I have travelled two hours from home, and am barely 30 miles from the Canadian border, yet I find myself in a different world. It wasn’t immediately apparent. As we crossed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge the topography didn’t change, and the border guard could have easily passed for a Canadian. As we drove east on I-90, the corn fields and silos still looked like the ones I drive past when I venture into the farmland north of Toronto, albeit a little shabbier. I noticed I had entered this new world when we got off the freeway. The houses along New York State Route 77 were adorned with American flags, John Deere tractors sat in front yards, old hand-painted signs dotted front lawns and there seemed to be a pick-up in every driveway. The houses were mostly clapboard, kids played in the front yard, and the adults looked weary. The movie sets of Anytown, America are based on reality after all.
We drove through the town of Pembroke first, though I saw none of the commerce I expected. Main Street must have been elsewhere. We approached the one-stoplight town of Corfu next. The main intersection was centered around a gas station, a bank, a Presbyterian church and a gun store. This was definitely not Canada. As the light turned green and I hit the gas, I quickly glanced left and right: a store with a classic Pepsi sign, and another church steeple in the distance. Guns and absolution are easy to come by in Corfu, but groceries may be a little harder to find.
We continued our drive along Route 77 past narrow strips of farmland (all corn, which I assume will yield high fructose corn syrup one day) and farmhouses advertising fresh produce. We didn’t stop. We had a concert to get to, and even if we didn’t, I felt uncomfortable stopping because I was so clearly out of place. I felt like an alien in a foreign land, unsure of the customs and unsure of myself. Our next stop was the Luke Bryan concert at Darien Lake. We parked at the end of a neat row of vehicles in the grass, and got out of the car. It was a bucolic scene: farmland separated by rows of oak trees, two silos rising above the field to my left, the sun shining and happy concert-goers spilling onto the lawn in a sea of jeans, plaid shirts and cowboy boots.
We speak the same language, share the same vernacular, even the same accent to the untrained ear, but the nuances that distinguish me from my southern neighbours are not subtle. As I took in my surroundings on the amphitheatre lawn, I felt the distance I had travelled. We are all accustomed to the social and cultural norms of our hometowns, and struggle to notice what others immediately see. Only by leaving the warm blanket of Toronto was I able to see how safe and secure it is; how polite, orderly and reserved. My Canadian reservation melted away as soon as the concert started, and thousands of us – all just people now – danced and sang together, buoyed by the energy emanating from the main stage. And then the fireworks started. Over to the right and at least a few miles down the road, a burst of colourful fireworks lit up the night sky, and I was grateful to be in this corner of the world tonight, where life was so much more buttoned-down.
The concert ended and we joined a sea of cars and pick-up trucks heading for a single exit. Now I missed my orderly Canada. After an hour, we finally made it back to Route 77 and were on our way to Buffalo. We passed through more hamlets along the way. The moon was a sliver, and beyond Main Street the landscape was pitch black. In between farm houses and hardware stores, I spotted churches, gas stations and a seemingly disproportionate number of volunteer fire stations. We drove past a primary school, two funeral homes, and Choose Life billboards, Walmarts and discount stores. I felt like an anthropologist. I was curious, intrigued by everything I saw. As a child growing up in a big city I had always imagined country living as a bucolic life filled with open fields, wildflowers and freedom. The houses in my imagination were well kept, the gardens pristine, the world safe to explore. The reality I now saw was something much closer to the poverty line – farmers growing corn for large corporations, junk accumulating on their front lawn, stress accumulating in their heads – and I wondered: did they dream about the simple abundance of city life the same way I dreamt about the country? The joy of having a house on a cul de sac, a neatly manicured lawn, a short drive to the supermarket and access to all their material desires? Did they visit cities with the same eager curiosity that I started my journey with, and leave just as disenchanted? Are we all ultimately searching for the same peace? And if it’s not in the city or the country, then where do we find it within us?