By Shane Maher, Staff Writer
During a trip to Pasquale’s on a cold quarantine night, I had a realization: I needed to write a letter to every single state in America. I really like learning about people, especially those from different places. I commonly watch “Vice” pieces on YouTube, since that’s what they tend to focus on. But what I really yearned for was a direct, unfiltered way to hear about the lives of people from every corner of the country.
When I got home, I put down the warm pizza box and got to work. I decided upon going to Google Earth, closing my eyes, and selecting a random address from each state (This process resulted in way too many rural areas so I got some more urban ones later). After coming up with the locations and obtaining the stamps and envelopes, the most challenging issue came about: what to say? What do you say to someone you’ve never met before, while trying to get them to talk about their lives?
This wasn’t easy, because it’s pretty creepy to receive a letter from someone thousands of miles away. I also had no idea to whom I was writing, so I made the return address my post office box so as not to get a bomb in my mailbox. In the end I tried to make it short and concise to not waste their time, while also explaining my reasoning behind this project.
This is the letter that was sent to 49 different states –plus Washington D.C.
“Dear resident of [State]
My name is Shane Maher and I live in New Paltz, NY. The reason I’ve written to you today is because I’m doing a small project where I pick a random address on Google Earth from each of the 50 states and write a letter to them. I’m doing this for two reasons: #1; I want to hear what each of the states are like from the perspective of someone who lives there. #2; I want to hear anything you have to say. Anything about anything. It could be an interesting story you made up, to your trip to the grocery store– just entertain me. If you choose not to respond, that’s perfectly fine; in all fairness it’s creepy getting a random letter from a stranger across the country, but I would love to hear what you have to say about yourself, and your state.
A few months passed, and I was saddened to receive only three replies but they were well worth it. The states that wrote back were Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Idaho. I remember coming home from the post office so excited that people actually wrote back; I was excited to dive into the envelopes to see what they said. Here’s a few excerpts from the letters (mostly paraphrased):
The Weikel family was pleasantly surprised to receive your letter and wrote back the same day it got here!
Our town is just outside of Hershey Pennsylvania as you likely saw, however it’s more rural than you’d expect.
We’ve lived here a pretty long time and nearly everyone was employed by the steel plant before it shut down.
At the local grocery store we have stations where the Amish community here can park their horse buggies.
I don’t know if people your age still like hockey but me and my husband really do. We’re very passionate Philadelphia Flyers fans and have had season tickets for 20 years I don’t know if people your age still like hockey but me and my husband really do. We’re very passionate Philadelphia Flyers fans and have had season tickets for 20 years.” (their stamp was a hockey player)
“We really like going to bluegrass concerts which I doubt someone of your age group would be super into.
For leisure, me and my husband like to go on long walks in the cemetery. There’s always a beautiful Memorial Day celebration and I’ll happily send you pictures of you’d like. Same goes for anything else I’ve mentioned.
We appreciate your letter Shane!
Your Pennsylvania pen pal,
I am a 71 year old woman who was born and raised in this small (pop. 700) Iowa town 100 miles from Des Moines, lived a full life and returned to spend my final chapter here.
Kids live here and practice farm and family values, grow up and get beaten by the real world, and come to settle down here and raise a family.
I don’t know if music is a big deal these days but in my time it was. I played in a televised orchestra two times. I even qualified for first in the country in clairvoyant. We toured the eastern U.S. and played concerts. I was invited on a trip to Japan but elected to move onto other things.
My hard headed German father didn’t believe in a college education for women so me and my mother smuggled it through our John Deere company while my dad wondered where I was getting the money.
I graduated from St. Olaf college in Minnesota. I got a peak of the world through their foreign studies program. I went to Thailand, China, Laos, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan one semester. This was all during the Vietnam war so it was very intense.
After I graduated I was very lucky and was one of the few women to get a job right away at an advertising firm called J Walter Thompson.
I moved to Arizona to live with my parents in their final years. After my mom died I moved back to Iowa and collapsed here putting my father in a nursing home and registering for disability. I put my two sons in their class of ten people.
That’s about it for small town life. My two sons are in their thirties now and I’m encouraging them to go see the world like I did.
“ I almost didn’t respond to your letter since it seemed creepy but my friends talked me into it.
Moving forward you should really include more about yourself when you write to people and include your address in the main body of your letter.
I’m an old grandmother with three grandchildren in the mideastern mountains of Idaho.
Salmon is a farming and ranching town with a population of around 3000. We’re 160 miles from any other town and 7000 ft above sea level.
For business we have a couple of bars, restaurants, and hardware stores.
Many veterans live here because the isolated environment is good for their ptsd.
Our county is famous for being the birthplace of Sacajawea.
In the past we had a lot of mining and logging industry here but sadly environmentalists have shut it down making our area very poor.
I laughed when you said to describe your trip to the grocery store since many of us have to grow our own food rather than buy.
What we don’t have monetarily we do have in natural beauty. We have much hiking, camping, and white water river trips.
I hope this information was helpful to you. I’ve lived in Nevada, Wyoming, Nevada, California, and Arizona so I too think it’s important to learn about the world.
Sincerely, your Idaho pen pal.”
Even though I got these fantastic responses, I have to say I’m a bit disappointed at the results for the effort that went into this. I had originally planned on having multiple pen pals all across the country, but the only real back and forth has been between me and the individual in Idaho. I’m still very glad I pursued this project. I for one am very wrapped up in my own life and tend to forget there are other people in this world with completely different lives than me.
On a larger scale, I think that just listening and understanding others’ points of view is what this country as a whole could use more of. I hope you enjoyed learning about my findings. Have a terrific day.