words by Matt Steffen | photographs by Michael Kearns


Okay, Houston. As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. ~ David Scott, Apollo 15

I’m happy to visit any place. Anywhere. If you invite me to tag along on a trip, near or far, I’m probably going to enjoy myself. If it’s a day or a week, a city, a huge city, an old town, a few abandoned shacks, I’ll entertain myself. If it’s nothing at all, great! Wandering aimlessly through the woods is my happy place.

I like new things. I like to see what I haven’t yet. I want to see how you live, what it would be like to settle in there. I like to stand in the spaces where history happened, get a sense of it for myself.

Photography goes hand in glove with this arrangement. Carrying a camera gives me a strange permission, a task to fulfill. I’m here to see what you got. I’m going to look at it intently and reflect what I find, hopefully in an honest and personal way. A lot of talk about screens removing humans from the moment I find completely wrong headed. When I’m out walking, viewing the world through the mindset of composition and discovery, it’s meditational. I’m firmly grounded in the present. And at my best I can catch whispers of fleeting moments that would otherwise transpire undetected.

How can anyone not share my inconsolable wanderlust? Are there those among us that sit fulfilled? Immune to the wonder of what lies just over the horizon? What would cause a person to revel in such hubris? I know people, retired and with means, that have not crossed a state line in years. A short conversation with them quickly reveals it’s not for the love of their current surroundings or company.

The answers to my why‘s have never mentioned how comfortable their sofa, how well stocked and delicious their pantry, or the warm cocoon of love they feel from their cohabitors. It seems they’ve been overcome by a paralyzing inability to confront the unknown and non-routine. They have been beaten and left bereft of any hint of curiosity. Stuck in a battle to out stubborn the devil they know.

It sounds exhausting.

We have to go deeper. We have to surrender, give up the illusion of control, get out of our own way. We have to conquer our fears and jump off the cliff. Call it the Muse, call it “flow,” call it whatever you like. This is the Self—instinct, intuition, the unconscious. When we hit it, it’s like striking a vein of solid gold. We lose ourselves—that is, our egos—and we find something greater: our Selves. ~ Steven Pressfield

What stops most people from doing most things is simple fear, almost all of which being irrational. If you just get to work, get moving, the quieter of those fears dissipate completely. What roadblocks are left are primarily there to prop up your ego, always hungry for control. Worrying about the manifestation and outcome of fear will do nothing to steer it. As Wilco put it, “Either you will or you won’t, Everything has its plan either way.”

Travel is no different. There’s a lot of anxiety wrapped into it. The threshold of your home can be intimidating and as I’ve written about recently, the night of arrival buyer’s remorse is real.

It’s traumatic, the breaking of the day to day. What if it all goes to hell while you’re gone? What if someone needs something? What if it all ends in ashes? For this I can only say to make a solid plan, then some contingency plans. Leave keys with people you trust to prop your shit up until you get back and walk away.

Fear of the unknown is also overwhelming. What if I get lost? What if I get robbed? What if the thread count is less than 400 per square inch? How can I go on like this?

At some point I came to the realization that the unknown was actually the goal, so fearing it would be highly counterproductive to seeking it out. Travel is learning. You’re putting yourself out there, exposed, in someone else’s shoes. It’s okay to not know where you’re going. It’s okay to ask where that place is. Nearly anyone I’ve ever engaged in a space foreign to me was almost eager to play travel agent.

Ask your server what tastes best. Then ask them where they have a drink after work. Ask the street vendor where the good stuff is. Ask the driver where you should go. They’ll let you know, sometimes with exuberance. I dare you to visit Cincinnati and ask any native which chili parlor is their favorite.

The people that live where you travel are your allies. They definitely still want you to go home, but just a little bit sad that you have to.

People love to introduce you to their favorite things. It must be part of this human condition. People are cheerleaders for their own lives, someone has to be. And if they recommend going to {insert national chain restaurant here} feel free to dock their tip 5%. Better yet, raise it 10% so that poor bastard can experience a better meal.

When in the unfamiliar, I used to try to slip in unannounced, to hide and disappear completely. It caused me to miss out on a lot of opportunities that I thought would make me look foolish, like a tourist, a rube. After learning to throw myself unabashedly into the “must see” spots, buying souvenirs that all look the same, slurping frozen daquiris from bright plastic cups, taking selfies in front of whatever monument was probably on the aforementioned souvenir, I settled down a bit.

Go get your postcard. Get it out of your system. Then turn your back to it and see what’s sitting neglected on the other corner of the street. You’ll get the full picture this way and a better understanding of this place. You’ll see the thing and you’ll meet the guy that lives next to it. He makes killer sandwiches and knows a guy that will drive you up the mountain to the other village’s celebration that is going on this weekend. This is the way.

This would happen a lot, people warning me about those others. They’re not friendly like us. They’ll shoot you for the shirt off your back. Don’t trust them… What I wish is that these people could’ve experienced what I did, and seen that the people they warned me about were the very ones who took me in later on, and fed me, and told me their stories. ~Andrew Forsthoefel

I can hear the growing rumbling from the boobirds. “Isn’t getting into a stranger’s car and heading blindly into the night the beginning of every 48 Hours special?” Well, maybe, but it’s also the beginning of several of my favorite “one time I was in Oaxaca” stories. You gotta trust your gut and keep your head on you. And full disclaimer, being a small giant of a man does color my comfort in throwing myself into the fray. Historically, large bearded viking types aren’t the easy marks being sought after.

But in all seriousness, the idea of safety is extremely subjective and often overplayed for affect. If you Google “Is {city of your choice}…” autofill will invariably insert “safe” as a top choice. It’s on everyone’s mind. Most people not named Nachtwey do not choose to travel to warzones intentionally. There is real crime out there and real danger, but please consider the source and the testing procedure.

While recently planning a trip with my family, I wasn’t surprised to see that New Orleans was fairly high on the “most dangerous” lists. I was a little surprised to see that the other often mentioned on those lists were almost an exact list of our last ten vacations. Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and on and on. The statistics were clinical, reading like an OSHA manual measuring the parts per million. Are you comfortable in knowing you have a 1 in 1,000 chance of being a victim of violent crime? What does that even mean?

I’m not sure it’s that clean and clear. Crime tends to be much less random than the nightly news would have you believe. “Bad Guy Does Bad Thing to Other Bad Guy” doesn’t catch the clicks that abducted college kids do. Neither does “Probably Shouldn’t Have Been Wandering Economically Depressed Neighborhood Alone At Night Wearing a Halloween Tourist Costume.”

I’m not victim blaming here. But all cities of all sizes, heading in either economic trajectory, have a part of town where poverty settles and the dealings that go on in poverty-stricken neighborhoods happen. As an outsider, it’s unwise to walk those neighborhoods, doubly so at non-peak traffic times, triply so wearing your best hikers, cargo shorts, pressed hometown sports team shirt and fanny pack. Blend in, stay in the group, keep to the more heavily trafficked areas and be aware of your surroundings. Most crime is easily avoided with some map planning and observational awareness.

Post-pandemic America, not unlike the rest of the world, has come out of the chaos with more wildly swinging chaos. It’s true that violent crime is trending up and people have lost their minds. What we can’t do is project our fear of possible discomfort on our neighbors. Most of them just want the same as we all do, a safe place to live as we please. A disarming smile or wave go a long way. Be the local that informs those blocking the sidewalk to take a picture in front of their Airbnb that Dixie Chili in Newport is where they want to get their cheese coneys, and the first round is on me at The Southgate House Revival if they’d like to check out some excellent local music.

I learned something while on the road. State Shapes: The easier it is draw, the harder it is to live in them. So if you live in a regular polygon, then get the hell out! You gotta move to a squiggly area. Culture is attracted to squiggles. ~Demetri Martin

Lists and numbers and statistics aren’t concrete, the data can be manipulated and presented in a way to produce just about any outcome desired. Nashua, New Hampshire sits near the top of many of the “safest city” lists I found. Not picking on you here, Nashua, but the top things to do included “hike the river trail,” “hike the other river trail,” “go to the park,” and “visit the public library.” If this sounds like your dream trip, book it now – but I think I am busy the night you’re presenting the vacation slideshow.

Fellow top-of-the-safe-list Burlington, Vermont has seen a 500% increase in homicides this year. That number does not reflect that they averaged only one per year for the last decade. Nor does it tell you that only one of this year’s killings was statistically a threat to the general public. People feel unsafe when they only read the headlines and those headlines are created to make you feel unsafe. Fear grabs attention, and attention sells ads.

If you want to see where the idea of this country was first debated, where people put their lives on the line to form this place we all live, or where the factories turned out the products that made this place great, or eat the food coming from the kitchen it was dreamed up in, or the place that birthed the soundtrack that played in those places – you might find yourself rubbing up against some lively neighborhoods.

Nothing is happening in Burlington, Vermont that will cause enough friction to spawn the next movement in American music. Now if you want to snack on some world-class cheddar while meandering pastoral scenes on the way to visiting Robert Frost’s grave, Burlington is waiting (and a trip I highly recommend).

The point is there’s space for us all, in all our comfort zones. But don’t miss out on some amazing locales because you read on the internet that the boogieman is lurking behind the airbrushed t-shirt stand, ready to steal your children. History and culture and excitement come with a sidecar of opportunistic jerks. Don’t let them ruin your plans.

There’s a reason the “most dangerous” list doesn’t need State specifiers to convey their locations. We all know them, they are iconic and for good reason. Now go make plans to see them before the carpetbaggers get in there and cover them all up with overpriced franchise grocery stores. Take your children, teach them that wallets go in front pockets and sidewalks are single file.

Pick any direction and and start exploring if you don’t know what you are looking for. Read every historic marker and pull over for every brown expressway sign on your path. Trails, museums, battlefields, famous people’s houses, restaurants, and cemeteries abound. Tip your bar tender and ask them where to go next. Cover your refrigerator in magnets and photos.

Come home more tired than when you left, the true measure of a good trip.