Kelly Alley Headshot

There’s nothing I enjoy more about traveling than the actual journey itself.

It’s one of my greatest weaknesses and probably a topic I’ve written about before, but gosh dang it the traveling to the destination is the best part of any trip.

Why do I say that? Well, when you’re driving to get where you’re going — full stop the best way to travel — you get to really take in all the sights and odd quirks of the places you ramble through. This especially true if you jump off the interstate and cruise along state routes, passing through all the neat small towns.

Those small towns make the American travel experience something really special. It’s feeling something you can’t really get by flying.

Seeing red dirt roads crisscrossing the land of the Southeast, miles upon miles of perfect corn fields in the Midwest, snow-capped peaks reaching to the heavens on the horizon as fields of hardy grasses whiz by your windows out in the West. They’re chef’s kiss moments of awe that’ll pass by you if you’re not careful.

It’s something about the small towns that make me stop and think, though.

These towns are generally idyllic, sleepy-looking places no matter what day of the week, no matter what time of day. They’re places that have a combination post office/gas station/convenience store, and they’re right proud of them too.

As much as I love these places, there’s something slightly unnerving, something slightly bittersweet about passing through many of those rural small towns. Oddly enough, it’s the same feeling I get no matter which region of the country I’m in.

Passing through the logging communities in southern Alabama recently, I started thinking about how unglamorous these glamorized places really are. It gives me a cold shiver. I acknowledge that I’m privileged, but not terribly so — I hope. Yet I can’t help but feel a little sheepish as my eyes soak in the landscape of these largely hard working, resource mining-based places.

I get a sinking knot of guilt in my gut passing through the muscles and bones spots of America, always afraid I’m gawking at other’s folks’ conditions. Those south Alabama logging towns have the same feel, the same vibe as the coal mining towns in eastern Kentucky, the agricultural towns in southern California, the fishing towns in the Northeast and Northwest.

So here’s to the liminal, aesthetically pleasing (yet disconcerting) small towns of America and the hardworking folks who call them home. Y’all give me a healthy dose of humbleness and inspiration at the same time, and for that I can’t say “thank you” enough.

Happy traveling, and stay healthy out there.

Kelly Alley is a graduate student at UT this year in the School of Journalism. She can be reached at kalley2@vols.utk.edu

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