For the last two weeks of summer, I drove from the Atlantic shore of Asbury Park, New Jersey, all the way to the Pacific neck of Monterey Bay, California. Through forest and cornfield, prairie and plain, mountain and desert, I learned a thing or two about country and climate. Here are some simple ideas I picked up while driving across America.

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The scoop: I just drove from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. I learned a lot about America along the way.

Some key highlights from rural America:

  • Galena has hundreds of storefronts in the middle of rural Western Illinois
  • Badlands National Park is in South Dakota but looks like a white Mars
  • There are job shortages for hourly workers from coast to coast. It is tangible.
  • Counties are more significant than states. Remove all stereotypes.
  • Ethical and sustainable agriculture is the most important thing in the world.

Dig deeper → 5 min

The driving route

For our trip, we traveled through 16 states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California.

We collectively traveled over 70 hours and tracked over 4,500 miles in a 14-day timespan. It was a lot of driving, and admittedly we missed a lot by packing it into two weeks, but we were determined to make it coast to coast.

Before diving into simple ideas I got driving across America, let’s outline some things I learned along the way.

What I learned from each stop along the way

Cleveland has a lively vegan food scene. Ulysses S. Grant was awarded a fancy home in Galena, Illinois for his valiant efforts in the Civil War, and Galena has a massive downtown for its size with hundreds of storefronts.

downtown galena Illinois
Downtown Galena Illinois

Rochester, Minnesota is known for the Mayo Clinic, which populates a large proportion of the city. The Badlands in South Dakota look like white Mars, with rocky hills and valleys soaring for miles beneath your feet.

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

Bighorn National Forest is arguably prettier than Yellowstone, and its Tongue River Canyon Trail will blow your mind. No crowds, no commercialized drive-up, swimming holes, great views, it has it all.

Bighorn National Forest Tongue Canyon Trail
Bighorn National Forest, Tongue River Canyon Trail

Wyoming has some really cool towns: shout out Buffalo, Shell, Sheridan, and Bob’s Diner in Greybull. Yellowstone is really big, and you can end up driving more than you want to. Lamar Valley has all the cool bison.

Grand Teton looks like Switzerland and is loaded with bears – bring bear spray.

Grand Teton Lake Jenny
Grand Teton Lake Jenny

Jackson, Wyoming is more like Colorado than Wyoming. But don’t try Thai food there. Even if it’s on the border of Wyoming, Montana still feels like Montana. Can’t explain why. Idaho and its Teton Valley has a true hippy mountain man edge that stands out from other places.

Downtown Jackson Wyoming
Downtown Jackson Wyoming
Island Park, Idaho near Yellowstone
Island Park, Idaho near Yellowstone

The West

Salt Lake City is a Western gem of a city. It deserves more street cred on the West coast. Good food, music, sports, mountains, and its easy driving distance to the coolest parts of the country.

Zion National Park will take you back in time and make you thirsty while you admire it. Las Vegas has nothing but desert on either side of it.

zion national park utah
Leeds, Utah near Zion National Park

California is mostly barren – the central portion of the state is all rural and the coast is a totally different vibe. The Sierra Nevada region has a refreshing blend of Wild West landscapes and mountainous forests — featuring both the largest tree in the world (Sherman Tree) and the tallest peak in the lower 48 states (Mount Whitney).

sherman tree sequoia
Sherman Tree, largest tree in the world
Mustang Rescue w/ scars
Here’s a rescue of a wild Mustang with battle scars. There are more wild horses than there are mouths to feed in its natural habitat, so wildlife preservation programs have relocation programs for horses that are at risk of starvation to keep the population in track. Here’s one of those state rescues living it up at a private ranch in the Sierra Nevada region a few miles from Sequoia National Forest.

During our stay near Sequoia, we visited Blossom Peaks Ranch. They have rescued well over 10 animals including horses, pigs, goats, chickens and cows. Definitely give them a look if you’re in the area, they let you tour their property by making a reservation on Airbnb.

Monterey has some of the prettiest beaches – with mountains overlooking the shore.

Fort Ord Dunes State Park Monterey California
Fort Ord Dunes State Park Monterey California

Hare some simple ideas I picked up driving across America:

There is a job shortage in America. The market is quietly demanding better pay. Adapt or fail.

There are boutique stores, coffee shops, dinner restaurants, hotels all over the country with signs apologizing for slow service or closures due to staff shortages.

I think we’re quietly witnessing a wage worker revolution. Why? There are SO many ways to make a living these days. Especially given the world’s adoption of remote office culture. A 20 year-old in college can make $30/hour doing administrative work for a start-up instead of washing dishes as a bus boy for $10/hour.

Businesses will have to catch up with 21st century expectations or they will fail. Naturally, some won’t be able to afford it, others will adapt by increasing pay, or establishing more flexible hours. You have to find creative ways to increase your bottom line in this climate, but you need workers.

I overheard a job interview in a hotel in Galena. It was a mother with a few kids at home. The interviewer said they would accommodate her uncertain schedule, because “they’re more creative with scheduling these days”. Be flexible or lose talent.

I don’t know how to solve this – this issue deserves an article on its own. But I do know this labor shortage in the service and retail industry is physically noticeable across the country.

America (and the world) is dependent on good farming. Let’s prioritize that.

Not a hard concept to digest, but America needs good farmers. Good farming impacts our health, our economy, it literally impacts everyone.

If agriculture ever became totally corrupted, we’d all be screwed. Animal welfare depends on good farming. Land preservation depends on good farming. Healthy eating depends on good farming.

For every VC dollar allocated to transportation or travel or fashion or finance, there should be a healthy dollar forwarded to ag tech.

If I was a billionaire, I’d bet most of it on better farming. Maybe that’s why Bill Gates is America’s largest private owner of farmland. Farming is literally the lifeblood of human existence.

Counties are more important than states. Know your county.

Jackson, Wyoming feels more like stereotypical California than Three Rivers, California felt like California. Galena, Illinois felt more like South Dakota than Sioux Falls felt like South Dakota. This is another reminder that states are just made-up lines on a map. Beyond gubernatorial politics that sometimes change your life, states are somewhat irrelevant to your local lifestyle.

If you’re interested in the social construct of states and borders, check out Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. In my real life (on the internets) I say this often: after a few hundred thousand (if that), it is really difficult to draw a common characteristic between a group of people. I mean, I can notice a stark cultural difference between my small hometown and the town right next to it.

If that’s the case, how can you take tabs on national consciousness? Reddit forums? Every house will have a different answer. Describing American behavior is like trying to describe the taste of Starbursts. There are different flavors.

Wildlife is best left alone. Don’t bother them.

Wildlife doesn’t really care about humans, and when they do show interest in human behavior, it usually turns out bad for either the animal or the human. As much as I love wildlife and wanted to see it as much as possible on my trip, I ultimately concluded that wildlife truly is best left alone.

Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn Sheep in Badlands

My girlfriend and I were lucky enough to walk past this bighorn sheep that looked more like a display in a museum because it stood so still.

We also drove up on a black bear crossing the road in Sequoia National Park. We were two feet away from the apex curious intelligent forest monster. It was an amazing moment for us. But he could care less that we were there. He was scaling up a mountain and had places to be and didn’t miss a beat.

While I was camping in Idaho, we could hear a pack of wolves howling and barking at a fresh kill in the distance. It was horrifying and fascinating at the same time. I was part of that experience, but I had no impact on the outcome. I think that symbolizes a healthy relationship between modern humans and nature.

Climate impacts culture. Don’t underestimate your weather.

In Utah, people wear athleisure and mountain wear. The stores advertise to that market. Parts of Idaho and Wyoming have a similar mountain vibe. California desert towns wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats. Ranches in Sierra Nevada love their dairy milk and horses.

On the coast of California near Monterey, locals wear pants, long sleeves, and sneakers on the beach. Everyone wears masks. In Southern California, you’d look like a real shoobie with shoes on the sand.

Nothing too profound to note here, I just noticed how local climate can have a huge impact on culture. Weather impacts the food, politics, music, schools, home life, social scene.

The recent floods from Hurricane Ida will once again forever change the way impacted businesses live their lives.

The future of America is in the Middle

It shouldn’t take driving across America to learn these simple ideas. But sometimes it takes a road trip to reset your perspective.

My main takeaway is how coastal America is just a fraction of a whole. There’s no such thing as flyover country. If you believe in America’s future, turn around and take a hard look at the middle of the country. Big cities are far from perfect. There is a lot to be learned, and a lot of room for opportunities.

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