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.
• Anything locally owned–restaurant, grocery, motel, bookstore, even a filling station–will almost always be a better choice for your purposes than a national chain.
• A supposedly boring place you have made your own through love and careful study is a more precious experience than a vacation memory you share with a zillion package-tour lemmings.
Next, dig into some background reading.
• The Works Progress Administration state travel guides. These magnificent products of the 1930s and 1940s–most of which have been republished in recent years–are outdated, of course, but they contain plenty of wonderful historic lore about American places big and small. And they offer inspiration and countless examples of how to uncover the interesting elements in any community.
• The books of John Brinckerhoff Jackson. The Necessity of Ruins (University of Massachusetts, 1980), Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (Yale, 1984), and other books of essays by this great scholar of the ordinary American landscape will tune you up to appreciate the historical resonance of the curved suburban street, why old roads are often near rivers, and other fascinating things to look for everywhere you go.
• The books of William Least Heat-Moon, particularly that awesome multidimensional meditation on a ‘nondescript’ spot in Kansas, PrairyErth (Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
• A good guide to American vernacular (everyday) architecture. One of the richest experiences in any American community is enjoying the weird mix of historical and architectural styles in houses and public buildings. In Ottumwa, Iowa, for example, the newspaper is published in an Egyptian Revival gem that looks like a cross between the Temple of Amon and a furniture store.
• The books of Jane and Michael Stern, such as Roadfood and Goodfood (Knopf, 1986) and Eat Your Way Across the USA (Broadway, 1997). These utterly unprejudiced scholars of vernacular eating do more than spot the best corn dogs or barbecued ribs coast-to-coast–they celebrate the endurance of local color in every sense.
Once you’ve hit the ground:
• Browse the bulletin boards in grocery stores, bars, and public buildings for events that will lead you into the culture of the place: dances, concerts, talks, ethnic pageants, estate sales, tent revivals, summer fairs.
• Visit graveyards for fascinating and moving insights into the history of the place. One of the most beautiful spots I know on this planet is a windy hillside cemetery in southeastern Iowa, miles from the nearest town, full of exquisitely carved 19th-century gravestones, all in Polish.
• Prospect in the Yellow Pages and be alert for the out-of-the-way: the storefront Mosque or Morovian Church, the Mexican grocery, the tavern advertising Vietnamese food. Gather free tourist information from the pamphlet racks. Amid the dreck (the local casino, outlet mall, conference center) you can find gold: the world’s biggest ball of twine (Darwin, Minnesota) or a stable where you can see miniature horses and a rare breed of fainting goats (a hereditary trait that makes them occasionally keel over, to be found near Nashua, Iowa).
• Find the local library. Pick out the most knowledgeable-looking librarian and enlist her or him in your quest to find and experience the most interesting things in the area. Emphasize the fact that you are open to the things the town or area’s boosters consider tourist attractions, but you want to go beyond these, too. The library will probably contain local histories, including the stories of ethnic associations, fraternal groups, church congregations, and so on, along with memoirs by old-timers, humor books and compelling accounts of local disasters (great blizzards or fiery shipwrecks on the river). Browse in these for an hour and you will begin to feel the richness of the region. The Burger King signs will begin to feel filmy and ephemeral.
• Cultivate human resources. The librarian may know (or be) the local historian. Introduce yourself to this maven–often a gregarious retired person with great stories and lots of time on his or her hands. Owners of used-book stores can be priceless sources of knowledge, as are clergy, local artists, and shopkeepers.
• Take architectural walking tours (you may find pamphlets about them) and historic house tours. Visit local museums, especially the oddest-looking and tiniest ones. Your goal is not just to see old things, but to engage curators and guides in conversation. Remember that in many small towns and overlooked neighborhoods, the richest culture of all is oral.
• Eat locally. Learn what the local ‘soul food’ is and ask about the best places to eat it. In northern Michigan, it’s the pasty, a meat pie. In rural Georgia, it’s sweet potato pie. In Iowa, it’s the pork tenderloin sandwich and a loose-meat sandwich commercially and colloquially known as a Maid-Rite. This is not likely to be haute cuisine, but you will have the thrill of eating something definitive in the best place on earth for it. The Maid-Rites are lousy in Lyons.
•Above all, remember that you are standing at the center of life, not on the periphery of someplace more important. The lives lived here were and are as full of love and drama as any on earth, and you have the privilege of learning about them from the most definitive sources. No other town, church, house, or street on earth is exactly like this one, and you are listening to its beating heart.
Jon Spayde, formerly an editor at Travel and Leisure is a contributing editor of Utne Reader.
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