It was somewhere over Iowa that I started paying attention to the screen in front of me showing my flight’s location. At what point, I wondered, did we enter “flyover” territory–the fairly arrogant term East/West coasters use for the area of the country between the coasts you wouldn’t think of actually landing, and, golly, find something worthy of their sophistication to do.
So having several hours to kill before landing in San Francisco I started thinking about the nation’s midsection and what I might have missed had I always flown over, and never landed in it.
Permit me a fond recollection that dates back to 1974. I had never seen the Mississippi River, or any place actually, west of Buffalo. My wife had seen it all. I had a week off from my $1.85/hour radio DJ job in Fulton, NY. This would be our first vacation since our wedding in September, 1973 and I asked my wife if we could drive to the Mighty Mississippi and back in a week. She assured me we could.
We hit the road and in short order I got my first glimpse of Ohio and the great city of Cleveland. I had hair that reflected the times and my age and the clerk at the first motel we attempted to stay in promptly refused me on the grounds that I looked like a creep.
After finding a more open-minded hotelier we hit Columbus, Cincinnati, and Louisville in short order. No money or time to do much so we quickly drove around Churchill Downs wondering what it would be like to attend the Kentucky Derby. From there we crossed into Indiana and became hopelessly lost. Somehow we ended up in Tell City, IN, then Hawesville, KY. A strong wind across the flat farmlands promptly blew my side view mirror off our awesome white Rambler. Eventually we found our way and the great Gateway Arch poked its apex over the horizon, providing a prominent trailmarker to our destination, and feeling almost weepy at seeing the Mississippi at last as we crossed into St. Louis.
We again faced the challenge of finding lodging, only this time it was due to a long parade of “no vacancy” signs. A room was finally secured at a high rise in suburban Clayton where we dumped our things and headed back to town to catch a Cardinals game in what was then, the modern, total ’70’s circle, Busch Stadium. They were playing the hated Reds and we saw Pete Rose, whom 16 years later, would slam me into a wall when I asked him a tough question just before he was bounced from baseball.
As I mentioned, we had little money, so we took the first tour of the Budweiser brewery the next morning and slurped as much free swill as we could before moving on to Illinois where we made surgical strikes in Springfield to see Abe Lincoln’s grave and Chicago where we drove around the Loop and headed back east.
We noticed the Kelloggs factory in Battle Creek, MI was an easy detour off the Indiana Toll road and guessed, correctly, they’d give us free cereal. Sure enough, “Request Packs” was given to us after a fascinating tour watching Corn Flakes made by mashing corn grits to smithereens between two gigantic rollers.
Then it was the home stretch back to Oswego, NY where we lived, via Detroit, Canada and Niagara Falls, where we pulled up to parking space, looked over at the falling water and got back in the car because we had no coins for the parking meters.
After a lifetime, to that point, of being a fairly sheltered New Yorker who thought the western border of the U.S. was the Hudson River and nothing north of the Catskill Mountains matter, it was a geographic and cultural coming of age for me. From that day on, I appreciated what lay between the coasts, the marvel of the Rocky’s, the kindness of the people, the variety of the vittles, and the cornucopia of customs and routines. As a reporter I covered everything from natural disasters, plane crashes, trials, politics, crimes, sports, most times meeting people who opened my eyes to points of view, to courage, to mystery, to incredible sadness and misery, music, humor, triumph and joy.
Flyover country? Not at all. That IS the country.