Learn the Back Story

At the end of our first month on the road, I wrote about some of the lessons we’ve learned from traveling. One of the lessons I told you I learned was:

11. People and places can surprise you. Even if you don’t have the time to learn the back story, remember that there always is one.

Learning the quiet history of a person is what moves you from acquaintance to friend. It’s the progression that makes the present make sense, makes the person before you more than another face, but a life. Isn’t it always upon hearing the back story that we become more forgiving and accepting of one another shortcomings?

It’s the same with places.

Towns and cities do not just spring up out of nowhere on an Interstate. They grow and sprawl and breathe. They are the backdrop to stories and crucial characters in human history. You understand more about what a place has come to be when you take the time to learn how.

If I was visiting foreign lands, this need to understand a place and its people might be less urgent. It’s nice to know a place that isn’t your own. It’s crucial to know your home.

As we travel throughout this country, we are making it a priority to learn the history of the areas we visit. We read. We watch movies – fictional and documentary. We visit small museums and ask questions of the natives and the new residents. We try to see beyond the postcard and into the past, into the story that led up to the moment captured in a photo.

We do this, in part, through the help of our trip’s very first sponsor.


Before we ever pulled into Washington, D.C., we pulled out Washington, D.C. Then and Now, a book that’s published by Baker & Taylor Publishing Group, which has generously provided us with a little cash and a lot of books for this trip. We learned about the architects and engineers who designed the city and the almost imperceptible changes that it has undergone in the last 200 years. It’s a bit ironic how unchanged our nation’s capital remains, but it’s oddly comforting, too. These insights and observations, among others, wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t taken the time to explore the back story of the sidewalks and buildings along which we walked.

On Friday we will drive away from our campground in Northern Virginia and head north to Philadelphia. We’ve already begun digging into the history of that city, in part by exploring the pages of Philadelphia Then and Now. I want to come away from our the birthplace of our nation with more than a photo of the Liberty Bell, and I want my kids to come away with more.

I am American. By birth and by choice, the moniker at least partially defines me, and yet I feel I am just now starting to appreciate what that means. And as overly sentimental as it is to admit, I think that knowing this place that defines me helps me to understand myself better, and to more easily accept what I see. After all, it is upon hearing the back story that we become more forgiving and accepting of shortcomings, including our own.


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