Tomorrow, I move out of the Midwest for the first time in my life. It’s off to Boston for a new job, a new place, a new adventure.
After spending the past 29 and a half years in “America’s breadbasket,” a landscape filled with golden swaying cornfields in August, expanses of blowing snow in January, golden/orange/red/purple drifting leaves in October, and the freshest-smelling rain you’ve ever experienced in April, I have to be honest — it’s unbelievably difficult to leave.
So I wanted to pause for a moment, and write a quick list of the 10 things I will miss most about the Midwest. Some of these things you might only understand if you’ve lived in and loved the Midwest yourself. Others are true for anyone who has fallen in love with a place, with the people in it, with its landscape, with its ethos.
The top ten things I will miss about the Midwest:
- The flat fields of Illinois. These open spaces make some visitors uncomfortable. They feel “exposed,” I’ve heard. You might think you’ve seen “flat” if you’ve been to Kansas. And sure, Kansas is pretty flat. But in certain parts of Illinois, the view includes a few dots of grain elevators, barns, and farmhouses among vast expanses of land that seems to have been pounded flat with the world’s largest rolling pin. I’ve not lived in that land for years now — over seven. But whenever I go back, I feel at home again, comforted by the blue bowl of sky overhead and the beauty of wide open spaces.
- The laid-back humbleness of rural Midwestern communities. There’s something beautiful about those little towns, the ones with one stop sign or a single stoplight. They know if you don’t belong. If your family is from there, they know every story about you from that day you broke your forehead open playing softball to that time you ran naked through the neighbor’s strawberries and came out the other side all covered in red juice. They are unassuming and slow-moving, and they love their homes fiercely and unapologetically.
- Dirt roads. Sure, every region has its dirt roads. But there’s something comforting about the roads in the Midwest — they’re on a grid, with numbers. Getting lost is damn near impossible, and you can’t see in any direction in the summer thanks to the cornfields (in Illinois) or trees (in Michigan) blocking your view. Our last two houses were off of dirt roads. My cars hated it, but I found it charming in a roll-up-your-window-or-you’ll-be-breathing-dust sorta way.
- The kindness of strangers. I have had so many strangers help me do all sorts of things. Get chairs into my car in a Meijer parking lot when they didn’t fit. Jumpstart my car. Unlock my car when I locked my keys in it 40 miles away from home. Carry something heavy. Carry something bulky. Figure out how to do something I should already know how to do (like pour coolant in my engine). Most of these have to do with the car, actually. Maybe that should tell me something…
- Watching squall lines charge across a cornfield. Because it’s so flat in Illinois, you can walk outside as a storm (or tornado…) approaches and just watch the beauty unfold. Unbelievable colors — reds, pinks, yellows, deep dark blues. Fast-moving and slow-moving stacks of clouds, menacing and at the same time comforting and beautiful. When the storm arrives, the smash of rain against your windows as you curl up in a comfy chair, warm and safe.
- The smell of tailgates on a Saturday morning in the fall. Hot dogs. hamburgers. Bacon, eggs, champagne, beer, chips, mustard, ketchup, pickles, cookies, brats. Also the sights — college kids painted head to toe in orange and blue or maize and blue or gold and black, hanging with their parents and their friends, throwing a football back and forth or standing around a grill, playing horseshoe or cornhole in large fields set aside especially for Saturday morning football debauchery. The party goes on all day as you first watch your team, then other teams, analyzing how the conference standings will play out over the next few weeks.
- The decidedly unique food cultures of Big Ten college towns. They’re all different. Here in Ann Arbor, we have Zingerman’s, of course, along with just about every other food you can think of. The main street strip is its own special awesome place. Local food is king here, and it’s easy to find places that use ingredients from local farmers. In Indiana and Illinois, good Mexican food is really easy to find. And don’t even try to pretend like you know what sweet corn is unless you’ve bought it from a farmer out of the back of his truck.
- Lawns. Not that people don’t have lawns all over the country, but lawns are a source of pride around these parts. Lush, green, manicured, tended patches of land that are all yours. You sit on your lawn and watch the neighbor kids play in a kiddy pool, sprinkler, or slip n’slide. You have yard sales. Your kid/neice/cousin/neighbor kid picks dandelions for you and brings them inside as gifts (thaaaanks, kiddo). Your weekends are devoted to yardwork, to tending gardens, to pulling tiny weeds from between your impatiens.
- The roar of the crowd. I will miss my college sports, the energy and drive of young athletes as they train alongside getting a good education, the dedication of fans from one end of the Big Ten to the other. I have been an Illini, a Boilermaker, and a Wolverine, and I sympathize with all B1G schools (except Ohio State. Love to hate poor Ohio State). There’s an energy to these Midwestern college towns that really can’t be matched.
- Doing shit you’re not supposed to in friends’ basements / a cornfield / a park / a movie theater. Kids are rebellious everywhere, to be sure. And not all Midwestern teens are up to something they shouldn’t be. But there’s really not a whole lot to do in corn country, so we got really good at making some stuff up. From parties out in the fields (where we were pretty sure the cops wouldn’t find us) to boyfriends in basements to school playgrounds in the summer, we could always find somewhere to get into some good old-fashioned, but not too terribly illegal, trouble.
I will truly miss this beautiful place. I know some people spend their lives trying to leave it, but not me. If anything, I’m likely to spend many years hoping to one day get back.