I’m from Illinois. People from Illinois call it part of the “heartland.” They say we’re from the Midwest. I have a friend from South Dakota, one from Kansas and a friend from Nebraska I was talking too recently; they said Illinois is not the Midwest. “Nope,” they say, “that ain’t tornado alley. That’s more like the forgotten country.” I sneered and reminded them we have one of the most iconic cities in the world – Urbana – and we continued our debate. They said Illinois was flyover country. I said no one was stopping in Kansas unless they were going to Leavenworth, South Dakota unless they were going to Sturgis, or Nebraska unless they were trying to get to Colorado. Needless to say we didn’t see eye-to-eye on what states made up the Midwest, but I still claim that’s where I’m from, for better or worse.
I heard an interesting fact recently: that Illinois has lost more population than any state in the last year; 38,000 people have moved on to greener pastures. And while I know there are numerous reasons: a beyond broken state legislature with a major debt load and no sign of a balanced budget in sight and a huge Red/Blue divide between “downstate” Illinois and Chicago, the state still has a particular fondness for me. I couldn’t imagine ever living there again though. I never lived in Chicago, so all I know is the downstate way-of-life. I enjoy going back to my hometown, but I don’t like to stay too long. So I guess I get it. When you have beautiful states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon, and bustling metropolises like New York City, Miami and Nashville, why would you stay in a broken-down, flat cornfield? But nonetheless, it is my home. The heartland.
In fact, my family still has a farm there, down south, about 130 acres that’s been in the family for 150+ years. That sounds like a decent chunk of land, but very small by farming standards. Most “family” famers these days have farms closer to 2-3,000 acres. The folks that farm our land see it as a drop in the bucket. But still, that’s some pretty deep roots for me. When my folks finally buy the farm and it becomes mine, I’ll wonder what to do with it. Keep contracting it out, switch it to organic, grow hemp, or maybe just sell it outright. I’m not sure how long I want to sustain my connection to the heartland. To me, it’s still a good hub to see my folks and my early-period friends, but as time goes on, I think Illinois may turn in to strictly “flyover country” or simply another state I’ll drive through to get back out to Colorado for a spell. On that note, why is Indiana so proud that their state is “the crossroads of America” or St. Louis so proud that they are “the gateway to the west”? I mean, both of those mottos just admit your place sucks and is only an impediment to a better life. Whomever came up with those marketing campaigns didn’t put much thought into it, I don’t think…
I lived in Colorado for about nine years over four separate periods of time. Colorado is really where I’d like to call home, though I no longer live there, and was always not much better than a transient when I was docked there. I used to always see those bumper stickers with the silhouette of the Rockies that read, “Colorado Native” or “Go Home.” Yea, so you arrogant people won the place-of-birth lottery. Your parents or grandparents figured it out first. Big deal. Colorado is great and all – I love it – but maybe if you’re from there and never left, maybe it’d do you some good to check a few other places out. Oh, and to keep your stupid comments to yourselves. Anyone that puts a bumper sticker on a car has issues anyways. We don’t care that your child is an honor student in high school; since when was high school ever difficult anyways? We don’t care that your dog is smarter than my honor student; if that’s true your dog thinks you’re an idiot for putting a decal on paint. It encourages the retention of moisture and causes your vehicle to rust, leading to a crappy car and lower resale value. We don’t care that you went to Alabama and your football team is the best in college, and has been for years. All the people in your state are fat and illiterate. We don’t care that you’ve seen the hippie jam-band Phish and that you’ve “set the gearshift for the high gear of your soul” because that doesn’t even make sense. In Illinois the only stickers that people put on their car are ones that read: “It’s flat so you can get out quicker.” Illinois is “The Land of Lincoln,” though he wasn’t from there, but that’s what our license plates read. Even though he was singing about Texas, I’ll borrow from James McMurtry here to describe Illinois: “Flatter than a tabletop, makes you wonder why they stopped here, wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition…” (from Levelland). Maybe our motto – and license plate – should be, “Just passing through.” It would keep in line with Indiana and the “show me” state of Missouri – our neighbors. Maybe Missouri’s slogan is just short for: “Show me the way outta here!”
By this time I have likely upset a number of people. I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I cannot tell a lie, I’m not. I mean, if I’m from the Land of Lincoln, I might as well borrow some of his slogans… But the Midwest isn’t all bad. It really isn’t. I developed my sarcasm there, which I love, though only other Midwesterners and Northeasterners really get it or appreciate it. I learned how to suffer unbearable cold and ice; this has come in handy living in more moderate climates where I can make fun of people for saying it is “freezing cold” when it’s only 40 degrees. That’s November 1 or April 15 where I’m from. That’s nothing. I learned how to eat a whole cow in one week by myself, washing it down only with potato juice. I learned how to match flannel with anything, appreciate a mullet, recognize that Natural Light and Icehouse are far better than any craft beer, and not flinch in a smoke-filled bar. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, but almost 80% of my friends did; the smoke was ubiquitous to my surroundings. The Midwest made me tough. I think that’s true. Maybe it made me appreciate how to make the best out of not much. When you don’t have mountains, rivers, plush restaurants, or nationally recognized entertainment coming to your town, you make the best with what you’ve got. In fact, my hometown still has a contest for kids where they push the hula hoop with a stick. Last place that does it. Yes, sir…
I know a lot of people that never tried living outside Illinois. I know a lot of people that never tried living outside my home county. I know a number of people who have never lived outside my hometown. I don’t have much contact with many of them anymore, but when I do, they’re amazed at all the places I’ve lived. I’m amazed at all the places I haven’t been. I’m amazed that they lack the spirit to roam. But then when I really think about it, I accept that maybe they’ve just always been happy there. Maybe there is no good reason to search if you’re not looking for anything. It must be nice to live where you’re from all your life, in some way. My parents have, for the most part. Aside for a few years for college for both my folks, and that was only 45 minutes one direction for my mom, 45 minutes the other direction for my dad, they’ve always lived in my hometown. They’ll die there, too. And they’re just fine with that, so it seems.
Me, I’ve never been content. Always been packin’ my bags, trying to find the right place to settle down. Well, what happens if that place is my hometown and I’ve spent the last 16 or so trying to find what was right under my nose? Wouldn’t that be something? Tell you what though, ain’t no way, baby. I’ll always be proud of where I’m from, but I don’t ever hope to return, at least not permanently. As long as I can remember I wanted to get out, even though the “why” was never clear, the need was very much coursing through my blood. I have a friend from high school who moved to Georgia for college and then to Portland, Oregon for work for a few years. He now lives back in our hometown. He feels the need to get back out West, as if he’s missing something, as if he’s let himself down for returning home. I understand where he’s coming from. Once you fly the coop, it’s tough to go back. It’s never the way it once was. But I’m from the heartland. I grew in the same soil as all that corn and soybeans that line the endless highways. It’s just my end-product didn’t get consumed there; I got sent abroad, no return address…
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