Let's Go...To the Middle of Nowhere

What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a place like this?

I was in northern Michigan in a remote woodland outside of Petosky (not your major urban setting to begin with) staring at a 55 ft. tall wooden cross with a bronze statue of Jesus—whose foot was bigger than my head—nailed to it, and that’s what I was wondering.

Truthfully, this question, which echoed in my mind as I stood in the middle of this outdoor sanctuary looking at the world’s largest crucifix, was not a new one. I grew up in the Midwest. Well I sort of grew up there. I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, and as many a middle-of-the-country dweller will tell you (and especially people from the city itself), Chicago is not the Midwest. But on the other hand, I also live in Lombard, IL, which is right next to Wheaton, IL, which is the hometown of superstar televangelist Billy Graham. It’s a town where teachers can’t say the word “evolution” in a biology class and where Wheaton College runs The Billy Graham Center (slogan: “Stimulating Global Evangelism”). Now, Lombard, my town, was never quite so bad. In high school we learned about evolution and no one was chastised for uttering the name Charles Darwin. Of course, Mrs. Beardsley also let my friend Judi Fay (daughter of Salvation Army ministers) do an extra credit project in our biology class freshman year in which she presented alternative theories to evolution—namely the good ole literal reading of Genesis in which there was a big boom (but not a Big Bang) and God created the world...and you all know the rest. My question surfaced then too.

The answer to why I was in that particular town, in that particular biology class, was simple. My father and mother, East Coast expats, came to Illinois for professional reasons. They did the best they could to infuse their only child with the liberal Jewish New York/Boston outlook amidst this strange breed known as Midwesterners: People who say pop instead of soda; melk instead of milk; and who still wonder why the hell those things that look so much like donuts taste so funny (and who persist in calling them bag-els instead of bay-gels).

Now, why I was standing in front of the huge lightning rod of a Jesus statue is a slightly different story. Petosky was one of the many stops on my route as the Great Lakes (code name for the Midwestern states between Pennsylvania and Missouri) Research-Writer for “Lets Go: USA.” I spent the first seven weeks of my summer in one of Harvard’s most-coveted positions in one of the least-coveted places imaginable. While someone was checking out Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, I was taking notes on this record-holding crucifix. Somewhere out there one of my fellow research-writers was exploring the Great Wall of China. I was driving through a great wall of corn. And there’s a Harvard student who partied on Bourbon St. as I poked around the quaint biergartens of Milwaukee.

Like my parents, I found myself working in the Midwest through an accident of professional life. But for me, the last minute offer to work for “Let’s Go” turned into an opportunity to discover what this thing called Middle America, that I had lived so close to without ever really being a part of, really is.

The enormous cross in the woods speaks to a lot of what I found. The Midwest is big, it is conservative and it is religious. It’s also a lot more than just white picket fences and a sitcom lifestyle. The crucifix was the first of several large symbols of Christianity that I stumbled across on my journey. One day between cities I was cruising along in my little blue Saturn when I started noticing tie dyed billboards that simply read “JESUS.” The signs, with their bright green and purple swirls, looked like a Sunday school arts and crafts project on an acid trip. These were peculiar enough on their own, but then I saw what they were pointing toward. Just ahead there was a white, metal cross rising out of that famously flat Midwest soil, towering over the its parish.

Jesus isn’t the only religious figure to inspire epic monuments. The Midwest is defined by the word “big.” Chicago boasts the Sears Tower and the world’s largest Red Radio Flyer Wagon. Wisconsin holds the illustrious record for biggest grandfather clock, and in Michigan you’ll find not only the world’s biggest tire, an homage to Detroit’s favorite industry but also the largest bronze wildlife sculpture (of bears fighting). A strict Freudian would ask, “Just what is the Midwest compensating for?”

Well, there’s a lot for the region to prove, and the people defend themselves by going overboard in most anything they do. In Michigan, especially in the Upper Peninsula and western parts of the state, the hunting and gun culture is celebrated with almost as much gusto as the Christian faith. Cars driving through the Hiawatha National Park were adorned with bumper stickers slogans like “A man with a gun is a citizen. A man without a gun is a subject,” and many still sport post-September 11 flags. Gun culture is at its strongest in this part of the Midwest. The world’s largest sporting goods store, Cabelas, is in Western Michigan. The center of the store is dominated by a two-story high mountain and pays homage to the great service hunters do in conserving and controlling wildlife. Stuffed animals are positioned on the mountain and, looking closely, observers see that each animal has been posed so that it is hunting another animal. Thank goodness for those hunters, otherwise these animals would have been out killing each other. The aforementioned bronze bear statue greets guests as they pull into the parking lot, and its sheer size and violence is meant to let hunters know that their sport is preventing such travesties as this. The store also houses what it calls a gun library, replete with a bearded gun librarian, a veritable “Guns ’R Us” of elaborate hunting rifles and other sporting paraphernalia. Seeing this exuberant display of the right to bear arms as an expression of patriotism certainly made me feel uncomfortable. Though most people know that places like Michigan are the bastions of Second Amendment freedoms, the intensity of that celebration still awes me.

Like the monuments that are little known and often ignored by the public at large, the Midwest’s problems, no matter how large, also seem to get lost in the shuffle of national events. Just before I left on my trip, my father offhandedly mentioned that he thought he had read an article about continuing racial tensions in Cincinnati. Confused, as I hadn’t heard anything about the city since the riots a year before, I had no idea that police brutality was still very much on residents’ minds. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I immediately encountered a small, but loud group of black men and women holding signs railing against racial injustice. One man stood on top of a flag calling the police the real terrorists while others held up pictures of men killed by Cincinnati cops.

A group of white policemen arrived on the scene, standing back and eyeing the protesters, as passersby glanced at the display. One man, as he walked by me, muttered “What are those crazy n---ers up to now?” Of course I’d heard racial slurs before, but the offhanded, public way in which it was said, and the way in which the same man smiled and nodded politely at me seconds later, as though my skin color and mere presence in the area connected me to his racism, shocked me more than the protest itself.

Ironically enough, it was the friendliness of many Midwesterners (though not that particular person’s) that allowed me to connect with people while I was traveling. Though, on the average, I could not agree with people’s politics, I was often touched by the hospitality and generosity shown by those I encountered. One morning in Wisconsin, I ran into trouble when my Yahoo directions (Destination: Middle of Nowhere, Wis.) guided me right into a dead end. Unable to reconnect with the highway I had lost, I stopped in a convenience store. By the time I left I didn’t just have a new set of directions—I had a personal escort to guide me through the twisting, turning roads of the town and back to the road I was looking for.

My tour of Middle America last summer in large part didn’t change my opinion of the region. Even though I had seen the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China, Door Country Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula were new to me. Of course, much of the Midwest is more picturesque than I had imagined, more diverse and not quite the sprawl of suburban family values from sitcoms like Family Ties (Columbus, Ohio) or Family Matters (Chicago, IL). My view of the Midwest is more like those John Hughes movies that take place in the fictional suburb of Chicago, Shermer, IL—average families living in average houses with kids just dysfunctional enough to be interesting, who after a day of adventure return home to a warm and fuzzy ending

The Midwest was also just dysfunctional enough to keep me interested, though perhaps my ending is not so warm and fuzzy. While my summer travels helped connect me with my native Midwest, my trip also made me feel extremely disconnected at times. My cell phone didn’t get reception in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan (note: it was fine in Canada). In Bayfield, Wis., the motel manager laughed at me when I asked where I could find Internet access. Although the “Let’s Go” researcher-writer itinerary is a solitary experience, I wasn’t prepared to be so cut off from other people—especially in the United States, especially in my particular part of the United States. The trip opened by eyes to the complexity of an often oversimplified region of the country, but it also affirmed my conviction that a girl like me doesn’t belong in a place like that. Since I left for college people often ask if I plan to return to the Midwest. The answer was always no, and despite my adventure it will remain no. That’s why I haven’t filled out a “Let’s Go” researcher-writer application. They’re due tomorrow and I’ve decided instead that any future impoverished road trip across North America will happen on a voluntary basis and without a broken laptop.

Though I don’t try to make myself the great defender of Middle America, I do occasionally find myself playing the inadvertent role of Midwest evangelist, extolling its cities, showing off the forested beauty of the Great Lakes and…well, to find out the rest you’ll have to pick up a copy of “Lets Go: USA.”

Stephanie E. Butler ’04 is an English concentrator living in Quincy House. She gives a big thumbs up to the Red Radio Flyer in Chicago, IL, and tries to avoid melk with her bag-el.

Tags