While traveling the country in the summer of 2015, I published a bit on my travel blog about my first night on the road, when I stayed in a motel room in West Virginia that contained not a single trashcan. I knew it was merely a trivial oversight on the part of the motel cleaning staff, an odd thing to even notice, but the missing trashcan plagued my mind every day thereafter and deeply bothered me for reasons I could never explain. NO TRASHCAN. Not even in the bathroom! I was obsessed. When I first discovered the room’s lack of a waste receptacle, I was acutely annoyed because I had intended to clip my toe-claws that night and suddenly felt unable to do so. But so what? A rational person would have just clipped them at the next stopping point and moved on.
But I couldn’t forget it. I ruminated on it for at least eight consecutive minutes out of every subsequent leg of the trip. I mentioned it to a traveling businessman at a bar in Salt Lake City two weeks later, and he looked at me as if I had three heads for even remembering such a peculiar detail. In the months since I returned home, my thoughts of the bin-less room have grown increasingly sporadic (although I did once mention it during a hotel job interview as a meek testament to my attention to detail and customer service. I didn’t get the job.) Four months after the incident, I had an epiphany about my strangely prolonged irritation with that room. It is not, by any means, the most flattering realization I’ve ever had about myself, but it came as a relief nonetheless.
Nicknamed the Mountain State, West Virginia boasts some of the most picturesque scenery I have seen anywhere in the country. Curvy roads wind up and down lush hillsides; high-altitude cliffs look out over miles of green foliage drenched in sunshine. One understands why ancient Greeks believed the gods to live atop a mountain. It is impossible not to marvel at the natural beauty of it all.
The humans of West Virginia, however, are a different story. Outside the capital of Charleston (which is actually a lovely city), I saw less than a handful of people who were neither obese nor appeared addicted to meth. West Virginians pair white wife-beaters (a term I suddenly understood with alarming clarity) with oversized, hot pink sweatpants to visit the dollar store for cheap beer and beef jerky. They evoke images of spaghetti-stained carpets and dried-up markers without caps hidden in the far corners of living rooms with garish trinkets. The small towns inhabited by humans are uniformly eyesores, too – roads littered with cigarette butts, neon signs half-lit. The place reeked of a repulsive human imposition on an otherwise natural beauty. I was appalled at what these humans had done to such an illustrious backdrop.
Meanwhile, my own little space in the world, the life I’d temporarily abandoned for this trip, was every bit as much a mess as the towns of West Virginia. My home was furnished with whatever free garbage I happened to come across: a beige, holey couch handed down from my sister, a blue sofa with no legs acquired from behind a dumpster, two ugly pink chairs that came with a red table I barely used, and a concrete parking lot outside my window. Stylistically, my home was no cozier than a West Virginian town, which was the whole reason I felt the need to escape it in the first place.
I told myself that my home looked that way because I lacked finances, not style, and that I’d decorate if I had more money. It was a bullshit excuse – I was just lazy and apathetic. But for the people of West Virginia, it actually was the reason. According to the Center on Budget and Policy, West Virginia has the tenth-highest poverty rate in the nation. One-third of children under age 5 lived in poverty in 2013, a fact which makes my heart ache to even write. They weren’t failing to preserve their environment – I was. They were doing the best they could with what they had, and I wasn’t. That night in the motel room, the absence of a trashcan bothered me because it forced me to leave my road-trip garbage out on the countertops, making a (quite literally) trashy footprint on a previously sterile room. It forced me to become a West Virginian, someone with few other options. It knocked me down several notches to an uncomfortable level of humility.
Almost a year after returning from my travels, I made the radical life changes my spirit craved for so long. I moved out of the house I had never bothered to make a home, and I built a new nest from the ground up. My new home features colorful wall art that makes me want to play music every day, huge second-floor windows that make me want to practice yoga in the natural light, and tree-canopied yards that allow me to sit still in peace. That gnawing urge to escape is long gone.
I finally learned the lessons West Virginia tried to teach me: Preserve yourself so that you enjoy living in your own skin, so that you feel like a positive addition to your environment, rather than an imposition. And preserve your natural habitat so that you want to be home. Plenty of less fortunate people would be grateful to live where you do, so make the very most of it. I often wonder if it’s a coincidence that birds have a primal instinct to nest, and they can fly. Birds have the freedom to go anywhere at any time, but first they invest time and effort into building a comfortable home to return to. When their nests become unlivable for whatever reason, birds don’t constantly fly away to other nests and reluctantly come back– they simply build a new one where they can stay. True freedom isn’t the ability to leave – it’s the ability to just be. My trip may have ended long ago, but every day, thousands of other gypsies are wandering through your home state – what will they see?