By Angela Reinhardt
After half an hour driving through (and getting lost in) one of the largest, most beautiful cemeteries I’ve seen in my life we found it. Jim Varney’s grave in Section C-1, Lot Q. The headstone was glossy black with the iconic tragedy/comedy masks carved on top; several items were left at the base by fans who visited before we did.
Our family hadn’t planned on being at Lexington Cemetery on Easter until we woke up in our horse-and-bourbon-themed hotel and I consulted my favorite quirky travel site, Atlas Obscura. With a husband who is an unapologetic Ernest P. Worrell fan (Varney is the actor/comedian who played Ernest in commercials and movies like Ernest Goes to Camp), I insisted.
This unorthodox Easter-morning excursion was part of our unorthodox spring break vacation - a road trip wrapped entirely around an ancient effigy site in Ohio I’d read about years ago. I took my family hostage, away from the all-too-familiar places we usually travel. I booked a room in Lexington one night to break up the drive, then on to Peebles to see the Serpent Mound, then back to Cincinnati a couple nights. The only firm plan other than lodging was to see the mound - everything else would be impromptu.
As we meandered from city to city and soaked in the newness of the landscape and culture – expansive and opulent thoroughbred horse farms in Lexington; rolling hills in Ohio that are different from the rolling hills here; the German influence in Cincinnati; the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken in Corbin; I couldn’t help but wonder why it took me all 39 years of my life to visit places that were a measly six-hour drive away. Like many families, we’d fallen victim to habit.
I understand the desire for safety and predictability when we spend money to travel (we want to know we’ll have a good time, right?), but travelling to new places thrusts us out of the vacuum of the familiar, expands our worldview, and forces us to be around people who might not look like us or believe what we do – all of which are beneficial and exciting. Todd B. Kashdan, professor of psychology and a senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, discusses the concept in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Mental Benefits of Vacationing Somewhere New.” He argues that travel to the unfamiliar is an opportunity for self-development, and that while he understands the temptation to “default to the same vacation each year” he believes travel should be routinely used “to get out of your comfort zone, expose yourself to uncertainty, and eschew rest for exploration and learning. The result is personal growth — greater emotional agility, empathy, and creativity.”
His article was inspired by an international trip to Sri Lanka, but just like our trip to the Ohio Valley succeeded in doing for my family he believes people can get the same benefits by “traveling closer to home — to new states, cities, and even households, from urban to rural, north to south, east to west. As long as you’re spending time in an unfamiliar environment, with people whose backgrounds and belief systems don’t entirely match yours, you’re succeeding at stretching yourself.”
The tendency to perceive ourselves as separate from others - and the polarization, intolerance, and violence that can result - comes in part from living like islands, isolated from and/or weary of things that are different.
Obviously, Kentucky and Ohio aren’t “exotic” in the classic sense of the word – and my teenagers said they were as equally underwhelmed with the Serpent Mound (“I thought it’d be bigger”) as they were with Jim Varney’s grave (“Who?”) – but it was fun and unique and different, and they had an amazing time. It will stand out when they get older; not blur together with the same old beach and mountain trips.
So this year, or next if you’ve already made plans, consider getting out of your stale vacation routine and try something new. It might not be familiar, but it’s guaranteed to be an experience….“Know what I mean?”