Welcome To The Heartlands: Travels In The American Midwest

For thirty-eight years I lived in lands of truly eternal summer, splitting my time between Puerto Rico and Miami, where the change in seasons is some mythical event that happens “up north,” and where people think nothing of putting up decorations of snowmen in full view of the beach. That was my reality for most of my life, Hurricane season being the only real season we paid attention to, until I moved to the mythical lands of Up North.

For all that I’ve always been enthusiastic about travel, I’d never been to the American Midwest beyond my visits to Gen Con, once in Milwaukee, then (and now) in Indianapolis. Fun as those trips were, they were very much centered around the city’s convention center, with very little venturing outside the downtown area, if at all. During the time I was making the podcast The Gamer Traveler, I made a concerted effort to wander downtown Indy beyond a couple blocks from the convention center to check out what there was to see (and finding a great Civil War museum hidden downtown as a result), but that was the extent of my travels in the Midwest.

I had always been curious about the Midwest if only because it seemed such a foreign place to me, someone born and raised in the tropics and near the coast. I’d never lived more than a few miles away from the beach, and the idea of living in a land-locked area seemed preposterous. However, that same Midwest was the inspiration for so many of the settings I loved to explore when playing role-playing games, and I wished to see these hills, valleys, and mighty rivers, these beautiful forests and endless farmlands, the towering cities and small towns that inspired the lands of our collective gaming imagination.

When life presented the opportunity to leave Florida to start a new life somewhere else, I jumped at the chance. Packing everything I owned into my car, I made the nine-hundred-mile trip from Orlando, Florida to Cincinnati, Ohio, enjoying the scenic changes as I drove past the rolling hills of Central Florida, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains, and into the diverse landscape of the Midwest. Not only did I leave the coast behind, I said goodbye to constant summer, moving at the tail end of fall, arriving at my new apartment in Cincinnati the first week of December, the same day we got the first snowstorm of the season. I was truly a new world.

For three years I lived in the Midwest, first in Cincinnati, and later just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During that time, I traveled extensively exploring my homes and surrounding areas. If I was off from work, chances were I was in my car, day tripping to some nearby little town, park, or tourist destination, going down roads as whim or interesting road signs dictated, falling in love with the undulating fields of corn, the towns full of charming character, the crumbling barns like giant guardians of a bygone age.

My time in the Midwest changed me profoundly. I learned to slow down, to enjoy the seasons, to appreciate small-town life, to like country music and ranch dressing. In thinking back to those fantasy worlds of my gaming days, I could see perfectly how they were shaped by imaginations that had this wonderful scenery as their backyard, how the countryside roamed by my Dungeons & Dragons adventurers had been born from a combination of the legendary lands of Tolkien, Lewis, and the fantasy literature canon, and of the stunning beauty of the North American Midwest.