I Visited All 50 States—Here Are 5 Things That Surprised Me About the U.S.

America is full of surprises. Savor every last one of them.

As anyone who’s ever known me will attest, I’ve always been energized by seeing new places and trying new things. So, a few years back, when I was getting close to visiting all 50 states, I made a promise to myself that I would see them all before I turned 50. It was the only item on my bucket list that really mattered to me. And the one I’m most proud of checking off, now that it’s done.

I accomplished my goal just a month shy of turning 49 (the summer before Covid hit, thank goodness), in the visitor’s center at Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the western edge of North Dakota. I’m apparently one of the more adventurous people in our country. According to one survey, the average American has visited 17 states, and only 2% have seen all 50. I’m certainly no expert on America, but here’s what I’ve learned from the states I’ve been to.

Every state is worth visiting

Cathy Garrard in all fifty statesCourtesy Cathy Garrard

I knew for a while that North Dakota would be my final state. Nothing against the place, but it’s one of those spots that you’re just not all that likely to pass through on your way to anywhere else, like Oklahoma on a Route 66 road trip. But I had absolutely no idea what would happen when I got to the Peace Garden State after I’d waited so long to go.

As my friend Sherry and I walked into that visitor’s center, I made a joyful comment about how I’d now been to all 50 states. One of the park rangers behind the counter overheard me. As it turns out, North Dakota is so often the final state that people visit, they have a “Save the Best for Last” club, where they give you a certificate, bumper stickers and a T-shirt to mark the occasion. They took my picture near the woodchipper from Fargo, which is on permanent display at the park, and invited me to join a private Facebook group for other members. That experience made a special personal moment very, very much more so.

I love that North Dakotans own their lack of popularity in such a celebratory way. They’re proud of where they live, and they should be. For lots of Americans, there’s an entire swath of the U.S. deemed “flyover states” that aren’t worth seeing. That’s completely untrue. Some of the best moments in my life happened in places I never would have expected.

And while North Dakota is absolutely worth visiting as soon as possible—every single state is—I do highly recommend saving it for last.

Getting out of your comfort zone is its own reward

Cathy Garrard in all fifty statesCourtesy Cathy Garrard

When I was in my late 20s, I was invited on a work trip to stay at a remote bear camp on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Neither my Midwestern suburban childhood nor my early adulthood in New York City prepared me for anything like this, but of course, I was game.

We landed on a beach in a rickety four-seater plane and were greeted by a rugged and highly capable man holding a rifle to protect us from the multiple bears that were in plain sight. Oh, boy. Those canvas tents probably looked like potato chip bags to them, I remember thinking.

Besides avoiding the bears, one of the activities for this trip was salmon fishing on the Kenai River. I sat in a tiny rowboat with three elderly men for hours shivering while wearing every item of clothing I’d packed. It was miserable, but I just kept thinking about how awesome it would be if I caught a salmon—my friends would never believe it!—and I kept my mouth shut.

None of us caught a single fish, so one of the old-timers suggested we head back to shore. When one of them helped me out of the boat, he said, “You never once complained about any of it.” I was proud he noticed, but why would I complain? When would I ever get a chance to do anything like that again? Seizing a unique opportunity is what traveling is all about.

So if you’re rural, embrace the noise and chaos of a city every once in a while. If you’re an urbanite, breathe in the smell of the forest or watch the waving prairie grasses. You just may connect with a part of yourself you didn’t know was in there.

Leaning in is particularly important with food

Cathy Garrard in all fifty statesCourtesy Cathy Garrard

I’m an omnivore, so take this bit of advice with a grain of salt: Stop being a picky eater when you travel. Keto and carbs aren’t all that important when you’re collecting experiences. Delicious regional state foods are worth every single calorie. Every single time.

So smash crabs on a restaurant table in Maryland. Drink beer and eat too much sausage and cheese in Wisconsin. Crack into a fresh-caught lobster in Maine. Order the Christmas enchiladas in New Mexico. None of those things will ever taste better than they will at that exact moment. America’s favorite food can be found anywhere you go.

Embrace local culture to get the most out of your visit

Cathy Garrard in all fifty statesCourtesy Cathy Garrard

The first time I went to the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Sex in the City was wildly popular. I was eating at a down-home beachfront bar and grill, and when the sweet waitress came by to take our drink order, I ordered a cosmopolitan. She had no idea what that was (and neither did the bartender), and I have little doubt all these years later that I made them feel small trying to show them how sophisticated I thought I was.

In hindsight, I should have ordered a Budweiser. You’re missing out on the fun—and very likely the hidden gems too—if you don’t follow the lead of the people who live there. They know their area better than you ever will. One evening spent doing something you normally wouldn’t won’t kill you, and you’ll enjoy it way more than you think you will. So basically, don’t be a New Yorker when you’re in Alabama.

We’re all more alike than we are different

Cathy Garrard in all fifty statesCourtesy Cathy Garrard

Social media and cable news may make us think we’re living in a polarized country, but talking to actual people tells me otherwise. I’ve never had anyone in any state I’ve been to tear into me like an anonymous Twitter troll. Politics don’t tend to come up if you don’t bring them up. Everyday folks from coast to coast are much kinder and more open-minded than we give them credit for.

Our American identity is much stronger than our political differences. Everywhere you go, people love Fourth of July parades, county fairs and their high-school sports teams. They love sunshine, flowers and their grandkids too. And the very best way to find that out is to hit the road and see at least some of the 50 states for yourself. I promise you’ll never regret it.


  • YouGov.com: “Which states have Americans visited, and which are their favorites?”

Cathy Garrard
Cathy is a service journalist with 30 years of experience covering topics including psychology, health science and gardening. Beyond Reader's Digest, she has published hundreds of articles over the last three decades in national print and digital titles, including Prevention, Good Housekeeping, USA Today and Glamour. Cathy also teaches fact-checking and media literacy at New York University.