Sunday, January 22, 2012

What's in Your Backyard?

Eleven years ago I went backpacking in Western Europe. I hit ten countries in six weeks, and it was an amazing, whirlwind experience. There was so much to do and see, so many different cultures crammed together, so much incredible history to be experienced. I've wanted to go back ever since, but I've also had my sights on Japan, Australia, and a dozen or so other foreign destinations vastly different from where I call home. Part of it is wanting to see and explore places I've only read about, but part of it is also to experience something new and be inspired by the unknown. But as I was thinking about it, I realized there's another place that has a pretty impressive collection of cultures and sights. That would be the good ol' U.S. of A. From New England to New Orleans to New Mexico and beyond, there's thousands of different little subcultures and quirks in the United States, many of which are largely unexplored

In my freshman year of college I met a girl named Denise. When I asked her where she was from, she named a town in Michigan. When I said I wasn't sure where the town was, she held up her hand, with her fingers together and thumb sticking out, and pointed to somewhere near the tip of her ring finger. She told me that the main part of the state of Michigan is shaped like a mitten, and she lived near the top. Don't believe me? Check it out. Since that day, whenever I meet someone from Michigan I ask them what part of the mitten they're from. They usually hold up their hand and point, and they seem to enjoy the fact that I know this little tidbit about their state.

I was chatting on Twitter a while back with author Dwight L. MacPherson, who also hails from Michigan. He told me about the Upper Peninsula, or U.P., which is the non-mitten part of Michigan. The residents of the U.P. are referred to as Yoopers by the folks "downstate." A stereotypical Yooper seems to be a cross between a hillbilly and Rick Moranis in Strange Brew. They even have their own dialect. Oh, and they eat pasties. Dwight and I got to talking about how people know so little about the country we live in. In all my 32 years I'd never once heard the term "Yooper." Yet it's been there the whole time.

I'm lucky to have been able to visit a lot of different states, and although there are definite similarities, each place has its own way of talking, own way of doing things. It's just fascinating to me, and it makes me think that we don't need to travel to exotic places to get inspiration. The old saying "write what you know" takes on a whole new meaning when you realize there's a large part of the country (and world) that doesn't know what you know. Every place I've traveled, from Anchorage to New York City to Georgia has given me a fresh perspective on things, and each one of these things has helped me in my writing. But my writing is also hugely influenced by the tiny town in Utah I grew up in. From riding bikes through miles of fields, to crawling around dry creekbeds finding pieces of flint, to hiking through the old refinery just outside of town, there are a million tidbits I can snag from my hometown and inject into my work.

So what's unique about where you live? Tell me something only a local would know. I can almost guarantee whatever you come up with will be of some use to you. Go out there and look around your backyard. Travel if you can, but also open your eyes to what's around your home. We live in an amazing country, and there's so much to see and experience. Keep your eyes open, and you might even meet a Yooper or two.

7 comments:

Jordan Dane said...

Hey Dan--Great post. When I saw your YOOPER pic, I knew exactly where it was. I've been to many parts of the mitten. It's a beautiful state. I was fortunate to travel & live in a lot of places when I worked in the energy industry. And definitely, exploring different places & being curious about people, local quirks, & favorite watering holes will serve you well as a writer. Even if you've never been to a particular foreign country, you might still know what it feels like to not speak the local language & being an outsider.

I moved back to San Antonio, my old hometown, in 2009. Here they eat the meat of a cow's head on weekends (called barbacoa) in tortillas, celebrate those who have died on a special day, dia de los muertos, and our version of Big Foot is a spooky hairless dog called La Chupacabra.

Dan--Did you know that downtown LA has 11 miles of abandoned tunnels underneath its city streets? I'm researching them now for my latest WIP.

Thanks for your inspirational & fun post.

Smiley Boy Knows Best said...

I am from the mitten myself! Yeah the upper penninsula isn't shaped like a mitten, but we usually hold our other hand above the one shaped like a mitten to represent it when pointing stuffo out. There are a ton of places I haven't been to in my own state. My list of places within my own state to visit: The sleeping bear dunes, Porcupine Mountains, Traverse City during the Cherry Festival, Detroit, Hell, and Frankemuth (they are like a perpetual Christmas town).

Where I grew up in Western Michigan, there is a lake called Gun Lake. Al Caponne had a house there at one point. There are a ton of underground tunnels made by his people, sadly they are shut off to the public.

dan said...

Thanks guys! I've only been to Michigan briefly on a cross-country drive. I definitely want to get back and see more, including that long stretch of straight road in the U.P. :)
I've driven through Texas too, but didn't stop to see much. I'll add San Antonio during dia de los muertos to my list. Sounds awesome. I had no idea about the underground tunnels in LA.

Too bad about the tunnels at Gun Lake. They would be rad to explore!

I wonder who else knows about tunnels around where they live.

Jennifer Archer said...

We have a "Cadillac Ranch" in Amarillo, Texas. It's a field with a line of old spray-painted Cadillacs planted nose down in the ground. Our town eccentric, Stanley Marsh, who has more money than he knows what to do with apparently, owns the land and had the Cadillacs "planted." It's become a tourist attraction.Here's a link: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2220

Jordan Dane said...

I always look for tunnels and creepy settings where I live. I've been on a ghost hunt in Oklahoma, but havent done one here in SA yet. The Alamo is supposed to be haunted.

In San Antonio, we have flood tunnels for the SA river that few people know about. I may use it sometime, but the LA tunnels are very cool. They have turn of the century murals painted on the brick walls with abandoned old machinery too. They've filmed movies down there like The Matrix and Planet of the Apes. Cool, right? Wherever Neo has tread, I'm goin' too.

Adrienne said...

I' m from Richmond, Va, and there is so much history here! My parents used to take me to all the Civil War battlefields, and when they were expanding our neighborhood they came across a soldier's grave, which, of course, my friends had to explore. We also have lots of old coal tunnels in Chesterfield County, just south of the city. The most famous tunnel in Richmond is in Jefferson Park. In 1925, the tunnel collapsed on a work train, and instead of removing the train, they sealed in the tunnel. Creepy stuff.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Awesome post! And pasties?? I'll have to check out what those are. They don't sound too appetizing. Heh.

Well, one thing about where I live is we have the most spectacular sunsets because there aren't any mountains and a sparse amount of foliage obstructing the view. Personally, I've always enjoyed writing what I WANT to know, more than what I know. ;) I'm a research junkie, so I think that has something to do with it.