Making the Midwest Unique
Travelers don’t usually think of culture shock in terms of different parts of the same country. And it’s true that I, a native Midwesterner, can function perfectly well on both the east coast and the west coast as far as day-to-day activities go. But as I get older and visit more places, I am finding that there are some things you just plain don’t find anywhere else but here in the Heartland. I’m not talking about all that stereotypical stuff (although in this case, there are some stereotypes about the Midwest that are firmly rooted in reality) like the farms and the cows. What follows is a compilation of things that might surprise you if you landed here without warning.
Different parts of America are bound to experience different weather. That’s just logical, no background in meteorology required. But while parts are reliable, like ‘sunny California’ for example, the climate in most of the Midwest region is unpredictable at best. We have a saying here in Indiana: ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.’ Things are generally as you might expect – hot in summer, cold in winter, temperate in fall and spring; it’s the variables, though, that really keep us on our toes. The scariest things to watch out for when the weather turns dark are tornadoes.
Tornadoes are kind of like little hurricanes, in my opinion (although I admittedly have never seen a hurricane). It’s not safe to be around them, but they are certainly awesome. If you’re ever in the Midwest and it’s been storming for awhile, stops, and the sky turns green, get to a basement. They can form anywhere in the right conditions. We get a lot of storms and their effects, like hail and snow and lightning, that people in other parts sometimes miss out on. It’s enough to make you dress in layers all year round.
I didn’t know until recently that other parts of the country don’t enforce their ideas about the Sabbath so fiercely as around here, but I guess the way we do things can look a little strange. In a lot of places, you absolutely cannot buy alcohol on Sundays. Not a bottle of wine from the grocery store, a six pack from the drug store, or anything at all from the liquor store. Some restaurants will still serve spirits, but you should also watch out for “dry counties”, which are sections of states in which alcohol sales are prohibited. I find the whole thing odd, especially given the percentage of beer-swilling locals you’re apt to find in any small town. So if you’re planning to enjoy a drink on Sunday, buy ahead of time.
Okay, so drive-ins are definitely not a Midwest phenomenon. What is a little different than the rest of the country, though, is the ratio of drive-in movie theaters to people here. It seems you would be hard-pressed to drive through any town or city without finding one or two on the outskirts, and it’s definitely still a tradition for young people to plan dates around the outdoor screens. It’s also still a tradition for kids to hide in trunks or under blankets in the backseat to get out of paying for a ticket. Even so, they are usually cheaper than an indoor movie would be. I suppose they save a lot of overhead by not having seats.
The presence of seafood in any form is not something you might expect to find in the Midwest. Despite the proximity of the Great Lakes and some rivers, no one is arguing that, say, Indiana is anywhere near an ocean. And it’s oceans, sometimes referred to as ‘seas’, from which seafood generally comes. Of course, shipping has evolved so much in the last few centuries that if seafood in the supermarket or a restaurant is billed as ‘fresh’, it probably is. There is definitely no shortage of all kinds of fish and fish-like entrees in the area, and how long it’s been in a freezer/back of a truck is the kind of thing you might wish to not think about if you’re ordering it. For many Midwesterners, if we want to eat genuine Maine lobster, we’ll go to Maine, thank you.
The difference between pickup trucks around the Midwest and pickup trucks in the rest of the country is all about utility. In, say, Florida, you might drive a pickup truck because it looks cool and fits into your budget. But in, say, Kentucky, you drive a pickup truck because gosh dangit, you are a MAN, as evidenced by the amount of crap you can fit into the back of your huge pickup truck. Around here, we need pickup trucks to cart away the deer we’ve vanquished on hunting trips, the perfectly good furniture we’ve found lying in the street, or our seven teenage boys and their dog. In my opinion, the ubiquitous pickup truck, usually in severe disrepair or way over-the-top souped up, is one Midwest stereotype that we have earned through years and years of proving our worth by the number of pounds we can haul.
Muddin’, Deer Shinin’, and Snipe Huntin’
While we’re on the subject of stereotypes, I can personally attest to the genuine status of all three of these well-loved Midwestern sports. Muddin’, the most fun of the three, involves taking your pickup truck or other four wheel drive vehicle off road after it’s rained, preferably after it has rained really, really hard. You drive around fast in rough conditions, your truck gets muddy, and you are a hero.
Deer shinin’, by contrast, is a relatively simple thing: at night, in your pickup truck, you drive along back roads near forests, where deer are likely to live. If you think you spot one, you slam on your brakes and spin around so your headlights are pointed directly at the poor deer, who becomes rooted to the spot with fear. The more gruesome version of this ends with shooting the paralyzed deer. My senior year in high school, my date for a school dance thought we could have more fun if we left; we ended up deer shinin’ for the rest of the night. Aaah.
Snipe huntin’ is one of the best ways kids make each other feel like morons. Say you’re at a campout on a friend’s land with a bunch of people. After dark, someone asks you if you want to go snipe huntin’ and you, because you are definitely not a sissy, say yes. They give you a bag and send you down to the edge of the marsh, where you are to crouch and softly coo, “sniiipe! sniiiiiiipe!” while your friends try to flush them toward you and your bag. After awhile, you aren’t catching anything at all, so you go back to the campsite. Your friends are laughing hysterically. There is no such thing as snipe. Well, there is, technically, but not the way they wanted you to think. Good times.
Cigarettes and Gas
So people smoke all over the country, and pretty much everyone needs to drive. But not everyone has a huge disposable income to throw at either of these pastimes; last year in New York City, cigarettes were more than $5 a pack, and earlier this year in Los Angeles, gas was approaching $3 a gallon. I was blown away when I saw those numbers because I am simply not used to that kind of thing. Here in the Midwest, prices on cigarettes and gas range from cheap to cheaper. The city I’m from is at the southern tip of Indiana, right across the Ohio River from Kentucky. When I got my license, it was well worth the expense to drive across the river and fill up: gas was and is routinely on the order of $.10 per gallon cheaper a couple of miles away from Indiana. Not that it’s too expensive in Indiana – down south, the highest it’s been (even in recent economic turmoil) is still less than $2 a gallon. Cigarettes are the same story. I used to smoke Camels, and I wasn’t about to tolerate discount tobacco. There was no question whether I’d drive to Kentucky for my smokes, though – from $30 a carton for name brand cigarettes, I could get them for $20 a little further south. I don’t smoke anymore, but I still head south for gas whenever I can.
There are good people and bad people everywhere you go, of course, but in these parts, Midwesterners are known to be straightforward, honest, and helpful. This is how we are, for the most part, brought up, and it’s something we experience from each other all the time. A few weeks ago, I was on the highway a few miles outside of town and the radiator in my car exploded (long story). I know very little about cars and freaked out, pulling off the road, and then I freaked out some more when I realized I was out of cell phone range. Luckily, I had pulled off the road next to a trailer park, so I went to ask for help. The first door I knocked on was answered by an eccentric older man with a very, very heavy Southern accent – I could barely understand him. But even as I used his phone to call AAA, he tried to let me know what might be wrong with my car and what steps I might want to take to get towed faster. After I thanked him and went back to my car to wait for the tow truck, I had so many passers-by pull over and ask me if I needed help that I eventually went and sat in the passenger seat so people might think my driver had gone for help!
Things like these are what give the Midwest its name. Just like not all stereotypes are totally false, not all stereotypes are totally bad, either. There’s plenty of weirdo badness, but all in all, we’ve earned a reputation as good people as much as we have for having rusted out pickup trucks with too many exhaust pipes and American flags painted on the sides.