The great unknown - Monocolumn | Monocle


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22 May 2012

It’s hardly an earth-shattering observation but my god the United States of America is a big place. I’ve flown across it twice in the last week in a fairly nonsensical route that took me from Chicago to San Francisco and back to New York. It’s the first time I’ve flown across the US in daylight and, blessed with a continuous clear sky, I was able to track the yawning expanse of land below for the entire route.

Just as American cities favour the grid system, so too does much of the land between. You know those fairly ubiquitous scenes in films where cars sail down a straight dust track with nondescript farmland to either side? Well that could be set in about 90 per cent of America. Square after square after square, outlined by tiny straight roads going nowhere and anywhere.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my habit while flying of imagining what life is like in the small households that punctuate the endless flats below. Where do they buy their groceries? Where do the children go to school? Is there a bar somewhere or a cinema? How does anyone ever meet anyone else? What ever happens?

My overactive imagination, combined with my rather perverse love for horror films, begins to wonder if the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is happening down there. Or perhaps that should be the Colorado or Utah Chainsaw Massacre given my route. Down there looks like The Hills Have Eyes. Even the odd bit of woodland or water leads me to wonder if the Bair witch might be lurking somewhere nearby.

The great remote of America is suddenly a very terrifying place. It’s a place where anything might happen and we’ll never know. In space no one can hear you scream ran the tagline for Alien. Can anyone hear you scream down there, I wonder?

Around 85 per cent of the American population live in cities, which, though there are many big and impressive ones, only take up less than 10 per cent of the land mass. And as with everywhere else, there’s a drain on rural populations as everyone’s heading for the city or the suburbs. Of course they’re migrating for other reasons than to escape from a chainsaw wielding lunatic or a thousand-year-old witch, but the emptier the great American landscape gets the more attractive a setting it becomes for Hollywood execs to plot another unsavoury supernatural or slasher hit.

By hour five of my flight I’m beginning to realise my entire frame of reference for rural America has come from horror films and perhaps Thelma and Louise. It’s hardly the most flattering portrayal of 97 per cent of your home turf, is it? By hour six I’ve confronted my fear of the dusty old farmhouses and acres of cornfields and whatever they might be hiding and resolved that my next trip to the US will involve seeing this vast expanse on the ground.

Surely it’s time Hollywood together with national and regional tourist boards started encouraging visitors to explore the great unknown beyond their cities and immediate surroundings too?

That said, I’ll be sure to recruit a sturdy driving companion and avoid any motel that goes by the name of Bates.


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