According to Social Studies textbooks, the vast American Midwest is nothing but an unbroken two-thousand-mile field of flowing wheat. These textbooks would also have us believe that the vast American Midwest is populated entirely by overall-wearing folk with names like Jebediah and Echolalia - simple, hardworking men and women who lean against battered pickup trucks all day, nodding and claiming that they "reckon" various things.
Growing up in Saranac Lake, I never questioned the textbooks. As long as Jebediah and Echolalia produced enough bread to keep me in pb-and-j sandwiches, I had no reason to think about them or their amber waves of grain. My attitude might have made me a self-absorbed jerk - a regular Jay Leno, Jr. - but so what? It's not that I disliked the Midwest or Midwesterners. If anything, I considered the region a pastoral paradise and the people pure-hearted neighborly types - the kind of humans the world could use more of, in fact.
When I decided to attend graduate school at a vast Midwestern university in a sprawling Midwestern metropolis, however, I wondered if maybe the Social Studies books had painted an incomplete picture. True, I'd visited a different Midwestern city a year earlier - the imaginatively named Iowa City, Iowa - and found that it fit the textbook image perfectly (the tiny airport actually sat in the middle of what looked like an unbroken two-thousand-mile field of flowing wheat), but I figured a little research couldn't hurt.
So I turned to the greatest, most awesome research tool God has ever given mankind: Wikipedia. When I looked up the metropolis where I'd be living, I discovered that over one million people called the place home, and that there wasn't so much as one unbroken two-thousand mile field of flowing wheat within the city limits. Furthermore, I discovered that the school where I'd be learning was the largest university this side of anywhere.
I was appalled. When I'd imagined going to school in the Midwest, I'd imagined living in a tiny shack at the end of a dusty dirt road. I would stroll down that dirt road every morning, sporting a straw hat and faded overalls and chewing a blade of grass, to attend classes in a red-and-white one-room schoolhouse.
As I stared at the computer, dumbfounded, I concluded I was what we in the moron business call a moron. Of course the Midwest wasn't all farmland and dirt roads and overalls. The Midwest was also urban sprawl, burnt-out factories, and rivers so polluted they often spontaneously combusted.
If I wanted all farmland and dirt roads and overalls, if I wanted to earn an advanced degree in a one-room schoolhouse, I'd have to look elsewhere - I'd have to look to the Deep South. Unfortunately (if not for the quality of my education, then for my dream of living like a modern-day Tom Sawyer), I'd already committed to the Midwest.
Luckily, my longtime friend and business associate, Dave, was moving with me. He'd also had his heart set on country living (his dream was to sip iced tea on his back porch while warning scruffy neighborhood children to "stay off his lawn"), but if we put our heads together, I hoped we could figure out a way to survive city life. Legally speaking, at least, we were both adults. Surely we could manage.
Fast-forward to the end of our first week in the sprawling metropolis. Due to the endless street noise, neither Dave nor I have gotten a wink of sleep. We have, however, handed over a combined $3.86 in loose change to neighborhood panhandlers and gotten lost in the maze of alleyways surrounding our townhouse so many times that neither of us goes out anymore without a backpack full of supplies, a pocket knife, and a walkie-talkie.
Deciding we've had enough, Dave and I hatch a plan so outrageous it just might work (though, as we both know, it almost certainly won't): we'll pack my car with the bare necessities and flee to Nowheresville, Georgia, where we'll change our names and eke out a living ineptly playing bad country music for simple, hardworking men and women in the local honky-tonk.
We manage to pack our bags, and we even stop at the library to print out MapQuest directions to Nowheresville, but we end up just driving around town for a few hours before deciding to stay put. What changes our minds? Nothing we see in the city (though both of us come to like the place after a while). Rather, we realize that we find overalls - not to mention honky-tonks - unspeakably lame.
Dan Leonidas makes shallow observations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or myspace.com/lastminuteconcerns.