Figure A: Downtown in the area I grew up. That's the defunct train station. That year the flooding got up to the eaves. When I was in 7th grade I stood on the riverbank and watched the bridge in the background blow up. The area just behind this photograph hasn't been changed since the 1850s--it's still cobblestones and cisterns.
I hold the Ozarks in my mind with a certain tension. On the one hand, there was the simplicity, the friendliness, the summer, the storms. But on the other hand, there was the ignorance, the sprawl, the racism, and the glaring lack of opportunities.
Michiganders always seem taken aback by friendliness, which I don't entirely understand. It's like they just want you out of their way so they can get on with their business. Ozarkians generally seemed to be more cheerful and outgoing, even in tiny one-stoplight towns like Fredericktown, Missouri (population 462 and one old nut, according to the sign welcoming visitors off of Route 67). Of course, this means that Michigan has its advantages for introverts like me, but then again there're also times that you just have to wonder how you managed to run all of your errands without speaking a single word to anyone whereas if an Ozarkian sees you buying something unusual at the grocery store (which in the Ozarks means a leek or anything curry) they're going to ask you what you intend to make with it. Gas stations had delis and tackle shops served delicious breakfast hashbrowns. And of course you could buy anything from a new tactical knife to a horse at a sale barn. At least the Michigan town I live in has a farmers' market; that helps, although I have yet to see livestock for sale there.
And whenever I'm farther south in Michigan where it is just flat plains and swamp, I find myself missing the bluffs and hollers of the Ozarks.
My little brother and I used to do something we'd call "bluff running". In retrospect it was really stupid. Basically we'd find a climbable bluff, race each other to the top, and then race back down skidding along the slick dead leaves and dodging boulders and trees to the bottom. Then we'd find another one and do it again.
And the storms were fucking incredible. Today's storm here in Michigan involved some gray clouds and distant thunder, and a couple outbursts of rain. Compared to Ozark storms (pissed off, sleep-deprived bears), Michigan's are barely-awake fluffy kittens. The Weather Channel talks about supercells in the context of storm formation, basically as powerful little knots of low pressure, but that doesn't translate into seeing a bank of individual supercells breaking over a bluff and crashing down through the holler. That doesn't translate into rain so hard it hurts hitting your skin and wind that whips road signs back and forth. It doesn't translate into writhing arcs of lighting crackling across the horizon, so sharp and constant that you can smell it coming (like scorched copper) and the constant rolling of thunder or the pounding of hail against the windows. Most of all, it doesn't translate into that greenish-orange hue of the clouds or the breakneck train sound of a tornado. I miss these things. Hearing the house pop in the pressure differentials even though windows were cracked open as the driving sound of rain hitting rain hitting puddles leaking in along with the steady growling of thunder are, to me, peace.
And the summertime heat, 40C with 80%+ humidity so thick that it wraps your bones like a warm mud towel, oozing through your pores and back out again. Michigan's summers seem watery and distant, although the cold here has a similar bone-pervading quality (not in a pleasant way, though).
But at the same time, the Ozarks were so deeply anti-intellectual, so intolerant, so absolutely incurious and, well, lazy. These are most of the reasons I packed up and got out at the second opportunity to do so. Driving down backroads it was common to see a stretch of several well-maintained houses, and then one that had burned down or collapsed and just sat there for years. There is only one major research university in the entire Ozarks, Washington University in Saint Louis, and it's a private institution. And at the same time, it was the absolute intolerance and social stratification that stubbornly persisted there that got to me. People would casually drop racial epithets around so often that I grew up not knowing that many of these terms were offensive (e.g., I had believed that "porch monkey" just meant a lazy person until I saw Clerks II), even naming several things with them (there is a rather colorful and deeply offensive term for Brazil nuts used there; I'm not going to repeat it here). And that intolerance didn't end with terms. I distinctly remember my step-mother going into absolute raging hysterics--red-faced screaming, dangerously high blood pressure--when she found out that I was dating an African-American girl in high school, even banning her from the house and from calling (none of which stopped me, of course). Thankfully she'd learned that I was immune to her biases by the time I came back from college for Thanksgiving with a co-habitating African-American girlfriend and kept her mouth shut. But the ignorance wasn't just limited to her, it was also in the evening news with reports of interracial couples' homes being sprayed with violent graffiti and the only mosque in the area being firebombed after Sept. 11th, 2001.
So sometimes I'm torn between the nostalgia of my childhood and the more liberal attitudes of my little corner of Michigan (although perhaps local cracker women should note that trying to flirt with me when I am clearly on a date with a woman of a different race than myself is not cool and doesn't fly, seriously: what the fuck?). But then I have to remember that every good experience of the Ozarks was either internal or within a close-knit group of family and friends whereas most negative experiences were from wider Ozark society. I'm glad I moved for the much greater educational opportunities, but sometimes I miss cornmeal-fried crappie and okra. Here in Michigan you can only find okra served in Indian restaurants, and that's just not the same.