I used to really hate Columbus, Ohio. When driving from Philadelphia to my college out in Indiana, it was the last major obstacle on a trip that lasted between 11 and 12 hours.
After weaving my way through the terribly maintained Pennsylvania Turnpike and then rumbling along the pothole-filled Pennsylvania section of I-70, the rolling hills of Eastern Ohio provided a welcome respite of clear, easy driving. I made excellent time and had minimal close calls with trucks or reckless drivers until I hit Columbus. Everything was always terrible in Columbus. At certain points a series of merges and exits led to one traffic jam after another along I-70, and if I wanted to doge the center city traffic, I could take the longer 270 by-pass option that added time but minimized merging and traffic jams.
Either way, I always lost time around Columbus. If my drive ever extended longer than the twelve hours predicted by Map Quest, I could usually blame Columbus. I used to sneer at its skyline.
And who would ever want to live in such a city? Nothing about it made any sense to me. There were no mountains, no oceans, and no major lakes to speak of. Columbus was just a smattering of skyscrapers and traffic jams surrounded by suburbs and cornfields.
Columbus also marked the beginning of the really flat part of my drive. As much as I wanted to escape the East Coast for a season, I really missed the rolling hills and mountains outside of Philadelphia. They’re no great shakes compared to what you see in the Northeastern states like Vermont or New Hampshire, and they’re like speed bumps compared to the Rockies, but it can be jarring to leave something that has surrounded you for most of your life.
Columbus marked the point of no return before the unrelenting Midwestern FLAT that persists until Colorado. As much as I looked forward to college, I couldn’t help feeling a little sad once I hit Columbus. It marked the point where I definitely didn’t feel at home, the point where I didn’t belong.
Fast-forward about ten years from my college graduation and my last trip through Columbus as a resident of the Midwest…
My wife and I took a walk along a country lane in Connecticut outside of the town where we’d been living for the past year.
She was a student at a nearby university, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for her area of study. She had applied to a few schools, and the best opportunity had been offered by a school in Ohio—a school right in Columbus. While the details of the program sounded amazing, I couldn’t fight off the sense of dread. I would have to make Columbus my home for at least four years, maybe longer. I figured that I’d at least get cheap hockey tickets to see the Blue Jackets.
We jumped into our move with both feet, and have tried to find our place in this city that had been my enemy for so long. For the most part, it has worked.
After three years in Columbus, we’ve certainly missed the mountains, lakes, and oceans of the northeast, but we’ve also found a great church, fantastic friends, excellent activities for our kids, and some decent hiking outside the city. There is a great local food scene, even pizza that approaches the quality of NY style joints, and those cheap hockey tickets.
It’s strange to tell people that I’m “from” Columbus. I still think of myself as someone from the northeast. But there’s no denying that God has taken an unlikely place that I’d completely written off and caused life to blossom. If Columbus was my wilderness, God has tapped open a rock and sent streams of water flowing. I’m as close to thriving in this season of life as I’ve ever been.
I have no idea why a landlocked city in the Midwest with a puny river running through it got named “Columbus.” Why name a city after a European explorer? I have no clue. It’s as mysterious as our ongoing celebration of Columbus Day. It’s been well-documented that Columbus was murderous, cruel, and responsible for the deaths of thousands if not millions of native people.
It’s hard to find much of anything to celebrate from his legacy. So perhaps it’s our role to bring new stories to life that celebrate what’s actually worth remembering.
For my own Columbus Day celebration, I will remember who I was and I what I thought of this city. I didn’t see Columbus, Ohio as a place where I or anyone else could thrive. If I ever heard of someone living in Columbus, I always thought to myself, “WHY?”
Now, I get it. I have seen God bless us with friends, community, and a new life. It’s not the Promised Land per se, but it’s been a land full of new promises and hope. It’s been the scene of significant new life for me as I’ve confronted my anxiety issues and discovered a deeper experience of God’s love and mercy. I didn’t have to move to Columbus in order to make those steps, but I can see how key people and moments in Columbus have been a part of that process.
God has been guiding us through this season and changing us. Perhaps the smallest of these changes is my view of this city. God can bring blessings in the places we least expect them. God can take a poorly named, horrendously situated city and create no end of new life and opportunities.