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 we suffered in CA, 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.

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 came 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 little person 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.

Update: May 15, 2016

I cringed more than once reading this piece. Not because of the concept, but because of the use of titles that I wouldn’t use to describe someone anymore.

The word ‘hick’ jumps out at me now because it seems like the type of descriptor you can use for yourself, if you like, but not something you should call someone else. I’m visiting Columbia, Missouri while I write this, and there are definitely folks around here who proudly use the label, and have it slapped on their bumper stickers and referenced in their music, but would I describe someone that way? Nope.

The economic disparities that have become a lot better defined in the years since I wrote this piece are probably why the label seems less acceptable in casual conversation than it was back then. People were ‘metro’ or ‘hicks’ and we could all laugh at each other, but today I think the country as a whole is more aware of how the deck is stacked against some people, and the things that were an almost cartoonish novelty are no longer funny. Poverty isn’t so easy to ignore. Ignorance has real-world implications.

So although I’m still glad for this period in my life, because it really did open up a lot of opportunities to learn and grow and be exposed to different ideas, I’m also more than a little mortified about how much of the bigger picture I still wasn’t seeing.

But in a few years I’m sure I’ll look back on the things I’m writing today and feel the same. That’s the downside of growth: if you’re growing, most of what you’ve done and thought and said before this very moment will be embarrassing.

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