There are certain sounds that will forever pull me back to the passenger seat of my parents’ truck, like a magnet clicking me into place. Windows cracked as a cigarette burns in my mother’s left hand, dark roads ahead. The seat changes — from our old Ford pickup we drove down the East Coast every spring to the black GMC that made it from New York to Wyoming in 38 hours — but the soundtrack still kicks me back next to Mom, with the whole world ahead of us. My sister and my father would be asleep behind us, waiting for Dad’s shift at the wheel, and my sister’s as co-pilot.

All I need is the opening chords of that one, particular Simon & Garfunkel song from my parents’ generation. Then comes the crescendo and I can still hear my mother’s raspy voice joining in for what I always suspected was her favorite line: “I’ve gone to look for America.” Even now, when I sing it to myself, she is as alive as my dreams to fulfill her plea in that song: The quest to look for — to see, to hear and to know — this expansive country. 

I grew up in a small town. (Another lyric, actually, from another song that always brings a memory of my parents behind a steering wheel.) And I loved the way you could learn every inch of it. I knew where the roads were about to dip beneath my bike wheels. I knew where the poison ivy would creep along the stonewalls. Where the fireflies gathered at dusk. I knew the name of every kid I went to school with, having all stuck together from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

But I was a straight-haired kid who wanted curls. A chubby-cheeked child who’d consider trading a limb to be skinnier. I wanted what I didn’t have, so I wanted to see places I could only dream of. I wanted, of course, to look for America. 

I’m finding it. 

The Menominee Lighthouse sits on the eastern bank of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
The Menominee Lighthouse sits on the eastern bank of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, just a few hundred yards north of the Wisconsin state line, Sunday, June 25, 2023, Menominee, Michigan. (Maggie Gordon / Houston Landing)

Over the past decade or so, I’ve made it a mission to visit all 50 states. And last week, I finally checked off states 47, 48 and 49 — Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively. All that’s left is Alaska. 

But it hit me the other night, as I was laying in a tent along the southern bank of Lake Superior, listening to what sounded like oceanic waves crash against a flat-rock beach in a whooshing, rhythmic, lull: This was one more track in the sea-to-shining sea soundtrack I’ve curated as I’ve visited every corner of the continental U.S. 

I know they say there’s no sense more powerful than scent to tie us to a memory. That’s true, in so many cases. The scent of a wood stove always brings me back to my family’s living room. Baby oil reminds me of my mother, as she lathered up her legs before spending hours on the tractor, turning tall grass into hay bales. My husband’s cologne — worn so sparingly these days — instantly transports me to our earliest dates. There is comfort in smells.

But for me, it’s these auditory details that have forever crystallized my memories during my crisscross-country adventure. 

Hike along the escarpment over Lake of the Clouds in Michigan's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
The view during Maggie Gordon’s hike along the escarpment over Lake of the Clouds in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Friday, June 23, 2023, near Lake Superior, Michigan. (Maggie Gordon / Houston Landing)

It was August 2015, when I laid supine in a similar tent, staring at the fly I’d hastily affixed to the roof ahead of a surprise (to me at least) rain storm at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I’d spent the previous day on the back of a donkey, traversing the winding road down into the canyon, watching as the ecosystems shifted along with the altitude. But after sunset came the storm. I saw the lightning at about the same instant I heard the thunder, and was momentarily terrified. 

But then I heard something I’ll never forget — a new definition of a term I’d read in countless books and assumed I understood, until I heard it myself and realized it meant so much more than its 14 letters could ever convey. 

Rolling thunder.

The boom started somewhere behind me. It went down into the canyon. Then it pinged off a wall. Then to the other. Back to the first. It echoed and expanded until it sounded like a heartbeat, all round-edged thub dubs. I went from mentally recounting a ranger talk from earlier in the week, during which I’d learned the safety risks that come with the 25,000 lightning strikes recorded at the North Rim each year, to slack-jawed awe. It was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. And even now, when I close my eyes, and reset myself to that moment, all I feel is wonder. 

I’ve learned — over the thousands of miles driven, hundreds of miles hiked, dozens of nights in faded Coleman tents and handfuls in hotel rooms — that learning America means listening to her. 

In Arizona, that meant finding stillness in a thunderstorm. 

In Oregon, I listened as a park ranger walked a group of hikers and me around the rim of Crater Lake, sharing indigenous stories about the volcanic eruption that led to the formation of the bluest lake I’ve ever seen. 

In Washington, another term I’d long known — babbling brook — redefined itself as I leaned over my tiptoes along the edge of a stream, listening to the plink-plop of salmon jumping upstream.

I’ve heard campfire stories. Guided distillery tours. Buffalo hooves pounding prairie grass. Luau drums. 

I have learned that the moments that become memories are often found in the periphery; they eclipse the ones on brochure covers, and enlighten me in ways I didn’t realize I was searching to be enlightened. 

As I laid in my tent the other night, those lapping Michigan waves hitting the shore like their own second-act reprise of the Arizona thunder, my heart sank for a second. “I have seen,” I whispered to myself, “the continental U.S.”

Maggie Gordon holds an umbrella during a rainy hike along the southern shore of Lake Superior
Maggie Gordon holds an umbrella during a rainy hike along the southern shore of Lake Superior, Saturday, June 24, 2023, in Marquette, Michigan. (Maggie Gordon / Houston Landing)

While I’m still awaiting my big Alaska trip (hard to plan, with a 1-year-old and all), checking off the last of the continental states hit me harder than I thought it would. I felt like I had reached the end of a journey that had always felt like a far-away dream. 

What do you do when a wide-horizon list of things to do is nearing its end? How do you continue looking for America when you feel like you’ve already found so much of it?

I guess you just keep listening. Waiting for the sounds you’ve heard to build upon themselves, gathering like the layers of the snowballs I’ve tossed in Vermont until — like that Arizona thunder — they take on new shapes and depths so unexpected that you can’t help but redefine what you thought you already knew. 

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...