I heard recently that the best-selling car in the U.S. now is the Ford F-150, but Edmunds tells me this has been true since Reagan took office. To me a truck is another car, which makes me not a great citizen of Flyover Country, where N and I landed yesterday for our annual Fourth of July trip. We come after a year that South Dakota has earned a lot of national headlines, owing mostly to its Governor, whose political ambitions, like so many GOPers’, are aided by others’ spinning her general ignorance and distrust of public institutions as (a) strength and (b) freedom.
The latest iteration of this is her attempt to launch fireworks in a National Park (one stolen from the Lakota Sioux) during a pandemic and what’s forecasted to be the worst wildfire season in years. As good as those fireworks feel and as good as it looks on camera, it’s an all-around bad idea that could have damaging consequences. It’s, yes, a bummer, but one way I’ve come to understand maturity (political and otherwise) is that you need to accept the inevitable preventative bummers.
The way N & I accepted it when we couldn’t fly out here for Christmas in 2020, so it’s been almost a year since we were here, and it’s been two years since we were here for his aunt’s big shindig at her lake house in Minnesota canceled last year because we’re all mature adults, and I’m so happy to be here. I’ve been in and around this part of Flyover Country, which I prefer to call the Plains, for nearly 20 years, having moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 2003. N was born in South Dakota and lived there all his life until he moved to Lincoln in 1993. If I’m allowed to call his family my family, I have dozens of friends and family in the Plains. I feel equally at home here as I do in San Francisco or Virginia.
There are many zones of Flyover Country, many states where the F-150 sells better than any other car. I don’t feel comfortable in Texas. Ever since I and a friend of mine drove through the state in 2001, pulled over near the border by highway cop who wouldn’t let us leave until he found the nonexistent drugs he knew were in our car with VA plates, literally sneering at us the whole time like a caricature of a Texan, I mostly look forward to leaving Texas when I’m in Texas. It’s a state that works overtime to psychically push you the fuck out of there. And I don’t feel comfortable in the Deep South, which if you know me you know I don’t need to get into again.
To say nothing of what those places think of homosexuals.
Now: the Plains for sure has a mixed scorecard when it comes to queers. Brandon Teena was raped and killed in Nebraska. Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming (the High Plains). But Iowa granted gays the right to marry six years before the rest of the U.S. did. Plus: I came out in the Plains. That I felt safer doing it here than in Pittsburgh or Virginia has, admittedly, less to to do with the land and the culture than the fact that I knew nobody when I came out here, but still: I feel safe here. I feel safe and at ease in the Plains.
On second thought, maybe the land had something to do with it after all. When it comes to U.S. Promised Lands, there’s the West Coast, and the sun setting over the Pacific, and that feeling you get when you stand on a California beach and watch the sun set that the rest of the country is at your back, and it’s like you’ve moved beyond them, and you’ve put them behind you, and in doing so there’s a kind of release that I can tell you personally feels like a burden that’s been removed from your shoulders. It happens very quickly. Let me tell you that you can live 35 years of your life away from the West Coast, with 18 of those years in the go-go-go anxiety of Eastern Seaboard sub/urban speediness, and two weeks after you move to California you feel like you’ve woken from a bad dream.
Oh, life can also be like this.
Like Blaine Fabin, my journey west originally found a comfortable end in the Plains, and of course the first thing I noticed here were the endless skies. I’d never seen the end of a city before, but not a month after I moved to Lincoln I stood in a parking lot in the Haymarket distract, near the railroad, and saw nothing beyond those tracks but open fields, an orange sun setting over them. The city just stopped right over there, with nothing in anybody’s way. I can’t capture the warm awe I felt in my chest, but seeing this had a profound effect on me. A year later, I was a homosexual. Just like that, kind of.
Our connecting flight from Vegas landed in Omaha yesterday around 6pm. It was partly cloudy and only in the 80s, a relief. (A line I used to open a short story in my collection gives you the general idea of the weather in Flyover Country: I live in a place that gets all the temperatures, 0 to 100.) By the time N & I got our luggage it was raining harder than I’ve ever seen it rain. Noisy, heavy, percussive. The wind blew it laterally at us even though we were under a 10-foot-wide awning. N’s mom was picking us up and taking us to Trader Joe’s to stock up before we drove up to South Dakota, which Trader Joe’s hasn’t discovered yet. Trader Joe’s was 16 minutes from the airport (!!!) and halfway there the rain stopped, and halfway past that the sun was out and the roads were all dry.
The Bay Area has microclimates and the Plains have microstorms.
To drive from Omaha to Sioux Falls, all you do is cross the Missouri River on 680 and get on I-29 North and stay there. The Plains is a place where an 8-hour drive to another city is only, as my mother-in-law called it in conversation last night, “a good day” and not, as I’ve always seen it, a form of masochism. Sioux Falls is 2.5 hours from Omaha. We’d need gas somewhere on the way, so N proposed we stop in Missouri Valley, Iowa. (They’ve got a good travel stop close to the interstate.) I took this photo in the men’s room, where I pissed without a mask on, and it might perfectly encapsulate everything I love about the Plains:
Oh, right: I’d been the only person wearing a mask in Trader Joe’s, including the staff, and it wasn’t until we were done with checkout that I wondered why I was masked up. I’m vaccinated. The CDC tells me I no longer need to do this. Also, I’m susceptible to peer pressure, and everyone I saw when I turned down another aisle had the same look on their face when they saw me, like what I imagine my face looks like when I see someone’s dyed their dog’s hair some pastel color. Who is that for, really?
For 14 months, my answer to that question went something in my head like: Me, but also all of us? I wore a mask to prevent myself from inhaling the exhaled virus of people who didn’t know they were exhaling SARS-CoV-2, and I wore a mask to take my part in the public, shared work of destigmatizing mask-wearing in specific and illness in general.
Nebraska had, for a time, a mask mandate. South Dakota never did. (Another bit of ignorance that got accepted here as strength and freedom.) The only people I saw wearing masks yesterday were a trio of Latinx women at De Leon’s Restaurant and the one guy who helped us at the Apple Store (a guy from Watertown, S.D.). I respected these people’s choices, and even admired them, the way I admire it when someone speaks in public about a certain kind of sex act they like. I like seeing people who seem to know themselves.
The trick of being an adult is working out this conflict—am I knowing myself or asserting myself in willful ignorance? Have I found and am now exercising my beliefs, or am I repeating beliefs I’ve been given? I’d originally written “The trick of being in the Plains” there, but all this is true everywhere. What made me want to site this in the Plains, originally? There’s a feel I get here that the vast distance from any U.S.-cultural center (if you don’t count Minneapolis, then Chicago—which many people also wouldn’t count—is 600 miles away) has led to a Left Alone mentality here. That is: folks feel left alone with their own thoughts and to their own devices.
This spirit is real. People in the Plains, where the closest services are often very far away and the weather is severe enough to make getting there not always easy, can do more kinds of things than people I’ve met around the country. They’re like the opposite of a software engineer. And “Minnesota Nice” is also real, which might explain the comfort I feel. In Texas I’ve felt unveiled hate. In the Deep South we felt aggressive politeness that veiled their hate or disinterest. In New York City I’ve felt aggressive rudeness that’s actually an odd form of niceness. Here, likely because I’m another white person, people are mostly just nice. As a person well versed in veilings and dodges and ironized layerings, I feel very safe and comfortable in their absence.
The writer Jesse Lee Kercheval, originally from the Deep South but making her career chiefly in Wisconsin, once told me that the main difference in the two places is in how they complain. In the Deep South, expressions of heat, say, are always lyric and associative. There’s a poetry to the Deep South’s “It’s hotter than a June bride in a feather bed” or whatever. The magnitude of your feeling is directly proportionate to the artfulness (however stale over time) of your speech. Whereas in the Midwest, people use simple repetition. “It’s hot. Real hot.”
I can admire the Deep South for Kercheval’s reasons, but it’s still not the place for me. The Plains also aren’t, probably, “the place for me,” but I know that voice she was talking about, that plainspokenness, and I’ve got almost 2 weeks to hear it, and I hope you reading this have as much of a lovely Fourth of July weekend as I’m about to have here.