LOCAL TAKES OFF INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER

Paula Londe (right) poses with one of her many new friends, this one met at the Tomato Festival in Pennsylvania.

Paula Londe had always dreamed of revving up an old Chevy and taking a road trip across America. It was on Feb. 6, 2012 that Londe decided it was the right time to brave the wide-open roads of America in hopes of adventure and fun; her family and friends wished her well, that she should have a safe trip to her destination and back.

It wasn’t until later Londe told anyone that she had quit her good marketing job, sold her house, bought a camper and had no intensions of returning to Atlanta until she visited all 50 states.

“Something deep inside my soul told me that now was the time to travel,” she said. “I always thought that traveling was a future retirement dream, but I just had to do it now.”

For more than five months, Londe has been on the road, and what she has discovered about America has been – in her own words – “breath-giving.” She has created a picturesque blog in hopes to inspire more people to disconnect from their hectic lives, travel and discover the beauty of the American land and people.

Specifically, that beauty which is not in the hustle and bustle of the big cities, but in the stillness and quaintness of small towns and counties.

For the Heart of It, Check Out the Festivals

The first thing Londe does every morning before she leaves her camper is to say the Tefilat HaDerech.

“Every morning, I say the Traveler’s Prayer,” she said. “It helps me start each day.”

Then Londe eagerly starts to explore the essence of a place by skipping the big cities in favor of the little towns and scenic byways.

“The best way to really experience a region is to visit flea markets, parades, fairs and especially festivals,” she said. “You get to see how the local people have celebrated local traditions for generations and generations.”

A good county festival, she says, has a contest, good food, local talent and a parade, and all of these events allow the locals to celebrate their culture and history.

Londe’s blog showcases bright, bold pictures of locals and visitors eating watermelons at the Watermelon Eating Contest in Water Valley, Miss. Since the Great Depression, the locals have lifted each other’s spirits by participating in this and other farcical events like the Watermelon Seed Spitting Contest.

Bright yellow stacks of cornbread made from old family recipes are displayed at the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, Tenn. Since 1985, kids have dived into pools of grits at the World Grits Festival in Saint George, S.C.

Musicians gleefully play their instruments to appreciative crowds at the Georgia Mountain Roots and Music Festival, and colorful vegetables are heaped on mounds of hay by famers who proudly display their seasonal bounty of agriculture for all to see.

“The one thing I love about visiting all of the festivals and fairs is seeing where our food comes from,” Londe said, then laughed. “Every festival seems to have corn or some corn-shucking contest. Every state I’ve visited so far has cornfields. I didn’t realize how much corn was produced in America.”

Our intrepid traveler also notes that some of the roadside art museums rival the museums of the big cities. For instance, Londe was amazed when she visited Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden in Philadelphia’s South Street neighborhood: This impressive, color-filled mosaic space has helped revitalize what was once a dull, dilapidated and dangerous neighborhood.

Learning the Way of the Land

Londe confesses that she regrets not traveling sooner. She laments that it has taken her all of these years to discover that the song “America the Beautiful” really is accurate.

“Some mountains really are purple at dusk,” she said. “In Delaware, the skies are really so wide-open and huge that it seems like the land disappears into the sky.”

Although Londe is traveling alone, she feels at one with her surroundings and has no fear when she sees the thunderous beauty of Bushkill Falls in Pennsylvania or watches the wild horses rump around Cumberland Island in Georgia. Of course, some stand out.

“The Crayola Factory in Easton, Penn., is a fabulous place,” she said. “It brought out my inner child. I stayed almost the entire day just coloring and painting; I just relaxed and had a great time.

“I saw how crayons were made and saw the world’s biggest crayon, and everything was made in the U.S.A.”

Londe’s father insisted that she visited Gettysburg, Penn., site of the storied eponymous battle.

“[The Battle at] Gettysburg was the turning point of the war,” Londe said. “I learned how local people had to bury all the dead men of Gettysburg and that it was the first town to ask for government assistance. I could feel the sorrow of the place and how important this battle was to our country.”

Another thing that Londe has discovered on her travels is the great community of campers, people she considers the “modern-day Horatio Nelsons of America.” Now a part of this community herself, she – upon stopping for the day – pays a fee at a camp site, where she can connect her camper to electricity, sewage and water.

She’s happy to report that the old American spirit of taking care of each other, living off the land and boldly facing the challenges that each new day brings is really alive among the campers.

“One day, I stayed in my camper the entire day writing,” Londe said. “One of the campers came by to make sure that I was still alive. It was a great feeling knowing that people still cared for each other despite all of the violence all around the nation.”

Another camper showed Londe how to properly use jacks and stabilizers for her camper, another helped her align her camper to her SUV, and yet another said a prayer for her, wishing her traveling mercies.

“The campers know every crook of every place,” she said. “They tell me the places to avoid and the places to go to.”

Only 41 to Go

So far, Londe has visited nine states: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. When people ask Londe what she’s going to do next, she simply responds that she is “living in the moment.”

Her two goals for now are to finish seeing all 50 states and to become a writer. Her blog – which she updates weekly – is already impressive, and she encourages people to peruse and click the subscribe button to get updates of her daily travels.

“Many people have started following my blog,” Londe smiled. “It’s so exciting to see people sharing their ideas and opinions about the places that they’ve visited.”

Still, she hopes more Americans will take it upon themselves to discover what’s in their own backyards; Old World Europe may be gorgeous, but America has a timeless beauty that still inspires a nation of dreamers; as Londe now knows, it is in every small town, hamlet and by-way.

Editor’s note: Tiffany Parks is an English instructor at Gwinnett Technical College. She earned a master’s degree in English education at Georgia State University and enjoys writing.

By Tiffany Parks
AJT Columnist