The Call of America's Heartland
I was boarding my delayed flight to Kansas City from DC last Friday. I was not in a good mood. I had arrived at the airport at 6:30, and it was now 10pm. As my boarding group was called, I noticed that everyone around me was chatting with each other. These people were all strangers, but everyone seemed jovial. What the heck is going on? Oh right, I'm going to the midwest, where everyone is super nice and just curious about what you're up to.
Erin warned me about this. She told me stories of her trips back to Iowa, where she would be startled by the person behind her in line at the grocery store wanting to talk about whatever. It is the antithesis of DC style. And pardon my french, but I hecking love it. Even though Honolulu isn't a big city, it is crowded. When I moved to LA, I felt the same way. By the time I was 25, I had been to nearly every major city in the US, and none of what some might call "tier 2" cities. All of that changed when I started working for 4-H.
My first work trip took me to Pewaukee, Wisconsin. I got in my rental car and was immediately filled with a sense of grandeur as I drove past red barns and corn fields. I loved seeing storms off on the horizon, and in July, the warm air wafting into the car through my rolled-down windows. I have since returned to various cities in Wisconsin (Hartford, Milwaukee, and Madison), and I have to say that every time I go back, I fall in love with the state more and more. This is shocking to me, as when I grew up in Hawaii, any typical tourist-looking person was immediately labeled as someone from Wisconsin. If you're wearing a Hawaiian shirt, socks with sandals, and have a camera strapped around your neck, every local in Hawaii thinks you're from Wisconsin. I'm sorry but these are the facts.
Wisconsin was just the beginning for me, and to all the states that I've doubted for my whole life, I'm sorry. Tennessee stole my heart next. I visited my friend Christine, who showed me what the new American dream is. In case you haven't been paying attention, the american dream isn't to own a home anymore. It's to own a home, AirBnB and rent it, and live off that income so you're no longer paying rent or you're running positive month to month on your mortgage. This was all while I was paying nearly $1,000 per month in DC rent. She owns a home, travels, and is saving a boat load of money. I felt like I had reached a new level of enlightenment.
But it wasn't just about the money. The mid-west, if anything, is about the people. From Erin's hometown of Davenport, Iowa, I got to see a side of American life that was slower, more relaxed, and more idyllic than anything I'd experienced in Hawaii, California, or DC. When Erin's father passed away, I spent two weeks in Iowa, seeing a community come together around a man who had a very real impact on a wide range of people, and at his service, people of all walks of life came to celebrate his contributions to Davenport. But it wasn't just a celebration, it was a sign of appreciation. I think that three quarters of that was a testament to Bill, and everything that he did, but I think the remaining quarter is a sign of what kind of city Davenport is. That you are glorified and recognized for big and the little actions. That the community you contribute to loves you back equally.
These experiences and more were synthesized in this weekend's trip to Kansas City, for my good friends Ken and Megan's wedding. Erin and I stayed in a beautiful home of a couple who were doing exactly as my friend Christine had done. They bought a 4 bedroom house and were AirBnBing it in a hip neighborhood with a wealth of bars and restaurants (shout out to the Corner Restaurant). Erin and I saw open spaces, met friendly people, ate some fantastic food, and didn't spend a whole lot of money. And it was awesome. I just spent my last afternoon in KC on the porch in a hammock where I napped, called my dad, and just watched the world go by.
I'm not trying to throw shade on the biggest cities in the world, but I think that for folks that have spent their lives on the coasts, there's a lot to see in the mid-west and south. Far more than I ever could have imagined. So for all those tourists in Hawaii from the catch all "Wisconsin", and for all those times I called Nebraska a fly-over state, I'm sorry. The heartland is different, but in all the right ways. I only hope I can get more time on porches, driving on open roads, saving a buck or two. If you've haven't been to America's corn belt, rustbelt, or bible belt, go. You won't regret it.