It isn’t the first time I’ve come across this term — flyover country — but I have to pause and really think about its meaning. When I do that, I realize that it’s not a very flattering descriptor; in fact, it can be seen as dismissive, even disrespectful, as if the spaces labeled as such are somehow insignificant, not worthy of visiting.
And that’s what its meaning suggests. Here’s the surprising thing, though — when the term was first used, in 1980 (according to the Oxford Dictionary), it was in the context of self-identification. The writer Thomas McGuane, a native Michigander, portrayed his adopted state of Montana as “flyover country” in an Esquire article about landscape artist Russell Chatham, fellow Montanan.
It is unlikely that McGuane foresaw how durable his expression would become, but he was earnest in his desire to convey a particular sentiment representative of people living in the heartland. And he should know. He grew up in Michigan, was educated there, and despite regular sojourns to each coast’s urban centers, has made Montana his home for several decades. He has spent a lifetime observing not just people, but nature. I’m not prepared to say that McGuane’s cynicism developed after he turned from writing novels to writing screenplays for Hollywood, but it can be said that his reverence for nature’s gifts has been a constant. That it would be McGuane whose name will be forever tethered to a pejorative seems unfortunate.
For ten years I’ve regularly done the loooong coast-to-coast flight in order to visit my younger daughter, who lives in Portland, Oregon. On most occasions I take the window seat; it allows me to periodically break up the monotony by studying the landscape below. The middle areas of the country that seem particularly devoid of concentrated activity always excite a sense of wonder — what would it be like to live in this part of the country? When I observe a land surface that has the appearance of an enormous, fleecy blanket draped over a mysterious jumble of objects of varying sizes, I’m curious, how close is the nearest home? The nearest farmers’ market? When I finally do catch movement — a car or truck, likely, traveling along a slim thread of lonely road — it reinforces that initial wonder.
I’m not what you would call well-traveled. I’ve been to Europe, Central America, a couple of places in the eastern provinces of Canada, several places up and down the East Coast, and — of course — the Pacific Northwest. It would seem that I’ve only ever picked away at the edges, never experienced the wide open spaces of our country’s interior. Part of it has to do with my supposed need to be within striking distance of an ocean. When you fly from the east coast to the west, it takes a while before the distances between urban areas grow so great that you sense a real shift, as if you should fully expect to have your passport handy were you to land somewhere below. As the plane passes over North Dakota, then Montana, it’s impossible to ignore the physical contrast between what is rolling out beneath you and the tightly arranged communities on either coast. I find it humbling. It’s also a reminder of the foreignness — to me — of so much of our country.
All of this current reflection would not have come to pass if not for a decision I made a couple weeks ago. I’m going to give Yellowstone another chance, I vowed. I watched Season 1 a year ago, and then promptly pitched the remote across the room and thought, what a horrible bunch of creatures. Even the ones who seem decent or innocent become poisoned by their association with the Duttons. There may be one exception — Walker, who, soon after being condemned to servitude at the Yellowstone, remarks about the aura of evil that pervades the ranch. (As I begin Season 2, I hold out the slimmest of hopes that he’s incorruptible.)
I plowed through Season 1 again, and felt that same urge to sling the remote across the room. I want to understand, however, why Yellowstone persists as one of TV’s most popular drama series. I’m filled with questions: Do viewers hang on the desperate hope that, sooner or later, these vile characters will reveal traces of humanity? Is it instead our need for validation that there are depraved people out there (maybe even entire communities), but we are not like that? Does it instead have something to do — at least marginally — with the derisive attitude that people in the heartland have toward the “coastal elites”? (The unfavorable portrayal of them is unmistakable.) Or is it the yearning to experience — even if indirectly — the majesty and breathtaking beauty of Big Sky country? Maybe it’s the wish to make sense of the cowboy lifestyle, unveil the mystique? (I do love the idea that the show employs authentic cowboy actors.)
Because I want to be proven wrong — I want Walker to resist the evil that he knows surrounds the ranch, and I want Jimmy not to be so needy (to the point that he loses all remaining vestiges of innocence) — I’m giving Yellowstone this second chance. . . even if it means subjecting myself to Beth Dutton, a specimen of pure evil if ever there was one.
Am I wrong?
Sources (for background on origin of “flyover country”, and Thomas McGuane):