A Neighborhood Without Fences

Christopher Thomas Schmidt

© Copyright 2004 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt

As a native of San Diego, who has never lived, and has too rarely ventured beyond the weather-protected confines of Southern California, I will admit with some humility that I have a geographically-limited world view. What I know of the outside world is largely shaped through subjective second-hand dialogue and generally inaccurate film and television portrayals. (Q: What is Iowa’s state bird? A: The mosquito.) In recent years I have sought to expand my awareness via regular travel, and have found the experience rewarding as well as enlightening. The experiment is profound in its success as I am now positively addicted to travel. Not a millionaire by any stretch—sorry ladies—I probably should have found a less expensive addiction, like classic cars, but I’m hooked now, and I can think of no other way that I want to spend my life, as I can think of no better way to spend every cent I earn. Canada, England, Belgium, Denmark, Japan, Mexico, the Caribbean; the exposure to varied and distant cultures has been a life changing education. Unfortunately my taste for the exotic has driven me to greatly ignore much of my own country, specifically the central United States. Happily, I have since rectified this situation.

 Until recently I have largely ignored a tremendous, recurrent opportunity to travel the Midwest. My father and grandfather have a long-standing tradition of taking an annual father-son bonding vacation. Every summer, just the two of them set off on some meticulously planned excursion, for two weeks of sight-seeing, bird watching, walking and general catching up. My father shares with his father a similar, if not exact interest in the great outdoors, thus every other year they take a grand hiking tour of one or several national parks. The alternate years are reserved for retracing their Midwestern roots. I am not sure whether it was my inherent immaturity, or some unintentionally-expressed disinterest in exploring the mundane, but for years I was not included on these ventures. I say “unintentionally-expressed” as I have always been a little envious of these trips, and I have never knowingly behaved in a way that would result in my exclusion. I have long understood the importance of these trips, for my father and grandfather are not just blood, they are best friends, so I never complained about not going. But like the family pet that is left behind, like the last person taken in a pick-up basketball game, like any child who is excluded from something, I could not escape the remorseful feeling that I had been hard done by. Last fall, however—my father is the consummate organizer and he begins planning the following years trip on the day he returns home from the current one, and I suspect he actually starts planning it some time before that—I was deemed worthy, and this year I was included in the Great Iowa Pilgrimage.

As with any part of the world I have never seen, my impressions of the Midwest were wildly inaccurate. My general impressions have been shaped by Jeff Foxworthy and Drew Carry. Iowa? What’s in Iowa? Countless miles of unchanging, uninspiring landscape. Twelve months of invariably bad weather? Roving hordes of farm-bred toothless fools, sitting around waiting for the next Sadie Hawkins Dance? “There’s nothing there but cornfields and grain silos,” according to my grandmother; absolutely the type of place people must line up to visit. Well, it’s easy to get the wrong impression about people you’ve never met, about a place you’ve never been, which is why I am glad I finally went along.

 Having been born, raised and basically confined within a large city, I realize that I know nothing of “simple pleasures.” In the city we consider ourselves fortunate if we can get through the day without getting run down on the street, suffering an actual heart attack or killing a fellow human being. I was amazed to learn that in rural America one’s daily life is not defined by whether or not you survive a truly life-threatening event. Life moves at a slower pace, yes, but it is a misconception to believe this is a bad thing. We don’t understand what a blessing it is to live a low stress lifestyle. The Midwest has its share of cities, its share of traffic, crime and pollution, but venture outside of the metropolitan centers, even a little bit, and you encounter the magic that is Small-Town America.

 Main Street is a two lane road.

 Broadway—if the town is large enough to warrant a Broadway—is a two lane road. At the intersection of Broadway and Main, in an attempt to get a handle on the traffic situation, which has grown “out of control,” the city fathers have seen fit to erect a stop sign.

 If you are standing on the sidewalk in sight of the road, any road, cars will slow down as they pass by. If you are standing on the sidewalk facing the road, cars will stop until you either cross, if that is your intent, or step back from the curb. On my first visit I unknowingly held up traffic, what there was, for several minutes as cars from both directions stopped for me. Little did they know, and little was I aware of the need to communicate to them that I was simply standing on the curb trying to figure out what was causing all the cars to stop.

 Motorists use their horn as a form of greeting. In the city we do this also, but in SmallTown, USA, the greeting is much kinder and is accompanied by a wave and a smile rather than a tirade of four-letter-words. In town I have to resist the big-city urge to give the finger to well-meaning passers by.

 The towns all have charming names like Bellevue, Garden City and Mt. Pleasant. The keepers of the peace are blessedly underutilized. The local citizenry and the police maintain an amiable relationship and it is common to see them engaged in friendly conversation. Sure we got pulled over in our rental car with out-of-state plates, which might cause one to question the validity of the fabled down-home hospitality, but I was speeding, sure as the day is long. I was driving like a complete madman. Every reasonably sized town has a town square where folks gather to celebrate kinship, watch a free theatrical performance, listen to a volunteer marching band, meet with neighbors, or just amble through on a peaceful afternoon. Volunteerism, community, local-pride, strange concepts indeed.

 A clock tower keeps a solitary vigil over the town square, ticking off the minutes of the day. The chime of cast-iron bells carries for miles through the still air, giving melodious notice of the passing of another pleasant hour. The streets and sidewalks are clean, the landscape and store fronts are all well maintained, giving evidence of a people with a true sense of community. Personal space is not a priority here. Even in the neighborhoods, there are no private-property signs, no fences, nothing ordering you to “Keep Out.”

 People here are proud to be Americans, and this was true long before September 11th. The locals here happily greet one another, and welcome strangers with genuine enthusiasm. Again, I have to catch myself from succumbing to big-city impulses, like grabbing for my wallet and pepper spray when approached.

 You can be sure that somewhere there is a group of children working a make-shift lemonade stand. As you can be confident that since you are not in any city, the lemonade is made with real lemons, and it’s wonderful. You will buy three glasses because you are so charmed.

 A multigenerational sports family, we pause during one of our walks to watch part of a little-league baseball game, and observe something difficult to believe or understand. When a kid gets a hit, parents from both sides cheer. When a kid makes a play, parents from both sides cheer. When the umpire makes a call, no one yells obscenities at him. The coaches only raise their voices to shout encouragement over the din of applause, and the players from both teams freely congratulate each other. After a couple innings of bemused observation, we walk on much better for the remarkable, alien experience. The family that hosts a yard sale bakes cookies and puts out coffee for anyone who cares to have some, and is more interested in visiting and conversing with neighbors, and strangers, than with making an actual sale.

 Having gotten semi-lost on one of many exploratory walks through one of a number of exquisitely authentic neighborhoods, and having gotten spotted walking across someone’s back lawn, the homeowner comes out and, instead of releasing rabid dogs or turning a hose on us, offers us water and then happily directs us back to town. I witness no traffic accidents, greatly due to the fact that there is so little traffic. I hear no car alarms, also due to the scarcity of cars, but regardless of the reason, it is nice to sleep through the night without having it interrupted by the shrill scream of someone’s malfunctioning security device.

 Twenty feet outside of town you experience a rush of nature that is unseen in the suburban world with which I am familiar. Each town is surrounded by rolling grass-covered hills, acre upon acre of field and pasture. The land is alive with trees. Flourishing elm, spruce and oak trees line the roads, encircle and delineate property boundaries, track every stream, crest every hill.

Two minutes outside of town and you are in a different world. There comes a point when all signs of civilization simply disappear. What little traffic, noise, and pollution there was in Marshal, or Lawrence, or Evansville is quickly and completely replaced by the sounds of birds, running water, the rush of wind through untended head-high grass and the indomitable scent of wild flowers. The odd farm house dots the countryside, lending a charming brand of authenticity that we city folk relish with Rockwellian nostalgia.

With such little fencing between homes, in many neighborhoods yards simply run together creating large, sweeping common areas. While the outside world is preoccupied with personal space and privacy, small town residents enjoy the pleasure of impeccably manicured shared lawns. I am told that the common area is for use by anyone who so desires, for cooking out, dog walking, having a catch, lounging about, etc., and is maintained freely and enthusiastically by everyone. In cities with which I am familiar, a common area is a vacant dirt lot which may or may not have actual grass on it, where people discard their cigarette buts as they impatiently wait for their dogs to relieve themselves. We city dwellers have no notion of the pride involved in preserving an area that is not privately ours. And sharing? Forget about it.

 I doubt if anyone is going to cancel their trip to the Riviera to visit the Midwest, and I suspect Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Pine Bluff, Arkansas and Sioux Falls, South Dakota are not terribly high on anyone’s list of honeymoon destinations, still I cannot stress strongly enough that everyone take the opportunity to travel the interior at least once. See what it’s like to live without anxiety, to live where you don’t have to lock up everything you own, where you’re not just waiting for someone to stab you in the back, where words like family and community still have meaning, where you don’t wake up angry. Walk through a neighborhood without fences and introduce yourself to America. Spend a week in a small town, and add years to your life.

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