Recently, as I was going to the website iliveinmyvan.com (another great blog written by a guy who is, well, living in a van as the title suggests, but driving that van across the country) my browser autofilled with imjustwalking and I found myself back on Matt’s site surprised to see an update from August. He had stopped updating the log once his journey ended last year.
Matt’s update was his reflections on the walk a year later and what he had learned from it. It’s quite lengthy but worth the read. A few things he wrote really spoke to me about life in general and about travel.
His observations on life and on human behavior were so poignant. He talked about how he met many people with whom he shared very few similarities in terms of conduct, values and behavior. But basically, he reasoned, you can find redeeming qualities in just about anyone. Often, it was the people that didn’t share his same values who invited him to stay with them with no hesitation. They were people who, on the surface, may have seemed morally corrupt because of their actions, and maybe they were, but still, something inside of them was kind enough to reach out to a stranger.
Matt also reasoned that people who appear bad, rude, hateful or even dangerous could be that way as a reaction to the way they have been approached by people with preconceived notions about who they are and treat them as such. If someone goes into a ghetto assuming everyone there is a gangbanger or drug dealer, that’s what they will likely see, even if it’s not reality. If you look at someone and treat them as if they are a gangbanger, guess what? They probably are not going to respond in a kind and gentle way.
I loved that he used Gary, Ind. as an example of this. The city has a notorious reputation for high crime. As Matt walked through the city on what happened to be Mother’s Day, he came across a group of people hanging out on the front porch. They greeted him then invited him up for a few beers. He accepted their offer and had a great experience. I loved this example because as a newspaper reporter in a former life, Gary was in my coverage area. I started the job on the night desk which involved the constant chatter of a police scanner that I monitored in order to chase breaking stories. On my first night my editor told me I would likely hear calls of “shots fired” all night in Gary. “Unless they hit something, you don’t have to go,” she said. There were just too many gun fights in Gary and we didn’t have time to cover every one nor did they want reporters walking around Gary unless there was a good reason.
The first story I had to cover there wasn’t a gun fight but rather a drag racing incident that went terribly wrong. A car lost control and plowed in to crowd of people and at least 5 were dead on the scene.
When I arrived and learned one of the dead was a little boy, I was too heartbroken to think about the possible danger, I wanted to get to the bottom of what had happened and also to tell this little boy’s story.
The scene was something I’ll never forget. A giant circle of people started to form around the accident site by people coming one by one to comfort and care for the families of the injured and deceased, who were still on the ground, covered in sheets. As word spread of the accident, more people came. They weren’t there to gape or to cause trouble. I didn’t understand at first why they were coming, so I asked a random woman why she felt compelled to come. She said she heard such and such person was among the dead and she knew their sister or mother or someone. “We are a tight-nit community, and it’s just what you do. You come to see how you can help,” she said.
I started asking people about the dead, to get a better idea of who they were. I think they appreciated the fact their loved ones meant enough that it was news that they died. I never felt like I was in danger in Gary again after that night. I always treated people with respect and like I would treat any other source from any other town in Northwest Indiana. I met some of the kindest, most helpful people in Gary. I think all of my fellow reporters would say the same thing about the people of Gary.
This quote by Matt carries so much hope.
The contrast between the America that we see on the news and the America that I saw in person was unbelievable. I was, and still am, completely shocked by how blind we can be to the goodness that surrounds us. How is it possible to be so unaware of something so prevalent? Do people keep their inner kindness hidden from one another? Maybe we just never give ourselves a chance to see people’s better sides in the first place. Maybe our expectations about how bad people can be are keeping us away from the very situations where we can experience their goodness.
The other observation Matt so eloquently wrote about was how people miss out on the beauty all around them because of expectations they set for themselves when starting out on a trip. People look for the “must do” things but the best travel stories are the ones of the unexpected, the ones of experiences that couldn’t be replicated if you tried.
I think the lesson he learned can be summarized with this quote:
Perhaps the traveler’s most important challenge and highest calling is not to visit all the places worth seeing, but rather to find something worth seeing wherever he is.
If you don’t want to read all of Matt’s blog post, especially after reading my wordy re-cap, you should go to the site just to see the pictures he posted, to see his examples of those things he found that were worth seeing.