Goal Accomplished: All 50 States!

I’m a collector, but not how most people envision—I collect memories. It’s partly because research shows that as you get older, your experiences make you happier than the material goods you’ve acquired, but it’s also because I just love to travel.

My absolute favorite thing is waking up early in a new city with nothing ahead of me but a day of exploring. In February 2011, on my first day in Istanbul, I woke up to fresh snow coating the mosques, making them look like snowglobes, and felt jolts of happiness seeping into every corner of my body.

I suspect a lot of it has to with the fact we’re happiest in the present, not brooding over a difficult conversation at work or stressing over when we’ll finally refinish the bathroom. I know this intellectually, yet (at least for me) it’s not easy to stay in the moment, especially in the quotidian doldrums of work, laundry, etc.

All of this is to say that traveling forces me to be in the present, to really observe where I am and surrender my senses fully. If I’m, say, walking down the main street of a new town, taking in the storefronts, the people that pass by, the types of trees and plants, my restive mind is preoccupied, and calm.

It’s an addiction, really, a new-experience addiction.

And so I travel. Last September, I achieved one of my travel (well, happiness!) goals—visiting all 50 states. I wrote about my journey for the Washington Post, and I’ve gotten an amazing amount of tweets and emails from people who are either inspired by my article or have done similar feats.

After the rough, bruising year the country’s been through, I had wondered if readers would really be all that interested in something like touring the country. Divisions are deep.

But instead, I realized that many people, of all walks of life, welcomed the chance to think about a pasttime as simple and wholesome as going to another state and meeting new people. I think it was healing for them, in some small way.

And, convinced as I am about the power of travel to heal and make us happier, my advice is to always to plan another trip! Even if budgets are tight, watch for cheap fares on discount sites (I just got a $48 one way fare to Charleston, South Carolina, on Jet Blue), stay with a friend or family to cut down on hotel costs, and even bring food with you (if you’re traveling by car).

My next goal is to visit all 59 national park units, a much greater challenge than visiting all 50 states—it requires a longgggg haul to American Samoa in the Pacific and puddlejumper rides to remote parks in Alaska. (I’m at 22 parks so far; my next one will be Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.)

But I chose a difficult goal on purpose—it’ll keep me on the go for many decades to come.

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