The first time I appreciated the marked variety in America I was 20, flying between San Diego and Baltimore.
Living in La Jolla, a sunny, affluent outpost of San Diego, a cocky soon-to-be university graduate, I thought I had this country down pat. My first layover en route to the East Coast was through Dallas. Killing time in the airport, I noticed that people no longer seemed peppy, suntanned and image-obsessed. It wasn't summer any more. There were a lot more heavily overweight people about and a lot of "Don't Mess With Texas" paraphernalia on sale. Flying back through Chicago, the 10 minutes I spent outside the airport smoking (back when I did that) were the coldest of my life. I had to switch hands roughly every 30 seconds. Baltimore itself was a mess of contradiction and variation. And it was only an hour from Washington DC.
My brain was overloaded by a simple truth: America is a complex weave of extremely varied climates, cities, people and realities.
I've been thinking about this on and off for a story I'm working on, due at the end of June. The story's brief is simple: What is the real America? Where can you find it?
I thought I would crowd-source a little response from you, because the topic interests me.
I think we're all guilty of a lazy application of American as an adjective. I was fidgeting in my seat on Sunday night waiting in San Francisco for the doors to open so I could disembark our flight from Portland. I was watching an angry-looking, overweight older lady playing an inane game on her iPad.
"Ergh. That's about the most American thing I've ever seen," I said to myself, rather condescendingly in review.
I'm not talking about this type of American. I'm talking about America the place, not the mindset.
By place, then, are we talking averages?
Muncie in Indiana, Knoxville in Tennessee and Jacksonville in Florida were just three answers I quickly found nominated as the most average place in America.
A research company in 2004 calculated the most average American cities by way of age, marital status, home ownership and estimated income. They found Albany, Rochester and Syracuse in rural New York, Charlotte and Greensboro in North Carolina, Birmingham (Alabama), Nashville (Tennessee), Springfield (Oregon), Wichita (Kansas) and Richmond (Virginia) to be the most average places in the country.
It is hardly an inspiring roadmap of must-visit American cities, right?
Going back over my own travel memories, it is hard to assert what is a more real America than anything else. I've definitely seen some candidates.
What is more American out of i) the pomp of Washington DC in 2013, with all of its hollow relevance, ii) an open expanse of Nevada desert, punctuated only with the occasional service-station, or iii) a Taco stand off the highway in Austin, Texas where the menu is in Spanish and local labourers stop by to eat after work?
From consideration, I feel inclined to exclude cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They're too glitzy and bold.
San Francisco is too liberal, too entrepreneurial and intellectual. But is innovation and education really an un-American trait? Couldn't New York's monster metropolis be considered maybe the most American thing? And isn't a place like Los Angeles, with Hollywood, the very centre of where American dreams are created?
What are we looking for when we search for the real America? Is it a small-town experience? There's a big part of me that wants to reach for Ennis, Montana (and towns like it) as the real America; a one-street town, a parade and a rodeo every July 4 with hot dogs served on American flag napkins.
But then what about America, the commercial? Land of the chain store, home of the discount?
What are your candidates for the real American town? What are the criteria?
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