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It's election season, but one in which everyone seems especially on edge. The current political atmosphere is one of extremes, with much at stake regardless of where on the spectrum of politics you reside. Our battles may still rage overseas, but Americans, wary of the foreign world and its entanglements, could easily slip yet again into a false isolationism. We may decide traveling overseas is not safe, not simple, not necessary. But there is one great secret about travel that any seasoned wayfarer knows: Travel changes your politics. Simply put, you don't drop bombs on places where you vacation.
You don't need to go outside the country for this conversion to occur. I just returned from a trip to Alaska, a place I had considered a "red state": full of rednecks and where I was to keep my sexuality carefully under wraps. Alaska is a land of harshness. Downtown Anchorage is a city in the shadow of wild, towering mountains where enormous moose gingerly stroll the avenues. Bears eat family pets in their own yards, and the quicksand mud flats on Anchorage's outskirts have claimed more than one beachcomber. Wilderness always trumps humankind in Alaska, despite the minimalls and shiny skyscrapers. The residents, even in the city, are hearty survivalists who live without the luxury of pretense.
When I walked into Mad Myrna's, the largest of Alaska's few gay bars, I was expecting to find hardened, closeted mountain men who were cut off from civilization. What I discovered instead was a literal cross section of the modern gay world. Big, beautiful lesbians shot pool under deer antlers and horseplayed with skinny, smiling young gay men. An older businessman chatted with an Alaskan native at the bar over cigarettes. A small group of Asian-Americans with frosted tips and low-slung jeans laughed with a couple of conservative, Midwestern-looking blonds. A gay-friendly straight couple played darts with a young gay woman. A cowboy in a black 10-gallon hat belted out a Hank Williams song on the karaoke stage in the background.
Later that week I went paragliding off Alyeska Mountain, south of Anchorage. I was strapped onto a strikingly handsome (and straight) guide whose every other phrase included the words "wicked" and "sick." The two of us plunged dramatically off a 2,000-foot cliff with sheer mountainsides of rock and ice jutting up all around us. As he snapped photos of our descent he asked me, "What magazine do you work for?" I answered, "It's called The Out Traveler." "Out? Oh, that's a gay magazine?" he asked nonchalantly as we skimmed the treetops.
Here I was, flying high above a red state, and my macho paragliding instructor couldn't care less if I was gay or not. In Alaska things like that didn't matter as much; people had life and death, darkness, and winter to contend with. Besides, everyone was a bona fide character in Alaska and proud of it.
I have to admit my politics changed. I couldn't just shrug off Alaska as a backwoods backwater in my mind; I knew better now. Sure, there would always be the extremists, but all the people I met there were very much live-and-let-live. Alaska was no longer isolated for me.
When you can hop on a plane and be up near the Arctic in a few hours--a journey that once took a few months--there is no "over there" anymore. Individual travel plays a pivotal role in our new interconnected, globalized world. By 2020 the World Tourism Organization estimates there will be 1.6 billion international tourists a year. In the post-9/11 era of paranoia and distrust, these one-on-one personal connections are perhaps our greatest weapon against fear of people who are different from us, be it in terms of nationality or sexual orientation. And who knows? Maybe it will be harder to start wars against places we have visited. And perhaps our politics will change.