On Cosmic Anomalies, Parker McCollum, and The Hoosier State
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON SEPTEMBER 28, 2021
Indiana is objectively the worst state in America. Even Idaho has its reputation in potatoes, but Indiana has nothing, and the long stretch of US-31 running from tip to tip reaffirms that belief with each drive.
Before you rush to tell me that you have family there or that Indiana gave us both Garfield creator Jim Davis and John Cougar Mellencamp, let me ask that you not. The people of Indiana are not the topic at hand. Indiana gave us Freddie Gibbs and The Jackson 5, among many other arguably good people both known and unknown. The people of Indiana are fine. Great, even. (Except Mike Pence, Jim Jones, and John Dillinger, among others.)
Comedian Doug Stanhope has a joke in his 2011 standup special Before Turning The Gun On Himself where how he often wonders if people in rural towns understand that they can leave. "Just move," he says. "It's not 1857, where you have to circle up the wagon train and gather up provisions and eat your cousin in a snowdrift to get out. Just go. Get a fucking Greyhound ticket. I don't know what the big deal is."
Stanhope wasn't specifically talking about Indiana in that bit, but if you've been there, then you can easily argue that it fits under the umbrella of terrible places.
I've lost count of how many times I've driven US-31 and thought about how much Indiana represents everything people assume about the Midwest. Aging homes where rusted cars sit in gravel driveways connected to towns caught in slow states of decay appear regularly in between long stretches of fields and farmland that seem to stretch on forever. There are also churches, many of them quite old, but all in better shape than surrounding towns and villages. You don't see many people, but when you do, they present as hardworking, blue-collar people hoping to make ends meet and provide for their families while living in a place that makes it increasingly difficult to do those things with each passing year. There are no opportunities for exponential professional growth or promising tech startups employing the region's best and brightest young minds. Indiana is caught in the last century, and it's losing its most precious resource (talented young people) to places that give the appearance of offering something more.
There are, however, two moments that make the drive bearable. The first is a hilarious yet accurate sign pointing you toward the town of Mexico. Yes, you read that right. The tiny village of Mexico exists near the middle of the state, but that barely scratches the surface of strange Indiana town names. From Ontario to Paris, Waterloo, Lisbon, and even Rome, it seems even the founders of Indiana were dreaming they could be anywhere other than Indiana. Why God chose to smite them or whatever deal with the devil they made in exchange for having to toil on this painfully flat land rather than journeying on toward better pastures will forever remain a mystery.
I've yet to visit Mexico, Indiana myself. I swear I will stop and try whatever local taco place exists on every drive because I know there must be at least two competing businesses, but I have yet to pull off the highway. It will happen one day, and it will probably end up being an essay I hope you read. What if there are no tacos? What if it's just another dot on the map that you wouldn't notice without the giant, ridiculous sign sitting on its outer edge?
The other spot on the highway that makes Indiana momentarily less terrible is harder to define. It's the kind of place that will mean nothing to you without the significance you choose to give it. I probably drove to Indianapolis or Nashville a dozen times before recognizing its beauty myself. Now it's a moment I find myself looking forward to because it reminds me that these long stretches of rural America serve to remind us how small we are in the grand scheme of life.
Roughly twenty miles south of South Bend, US-31 curves ever so slightly and enters a long stretch of open highway surrounded by trees. As you come around that bend, the sky is impossibly large. That may seem silly when you consider that the sky literally stretches as far as you can see, but that's because you haven't been there yet. There's this brief moment right after the curve where you catch a glimpse at everything above and feel infinitesimally small. In that instant, all your fears and concerns are even smaller. The raw magic of existence exposes itself to you long enough to inspire a sense of all things that humbles me in a way I’ve only previously felt while looking at mountains, shorelines, or the shrinking glaciers in northern Alaska.
I cannot tell you why such a miraculous cosmic marvel exists in a seemingly random location in one of the least interesting places on the planet. What I do know is that there has not been a single drive south on US-31 in the last five years where I have not found myself momentarily taken back by the glory of the universe in a state where people refer to themselves as Hoosiers (a term that originally referred to a type of cabin, not a person).
My best guess is that Indiana is performing a sort of unintentional hypnosis on drivers and their passengers. When hypnotists put people to sleep, they don't actually go to sleep. What's really happening is that you are being tricked into a sort of in-between place where you are more susceptible to suggestion. It doesn't work on everybody, but it works on enough that you can easily find the perfect person to help you entertain a room of drunks on a Thursday night in WhoKnowsWhere, Arkansas. A good hypnotist can spot someone capable of being easily manipulated from a mile away, so if you ever get chosen to appear next to an illusionist—you may be gullible.
But Indiana doesn't have the luxury of choosing its participants. Those doomed to travel highway 31 unknowingly enter an experimental art installation where the entire state of Indiana attempts to lure you into a similarly susceptible place without putting you to sleep entirely (because that would cause crashes and deaths). The state is intentionally being as uninteresting as possible so that your brain essentially functions on autopilot. You're not expecting to see anything other than the highway for at least two hours, but all of a sudden, that slight bend occurs, and everything changes. You are at just the right point in the purposeful boredom forced upon you by Indiana that you can fully behold the awesome power of existence, even if only for a moment.
It's a bold idea with a weird payoff, but it could be true (it isn't).
On my most recent trip through Indiana, the sky was covered in gray clouds teasing the possibility of rain. That was a good sign because the preceding 2+ hours of my journey had been accompanied by constant rain and wind. It was only the second day of fall, but the season was already in full effect, and the people of Michigan were adjusting in perfect time. Everyone I saw that morning was wearing either a jacket or a sweatshirt, including many dogs.
I didn't know that special moment was approaching until the last minute. Indiana's powerful spell had me driving like a zombie in the right lane, moving just over the speed limit behind a series of minivans and SUVs with various stickers featuring stick figures and Mickey Mouses telling me exactly how many family members to expect inside. I felt my hand move my steering wheel ever so slightly to the right, and my eyes grew wide. I felt serotonin rushing through my body as though I had just arrived at a surprise party in my honor, and then I saw it. The illuminated clouds looked like glowing grey bubble wrap protecting the heavens. My mouth fell as I unintentionally gave my best impression of Owen Wilson's signature "Wow." Even Tulip, my dog, grew a little bit quieter.
The real kicker to this moment was the music. I've lately become obsessed with how country music discovers and develops talent. We all know they are songwriters working behind the scenes to provide fresh young faces with guaranteed hits, but there is still a lot of things that must happen in a very specific order for someone to go from performing at bars and county fairs to headlining festivals. The marketing side of country music works harder than any other genre, but they can only do so much. Country fans still matter, and they invest in musicians they believe have longevity. Selling that idea with someone most people don't know is an impossible task for most people to consider, the country music does it every day.
That curiosity stems from a trip to Nashville this past July. Driving around the city, I couldn't help noticing several billboards promoting a new album from Parker McCollum. I asked Laura if she knew who he was, but his name wasn't ringing a bell. My parents, who watch country music television religiously, also didn't claim to know him. I found it so odd that the people closest to me who consume a great deal of music regularly didn't know someone whose debut album was garnering more billboards than most records ever receive. I probably get upwards of 1,000 press releases every week, and even I did not know anything about this guy, yet everywhere I looked, something was telling me to listen.
Blame it on being a nerd or because I work in music, but I couldn't Let this oversight in my musical understanding go unresolved. I probably made Laura listen to Parker's album, Gold Chain Cowboy, no less than seven times on that trip. The first few spins were all about understanding the hype, but we discussed how quickly Parker had converted us to believers by the third play of the record. It seems the great promise of marketing finally worked. We gave someone we consider a stranger an hour of our time, and in exchange, he shared with us something we now can enjoy forever. I don't know if I'll be listening to Gold Chain Cowboy for that long, but the opportunity will exist if I choose to, and that's pretty cool.
I know this will sound like a joke, but the song playing as I hit that perfect spot on US-31 is titled "Why Indiana." The track, which hail's from Parker's album, takes our collective dislike of Indiana and wraps it around a breakup story to deliver the kind of tongue-in-cheek country radio earworm you rarely hear these days. It's the kind of song that would have been a runaway hit during the mid-1990s with its upbeat melody and silly yet undeniably heartfelt lyrics, but in today's market, I don't know if it will ever become more than a deep album cut. Here's a taste:
Why Indiana? Why not San Anton?
I'd still be drinking, just not on my own
This busted heart, yeah, it hurts so bad
I laugh just to keep from crying
Why Indiana, on a clear sky day?
Why not in Portland, in the pouring rain?
To hear your voice on the other end of the phone
Say you're tired of trying
McCollum spends "Why Indiana" asking important questions. He understands what went wrong and why his lover left, but he cannot fathom why anyone on earth would choose to go to Indiana. Isn't heartbreak bad enough without the cornfields and conservative mindset? Must you add insult to injury by running away to a place most people spend their lives trying to escape? Even on a clear day, he argues, Indiana cannot hold a candle to anyplace else, and he's right.
I mean, come on. Imagine ending a relationship you thought would go the distance and choosing—out of all places—to soothe your wounds in Indiana? You’re going to leave behind your friends and the rest of your life to live in a state that ranks last in early childhood education? Do you really want to reside in a state where the biggest amusement park is themed after various holidays and exists in the town of Santa Claus? To quote Justin Bieber (singing lyrics written by Ed Sheeran and Benny Blanco), “You should go and love yourself.”
I often ponder over the little coincidences in my life, searching for greater meaning about my place in the universe, but there is no deeper thought or existential perspective to offer with this story. Sometimes all the little elements of life align in such a way that you receive a brief moment of pure, unfiltered joy. Taking in my tiny place in the vastness of space while hearing tomorrow's big country superstar lament the state of Indiana in a way that reflects my feelings as I pass through the state is something that would feel fake if it were to appear in a movie, and yet—it happened to me. The lightness I felt in that moment cannot be replicated. For less than 15 seconds, I was one with everything, and everything was one with me. It was beautiful, and nothing hurt.