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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
On a recent trip to Chicago from Central Indiana, we discovered en route that Interstate 65 was closed for all northbound traffic near Lafayette; this prompted some serious re-shuffling of our plans, for we had to immediately re-navigate a new path. Both of our smart phones were getting terrible service and so we relied upon my ancient AAA Indiana roadmap, which somehow still lurked in my glovebox.
I did that thing I always do when I'm using a roadmap: I quickly and brutally refolded the map into an 8 x 10, easy-to-hold square that would show any immediate destinations or decisions. Of course I didn't pull over and attempt to orientate myself — that would have been too safe, too sensible — but instead I tried to scan all relevant information from the map while driving, endeavoring not to bulldoze a diner or bellyflop into a retention pond.
We found an alternative route pretty quickly, taking state roads at right angles and laddering-up the state in a northwesterly path. We passed through a number of small and mid-sized towns on the way, most of them vaguely familiar-sounding (wasn't Rick Mount from Lebanon?) but none that I had personally traversed before. But it's always been one of my favorite things to do as a Hoosier who loves to drive — traveling the backroads and discovering the oddball little towns on a beautiful late summer day.
Or at least it used to be. I'm not sure when it began, but at some point on our trip I started thinking that the landscape felt and looked less bucolic and familiar than I was expecting. It felt a little more, I don't know, menacing: the unsmiling dudes in the 4x4s, the Church billboards promising damnation, the boarded-up businesses on the way out of town that looked like meth central. And those tell-tale signs that I always unfairly associated with small-town ennui and poverty: Dollar General, Wal-Mart, Check Cashing Services, liquor stores, the cheapest chain fast food. It's an exaggeration to say that I expected Hoosiers and ended up in Children of the Corn, but there's no denying that I felt completely ill-at-ease traveling through the small towns that I once got so sentimental about.
And the kicker is, we were headed to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. A friend had bought a brownstone in a gang-heavy area in the city (she paid less than 20k for the house) and we were bringing her baby supplies for her first child. And when we got there, it was startling how relieved we felt. Everyone we encountered on the street was friendly; some of the properties were beat-up but it felt pleasant, sunny. Any trepidation I had previously felt vanished almost immediately. Driving through the small towns in Indiana had made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up, yet here, in the big bad city, I felt immensely safer.
And look, like most leftist, progressive types, I've come to accept that I'll always be out of my element in my home state. No matter how much hay-baling or corn de-tasseling I have in my past, no matter how many cigarettes I smoke or pork tenderloin sandwiches I eat, I'm always gonna feel like an outsider here. It's a given. It's a Conservative state: not all of it, and not in any of the social stratas that I'm immersed in, but still, its' always Republican, reactionary, traditional. And I'm not. I've always understood this and accepted this and never once have I thought I needed to escape from it.
But boy, it sure feels different now. Could an election really show such a profound change? I know I'm prone to over-reacting and exaggeration, but it feels like there's been a stark transformation, in that "gradual, then sudden" way. I remember as recently as 2009, when my son played high-school football, how charmed I felt to drive to all the small towns in North Central Indiana for those Friday Night games: New Carlisle, Jimtown, Bremen, Winamac. Knox and Union Center. Now, I'm convinced that all those towns are full of people who look like extras from the movie Get Out.
The rational part of me knows how crazy this is. I'm sure that not every conversation at the Sunshine Cafe on Main Street is about those immigrants and those liberal infidels who are sending the country to hell; maybe the locals are talking about Bitcoin, or vacation spots in Europe, or the best way to make cassoulet. I tend to paint with a broad brush, after all, and maybe I acknowledge that people are always a lot more variable than I give them credit for.
Or, you know, maybe they're not. Maybe it has become that divisive a time, maybe the country really is on the precipice of social war. I hope not, but I can't deny that I feel pretty distanced from a lot of the people in my home state. I'll hope for the best, and I'll always try to give the people of Indiana the benefit of the doubt, but right now? I think I'd rather be in Chicago when the sun goes down than in Lebanon or LaPorte.