Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo Texas

Majestic mountains, luscious forests, towering rock formations, a brilliant yellow sun, a magnificent thunder storm; the diversity astounded me. With every passing mile, a new scene erupted into view, each entirely unique yet just as stunning as the last. And all of this in our own backyard.

SEMI-FINALIST 2015 FTF TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP

I’ve always been intrigued by the exotic, longing to travel to distant countries and experience other cultures. But I forget how much there is right here in our fifty states. Driving from California to Illinois and back gave me a keen insight as to what our country has to offer; and I tell you, it is breathtaking.

Branson, Missouri

As I lay atop my sleeping bag – for it was too warm to be inside of it – I heard the thunder that shook the earth with its reverberations and watched the blinding flashes of white light through the rain-soaked material at the top of the tent. Listening to the wind pound on the flexible fabric of our makeshift home, I closed my eyes and recounted the events of the past few weeks.

I remembered running through grassy fields in Oklahoma at dusk, cautiously following the lighted trail of a fire fly before capturing it; I turned to see the my cousin’s silhouette doing the same. Later, we sat in our campsite watching the rather ugly bugs transform into awesome creatures by a simple flicker of yellow light.

I remembered the amusement at seeing ten Cadillacs standing with their noses stuck in the dirt, covered in graffiti twelve inches thick. The scent of the spray paint was strong from the moment we stepped out of the car into the Texas sun.

I remembered hiking down a dirt path in the side of an Arizona hill into a valley of history where hundreds of years prior there lived groups of Native Americans in these primitive yet impressive rock dwellings.

I remembered the wonder I felt as I learned about the nature of the universe in a Flagstaff observatory.

But little did I know what was still to come as I slept under that torrential downpour almost two thousand miles from home. After all, it was just half-way through our month-long trip; there was plenty more to experience.

I would see bursting fireworks from all directions throughout all of Chicago as I sat in awe on my aunt and uncle’s roof-deck on 4th of July.

I would stand before the chiseled faces of four great presidents whose deeds led them to be forever remembered in a huge mountain of rock, their lives and works displayed in the Rushmore monument in front of them.

I would trek through Montana’s Glacier Park over packed dirt under the shade of green trees, listening to the rushing water of a river until I emerged from the forest to see a perfect, clear lake, streams running to it from the snow-capped mountain above. On the other side, hidden from view, was the glacier that created the beauty.

I would be dwarfed by the massive trees soaring above us in magnificent towers of red bark that stood wider than our minivan.

I would continue along the California coast, enjoying the sound and sight of crashing waves with white foam covering the sand until it slowly dispersed into the blue.

And then I would be home.

I arrived astounded by everything I had seen, and with a new feeling of pride in the country I call my own. I still love to travel to distant areas, but I now have a certain, irreplaceable respect for what we have right around the corner.

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