Living in a Fly Over State

One blogger’s map of Fly Over States. Must relate to a personal grudge to include Oregon.

Those who never try living in the middle of America are missing out.  I’ll probably end up back in Northern New England some day, but in the meanwhile I’m more than content with my eight years plus in Kentucky.  Referencing those who ignore the 3,000 miles between the coasts, Jason Aldean sings in his recent hit “Fly Over States”:

They’ve never drove through Indiana
Met the man who plowed that earth
Planted that seed, busted his ass for you and me
Or caught a harvest moon in Kansas
They’d understand why God made
Those fly over states

The country song reminded me of an unpublished essay draft I wrote for my alumni magazine back in December, 2007.  I had recently returned from a trip to New York City, and my sister Carolyn had been featured in the magazine for her amazing world travels.  Middlebury College’s choice to highlight its international scope helped me realize that my choice to move to Kentucky via an elite liberal arts college in New England was pretty rare and, in many cases, more foreign to my classmates than traveling to another continent:

Where’s your postcard, Barnwell?  Nice picture of the younger sis.  Just where and what have you been doing?  I laughed as Middlebury friends chided me over the holiday break during a visit to New York City.  They were reacting to my younger sister’s public relations involvement with The Middlebury Initiative, apparently complete with a colored postcard mailed to all alumni with a heading Where in the World is Carolyn Barnwell? (I have not yet seen it).

Carolyn Barnwell, class of 2006.5, has been traveling around the South Pacific on her Watson fellowship.  She is focused on climate change and its effect on island communities.  I couldn’t be more proud of her adventurous spirit and ability to deeply connect with people.  It doesn’t seem to matter with Carolyn—she’ll bond with folks as disparate as country store clerks in Ripton, rice farmers in Thailand, Proctor dining hall staff, to fisherman in Tuvalu.  Out of all her travels, she has seemed to become most comfortable and willing to learn about Southeast Asia and various Pacific Island nations.  I’ve also been lucky to do some fairly extensive traveling in my life, but I’ve settled down a bit in a place a far cry from Carolyn’s focus.  I have chosen my own path as a public school teacher in Kentucky.

It isn’t groundbreaking news to report that Kentucky isn’t a hot destination for recent college graduates from the east coast.  When I mention the word “Kentucky” to friends and family back home—those who haven’t yet ventured down south to visit—the images many conjure up are of toothless tobacco chewers lounging in rocking chairs on rickety porches, dilapidated mountain coal towns, and the finish line at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

  Had I followed a more typical track of my colleagues, I’d have rushed to inhabit the exciting, but exorbitantly expensive, eastern seaboard cities of Boston, New York, or Washington D.C.  Or joined the Peace Corps to work on rural development in Chile.  Or taken a year off to backpack across Europe.

Reading over outlines for Middlebury’s Global Initiative, I wonder how domestic places within the United States fit in to the plan?  How many Middlebury graduates are encouraged to extend their influence and skills to “foreign” places within the United States?  For many within the Middlebury community, Kentucky and other oft-overlooked— and dare I say, belittled—states are as foreign as small countries peppered around the globe.  But Kentucky has been a surprisingly fertile place to grow personally and professionally.

Back in the cramped Upper East Side apartment, I entertained friends with my own tales of living and teaching in and around Louisville, Kentucky.  I have taught disillusioned students from housing projects, Mexican immigrants, many tobacco farmin’ John Deere tractor aficionados, and students from modest subdivisions sprung up in former corn fields. I have embarked on several quests for the best barbecue in the region (jury is still out).  I have bought and renovated a century-old shotgun style home in a recently named historic preservation neighborhood.  I have attended the Kentucky Derby, listened to Grammy-Award caliber bluegrass bands picking away during free concerts at the local park, and met countless cordial, intelligent, and generous people in Louisville.

What I am most proud of accomplishing thus far in Kentucky, however, has been my ability to connect with and inspire many middle school language arts students.  I credit Middlebury with fostering in me many qualities relating to critical thinking, communication skills (both oral and written), and creativity.  These characteristics, when put to use in a classroom, give me advantages when planning lessons, interacting with frustrated parents, or reviewing school curriculum with the principal.

Middlebury’s Global Initiative is truly impressive as the college moves to become an even more dynamic institution in the competitive field of elite higher education.  Middlebury graduates can make immeasurable impact branching out in service of others, whether by investigating the impact of climate change on South Pacific Islanders or provoking excitement in middle school students over a new novel or creative writing assignment.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve chosen an even more exotic location than many Middlebury graduates who do reach beyond the national borders—let’s not forget the 3,000 miles of America between Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

My opinion hasn’t changed in the past four-plus years.  I live in a great city, and it’s not Boston, New York, Seattle, or San Francisco.  I get it–there are more career opportunities in those places than in cities like my home of Louisville, Kansas City, or Omaha.  And for some, it’s more comfortable to be surrounded by swarms of mega-educated and ambitious people.

If you haven’t lived between the coasts, would you?  Have you lived in both an East or West Coast city, and also a city in between?  What are your impressions?


  1. I have not moved yet, but probably will do so within the next few months. I will most likely move to Miami/Ft. Lauderdale at first, because that metro area is close to home and has certain resources I need, I might also move to Los Angeles, because it also has those same resources. However, I want to go to law school in the fall of 2018, and I am considering several schools in “flyover” states, including Kentucky. I am particularly considering U of Kentucky and U of Louisville. I am hopefully visiting Kentucky for a few days this fall in order to see those cities and schools. Who knows, maybe I’ll like it so much I’ll move straight there.

  2. Hey, sorry about such a massive delay in response! I’ve been very inactive on WordPress, but I finally saw your comment. Have you made a move? Good luck with your journey.

  3. Hello,

    I found this article really interesting. I currently live in a small town in the Florida Keys, but I am looking to move to a city. I am considering moving to a city in Middle America (AKA flyover country), for a lot of the reasons you listed. Cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, etc. are exciting, but have a high cost of living. I figure that cities like Louisville, Omaha, Minneapolis, and Kansas City have a lot of the same amenities that the big coastal cities have, but without as many of the drawbacks (i.e. high cost of living). There might be more career opportunities in the coastal cities, but I would imagine that in cities like Louisville, there is less competition for good jobs, as the people who graduate from the best schools (i.e. Ivy League) tend to flock to the Eastern Seaboard and other coastal cities. However, I am sure Louisville and other “flyover” cities have plenty of educated and ambitious people.

    As far as Louisville goes, I would consider moving there, as I have heard good things about it from a few different people. But I did hear from someone on the internet that Louisville does not have a good scene for singles. I am single, and would like to meet someone once I move to a city. Would you say that is true that Louisville is not good for singles, or do you feel that Louisville has a lot to offer to the young and single? I’ve heard that the culture in Kentucky tends to skew toward marrying young due to religious influence.

    Any insight you can give is appreciated, have a great day!

  4. Redirecting chaos,
    Thanks for stopping by!
    Louisville is the only “big” city that I’ve ever lived in, and I’m constantly surprised with how much great food and culture is available here. I purchased my home for under 100,000, and it has been a great place for five-plus years.
    Good luck making it back:)
    As for me, it’ll be tough to leave, but it’ll probably happen within five years due to three sets of future grandparents being in NH.

  5. Hi there,

    For what it’s worth, I’ve now lived in Louisville, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. I’m currently in Los Angeles, but given a chance, I’ll return to Louisville. See, what I found is that in L.A., a decent one bedroom apartment (i.e. in a neighborhood where you won’t be attacked if you go out at night) rents for at least $1000 a month. To boot, you’ll most likely be spending at least an hour commuting to work in a single passenger car, and then your weekend driving about to do everything you couldn’t do during the week. The same goes for D.C. And owning a house? Ha! Forget it, unless you clear at least $100,000 or have a spouse who makes that much. To boot, Louisville has about three used bookstores, at least one independent and two chains that I know of. Santa Clarita, where I’m living temporarily, has a Barnes and Noble. That’s it. Talk about intellectual stagnation.

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