Let's Go: Podunk

The definitive guide to having fun anywhere on earth

| July/August 2001

For many years, I’ve led a double life. A lot of my work as a freelance writer is for travel magazines, so I’ve visited some of the most ostentatiously interesting places on earth: Paris, Beijing, Jerusalem, even Antarctica. But I’m also fascinated with small-town America—my native landscape —and I’ve written about spending a weekend in Iowa Falls, Iowa, and Owatonna, Minnesota. In the process, I’ve discovered there is no dull place on earth and that finding the excitement in Iowa Falls can be just as fun as touring Paris.

Excuse me? Some little burg in flyover country, with a line of fast food outlets on the strip and a struggling Main Street, is as interesting as the City of Light? Yes, in the same sense that the Japanese poet Basho’s little haiku about the frog jumping into the water is as great a work of literature as Dante’s Divine Comedy. Sure, it’s smaller, but if you know how to read it and to love it, adding in plenty of context, it can be every bit as rich.

So here are a few tips, road-tested in what mainstream America considers the drab-best places on earth—small Midwestern towns—for ex-ploring and savoring almost anyplace you find yourself. I’m certain these techniques will, with appropriate adjustments, work nicely in any overlooked place, from industrial New Jersey to Sacramento. They may even help you delve deeper into the heart of more 'cool' destinations.

First, broaden your sense of multicultural values.

Repeat after me:

• Every single spot on the globe, inhabited or uninhabited, is fascinating if you know what to look for and are willing to accept the place on its own terms. You don’t visit Venice seeking great sushi. In the same way, don’t dis a small town diner because it lacks seven-grain bread. Instead, prepare to be de-lighted by the seven-layer sweet bars.

• Small and subtle distinctions are important. You can learn to savor the difference between the interior of a small clapboard Lutheran church in the boondocks and a small clapboard Catholic church in the boondocks. Indeed, a Lutheran church founded by German immigrants will even look different from one founded by Norwegians.

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