Marlboro, Vt. – Writers have been scouring the backroads in search of America for centuries.

In 1831, Alexis De Toqueville spent nine months touring the young United States. His attempt to explain Americans to Europeans is still studied. Mark Twain was a travel writer as well as a novelist – and no one better captured the American character. Jack Kerouac went “On the Road” in the 1950s, exploring the inner landscape of his generation as much as the scenery he passed through. In 1960, John Steinbeck took to the highway with an aging dog named Charly. His observations of a countryside evolving from dusty rural villages to suburbs ringed by superhighways betray a keen eye and warm heart.

Thousands of books have been written from the American road. Millions of other writers have chronicled their travels through letters, diaries and, more recently, in blog posts. When we visit places we’ve never been, we feel compelled to describe them. We do it to share our journey with friends back home, to preserve our memories and to try to weave new images and experiences into to some larger tapestry.

The most serious travelers are intentional tourists. They travel to pursue specific interests – in my case, it’s history, botany, music and good food - and to broaden their horizons. They are drawn to places they’ve always dreamed of visiting and places they’ve never known existed. They hit the road looking for more than what’s in the travel brochures. They look for context, for meaning, for answers to big questions about the state of our nation.

I do not presume to place myself in the company of great writers like Steinbeck and Twain. But in my current foray into intentional tourism, I’ve become familiar with a few lessons of use to travel writers whatever their aspirations.

First, resist broad generalizations. The United States is a very large country, and every place in it has a slightly different story to tell.

Consider Vermont, a favorite stop on my journey. The landscape of the Green Mountains is reminiscent of the Blue Ridge in Virginia and North Carolina. The economic desperation facing some families along Vermont’s winding roads is as deep as you’ll find in Appalachia, and the winters are longer and colder. The cultures are similar, but the politics are very different. Just ask Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn native who is Vermont’s gift to contemporary politics.

Second, respect the people you meet enough to treat them as individuals, not representatives of some regional stereotype. And understand that they aren’t likely to reveal all their thoughts to a stranger passing through.

Consider Julius Gibson – everyone calls him “Buddy,” he says – who I met in an Alabama campground. He’s proud of his 42-foot fifth-wheel trailer, and of the 30-lb. blue catfish he had just wrestled into his boat. But when he talks about growing up in the Deep South during the Civil Rights struggle, he lowers his voice. He speaks wistfully and with great caution, using pauses and roundabout sentences to avoid using words like race, protest, or violence.

“I was just a kid back then, and not that involved,” he says. “We never thought about it when I was young. We all played together and didn’t say nothing about it.”

Listen carefully, and don’t assume anyone speaks for “real Americans.” We are all real Americans.

Watch out for politics, even if, like me, it’s one of your central concerns. Step out of your media echo chamber. Don’t let the noise of politics, so much of it contrived, keep you from hearing the voices of individuals. Don’t let the things that divide us blind you to the qualities and concerns that bind us together.

Intentional tourists should let accidents happen. If you rely on tourist brochures and the GPS app determine your itinerary, you’ll be following someone else’s journey, not your own. Sometimes you’ll find the most interesting places when you get lost.

Finally, be humble about what you know and don’t know.

“I’ve always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinion, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map.” Steinbeck wrote.
“I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.”
So be an intentional tourist. Take to the road and make it your own.

— Rick Holmes can be reached at rick@rickholmes.net. You can follow his journey at www.rickholmes.net. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.