Continuing westward on I-40, having crossed the breadth of the Mississippi River from Memphis, I entered Arkansas. At this point, so far as I saw it, I had exited the eastern portion of the United States and had crossed the threshold into the middle of the country. The few days following my departure from Tennessee saw me traveling across the lengths of Arkansas and Oklahoma, as well as the upper handle of Texas.
I will admit that I did not stop in many tourist destinations across these states – I was trying my hardest to stay attentive behind the wheel while speeding past one enormous farm after another. Where I did decide to stop – what I wanted to explore most – were the countless small towns that sat either directly off of or miles from the interstate. Whether to stretch my legs or peruse one antiques shop after another, I wanted to gain an insight into the areas in which these people lived.
What managed to capture my attention most was the fact that each town was comfortable. Even though my car has a Massachusetts license plate and I sometimes certain accented inflections and vowels that prove I’m from New England (please don’t ask me to pronounce “room” or “roof”), I never felt as if I wasn’t welcome or that I didn’t belong. Instead, they characteristically appeared to provide a slice of home.
Each town was unique in its own right: they had distinct shops and local, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and cafes, hometown celebrities who ‘made it big’ that they promote with banners strung between street lamps and posters taped to storefront windows, and certain folk that meant something to the town’s history, whether agriculturally, congregationally, or politically.
Hailing from vastly different partitions of the United States – each with it’s own demographics, economics, and cultural habits – we expect the ways in which we live to be foreign from one another; however, these towns provided me with distinct flashes of small, scant towns pressed into southern New Hampshire, northeastern Vermont, rural Massachusetts, and northern Maine.
Although, the difference is that the states of New England, on the scale of the collective United States, are quite small. Except for towns within northern New England (closing in on the US-Canada border), most New England towns are still quite small and barren, highlighting their colonial past while profiting from its history, small shops, and farmstands, but there are still lively cities just a stone’s throw away. Where I am from in Massachusetts the towns are compact, pressed up against one another, featuring little populations, plenty of history, and boring, city centers featuring little life during the day or at night. But if you want to seek out activities a bit more lively and populated, you only need to drive a maximum of fifteen minutes – sometimes 30 – to enter up-and-coming businesses, bars, cafes, and art galleries, or having the whole of Boston at your fingertips.
For a lot of the towns that I experienced while in AR, OK, and TX, this wasn’t the case. These towns and their featured downtown’s with its few shops, cafe, gas station, and grocery store was all there was besides workplaces – farmland, mechanics, shops, and the lone insurance building – and the population’s homes. Thus, traversing through its innards – conversing with shop keepers, grabbing a cup of coffee and a donut, and walking from one end of Main St. to the other – was the primary way of immersing myself into the snippets of these states without living in them longterm.
Might these experiences have been superficial and shortsighted? Sure. I very well may be romanticizing these towns and its people. Might I have overlooked a key part of the state and its commerce by neglecting to adventure through Little Rock, Oklahoma City, and Amarillo? Yes. I missed a great deal of nightlife opportunities and new-age, commercial living within these states. But I appreciated the experience of these small towns much more than any city.
For all of the grins and shudders I saw stretched across faces, humble accomplishments and hidden addictions that I passed on the street, and the outright or internalized culture and political ideology spanning the bumpers of cars, windows of antique stores and barber shops, and homecoming banners hanging from each light post, their slogans printed over whitewashed, pixelated American flags, they wore their hearts on their sleeve, providing the means for an outsider, like myself, to garner some idea of the type of the life these people live. As troubled as their lives likely are under the skin, it all appears quite simple on the surface.
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to follow my blog to read soon-to-come blogs chronicling my U.S. cross country trip.
You can read my previous cross country posts here: