Middle USA

 

David Whitley takes the time-honoured jaunt into uncharted territory in order to catch up with the American branch of his family.

 

There are few things more odd in the travel experience than the almost inevitable point where you go to stay with an obscure member of family who lives along the route you’re taking. In my case, it really shouldn’t have been that obscure. It’s just that due to fate, geographical distance and sheer laziness, I’ve not seen my uncle in a few years, and the rest of his family in nearly twenty. And after catching up with two long-lost cousins in Washington DC, it was time for the more typical meet-the-extended-family travel experience.

 

 

It is usually the case, whether it’s a great aunt in Australia, a cousin in South Africa or someone so tenuously related to your mum that even your mum can’t quite explain who they are, that these people don’t live in the middle of tourist hotspots. The lure of free accommodation or a desire to reconnect and learn can become an adventure off the edge of a guidebook page. Such visits can often mean a foray into the tumbleweed-blown depths of public transport networks, suburbs that elicit blank faces from anyone who doesn’t live within it and a glimpse into everyday life that you usually won’t get anywhere near.

 

For me, the expedition consisted of getting to Kennett Square in Pennsylvania. A quick Google search shows Kennett Square to be the self-proclaimed “Mushroom Capital of the World”.  As for what tourist attractions I could expect, I asked my cousin. “Gee, I hope you like gardens,” came the reply. It turns out that whilst my uncle and aunt live technically within the boundaries of Kennett Square, they actually live up a driveway in a pleasantly green piece of land that is a substantial hike away from anywhere.

 

And because it’s the sort of place that would be of limited interest to all but the most garden-obsessed international visitors, it meant for a fascinating insight into American life beyond what you see on the TV screens. My uncle had, it transpires, just finished a stint judging apple pies at some sort of community fair. The name of the actual event escapes me, although it appears as though something similar goes on just about every weekend. “I’ve worked long and hard to get this gig,” he said. “Years ago, I started on the vegetables.”

 

It’s all very American Dream. Everyone appears to be a member of a dozen organisations, is on the committee of five different community associations and volunteers for a day or two a week at any place that will have them. “It’s a world run by nice old ladies in sneakers,” confesses my aunt. The US (well, parts of it anyway) has an incredible sense of community spirit. Churches are booming, partly through an increased sense of religious conviction, and partly because they act as community hubs. Those who do not take part in things and offer their services are seen as more unusual than those who do. We look at American billionaires making enormous charity donations and cynically mutter about tax write-offs, but a sense of charity and doing the right thing seems to be a key plank of this country’s identity.

 

We eventually head out to a patch of land owned by the Brandywine Valley Association (of which, naturally, my uncle is on the board). Strolling around it, we encounter vegetable patches planted as community education projects, a point to point racecourse (the main event happens on April 1 every year, apparently) and a little woodland den where children learn about the local Native American people. Throw in a not-for-profit riding school aimed at underprivileged children and it’s an extraordinary hive of bucolic do-gooding. 

 

To my somewhat jaundiced eyes, the whole area and attitude is utterly bizarre. Here’s it’s perfectly normal. This is an hour away from the mean streets of Baltimore in which The Wire was filmed. Welcome to America – there’s more to it than your guidebook would possibly have you believe.

 

More photos here