It’s easy to make friends in the Midwest.
Not that the concept of friendly people in the middle states is groundbreaking or anything, but it really is true. This is how I ended up hotboxing an F-150 in a Ft. Wayne parking lot outside a dive bar called the Brass Rail.
Phil, my hot-boxing host, was the bartender at a music venue I’d been to earlier in the night.
“You came all the way from Miami to FORT WAYNE?” the burly, bearded bartender said when I ordered a beer and told him I was visiting. “Don’t think I’ve ever seen someone from Miami up here.”
“I like to learn,” I said, sipping my Sun King Sunlight Cream Ale. “Where’s good to go out here on a Friday?”
“You like breweries and dive bars?” he asked, smiling from behind his thick beard. I knew I’d found my best friend for the weekend.
After the show, Phil took me to a couple of breweries where we laughed about beer, college football, music, and women. He suggested we go see a metal band at the divey Brass Rail. Before we went inside he offered me a sip of some small batch bourbon he kept in the car. It felt warm on the cold Indiana night.
“You smoke?” he asked. It was Indiana; I assumed he meant cigarettes.
“Nah, but go ahead,” I said. He reached in his center console and packed a fat green bowl into a silver pipe.
“Suit yourself,” he said, taking a hit and relaxing against his driver’s seat.
“Oh, you meant do I SMOKE!” I said. “Yeah, hand me that.”
After a few rounds of passed pipes and laughing about inane bullshit, we got out of the truck to head inside. On the way, I glanced back at his truck and squinted through the parking lot lights at the red sticker on his back bumper.
It said Make America Great Again.
This, to many people, would be where the record scratched, and my new best friend would immediately turn into the sworn enemy. I’d awkwardly get in an Uber back to my hotel and text all my friends in Seattle, New York, and San Francisco how fucked up Indiana is.
But what is the point of traveling if you don’t seek to understand another culture? And in 2018 America, if you live on the coasts, red-state middle America can sometimes feel about as foreign as Pakistan.
The best way to try and find some common ground is to actually go out and find it. Which for those of us living in blue states means traveling to the less-sexy heartland as a cultural immersion, going to the state of Georgia for the same reason you might visit the country Georgia. Because once you do, you’ll realize that while we don’t all see politics the same way, most of us agree on pretty much everything.
Being “well-traveled” doesn’t always mean leaving the country.
A common affliction of the self-proclaimed well-traveled is wanting to learn about other cultures but never educating themselves about their own country they don’t understand. I’ve been around travel writers who have passport stamp pissing contests to see who’s been to more of Central Asia but couldn’t find South Dakota on a map, then enter an echo chamber of uninformed red-state bashing.
But as one who spends as much time traveling to red states as I do to other countries, I can attest that trips to the former are more educational. And far more gratifying.
A few weeks ago, I found myself on a bus ride through Kentucky chatting with Secretary of Tourism Don Parkinson. He’s a cabinet member in a highly conservative state government, and though we didn’t talk much politics, my guess is he wasn’t part of Pantsuit Nation.
“One of our biggest problems is we have 4.5 million people in this state, and 35,000 in prison. We need to do something about that,” the Stanford-educated secretary said. “We need to find a way to get these people jobs when they get out, teach them skills in prison to make them productive so they don’t come back.”
Wait, prison reform??? Using corrections as a way to correct rather than punish? This wasn’t the “lock em up and throw away the key” red state narrative I’d seen in the 15-second clips from Trump rallies my liberal friends posted on Facebook.
Parkinson went on to explain how the state was trying to fight the opioid epidemic, discussing ways to fight addiction through mental-health policies rather than excessive punishment. It seemed, at least on this issue, the Kentucky state government saw things the same way they might in California. Had I not taken the time to go there, I’d have never understood that these states had more in common than horse racing.
I also found common ground in south-central Missouri while visiting the Wonders of Wildlife museum in Springfield. There I interviewed Bass Pro Shops founder and avid conservationist Jonny Morris, who spoke passionately about preserving the outdoors for his great-grandchildren and about the importance of untouched nature. This sounded straight out of the Sierra Club playbook, not the words of a guy who’s fishing buddies with the Bushes.
Conservationists don’t like to use the word “environmentalism” — during my 48 hours at Wonders of Wildlife I didn’t hear the word once. But I did hear a lot of things that sounded like environmentalism. Things like “land protection” and “species rehabilitation” and “preventing overdevelopment.”
Perhaps we use different words to describe the same goals, but when it comes to ensuring we have nature left to enjoy, people both left and right seem to agree. And while many on the coasts might think the middle of the country is cool with letting coal plants dump wastewater into the drinking supply in the name of the almighty dollar, travel to Springfield and you’ll see people here love the outdoors just as much those in Oregon claim to.
The problem is politicians.
The great transgender bathroom controversies of 2016 mystified those on the coasts who didn’t understand why states had to legislate lavatory use. What many on the coasts didn’t understand is that a lot of people in red states didn’t get it either.
“It’s the politicians,” Jessie Zenor, who owns Greenhouse on Porter, a biscuit and coffee shop in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, told me when I visited the state in 2016. Her state had recently proposed a law allowing anyone with a “sincerely held religious belief” to deny LGBT individuals pretty much whatever they wanted to, up to and including employment and housing. “Most of us don’t care at all, but it’s politicians trying to rile people up that do this stuff. Down here, we’re just embarrassed.”
So you mean to tell me that, aside from the inherent southern tradition of gossip, the vast majority of people in Mississippi actually don’t much care who other people sleep with? Fascinating.
And sometimes, the politicians don’t care either.
Greenville is home of the Miracle Hill foster care group, a Methodist organization the Trump Administration is considering allowing to discriminate against non-Methodists in foster care placing. Meaning, basically, if Miracle Hill doesn’t want to place a child with a Jewish family, it doesn’t have to.
Those who don’t travel to South Carolina — outside of a bachelorette party to Charleston — might roll their eyes and groan “South Carolina,” assuming the whole state would agree with a fringe group’s discriminatory policies.
I learned differently.
Resting at a festival hospitality tent, I began discussing Thai restaurants with a silver-haired man dressed in a bright red “McMaster for Governor” t-shirt.
“You’re wearing the wrong color, there, Jason,” an event organizer with a headset teased as she joined our table. “You need to put on something blue!”
“Gotta support the right team!” he joked back smiling. The man in the red shirt was State Representative Jason Elliott, a Republican who represents part of Greenville and outlying areas.
“We love Basil Thai,” a dark-haired man sitting next to Elliot said, switching the subject back to Thai food. “It’s not far from our house and the people who run it are so friendly.”
“Basil Thai,” Elliot said turning his attention to the dark-haired man. “Yeah, we love that place, don’t we?” The other man smiled at him.
If I told anyone in San Francisco I spent my Saturday discussing Thai food with a gay couple in not-Charleston, South Carolina, they would have raised an eyebrow. If I told them that half that couple was a state representative, they’d have been surprised. If I told them he was a Republican, they’d have asked for whatever mushrooms I’d gotten there.
But this, friends, is why we travel. To learn things that go against our preconceived notions, and to learn that whatever labels we put on people are generally pretty inaccurate.
Granted, people have different experiences when they travel. Much like when women under 30 tell me, “Everyone in South Beach is so NICE!” I understand the way I’m treated may be different because of how I look. And the experience in conservative America may be different for someone who is Muslim. Or black. Or gay. But few if any people I’ve encountered in red states had anything overtly racist, sexist, or xenophobic to say. And if anything, I heard fewer negative words from them than I do from liberal friends about conservatives.
That’s why when I saw Phil the bartender was a die-hard MAGA man, I didn’t really much care. He was a cool dude who smoked me out and introduced me to a ton of also-cool people in a town where I knew no one. And that kind of hospitality is far more important than whether you voted R or D.
The Kumbaya, buy-the-world-a-Coke narrative says travel opens our minds to other cultures. But rarely do those of us living on the coasts consider that educating ourselves on the people and cultures of red state-America might be more beneficial than exploring remote villages in foreign countries.
That’s not to say Ft. Wayne is the new Bali, but in an era when people end lifelong friendships over political Facebook posts, exploring our own country is more important than ever. And maybe, just maybe, taking the time to visit the heartland will teach us we’re not so different after all.