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The American Heartland

ornate building behind leafy shrubs
Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse, Evansville, Indiana

About sixteen years ago, I drove from Colorado to Illinois for a family reunion. I had just adopted my dog Puck, a puppy who was found abandoned at the side of a highway in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

Puck was just a few months old, and I couldn’t bring myself to adopt her then, two weeks later, leave her in the care of another human while I drove through the Midwest. So she came with me.

As I usually like to do when driving alone, I avoided the interstates, opting for the two-lane highways that crisscross the American map.

As Puck and I ambled along U.S. 50 through Kansas, I had to stop every hour or so to, as I started euphemistically calling it, drain the dog.

At each stop, Puck took her time. Unlike us “evolved” humans, dogs don’t keep a calendar, attend meetings, or wear watches. Dogs, for the most part, don’t concern themselves with how quickly they can get from Point A to Point B.

Her indifference to time was a valuable lesson for me. It slowed me down even more and let me appreciate our surroundings. It also gave us the opportunity to meet and talk to several people along the way.

I thought about that trip with Puck often as I drove through the Midwest during my recent return to the States, especially about the people we met along the way.

We Americans are a friendly bunch. It’s something I think we take for granted, and I didn’t realize how much I missed random conversations with strangers.

To much of the rest of the world, we Americans are like badly dressed golden retriever puppies, approaching everyone in our cargo shorts and sneakers with wagging tails, wanting to be everyone’s friend.

Here in Georgia, smiling and saying hello to a stranger on the street is more often than not met with a suspicious glare. Starting up a random conversation on the street? It’s probably not going to happen here unless it’s with another American expat.

Coming back to the States and driving three-quarters of the way across the country felt like I had slipped into a favorite pair of blue jeans. It was comfortable.

On my way from North Carolina to New Mexico, through Appalachia and the Midwest, I found it quite easy to strike up a conversation. From my perspective driving the back highways, we Americans aren’t really getting angrier. We’re just told that we’re getting angrier by angry talking heads and buying into their self-serving rhetoric.

That’s not to say everything’s fine. Far from it. I spent many hours along long highways wondering why a country that’s so at ease with friendly small talk can tolerate routine news of mass shootings. It’s not a question I was able to answer, and this is, after all, a newsletter on wandering.

Corie and I frequently meet people who dream of traveling to the U.S. More often than not, their answer to our question on where they would like to go generates a list of locations with the most common being New York City, Florida, the Grand Canyon, and Los Angeles.

There’s a lot of country in between and I was glad to see it again.

It was day two of my drive from North Carolina to New Mexico. Since I couldn’t resist the lure of the Evansville Dog Days and got a much later start than I had planned, I finished the day in Columbia, Missouri, about 290 miles away but closer to the start of the Santa Fe Trail.

Passing vast fields of shriveled cornstalks that looked like the earth had grown a stubbled beard, the highways connected small towns that with welcoming signs promoting their friendliness and their high school mascots.

It was on a Saturday, and I imagined many people living in these towns would be gravitating to their local stadium and cheer for whatever Lions, Tigers, or Bears who were competing against whatever Spartans, Vikings, or Chiefs their high school team happened to be playing.

I stopped to stretch my legs in Mount Vernon, Illinois, where Michaela Suver was starting a butterfly mural on the side of a dance studio building. As the owner of MJ Design, Michaela told me she had been hired to paint several murals around town, but this one was special. Her daughter was taking classes at this dance studio.

She asked if I worked for the newspaper. I told her the story I had often repeated on this trip: my wife and I live overseas, and this is the first time we’ve been back since we left a year and a half ago, so I’m driving across the country taking photos to share with the best newsletter readers one could hope for.

She asked me about Georgia, how we liked it, how we ended up there. Each time someone asked me about our new home, it was met with one of two responses. There were those who were curious about what we liked about our time overseas and those who acted like it was a prison term. One woman gasped and told me I must be very happy to be back. Another told me I was crazy for going there.

Michaela fell in the first camp. As she painted the black outlines of a colorful butterfly, we exchanged stories, enjoying the Midwestern fall afternoon.

This was the America I was happy to come home to.

Next week we’ll be getting closer to the start of the Santa Fe Trail. Before we do, I’ll take you on an unexpected detour in Saint Louis.

black and white image of withered corn stalks
Cornfield, Highway 40, Missouri

black and white image of a brick building with white window frames
Sleuges Barber Shop, Mount Vernon, Illinois


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