I was back in my rural Nebraska hometown this weekend for my aunt's funeral. As usual, I was hit hard with cultural whiplash. One day I was riding the subway in New York City, the next I was driving on an empty highway under an impossible large sky.
That feeling hit me hardest on Friday night. I drove my uncle back to his house after the visitation and rosary for my aunt because he has trouble seeing in the dark. His house is out in the country, and I had to drive a little on a gravel road to get there. When I stepped out of the car I noticed two things: the unmistakeable cowshit smell from the nearby feed lot and the primeval darkness. Clouds blotted out the stars, it was the kind of darkness that must have existed before the beginning of the world.
That's the thing about the landscape of the Great Plains, it reminds you of your utter smallness in the scheme of the universe. The fearsome winds, terrifying blizzards, vicious hailstorms, and the ever present behemoth of a sky breed a certain kind of humility. It is a shocking contrast to New York City, with its steel, brick, and glass spires blotting out the sky and every nook and cranny teeming with human life. Here humans are supremely confident, not cowering, and no single inch of space is untouched by human hands. New Yorker are, not coincidentally, the very opposite of humble.
The street layouts in my hometown exacerbate the feeling of smallness that the landscape inspires. The streets, even residential side streets, are extremely wide, wide enough for at least four cars. The houses are set back far from the curb. Walking on the sidewalk one feels disconnected and lonely, rarely encountering other people or even that many cars. The crowds of the big city are often cultural shorthand for alienation, but I have those feelings ten times more when walking the empty streets of my hometown, which can only be described as lonesome.
It's such a contrast to my morning commute, spent to cheek to jowl with strangers on the commuter train and subway, followed by a nine block walk up Broadway. In that short time I smell not cow manure but the enticing odors of bacon egg and cheese sandwiches being made in food carts and coffee breezes wafting from the open doors of the greasy spoons and Starbucks to the sidewalk. I take a peek at the marquee of the Beacon Theatre, and dodge the workers bringing in palettes of food to Fairway and Zabar's. I turn the corner and go down 81st street, the cliffs of New Jersey across the Hudson in the distance.
After my latest trip home I realized that I crave the contemplative humility of the rural landscape I grew up in as much as I do the eternally lively city streets and their excitement. I have yet to find a place that brings them together, so I have resolved to live in one landscape and visit the other, and never forget to remember what I appreciate about both of them.