As a 50-state legislative junkie, I love state comparisons in whatever form they appear. I just finished reading an amusing and insightful novel, The English Major by Jim Harrison, in which a 60-year old former English teacher—devastated by a recent divorce, the death of his dog and the sale of his farm in Upper Michigan—sets off on a road trip intent on traveling through all 50 states.
As a youth he (Cliff) had been fascinated with a 50-state jigsaw puzzle that listed the state bird, flower and motto for each state. As he travels, he reports these factoids for each state and fantasizes about a project to rename the states more appropriately (e.g., he thinks about renaming California, "Pacifica") and their state birds "because birds simply don't deserve the banal names we have given them." The states he visits are the headings for each chapter of the book. As he leaves one state and enters another, he makes a ritual of tossing the jigsaw puzzle piece from the state he is exiting out his car window.
Traveling west from his home in Michigan, he enters Wisconsin and reflects:
I was hankering to see some of the central Wisconsin farmland and the northern Wisconsin forestlands were all too similar to Michigan's. This thought reminded me of when I taught school and one September a duller student of which there were many told me that when he was on a summer vacation drive with his parents he noted that many of the states looked the same. I said that the land was there before it was divided into states. He said, "I guess maybe you're right." I asked him if he owned a United States jigsaw puzzle as a child and he grinned and said as if a thirty-watt bulb had sparkled in his head, "That's the problem, by golly. In the puzzle the states next to each other are a different color."
Well, from my standpoint, steeped in the politics of the 50 states, I think the different colored puzzle pieces are more descriptive of the states than the dimwitted student's notion that they all look alike. Plopped down in the middle of lots of states without any information, I wouldn't be any better at telling where I was by the physical landscape, but give me a few minutes to talk to people about their attitudes and politics, and I'm quite sure that I would know quickly whether I was in Michigan or Wisconsin, Maryland or Virginia, Massachusetts or Rhode Island, Alabama or Mississippi, or Colorado or Utah.
Later on in the book Cliff refutes the notion that the states are alike:
Nothing on my trip thus far was as I expected which shows you that rather than simply read about the United States you have to log the journey. I mean the look and feel of it. I've read that television has made us all the same but I haven't seen the evidence for that point of view.
In the novel, our "hero" never quite makes it to all 50 states (in fact, he visits only 10 or so in the West and Midwest), as his wanderlust gives way to longing for home. But he does complete his project of renaming the 50 states, choosing to name each one after an Indian tribe that had previously lived on the land. Thus, in Cliff's scheme my home state of Ohio becomes "Wyandot" and my adopted state of Colorado is renamed "Ute." California is not "Pacifica" but rather "Chumash."