American Longitudes

 

“Changes in latitude, changes in attitude…” – Jimmy Buffett

Ditto for longitude.

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Longitude 90-100 degrees W.

Humorist/travel author Bill Bryson, in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, reports on his Iowa-born-and-bred father’s penchant for friendly chatter, seemingly a trait of many from the western Midwest, especially Iowa:
“The problem with my dad was that he was a great talker.This is always
a dangerous thing in a person who gets lost a lot. He would go into a cafe to ask the way to Giant Fungus State Park and the next thing you knew he would be sitting down having a cup of coffee and a chat with the proprietor or the proprietor would be taking him out back to show him his new septic tank or something…”
After a long recovery from a laughing fit triggered by Giant Fungus State Park (a bit of Bryson genius), I saw in his description of his father echoes of my own experience with Iowans – largely in and around Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa. Could it be that all Iowans are as outgoing and friendly as the senior Bryson? No, but nearly everyone I’ve connected with in Iowa fits the bill very nicely. Shuttle up north a bit to southern Minnesota, and you’re likely to get several doses of “Minnesota Nice,” doncha know. Head south to Missouri, and niceness becomes spottier… but resides in special niches. Like the folks in the antique lamp store near St. Joe.
Similarly, Bryson (like myself, and my wife) got happy vibes along the eastern edges of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. But heading farther west… that was a different story.
A  favorite from the longitude 90s: Quick Cheese Casserole.

Iowa. Our friend Dave near his home. Longitude: low 90s. Below, US map shows most of Maine in the longitude 60s (we’re the only state with that distinction). The American West, it’s generally agreed, begins at longitude 100, where annual rainfall (and humidity) decreases sharply.

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Longitude 100-120 degrees W.

Ah, the West! Stretching from about 100 to 120 degrees west longitude, Dodge City to Lake Tahoe. In Bryson’s frequently amusing but sometimes drear-inducing account of his travels, he found restaurant waitstaff consistently cold and brusque, and he could scarcely wait to return east of 100 degrees. This chilly description of some westerners cheered me. Yes! I’ve had the same vibe! We’re on the same page! Back in January 2014, I wrote in “The West is Not Funny” —

… out west, things aren’t funny at all. I’ve seen a great deal of New Mexico, southeast Colorado, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, and southwest Kansas – many times – and it’s just not funny there. In the spring, the wind howls unabated for weeks on end blowing dust into your teeth, followed in late spring by super cells that threaten catastrophe and then there’s the onslaught of summer drought and relentless heat. People work very hard, their sun-worn skin starts to look like peanut brittle, and they don’t make much money. None of this is very amusing.

Tumbleweeds, here in Walsh, CO (Long. 102 degrees W.), may seem mildly entertaining, but they’re prickly and if they get caught up in a dust devil (like here) they’re not at all funny. So if I were a waiter in small diner in Walsh, I know I’d be pretty grumpy much of the time. If people actually come here, they’re probably lost… or (like us) they want a taste of life in a small western town, however down-at-the-mouth it may be.

Bryson’s view of the West is especially jaundiced:

The people in the towns along the way (to the American West) stop wearing baseball caps and shuffling along with that amiable dopiness characteristic of the Midwest and instead start wearing cowboy hats and cowboy boots, walking with a lope and looking vaguely suspicious and squinty, as if they think they might have to shoot you in a minute.

People in the West like to shoot things. When they first got to the West they shot buffalo. Once there were 70 million buffalo on the plains and then the people of the West started blasting away at them. … By 1895, there were only 800 buffalo left, mostly in zoos and touring Wild West shows. With no buffalo left to kill, Westerners started shooting Indians. Between 1850 and 1890 they reduced the number of Indians in America from two million to 90,000.

Nowadays, thank goodness, both have made a recovery. Today there are 30,000 buffalo and 300,000 Indians, and of course you are not allowed to shoot either, so all the Westerners have left to shoot at are road signs and each other, both of which they do rather a lot. There you have a capsule history of the West.

For a wider view of why the West is the way it is, see my “Islands in America” post.

A  favorite from the longitude 100s: Green Chile Stew.

Longitude 80-90 degrees W.

Where are we? Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, eastern Wisconsin, and a large chunk of the Deep South. It gets tricky here, because latitude does play a more significant role than elsewhere. But sticking with the northern states, all is either rust belt or agriculture and either way most folks aren’t getting rich – if in fact they can stay even. I’ve seen “hope and cope” in full force the many times I’ve been to New Castle, Indiana, where corn fields abut an enormous abandoned Chrysler assembly plant. Life is tough there. So I’ll edge southward into Georgia, my home state for some ten years, where chivalry and “niceness” are still culturally intact. And —

A  favorite from the longitude 80s: Real deep South Cajun gumbo.

Longitude 60-70 degrees W.

That’s Maine, that’s us! Or most of us, east of Augusta, and our friends to the east in Maritime Canada and Newfoundland/Labrador. We occupy a unique niche, tucked far into a corner of this country, sharing much of the same friendly and helpful spirit that’s embedded in the Canadian character. Newfies are famously “nice.” St. Andrews, New Brunswick, is a seething cauldron of niceness. Enough said – it’s great to be here in the 60s, and there’s little point in attempting to encapsulate other longitudinal geographies (the entire East Coat, far West, West Coast) because it can’t be done in any way that might lead to some original insight. Possibly from Bryson, but not from me. So that’s enough for today.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.