I was at a protest in Columbus, Georgia, with my older sister, and we were trying to get back to our hotel. I got lost, turned left, and was suddenly in Alabama. I’d known Columbus sat right on the state border, but I hadn’t known this bridge was involved. I did a U-turn, and within three minutes we were back in the great state of Georgia.
“Well,” I said, “guess I can check Alabama off my list.”
“No you can’t, Matt,” she said. “Taking a wrong turn into a state doesn’t count as having been to the state.”
“But I was physically in it!”
“Did you step out of the car?”
“No, but — ”
“You never set foot on Alabaman soil. You weren’t in Alabama.”
“But what if I’d driven across the entire state and had never gotten out of my car? Would that have counted?”
She paused. “Well, you didn’t do that. So you haven’t been to Alabama.”
I’ve since learned this debate’s been had by every traveler I’ve ever known, and that absolutely no one has the same set of rules. My rule is that if I’m physically in a state or country and am either touching the ground or in a vehicle that’s touching the ground, then I’ve been in that state or country — unless I’m in the airport for a flight connection and at no point walk outside of security. So while I’ve been to the Cologne Airport, I’ve never been to Germany.
“That’s ridiculous,” my fiancee says, “You’ve been in the country.”
“Airports are the same everywhere,” I say. “The Hofbrauhaus in Northern Kentucky is closer to being in Germany than the Cologne Airport is.”
My fiancee’s rule is a little different from mine: She has to spend a night in the place in order for it to count. This means that while she’s lived in DC for eight years and has driven home approximately once a month to see her family in New Jersey, every single time spending 10 minutes to an hour caught in traffic in that little northern sliver of Delaware, she’s never actually been to Delaware.
I mean, I can’t blame her. I’m never gonna spend an entire night of my short, precious life in Delaware, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to take credit for being there.
A friend of mine says you have to eat a meal in the state, but I don’t think this is any better. You can get a Big Mac at a rest stop and say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been to Nebraska.” He counters by specifying you have to go to a local restaurant, which is also ludicrous. What if I happen to have a deathly serious hankering for a Bloomin’ Onion, but I’ve never been to Iowa before? Must I ignore my body’s needs in order to be in a place? Are the soggy onion rings at Flo’s Diner in Des Moines the penance I have to pay to have “been” somewhere?
Another friend: “You have to have at least one interaction with the locals.” So if I’m driving at 3am through a small West Virginia town and stop to get gas, I’m obligated to call the poor sleeping attendant out of the booth to pump my gas for me so I can have my local flavor? How demeaning is that?
I reject that philosophy. I’ve been to Vatican City. I’ve stood in the Sistine Chapel. But there are slightly fewer than 800 people living in Vatican City, mostly Catholic officials. They don’t hang out in the Sistine Chapel and chat it up with young apostates. In fact, I don’t believe I spoke to a single person outside of my tour group — led by a Scotsman, not a Vaticanite — for the entire time I was in the City. Have I not been to Vatican City, despite standing in St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, soaking up their wonder?
My dad has the simplest solution, and that’s if you’ve physically been in the state or country — asleep or awake, on a plane, on a train, in a car, for two seconds or two years — you’ve been there. And while that seems like it’s probably the most reasonable measurement, I always secretly wonder if he chose that rule so he could count that connection in Little Rock and never have to go back to Arkansas.