The RV park buzzes with sprightly grey nomads disembarking their gargantuan ‘recreational vehicles’, all headed for the Casino Queen. The sheer volume of food on the groaning tables of the $6 all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet explains the girth of those consuming it. A few stone heavier, patrons will then amble comfortably along the carpeted corridor to board the casino floating on the Mississippi in long-established exploitation of the gambling law loophole. Leisure-suited bodies slump glassy-eyed before the machines, ‘feeding the slots’. It’s a vision of hell.

The fascination held by this particular part of St Louis, Missouri may be morbid at best but it’s one I wouldn’t miss. To get under the skin of a country is to see its ugly underbelly along with its more radiant face – a place like the Casino Queen is as much part of this country’s identity as the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon, it just isn’t (anywhere near) as pretty.

This is the Midwest. It’s the large, flat expanse that most people fly straight over the top of. Even driving right through the middle, you’ll be encouraged not to stop for most of it. Later in our journey, a friendly policewoman in Kansas City advises us to get a few beers here in KC, then head straight out – nothin’ to see in Kansas but wavin’ wheat”.

When the cops are advising you to drink and drive in preparation for a journey, you know something’s up. (Or in the case of Kansas, nothing’s up – or down. Scientifically proven to be flatter than an actual pancake and with only the occasional tornado to liven things up, it’s little wonder Dorothy dreamed of being somewhere over that rainbow.)

So why bother? Because this is America’s heartland. Geographically speaking, the definition is loose – originally bounded by the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, the Midwest is generally now taken to include the states from the Ohio River across the Great Plains to the Rockies. Still at the heart of this vast region are the Northwest Ordinance states and the principle on which they were created: pioneer spirit, freedom from slavery and religious discrimination and education for all.

Agriculture and industry have thrived here- as has rock ‘n’ roll. Hero of these homogenous towns and cities is the blue- collar everyman of Springsteen songs, shooting the breeze about the ballgame in his local bar. Google ‘Midwestern cuisine’ and you’ll come across dishes like beer cheese soup and something called ‘scrapple’. The OC it ain’t.

Though it’s trying for Sex And The City. Bar-propping at one of St Louis’ funkier establishments later that evening in an attempt to drown out the horror of a morning at the Casino Queen, we meet the effusively friendly Stephen Ott, an “IT geek” out for a post-work drink with a few buddies. Originally from Freiburg, Illinois, Steven explains his take on the duality of the Midwest psyche. “I work in the city,” he says. “I can dress up in my Diesel jeans and my Kenneth Cole shirt and go to a club. But if I want to, I can get away from the sushi and and the cocktails and party Hoosier-style too.”

Depending on how it’s said and who’s saying it, ‘hoosier’ can be a term of abuse (akin to redneck or white trash), but in some places – Indiana, the ‘Hoosier State’, or inside Stephen’s head – it’s a source of pride. What does partying Hoosier-style involve?

“We go out in the ATVs, drive around, get a little muddy … then we come back, drink some beers, shoot some guns, fry some fish …” When asked what the womenfolk are doing during these moments of male bonding, though, Stephen is a little less certain.

“I don’t know,” he says with a grin and a shrug. “They’re probably having some kind of candle party, cooking stuff, drinking their fruity drinks. Then they come and pick our drunk asses up.” Simple pleasures, clearly.

Stephen buys us a beer and we shoot the breeze. A Geordie and a South African come all the way from London, we’re quite the exotics here, and our ebullient St Louis hosts are keen to hear all about us, and extol the virtues of toasted ravioli (a local speciality). Amid all this good humour, the slot machine nightmare fades and we’re once again astounded at just how friendly the locals can be in this big ol’ country.

In the space of a day we’ve seen the best and the worst of America’s soul. The next morning we skip the breakfast buffet and leave the shining St Louis arch behind us. The waving wheat awaits. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what the Midwest’s all about, let alone got under its skin – but at least we’re trying.”