S4, E1: Baratunde Thurston Wants to Tell a Better Story of Us
On this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, we talk with Baratunde Thurston, host of the PBS show America Outdoors, about the connection between nature and healing.
On the first episode of Travel Tales by AFAR—season four!—we sit down with the Emmy-nominated host of America Outdoors, Baratunde Thurston, to talk about his adrenaline-fueled adventures on the show, the way travel shaped him as a young kid in D.C., and how our relationship with the outdoors can heal us.
Baratunde Thurston, host of America Outdoors: Let me experiment with kind of an overview before I kind of dive deep. Cause then one story might take me afar.
Aislyn Greene, host of Travel Tales by AFAR: Nicely done, nicely done.
Baratunde: Do we do, do guests play a drinking game? Like if you say AFAR.
Aislyn: Um, well, we’re going to start that now. So if have any, like, vodka lying around, then go for it. I’ll do it too.
Aislyn: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that changed their life. And in this season, season four, we’re going to be hearing about a whirlwind Picasso art pilgrimage, what it’s like to eat your way through France, and how a blind surfer navigates new waves, and so much more.
Plus, I’m sitting down with each storyteller to talk about life’s big travel questions. Well, I’m not really sitting down with them, because I’m recording all this from my houseboat in Sausalito, but you know what I mean.
In this episode, get ready to be inspired by Baratunde Thurston. He is the Emmy-nominated host of the PBS show America Outdoors, which is fantastic. The show is now in its second season. And in fact, the very last episode of season two comes out on October 11th.
Now, Baratunde is one of those mesmerizing people who seems to have lived, like, 12 lives. I could have talked with him for hours, honestly. But for your sakes, I did not. Baratunde is a writer, a comedian, and an activist. He hosts the popular How to Citizen with Baratunde podcast, and he wrote a New York Times best-selling comedic memoir called How to Be Black. And he weaves all of that experience and those conversations together in America Outdoors, which he says looks to tell a better story of us.
Now this episode is a little different than usual, in that we’ll be spending more time in conversation with Baratunde, but he does share a formative travel tale at the end of the episode, so be sure to stick around for that. OK, let’s meet Baratunde.
Aislyn: Hi, Baratunde. Welcome to Travel Tales. How are you doing today?
Baratunde: Hello, Aislyn. I am doing very well. Thanks for asking. How are you?
Aislyn: Same. I cannot complain, really. Well, we are here today to talk about your journey through season two of America Outdoors. And I was hoping that you could tell me, in a nutshell what is America Outdoors?
Baratunde: America Outdoors is my PBS show. It is fully titled America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston. And I play the part of myself, Baratunde Thurston, so I’m that part of the title. And this is a show that explores Americans’ deep connection to nature. People who live, work, and interact in the outdoors.
And I often think of it as America (Long Pause) Outdoors. It’s really a people show about humans who are deeply in relationship with nature.
Aislyn: I love it. And it’s such a good show. I can’t wait to really get into it.
Baratunde: Thank you. Yeah.
Aislyn: In the intro, you say that you want to tell a better story of us. What do you mean by that?
Baratunde: Hmm. I think that stories shape our reality more than we often acknowledge. And like to think we live in, like, this objectively real world, but primarily we know the world through mediation, through story. We have an image of it presented by someone else.
So we inherit a story of the world and of our place in it. And, and who’s on top and who’s included versus excluded who belongs. And I think the story of us that we’ve been consuming of late is one of deep separation, division, incompetence, ugliness. And I think there is a better story possible for us.
Aislyn: And there is such a sense of unity and just joy, I felt like I was smiling in every episode, like this big smile, like, who are these amazing people that you found?
Baratunde: Yeah, good. It’s working. The drugs are working.
Aislyn: The drugs are working. You also talked about how our relationship with the outdoors defines us as individuals and as a nation. What would you say that relationship is at this moment in time?
Baratunde: Complicated. It’s complicated and it’s beautiful. Different ones of us have different relationships, you know. That, that story of us that has excluded so many of us in terms of who can even be American, who has a right to claim this place, is also tied up in relation to the land. That is part of our legacy and our current reality. So there’s, there is trauma, there, there is pain connected to that, and there is a deep sense of identity, in a positive sense.
You know, as I’ve traveled around making this show, people are proud of their natural resources, the way they’re proud of sports teams. They’re like, “You got to check out our river. You got to check out these manatees. You got to go out to these canyons. You got, have you been down to the fishing hole? Have you been to the? . . .” And there’s a deep pride in place. And as we increasingly attempt to live in the cloud, I feel an equal call to plant our feet firmly in the ground. And I’ve been excited to meet folks who are feeling that same tug downward, inward, and crafting a story of us that is not just a human one.
It’s a story of like, “This lake is a part of me,” if you’re the Klamath folk out in Oregon. Or, “This ridge is a part of me, or these hawks are a part of me, and a part of my sense of community.” And, uh, so I’ve encountered deep pride, deep identity, and through that folks feel a call to preserve and protect and and extend access to those of us with different abilities who may not always be physically welcome in these outdoors, or to those of us who aren’t yet here, who still would prefer, given all other options, to live on Earth, which is becoming increasingly difficult with climate change.
And so this relationship has a lot of ramifications. And I’ve really enjoyed exploring all that.
Aislyn: Do you find that the more that you kind of see these places and you connect with that sense of kind of pride and identity that your desire to help protect these places and preserve these places also increases?
Baratunde: 100 percent.
Baratunde: When I go to Salt Lake in our Utah episode, and I’m fat-pedal biking with climate scientist Ben Abbott, who feels called to protect this resource and this lake and this part of identity as a Mormon as a climate scientist. First of all, like, yo, complex. That’s complex. That’s beautiful. We’re not used to hearing that.
I feel called to protect that lake too. We’re biking where water used to be, where it’s supposed to be. I pulled up Google Maps and it thinks I’m in something that’s blue. And like, I’m not, I’m in something that’s very brown and a little toxic. Um, so yeah, I feel like I want to adopt that initiative. I want to scream from the rooftops what Ben shared with me: We’ve got five years before the Great Salt Lake is no longer the Great Salt Lake. It just becomes a historic fact and an artifact as opposed to a present fact.
So yeah, I feel motivated when I, when I go to Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia, I meet Reverend Antoine Nixon, different religious tradition, same calling, this religious calling to protect this swamp, which is holding so much carbon for us, which is providing drinking water to millions of people in the watershed in that North Florida area. I’m like, yeah, I’ve got to protect this swamp. Let’s go.
Aislyn: Absolutely. Well, I wanted to go back a little bit before we go forward. When and where did your relationship with nature begin?
Baratunde: My mom was a, you know, she, she rode a bicycle around as transit with my older sister, Belinda, and she always loved being out in the woods and in nature. So she wove in nature to my childhood in the form of the Boy Scouts and kind of enlisting me in that at a early age, in the form of activities, taking me and my friends out of our block situation, which was a deteriorating one through the ’80s, playing outside right there on the street was not advisable.
But we lived near Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., and so I would go there with my friends and my mom would organize these excursions and we would take—there’s beautiful bike paths in D.C. They go all the way past the airport out to Monticello. And so we were riding along Rock Creek. We’re hiking along the C&O Canal. She joined the Sierra Club. I mean, my mom was a certified hippie. She literally wore tie dye, shopped at natural food co-op, and had anti–nuclear power, you know, stickers and posters.
Baratunde: So she, she had a deep, environmental and, like, earthly appreciation. And so that’s where it started for me with, with moms and with her attempt to invest in this relationship alongside me and give me safe places to explore when the streets became decreasingly safe.
Aislyn: It’s amazing how powerful that can be, right? Having a parent who pushes you to do it and shows you how.
Baratunde: We did a lot of road trips. We had this Datsun B210 station wagon and we hit up the entire East Coast before I was 12 years old, from Florida to Maine. We stayed at state camping grounds, KOA campgrounds, national parks. I remember visiting Acadia National Park in Maine.
I remember campfires with park rangers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I remember the wild horses of Chincoteague and Assateague [Island] and the crabs of the Chesapeake Bay. So all that is just, it just, it’s what childhood meant.
Aislyn: Oh, that’s awesome. And that seems like that directly, you know, or maybe indirectly took you to where you are today, hosting this show.
Baratunde: It was, it was indirect and then eventually direct, you know. My mother, she was just trying to survive and make sure I did too. And so the way—two ways she did that was, “Here’s a bike, go ride, but not too late. But go ride, but not too far. Go ride.” And, “Here’s a computer.” And she was a programmer for the government. And so she knew about the computer thing well before most people in the world.
Baratunde: And, and I wasn’t, my mom wasn’t like Bill Gates, you know, she was just a real humble non-college-degree holding black woman from D.C. But she found her way into this universe and, and brought me into it. So as I continued to grow, I took this computer thing very seriously and, and that powered me and I took, like, arts and performance seriously. And the outdoors just receded. But as I got into college, I always had the bike as part of my identity, but primarily it was commuting, you know, and sometimes I’d ride along the river for stress relief. I hadn’t gone camping in years.
And I moved to New York City, which is not known for its outdoor exploits. And when I was there, I would find some way to—I kept the bike and I took up surfing in New York, but mostly I was in this internet media universe and in this political digital universe. And so by the time the opportunity for America Outdoors came up in the form of an email from my agency: “Would you ever be interested in doing a PBS show about the outdoors in America?” And I was like, “You have no idea, sir.”
And it was, it was a homecoming. It was a call back to Earth from the cloud. And it was a really great way to remember all these things that were a part of me.
Aislyn: Well, that segues us nicely into this season two and, you know, like I was saying, I really did like, I feel very obsessed with everyone that you have, that you met on this journey. It’s such an impressive group of people. And I was just wondering who or what surprised you the most during the season?
Baratunde: OK, I will try not to have the list be too long. Um, Arkansas surprised me with its beauty, just as a region. It was the one state I hadn’t been to in the lower 48 in my entire life. What surprised me was the complexity of freediving. That’s actually way harder than I thought it would be.
What surprised me was emotion, moments of emotional challenge or release. There’s, like, some real teary moments that happened on this show on my part and on the part of our guests and contributors in different places. In Oregon, climbing this tree in Elaine, Arkansas, remembering a big race massacre. In Utah, rock climbing with Nikki Smith, a trans climber, and her recalling her journey with an Iraq war veteran. The outdoors has played a role in all of these people’s healing.
And the consistency of that was surprising. And I would say the last thing that I could probably mention as surprising is the amount of people who echo and amplify an Indigenous way of being with nature, even though they themselves are not.
I, I, I wasn’t surprised by my experiences with Indigenous communities in season two because of the experiences I had in season one. So season two continued that and deepened that, but what was also deepened was coming across non-Indigenous people who kind of sounded the same. And I was just like, “Y’all been reading the same memos? Like, this is pretty exciting.” And when it comes to, like, the climate, the efforts to adapt to climate change and try to reverse and restore lands and—regenerative quartz mine in Arkansas. This dude checked in with the Indigenous folk when he bought this land some decades ago and it changed his whole trajectory. He has a carbon-negative quartz mine. Like what, how does that even—WHAT?
The regenerative ranch in Oregon. White people, you know, just, like, same thing: wanted to ranch, they wanted cattle and [to] be cowboys. And they did that. And then they found a different way. And so they’re actually reducing the amount of land available for grazing. They’re keeping it all wild. They have no, yeah, pesticide, herbicide, hormonal inputs into the land or the animals. And they’ve brought all these species of birds and fish and the water’s cleaner and the folks down river actually have more water and thus more economic value because of what these ranchers up river are doing on their behalf.
And I’m like, “OK, so this guy who looks like this classic white cowboy character says words that don’t fit.” He says, “Technically I own this land, but I’m just a steward.” So that was surprising. Joyfully so. Joyfully.
Aislyn: Maybe relieving too, I don’t know.
Baratunde: Yeah, everywhere we go has some level of sadness because of climate change. And everywhere we go has some level of joy because of what people are doing and how they’re connecting more deeply.
So yeah, I have a deeper respect for the challenge of change and a deep appreciation for folks figuring out, how do we work with this change? How do we deepen connection? And it’s all kinds of folks doing that. It’s not just climate nerds.
Aislyn: In episode one, you traveled, I think, all 246 miles of the Suwannee River, right?
Baratunde: Yes, absolutely. Headwaters to the mouth.
Aislyn: What was that like?
Baratunde: It was amazing, you know. I was in so many modes of transit. I started in a canoe. I was in a flat bottom, you know, swamp boat. I forgot what the names of those are, but I was in kayaks. I was in a wetsuit, [I was] just swimming, I was on motorcycles, Jet Skis, automobiles, and plain old fashioned motorboats. So that’s like, I don’t know, eight different forms of transit to move down this river. And you see the river change.
It starts in a swamp, you know, and it’s, I don’t think of swamps as beautiful places, but this is my second swamp with this show. And it’s beautiful. I don’t look at gators as creatures I need to be any closer to than a television, but here I am out here in the swamp and gators are dropping in. I’m stepping out the boat against all evolutionary instincts to film a conversation on this peat bog and nobody got eat[en]. Or bitten. I’m here, intact, to talk about it.
It’s, you know, at each turn of the river, the water’s a little different, the current’s a bit different, the types of people and the types of activities are different, but what’s common is the connection and the investment and the, like, essentiality of the river. There’s people out there with their beer cans and their lawn chairs, there’s scientists out there with their drones, and everybody’s focused on this river and recognizing its power, its role in their story or, or in their dinner, you know?
Aislyn: Yeah. And in their livelihood.
Baratunde: Yeah, absolutely. Love that.
Aislyn: One of the people, and you mentioned him earlier, that you met at the very beginning of the episode was Reverend Nixon. And one of the things that really stuck with me about that conversation was how he talked about uniting faith and nature, which was so beautiful.
And, you know, I would say that most of my, like, quote unquote, religious experiences have happened in nature or, you know, kind of nature-adjacent. And I was curious to know if nature is spiritual for you in some way or if it has become so, or like, as you’ve kind of reconnected with it through the course of the show, like, has that shifted for you at all?
Baratunde: Yeah. Nature is very spiritual. Um, when I was in New Mexico, I rafted down part of the Rio Grande with a man named Louie Hena, who is from two different Indigenous nations. I cannot recall off the top of my head what the names of either are, but he was pointing out the features of the river in a different way. He wasn’t saying, “Oh, and this is where that deer, you know, drinks from, and this is, this rock formation called such and such.” He’s like, “Oh, that’s the medicine cabinet. Uh, that’s, that’s the altar, right? That’s the playground.”
He was naming the natural environment for what it provided, right? “That’s the pantry. That’s, that’s the hospital. That’s the, the classroom.” And so seeing nature as providing all of these things intrinsic to what we need as opposed to external to us was something he just gave a broad overview. What the reverend did in Okefenokee in southeast Georgia at the head of the Suwannee [River] episode was literally conduct a church service outside and, and connect, you know, biblical teachings to an obligation to care for this planet and care for ourselves by caring for this planet. And to dress and keep it and, and tend to the garden and, like, all of this overtly religious language, which we’re not used to seeing in terms of the image of climate activism. Or the image of southeastern religiosity, you know.
So bringing it to your question for me, um, because of the childhood I had, I’ve always had a reverence, a feeling of reverence and connection when I’m in the outdoors, particularly around water. I’ve just, I was a water baby. I loved splashing around in the sink, which was my bathtub as a kid. We went to the water every Thanksgiving as a family, went to the coast. I have photos of us out in like wind and rain.
Aislyn: I love it.
Baratunde: Just be out there. And so that was an annual tradition as a family, as a way we were giving thanks. Less about the turkey, more about the water. And then my most stressed moments, I would in college and after, get on my bike and race along the river and just achieve a feeling of total synchronicity with the environment around me. I remember a particular feeling of riding my bike in the wind and hitting a pocket where my pedaling speed was matching the wind speed.
So suddenly the rush disappeared and I was in flow and I felt like I exerted no energy and I’m just, like, gliding on wheels that feel like air. And that is a very transcendent religious, spiritual type of experience. So yeah, the, the natural environment is very much a spiritual environment when I open and breathe and sit still enough to appreciate it.
Aislyn: And it’s cool to hear all the different perspectives on that, you know, but a lot of them [on the show] did seem to kind of revolve around these very deep, profound relationships that people have with, with nature. What experience scared you the most?
Baratunde: Tree climbing in Oregon was, was scary. Um, and that was scary.
Aislyn: Are you a heights person?
Baratunde: I, I would not describe myself as a heights person, but I used to definitely not be a height person, right? I used to have a profound fear of heights and that has largely left me. I mean, I was in small aircraft in Arkansas. I flew the plane for a moment. I was fine with that.
Uh, paragliding. You know, I did that on this episode, in our Utah episode, in tandem with a professional. And I was actually fine with that walking off the edge of a perfectly good cliff, still not my instinct, but trusting the updraft and the physics that this guy knows. “OK, getting too close to the highway. Like, let’s turn.” Not my thing. He offered to let me pilot it and steer. I’m, like, “No, I’m going to be a great passenger. That’s my role. And I know my place. And you keep your hands on those pullies, OK? I don’t want there to be any confusion that I’m going to take over. I am not a student driver. I’m a passenger. There is never a moment where I’m going to try to turn.”
So the, the things that felt out of my comfort zone, though, that—the tree moment was profoundly jarring to me. And some of it had to do with the height. We were climbing an 80-foot maple. That is a lot of feet.
Aislyn: Were you climbing with gear or were you free climbing?
Baratunde: Yeah, no, this is with gear, when you’re in that sort of tree climbing, you’re not, I don’t actually think of it as climbing the tree. You’re climbing a rope that is parallel to the trunk, but it’s not like—you know, my image of climbing a tree is like, “Oh, I’m like holding on to the tree trunk like a rock climber and ice climber.”
And no, this is just like, you’re on a rope, you’re tethered to it, but I just felt untethered. And then there were other emotional challenges that I had with that scene. But it was not a physical challenge. It was more of a psychological challenge and an emotional challenge that I did not expect at all.
Aislyn: Well, I also wanted to talk about, you know, the final season, which will come out next week. And it’s very different than, you know, some of the other things that you’re talking about. I feel like there was, well, there still seemed to be some danger, but you visit, you visited Maine in order to find out what it is about winter there that gets people outside. And I was curious to know how that time there changed your concept of cold, or did you embrace it more? Or like, it, it, that seemed to be an emotional episode a bit at the end too.
Baratunde: Every episode of America Outdoors is an emotional episode, Aislyn. So Maine was in part a return to a place I’ve known. Maine was a frequent stop in my childhood, going up to Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, big trip with my mom. I lived in Boston for many years, so I have, a association with it, and being in New England for 12 years, Maine is kind of part of the, the landscape and I’ve explored it a little bit in my life.
But the wider perspective of cold serves a purpose. It’s not just pain. It’s not just to be avoided. And what I came across with the Mainers, the Maniacs, is a really pragmatic need to accept and embrace cold, if you want a full life. Many of us can afford to avoid uncomfortable things. That is the premise of most of our society. Because life is just mostly uncomfortable. And we’ve built economies of scale around minimizing discomfort. In Maine, there’s just some unavoidable parts and cold is one of them. So I found multiple perspectives from people there who were metaphorically and actually embracing the cold and seeing it as a feature, not a bug.
It’s quieter now, you know, you can get access to this type of food. There’s this religious experience available to you now. There’s this appreciation for summer. Because you’ve embraced the cold in winter and fall and spring because it’s a lot of cold time up there.
I got to go out on this oyster boat and get an industry perspective and a delicious culinary perspective on Maine identity and cold and a climate perspective because these are former lobster folk, and they’re becoming oyster folk because the lobsters are moving to Canada and it ain’t for the health care, right? It’s because the temperatures are rising and they’re moving north, so the humans of Maine are adapting and, and, Mere Point oysters are some of the best I’ve ever had and any opportunity to eat on camera, I will do it.
I spend time with very young kids who get oriented to the outdoors through winter activities in a way that’s, like, acclimating them. I saw people bring their little babies out to, like, a 5k ice run. These people do Snoga. That is yoga in the snow. They’re different. They’re different. They’re like Canadians, but they’re ours.
Aislyn: You mentioned this earlier, there’s this kind of thread throughout the season of the ways that nature can benefit or heal us. And I felt like that the conversation that you had in Maine with the people, the, you went on a snowshoe and there’s this group that’s using nature as part of their recovery process that just seemed to really exemplify that.
Why do you think that nature can help us with something as kind of hard and isolating as addiction?
Baratunde: I think nature is a powerful role model for those of us who’ve been through anything hard. Nature is a story of recovery. It’s a story of storms come and wipe something out, or fire comes and burns something out, or drought comes and dries something out. And yet, nature is still here. You know, it is relentless in facing challenges and relentless in adapting to and recovering from those challenges. And so for us as people, we get burned, we get knocked over, some part of us dries up.
And one of the ways we recover is to know that recovery is possible. And, and so for the people in, in WMARI, the Western Maine Addiction Recovery Institute, they are, you know, dealing with substance abuse disorder and finding, I think in part, some allies, you know, in, in the woods, in the trees, and, and, uh, I think a lack of judgment. The trees don’t expect anything from you.
Baratunde: They, they’re just there, you know, for, for, for us to lean on and breathe better because of, and there’s a sense of awe and beauty. And I remember, you know, one of the, folks we spoke to, I don’t know if it was Kari or Aaron but how, um, just to be able to appreciate beauty and feel like you deserve beauty after, after whatever harm you may have caused someone else because of substance abuse, your humanity gets restored.
And I think, you know, to tie it further to the Indigenous thinking that we kind of started with, when we help nature heal, we help ourselves heal. And that was a consistent refrain from Louis in New Mexico to Mick Rose in Portland. We help nature to help ourselves. We heal nature to heal ourselves.
And going out and trying to restore a wetland, or bring back some bird species, or tend to a river, or plant seed pods here—or New Mexico, my goodness, talk about fire, there’s a burn scar in New Mexico. And, and these kids who are out here working to accelerate the return of this forest, that all the generations have only known as there, and now it’s not, that’s gonna help them recover. [It] bonds them to each other and it gives a shared purpose and it ties you back to your place. Even as that place changes.
Aislyn: And there’s something about being tied to something that’s a, like a collective and something that’s bigger than us, you know, like that’s—to feel small in a good way.
Baratunde: It’s really great to have all these problems in our lives, whether it’s something as heavy as addiction or light as an overflowing inbox, and, and take a pause from, from that weight of our human existence and just appreciate the humility of our human existence and, and the interconnection.
It’s not just that, “Oh, nature is so big and I’m so small.” For me, it’s that nature is so big and I’m a part of it. I’m, like, a part of this big, beautiful thing. When you look up at the night sky—this is the free drugs—look up at the night sky and see the Milky Way as you remember that you are part of the Milky Way. You are inside the thing you are looking at. What? Come on, man!
Aislyn: Yeah. Um, well I think all of that really comes through on this show. What, what do you hope that viewers walk away with?
Baratunde: I hope they think, “This is on PBS? What? This looks, this is amazing. How is this a PBS show? My taxpayer dollars at work? Yay. Uh, let me pledge more.”
And, and I hope that they think, I hope they take away that we have reserves of resources, of belonging, of community, right outside our door. We are literally disconnected from other human beings, from Earth, from history, even as we’re technologically more connected than ever. And, and so I hope that this show helps people feel the power and value of a natural connection as we usher in artificial intelligence.
Aislyn: Yeah. Well said. Yeah. AI is a whole nother conversation.
Baratunde: It is. You see how I teased that out there? That’s good. That’s the episode two. We got to a multi part.
Aislyn: Great. Yes. Well, I hope, I was hoping that we could end very quickly—because the show is called Travel Tales—with a tale from one of your own travels. Would you just tell us a bedtime story?
Baratunde: Yes. Yes. Hmm. Thinking about the timing. It’s the summer of 1989 and our hero, he doesn’t want to be called that, but we’re going to editorialize and say our hero, Baratunde, is 12 years old, living in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, D.C. It’s undergoing a tremendous transformation. Largely Black and Latino, there’s increasing police action, let’s say public market sales action for unlicensed pharmaceuticals are occurring just outside the living room window.
And there’s a lot of tension in the air. His mother’s stressed about where he’s going to go to junior high school, stressed about finances, stressed about safety. And so she and he orchestrate a great escape, an escape to see America by train. And they purchase, well, they is being very generous to Baratunde’s role in the fiscal operation here. But Baratunde’s mother purchases a rail pass, which allows a level of unfettered motion for a fixed amount of time on certain types of trains during this most magnificent and life-defining summer.
They set forth from Washington, D.C. on an Amtrak bound for Chicago. And they arrive in Chicago with a half day before the next train is to depart, and they visit the Museum of Science and Industry, visit a coal mine that was built under this museum or around which it was built, and race back to the Chicago train station.
They’re so enamored of this Museum of Science and Industry, they nearly miss their train, but they board an almost moving train heading south to the great Republic of Texas. Texas. And when you go west of Chicago, the trains double in size, the super liner, double-decker trains, cars with the dining cars, entirely glass. And you feel like you’re floating across the Great Plains and they get to El Paso, Texas, and they’re, they’re not done.
They cross the border by bus into Mexico, boarding the Ferrocarriles Nacional de México, which they ride for days to its end through Copper Canyon, six times larger than the Grand Canyon, terminating in Los Mochis, where they stayed a little bed-and-breakfast and Baratunde sees a travel writer, working on her laptop in 1989. Tremendously mind-blowing possibilities emerge and the Coca-Cola tastes different.
And the meal plan that Baratunde and his mother are on is a very modest one because she’s a government worker supporting two kids. So it’s mostly peanut butter and raisins that they have stuffed into those toothpaste tubes that they bought from REI before they set out on their adventure. And raisins keep well on a journey. They returned to the U.S. having witnessed forest fires in the Mexican mountains just south of the border.
They continue west through Flagstaff, Arizona, the Grand Canyon to Los Angeles, visiting Universal Studios, going up the full length of the West Coast to Seattle. They stay at a YWCA. But wait, getting to Seattle, a drawbridge was left amok and they have to camp in a train station overnight and take a bus from Bakersfield to some other town that Baratunde no longer remembers because he is older than he looks.
Seattle’s fun. Stay at a YWCA, visit Pike’s Place, and then they’re heading east again, across the northern top, seeing buffalo out the window in Montana. Coming back through Chicago, downgrading from the double-decker trains to resume the more normal train lines coming back to Union Station having experienced this union, this nation, from a very different perspective.
The places they went, the people they spent time with, the food they ate, would change their lives forever, giving them a deeper appreciation of the land, of the people, of the nation and of each other.
Aislyn: Wow, talk about well done. I gotta clap for that. That was awesome.
Baratunde: Good night, kids. Sleep tight.
Aislyn: How is that for a bedtime story? And that was totally unrehearsed.
To learn more about Baratunde, visit baratunde.com. You can subscribe to his podcast, How to Citizen with Baratunde, wherever you’re listening now. And of course you can watch America Outdoors online at PBS.org.
Ready for more Travel Tales? Visit afar.com/podcast, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and X. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Travel Tales by AFAR on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it.
This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composed and produced by Strike Audio.
Everyone has a travel tale. What’s yours?