I am crossing America by Amtrak train and am now leaving the Wild West headed east through the Midwest. Much of the Midwest is prairie, farms and cows. Collectively these states are called the Plains States, probably because they are indeed very plain. Not a thing is growing at this time of year, but the planting season is just around the corner. If the spring planting is good, the corn will be “knee high by the 4th of July” and these states will produce enough soybeans to make tofu for all of Japan.
The Midwest is known for its writers. From Garrison Keillor’s radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion” and its news from Lake Wobegon in Minnesota, to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homesteads in Kansas and Wisconsin, to Mark Twain’s adventures down the Mississippi River from St. Louis, to James Thurber’s antics and Sherwood Anderson’s tales about small town life in Ohio, the Midwest has always inspired its people to write. And it’s no wonder — there’s not much else to do.
It’s easy to get nostalgic about this slow, laid-back life outside the train window though. Anderson talked about clover fields and yellow mustard weed in his book about Winesburg, Ohio. He could have been on a train looking out the window when he said: “I go about looking at horses and cattle. They eat grass, make love, work when they have to, bear their young. I am sick with envy of them.” That was in 1919, but the envious life of horses and cattle still exists here today. That’s because nothing changes very quickly in the Midwest. And this is the charm — it’s like going back in time. As in Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average,” what needs to change?
Joel Mabus sings the praises of Midwestern life in his song “Hopelessly Midwestern”: “If you live in the middle and not on the edge — you’re hopelessly Midwestern. If a big Saturday means clipping the hedge — you’re hopelessly Midwestern.” He goes on to sing about ice tea, boiled green beans and apple pie. And, if you “still think sushi looks like bait,” then guess what? You’re hopelessly Midwestern!
From Kansas to Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and finally my home state of Ohio, I reminisced about childhood games known to all Midwestern kids at that time, such as hide-and-seek in cornfields and, of course, cow tipping. Cow tipping, in case you’re not from the Midwest, is a game where you go into a pasture and sneak up on dozing cows and push them off balance.
The farther east the train traveled, the friendlier people became. These people, on the train for the long haul, were not like the rail rage passengers of San Francisco. At one point I was listening to an interview with Garrison Keillor on National Public Radio discussing whether Midwesterners were “too friendly,” as if this might be a weakness or character flaw. Keillor assured listeners it was not. Hopelessly Midwestern.
One thing I learned about America is that although he people can be extremely rude, they can also be extremely kind. Like the deserts of Nevada, the mountains of Colorado and the flat plains of the Midwest, America is a land of extremes shared among its land and people. While Japan is polite, coded and predictable, America is full of surprises and unpredictability.
When I decided to travel across the U.S. by train, all I expected was great scenery. But train travel brings out the best in us: makes us look deeper into the scenery until we become a part of it. Choo-chooing through the Midwest made me realize how “hopelessly Midwestern” I really am. And I wondered briefly what it was that made me move so far away.
One of my favorite writers, James Thurber, said, “All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.” All I can say is thank God I’m not a man.