One of my favorite things to do is meet new people when I travel. My preferred way to do approach this is to find super-locals who can share stories about how they have seen that place change over time. But my next favorite thing is to meet other travelers, preferably those coming from a different place than myself.
Earlier this week in San Francisco at an Italian restaurant, I struck up a conversation with another couple and learned they were from Fort Wayne, Indiana. With over 250,000 inhabitants, it is apparently the second-most populous city in Indiana after Indianapolis. I had never heard of it before.
Over the course of an hour or so, we spoke about their respective careers that brought them from Ann Arbor to Fort Wayne and other various places we have visited, even learning that we have mutual friends in common in Ann Arbor.
I confessed that I had recently done a travel exercise on a recent plane ride, plotting out cities and states I have visited across the U.S. Upon completing that exercise, I was a little ashamed to see that I had left most of the middle stages completely untouched in my travels.
Here’s a short list of states I have never visited:
By the time I got to that last one, Tennessee, my new friends piped up.
“Oh! But you have to go to Nashville! It’s a city that feels like a relic of another time. You would love it.”
“I’m sure I would,” I told them. “But that’s exactly why I shouldn’t go to Nashville. It would be very characteristic of me or any of my friends to go to Nashville, but then that’s just me visiting one more major American city and ignoring so many other important spots and regions. Rather than go to Nashville, I should be going to places like Fort Wayne!”
Earlier this year, I remember hearing that Mark Zuckerberg had committed to visiting small town America on a regular basis. While I’m sure it’s nearly impossible for him to travel anywhere without an entourage or a big to-do these days, I do really respect the initiative. As much as I talk about understanding different people and perspectives, it feels hypocritical for me to not make more of an effort in getting to know different parts of my own country.
I know there’s a fine line in this type of travel. On the one hand, it’s great to branch out and find new ways to empathize with people outside of your day to day. On the other, it could come across as incredibly rude, invasive, or condescending to simply “show up” and treat your visit like an anthropological study.
A version that I think would be amazingly cool would be some sort of “job swap” program, where two people flip flop jobs for a few weeks. Something like this, where you visit with a purpose and get a real feel for what the day to day feels like, might expose a whole new frame shift. Or even just doing a “home swap” for a week or two.
There’s not an easy answer here, but it is something I would like to commit to exploring more in some way within the next year. So if you have suggestions for how to travel without tokenizing a community in the process, or suggestions of places I might consider visiting to expand my world view, please let me know. Otherwise, Fort Wayne may remain at the top of my list.