The Divides We Feel: The 2014-15 Conference III Opening Essay

by J.R.

i-064_eb_exit_050_01[UPDATED: Friend of the program R.J. O’Connell recorded a narration of the essay here!]

There is almost nothing to see in southern Illinois. Interstates cross in Marion. Or is it Mt. Vernon? It makes very little difference as a practical matter unless one is traveling to either Marion or Mt. Vernon, which, unless someone is a convicted felon, is unlikely.

But beyond these crossroad towns, downstate Illinois is vast and empty. Once the land rises out of the Ohio River valley, it doesn’t even offer the courtesy of an occasional interesting hill. It is farms. And it is farm roads and it is farm people in a blanket of barren but beautiful farm land that seems far away from anything.

This isn’t to pick on downstate Illinois, by any means. Much of Missouri is like this, too: empty and flat, space bifurcated by Interstates and the occasional blessed town — sometimes even of size, but usually just wide spots where the gas station attendants make cracks about a band mistakenly thanking the good people of Washington for coming out when the gig was actually in Warrenton.

The same story is repeated, sometimes in extremes, across Conference III. Empty and cold in Minnesota and Manitoba. Empty and dry in Texas. And nothing but corn and the curve of the Earth clear from Kansas City to Denver.

And in southern Middle Tennessee, the farther from Nashville, the “-villes” turn to “-burgs,” the greens get greener in the summer and the browns get browner in fall and in the winter, it’s all grey, clear to Birmingham, where it’s grey all year.

The center of the continent is, by and large, unblemished, unapologetic expanse, pockmarked on occasion by bustling cities that rise off the horizon like lighthouses, drawing in the lost or the listless. The coasts’ cities are grander, but their meaning is diminished because of their number.

Maybe there is a joy to driving into New York or Boston or Los Angeles, but it cannot compare to the joy felt by a man who has driven across the prairie first spotting Denver or the woman who has crossed great stretches of lakes and little else and seeing the Twin Cities or Winnipeg or that of the family that finally put Indiana in their review and sees Chicago climbing up, ever closer, like a spine-backed beast yanking itself up over thCahokiaMounds-olde horizon.

It’s always been this way for most of the cities in Conference III. People have been coming from without to within to do their business in the great cities of America’s center for centuries. There were salt licks and a river in what is now Nashville, and where the new baseball stadium will be, there was a salt manufacturing concern. Across the river from where St. Louis is now was Cahokia, America’s first great city, a destination for people from thousands upon thousands of miles away.

It is the rivers, typically, that pulled people to these places that became our cities. It is where the rivers flowed. Rain that fell on one side of the hill flowed to one creek that flowed to a bigger creek that flowed to a small river that flowed to a big one. Rain on the other side of the hill ends up somewhere else entirely.

Watershed divides are something we understand without really ever having it explained. We feel the pull the same way water does. We can feel where those boundaries are even if they are unmarked (although they are marked in Tennessee).

We, like the water, are drawn in a certain direction. And somewhere in the night in that beautiful, bleak emptiness, there are lines.

Somewhere in downstate Illinois — maybe Marion or Mt. Vernon — Blackhawks territory becomes Blues territory. Somewhere else — Paducah perhaps — the Blues disappear and Predators emerge. In Iowa and Arkansas, three teams rub together. And in the prairie somewhere, maybe as soon as the mountains start to rend the once-endless flatness, there’s a line west of which farmboys pfd61658708236a61522ebe52f2df8756ull for the Avs and east of which, farmgirls wont for St. Louis or Dallas or the Wild.

The center of the continent is a patchwork quilt — there’s an image I don’t have to explain, but would, perhaps, if this site was about some other division.

Are there as many hockey fans in Nebraska as there are in New York? Of course not. There may even be more in Nunavut. But are the fans in colder or coastal climes more passionate? Certainly not.

The pull to our cities is stronger and our pull for the teams is those cities is mighty. We feel connected to cities — and in some cases, these are cities we’ve never been to — and feel part of the fraternity that is fan.

Not all fans are accidents of geography. Some are accidents of genetics, an affliction of affection passed down from one generation to the next like color-blindness, where it might show up in one child but another might resist.

And some times the most irrational thing in the world — fandom — gets more irrational still. A little boy in Pennsylvania can love the Nordiques because of their uniforms, and because of a lack of connection to Quebec, he doesn’t care much when they move to Denver and in a sea of Penguins, he’s a bank of snow.

As the waters of those rivers change all they touch constantly and forever, so too are our teams changing: players go, uniforms change, mascots arrive, coaches leave. As the river takes, though, it gives: silt swept away is replaced by silt from elsewhere. On the edges, the shores look different, but take a wider view and the shore looks the same as it ever did. And the water, of course, is the same water. Flowing down, ever down, then rising up and falling again and again and again, always drawn back to the same places.

Watch as Winnipeg predictably slays my well-crafted metaphor

Watch as Winnipeg predictably slays my well-crafted metaphor

Tomorrow night, we’ll go back to those familiar places too. Fans will stream to seven different cities like drops of water to the big rivers. Our destinations are different and yet, the ultimate goal is the same.

Six of the seven cities are on the same side of North America’s great continental divides; Winnipeg, ever our weird cousin, sends its water to the Hudson Bay instead of the Gulf of Mexico. But none of us are drawn to the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

As ever, we go our own ways, but we go there together.