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The Heart of America - Your three- part guide to the most exciting destinations in the US

Even if you were brought up in Herts, I bet you have a pretty good working knowledge of the heart of America. In your mind you may have ridden a streetcar named Desire through New Orleans with Tennessee Williams, boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh with Paul Simon, driven down Route 66 with Chuck Berry - and in reality you may have seen more episodes of Dallas and ER than you care to admit.

The East and West coasts act as a kind of insulation, allowing the heartland of the US to develop in a quintessentially American manner (and, it must be said, to vote for an arch-conservative president). Happily, these are porous boundaries, which is why on the lands stretching out for hundreds of miles on each bank of the Mississippi you will find people who still count themselves as African, Scandinavian, Italian, Polish and Indian - often, in the case of the Midwest's amazingly cosmopolitan cities, in the same street.

Scenically, much of middle America is as flat as a pizza or a naan. You can see just how flat from the top of one of Chicago's skyscrapers, or - upside down at ridiculously high velocity - on the world's finest rollercoaster in Ohio. Climatically, too, much of the heartland seems unfit for human habitation; the Midwest, in particular, is implausibly cold in winter and absurdly hot and humid in summer - when you can also expect excitement in the shape of tornadoes straight out of The Wizard of Oz.

This is the America that gave the world symbols of global uniformity: McDonald's (as first franchised in Des Plaines, Illnois, 1955) and the Holiday Inn (opened Memphis, Tennessee, 1952). So why do I keep going back? Because the heart of the US is also where the skyscraper was invented and where Frank Lloyd Wright flourished; because in South Dakota, where a mountain (Rushmore) became the symbol of a new nation, Native Americans are at last reclaiming their heritage; and because, like most people, I travel to meet people. And the folks from Mississippi to Michigan are even better characters than you find on TV.

Simon Calder, Travel Editor, The Independent