I’m from Illinois and for as long as I can remember all I wanted to do was get out. It took a while, but finally I did. I’m not sure I can fully articulate why I thought the state didn’t have anything for me, but a lot of it had to do with my perception of its lack of natural beauty. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so they say, and every person has their own definition of what is beautiful. Maybe those farmers that have soybeans, wheat and corn look at Illinois as beautiful because the soil is so rich and the end products put a lot of food on a lot of tables. There were certainly little pockets of natural beauty near where I’m from, and elsewhere through the state as well. But in general, to me, Illinois is a state largely lacking in aesthetic appeal. So what would it take for Illinois to beautiful, in my eyes? Well, a mountain wouldn’t hurt, but that isn’t necessary or realistic (obviously). There are large tracts of forested areas, so that does have some appeal to me, but the state is largely farmland with a few small urban centers and one major one. And I’ve never been a big city guy. Not at all. I never understood the appeal for the concrete jungle; it is more abrasive to me than the farmland. At least that’s natural (well, sort of). I know people say that cities are where the energy and ideas are, where different people come together and figure out how to get along (for the most part). If that’s true, than I guess the rural areas are where people get stuck in their ways and stick to what they know. I guess that could be true to a degree; it certainly has been proven in many instances. But I would rather live on a ranch in the country than a high-rise in the city any day. But really what I would like is a cabin near the woods, off the beaten path, and far enough away from “civilization” to feel that I don’t have to always be a part of it.
I, among others, refer to Illinois as being part of the Midwest. I’ve never really given it much thought about whether this is geographically true or not until somewhat recently. I was talking to some friends a while back out in Oregon, all transplants themselves, about our hometowns and states. One friend was from Ohio, one from Kansas, and the other from South Dakota. My friend from Ohio agreed with me that we were from the Midwest. The other two did not. Then they started to talk about what the “West” was and asked me to define that. I said the start of the West was Colorado; they agreed. Then they asked me if that is true, how Ohio and Illinois could be considered part of the Midwest. I had to pause. I then tried to argue that states like the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska were the Great Plains, not the Midwest. That argument sunk quickly, even with myself. They said that states like South Dakota and Kansas were the true Midwest if for no other reason than that they were midway to where the West started, Colorado. I had to agree. So then I had to ask myself: where am I from? I brought back in the Great Plains designation and considered if that was a more accurate description of where I’m from and other farm states like Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri. It seemed plausible that maybe that was a better designation. Wisconsin and Michigan often got designated as both Midwest and Great Lakes states, and it seemed that residents there were happy with the designation of the latter. So, I guess I’m from the Great Plains. But is that even true?
When I thought about it further, I thought that the Dakotas and Kansas were more accurately Midwestern, but also Great Plains, too. I mean, they have just as much prairie and farmland as Illinois, and arguable more space in between urban centers. Illinois might be Medium Plains, more accurately. That wouldn’t do. Then we started talking about state slogans; you know, what it says on your license plate. Indiana is the Crossroads of America. How lame. That simply implies that you shouldn’t stop there. It is simply just a necessary pain-in-the-butt obstacle on your way to somewhere better. Ohio is the Birthplace of Aviation. Well, okay, but North Carolina is First in Flight. So which state holds the claim? Illinois is the Land of Lincoln. Yes, surely one of our greatest presidents, but he wasn’t even born there. Missouri is the Show Me state. Show me what? The way out, right? Ho-hum. None of those will do. But then I hung on that last state, Missouri. One of their two biggest urban centers is St. Louis, in part famous for their lovely arch. And what is that city’s motto? The Gateway to the West. Hmm, well, for starters, it’s just another locale reminding people to get out. But also, if they’re correct, and they’re the Gateway to the West, then that means that the Midwest must start on the other side. Dang it. So Missouri is Midwestern. Illinois just missed the cut.
So where does that leave us no-longer-Midwesterners? Let’s look at the states east of us Midwestern rejects (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, etc.): Kentucky claims the Southeast (this one I don’t agree with, at least geographically. Maybe culturally…), as does Tennessee. Pennsylvania, well, the eastern part of the state is what, Mid-Atlantic? Almost, Northeastern? West Virginia and Virginia are likely Mid-Atlantic, and then North Carolina on down claims the South or Southeast. Anything north of Pennsylvania is the Northeast. Minnesota is another one of those in-between states. They could be Great Plains or true Midwestern, but I’m not going to worry about them now. I’m still trying to figure out what Illinois and a few others (Indiana and Ohio) can rightfully call themselves. Something that the “true” Midwestern states often get called mockingly are the “Flyover States.” I’m not sure if this would really apply to Illinois (or the other two) because there are some pretty major population centers there. I mean, if you removed Chicago then I guess 99.9% of people would want to fly over Illinois. Chicago remains and most people still do anyhow… Flyover States won’t do, either.
Well, I guess it is up to me to come up with a new term for that block of IL/IN/OH/IA (and likely western PA, and probably KY): how about the Forgotten States? Well, I don’t think many people living there would like that. The Refueling States? Nope, not unless BP and Shell wanted to give some big kickbacks. One of the things I pride myself on, and not many others seem to understand, is my sarcasm. Everyone I know from Illinois (and other former Midwestern states) has a sarcastic edge to them, or at least understands it – even appreciates it. You don’t find that too much elsewhere, unless you’re in the Northeast. In fact, most people think you’re just being cruel. They’re just stupid. Before I even type this I know that the Sarcastic States ain’t gonna fly either, but I would love to be able to claim that. Nothing else really comes to mind. There isn’t anything that is uniquely Illinois (and IN, and OH, etc…), sad to say. Maybe I should just focus on Illinois and let the others worry about themselves. Let’s see, what is Illinois about? Well, four of our last seven governors have gone to prison. Our state is dead broke and about to be reduced to junk status. This will likely cause many of the public universities to shut their doors, so education is undervalued. Chicago is the only major city to have a population loss in the last decade (gun violence probably plays a role there, among other things). Jeez. I’m drawing a blank on good things about Illinois.
So this brings me back to my conversation with my “real” Midwestern friends; what did they think Illinois and Ohio should be called? We’re not the Bible Belt, we’re not Tornado Alley, and we’re only partly the Rust Belt. So we had to go back to what we started with: the farmland. We’re Farm Country. The breadbasket of the country. I mean, the University of Iowa has on their football team’s helmets a sticker that reads: ANF (America Needs Farmers). And we do. No food, no people. Well, not the most glamorous, but maybe the most accurate. I wasn’t raised on a farm, I never lived on one, but they were all around me, all the time. So we’re not Midwestern, we’re just Farm People. It’s in the soil.