We have found Pawnee.
The fictional town referenced in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation must — let’s repeat that in caps, MUST — be based on Hope, Indiana, a tiny burg roughly 20 miles south of Shelbyville on Route 9. There is no more ‘Murican town anywhere in ‘Murica, period. Every single block is another Mellencamp song.
I keep going back to Hope, year after year, for the annual Hope Ride, a bike benefit for local food banks and youth outreach programs. This year was no exception. The Hope Ride features five treks of 13, 25, 50, 75 and 100-mile routes, and the scenery rivals the Hilly Hundred.
Especially the soybean fields.
There’s no way a shot from a crappy smartphone camera can capture the amazing yellow and purple palette that a late September soybean field in Indiana yields. The farms on the these low, rolling hills are mostly split by narrow, wiggling lanes, and when the land flattens out, the Indiana plains seem to stretch on forever, awash in colors that sometimes border on the psychedelic.
And damned if the whole town of Hope doesn’t turn out to volunteer for the thing: after a pancake breakfast served in the cafeteria of the local high school (USA! USA!) every rest stop is stocked with home-baked cookies and pastries alongside the prerequisite bananas and energy bars. The other rest points all feature a musical act of some kind — occasionally even playing on a flatbed trailer. The locals donate their yards to the cause (one even sets up a petting zoo for passerby), and you WILL pass old-timers a-settin’ in their rockers on their porches, waving as you pass.
That town square doubles as the day’s lunch stop: as a rockabilly band (complete with a frontman decked out in a skinny tie and white jacket) plays old Elvis and Buddy Holly tunes, Hope’s Hoosiers staff the chow line. Want a fresh grilled ear of corn? Slaw? BBQ from a crockpot? More of grandma’s cupcakes? It’s a church basement supper without the church basement.
But like any Indiana town that’s worth its weight in beans, there’s an oddball streak running through the thing: some riders get decked out in costume (tutus and tiaras, anyone?) and the organizers themselves have a serious thing for cows and weird copy. The logos are always a riff on the Holsteins that populate the county, and the website for the ride promises “Flying bicycles, anti-gravity water bottles, amazing wind reversing machines, holographic maps, and rainbows and puppy dogs for all!”
Leslie Knope would be proud.