So anyone who has been following me on Facebook knows that one month ago today, I set out from my cozy little suburban Philadelphia home and began an epic journey. It was a bucket-list journey, something I’ve always, always wanted to do. This was the time. The RT Booklovers Convention was in Las Vegas, NV this year, as a full-time writer, I had the time and the means, so I thought “I’m gonna drive to Las Vegas!”
Well, let me tell you, this epic road trip was worth every second. I learned so much about this country, about the vastness of its landscape and the huge, huge differences between its regions and people. I visited 21 states, 12 of them I’d never been to before, saw a whole bunch of national landmarks, met up with a dozen or more friends I haven’t seen in ages or that I’d never met outside of the internet, and fell in love with a couple of locations that I never would have guessed would tickle my fancy. In the process, I also had a few epiphanies about different parts of this country, and about our nation as a whole.
So for the next few blog posts, I’m going to talk about what I saw and what I thought…
Crossing the Familiar
Pennsylvania: Okay, well, I’m from PA, and I’m also incredibly biased in favor of my state. I always tell people that I’m not particularly patriotic, but I’m incredibly state-riotic! So this wasn’t news to me, but for those who don’t know Pennsylvania, we’ve got it all. Seriously. Everything. I live in a temperate area filled with rolling hills, mass quantities of deciduous trees and forests, more historic sites than you can shake a stick at, and Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the US. On the other side of the state is those other guys, Pittsburgh (huge Philly/Pittsburgh rivalry going on there), some more mountainy hills, coal and natural gas, more forests, and a super nice guy that I went to high school with and used to date. In the middle is farmland, farmland, and more farmland. And mountains. We call that area Pennsyltucky. Oh, and Lancaster County. Man, I love Pennsylvania!
The Midwest – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois: I was born in southwestern Ohio, in a suburb of Cincinnati. My Grandma still lives there, and I stayed my first night with her. I can’t explain it, but every time I drive through Ohio, I’m struck by how different it feels from Pennsylvania. That’s right, it feels different. It’s much flatter, for one, especially on the western side. Still lots of farms, though. But I have to say—and I hope I’m not offending anyone by saying it—the entire Midwest has a sort of half-panicked feeling to me. Like it’s holding its breath, waiting to see what happens next and not entirely convinced it’s going to be good.
Part of my theory of what might be the root cause of that feeling of desperation is the history of the region. Way, way back in the day, the Midwest was full of excitement and promise. It was the first place that settlers from the brand-spanking new United States picked up and moved to in search of a better life. And they found it! The fertile farmland of the Midwest quickly caused the area to be one of the most prosperous outside of the original thirteen colonies. By the 1840s, Cincinnati was the sixth largest city in the United States. The many rivers and canals that passed through the city and on along the Ohio River to the Mississippi fed that economy. The good times continued into the 20th century, when the Midwest became a hub for industry. My Grandma is a wealth of stories of the middle of the 20th century, when factories and businesses thrived and life was good. Then it all went away. Jobs went overseas, businesses closed, people were laid off and couldn’t find other work. Many people left, but many more couldn’t afford to.
I may be wrong, but the feeling I got from the Midwest was that people there are holding their breath. They’ve been through the wringer in the last two generations, and they’re waiting for things to renew. And there was a lot of potential for renewal in all the things I saw. I sort of considered St. Louis to be the end of the Midwest feeling, and there is definitely a buzz around that city. Oh, and the Gateway Arch (which I’ve always wanted to see) is a lot bigger than I thought it was! If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is. I think the Midwest is due for a big, positive change.
Moving into the Unfamiliar
Missouri: The state of Missouri west of St. Louis was my first big surprise. It was the first state I arrived at that I’d never been to before. And you know what? It’s kind of awesome! Now, that may be because it rained all through the Midwest, but the sun came out when I crossed the Mississippi, and all the redbuds were in bloom. I didn’t realize Missouri was so hilly and woody! And I like me some hills and trees. But it wasn’t just the beauty of the state. It had a sort of positivity about it that the Midwest didn’t. I wonder if that has to do with the history of the economy in the state. I get the impression that, unlike Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, Missouri didn’t have the same industrial dependence throughout the 20th century. Just a theory.
Kansas City: Then I reached Kansas City, and my good friend Laura L. Stapleton’s house. We stayed up way too late talking, then the next day we “did” Kansas City. Well, not the city proper. We went to the Three Trails Museum in Independence, MO. I definitely had the impression that if I was an early settler about to make my journey to the frontier on the Oregon Trail, I would have left that starting point full of excitement and energy, ready to run forward to my new life.
Um, as you’ll see later, I don’t think that feeling would have lasted.
A Token Trek Through Kansas and Iowa, and Eastern Nebraska: So because I wanted to hit as many states as possible, Laura and her husband, Dirk, took me across the Missouri River to stand in Kansas. Of course, in the process I got a nice picture of Susan B. Anthony’s house, as well as a peek at Leavenworth Prison. My plan was to stay in Lincoln, Nebraska that night, and the road to get there took me through Iowa for about half an hour. But I think I can infer what the rest of Kansas and the rest of Iowa must look like from the states around them. Farmland, I’m guessing. Lots of it.
Because almost all of eastern Nebraska was farmland. Lots and lots of flat, flat farmland! I loved Lincoln, though, and I definitely want to go back there. But what struck me as I drove across the state was how positive the feeling was, in spite of there not being a lot of stuff there. I stopped at Ft. Kearny historical site—because, I mean, I mention it several times in my Hot on the Trail series, and I had to take a look at what I’d imagined—but even more than what remains of the fort, it was the vastness of the landscape that really struck me. I thought to myself, there’s nothing in eastern Nebraska.
Little did I know, I was about to redefine “nothing there.”
Anyhow, it was as I drove through Nebraska along the Platte River—just like my characters in the Hot on the Trail series—that I began to have my doubts. I’m pretty sure if I had been a pioneer on the Oregon Trail, about halfway through Nebraska I would have been thinking “Dude, this is the worst idea in the history of ideas!” The flatness and emptiness of what is now Nebraska as it must have existed then would have been overwhelming! It was, as several of the pioneers’ journals tell us.
But then I got to western Nebraska and Wyoming. I’ll save that for next time, though….