Where is America?

From Main Street to Main Stream

I admit I am a history and geography junkie. I have been fascinated with the story of mankind and its interrelationship with our planet for as long as I can remember. I can spend hours poring over maps, tracing routes and noting how the topography of a landscape affected the way humans utilized the natural resources to their advantage. I can, and often do, spend hours in museums wondering at the creativity and sheer productivity of our ancestors, who relied on skill and painstaking ability to produce, rather than technology.

When looking at the intricate beadwork on a Native American moccasin, I can easily imagine a woman sitting for weeks on end, skillfully sewing each bead into a beautiful star pattern. I imagine the work she had to do to make the bone needle and the process of creating the leather for the moccasin before she ever sat down to sew. When viewing through a glass panel in the San Antonio Museum of Art, a pair of gold earrings belonging to an Egyptian woman who lived 5700 years ago, I nearly get chills picturing her placing them on her bedside table after returning from a lavish banquet. They couldn’t possibly have known that something so small would last to be part of a museum display enlightening humans hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years later.

My fascination doesn’t begin and end with the ancient or foreign, however. I can register equal interest at a museum detailing the rise and fall of the logging industry in southern Oregon or an Old West Museum in Tombstone, Arizona proudly displaying gunshot holes in the wall from a shoot out 150 years ago. Standing over Ethan Allen’s grave in Burlington, Vermont after reading the heroic tales of the Green Mountain Men was a profound experience for me. These efforts to preserve a part of American history are just as exciting and important to our national fabric as any other.

I grew up in Montana. I’ve traveled a great deal, but the world is big and keeps getting bigger. I have an insatiable desire to see and learn more about all cultures of the world. However my husband and I set aside this year, this one year, to hit the road in an RV with our three kids and really, I mean really, get to see, feel and understand America: where she has been, where she is going and what (and who) she is made of.

I may have to admit ahead of time that I had some pretty high expectations for this trip. Maybe they were just expectations spring-loaded with stories of the great American landscape I had grown up with. As a kid, when we would take road trips, my dad would constantly embellish the landscape around us with historical tidbits and stories about the places outside our windows. At the time, I thought being required to memorize the school mascot of every town we drove through was ridiculous, and usually performed a dramatic eye roll for many of Dad’s narratives on settlers, miners, farmers and homesteaders. Despite that, most of Dad’s stories have stuck with me to this day and I still cannot drive through the pass outside of Bozeman, Montana without recalling the story of Jim Bridger and his barefoot escape from the Crow Indian tribe who had captured him.

So with expectations riding high and gas prices low, we set off four months ago on our big “Find America” trip. We ate pasta in Portland and collected shells on the beach in Astoria. We breathed deep in the Redwoods and inhaled ramen in Little Tokyo in L.A. We crossed the Golden Gate bridge twice and remembered the Alamo in San Antonio. Where are we now? To be exact, half way through our trip, riding high on I-10 en route from San Antonio to New Orleans, but to be honest, we could be anywhere. What’s that supposed to mean, you might say?

I would tell you that if I were in Medford, Oregon it would look exactly the same as if I were in Selma, Texas. Sure, the flora and fauna changed a bit, but the view out my window is essentially the same. We have rolled through, literally, thousands of towns, both big and small, by this point. I have seen the same cookie-cutter, box store, strip mall shopping centers in each one. We must have passed a thousand Targets, Wal-Marts, Home Depots, Subways, Olive Gardens and Krispy Kreme’s by now, leaving each of us with a constant feeling of deja vu. The “sameness” of each day’s landscape is astounding to me. The housing divisions and suburbs look the same… same manicured lawns, same Honda CR-V parked in the driveway. The people even look the same as we all buy jeans and tees from the same stores!

Even more disturbing to this small town girl, are the Main Streets of each of these towns. Stately, stone buildings, once teeming with the entrepreneurial spirit of post-war America are now empty, defunct of purpose. Dusty windows showing years of neglect sag under signs that once advertised the location of “Harper’s Family Hardware, est. 1915” or “Durham Drug Company” or “Royal’s Clothing Store”.

Now, I’m not a complete Luddite. I fully acknowledge the amazing convenience of getting your groceries and cleaning supplies from the same place and then being able to grab your latte at the Starbucks, conveniently located by the door, on your way out. I know what to expect on the menu at every location of Applebee’s and can receive the same crappy service at every Verizon Wireless location nationwide. But I can’t help feel that something is being lost, something vitally important to our national identity, when most every town in America begins to feel the same due to a repetitive infrastructure built on an edifice of convenience.

One of my favorite parts of living in Italy, and this may sound strange, was the lack of convenience. I had to buy meat from the butcher and veggies from the veggie stand and bread from the bakery below my apartment. I shopped at the market in the piazza for fresh pasta and cheese and took a few minutes to sip an espresso at the cafe on my way home. It took longer, sure, but the meat was cut by an expert and the bread baked by someone who had been doing it for 30 years. The veggies were fresh and the farmer could wax poetic about tomatoes for ten minutes while you browsed his stand.

I surely want to give credit where credit is due. There are some amazing transformations and regrowths happening on Main Streets all over America. The desire to have a skill, whether it be growing vegetables or resoling shoes, and then sharing it in a more personal way, through a small business for example, is spreading its roots everywhere. But so are the big box stores and the mega-shopping centers and outlets of convenience.

Let me be clear, here. We have seen some amazing things on this trip so far, some due to the unbridled creativity of Mother Nature and some to the ingenuity of man. The Redwoods were breathtaking and the Golden Gate Bridge, shrouded in fog, is amazing to behold. Watching seals catch fish where the Columbia River meets the ocean was an unforgettable experience and the Alamo… well, less exciting. Why is the Alamo so famous, again?

The “must-see” American landmarks and the destinations touted in travel magazines ARE fantastic sights and are worth spending the time to travel to. But for me, what I wanted to discover on this trip, was the America in between the landmarks. That was where I felt I could really get a sense of who we are and where we are going. We do catch glimpses of the real America now and then, most days really, but they are being pushed to the fringes and I feel are harder and harder to find.

Maybe this is where my sense of nostalgia meets my obsession with the story of mankind. The Native American woman beading moccasins couldn’t possibly have known that her handiwork would outlast her, that it would be a point of inspiration for a small town Montana girl hundreds of years later. I keep wondering what it will be that we, as 21st century Americans, will leave behind, what we will choose to create as a lasting contribution to mankind. Will it be these buildings and parking lots? Or will it be something else? Something better? Something we can be proud of when generations look upon our legacy through museum glass many years from now?

I encourage you to get out to the fringes. Go see the landmarks and the museums. Eat at the small, independent pizza places. Buy your hammer and nails at the family hardware store. Get your boots re-soled instead of buying new ones. Travel! Create! Learn! It might take you longer, but you might get to discover the real America on the way.