Back in the yesteryear of my schooldays, our coach journeys to and from school took us past a rather tired-looking billboard. But there was a period when instead of displaying equally tired-looking advertisements, it proudly displayed a British Airways poster with the fantastic slogan “Put down your map and get wonderfully lost”. BA’s promotion of the idea of “authentic travel” resonated with me and so I too adopted it as my travelling mantra. Nothing gives me more pleasure exploring a place than relying on local expertise and exhilaratingly traipsing off the beaten track. So when a really good friend of mine extended the opportunity to visit her over January in her hometown of Coschocton County, Ohio, there really was no option of declining. I knew from the outset that this would fit exactly with my travelling style and so I began excitedly booking flights and glossing over the occasional travel guide.
Only last summer I was working in New York City, revelling in the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, I thought the time was nigh to move on from the iconic skyscrapers of Manhattan to a land where the pace of life is somewhat slower. Although people usually responded to my upcoming trip with warnings of the people being very insular in an area known as the “armpit of America”, I wanted to see it for myself. And so with this in mind, I set out for Ohio, known for its dairy farming and being the birthplace of aviation aficionado Wilbur Wright (of the Wright brothers) and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
With terms such as “extremely cold spells” and “polar vortex” being thrown around, I was warned that the national chill the midwest was experiencing was not for the faint-hearted. Having only gone skiing in the Swiss Alps a couple of weeks before my trip stateside, I thought I was more than acclimatised to deal with such weather. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong and no number of thermals and sweaters prepared me for flying into a Columbus of -19C. [pullquote]It does say something when your skiing holiday is the warmest part of your break.[/pullquote] Nevertheless, despite the chills, the reception of the Midwesterners I came across was the furthest thing from frigid. At every turn they threw out the welcome wagon while politeness could be found at every corner. From the free cappuccino I received in a café in Coshocton to the offers of directions and assistance from shoppers in Indianapolis, I always felt warmly received. Furthermore, as soon as I started speaking, my British accent stirred a level of curiosity. One sales assistant at a till in Indianapolis, excited that I had come over from the UK, wanted to compare my British pound notes with American dollars. A good five minute discussion followed and was only stopped short by the ever-growing line of disgruntled customers behind me. I often find that such hospitality is hard to come by, especially when considering the crowds that I have to put up with on the London Underground. You would be lucky to get a passing cheerful glance from a fellow passenger, let alone the option of engaging in conversation.
Beyond the warmth of the people, I was treated to food in humongous portions. I felt as well-fed as a king, especially considering the rich range of eating experiences I indulged in, ranging from drive-through meals at Tim Horton’s, a Canadian coffee-chain, to artisanal pizzas at a Napolese pizzeria in Indianapolis. Another memorable moment came in the form of my first ever true American diner experience. Nothing went amiss in the trappings, be it the ubiquitous coffee or the waffles and pancakes. Considering Ohio’s farming reputation, it was no surprise that many of the ingredients were wholesome or locally sourced. And of course, a trip to the States would be rendered absolutely incomplete if I had not paid a visit to the famous Cheesecake Factory.
I definitely felt that there was a real sense of community pride in Coshocton County. On the cultural front, both the Pomerene Centre for the Arts in Coshocton and the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in the historic Roscoe Village, on the outskirts of Coshocton, showcased some really impressive artistic exhibitions of people from the area. The Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum was particularly impressive given that it was a legacy to two brothers, John and David Johnson. Having grown up in Coschocton in the mid-19th century, they collected artefacts from their travels around the world. This certainly went some way towards dispelling the myth of Ohioans as insular people.
Of course I cannot conclude my trip to the midwest without mentioning my visit to the Amish towns in the area. A fascinating group of people, the Amish are a very conservative group of Anabaptists who fled persecution in Europe to establish farming communities in North America from the 18th century. Driving through rural Ohio, we would often pass their family farms, their one-room schoolhouses and, every so often, the occasional black horse-drawn buggy. Holmes County in the State’s eastern region is home to the country’s greatest concentration of Amish settlements. It was here in the general store, Lehman’s, with its buggy- only car park section and shelves filled with non-electric appliances, that we spent a joyous day gorging on home-made jams and peanut butters. Before I knew it, my adventure was coming to an end. But even on the last day I still managed to swing by a very authentic experience – I had the opportunity to attend my very first Grange meeting. Officially referred to as the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the Grange is an American fraternal organisation that encourages families to work together to promote the economic well-being of the community through agriculture. While it has more of a social aspect these days, it was still very interesting to see a community so concerned with the welfare of its members. It was a thoroughly fitting midwestern tribute to end my trip on.
Looking back at my time there, I cannot help but feel privileged to have gotten the chance to visit an area that is so often snubbed and disregarded because of preconceptions. I would probably have fallen into that category too if I hadn’t had the chance to visit the place for myself. It certainly bolstered my appreciation for the unexplored but overlooked.