I came to the United States with some preconceptions, mainly based on the fictions of Friends, ER and cowboy westerns. When I spoke to people about my trip they were rather mystified about why I should want to visit Ohio. Most people thought of Ohio state as a flat place, or were unsure about its exact location. So it was something of a surprise to find rolling hills, a little like Devon except for the frequency of small ravines or ‘hollers’ sprinkled throughout wooded areas. All the water feeds into great wide rivers, the nearest being the border between Ohio and West Virginia, on which giant barges as big as buildings trug along with piles of supplies like coal. Out of the capital city of Columbus there are miles and miles of good dual carriageway roads through lush green vales with woods in every direction. Off the highway and onto two-way roads then every house seems to have a barn, a swing, a few cars, a drive, and these vary with some near to the road and some set back up the hill. Each one has a post box standing at the roadside with a little red marker to swing up to show that there is mail to collect. Land plots are in zoned areas so that they cannot be split into smaller parcels. In town areas the frequency of houses increases, maybe old miners cabins a bit like large boxy caravans with white wooden cladding side by side, and elsewhere single storey modular built houses dominate. On some roads there are yellow signs with a horse-drawn buggy signifying traditional or Amish communities who do not use motor cars. Once I saw such a buggy and it seemed to me to be going at a cracking pace, rapidly disappearing down a track. Otherwise people travel in cars and pickups with open backs, occasional Harley Davidson style motorbikes and big trucks. Apart from long yellow school buses, there is little sign of public transport, bus or train. At night I can sometimes hear the honking of a train not so far away, but it is a freight train only, and passenger stops appear to be few and far between. Although cars seem expensive at fifteen or twenty thousand dollars for new the price of petrol is astonishingly low at less than three dollars per gallon (about £2).
Nearby Athens is mainly a university town, dominated by an Ohio University riverside campus of some 20,000 students (and I have counted at least 4 academic bookstores already). There are at least as many resident people, quite a few pursuing a life connected with the land. When I arrived there were many new students, the class to graduate in 2014, just arriving with parents and strolling up and down sidewalks or unloading trailers. Despite the apparent wealth, the well-resourced students, and their shops and fraternities, I am told that there are plenty of people without work, somehow they get by with monthly food stamps amounting to $200 accepted by most shops and traders, plus state support and mutual self-help. Most apparent of all, in this area around Athens in southernmost Ohio, is the variety of alternative lifestyles. Lots of local growers, some organic, turn up twice a week to a bustling Farmer’s Market on the edge of town. There is a subsantial wholefood store, the Farmacy, and a worker’s co-operative run Cantina. The latter combines a large bar and restaurant and sources all food supplies from the local area. Looking at this list of suppliers in the back of the Cantina menu I realise that here in Ohio are some wonderful dedicated growers able to produce great quality vegetables, dairy, meat and more. The Cantina is very popular, seems always busy, with a queue forming outside around 9 am for the breakfast menu. I loved their Nuevo Rancheros eggy tortilla breakfast with seasonal vegetables, and, of course, the free access to wireless Internet. The town also has a cinema, town hall and museum, plus plenty of other shops and the usual range of supermarkets like Walmart. A good find this last weekend by the Farmer’s Market was the Tractor Supplies store, great as a source of rubber boots, gardening gloves and other essentials!
People here are very kind. They are so welcoming, offering vegetables, meals, lifts and help with pretty much anything we ‘interns’ express an interest in. Many are keen to tell me if they have visited part of England. They think my English accent is ‘cute’.