What I Can Tell You About the Midwest by Visiting Six States in One Week
This month, I traveled 1,400 miles visiting America’s heartland with my family on a summer vacation. While soaking in more of this beautiful country I call home, I want to tell you the most profound lesson that I learned:
The road trip across six states — Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and South Dakota — was often a culture shock for a lifelong New Yorker. More than other trips, it got me out of my bubble, even though I’ve taken dozens of trips to cities spanning the South and Midwest. Still, I’m no De Tocqueville. This was one family vacation.
On this trip, I met a real farmer. I ate lots of cheese curds. I told a Mormon tour guide I’d keep Jesus in my heart just to make her happy. (“To me, following Jesus is really about the Golden Rule, doing unto others what you’d want others to do unto you,” I said, just wishing my parents could hear how well their years of paying my private Hebrew day school tuition worked out).
None of what I learned makes me remotely capable of sharing anything of substance about the Midwest, any of the people I met in the Midwest, the states I visited in the Midwest, or even the various restrooms (and one patch of grass along a cornfield) that I visited along the way. I don’t even know the difference between corn or wheat. And I wouldn’t know what a soybean was even if it rented a billboard on the side of I-90, posted a selfie on it, and said, “I AM A FREAKING SOYBEAN, ALRIGHT?” I’m assuming it kind of looks like edamame?
One town I visited said it had a population of 633. I wondered if someone changed the sign every time someone was born or someone died (it didn’t occur to me until writing this that some people might just move). And then I was wondering, “Does someone actually have this weird death wish, where they’re looking forward to people dying so that they get to change the sign?” Later, I looked up the town and saw that the population number matched the 2010 census. They probably don’t change the sign every time someone comes or goes. That’s good because it’d be really weird to look forward to someone dying. Again, this is further proof that I know nothing about anything.
I spent a lot of time reflecting while on this road trip. What is it like for someone in a town of 600? With so few stores or restaurants anywhere around, do they even run into people much? And what was it like before the internet? How disconnected were they? Did they spend more time having regular occasions to meet with people in their community? Is being connected better now when they can explore the world virtually, stay in touch with whoever they want, and read the same conspiracy theories that everyone else does? I don’t know because I didn’t talk to anyone about this. And if I did talk to someone about it, I would be getting one random person’s opinion to make myself sound far better informed than I am.
I went to a county fair, and there was a table in the exhibition hall for the local outfit of the Democratic Party, and it seemed really odd that there were Democrats out there in the middle of farm country at a fair that was proudly advertising its creationist animal exhibit. That marked one exhibit dedicated to creationism and zero exhibits dedicated to science. Well, there were probably some about corn husbandry.
Also, the toy tractors seemed really expensive, so I didn’t buy any. Why are toy tractors that expensive? Are they collectors’ items? Don’t they know that someone like me would pay that much? Oh, right, they don’t care at all about someone like me because I am the one pretending to fit in at a county fair, and I wasn’t sure if I could tell the difference between a goat and a shorn sheep. I figured it out on my own, but don’t the sheep get cold? A lot of them were wearing blankets. Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing ever? They’re sheep! It’s like if I’m standing next to a Canadian goose that’s freezing to death while I’m wearing a Canada Goose jacket. Do sheep ever wear wool blankets? This is one animal that should literally never get cold.
I had some really great thoughts on the road about how value systems must be really different out in the rural Midwest. People can’t depend on the government, and self-reliance is more of a thing. If the government, or the Democratic Party, says it’s trying to help people, that makes it sound even worse because no one wants to claim that they need help, especially in such a self-reliant part of the country. Again, I have no idea, and one road trip briefly visiting a bunch of these states gives me no authority to comment on any of this.
There are a lot of taco restaurants out here. What’s up with Taco John’s? Why not Taco Juan’s — too ethnic? Even the tiniest of towns here seem to have a taco spot, whether a chain or a mom & pop, if they have more than one restaurant. Also, it seems very easy to eat gluten-free out in the Midwest. If people get wheat allergies, do some also get corn allergies? How tough would that be out here to not be able to eat wheat or corn?
In one town we drove through, there was one movie theater with one screen. It was playing The Emoji Movie. That sounded like a certain kind of hell. I thought of a pretty funny tweet about that. A shame I didn’t get a photo of that theater, and I forgot what I was going to tweet. Damn. Anyone around that town who likes movies probably has Netflix, so it can’t be so bad.
We went to Hoover’s Presidential Library in Iowa, nearly two hours east of Des Moines. It’s a wonderful museum. He had a touching friendship with Truman, who appreciated Hoover’s work with global food relief after World War I and invited him to expand on that effort after World War II. A lot of the presidents so far come from these small towns. Hoover was an orphan from that part of Iowa. Truman worked his farm; we saw his library too. The safe bet is that going forward, fewer presidents will come from these tiny places. We’ll get more from Dallas and New York and the like. Even those like Obama, born somewhere remote, will identify more with a city like Chicago. That should mean that presidential libraries will be much easier to get to, and more people will visit them.
Going out on the road in the heartland, you come across things like the World’s Largest this and World’s Smallest that. In Ames, Iowa, we saw the World’s Largest Concrete Garden Gnome. In Maskell, Nebraska, we visited the nation’s smallest City Hall (fans of small government should make a pilgrimage here). We should do more of that around major cities. Okay, we have the Statue of Liberty, and the John Hancock building, and… does the Hollywood sign count? You can probably get a selfie with Ryan Gosling.
So yes, it was a wonderful trip. We ate ridiculously well (Free State Brewery in Lawrence, KS; Joe’s BBQ and Succotash in Kansas City; Zombie Burger and Fong’s Pizza in Des Moines; Harold’s Koffee House in Omaha; Bluestem in Luverne, MN; Queen City Bakery in Sioux Falls), learned a ton at more then a dozen museums, fed animals ranging from baby goats to adult giraffes, saw a lot of beautiful scenery and greenery, and still never learned the difference between corn and wheat.
The whole trip makes me love America all the more, even if seeing more of it makes me realize how little I know about it. I do know this much though: it’s home.