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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Flatlanders

The first time I realized just how geography affects a person's frame of reference, or world view, had to be in late December 2001. My parents had just picked me up from the Detroit Metro Airport; I had just completed a semester studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador at La Universidad de San Francisco del Quito (a small, private university). The story of my trip traveling back to Michigan from Ecuador that December is a story unto itself, but that will have to wait.

As my parents and I were traveling north on I-75, it struck me just how flat the landscape was. I even made the comment to my Mom, who then made an obvious comment of her own, "I suppose that is why they call us flatlanders." Still, the contrast of the Andes Mountains and the flat terrain of the Saginaw Valley can't be overstated. Inevitably it changes how people who live there view the world.

For whatever reason, the inherent flatness of mid-Michigan struck me again last Saturday. Brian and I were traveling along US 10 from Bay City to Midland in his truck. It was a beautiful summer day with only a few puffy white clouds in the sky. I don't know why the flatness stuck me then, but it did. There was nothing to break the horizon besides trees and grass, along with the occasional house or overpass.

So what does this have to do with how people view the world? I can only answer that by sharing how the geography of where I grew up shaped how I viewed my world. Growing up between Standish, Sterling, and Omer, it was always almost exactly six miles to the nearest small town in various directions from our home. If you traveled along US-23, there were always approximately seven miles between small towns. There are seven miles between Pinconning, Standish, Omer, and AuGres. As a child, if I wanted to see a movie, do any kind of shopping, or eat at a chain restaurant (other than fast food), I had to travel roughly thirty miles either north or south to either West Branch or Bay City. Growing up, Bay City was my idea of perfection. Imagine - a mall and movie theater nearby! Now that I'm older and have lived in suburbia for nearly a decade, I don't enjoy malls much anymore and never have the desire to go to movies (we have Netflix). Even though my priorities have changed, I now love Bay City for other reasons, namely Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River (not to mention the people, the sense of community, and its history).

In Ecuador, it was quite a different story. While everything is spread out here in mid-Michigan, that just isn't the case in Quito, Ecuador. In Quito, houses and businesses are closed behind walls. Everything is created to make you feel enclosed, secure. Even in small towns, buildings are clustered together in European style. The effects of colonialism are everywhere. Yet, when you get get beyond the cities, drive the mountain roads, and visit the open haciendas, you feel as though you are transferred to a mountainous Texas. There are truly wide open spaces so wide that you feel as though you are about to travel to the end of the Earth. The mountains are in the background and its foothills serve to open up the space before you. There is no human need for enclosure in mid-Michigan, but there certainly is in the Andes. Most people want to experience mountains from a safe vantage point (that, however, does not explain the nature of the mountain roads).

If you study the geography of Ecuador, you quickly realize that it is one of the most geographically diverse countries in Latin America. It contains wide plains, the Andes Mountains, tropical rain forests, and the Galapagos Islands, not to mention Pacific beaches. I experienced it all to some extent while I was there, but I was especially drawn to water. Growing up along the banks of the Rifle River and near Saginaw Bay, I suppose I've always been drawn to water. As a child, some of my favorite memories were of family dinners at restaurants along Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay, namely the Point AuGres Hotel (great pizza) and the Bear Track Inn, both of which have long since closed. As I grew up and moved away, I don't think that it was a coincidence that I chose to study at Michigan State University. While the Red Cedar isn't all that spectacular, it does a lot to add to the park-like feel of campus. During my time in Austin, Texas, I gravitated towards Lake Travis (a river by Michigan standards). In the back of my mind, I partially attribute my dislike of Houston to a lack of water. Brian and I drove to Galveston a few times during our year in Houston, but it just didn't seem close enough. Neither of us could get enough of Galveston.

Like many others, I often wonder if our geographic preferences are imprinted upon us from birth. No matter where I go or where I live, I will always gravitate towards lakes, rivers, and flat land. I'm beginning to think that I'm becoming too influenced by what I read. Is that really such a bad thing?

Lindsey

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2 Comments:

At 11:21 PM, Blogger DADvocate said...

I know geography makes a difference in the way people drive. Continue south on I-75 through Tennessee, where I grew up, and you'll experience some pretty good hills and a mountain or two plus lots of curves. Get off the Interstate and the curves and hills get worse.

The flatlanders almost always drive slower in the hill country. Understandable but irritating when you get stuck behind one.

 
At 10:57 AM, Blogger russelllindsey said...

I know exactly what you mean. I was scared to death riding in a car with my host parents along the mountain roads. Us flatlanders simply aren't used to it at all.

I imagine that it would be irritating to get stuck behind someone who isn't used to driving in the mountains. It is the same with those of us who grew up learning how to drive on snow and ice. When I lived in Houston, I never drove when there was any kind of ice. I grew up driving on it, but I was more afraid of how Southerners drive on ice. I've heard too many stories from people relocating to the South from the North.

Lindsey

 

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