Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

My first jobs out of college were not overtly connected to travel, but they took me to places that were different and foreign.

"We are the voice of the grain, feed and fertilizer associations of Eye-a-way, Mizuruh, Illinoiz, Indiana and O-hi-o," my first boss, the publisher of the Decatur (Illinoiz)-based Country Journal, told me as he outlined my duties.

As a native Chicagoan, I found the pace, speech and the passions of my new readership to be fascinating. I was given a company car, an enormous bronze Caprice equipped with a citizens band radio and a plastic magnetic sign on the driver-side door that read "The Country Journal." The sign broke at one point, but I left it on and adopted the truncated version as my CB handle: The Country Jou.

And I developed significant empathy for my audience and affection for people who pronounced state names a bit differently than I had been taught.

My next gig, as a photojournalist for the Illinois Times in Springfield, provided a bit more diversity in subject matter but kept me along mostly rural roads.

I was becoming acclimated to the subtleties of the flat prairie aesthetic but was enthralled by my next territory: As editor of publications for the Texas State Teachers Association, I drove my Dodge Omni hatchback throughout the Lone Star State, seeking out the married couple in the Panhandle who ran the last remaining one-room school house as well as African-American teachers who were being systematically fired in the East Texas Piney Woods and Mexican-American teachers facing retribution for supporting the "wrong" school board candidates in the Rio Grande Valley.

And I honed good travel habits. Wherever the Country Journal, Illinois Times or Texas State Teachers Association took me, I could get to know an area better because I traveled by car.

Today, I mostly fly.

After decades of flying into destinations and more or less staying put until I flew the next leg, I twice in the last year took family vacations that involved flying to a destination for the purpose of starting a road trip: One through New Mexico, the other, Montana.

The sense of what is lost in flight-centric vacations is beautifully articulated in "Deep South: Four Seasons on the Back Roads" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), the most recent book by Paul Theroux, who also wrote this week's cover story.

He writes at length in the book about the pleasure of a road trip. While I'm not as put off by the airport experience as he is -- I'm still excited to fly -- I appreciate that every town one drives through has the potential to add to one's experience.

That's far less true of towns one flies over.

Theroux, a native New Englander, has received some criticism for writing about a region of his country with his home region's perspective still very much intact.

But as a reader of travel essays, and even as a reader of guidebooks, I feel there's a lot to commend in his approach. My experience as a traveler and writer has been that the first 24 to 48 hours in a new place are the most exciting. It's when you are seeing with the freshest eyes what longtime residents and insiders have ceased to see, let alone recognize as special.

A native will invariably guide you to the spots they feel are representative of a place, or even define it, and that in itself may reveal something of the character of the people. But so many of the little things one notices upon arrival have long been taken for granted by those who know it best.

For that reason, when I was looking for people to update the profiles in Weissmann Travel Reports (now incorporated into Travel42), I always preferred someone who was going to a place for the first time rather than, say, a resident expatriate. Visitors and residents view places differently, and if you're writing for visitors you want someone who is especially talented at recognizing the things that natives have come to accept as part of the scenery.

This is not to suggest that a visitor arrives in a state of ignorance. As Theroux notes in his essay for Travel Weekly, a certain amount of legwork is required to get the most out of a destination. His preparations have included learning Mandarin for a trip through China. (His ear for dialogue is far more nuanced than my sensitivity to state name pronunciations in central Illinois).

But no matter how much preparation is done, one still arrives in new territory as a naif, and that's for the best. World-weariness detracts from the joys of travel. Under the best circumstances, a New Yorker looks at the Corn Palace with the same wonder that a South Dakota farmer views New York's One World Trade Center.

And as self-aware urbanites know, we are, in many ways, more provincial than our country cousins. A colleague at the Illinois Times, James Krohe Jr., wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times observing that, although a New York friend had to ask him to describe a combine, "how many of my hayseed friends would have to ask what a subway car looks like?"


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