The Midwest

I wasn`t expecting to experience the Midwest on this trip because I didn`t realise that Freeport, IL was in the heart of the Illinois Breadbasket. It`s probably about 3 hours northwest of Chicago and we drove up there for a couple of days to visit Liz`s Aunt P and 97 year old Grandma P. We drove for miles by immense stretches of cornfields, which were unfortunately suffering from a terrible drought that summer. Obama declared it a natural disaster so at least the farmers will get some compensation. The corn stalks were standing stiffly upright because without water, the leaves couldn`t droop down to catch the sun. People lamented that it was a bad year for me to come, because the fields weren`t as beautiful and the corn wasn`t as tasty.

Freeport has that nostalgic look of a town that`s long past its heyday (Lincoln came here in 1858 for the Lincoln-Douglas debates). It’s full of those typical old white American houses with slatted wooden walls. We drove around it in the afternoon so that Grandma P could give us a tour of the places she used to live. I think it made her a little sad to see the houses she knew so well dilapidated and falling to ruin around their present owners. The area where she used to live in particular has turned into a ghetto so we couldn’t even stop and walk around. She told us about the time when she was five years old she got into her father’s car, released the brakes and it rolled down the road where it nearly crashed into a streetcar. She laughed when she remembered the spanking her father gave her after, but he used to still let her sit up front and drive with him because she loved it so much. One morning at breakfast we tried to get her to tell us about her life and her time working in New York during the war, but she had forgotten a lot of the dates and she seemed more interested in how our breakfast was. She is so selfless that she probably thought that she’d bore us with her fascinating life.

After our ride around the town, we went home and Aunt P came over to make apple pie while Grandma P made fried chicken. It doesn’t get more all-American than that. We were fit to burst after dinner so we drove down memory lane to a park that had a carousel that Grandma P used to sell tickets for when she was a little girl. I don`t remember how much it cost then, maybe a dime, but when we went it still cost only 50c. Grandma P sat out the carousel ride, but there was no holding her back when we went to the swings. Aunt P remarked that it was hard to believe that her mother was 97 and still swinging.

When we had worked off some of our dinner we headed back into town to go to Freeport`s hotspot, the Union Dairy. I love that the old-timey kitsch is still such a feature in American stores and eateries. Unlike the ubiquitous international Irish pub that creates a fictive atmosphere for people who`ve never been to the country and a nostalgia for Irish expatriots around the world, in America these places cater for themselves. Because a large amount of Americans (I can`t find any statistics) don`t leave the country (and really, given the size and diversity of the country, you can understand why some wouldn`t), it makes sense that they would fetishize their past, as every country does with foreign establishments.

At sunset we drove past the sad cornfields, down poker straight roads, with the ominous presence of smoking nuclear reactors in the not too far off distance. We arrived at a field of sunflowers, that Aunt P had come across earlier. The farmer had probably made a better choice by sowing sunflowers instead of corn this year. The blooms were so stunning that we frolicked about in the fading light taking pictures, before Liz and I had to head back towards the big smoke of Chicago. I’m so glad I got to go out there though because it’s so beautiful and sad, the forgotten heartland of America.

Charting the Route

Well, I`m back in Japan so now I finally have time to process all of the America that I saw. It was an intense three weeks, but it was a wonderful experience. I still can`t believe everything that I did.

Above is a map of the major places I went on the trip. We flew to Chicago via Houston, and it was a pretty close connection after going through immigration, customs and security. One thing that struck me when we were going through the airport was that the signs were all bilingual, in English and Spanish. We spent ten days in Illinois – six days in Naperville, a commuter town outside Chicago, two days in Freeport and three days in downtown Chicago. It was good having so much time there because it allowed us to recover from our journey, do little bits like go shopping and get our hair done, and we got to see some different aspects of a Northern state – cool yet business-minded Chicago, upper-middle-class suburbia and fading towns of the Mid-West.

We had planned on this being a full-on road trip, but we hadn`t planned very well after that. So instead of renting a car to Nashville and zooming through St Louis and Memphis, we decided last minute to fly from Chicago to Nashville (via New Orleans) and rent a car there to Memphis and back. We spent one night in Memphis and had enough time to do some sight-seeing the next morning, and we spent two nights in Nashville with Liz`s aunt, though we just had one day of sight-seeing there.

Leaving Nashville felt like we were truly going to Dixie because then we headed deeper south into Alabama to meet Sister No.1 and her brood of boys. The next day we went back up to Tennessee and Knoxville to stay with the parents. We were based there for about six days though we took day trips to the Smoky Mountains and to the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina. It was in Knoxville that I felt like I really got to experience the religion, politics and food that the South represents. It was surely an experience.

We had two days down in Atlanta with Sister No. 2 and her little girls, and although at that stage I was running out of steam, we did get to see downtown Atlanta and meet up with a friend who had just returned home from Japan. Then we started our epic journey back, flying from Atlanta to Tokyo via Washington D.C., then waiting for the nightbus to take us home to Kanazawa.