Trying to describe a Midwest summer is like trying to navigate through a maze of corn.
Or stand upright in a prairie wind.
Or spit a watermelon seed past your toes.
Tackle the activity with sincere effort, but the only way to truly understand is to experience it yourself. A hundred things make this place and season so special, it’s America’s best-kept secret destination for a summer road trip.
1. The Midwest is HUGE.
Expansive. 12 states rolling from field to isolated farm. Want wide open spaces? You’ve found ’em. (And even with a speed limit of 75 mph in most places, you’ll stay in this vast landscape for the next 1,200 miles – or at least 18 hours).
2. So there’s no next to no traffic.
Sure, Chicago and St. Louis get a bit tight, but the highways in between are as quiet as the towns you pass.
3. Unless you’re racing cloud shadows.
That pristine ‘Home On The Range’ sky of empty blue is our signature; but we also get clouds so big and low, their shadows hug the ground like descending spaceships.
4. Country music provides a background soundtrack as common as crickets.
Doesn’t matter if you spent the first 25 years of your life laughing at it, nothing else accompanies back roads, cold beer and summer love like these songs do.
5. Maybe because kitschy still sells here.
Not just in the lyrics of our laid-back lifestyle, but in the souvenirs you’ll collect along the way. The all-white postcards labeled “Iowa in a snowstorm”, or Styrofoam cheese hats from Wisconsin. Not to mention all those knickknacks covered in bald eagles and waving flags.
6. Think patriotism’s kitschy? Too bad, that’s part of our package.
In some parts, the Stars and Stripes might actually outnumber people. National pride nurtures our soil. It’s not a concept we buy into, but one we’re born into – an identity formed by our sense of place.
7. As is our chattiness.
Don’t be offended if someone in line at the grocery store starts asking personal questions – and then the folks behind you chime in. By the time your receipt’s printed, the whole store should know where you’re from and what you ate for dinner last night.
8. And politeness.
Midwesterners are renowned for their bend-over-backward good manners. We never lie, we just smooth over the truth so as not to upset anyone. Which is why most of the people you pass on a sidewalk will smile openly and say “Good afternoon,” or make that two-fingered wave from their steering wheels.
9. Which you’ll notice on Main Streets and at block parties.
Yes, both do still exist in this oasis of peaceful, kind people. Main Street is often the hub of action (however limited it may be): mom-and-pop businesses, retirees sharing coffee and doughnuts, a sale at the local hardware store. Summer is prime time to close off the side streets, spread out a potluck and foster a sense of community.
10. Besides the ever-popular jello salad and hamburgers.
Sorry, vegetarians, but this has been Beef Country for a very long time – and while it’s slowly acclimating to other dietary habits, the Midwest still makes the world’s best burgers.
11. And sun tea.
Iced tea left out on the back porch for 2-3 days, seasoned with fresh lemon and maybe a few pinches of sugar. Closest thing to summer you’ll ever taste.
12. Then there’s our farm-to-table seasonal produce.
‘Breadbasket of America’ is a well-earned title, but wheat we grow is delicious quantities. Along any farm town highway, stop at the back of a red pickup and shop for the night’s dinner: melons bigger than your head, tomatoes as plump as pillows, corn cobs the color of Aztec gold.
13. Plus the always-summery Dairy Queen desert.
This may be a national ice cream chain, but its candy-mixed blizzards and chocolate-dipped treats shape a Midwest child’s summer. Where else would you go after a swimming lesson at the public pool, or a picnic at City Park?
14. Standard of living is high, and prices are low.
Isn’t the best place for a road trip one where you don’t spend all your money at the first gas station?
15. Don’t forget, it’s not all soy bean fields – the Midwest has lakes, too.
10,000 if you’re vising Minnesota, a few less if you’re not. Whether you want a quiet afternoon out in a canoe, or an adrenaline-packed weekend jet skiing, be sure to stop at a neighboring body of water. Rumor has it, some of these are still clear enough to be drinkable.
16. When your drive ends, your day doesn’t have to – welcome to the land of long, hot summer nights.
Late sunsets and lingering fireflies ease you into nights that are never cold, just quiet. Sit over a campfire, sip a local brew and watch the world rotate.
17. And summer storms.
The sort you can see rush across the Plains like a herd of buffalo: dark, angry and charging.
18. Followed by stars.
When the population only numbers a few hundred, you definitely don’t have to worry about light pollution. Our night skies are as vast and captivating as our prairies.
19. The wildlife love it too.
And I’m not just referring to the cows. Name a North American animal, and chances are you can find it somewhere out here. Badgers, bison, mountain lions, marmots, antelope, rattlesnakes, raccoons… keep looking, because the list keeps going.
20. This is a land of exploration and change.
From the original indigenous peoples to the fur traders, explorers and European immigrants who followed, the ground is etched with a history of movement. Groups came and went, sometimes peacefully and sometimes involuntarily; but always, the stories they left behind created the distinctive culture we celebrate today.
21. So it’s OK to get lost, or find your sense of direction, or just wander until the horizon calls you onward.
You don’t need Google Maps to route your whole trip, and you don’t need to know where you’ll sleep for the night. Treat your journey like Lewis and Clark, two of America’s most infamous adventurers, and follow the Missouri River. Or make like John Steinbeck and drive in search of the real America. Whatever you’re looking for, whatever you imagine the ultimate summer should travel should be, it’s out there somewhere.