As I’m sure was the case for many, one of the great summer staples of my childhood was the family car trip. Each year, typically around mid-July, we would load up whatever ride was currently serving as the family truckster, leave Atlanta, and drive the 800-or-so miles northward through the Appalachians to the charming anthracite-stained hamlet of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania — home to my grandmother and approximately 43,000 other people — at least 39,000 of whom I am ostensibly related to.
This drive, as I remember it, was something short of thrilling, but it did, nonetheless, have its high points. And there were none higher than those rarified moments when we rolled across a state line. There was the momentarily tangible sense of progress, the excitement of broaching a new frontier, the butterscotch candies we received for our efforts at every such crossing. And, less significantly, but still inextricably a part of it all, were the large, squarish, colored metal signs that greeted a person at the entrance to each border.
“Welcome to North Carolina” … “A Better Place to Be”
“Maryland”… “More Than You Can Imagine”
What, exactly, I wondered then, and still occasionally, on particularly sleepless nights, wonder today, did these phrases mean?
What was it about West Virginia that made it both “Wild” and “Wonderful”? Why was it that in Tennessee “The Stage” was “Set for You”? What was it about Virginia, precisely, that made the state so great “For Lovers”?
I don’t pretend to know the answers, but these are, I think, questions worth asking. And so, in the spirit of road trips past, indulge me, if you would, in this — a modest exegesis.
Before adopting its current slogan, “So Much to Discover,” the great state of Ohio rolled with the seemingly reasonable tagline, “Ohio, The Heart Of It All.” Strategically located, heavily populated, home to eight presidents and Alex P. Keaton, a case could be made for the state’s centrality. Perusing the website of the Ohio Historical Society, however, one learns that this wasn’t exactly what the phrase’s coiners had in mind. No, assuming that the site’s explanation can be trusted, the “heart” in question was not so much a metaphor as a physical descriptor. After all, Ohio, as the site claims with no apparent trace of irony, “roughly resembles a heart in shape” and so, as logic would quite naturally dictate, must, in fact be “The Heart Of it All.” Such reasoning, I believe we all can agree, is at once both patently insane and more than a little charming. And that, I would argue, is largely the point.
At any rate, at least Ohio tried. If nothing else, it made a good faith effort. Not everybody does. “Visit Florida”? “Explore Minnesota”? “Enjoy Indiana”? What, exactly, happened with these places? Did everyone just come into work hungover on slogan day? Were their tourism boards all paying by the word?
Similarly terse, but infinitely sadder, is Idaho, the state with perhaps the most depressing slogan of all time — “Great Potatoes.” It’s the sort of thing Beckett would have come up with had he gone into the jingle business. Even better, by which of course I mean bleaker, is the fact that this slogan was devised as an improvement on the state’s previous catchphrase: “Famous Potatoes.” To be honest I can’t really understand why they bothered, but I hope it’s working out all the same.
From the soul-crushingly banal, then, to the impossibly deluded and laughably grandiose. In other words, North Dakota. “Legendary,” goes the state’s official pick-up line. What legends it’s meant to refer to I have absolutely no idea. Connecticut’s similarly manages to mystify. “Full of Surprises,” it promises breathlessly. As anyone who’s been through Hartford can tell you, this is almost certainly not true.
In a similar vein, there’s Rhode Island, quite possibly the only state to rock a slogan with a semicolon. “Unwind; Hope,” it suggests. The former, perhaps. The latter, I dunno. Can Providence really unlock the potential of the human heart? I mean, Sedona, maybe — but Providence?
And then there’s our winner of the “Incredibly Obtuse Reference to a Tragic Chapter Of Our Nation’s Past in a Hopelessly Misguided Bid For Tourist Dollars” award. Congrats to Oklahoma and its slogan, “Native America.” You see, as you might know, Oklahoma has a large Native American population, a fact that seems a fine thing to celebrate — until, that is, you remember from your fifth-grade history books that the reason for this large Native American population is that round about 1838 or so, these tribes were moved out to Oklahoma at gunpoint on an 800-mile forced march compliments of the federal government. It’s as if, say, Alabama had decided on “Lynch-a-licious” as its state slogan. Not that you should sweep these things under the rug, but are they really what you want to have plastered on your license plates? (By the way, Alabama’s state slogan is not, in fact, “Lynch-a-licious”. It is, “Share the Wonder”. What “wonder”, exactly, this is meant to refer to, I am not entirely sure.)
Which is not, of course, to say that everyone botches the thing. Some spots, I think, have managed to do a decent enough job. Colorado, for example, with the double- (triple?) entendrous (yes, I know entendrous isn’t a word) “Enter a Higher State.” Or Montana — “Big Sky Country” — catchy, simple, and true. Or — and I will no doubt be accused by some of a home-state bias here, but whatever — “Georgia On My Mind”. A person, after all, can never go wrong with Hoagy Carmichael.
And then, of course, there is Texas. Sweet, excitable, slightly deranged Texas. “It’s Like a Whole Other Country” the state proudly maintains. And this, too, is, I think, exactly right. As most any Texan will proudly tell you, there’s no other place out there quite like the Lone Star State. And let me be the first, I if may, to say thank God for that.