Visiting Flyover America in a Trump World

By Johanna Read

Branson, Missuori

“See you soon, Branson, Missouri!” I posted on Facebook, as I was preparing for a press trip to this town of 12,000 near the Arkansas border. But in the heated days following the results of the U.S. election, the reaction I got was equally heated.

My European and fellow Canadian friends replied “Do you really want to help promote a Trump state?” and “Are you going to go? We’re considering boycotting the U.S. for the next next four years.”

As a Canadian, I did debate going.

I'm proud of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees equal treatment under the law regardless of religion, sex, origin, colour, or disability and which provides fundamental freedoms of conscience, belief, expression, and the press. We’re one of the most progressive countries in the world in ensuring LGBTQ2 rights. I relish Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet equally comprised of men and women, and full of the diverse faces of the multicultural country that I love (I did, however, use Twitter to call out my Prime Minister for not making an unequivocal Angela Merkel-type values statement when officially congratulating Trump on his victory).

I pride myself on being open minded. And yup, I've been labeled “politically correct”, and, probably, a member of the “condescending liberal elite” too. I was one of the many people around the world surprised that Americans didn’t vote in their first female president (and even more surprised that 46.9% of eligible Americans didn’t vote at all). In the days after the election, I did think about the pros and cons of boycotting the U.S.

But if I'm open minded to minorities and to the people, religions, and cultures of the developing countries I visit around the world, shouldn't I be open to the culture of my immense neighbour to the south too? With not even a handful of exceptions, my visits to the U.S. have been to big cities, blue states and coasts. I need to learn more about middle America.

So, I decided to go to Branson, and to keep an open mind. I wanted to see what Branson had to offer its visitors and its citizens. I wanted to see what people said and did a week after the election. I wanted to see if I could understand just a little bit better what many people are calling “flyover America”.

I discovered that Branson has a lot to offer, especially for a town of just 12,000 people.

Branson has over 50 theatre and concert venues with over 57,000 seats. This provides not only a lot of entertainment for visitors, but a lot of jobs for those in the performing arts, and for the set designers, painters, costumers, stagehands, and others that support them. I was really impressed with Million Dollar Quartet — a musical about the jam session between Carl Perkins, who wrote Blue Suede Shoes, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was better than many of the plays I've seen on Broadway and in London’s West End. The set design of another musical, Moses, was excellent, and it was heartwarming to see old stars like the Osmond Brothers and Lennon Sisters still performing, and to very appreciative crowds.  

Outdoors, Branson has a lot to offer too. Just outside Branson is a beautiful nature park, Dogwood Canyon, ideal for hiking and biking. The 10,000 acre park is owned by a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the wildlife environment of the canyon. Visitors can learn about foraging and about medicinal plants that grow in the park, and see demonstrations of stone-age survival skills. The area is full of natural springs, waterfalls, a variety of plants and trees, and even pastureland for bison, elk and long-horned cattle.

One of the reasons Branson got on the map is because of another nearby natural wonder, Marvel Cave. Discovered by the Osage indigenous people and now a National Natural Landmark, this immense cave brought tourists from near and far to Branson starting in 1894, and still does. After exploring the marvelous cave, I joined families learning about the 1880s in Silver Dollar City, an amusement park with a difference. While there are thrill rides — including one of the best roller coasters I’ve ever tried, Outlaw Run — they’re hidden within the park so it more accurately resembles an old-fashioned town. Master artisans show visitors their traditional glass-making, candle-dipping, blacksmithing, pottery-making, leather-working, and candy-making skills. Live music is an essential part of the park and Silver Dollar City has a number of shows and festivals highlighting country and bluegrass music as well as the top names in Southern Gospel.

Branson was filled with things to do, and everyone I met was welcoming, helpful and kind. I don't think I've ever been to a part of the United States that was more polite. Just like in Canada, people said “sorry” or “excuse me” if we bumped elbows in the nostalgia-filled Dick’s 5 & 10, and apologized for needing to walk past me to their seat at one of the many musical performances I attended. Everyone thanked me for holding the door open for them, and everyone ahead of me held the door for me, and even said “you’re welcome” when I thanked them (an uncommon practice during my visits to the U.S.). At many performances, veterans were asked to stand and received heartfelt acknowledgement from the crowd.

Despite all this public kindness, I was watching carefully for signs of discrimination, given the many accusations that racism was an underlying cause of the Trump victory. While I saw only a few people of colour in Branson, those I did see didn't seem to be on their guard or treated differently, as I have seen in other states. I saw two white families who had adopted black children. At the airport a black grandma and two older white couples, obviously strangers, were happily chatting about the best foods to eat in Haiti. At a free outdoor concert crowded with both tourists and local people, the gospel singers Voices of Glory — three black siblings from upstate New York — received the biggest cheers.

However, two stores in downtown Branson were selling Confederate flags, and some rural homes had the flags on display. While I know the Confederate flag is a part of U.S. history and many claim it as a symbol of Southern pride and culture, I have trouble understanding why anyone would sell or display something associated with racism, slavery, and white supremacy unless they condone it. Especially so, since the House of Representatives voted to ban Confederate flags from veterans’ cemeteries and since so many major U.S. retailers pulled sales of Confederate flag products after the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina shootings by a white supremacist. Branson and Missouri should also ban sale of the flag and be aware of how visitors perceive displays of it by citizens.

During my visit, I asked many people about the Trump victory. Most often their answers were noncommittal. A few said it was a reaction to political correctness gone too far. I knew that 77% of the vote in Branson’s county had gone Republican, and so I was hoping supporters would take the opportunity to explain their Republican votes while renouncing Trump’s campaign hate speech. Instead, some said “Is this on or off the record?”,  “Let’s just say we weren't disappointed” and “Oh, there were no tears here”.

When I asked one Branson performer his opinion about many Canadians and Europeans saying they would boycott the U.S. under Trump, he reacted with surprise and said he didn’t care. He quickly recovered, though, and said he was “proud to be an American”, and that we needed to “come together to protect ourselves and love one another”. I hope that “loving one another” includes everyone, and “protecting ourselves” means protection from hate.

My hope for every American in every part of the United States is, as under the Canadian Charter, equal treatment regardless of religion, sex, origin, colour, disability, as well as sexual orientation. This can be furthered if every city and state adopts a resolution similar to the one San Francisco just did, reaffirming their commitment to the values of inclusivity, respect, and dignity.

I hope talk of boycotting travel to the U.S. will end. Boycotts do not bring about openness. Isolationism only breeds more intolerance, as do failing economies.

I encourage everyone — American or not — to go to Branson, Missouri and other parts of middle America. Tourists should not fly over, but visit. They should enjoy the wonderful attractions and talk with the kind people. The more people who visit, the more understanding can grow — in all directions.

Editor's Note: The writer was hosted by Branson's Convention and Visitors Bureau, but all opinions are her own.

Published: 12/5/2016

Johanna Read is a Canadian freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel, food and responsible tourism. A former Government of Canada executive, Johanna retired early to pursue her passion: travel. Writing for a variety of print and digital publications, she encourages sustainable travel and promotes unique destinations. A 2016 goal is repeating her six-continents-in-one-year travel feat.