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40 States in 40 Days? An 'A' for Effort.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On June 6, 10 college students, two professors and one sleeper bus departed Belmont University in Nashville for the ultimate field trip: 40 states in 40 days. But this was no summer vacation: Homework assignments included 30 blogs each and post-trip papers for the students' travel-writing and sociology courses. We caught up with professor Ken Spring, junior Emma Shouse and senior Heather Gillespie in Washington -- or as they called it, Day 35. (For the itinerary, student bios and blogs, and more, see http://www.belmont.edu/40states.)

-- Andrea Sachs

How did the trip come about?

Spring: I was having a conversation with a colleague about how after college, we backpacked across Europe and how it seems that a lot of college students still do that today but don't explore their own country. Through these conversations, we brainstormed about taking students on a tour bus in the United States, stopping at historic points of interest, cultural points of interest and economic points of interest. We would spend a solid day exploring these places and seeing how they fit in with the American landscape and the American identity.

How did you choose the locations?

Spring: I made a list of all of the places that I thought were important historically, culturally and economically, and then pieced it together to fit into our map. In January, we had the students start researching the places beyond what the chambers of commerce were saying.

Which cities were you most surprised by?

Gillespie: We didn't really know what to expect in Little Rock, but one of our favorite museums and favorite days was there. We went to the Little Rock Central High School [site of a confrontation over school desegregation in 1957] and had a really cool experience with the exhibit and talking with the two guides who worked at the national site. Salt Lake City was a huge surprise for a lot of us, too. We did the typical tourist thing, the Mormon Temple tour, but on the spur of the moment, we attended [a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] film festival. It was a really interesting counterpoint to the larger Mormon culture.

Did you witness signs of the country's recession?

Gillespie: Detroit has obviously been hit hard by the automotive industry, and we saw house after house where the people had just walked away from them because they couldn't even afford to sell them. In Vegas, we sat down with the vice president of marketing for the tourism bureau, and he talked about how when you walk into some of the bigger casinos like Bellagio, you see a different crowd of people than expected. These establishments have had to drop their costs to bring in more tourists.

How were the days structured?

Spring: We've been putting in about 14- to 16-hour days. We typically do four or five stops at each place, and that includes lunches, dinners and points of interest. Our students will go and talk to locals and ask them a series of questions. One of the things we are asking is, "What does it mean to be an American and what unites us as a people?"

What were some of the responses?

Shouse: We went to a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and when we asked them, "What does it mean to be an American?" they said, "We are not American, we are Navajo." I think you can take that as them trying to separate themselves, but that's not really what we found after spending the entire day with a [Navajo] family. Even though they embrace their own culture and have fairly strong feelings toward the history of the American government and how they've been treated, they want to be united with all of the people who live in this land.

Gillespie: In Little Rock, I think the guide's answer has been a theme for us. She said America is sometimes like your mother. Sometimes you hate her so much and are so angry at her, but she's your mother, she gave birth to you, and you really have to love her and respect her because of that. I feel that I am becoming more patriotic because of this trip.

What other observations did you make about our countrymen?

Spring: Across the country, we found a lot of hope and spirit among the American people. For the students, this has given them a little more confidence in their country.

Let's talk food. Did you eat local or have to resort to drive-through?

Gillespie: We've learned more just in breaking bread with people than we have at some of the museums. In Little Rock, we went to a meat-and-three restaurant that was probably the best food we had on the entire trip. Emma and I went to Little Italy in Boston and tried out this random little Italian place that had amazing food.

Shouse: I don't think I've had a bad meal, honestly.

Gillespie: We did have a rough dessert experience outside the Redwood forest [in Northern California].

Shouse: I think they got salt mixed up with sugar.

Gillespie: Those are the experiences I will carry with me a lot more than had we eaten at an Applebee's.

The bus doesn't have showers. How did you manage?

Gillespie: Before we left on the trip, we called universities around the country and asked them if we could use their gym facilities and showers. They have all been very generous. I think the longest we've gone without showers has been four days, and that was because of a last-minute cancellation.

What happens after you get off the bus for the very last time?

Shouse: Shower, sleep, then write papers.

Any interest in a Belmont U. Adventure, Part II?

Gillespie: The reunion tour is going to be the 10 states we didn't see. Ten states in 10 days.

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