What began as a few fun trips to visit friends at nearby schools while a college senior sparked Esperanza Pacheco’s decade-long quest to see every state in the nation.
While at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Pacheco, now 31, took weekend excursions to visit sorority sisters at other colleges on the East Coast. But soon these simple road trips with friends evolved into a personal challenge for Pacheco to experience America’s beauty and complexity by traveling to all 50 states.
After she graduated in 2013, Pacheco got her driver’s license and a car and began traveling on her own. A Hackensack resident who grew up in Hasbrouck Heights and had barely left her home state until after college, Pacheco met her goal a decade later with a cruise this fall to Alaska, one of the most remote but most beautiful of all the states she visited, she said.
“So many people in the U.S. don’t see much of the country beyond where they live,” she said. “We get so stuck in where we are that we don’t get to know one another.”
Pacheco began her quest close to home, traveling up and down the densely packed East Coast, with small states stacked one on top of another. Her goal became more challenging as she ventured west. A visit to California left her amazed at the state's size, and the way palm trees were as normal a part of the landscape as maples or evergreens back home.
To save money, Pacheco would often stay with friends in other parts of the country and then rent a car to visit neighboring states. She kept a paper map of the country handy and would circle places near each other that could be combined into one trip.
“Friends would be like, ‘But you’re only here for two nights, you’re not going to have time,’” she said. “There was definitely a lot of maneuvering involved.”
Since Pacheco mostly traveled alone, she had the flexibility to map out routes that worked toward her goal and to change her itinerary on the fly.
Her rules were simple. She couldn’t check a state off her list unless she stopped for a while, having a bite to eat or a conversation with a local. A layover in an airport or a drive through on a highway did not count.
As director of the Englewood Library, Pacheco would often visit other public library branches across the country to check her email and strike up a conversation.
“Those are the places I’m the most comfortable,” she said. “It’s always a safe haven to stop in a library.”
The state where Pacheco spent the shortest time was probably Iowa, she said, when she stopped in the middle of the night and sat by a moonlit lake. The first year of the pandemic in 2020 was the only year since she began her journey to every state that she did not leave New Jersey.
Many of her trips were eye-opening. Cities that seemed glamorous in movies or on television ultimately had the same challenges as any other urban area. In Kentucky she came across an authentic Mexican restaurant and became friendly with the waiter and owner.
Despite the divisiveness of American politics, people she met with political views different from her own were kind and helpful.
As she drove through Montana, she stopped several times on the side of the road to take a break, and each time two or three drivers would stop to ask if she needed help.
In Cleveland, Pacheco, an avid music fan, made sure to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And on other trips she made stops at scenes from some of her favorite childhood television shows and movies, including "Home Alone," "The Breakfast Club" and "That 70s Show."
Pacheco saved the two farthest states — Hawaii and Alaska — for last. Hawaii was one of the few she traveled to with others, a friend and her 11-year-old daughter, and she was surprised at how much fun it was after so many years traveling solo.
Besides her beloved native New Jersey, Pacheco listed Arizona, with its palm trees and vast, colorful mountain views, as her favorite.
“It’s such a big country,” she said. "There’s always something new to explore, to learn."
The next item to cross off her travel bucket list? The two continents she has left to visit: Australia and Antarctica. “That’s the next big goal,” she said. “But I’ll take some time before planning that out.”
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ woman visited every state. It took a decade, and maneuvering