By Abby Dees
Thinking Out Loud
For the last month or so I’ve been riding my bike up the entire length of the Mississippi river. This has not been a trip about about amazing scenery — though there have been moments of breathtaking beauty — nor does my journey have any official theme or purpose. I’d been wanting to see the “real” America for a while now, and riding slowly up the middle bits seemed like a good way to do it.
Not that I haven’t lived in the U.S. my entire life, but you know what I mean. The real America is “normal” America, the one politicians pander to, Fox News tries to frighten, and the one that comes to mind when I (perhaps you) think of the idea, rather than the place, America.
I’m getting a lesson in my own culture. Mostly, I’ve been deeply moved by our goodness and unhesitating willingness to come to the aid of a sweaty, middle-aged woman in tight, garish Lycra, clackety cycling shoes, and covered in bruises and chain grease. It’s a deep part of our national character that I’d like to see our leaders appeal to so much more.
That said, I’ve also been bored silly much of the time by the unrelenting sameness despite having traveled nearly 2, 000 miles so far. In the middle of Middle America, the aesthetic rarely changes. From the capri-panted women, to men surgically attached to their baseball caps and trucks, to the country-quaint decorations, to the criminally random apostrophes and tortured puns of every craft store name (“I’ll Bee Sewin’ You”), to the ubiquitous (and quite tasty at the end of a long, hot cycling day) Dairy Queens — well, at times I’ve felt stuck in a space/time loop.
I think this is what “normal” looks like here. And I’ve wondered more and more if I was also seeing the American Way of Life that I’ve heard so much about, whether it’s being threatened by terrorists or gays, or just the crappy economy. If so, it’s the cultural equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich with the crust cut off. Sometimes it’s just what you’re in the mood for, but you’ll soon be desperate for a microgreens salad with goat cheese and rosemary. I am, in any case.
Amid this sameness, occasionally something unusual springs up, usually in a fabulously out-of-scale way (this problem with appropriate scale also seems to be part of our American-ness). My fellow riders and I screech to a halt to snap pictures of each of us posing in front of whatever proud expression of individuality has appeared upon the landscape, such as the fellow with the antique outhouse collection in his yard, or the enormous church made entirely of scrap, or most recently, the improbably serious and well funded Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, Iowa. Each time something loudly breaks up the monotony I quietly sing the Sesame Street jingle, “One of these things is not like the others…” and smile.
Thank God for whatever guts it takes to express oneself so joyfully, without any apparent concern about the irony or absurdity of it. Honestly. As long as folks feel free to express themselves this way, then all the normalcy becomes like a pleasant canvas to paint on. But without the weirdness, tedium sets in fast, and despite how nice everyone is, I start to feel like a freak. The bad kind of freak.
When those proud weirdos do appear, I feel like I belong too. I don’t just mean the ones with the oversized yard sculptures either. I mean the boy who puts pink food coloring in his hair and lip-syncs Lady Gaga tunes in the mirror, or the cashier at the Family Dollar store with the nose ring and butch swagger (thanks for the knowing nod last week). They make me feel like the right kind of freak.
To anyone who can’t seem to relate to what’s “normal,” or who dreams about going somewhere else one day — sure, do it, but remember that you are a beautiful part of the landscape today. You are saving us from ourselves, even if the neighbors don’t get it at all.