I love the term Middle America, however vague it may be. It describes the place where the Average Joe and Average Jill reside, the everyman (and everywoman) archetypes who this elitism-averse culture reveres as the quintessential Americans.
Where better to experience Middle America than in the Midwest? It is a vast and diverse territory, defined mainly by what it is not: The Northeast, The West and the South. We have now journeyed for the first time through a huge chunk of this nation’s Midwest, passing near many of the ‘M’ places I’ve heard mentioned all my life: Missouri, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Minneapolis. (Alas my route looped around the Midwest’s heart, Iowa, which will have to wait for another trip).
I used to believe it didn’t matter where you lived, that there were just two Americas: urban and rural. Now, leaving out the most remote wilderness hamlets, I’d revise that to: urban and suburban, ‘suburban’ describing a lifestyle which is shared by small towns to mid-sized cities across America – as long as they are within an hour’s drive of an Interstate highway. School, job, football, beer, shopping mall. Some may deride this existence as vacuous and consumerist. But the connective tissue is family, friends, and simple pleasures. It is also a way of life that looms as an ideal for much of the rest of the world.
A healthy example of middle America in the Midwest can be found in Appleton, Wisconsin. There, midway between Green Bay and Madison, I was treated to a lovely dinner by friends, in a subdivision that was built on the farmland where anti-Communist senator Joseph McCarthy grew up.
Appleton, with nearly 75,000 inhabitants, is clean, efficient, and a strip mall mecca. I needed a Petco or a PetSmart for Gunter and Appleton had both. I managed to get my car serviced at a state-of-the-art Subaru dealer, which was around the block from the Best Western motel. All the major chain stores are here – including Hobby Lobby. (Although I didn’t see a Starbucks anywhere in Wisconsin, perhaps because I avoided large cities.)
Appleton, I’m told, was home to the founder of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. It’s the same town – although I doubt the same neighborhood – where famed magician Harry Houdini, the son of a Hungarian Jewish rabbi, spent his childhood.
After Appleton, we spent a day crossing Wisconsin, driving over the mighty Mississippi at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, passing south of Minneapolis, and landing in suburban-ly gentrifying Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Banistered walkways and a café have now tamed the rocky rapids). Only the next day, once we crossed the Missouri River, near where explorers Lewis and Clark camped, did I feel I had left the middle of America behind and was back in the West once again.
GOON DOG’S VIEW: The way I see it there are only two Americas: a) the one that is brown, hot and dry, and b) the one that is green, wet and humid. This week we crossed from b) to a) and went through a temperature change from 54 degrees to 100 degrees in just three days.
Let’s face it, I’m much more fixated on the birds and the flies and the dogs that have preceded me on every patch of grass, than I am with the history and culture of these places. But I like a new experience as much as the next guy. I mean dog.