Navigating the USA: How I Ticked Off All 50 States from My Bucket List

Navigating the USA: How I Ticked Off All 50 States from My Bucket List

Ticking off all 50 states has been a life-long dream. A bucket list dream.  From the sunny shores of California to the bustling streets of New York, each state has its unique charm and allure. The breathtaking beauty of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the vibrant culture of New Mexico, and the serene wilderness of North Carolina – I could go on and on.  The United States is an amazing place!

How I Got Here

Imagine wine-tasting in Napa Valley, getting married in Las Vegas on a basketball road trip, witnessing the incredible wildlife in Montana and Alaska, or soaking in the historical significance of Colorado and Virginia. Some of the states I lived in (Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, California and Florida) and some I traveled to work or for fun/vacation.

When I got close to being done a few years ago, I started plotting how I would finally get to South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico and Rhode Island (the 50th!).  It wasn’t going to be an easy task!  I even looked up an AirBnB in North Dakota and thought out flying there and driving up and around to South Dakota and Montana!  My husband quickly vetoed this “vacation”.

Did I Save the Best for Last?

August 10th I ticked off Rhode Island, the last state on my list.  When I walked out of the airport in Providence, I was filled with a sense of accomplishment and pure bliss. In Newport, as we strolled by its beautiful mansions and hiked the Cliff Walk, I was so excited I had completed a journey of a lifetime. Bottom line: each state has a story of its own.  Navigating through all 50 states was not just about ticking off places from my bucket list; it was about embracing the diversity and spirit of America.

The 50 States

Follow along as I give a short break-down of each of the 50 states, alphabetically.  As a refresher, prior to opening Bee Young Comms three years ago, the majority of my career was spent in Public Relations for collegiate athletics.

  • ISU: Illinois State University
  • Big Ten = Big Ten Conference
  • USC = University of South Carolina
  • SCU = Santa Clara University


USC: Auburn and Alabama.  Tuscaloosa has the cutest women and not so cute men.  At ‘Bama in January of ‘07, there were 30+ SUVs parked outside the hotel.  We asked the hotel staff why.  They said they had been rented for a month for football recruits – Nick Saban’s first year (someone was driving them around: pre-NIL!).  Drove through a few times and also went to Gulf Shores when I was a child: it has the whitest sand!


USC: Great Alaska Shootout (lost in OT after Renaldo Balkman didn’t dunk the ball in regulation to end the game – still annoyed).  Ran with Coach Dave Odom and Jack Easterby along Cook’s Inlet a few mornings. They were so sweet – they let me run first.  It was snowing so hard I could barely see and had to “plow” the path with my running shoes. Sweet, right? In the winter the sun comes up at about 10 am and sets at 2:30 pm or so (and vis versa in the summer). I’d like to go back in the summer. 


USC: Arizona and Arizona State. SCU: Arizona.  Scottsdale’s insanely hot in the summer – close to 120 when I was there.  We loved hiking the Grand Canyon, but it was crazy cold (12 degrees around Christmas).


USC: Arkansas and in Little Rock.  The Razorbacks won’t let Lou Holtz coach in Fayetteville ever again – after he left – so we played football in Little Rock.  I’ve been to Fayetteville probably more than any other place because of track and field, volleyball and men’s basketball – like 3 weekends in a row some years during the indoor season. Anything that’s green with rolling hills, I now say: “this place looks like Arkansas”. 


all 50 states

LIVED: Santa Clara and Los Gatos for 8.5 years. Met my husband at Vivas Los Gatos on Oct. 1, 2011 (met on match.com). Been ALL OVER California (career and for fun). Love drinking wine in Paso, Napa, Sonoma, Carmel Valley, Santa Barbara – heck the list goes on and on.  Every time I drive across the Golden Gate Bridge I get cold chills because it makes me so happy. Love hiking in Big Basin State Park – the Redwoods there are amazing! Also love hiking in Big Sur and at Wilder Ranch.  When I was a kid, I rode a burro through the hills in Yosemite National Park; and pulled out a lose tooth with a pair of pliers on that trip.  The things we remember about trips, right?  


michelle smiling with a grateful sweatshirt on and yellow leaves behind her.

USC: Colorado State. Drove out here as a kid with family.  Been to Vail, but didn’t ski.  My cousin Andy married Julie at Red Rock – one of the best weddings EVER. 


I’ve only been here once!  When SCU played Iona in the post-season championship, we went over to Connecticut to eat dinner at a high roller Bronco booster’s house. House was HUGE. I couldn’t believe my luck because this wasn’t planned AT ALL – I finally was able to cross the Constitution State off my list!


Only drove through Delaware on the way to and from other states. Very small. Not very remarkable. At all. Too many oil refineries (or is that New Jersey?).


USC: Florida, Miami, Florida State.  Disney: too many times for athletic events (it’s why we refuse to go now).  LIVE: Tampa (2016-current).  Parents live in Melbourne Beach.  Used to go to St. Pete for the Cardinals spring training as a child.  WORST sunburn EVER happened on one of these trips.  It was my birthday and my name was on the billboard outside but I was in so much pain, I could hardly move or smile.  Al Lang Stadium is now a soccer stadium for the Rowdies. Love the Dali Museum


Olympics: Atlanta Olympics + Pan-Pac Championships. USC: Georgia, Georgia Tech.  SCU: Georgia.  Attended the Atlanta Final Four in 2008!  Most vivid memory: At the 2008 SEC Tourney, a tornado hit the Georgia Dome.  At the time, I was upstairs in a suite.  Guy (who I later kissed!) shoved me against the elevator wall and said “Stay here!”.  At same the time, debris was breaking windows way up in the Georgia Dome.  Hundreds/thousands of lives that might have been saved by a Mykal Riley three-pointer!


Been to Honolulu for 24 hours. Coming back from the Sydney Olympics, I stayed in the Hyatt on the beach.  Coach Frye and his wife Wilma were also there and in the morning we rented a huge SUV and drove up to the North Shore.  It was a really amazing day!  I just remember all of our luggage!


USC: Boise State.  SCU: Idaho.  People in Boise are the nicest folks in the country (later found out they call it Boise Nice).  In the relays, Gamecock women dropped the baton, but men were All-American.  Terrence Trammell and Brad Snyder competed their asses off (110m hurdles and shot put).  Field is BLUE AstroTurf and birds fly into it sometimes thinking it’s a lake.  Also been to Coeur d’Alene – gorgeous hiking and went out on a friend’s boat.


BORN: Elmhurst. Lived in Mascoutah, Normal and Lincoln Park (and other Chicago suburbs as an infant).  WORKED: Springfield Cardinals (met Ted Simmons, Ken Reitz, Mike Ramsey, etc.).  Probably had too much fun that summer, right Christine?  HATE the Cubs, but had the most fun at Wrigley Field with Sandy Opasser when we were at ISU.  Have both of my degrees from ISU.  Love seeing the cornfields now-a-days and visiting my mom’s sweet family there.


LIVED: Lafayette (as a toddler). USC: Indiana, USAs in Indianapolis. SCU: Purdue.  IU’s a gorgeous campus; Purdue: it snowed a lot on March 25. Attended the Notre Dame-Southern Cal football game in the 80s where they switched jerseys to green at halftime.  (was no big deal, but) met Heisman trophy winner Tim Brown at the Bookstore Basketball tournament (he took my photo with Irish hooper David Rivers). SCU beat the Boilermakers on my birthday in a postseason tournament; Kevin Foster crushed the three ball.  The next day SCU practiced at the “Hoosiers” gym — the guys acted like 7 year-olds shooting that day. It was so special.  Presented at Notre Dame with Kelly Bennett in 2019 (higher ed: social media): thanks for the invite Sue Ryan! 


ISU: Drake (for NCAA Cross Country). Visited Roger Nelson and his family in the Quad Cities. USC: Drake again (NCAA Track).  Flooded like crazy in Des Moines in 2008 at NCAA Track. The Gamecocks went and filled sandbags for hours to help the city.  Nice, right?


Big Ten: Attended seminar at NCAA. USC: Kansas (Allen Fieldhouse!!). Jeremy Shyatt told me we had a chance to beat No. 2 Kansas on the way to the game (he explained how).  USC went on a 12-0 run to start the game and Bill Self had to call timeout.  He looked down at Dave Odom like ‘WTF are you doing with this full-court press!’  We only lost by a few points in the last minute (they were heavy favorites).  Attended Royals games as a kid: I loved the fountains! 


USC: Kentucky (basketball, track, football, volleyball). Lost on a 3 pointer by Patrick Sparks once and Rondo another time (listen: Rondo COULD NOT SHOOT IN COLLEGE!).  Was mistaken for Michele Tafoya on the sidelines of the USC-UK football game a few times (USC won by scoring a safety!).  I’LL NEVER FORGET: CoSIDA in Lexington: we probably should have been arrested a few times at that convention.  The Fab Five was BORN here: vivid memory: I jumped onto a Velcro wall in a Bar (wearing a Velcro jumpsuit).  They told Wendy Knowles she was too drunk.  UK QB Pookie Jones was laughing at us.


USC: LSU (football, basketball, track, volleyball!).  Love seeing Mike the Tiger.  USC won the school’s FIRST EVER NCAA title at LSU in women’s track.  Extremely nervous the entire time because I knew we might win.  Lashinda Demus passed out in my arms practically after running the anchor leg of the NCAA champion relay – during her live CBS interview! Another time partied on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.


Traveled through Maine with Frances Shavers on the way to Montreal.  So many restaurant signs about lobsters.  In small print at the bottom of the sign it would read “Hot Dogs!” so you knew you could bring kids. Gorgeous, rocky coast. Drove through Kennebunkport where the Bush family has a home or three. 


LIVED: Oxon Hill.  When I worked in the White House. Had my one and only cat.  Hated that cat.  USC: Maryland.  Will NEVER forget Ashley Edland’s jersey dripping on the floor during a volleyball match because it was so hot in Cole Field House (we won in 5 and almost missed our flight). 


RAN a 10K in Boston in my 20s.  Cardinals – Red Sox game at Fenway Park one of the people I was with caught a Jim Rice home run ball.  I visited Frances Shavers a few times there (when she was working on her PhD at Harvard) and got snowed in once!


SCU: Michigan State mbk (we lost BADLY). While interning at the Big Ten, attended the Illinois-Michigan football game.  Afterwards, went into Crisler Arena and watched the Fab Four practice.  Also went to a UM hockey game that night.  The football stadium goes deep into the ground.  


Went to the Twins’ World Series parade (after they beat the Cardinals). KARMA: snowed almost 30 inches the next 2 days (Halloween Blizzard).  Drove from Minneapolis to Oregon with Heather Larkin in 2021.  Unbelievable how many lakes Minnesota has.  Hence the nickname: Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.


USC: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Southern Miss.  Got athletes’ foot at the hotel in Starkville. I kid you not.  Ole Miss: literally one of my all-time favorite places to shop in the country (I used to pray for night games so I could go shopping in Oxford during the day)!


Lived across the river from St. Louis growing up. Grandparents lived in Scott City (near Cape Girardeau). Been a Cardinals fan all my life so there are many memories!  Loved watching the Mad Hungarian pitch.  One time my dad made us leave early – so we missed Lou Brock breaking the stolen base record (I still give him a hard time about that).  Talked the Arch up for months and when we went up last year – it was rainy and foggy – my husband couldn’t see anything outside the windows. Missed Albert Pujols’ pinch hit home run against the Cubs during that series – we left early to beat the crowds. I’ll never get over that.  Ever. 


Drove through Montana the long way with Heather Larkin in 2021. Stayed in Missoula. One of my all-time favorite places now in the country.  We found out near where the Unabomber lived.  Heather asked the cashier in a store about “famous people who used to live here” and when she mentioned Ted Kaczysnki, the woman wasn’t happy. But I LOVE Montana!  I was there in the summer and want to go back. 


USC: Nebraska volleyball.  Lost in 5 to the Cornhuskers for a berth to the NCAA volleyball Sweet 16 after going up 2-0. It was so cold and so dark – not very memorable other than that heartbreaking loss.


SCU: UNLV and many WCC Tournaments.  Married Nick Young on Dec. 21, 2013 in the Little Church of the West in Las Vegas. The actual chapel featured in the Movie ‘Viva Las Vegas’ starring Elvis and Ann Margaret.  Others who married here: Cindy Crawford, Richard Gere, David Spade, Lauren Becall.  Stayed at the Wynn and took our wedding pictures at Red Rock. 

New Hampshire

Drove through N.H. on the way to Canada with Frances Shavers. The White Mountain was very green that summer.  The cheese is so good. The state is TINY.

New Jersey

LIVED: Fort Dix.  Went to basic training in Ft. Dix in the summer and it was insanely hot.  Remember marching in wool socks, combat boots and fatigues. So yeah, not great memories of New Jersey.  My dad came to my basic training graduation with my Grandma Schmitt and she was so proud of me. That made it all worth it.

New Mexico

I’ve only been here once: a girl’s trip with Kim Hardcastle, Traci Messier and Candace McCaffery in 2022.  We saw Ali McGraw at the Indian Market in Santa Fe.  Rode horses near where Georgia O’Keefe used to paint.  The most amazing Mexican food! Kim plans the BEST TRIPS! 

New York

USC: Madison Square Garden: won the NIT two years in a row! + Track at the Armory. I ran a lot on those trips and saw Mayor Giuliani with his staff.  SCU: later practiced at MSG, won post-season tourney at Iona.  Winning the NIT on Tarence Kinsey’s last second shot was amazing. The next year seeing Renaldo Balkman blossom into the Knicks’ first round draft pick was cool too.  Three times, the day of our final game of the season (all three wins), I ran around Central Park! Syracuse: visited Wendy Knowles with Jeff Nygaard.  The bubble arena was crazy weird. We went to Cooperstown: oddly enough, I recall the lake in Cooperstown more than the Hall of Fame.

North Carolina


LIVED: Charlotte (one summer, bartended at The 49er). Parents lived on Chapel Hill and Wrightsville Beach.  Lovely to hike in North Carolina, especially in the Highlands area – so many waterfalls. LOVE Chapel Hill – one of the coolest college towns. USC: Duke, UNC.  SCU: Duke BK (Coach K had to call time after the Broncos went up 13 in the second half). Nick making baskets both at the Dean Dome and Cameron Indoor Stadium makes me smile to this day.

North Dakota

Drove through North Dakota with Heather Larkin in 2021.  Loved hiking Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  Gorgeous state.  I want to go back someday soon (in the summer ONLY)!  I remember Heather saying not to get too close to the buffalo. She was right. 


Big Ten: Big Ten-SEC Challenge. SCU: Wright State (loved the airplane museum there). Also drove through a few times.  Ohio State is HUGE – still can’t believe how big the school is. Really cold in the winter.


During indoor track season, drove from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Tulsa to see Christine Neely.  Tulsa wasn’t remarkable, but it was so good to see my former Springfield Cardinals roomie! She was pregnant with Trevor (newsflash: she had him the next day!).  Almost lost my mind praying for a gas station to appear on the way to Tulsa – literally none between the two cities. I was a less than a teaspoon from running out of gas (weird thing to remember about a state, but it’s true!).


USC and SCU: Oregon. Probably my favorite state!  Love the rocky coast, including Devil’s Elbow and all the lighthouses. Crater Lake is one of my favorite hikes ever (Heather, 2021). LOVE Bend.  I want to go back wine tasting someday. I used to think I would go on my honeymoon here. Maybe I’ll retire here instead.  Nah, it rains too much in Portland for me.


USC: Penn / Penn Relays.  Fun watching people fan-girl over the Barber twins.  In 1987, went to Penn State for the Notre Dame football game (Tony Rice was QB). Coldest I’ve ever been at a game.  Drove there in a bad ice storm (stupid, but I had a crush on a Lion alum!).  Drink froze sitting in the stands. Penn Relays: most fun was meeting 4 guys who snuck in as “media” on an annual base and hanging out with them the last 2 years I worked for USC.  They loved track and they also loved staying out late! We had so much fun and I laughed so hard for hours.  RIP Frankie!

Rhode Island

My last state: August 10, 2023!  Been planning this trip for months. I think I saved the best for last – Newport is amazing.  The mansions are worth the price and more!  Go to Castle Hill Inn for drinks. Ride bikes along Ocean Ave.  Eat at Pasta Beach.  So many amazing things to do! I want to go back again very soon.  It’s like Charleston without the crazy heat and traffic.

South Carolina

LIVED: Columbia (1993-2008).  Been everywhere here.  So many good memories and some really shitty ones too (got dumped a lot while at USC). Love Charleston, but it’s so crowded now (fav restaurant: Obstinate Daughter). Love Greenville.  Columbia has gotten so much better. Year ago Janine Davidson and I used to say there should be signs that appear in your rear-view window that says “Columbia – not as bad as you thought it would be” when you drove out of town.

South Dakota

Drove through here with Heather Larkin in 2021.  Told Heather I would only do a 30-hour trip from Minnesota to Oregon if she agreed to go through S.D.!  So, we drove down into South Dakota and went to a gas station.  I bought gum, pretzels and water (weird fish thing in gas station pictured above).  I still remember that little gas station.  State was really pretty in June. So green.  Literally only in South Dakota for an hour so I want to go back.


USC: Tennessee, Vanderbilt.  Losing to the Vols in college football’s first overtime game ever (new rule that year) still stings.  HUGE stadium.  I remember running around Vandy with Dave Odom and wondering if anyone really went there because we never ever saw students on campus.  Nashville is totally underrated. Memorial Day weekend 2018 went with Nick and had the best time going from bar to bar listening to live music. Looks a lot like Arkansas.


USC: Texas, Texas A&M.  SCU: Houston Baptist, Rice, SMU. While playing Texas A&M at NCAA volleyball, snuck into the last-ever Southwest Conference football game between Texas and Texas A&M. I couldn’t believe how loud it was there! Loudest stadium ever with those Aggie whatever they call them.  I think Kevin Foster is still shooting and making 3s at SMU (won a post-season game there).  Had one of the most fun nights ever in Dallas after that win. Thank you Marybeth Jacoby for the introduction.


SCU: BYU, Utah State.  Really pretty. Lots of mountains.  Lots of snow.  I still want to go hiking there after 2 different trips have been canceled. BYU: yuck! I can say it now: BYU is by far the biggest cheaters in college athletics.  Sorry Not Sorry.


Drove through Vermont with Frances Shavers. Really pretty in the summer. Loved the cheese. It’s so small there really isn’t much I remember other than the state capital and cheese.  


LIVED: Springfield (when I worked in the White House).  USC: Virginia.  SCU: George Mason.  Charlottesville is the prettiest campus – top 3 (along with Indiana and Stanford!).  Spent my 21st birthday partying in Old Alexandria. I wonder if that area is still “cool”.


SCU: Gonzaga, Washington. Been to Seattle many times.  The fish market is as cool as it seems.  Used to be such a clean, fresh city.  Love all the flowers.  The Davenport Hotel in Spokane has king sized beds in a lot of the rooms. Heather and I had a room with two king-sized beds, extra-long even! Most likely because they host a lot of men’s basketball teams. Spokane in the winter is ugly. Spokane in the summer is amazing! Great place to hike!

West Virginia

Drove through on the way to DC with Anne Holcomb back when we were like 21!  On our way to Spring Break.  We bought a lottery ticket and won $6 and thought we were so cool.  Also skied here once when I was living in DC.  Maybe one of my most embarrassing days after as someone who considers herself athletic.  I am a terrible skier, but I’m sure the powder is dope. 


Big Ten: Wisconsin (site visit).  Fav restaurant in Milwaukee: Fourth Base.  Also went up to see Braden Young play summer ball in some small town.  Gorgeous in the summer. You can have it all in the winter.


USC: Wyoming.  Played at Wyoming and got man-handled. Laramie.  Geez. In the early 2000s, not a lot was going on. Googled “Mall” and Walmart came up. Really good pea soup at the hotel. Walked a lot there and trust me, it was cold!