Flatland

  By Shamus   Nov 7, 2006   25 comments

Steven talks about the various places he’s lived and compares notes on the weather. This brings to mind the following…

I’ve only ever lived two places: Near Pittsburgh and near Boston. I lived an hour north of both cities. (Er. Not at the same time. You know what I mean.) The climate is similar, although the winters in Boston seem bleaker because the days seem shorter. The two places are in the same time zone, but Boston is several hundred miles northeast of Pittsburgh, and could easily be in the next time zone. So, the sun sets a good bit sooner. Specifically, it set before I got off work at 5:30, which means that during the winter I only really saw the sun on weekends.

But the big thing that made me crazy in Boston was the flatness. Western PA has the texture of a wrinkled blanket – you can never find a level spot. If you’re moving along the ground, then you are also either moving up or down. I never realized how important this was to me. (I can understand how someone from flatland would dislike Western PA. The hills would make them feel walled in and it might make someone seasick if they aren’t used to it, but I grew up here and so it feels normal.) Sometimes you’re driving uphill and all you see is the road leading off into the sky. Then you crest the hill and you can suddenly see for miles. Then it’s back down into another valley.

But Boston, being near the coast, is very level by comparison. I never expected this is be so irritating. I felt like I could never get an “overhead” view of where I was. Without great big hills giving the horizon some shape, I couldn’t map the place out or judge distance. If a winding road heading west-ish began to bend slowly Northwards, I couldn’t sense it because I didn’t have a fixed marker on the horizon. Since most roads were built before cars, the road system isn’t a grid; each town has a bunch of roads projecting from them at random angles. It looks more like the old “spiderweb” view of the WWW.

So, the roads were mapped out according to a system of total chaos. I couldn’t navigate by landmark because I was stuck on a flat plane. I couldn’t intuit where to go based on direction. The upshot of all of this was that I was lost all the dang time. It was pathetic. Even after living there for a year I was still wary of venturing too far off of my familiar commute between home and work, because a bad turn could get me lost for an hour.

They made a big deal about how beautiful the place was in the autumn, but autumn was the same in Pittsburgh. The only difference was that in Boston the trees right in front of you would occlude all of the trees behind them, so you could never get that big, panoramic view of golden trees going all the way to the horizon. Also, the place was so densely developed that if you did somehow see it from above, you’d see way more buildings than trees. There just weren’t that many trees left.

It’s interesting. Lots of people love it, but because it wasn’t what I was used to I just couldn’t. I suppose someone born there who moved here would be irritated for all of the opposite reasons.

20525 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.


  1. It’s a good point. On (rare) clear days here in Portland we can see Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens off in the distance. I watched the May 18 eruption from Council Crest, a park at the highest point in the city.

    One of the big changes in the move to Boston was that there wasn’t any skyline. You couldn’t see mountains off in the distance, because there aren’t any mountains in Massachusetts. Get into the western part of the state and there are a few rolling hills, but even those are pretty disappointing.

    The reason is that the glaciers in the last ice age ground the entire area down flat. At the same time, volcanoes here were building up.

    San Diego was a bit better than Boston; when the smog was light you could see the Sierra’s off to the east.

  2. ScottM says:

    Fresno’s surrounded by mountains, but most days the haze is thick enough that you can only see the Sierra Nevadas. It’s very flat, but that doesn’t bother me much. Of course, that’s probably because I’ve never lived somewhere that wasn’t…

  3. ubu roi says:

    Houston: Flat as Zero Louise’s chest, but the street system is a grid and the interstates are hub-and-spoke. The occasional bridge (especially over the ship channel) will give you a view, but that’s about it. The one nice thing is that with the lack of zoning and the city sprawl, when you can get a vantage point a few stories up, the city looks like islands of skyscrapers lost in a sea of trees. The bad things are legion: humidity, heat, mosquitos, a generally ugly ‘functional’ look to the architecture, the occasional hurricane…

  4. kat says:

    It definitely depends on what you’re used to; I grew up in Kansas, which, while not completely level, affords a clear view to the horizon all the way around. I live in a big city now, with the giant buildings and the big roads and the traffic and all, and it always makes me a little crazy until I can get back out to the plains where I can see.

  5. Martin says:

    An hour north of Pittsburgh? I’m 1/2 an hour north.
    Care to be more specific?

  6. Martin says:

    Ah. I’m a couple miles west of Mars.

  7. GreyDuck says:

    I’ve almost always lived on or near hilly country, usually with a large river nearby (either the Columbia or the Willamette). Having visited flatlands briefly a few times over the last decade, I don’t imagine I’ll move to such a place any time soon. I’d go batty in no time.

    Okay, MORE batty.

  8. -Chipper says:

    I’m from Baldwin – Pittsburgh’s south hills. I think it’s kinda funny that you get lost in Boston, since so many out of towners complain about how easy it is to get lost in Pgh due to the winding thru the hills & unexpected one-way streets.

    My sister once was driving in Dallas & got directions that included, “turn after you go over the second hill.” She went MILES with no hills (by Pittsburgh standards), then finally (rightly) concluded that they meant the second overpass (very small, man-made hills to aid traffic), less than a mile from her starting point.

    I’m now in Central New York State, near Syracuse. It has fewer hills, but does have some – the drumlands from glaciers. I’ll go out of my way to drive up them from time to time – on a good day I can see all the way past Lake Oneida to Lake Ontario.

  9. Mark says:

    The Philadelphia area seems like a mixture of the Pittsburg area and the Boston area. There are some flat parts, but also a lot of hills. I never really noticed until I drove cross country and got on some of those endless highways in the middle of nowhere where everything was flat and the horizon looked the same all the time.

    Honestly, not to toot my own city’s horn, but Philly seems to be one of the better, more moderate cities. It’s old and has a lot of history (like Boston), but it doesn’t seem as cramped. Then again, there are some rather nasty parts of Philly. I love the weather though – we have all 4 seasons, but the only one that gets really bad is summer (mostly because of the humidity) and maybe a few weeks during winter (which I actually kinda like). It doesn’t snow nearly as much here as in Boston, but it still snows occassionally. Fall and spring seem to me to be longer here than they are elsewhere.

    But maybe that’s just me. I’m not that picky and while I’ve been to a lot of other places, I’ve really only ever lived in this general area:P

  10. Justin says:

    Wait a minute…you’re from an hour north of Pittsburgh? Small, small world. I see you mentioned being from the Butler area. I’m (unfortunately) a native of Ellwood City, myself.

  11. Will says:

    Phoenix sits in a massive basin where the Salt River finally escapes the mountains and converges with the Gila River. To the north and east are uninterrupted mountains all the way to the Rockies and Colorado Plateau. South and west of here it’s basically flat nothing (with the occasional isolated mountain range) all the way to the Colorado River and the Gulf of California. I love the variation, but being in a basin means dealing with really dirty air in the winter when we get inversion layer effects. The summers can be pretty intimidating to out-of-staters, but one summer is usually all it takes to adapt. The other nice aspect is no real natural disasters to speak of. Funnel clouds rarely touch down, and should a hurricane make an early turn up the Gulf of California, it’s promptly boiled off by the dry summer heat.

  12. Jaquandor says:

    We honeymooned in Boston, Cape Cod, and then drove through New Hampshire and Vermont on our way home. I recall reading in a travel book that a lot of New England towns simply paved the original streets that existed when the towns were settled as farm communities, way back in the 1700s and in some cases earlier. This was a big reason every single travel book advised visitors to stay in a suburb and ride the train into Boston, which we did.

    Buffalo, by the way, is at the bottom of a basin on the shores of Lake Erie, but there are distant hills from which one can see the city in its entirety.

  13. beckyzoole says:

    I love living in Missouri, where there are trees and hills. The humidity in St. Louis is terrible, it’s the worst place in the country for air-borne allergens, and we keep getting stuck with governors like John Ashcroft. But other than that, St. Louis is a pretty good place to live.

  14. OldManRick says:

    Coming from the Los Angeles area with Mt Baldy (10,064), Mt San Gorgonio (11,502), and San Jacinto Peak (10,834) in the backgound, I found the horizon in Boston very depressing. It’s strange how one becomes used to a certain concept of the horizon when going up. When driving, I always had a feeling for where I was based on my view of the mountains. In Boston I always felt vaguely lost. I finally settled on the Prudential Center as my only landmark.

  15. I could spend a couple of thousand words talking about the roads and drivers in Boston. (Well, being me, I could spend a couple thousand words on pretty much anything, but…)

    Most of the main streets in downtown Boston were laid out by cows. I’m speaking literally; they were originally cowtracks that were used by local farmers who drove their herds to the Commons to graze. The “Boston Commons”, now a park, was originally a shared pasture.

    That’s why so many of the streets are radials going away from the Commons, in pretty much all directions.

    Here in Portland, essentially the whole city was laid out after 1870, and most of it after about 1910, so it’s all a big grid of rectangles where terrain permits, except for Sandy Blvd, which I can’t explain.

  16. Mitch H. says:

    Hah. I grew up in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. From our perspective, the Butler area *is* flat as a pancake – it’s all morraine country up there, and you don’t get as many of the sharp, winding canyons & hilltop neighborhoods as you do in Pittsburgh proper & the rest of Allegheny County. Butler is all long, open valleys divided by well-behaved, straight-forward ridgelines.

    And yes, I do get lost in flatland country occasionally, although more often in Ohio grid-land where every block extends out to infinity than in areas like Boston’s cowpath habitrails. I think it’s because when your natural inclination is to keep going until your road merges with the road over thataway, & backtrack, you get in serious trouble if they’re literally parallel rather than Pennsylvania parallel. (We used to say of State College, PA that it was the town where all parallel lines eventually converge. This is a dangerous maxim in one of the gridded states like Ohio or Indiana.)

  17. Tom Zunder says:

    I grew up in Hull, UK. It’s a port on the East Coast, on the glacial plain that is East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. It’s flat. Very flat. Lost of pigs and next to the North Sea and opposite the Great North European Plain so the wind howled from the Ural Mountains to our secondary school. I know what you mean about flat, you can’t actually see anything so all you see is sky, endless bloody sky. I live in a hilly place now and I am much happier.

  18. Telas says:

    My brother and I lived in Durango, Colorado for a few years. It’s between the high desert and the mountains, with 300 days of sun a year. At one point, we drove back to Louisiana, where we grew up. There was a serious geographic disconnect on a number of levels. First, there’s no horizon, because of all the trees. Second, everything’s green. It was almost disorienting for the first few days of the trip.

  19. Crusader Corim says:

    I live on the Colorado Front Range, and it’s interesting. I see the Rocky Mountains to the west, and the broad Eastern Plain, so I get both the massive distance to the horizon, and the mountains breaking up the monotony.

    Sort of like Durango, but a little bit more varied weather.

    I will admit that the East Coast, etc. with all their trees is really wierd for me.

  20. The Pancakes says:

    I moved to Dallas from Seattle (born and raised!) and I was lost for the 28 months I lived there for the same reasons you describe in Boston. It’s stupid-flat and devoid of handy landmarks like mountains or hills or reasonably tall trees. I had to get a dashboard compass and a Rand-McNally book so I wouldn’t end up in Louisiana or Oklahoma.

  21. phadraigin says:

    wow, why are so many ‘burgh people here? weird.

    i know exactly what you are talking about, though. i think it has to do with where you live when you first learn to drive…

    i’m from maybe 12 miles south of PGH, did undergrad at UPJ, and then grad at Pitt, lived mostly in the People’s Republic of the East End of Pittsburgh then (as i do again now.)

    if i don’t have hills, hollows, rivers, bridges, tunnels, and so on, i’m screwed.

    i lived in Wisconsin for two years, and Georgia for three, after grad school, before coming back here, got lost ALL the time. i once spent something like three hours in a car with two other PA natives being lost in Ohio, looking for the hotel we had already checked into. and we had maps!

    flatland is scary! i need LAND MARKS, dammit!

  22. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    About a week ago I had the pleasure of flying from Edmonton to St Louis, with a connector in Denver. It was the first time I had flown in nearly 20 years, so I was interested in checking out the views as we took off and descended. Denver nearly gave me an aneurism. I had been napping, so when I looked out of my window I saw low-rising mountains, lush with trees and tracks which may have been put their specifically to ski upon. This is commensurate with the expectations of Colorado I have been given by the American film media. Suddenly, however, those snowy mountains disappeared and we were descending over…one can only describe it as a giant dried up mud puddle. My ability to judge distance vanished. When the plane banked and I caught a view of downtown Denver (I think, it could have been LA for all I knew at that time) all I could think was that a) it seemed much further away than I thought it should be, and b) it seemed so small and lonely in the middle of all this nothing. This experience has left me with the uneasy feeling that the majority of Colorado is in fact nothing but bleak flatness. I have spent most of my life in the Canadian prairies (Edmonton for those aforementioned 20 years), but the view of Denver when flying in was enough to make me agoraphobic. Give me mountains and valeys any day.

  23. noahpocalypse says:

    East Tennessee (or rather, all of Tennessee) sounds very similar. It’s like living in the mountains, though I’m technically in the Tennessee Valley (Knoxville). Anything flat is man-made.

  24. MisteR says:

    Born and raised in The Hague, The Netherlands. I can say that for someone from the ultimate flatlands, hills, let alone mountains, pose a bit of a problem. For example, the time and effort it takes on a bicycle to go from A to B is about twice as much in hilly territory.

    In a flat place, even in a city with a cluttered horizon, you can trust that if you go in the general right direction, you’ll end up close enough. But when it gets hilly you might find that a mountain is standing between you and your destination, and you’ll have to take giant detours to get where you want to be. That’s when I lose my orientation and sense of direction.

    I now live in a slightly hillier place than the Hague and it turns out that I’m always five minutes late on my bicycle, and that I frequently get lost and end up going in the entirely wrong direction.

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