Bearing Witness to History and a Country Evolving - 360˚ Journeys Through the Heartland

 A pair of Buddhist monks cross the bridges at Keeper of the Plains, Wichita, Kansas.

A pair of Buddhist monks cross the bridges at Keeper of the Plains, Wichita, Kansas.

It's been a pretty wildly eye-opening last couple o’ months.

Recently, my virtual reality company, Superswell VR, was blessed with the opportunity to work with Miles Partnership, a marketing company that specializes in the tourism and travel industries. They contracted Superswell VR to shoot 360˚ Google Streetview campaigns for various destinations, including Oklahoma's Chickasaw Nation, the Kentucky State Parks, and Kansas' Visit Wichita.

Over the course of about 4 weeks, I went from Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi, sipping through parts of the Bourbon trail, elk calling at sunrise and exploring underground caves in Kentucky, to sacred Native American sites, natural springs, more than your fair share of old train depots and historical museums showing off everything from attempted bank robberies by Bonnie & Clyde to the history of John Deer tractors in Oklahoma, to feeding rhinos, touching the Berlin Wall, freakin’ out over real Egyptian mummies and Meso-American shrunken heads, photographing the first house ever built in Wichita, a Frank Lloyd Wright structure and learning about the African and Native-American histories of Kansas.

Because of this, I've had the chance to spend a good amount of time in parts of the country I've never visited, and to be able to do it, one, for work, and two, since we were working directly with those destinations, basically with a 'backstage' pass to some of the locale’s most awesome attractions and points of interest.

It's been a whirlwind of amazing.

While travel and the unknown and experiencing new locations is basically what gets me up in the morning, perhaps with this trio of locations, the curiosity was magnified, especially, as much of it was during midterm voting season, during a time in which this country feels more divided than it may have ever been. I was most enthused to get a first-hand feel for the people and the culture of part of the country I did not have much experience in at all.

Yes, some it was what I expected, like driving for hours through areas of several straight miles of flatlands of nothing, or like the old lady in the train depot who had never, in 84 years of life, left that area in the middle of Oklahoma who made it a point to let us know that 'white folks sat over here and negroes sat over there,' (to be fair, it seemed through no sense of bigotry, but rather, as it was a museum, just pointing out a part of their history). Some of it, however, left me incredibly surprised and charmed.

Take, for instance, the solar panel farm in the middle of Kentucky, mere miles from coal country where a park ranger was explaining to us the steps they were taking to save the bees from chemical pesticides.

Or the 13 year old black girl and 13 year old white girl who laughingly shared a sandwich together in a Subway staffed by an Indian man and a white woman just 4 miles down the road from a Confederate stronghold where teenage soldiers and slaves were waiting to die just over a mere century ago.

Or the young rancher who was employing social media to attract a new tech-savvy demographic to his family's horseback riding business less than an hours' drive from an early printing press on display at that very aforementioned train depot.

Or, simply, Wichita. It was one of the most charming cities I’ve been to in the country, and I would never have expected that at all. A row of museums and parks and beautiful bridges and artworks that line the riverbanks, a wide variety of delicious food options, and incredibly interesting attractions covering everything from colonial history to Native American history to African American history to toys to science.

I don't know, but to me, those all seem like major pieces of the progress puzzle.

This yin and yang of comfortable tradition versus conscious embrace of what is to come was an incredibly constant theme of my travels through the heartland, and left me with a strengthened conviction that we, as a country, and as a whole, are actually in MUCH better shape than mass medias may make us out to be.

While there is an enormous sense of pride in their history and culture, we must all recognize that, for better or for worse, it was that history that has in large part crafted this nation and planted those seeds for progress to flourish. Furthermore, despite our obvious flaws, if we really look at the American experiment, one that has never been attempted anywhere on the planet ever - throw everything and everyone in the same pot and see what happens - we've done remarkably well over 241 short years (that’s just three 80-year old people ago!).

Yes, I spoke to several southern and heartland 'lifers' who are more than well aware of some of the uglier parts of our history and ancestors' roles in it. But it was many of these very same folks, who ranged from the ages of 18 to 80, who went out of their way to welcome a middle-eastern dude named Wasim and made a concerted genuine effort to expose themselves for who they really are: the warm, smart, beautiful, friendly and (mostly) tolerant core of our modern nation.

If I learned anything, it was certainly to let go of all 'expectations,' because once you do, you begin to realize that while the hysterical glut of media may make it seem like we're on opposite sides of the fence, we're really not. Sometimes we may find ourselves playing offense, sometimes defense, but always on the same field.

Furthermore, we all need the same things, feel the same things and want the same things. While we may have different ideas of how to get there, that's exactly the sole condition necessary for negotiation.

Regardless, the country is absolutely changing, and there are signs of it all over. Even, as I found out first-hand, in the backroads of our nation’s hinterlands.

And all of it, ALL of it...for the better.

Patience.

Persistence.

Progress.

We got this.

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