Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), by Maggie Koerth-Baker.
Most people reading this would probably find Merriam, Kansas, very familiar. Not because they've been there, but because it's a lot like home.
Merriam is usually described as a suburb of Kansas City, Kans.—a small town that grew into a residential center for people who worked in the much larger city nearby. Yet the mental images that go with the word suburb don't really fit Merriam all that well. When I think suburb, I imagine something like Levittown, treeless insta-villages where rows of identical houses dot gleaming new cul-de-sacs recently carved out of some farmer's field. The greater Kansas City area certainly has its share of developments that would fit that description, but Merriam isn't one of them.
In fact, when I was a kid, I didn't even know Merriam existed at all. I thought it was Kansas City. Specifically, I thought it was where Kansas City began, the distinct point where you exit the Interstate and find yourself in the big city. This particular misconception has more to do with my family's regular travel plans than anything else—Merriam's main drag happens to be the same road that leads to the art museum my dad and I went to a lot and to the Christmas light displays I visited every winter with my mom. It also speaks volumes about what Merriam actually looks like, though, and it's tied to some important trends in the way most Americans live today.