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Driving Home: Midwestern Pride

December 24, 2008

I consider myself to be a born-and-raised Kansas Citian. See, despite its misleading name and the resulting misconceptions, KC is actually in Missouri. To complicate things further, it's right on the Kansas border, and there is also a smaller Kansas City on the Kansas side (KCK, for short.) The two are in close proximity to each other, and the house I grew up in is nestled somewhere in the suburbs about 15 minutes southwest of downtown KC.

For attending a school located in the Midwest, Oberlin's student body is surprisingly coast-oriented. When I came into Oberlin, there were 11 of us total from Kansas, spread over all the classes. Out of approximately 2,800. That's less than .004 percent! (Missouri had even fewer.) Once people get over the novelty of Dorothy jokes and tornado questions - inevitable, I've learned, when I'm outside of my home state and meeting new people - it's actually pretty cool to be from somewhere unusual. Especially when I get the opportunity to share my hometown and state with other Obies, many of whom have never even been so far west.

For example, when my friend Keith was driving cross-country a couple summers ago, he stopped a night over in Kansas and was able to crash at my house. Two years ago, when some friends and I went down to New Orleans to volunteer for winter term, they all flew out to Kansas and we drove to NoLa from there. And when my good friend Daniel, a born-and-raised Brooklynite, came to visit one summer, we stopped by Oberlin, Kansas (the only other Oberlin in the country, to my knowledge!) for kicks on the way out to Colorado.

Don't get me wrong, it bummed me out at first; the summer before my freshman year at Oberlin, I watched as all the New Yorkers and D.C. kids organized get-togethers in their cities to meet each other before we even got to Oberlin. I was jealous! There were no future Obies within a few hundred miles of me to meet ahead of time. Over breaks, the Oberlin classifieds are flooded with people asking for and offering rides to the major east coast cities. Not me; I've always gone at it alone.

I didn't bring my car to Oberlin freshman year (though, for the record, there are no restrictions on who can bring a car to campus) but sophomore year, I decided it'd be nice to have it with me (though, for the record, there is a decent network of local transit buses, as well as plenty of other Obies with cars if you need to catch a ride somewhere). The drive between Oberlin and where I live in Kansas takes about 13 hours, which I always do in one straight shoot, getting up at dawn to make good time.

Honestly, I love the drive - I like really feeling the tangible distance between my new home and my old one, the sheer vastness of this country. I like the mental space I get at the beginning and end of each semester to just be with the road, my music, and my thoughts (...and a lot of caffeine) for a day.

This year, though, I somehow managed to cross paths with a couple Missourians who asked if they could hitch a ride home for the holidays. I was delighted - company, finally! We headed out bright and early on Sunday - it was snowing like crazy when we left, but once we got through the first 30 miles or so on Ohio backcountry roads, the sun came up and through the clouds, and the rest of the drive was gorgeous. Though my passengers slept a good deal of the ride (waking up at noon, shocked to find we were already in Illinois), we talked without pause during their waking hours. As Ben wrote recently, there is something distinct about Oberlin culture that will immediately connect you with others who've been there, regardless of whether you share anything else in common. One of the girls who rode with me, I had never met until I picked her up on Sunday for the drive - and yet the fact that we've been in the same place for the past three years and share that common understanding fueled several solid hours of conversation about life, school, friendships, certain wonderful professors and classes we'd had, and, above all, our shared home landscape - the Midwest.

A lot of us have a similar attitude about the Midwest; it's not necessarily where we want to wind up forever, but being away from there (Oberlin's campus doesn't count; it's a cultural mish-mash that just so happens to be located in Ohio) for a few years without many others who understand, has connected us to one another. It's the cultural understanding of Steak & Shake, use of the word "pop" rather than "soda", the shared aggravation of East Coasters asking us why we don't have southern accents (people! Kansas is not the South! It's the geographic center of the country!), Quik Trip, going to the Lake of the Ozarks, and knowing that Missouri has more billboards per mile of interstate highway than any other state in this country (citation needed here, but anyone who's driven I-70 cross country will undoubtedly agree.)

As we rolled past a farmhouse whose entire acre of a front yard was strewn (decorated?) with inflatable Christmas figures, the three of us couldn't help but laugh and say to each other,
Oh Midwest, how we adore thee...

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