Northfield, Wisconsin was a sleepy, peaceful village...until people started disappearing. If a summer blockbuster were to be made about the town where I stopped for gas this weekend, that's how the preview would begin. Minneapolis radio stations had long since fizzled into static. At some nebulous point between Eau Claire and Wisconsin Dells, where I was headed to rock climb with a group that included my college friend Claire, a laconic sign promised food and gas (no further details provided) at the next exit. In need of both, I turned off the interstate and into the perfect setting for either a Hallmark commercial or a horror movie. I drove out of it just as quickly; unincorporated Northfield’s main street stretched little more than two blocks.
“Unincorporated” was a word I recognized from many family road trips through the Midwest. As a child, I developed a romantic notion about life in these tiny towns. Born and raised in the city, I could conceive of hardly anything more thrilling than scooping a stack of letters out of a classic aluminum mailbox while standing in the shadow of a grain elevator. However, I never took it upon myself to find out what “unincorporated” precisely meant until yesterday. The official definition, generously provided by the always obliging dictionary.com, doesn’t diverge much from what the size of these hamlets had led me to expect: An unincorporated town is one that hasn’t been granted formal existence as a self-governing settlement. In theory, this means that Northfield doesn’t have, among other things, its own police force. What it does have is a gas station, an American Legion, a towering church, and a diner which seems to deliberately cater to picturesque stereotypes by being named Dee Dee’s.
After unintentionally speeding out of town on a road lined with Folk Victorian houses and—yes—classic aluminum mailboxes, I made a U-turn and headed back toward the service station. As I approached the register to pay (no credit card pump here) for my gas, a very familiar tension tightened my chest. I immediately recognized the slight anxiety I’ve come to associate with carrying out everyday activities in a foreign country. In Ecuador, even the simplest undertaking required some measure of mental preparation: What strategy should I use to bargain down a taxi price? What exactly was the name of the product I was looking for? In Northfield, the only accent I had was Minnesotan, and the price of gas was (dismayingly) nonnegotiable. Still, I was sharply aware of being completely, irreparably foreign.
Don’t worry: This isn’t the part where the girl who has returned from abroad comes to the profound realization that she is from everywhere and nowhere. I am and will always be just about as Midwestern as they come. The time I’ve spent living in South America hasn’t done anything to shorten the occasional long “O” that elicits laughter from friends from other regions. I fiercely defend “pop”’s position as a legitimate word in the English language and maintain that nothing tastes better at 1 A.M. than French toast from Perkins. I’m convinced that I would have felt out of place in Northfield even if I’d never set foot outside Minnesota.
Minneapolis is a scant two-hour drive from Northfield, but I’ve felt closer to home after trips that have involved passports, customs forms and seat backs in upright and locked positions. Like Northfield, my home city is characterized by the chatty “Midwest nice” courtesy that I came to appreciate while studying in Washington, DC, where people always seemed to be walking briskly to somewhere very important. On any brief outing in Minneapolis, however, one is almost certain to cross paths with dozens of strangers. On the other hand, both the cashier at the gas station and the middle-aged women who prepared me a sandwich at Dee Dee’s—which smelled like potpourri and sold an impressive variety of Christmas decorations—recognized and were able to strike up conversations with every patron who entered. Minneapolis is by no means the most bustling metropolis on the planet, but some measure of anonymity is possible; not so in Northfield, where most of the people I saw were divided between the American Legion barbeque/horseshoe game on one end of town and the funeral occurring simultaneously on the other.
Another characteristic of Minneapolis is the velocity with which it changes; every time I return after having spent time away, parts of the scenery have invariably mutated; there are always buildings that have (dis)appeared, storefronts that have transformed or parks that have undergone facelifts. Only a long-term resident would be able to verify whether the opposite is true in Northfield; my suspicions stem from a book I flipped through at the counter at Dee Dee’s Diner. The book was compiled to commemorate the 150 years that have passed since the town was founded by Norwegian settlers; pages of photocopied black-and-white photographs depict turn-of-the-century residents and a series of one-room schoolhouses that successively burned down or were closed. Glancing backward out the window of the diner, I realized that the town’s main street didn’t look much different than it did in a photo from the beginning of the twentieth century.
I don’t subscribe to the belief that only one of these two places represents the “real America,” while the other—either by virtue of being globalized or antiquated—is somehow artificial. In Ecuador, I spent a significant amount of time arguing that the United States is much too large and diverse to be characterized by phrases like “North American culture.” If ever find myself doing so again, I’ll use my short stay in Northfield as an illustration of just how deceptive these umbrella terms can be. I’ll also use it to remind myself—hopelessly addicted to long distances—that it doesn’t take a plane ticket to go somewhere completely different.
Back on the freeway, I popped open the Styrofoam container in which the women at Dee Dee’s had packed my sandwich. As I sped away from Northfield, I savored a delicious—and familiar—grilled ham and cheese sandwich. If it had been a movie, saccharine music would have swelled as the voice-over mused that maybe Northfield wasn’t so foreign after all.
If the Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín has a trademark, it might be human figures with hauntingly large eyes and long fingers. These phantom-like images hang on walls and stare back with silkscreened pupils from T-shirts all over Quito, where I spent the past fourteen months living and working as an English teacher. I’ve always found these hollow-cheeked painted people to be a bit unsettling; their originality and visual impact are undeniable, but I would rather avoid seeing them stare back at me from my bedroom wall when I wake up in the middle of the night.
That may be the reason why I didn’t buy a Guayasamín painting until I came across Quito rojo while shopping for a birthday present for a friend. I had spent the past couple hours zigzagging through the cobblestone streets of Quito’s colonial downtown searching for historical photos of the city, which I thought my friend—a diehard quiteño able to produce an anecdote or legend about practically every building, statue and gargoyle in the Centro—would appreciate. Having accomplished nothing more than a nasty sunburn, I had resigned myself to settling for a pastry and a card when I came across this painting in a shop in the renovated Archbishop’s Palace in the Plaza Grande. I immediately knew that I had found both my gift and my newest apartment decoration. Minutes later, I plunged back into Quito’s particularly singeing variety of midday sun toting two prints in a cardboard roll.
During the three months it spent Scotch-taped to my wall, the painting became an increasingly central component of my perception of Quito. Despite the fact that Ecuador’s capital city is hours from the ocean and surrounded by towering volcanoes, I had always associated the city with water rather than fire. The astounding downpours, thunder and hailstorms that sweep down the hills nearly every afternoon during Quito’s wet season undoubtedly had something to do with this; nonetheless, I suspect that my vision of Quito as an essentially aquatic city owed more to its physical layout than its climate. Not only do the houses that stumble haphazardly up the hills evoke coastal cities like Valparaíso, but the city itself—stretched out between and over innumerable slopes and overwhelmingly white when seen from above—resembles foam on top of rolling waves.
Passing Quito rojo in my hallway multiple times each day, however, made me ponder the idea of Quito as a city on fire. I suppose the painting could be received as a simple sunset landscape, but I’ve always though of it as depicting actual flames, either a volcanic eruption or an out-of-control fire. This interpretation represents the way I came to view Quito during the time I spent there: as a city ablaze with conflict and passion. The past several hundred years have witnessed very little tranquility in Ecuador, and the current reality of the capital is a dynamic testament to this. Children in tattered T-shirts offer to shine the shoes of passerby in front of the city’s pristine malls and breathtaking colonial buildings. On nearly every street, graffiti expresses discontent and a variety of political sentiments; it’s not unusual to see a message crossed out and replaced with an opposing view. Shards of broken glass top the walls that surround homes like fortresses. Tension is burning everywhere, sometimes literally; it wasn’t uncommon for me to glance out my window and see smoke rising from the vicinity of the politically charged Universidad Central. Quito, however, is ignited with much more than strife: Much of the city’s graffiti is poetry.
On his rooftop in the Centro, a friend took this picture of Quito and me on one of my last nights in Ecuador. In this case, a technological mishap produced a strikingly appropriate result: Quito appears to be on fire. Coincidentally enough, shortly after the photo was taken, I glanced northward toward my neighborhood and saw flames erupt from what I knew to be a park. My stomach began to knot as we watched the fire descend the hill toward the neighbor’s house where nearly everything I own was spilling over the tops of bulging suitcases. Nevertheless, the fire—if that’s indeed what it was—disappeared quickly; we never learned what had started it.