Missouri: So Long, Thanks for All the Hicks

 

As I write this I’m on a shuttle between Columbia, Missouri and St. Louis, looking out the window, listening to Yelle and typing away on my tiny little netbook.

These last two details are important because they are in direct contrast to the kinds of things I’ve been involved with during my stay in the Heartland. In Los Angeles I let my metro-flag fly, knowing that not only did most everyone around me know who Yelle is, but they have probably already moved on long ago, listening to something newer, fresher, dancier, Frencher.

In Missouri there is definitely a different cultural atmosphere. Despite the fact that Columbia is one of the more culture-forward cities in the state, the overwhelming attitude is toward consistency, security and reliability over evolution. Family owned businesses and television personalities sporting Midwestern accents abound and the debate over whether or not a new addition to one of the sports bars downtown is legal dominates news coverage for weeks at a time.

This is a region-centric area with region-centric concerns, which in my mind is what makes Missouri so incredibly frustrating and so incredibly awesome.

A little background: I moved to Columbia when I was 9, leaving the San Francisco area to a place that my parents were convinced would be a more hospitable cultural climate to raise their 4 kids in (and after all the burglaries, they probably had the right idea).

I moved out to LA immediately after graduating from college and have lived there for the past 2.5 years.

While in high school, I was definitely aware that Missouri had a fairly large population of the white economic underclass, otherwise known as rednecks, hicks, hillbillies, etc. Everywhere you’d look there was evidence of them: the tacky lawn ornamentation, the overzealous religious groups, the casually-told racist jokes, the fixation on sports and movies starring fat guys with drinking problems…it all added up to a very uncomfortable atmosphere for me to live in.

The studied ignorance with which these people went through their lives was offensive to my sensibilities, and their tradition-ridden, seemingly purposeless lifestyles would keep me up nights, tense with righteous indignation.

At the time, of course, I didn’t see the irony in this attitude. While I looked down on this group for being discriminatory toward others, I was committing the same social crime I was so enraged about.

Fortunately, things have changed quite a bit since then. I don’t know if it’s perspective gained from living elsewhere, being exposed to a constant stream of new ideas, or even just a slowly gained maturity, but when I visit the Midwest now, the rednecks are my favorite part. It’s like some commentator said a couple elections ago about George W. Bush: “Even if you don’t like the man or agree with his policies, you’d still probably rather have a beer with him than his opponent.”

And man am I ever glad I had this change of heart. If I were still of the mind to avoid cultures that I found to have ideas diametrically opposite of my own, I never would have gone wine tasting in Hermann, Missouri, where, in addition to enjoying one of the better wine tasting experiences I’ve had in my life (try the Norton and the Vignoles!), I was also taught the benefits of not being an abusive husband by the sommelier, followed by his explanation of how humans can to be (aliens were involved, according to his theory). It was one of those experiences that leaves you grinning widely as you walk away, partially because of the novelty and partially because of the good-natured genuineness of everyone involved.

I had similar warm-fuzzy feelings after going out to get dinner at Cooper’s Landing, a little dockside shop set up on a cliff overlooking the Missouri River.

As we pulled up to Cooper’s Landing, there were cars parked haphazardly all along the street and in jigsawed rows all the way up to a two-story house with a back patio covered in beer and country music festival posters. There was a bonfire, a motor boat being pulled from the water by a monstrous pickup truck, Thai food being served from a trailer parked alongside the house, and a bunch of picnic tables with giant canopy umbrellas. With the addition of a big screen TV, a bunch of folding chairs and Christmas lights, the garage  had become a sports bar. People were missing teeth and wearing shirts without sleeves. Overalls. Buzzcuts and rat tails. There was a midget wearing enormous baggy jeans and a backward Miller Light hat.

I was spellbound.

I sat down with my Pad Thai and spring rolls and just took it all in. Little kids were playing on an outcrop of rocks by the dock while their older siblings threw fireworks into the bonfire. A teenage boy sat down on an overturned log next to a girl about his age. She blushed. He twiddled his thumbs anxiously, trying to work up the courage to say hi. The view of the river at sunset was violet-tinted and amazing.

This was the exact situation that I was trying to avoid while living in Missouri, choosing to instead hang out in coffee shops, talk politics or philosophy over sushi or spend the night basking in the glow of my computer. I was doing myself a major disservice. I already KNEW I liked sushi and chai lattes and the Internet. I had no idea what I was missing out on.

The people are what make this kind of non-event special. Their priorities and lifestyles are different than mine, certainly, but they are friendly, lively, very down-to-earth. You don’t have to discuss politics or philosophy or anything serious at all to have a good time; nights at Cooper’s Landing, and any other hick-haven, are uber-chill, undeniably entertaining and fun. That’s the point.

So though my experiences in Missouri have been a mixed bag, I can say with authority that there is a wonderful culture worth investigating there, one that the rest of the country is just becoming aware of, but that is very applicable to the modern world, despite its traditional roots.

You have something to teach them, and they have something to teach you.

Now here I sit, listening to French dance rock while shuttling through the state that had more restaurants embrace ‘Freedom Fries’ than any other, quietly thankful that I’m embarking on a journey that will allow me to soak up and enjoy a thousand more cultures, each no doubt just as infuriating and lovable as the one I’m leaving behind.

36 comments

  1. This is a great piece of writing. I can definitely relate to your hick experiences. It’s like visiting any county fair in Maine, my home state. I do have to say that my favorite part is the large variety of rat tails.

    By the way, did you really see a midget in baggy jeans with a backwards Miller Light hat? It just seems to good to be true…

  2. This is a great piece of writing. I can definitely relate to your hick experiences. It’s like visiting any county fair in Maine, my home state. I do have to say that my favorite part is the large variety of rat tails.

    By the way, did you really see a midget in baggy jeans with a backwards Miller Light hat? It just seems to good to be true…

  3. This is a great piece of writing. I can definitely relate to your hick experiences. It’s like visiting any county fair in Maine, my home state. I do have to say that my favorite part is the large variety of rat tails.

    By the way, did you really see a midget in baggy jeans with a backwards Miller Light hat? It just seems to good to be true…

  4. Beautifully written. I appreciate the insight into Missouri and the magic that lies beneath wine tastings and sunsets. I am also intrigued you grew up in San Fran and Colombia – that is a childhood matured in perspective.

  5. Beautifully written. I appreciate the insight into Missouri and the magic that lies beneath wine tastings and sunsets. I am also intrigued you grew up in San Fran and Colombia – that is a childhood matured in perspective.

  6. Beautifully written. I appreciate the insight into Missouri and the magic that lies beneath wine tastings and sunsets. I am also intrigued you grew up in San Fran and Colombia – that is a childhood matured in perspective.

  7. Great post. I didn’t appreciate my southern upbringing (I’m from Nashville, TN) until I went to college and started meeting people from different parts of the country. As I’ve spent less and less time in the south (I now live in Boston), I’ve grown to appreciate my limited trips, trying to soak in whatever southern comforts–literally and figuratively–I can get my hands on.

    I agree with your “have a beer” approach to the stereotypically negative aspects of the south. I’ve definitely made that comment about Bush too :)

  8. Great post. I didn’t appreciate my southern upbringing (I’m from Nashville, TN) until I went to college and started meeting people from different parts of the country. As I’ve spent less and less time in the south (I now live in Boston), I’ve grown to appreciate my limited trips, trying to soak in whatever southern comforts–literally and figuratively–I can get my hands on.

    I agree with your “have a beer” approach to the stereotypically negative aspects of the south. I’ve definitely made that comment about Bush too :)

  9. Great post. I didn’t appreciate my southern upbringing (I’m from Nashville, TN) until I went to college and started meeting people from different parts of the country. As I’ve spent less and less time in the south (I now live in Boston), I’ve grown to appreciate my limited trips, trying to soak in whatever southern comforts–literally and figuratively–I can get my hands on.

    I agree with your “have a beer” approach to the stereotypically negative aspects of the south. I’ve definitely made that comment about Bush too :)

  10. I think it’s good to experience and “live” other cultures. However, this “relax and have a beer” is rather shallow. There’s a bit more to it. Growing up and living in Nebraska as a liberal is very trying. But you can find pockets and outlets for just about any niche in any state.
    Also, it is “sommelier”.

  11. I think it’s good to experience and “live” other cultures. However, this “relax and have a beer” is rather shallow. There’s a bit more to it. Growing up and living in Nebraska as a liberal is very trying. But you can find pockets and outlets for just about any niche in any state.
    Also, it is “sommelier”.

  12. I think it’s good to experience and “live” other cultures. However, this “relax and have a beer” is rather shallow. There’s a bit more to it. Growing up and living in Nebraska as a liberal is very trying. But you can find pockets and outlets for just about any niche in any state.
    Also, it is “sommelier”.

  13. Colin, I like much of your recent writing, but as someone from Missouri I definitely don’t like this article. Why?

    The overall theme here is that Missouri is a backwards-ass place, but you were able to find beauty in that ugliness and so you are a better person for it.

    The problem is it feeds into this tiresome, persistent attitude of coastal snobbery: East and West coast people are educated, intelligent, fashionable and forward thinking, while people from the midwest are only interested in “consistency, security and reliability over evolution.”

    Are there missing teeth, overalls, buzzcuts and rat tails in Missouri? Sure. But I’ve been to every major metro in the US, from LA to San Fran, up to Chicago, down to New Orleans, and east to Washington, DC, and I see the same shows of tasteless gaudiness. Maybe instead of a mullet and overalls it’s a bright orange suit with a full set of gold teeth. Or a Euro-Mullet with a stretched-to-the-breaking-point size-Small shirt on chubby, 6’5 dude. Is there really a difference?

    I think the more progressive approach here would be to acknowledge the similarities. In Missouri, you got a hand up in the design world studying under some great teachers from Russia, Poland and China, while meeting friends from all over the country, and hanging around an active, progressive and often-times very liberal student base. In the meantime, you can go back to LA, drive an hour or so east of the city sprawl, find a county Super Walmart, and see California’s version of Missouri Hicks.

    To invent a fun-fact, due to California’s enormous population, there are probably 4 hicks out there for every 1 here. You have to leave the city if you want to see them. But even without California Hick Hunting, you can stay in the city and find millions of the backwards, uneducated and uninterested in personal/societal evolution. In the end, I think what you’re really describing is being a member of the forward thinking, progressive, intellectual or creative class… enjoying coffee shops, sushi, philosophy and computers. We have that class here too, though in smaller numbers due to a smaller population. We also share similar percentages of those falling outside that class, from the tolerable to the intolerable.

  14. Colin, I like much of your recent writing, but as someone from Missouri I definitely don’t like this article. Why?

    The overall theme here is that Missouri is a backwards-ass place, but you were able to find beauty in that ugliness and so you are a better person for it.

    The problem is it feeds into this tiresome, persistent attitude of coastal snobbery: East and West coast people are educated, intelligent, fashionable and forward thinking, while people from the midwest are only interested in “consistency, security and reliability over evolution.”

    Are there missing teeth, overalls, buzzcuts and rat tails in Missouri? Sure. But I’ve been to every major metro in the US, from LA to San Fran, up to Chicago, down to New Orleans, and east to Washington, DC, and I see the same shows of tasteless gaudiness. Maybe instead of a mullet and overalls it’s a bright orange suit with a full set of gold teeth. Or a Euro-Mullet with a stretched-to-the-breaking-point size-Small shirt on chubby, 6’5 dude. Is there really a difference?

    I think the more progressive approach here would be to acknowledge the similarities. In Missouri, you got a hand up in the design world studying under some great teachers from Russia, Poland and China, while meeting friends from all over the country, and hanging around an active, progressive and often-times very liberal student base. In the meantime, you can go back to LA, drive an hour or so east of the city sprawl, find a county Super Walmart, and see California’s version of Missouri Hicks.

    To invent a fun-fact, due to California’s enormous population, there are probably 4 hicks out there for every 1 here. You have to leave the city if you want to see them. But even without California Hick Hunting, you can stay in the city and find millions of the backwards, uneducated and uninterested in personal/societal evolution. In the end, I think what you’re really describing is being a member of the forward thinking, progressive, intellectual or creative class… enjoying coffee shops, sushi, philosophy and computers. We have that class here too, though in smaller numbers due to a smaller population. We also share similar percentages of those falling outside that class, from the tolerable to the intolerable.

  15. Colin, I like much of your recent writing, but as someone from Missouri I definitely don’t like this article. Why?

    The overall theme here is that Missouri is a backwards-ass place, but you were able to find beauty in that ugliness and so you are a better person for it.

    The problem is it feeds into this tiresome, persistent attitude of coastal snobbery: East and West coast people are educated, intelligent, fashionable and forward thinking, while people from the midwest are only interested in “consistency, security and reliability over evolution.”

    Are there missing teeth, overalls, buzzcuts and rat tails in Missouri? Sure. But I’ve been to every major metro in the US, from LA to San Fran, up to Chicago, down to New Orleans, and east to Washington, DC, and I see the same shows of tasteless gaudiness. Maybe instead of a mullet and overalls it’s a bright orange suit with a full set of gold teeth. Or a Euro-Mullet with a stretched-to-the-breaking-point size-Small shirt on chubby, 6’5 dude. Is there really a difference?

    I think the more progressive approach here would be to acknowledge the similarities. In Missouri, you got a hand up in the design world studying under some great teachers from Russia, Poland and China, while meeting friends from all over the country, and hanging around an active, progressive and often-times very liberal student base. In the meantime, you can go back to LA, drive an hour or so east of the city sprawl, find a county Super Walmart, and see California’s version of Missouri Hicks.

    To invent a fun-fact, due to California’s enormous population, there are probably 4 hicks out there for every 1 here. You have to leave the city if you want to see them. But even without California Hick Hunting, you can stay in the city and find millions of the backwards, uneducated and uninterested in personal/societal evolution. In the end, I think what you’re really describing is being a member of the forward thinking, progressive, intellectual or creative class… enjoying coffee shops, sushi, philosophy and computers. We have that class here too, though in smaller numbers due to a smaller population. We also share similar percentages of those falling outside that class, from the tolerable to the intolerable.

  16. Great responses everyone! I got the impression that this ‘ode might get some negative feedback, partially because I started to feel a little awkward about it partway through (there is, as Jesse mentions, a thin line between celebrating and condescending to). I tried to walk it the best I could without offending anyone, but some good points are made all around. That being said:

    @Nate: Thanks! And yes, the midget is real. You couldn’t make that kind of thing up.

    @molly: Thanks!

    @Sean: It was definitely a contrast, growing up between Cali and Missouri. I’m glad I had both, though. Wouldn’t give either of them up.

    @brian: Thanks buddy!

    @Alan: Definitely. In fact, I’ve been told that I’ll have the same response in regards to being American the more I travel outside of the states (‘you’ll get more and more proud about your yank-ness’ is a semi-close quote, in fact). When I moved to Cali, I definitely noticed myself standing up for the Midwest more than I would have wile living there.

    @Jessi: I agree with you to a degree…there is definitely more to any culture than the more prominent, most obvious or even just the first group that you see. At the same time, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating aspects of a culture that aren’t as complex as we’d normally spend our time. Is sitting around a campfire with cheap beer any less noble than debating modern literature in a coffee shop? Depends on who you ask, and how that person is feeling at that moment in time.

    @Jesse: This was the comment I was waiting for. You make very valid points that there are groups of rednecks (or their ilk, whatever they might be called locally) everywhere, and especially in big states like California. It’s true, too, that there are a really large number of philosophizers and coffee-shop chess players in uber-conservative places like Springfield, Missouri.

    I kept writing this piece even after I detected the subtle snobbery for a reason, though, and that reason was to acknowledge that we all have biases and preconceived notions. There are groups without nicknames that we still attribute properties to without having met them, and we’ll keep doing it no matter how un-PC it is because it’s a biological response. We as humans tend to file and label and pre-determine people’s motives and lifestyles because its an evolutionary trait that allowed us to detect danger, food that wasn’t good to eat, etc etc etc back in the day.

    All that is fine and good, sure, but the real point is that being able to find something you can really appreciate about a group, even if it’s the flattest, least flattering, most simple and stereotypical thing about them is a step in the right direction. It leads to more encounters with the same group, and in the future encounters the guard will be let down a little more. Then a little more the next time. And then, if all is right in the universe (and when is it not?), someday we can all look at each other as the multi-dimension, fully fleshed-out people that we are.

    If we avoid acknowledging certain aspects of a group’s character, however, then from the get-go we are applying our own values (saying some traits are good and therefore should be used liberally, while others are bad and should not be used to describe people) to others, which is, I think, the biggest mistake one can make when trying to understand another group of people.

    Hopefully that makes sense, and I appreciate the well thought out feedback, Jesse. I’ve been keeping up with your work, by the way, and it’s still inspirational to me every time.

    Also: Hello to everyone from Buenos Aires!

  17. Great responses everyone! I got the impression that this ‘ode might get some negative feedback, partially because I started to feel a little awkward about it partway through (there is, as Jesse mentions, a thin line between celebrating and condescending to). I tried to walk it the best I could without offending anyone, but some good points are made all around. That being said:

    @Nate: Thanks! And yes, the midget is real. You couldn’t make that kind of thing up.

    @molly: Thanks!

    @Sean: It was definitely a contrast, growing up between Cali and Missouri. I’m glad I had both, though. Wouldn’t give either of them up.

    @brian: Thanks buddy!

    @Alan: Definitely. In fact, I’ve been told that I’ll have the same response in regards to being American the more I travel outside of the states (‘you’ll get more and more proud about your yank-ness’ is a semi-close quote, in fact). When I moved to Cali, I definitely noticed myself standing up for the Midwest more than I would have wile living there.

    @Jessi: I agree with you to a degree…there is definitely more to any culture than the more prominent, most obvious or even just the first group that you see. At the same time, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating aspects of a culture that aren’t as complex as we’d normally spend our time. Is sitting around a campfire with cheap beer any less noble than debating modern literature in a coffee shop? Depends on who you ask, and how that person is feeling at that moment in time.

    @Jesse: This was the comment I was waiting for. You make very valid points that there are groups of rednecks (or their ilk, whatever they might be called locally) everywhere, and especially in big states like California. It’s true, too, that there are a really large number of philosophizers and coffee-shop chess players in uber-conservative places like Springfield, Missouri.

    I kept writing this piece even after I detected the subtle snobbery for a reason, though, and that reason was to acknowledge that we all have biases and preconceived notions. There are groups without nicknames that we still attribute properties to without having met them, and we’ll keep doing it no matter how un-PC it is because it’s a biological response. We as humans tend to file and label and pre-determine people’s motives and lifestyles because its an evolutionary trait that allowed us to detect danger, food that wasn’t good to eat, etc etc etc back in the day.

    All that is fine and good, sure, but the real point is that being able to find something you can really appreciate about a group, even if it’s the flattest, least flattering, most simple and stereotypical thing about them is a step in the right direction. It leads to more encounters with the same group, and in the future encounters the guard will be let down a little more. Then a little more the next time. And then, if all is right in the universe (and when is it not?), someday we can all look at each other as the multi-dimension, fully fleshed-out people that we are.

    If we avoid acknowledging certain aspects of a group’s character, however, then from the get-go we are applying our own values (saying some traits are good and therefore should be used liberally, while others are bad and should not be used to describe people) to others, which is, I think, the biggest mistake one can make when trying to understand another group of people.

    Hopefully that makes sense, and I appreciate the well thought out feedback, Jesse. I’ve been keeping up with your work, by the way, and it’s still inspirational to me every time.

    Also: Hello to everyone from Buenos Aires!

  18. Great responses everyone! I got the impression that this ‘ode might get some negative feedback, partially because I started to feel a little awkward about it partway through (there is, as Jesse mentions, a thin line between celebrating and condescending to). I tried to walk it the best I could without offending anyone, but some good points are made all around. That being said:

    @Nate: Thanks! And yes, the midget is real. You couldn’t make that kind of thing up.

    @molly: Thanks!

    @Sean: It was definitely a contrast, growing up between Cali and Missouri. I’m glad I had both, though. Wouldn’t give either of them up.

    @brian: Thanks buddy!

    @Alan: Definitely. In fact, I’ve been told that I’ll have the same response in regards to being American the more I travel outside of the states (‘you’ll get more and more proud about your yank-ness’ is a semi-close quote, in fact). When I moved to Cali, I definitely noticed myself standing up for the Midwest more than I would have wile living there.

    @Jessi: I agree with you to a degree…there is definitely more to any culture than the more prominent, most obvious or even just the first group that you see. At the same time, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating aspects of a culture that aren’t as complex as we’d normally spend our time. Is sitting around a campfire with cheap beer any less noble than debating modern literature in a coffee shop? Depends on who you ask, and how that person is feeling at that moment in time.

    @Jesse: This was the comment I was waiting for. You make very valid points that there are groups of rednecks (or their ilk, whatever they might be called locally) everywhere, and especially in big states like California. It’s true, too, that there are a really large number of philosophizers and coffee-shop chess players in uber-conservative places like Springfield, Missouri.

    I kept writing this piece even after I detected the subtle snobbery for a reason, though, and that reason was to acknowledge that we all have biases and preconceived notions. There are groups without nicknames that we still attribute properties to without having met them, and we’ll keep doing it no matter how un-PC it is because it’s a biological response. We as humans tend to file and label and pre-determine people’s motives and lifestyles because its an evolutionary trait that allowed us to detect danger, food that wasn’t good to eat, etc etc etc back in the day.

    All that is fine and good, sure, but the real point is that being able to find something you can really appreciate about a group, even if it’s the flattest, least flattering, most simple and stereotypical thing about them is a step in the right direction. It leads to more encounters with the same group, and in the future encounters the guard will be let down a little more. Then a little more the next time. And then, if all is right in the universe (and when is it not?), someday we can all look at each other as the multi-dimension, fully fleshed-out people that we are.

    If we avoid acknowledging certain aspects of a group’s character, however, then from the get-go we are applying our own values (saying some traits are good and therefore should be used liberally, while others are bad and should not be used to describe people) to others, which is, I think, the biggest mistake one can make when trying to understand another group of people.

    Hopefully that makes sense, and I appreciate the well thought out feedback, Jesse. I’ve been keeping up with your work, by the way, and it’s still inspirational to me every time.

    Also: Hello to everyone from Buenos Aires!

  19. Colin, Yep.. you knew halfway through someone from the Dirty was gonna chime in on this one! As Nelly said, “I’m from the Show-Me State, show me 7, I’ll show you 8…”

    Glad you like what I’m doing… some highs and lows. I try to just show the highs. Sounds like you’re having a blast! Keep it real and remember you can always count on me for a long comment when your travels/blogs take you through the MO :)

  20. Colin, Yep.. you knew halfway through someone from the Dirty was gonna chime in on this one! As Nelly said, “I’m from the Show-Me State, show me 7, I’ll show you 8…”

    Glad you like what I’m doing… some highs and lows. I try to just show the highs. Sounds like you’re having a blast! Keep it real and remember you can always count on me for a long comment when your travels/blogs take you through the MO :)

  21. Colin, Yep.. you knew halfway through someone from the Dirty was gonna chime in on this one! As Nelly said, “I’m from the Show-Me State, show me 7, I’ll show you 8…”

    Glad you like what I’m doing… some highs and lows. I try to just show the highs. Sounds like you’re having a blast! Keep it real and remember you can always count on me for a long comment when your travels/blogs take you through the MO :)

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  23. I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful post.

    Have you ever read Jim Goad’s Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies Hicks and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats? It’s a classic book by an amazing writer from small town America. You’d probably like it.

    I like what you said about the small town attitude of consistency, security and reliability, over evolution. I prefer risk and adventure myself, but when people don’t have the privilege of education and economic opportunity, certainty and tradition is more important.

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