned the next day to see the iconic sculpture in the daytime before a full day of exploring that took us through a gorgeous canyon and across Badlands National Park with a stop at the infamous Wall Drug. To this day, though, my dad still raves about the sight of Washington in profile at night. I guess it’s appropriate that South Dakota is simply called the Mount Rushmore State. All of this, of course, leaves me deeply conflicted. While I had a wonderful time visiting Mt. Rushmore with my father, I also know it was carved into a site held sacred by the original occupants of that land. And as awe-inspiring as this sculpture is, the fact that the heads of four white men defaced that site makes me a little sick.
Tennessee — I’ve had two significant trips to the Volunteer State, including a family outing in Nashville, where we visited the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. But the most memorable was definitely my Memphis stay during the big 2001 cross-country road trip. In fact, the National Press Photographers Association convention there was the primary reason for that trip. I stayed at the historic Peabody Hotel, where ducks parade daily through the lobby. I visited the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum and drove past Graceland. But my favorite part was a homeless man named Gino who gave me one fantastic tour of downtown Memphis. I was just wandering down the famous Beale Street when he struck up a conversation with me. Soon, he was telling me all about the musical history of Beale Street and all the legends he had seen play there, from B.B. King to Elvis. When we walked past the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Gino’s tone quickly took on a hushed reverence, and he told me about the time he heard Dr. King speak.
Texas — The Lone Star state is so big and so diverse that my various trips through Texas have been such entirely different experiences. I first visited there on that 1995 trip where I stayed with my Uncle Quinn in Houston. That was the first time I swam in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico near Padre Island. And I was as much impressed by the Riverwalk in San Antonio as I was unimpressed by the Alamo. Years later I would get my first glimpse of Mexico across the Rio Grande while touring Big Bend National Park. And one of my favorite Texas stops is the quirky Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. Yet it’s Austin where I learned to love Texas. Every few years, a group of friends from the Ricks College newspaper staff meets up in a different location for what we call the Green Party. In 2013 it was the Austin area. The capital of Texas is my kind of city with its eclectic art scene, some tasty food trucks (like Torchy’s Tacos!) and, of course, its live music. Watching 1.5 million bats emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. But what surprised me was how much I enjoyed touring the Texas Capitol. I even felt a bit of Lone Star pride after seeing the love for state Texans have put into this grand building. I even took Cammie back there in 2016 on our anniversary road trip.
Utah — Where do I begin? I’ve easily explored the Beehive State more than any other. And that’s not just because I had a driver license during 13 of the 19 years I lived there (as opposed to only nine of the 19 years I lived in Idaho). During those 13 years of adulthood in Utah, I was actually paid to explore the state. Part of my job as a features writer at The Spectrum included outdoors and travel writing. I keep maps with all the roads marked in that I have driven, and Utah has very few miles of highway untouched by my pen. Additionally, I’ve explored hundreds of miles of backroads and trails throughout the state. I could easily write an entire book on exploring Utah, and many of my former readers often asked me to do so. That still leaves me with the problem of what to write for this short essay that is already nearly as long as many of the other entries. But, I guess I should write about how it all started. It was the summer of 1996, and, as usual, we were traveling to Cedar City, where I was born, to visit my grandparents for a couple of weeks. I got it into my head that I wanted to take the family minivan and go off on a solo road trip throughout southern Utah and the Four Corners Region for four days and three nights. I was 17. And they let me do it. Yeah, I had to call and check in every night, which was difficult in the desolate Four Corners region and without a cell phone. I was armed with four new CDs (Jars of Clay’s self-titled debut, Metallica’s “Load,” Jann Arden’s “Living Under June” and a DGC Records sampler), my camera and a sense of adventure. While I also took in Arizona and visited both Colorado and New Mexico for the first time, most of my time was spent in southern Utah, including stops at Hovenweep National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce National Park and Zion National Park. I was hooked. I had discovered what has become my favorite hobby: taking scenic drives (especially to places I’ve never been) to take photos and listen to great music along the way. And it was Utah that gave it to me.
Vermont — There is probably no other state that is better described as idyllic. When I think back on my 2006 trip to New England with my mom, my memories of the Green Mountain State are always tranquil. I think the colors of the leaves were even bolder in Vermont than the other states of New England. Or maybe the lighting was just better for us there. And everywhere we went, there was a sense of peace, from the small State Capitol building in Montpelier to the pastoral setting of the Joseph Smith Birthplace near the town of Sharon, which I supposed could be considered something of a pilgrimage site. It’s the picturesque town of Stowe that gave me my greatest Vermont adventure. As my mom shopped around the unique businesses, I looked at a number of photo books and postcards, noticing that most of them featured a great shot of town from a higher vantage point. When I began asking about it, the locals refused to give precise directions. Apparently, every tourist wants this shot. Since my mom was still shopping, I decided to find it on my own. I used the placement of a little white church in the photograph to determine which direction to go and started from there. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I found a place to pull over that had some trails winding through the trees. I tried a number of potential lookout spots, but branches blocked my shot in every one. Finally, as I was just about to give, I tried one last trail. Suddenly, the view opened up and there it was: Stowe, Vermont, laid out before me, surrounded in autumn colors with the little white church right in the center. Perfect.
Virginia — Even though I said the best bits of the Blue Ridge Parkway were located in North Carolina, that doesn’t mean Virginia was lacking in any way. That Old Dominion stretch of the parkway is still prettier than 99.5 percent of the other highways across the nation. While my memories of the 2001 road trip have faded some, I do distinctly remember a stately old mill alongside the road, and I believe that was after I crossed the state line into Virginia. A sharper memory focuses not as much on the scenic details but the feelings that I had as I cruised along at 45-55 miles per hour that day (as a parkway managed by the National Park Service, the speed limit is 45, or at least it was in 2001). I clearly remember listening to the gently energetic and uplifting folk-pop of Peter Breinholt near the last leg of the journey. It was one of those times where music and landscape seemed to synchronize, creating a single memory filled with cinematic feel that combines sense of place with its own soundtrack.
Washington — Because I lived within a few miles of the Washington state line for three years while attending the University of Idaho, it’s another state I’ve explored extensively. It’s also among my favorites. I think my first visit was a family trip to Seattle when I was a child. The Space Needle was an obvious highlight. After moving to Moscow, trips to both Spokane and Seattle became commonplace for everything from concerts to shopping. I also spent many hours exploring the Washington side of the Palouse, which is just as pretty as the Idaho side mentioned in that entry. But my favorite place in the Evergreen State is the Olympic Peninsula, which is dominated by Olympic National Park. While I absolutely love Zion and Death Valley national parks, Olympic is probably my favorite. The diversity of misty mountains, natural beaches and shrouded rainforests is just hard to beat. The first time I stepped into one of the parks temperate rainforests, I felt as if I had entered a cathedral or some other place of worship. That day, the Hoh rainforest gave me a place to worship the wonder of God’s creation. I later returned to Olympic National Park on my way to another Green Party trip with my college friends (Seattle was our destination this time) and spent a magical night at the edge of the Quinault Rainforest. It was April and a late spring snow had fallen earlier in the day, dusting the tops of the tree-blanketed mountains with white powder. The sun broke through the clouds as it set, illuminating the white mountains, green forests and blue lakes, creating one of the most exquisite scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
West Virginia — My first two visits to West Virginia were uneventful. In 2001 I simply passed through about 20 miles of it, only pulling off the freeway at a rest stop so I could say I had feet on the ground in West Virginia. Eight years later I watched a dumb movie just across the Virginia state line, but I didn’t even realize we were in West Virginia until we were back in regular Virginia. And that was one of the least strange things about that trip. Thankfully, my third West Virginia experience was much better. Plus, I got to see why it’s known as the Mountain State. Yeah, West Virginia’s mountains are kind of puny compared to what we’re accustomed to in the West, but they sure are pretty. Cammie and I spent a few hours driving through them in 2016 on our anniversary road trip and we enjoyed every second of it. Unfortunately, it was a long driving day, so we didn’t have much of a chance to pull over and enjoy the verdant beauty. I hope we’ll get another chance.
Wisconsin — The Badger State was one of the four Midwest states still on my “to-visit” list in 2004 on my way home from Florida. My big plans called for getting to Lake Superior in time for sunset, especially since I had never seen any of the Great Lakes at that point. I was on schedule until my “check engine” light turned on just outside of Madison. Now, 14 years later, I don’t remember what was wrong, but it cost me an hour or two, so the sun had gone down by the time I reached the shoreline of Lake Superior. At least it was still twilight and I was able to see one of the Great Lakes. I don’t remember if I even got a good photograph, so I’m guessing the light was not great by that point. Maybe I’ll make it back someday.
Wyoming — Growing up just across the Wyoming state line in southeast Idaho, my childhood included many trips to Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, though I didn’t visit the parks as often as I wish I had. Jackson Hole was a favorite family getaway, especially right after we moved to Idaho and my dad was still building up his business, so we didn’t have much money. I didn’t realize how poor we were at the time. All I know is that I had fun seeing the art galleries, watching the elk at the wildlife refuge and eating picnics with my family. In high school, my friends Breezy, Wes, Aarin and I did a day trip through Yellowstone and Jackson Hole in my dad’s new red Camaro. That day of teenage dreams is still among my most treasured memories. In college, I returned to Jackson a couple of times for concerts by what was then my favorite band, The Samples. One particularly fun Jackson excursion was a spur-of-the-moment trip with my friend Bonnie when we were attending Ricks College. A few years later, I had a special, day-long trip through Yellowstone and Jackson with my Grandpa Cowan, who helped me get out of a speeding ticket in the park. Most recently I visited Jackson with Cammie as we stayed with our friend Manjola, who now lives there. During that trip, I did some solo exploring in Grand Teton National Park and came away with some lovely autumn photos of the famous Moulton Barn. One thing I just noticed while writing this is that all of my favorite memories of the Equality State were with people I love, from family members to many of my best friends. That’s pretty neat.