Larry Northup and the Evans Middle School students on the Great Western Expedition should be getting back into town this morning. It’s Northup’s final trip with the school’s travel program, a program he has shepherded for years.
We’re not sure how many miles Northup racked up over the years with the program, how many hours he has spent in a bus watching the American countryside roll past. What we are sure of is that he has done those students an incredible service.
Travel is one of the best antidotes to prejudice and small-mindedness in existence. When you leave a region for the first time, your understanding of the world increases. When you have the opportunity to encounter people whose backgrounds are different from your own, you learn most really aren’t all that different.
Few people ever forget the first time they see iconic locations like Washington, D.C., or Yellowstone. Those sights, so different from those familiar to southeast Iowa, are engraved in the memory. It is at moments like that we learn the world is bigger than ourselves and our small communities.
It’s not that Iowa lacks history or that people fail to learn about it. Nor is it merely a question of familiarity breeding contempt. But it is indisputable that the things we see and experience on a daily basis lose some of the value they might otherwise hold. It is far easier to take such things for granted than those sights and experiences we know we might have but once or twice in a lifetime.
Travel changes our view of the familiar as well. Author Terry Pratchett put it well:
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
The travel programs Northup has led offered the opportunity to grow to generations of students. He spent more than four decades finding ways for students who might not otherwise have had the chance to experience the world outside of southeast Iowa to do so. While they might not fully understand how precious such an experience is at the time, they surely do later in life.
The comments left online at the program’s Facebook page reflect that understanding. Scores of people have left their thoughts about the trips they took. They talk about the fun they had, about how the trips improved their understanding and appreciation for our country.
There is some question about the future of the travel program. While the school district has said it wants the program to continue, questions about how fundraising will be done and whether students will fully benefit from their own efforts are real. We hope a means can be found to continue the trips.
The locations sought by the travel program cannot be said to lack visitors. They are not, in Robert Frost’s words, the roads less travelled by. But they have certainly made all the difference for those who have accompanied Northup over the years.