In search of America

An online acquaintance just finished a trip around America in a small airplane he built himself, stopping at towns in the middle of nowhere in search, he said, of America.

His online travelogue featured the usual portrayals of small town life: fire trucks, parades, American flags and Main Streets. Also a heaping helping of his particular religion.

He found the America he wanted to find by the way he defined America and, to be honest, I found myself thinking, “well, that’s cliche.”

I’m a “where does this road go?” kind of guy, a fact that drove my kids crazy back in the day when they were given no choice but to learn where roads lead.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in New Lisbon, Wisc., at a fly-in at the local airport featuring hot rods, fire trucks, airplanes and these.


And I found myself thinking, “Well, ain’t that America?”

Same thing I thought a few years ago when I visited the harvest in St. Charles.

And I thought the same thing today as I read Kurt Ullrich’s fine op-ed piece, “Friday night lights: It’s who we are, who we want to be,” which celebrates high school football, a cliche for sure.

The American-ness of the whole thing is breathtaking if one pays attention; just ask Willy Loman’s wife who knew a bit about such notions, about paying attention to things often overlooked as inconsequential, mundane, someone else’s happiness. This is important and don’t forget it.

Poems and love stories spring from this stuff, these nights, perhaps from a sweet-breathed, blonde clarinet player in the band who adores a halfback on the bench, or from a middle-school knucklehead punching his buddies, unable to sort out his feelings about anything at all.

The aroma of Autumn drifts across the field by the end of the third quarter, all pumpkin-spiced, apple-fresh and short-days decay, and sweaters are pulled a little tighter on the shoulders and for a brief time a whole bunch of folks are on the same side, cheering, hoping, wishing it would never end because one day it will.

And if this doesn’t interest you then stay home, feel superior, but my friend you’re missing out, you’re really missing out.

These collective definitions — football, tractors, fire trucks — drive our entire national dialogue. They are behind everything. They are, of course, not America. They are a piece of America.

Which brings us to the Friday discussion.

When you go looking for America, where do you look?

  • John

    That’s a head scratcher. . . Can I write about what I used to think, and then what I think now? Sure I can. It’s a comment section.

    Used to think: Growing up in a rural area, I thought of what made America largely in the cliched terms of rural life (some of which are covered above): the local city festival, high school sports, tractors, “trucks ‘n guns,” Jesus, etc.

    Today think: Those are all accurate things to describe some of the idea that is America, but insufficient to fully encompass it. Today I also think of the Mid-town market on Lake street. I think of the park down the hill from my house where I sometimes see people playing lacrosse, football, soccer, cricket, baseball, juggling, flying model airplanes, Pokemon hunting, yoga happening, cycling, running, kites, rocket launches, etc.

    I think of National Parks (visited Mt. St. Helens this summer), state parks (Cascade River is spectacular), city parks (Minnehaha Falls). I think of restaurants encompassing food from everywhere. I think of international grocery stores. Pho, Ramen, cheeseburgers, sushi, pad thai, fried chicken, donuts, burritos, and barbecue.

    I think of violent protests. I think of peaceful protests. I think of oppression. I think of the death penalty. Abortion. The only country that has ever used nuclear weapons.

    All of this and so much more.

  • Gary F

    Just about anywhere.

    Seeing all the great attendees and volunteers at one of the best church celebrations in the state last week at the Nativity County Fair in the Mac Groveland neighborhood of St Paul.

    Drinking with the locals at the Marvin Bar, in Marvin South Dakota, population 30, discussing everything from Remington over Mossberg, to Benelli or Beretta, to Trump versus Hillary, from craft beer over Coors Light, to brats or a good skin on hot dog.

    This summer I went to Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, I still remember the hostess at the restaurant who needed three syllables to say the word “Bar”.

    Just driving across the Ford bridge from St Paul to Minneapolis, and seeing all the families of all different races, religions and economic status having family gatherings.

    It’s where you want to find it.

    • Clearly you weren’t in Bah Hahbah.

      • Gary F

        The woman said “Do you want a table outside or at the “Ba-ah-er”? I chose a table outside, because I had no idea what the other option was.

        • Your risk averse lack of curiosity is astounding. :*)

          • Gary F

            I was just making a joke. McDonalds was selling Crab Rolls. I had one, and at a nicer joint in town too. I loved the guy in Portland say the word “herring” as “haahhrine” . I love accents from all over the nation, thats what makes it great.

          • Gary F

            Another place to find America.


          • // I was just making a joke.

            Heh. So was I.

    • rallysocks

      Nice shout out to Marvin 🙂 I’m fairly close to there…been a few times. Neat town.

      • Gary F

        I’ve been hunting out there and know people involved at the Abbey.

        • rallysocks

          Get out! Me too!

  • kat

    Today I am thinking about the BWCA- the last day for Dave and Amy Freeman. I love
    America’s shared outdoor spaces- dedicated and preserved in a uniquely American way. People who volunteer or make a career out of maintaining safe and clean parks and wilderness are America to me.

  • Tim

    I think of people, which means I think of cities and urban areas, because that’s where most of the nation’s population lives:

    Los Angeles County and Cook County, for example, make up almost 5% of the nation’s population by themselves. Add in Harris (Houston), Maricopa (Phoenix), San Diego, and Orange (which is part of the LA area), and you’ve got about 10%.

    • Gary F

      They also are a piece of America, that’s what makes it so great. But living most of my life living near tall buildings now makes me want to get away from tall buildings.

  • Gary F

    Those are some good lookin’ tractors. Being a city boy, I sure do want one but have no use for it or place to store it. You can’t drive it to Walgreens.

    • MrE85

      Those are Harvester Farmalls, the tractor favored by my late father-in-law. My late Uncle Albert was a foreman at the foundry where they poured the engine blocks. Both it and my Uncle Albert are long gone now.

      • Gary F

        If I were to buy one, I’d buy a John Deere 2020 like my grandpa had in Iowa or a Minneapolis Moline, I love the blocky look of the MM and its odd yellow color.

        • Rob

          And if you put headers and flame decals on it, you’d have the complete package.

      • I hear they had a tendency to flip over.

        • Gary F

          Those in the picture had the wide front wheels. The narrow front wheeled models were the problem. Bob, no post this fall of the big tractor parade in southern MN?

    • Jerry

      I don’t see why not. It’s just a four wheeled motorcycle.

      • Gary F

        Tell my wife and the StPaul police that when I pull into Walgreens on my John Deere.

  • guest

    Of course it is about remembered or written-about or iconic memories. Think Mom and apple-pie and fire-works but of course many do NOT have those direct memories.

    What could NOT be America????

    The best and also the worst and also the smallest aspect are part of us even if not referenced as icons or common.

    If the question is what would we WANT to represent us……..that is a whole other question.

  • Ben Chorn

    I usually find it when I am not looking.

    A 20-something white man showing a young black kid games on his phone while they ride the subway into town (complete strangers).

    A white suburban middle aged woman taking pictures of her Starbucks coffee with her phone.

    A woman dropping items on a train and the three closest people bending down to help.

    A young white woman offering up her seat to an old black man on the subway.

    Friendly people on Facebook offering advice to those asking for it, even though the person is a complete stranger.

    Two Indian men discussing last night’s football game on their way to work.

    I don’t go “looking” for America because America is everywhere- you just have to keep your eyes open.

  • MikeB

    What these comments have in common, and the answer to who we are, is that it it the everyday interaction between people, known to them or not, going about their lives every day. And, it’s face to face communication – much of it unplanned. It gives us a lift in our spirit, the feel good endorphins that makes life enjoyable.

  • Anna

    When I go looking for America, I look for it in the faces of my neighbors and co-workers. I also look for it in the faces of the children I teach.

    I listen for it in the conversations with my friends and family along with my work acquaintances.

    These days, I can’t find it as easily in my usual news sources which includes MPR because they have the same headlines as the major network news.

    When I go online, I pass up the news of the day because there is too much “bleeding” and anger in the headlines. I scroll down to the Lifestyle, Health, Travel, and Food sections. I put on Netflix and watch uplifting stories and documentaries or romantic movies and comedies.

    When I’m out and about, I focus on the changing colors and the nip in the air that signals the change of seasons from summer to fall. I smile at the people I meet at the grocery store and give them a friendly “Hello!”

    In the last six months, I find I’m not getting a friendly response very often. What I do see is a lot of anxious faces and people in a hurry. There is a general reluctance to engage.

    America is on edge and I can only ignore it for a short while and then it grabs my attention again like a crying baby or a ringing phone. I need to respond but I don’t know how or what.

    It seems America has lost its united voice and desperately needs to find it again.

  • Susan WB

    Pretty sure I found America last week at the rummage sale fundraiser for my son’s elementary school PTO. If that doesn’t say “America,” not sure what does.

    Also, on a road trip vacation this summer along the Colorado-Utah border, we had amazing locally made beer and really great steaks at a steakhouse in a Best Western hotel. Definitely America.

    If I want to go find America, it’s in non-chain restaurants and cafes that I go looking. You can really get to know a people by eating with them.

  • Rob

    Warning: Corny and cliched post here – I’m also one of those “where does that road go?” types, and there’s no better way to find out where than on a motorcycle. The road might run along a trout stream, or in a valley so canopied by trees that the summer sun never fully penetrates. It might be a narrow twisty road with a blind curve – with a construction crew on the other side. It might run through a small, bucolic town that still has some cool buildings that date back to the mid-1800s. Or maybe it passes a tiny, tidy cemetery whose inhabitants are mostly from decades ago, underlining the demographic reality of rural de-population. Maybe it goes through a hamlet with a 1940s-era, one-pump gas station, where the guy running the place, who looks like he could be the original owner, is more than happy to tell a motorcycle rider where he could find some cool area roads to ride on.

  • rallysocks

    You all are so eloquent…

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I’ll admit that I don’t go looking all that often. But if I had to pick a favorite place to do it that would be on an Amtrak long haul passenger train. Lately that’s been limited to the trains between here and Chicago and Chicago and New York when I go to visit family. Some day I’ll take the trip in the other direction and travel J. J. Hills Great Northern Route to the Pacific Northwest and maybe down the cost and visit my sister in L.A.

    On the route from Chicago to NY you get to travel what feels like the back alleys of the rust belt. But each trip is different because you meet different people each with their own story. If you’re travelling in a party of less than 4 and you chose to eat in the dining car you experience what Amtrak calls “community seating”. They will fill tables with multiple parties if needed. You are in a way “forced” to meet someone you don’t know. In general the conversations are somewhat formulaic, “Where are you headed?”, “Where are you from?”, “Do you take the train often?” or “Why did you chose to take the train?”. Sometimes you find a common connection and the discussion veers off into more interesting directions. On my last trip I met two older women who got on in Cleveland headed for Buffalo. If I remember they had just come from the funeral of one relative and were headed to visit another who was in the hospital in Buffalo. They would then go on to NYC and get the last leg of the trip down to Georgia which is home.

  • Will

    I have fond memories of playing in those Friday night games about a couple decades ago…now on Friday nights I tend to walk my dog a bit later in the evening towards the nearby football field. I won’t actually go into the fenced in area but I will linger on the other side of the chain link fence, just to glimpse a few minutes of the game before my dog drags me off back hoome.

  • Mike Worcester

    When people tell me they want to go exploring, my first piece of advice is to stay off the Interstate. Why? Ask Charles Kurault.

  • Khatti

    I’m a little too close to the tractors and combines life to be nostalgic about it, it’s sort of like being nostalgic about your lawn mower. I would ask all of you to remember that those farmers you see sitting out there will not make enough on this year’s crop to pay their expenses, and with the rain we’ve had the crop is not going to come out of the fields easily.

    Five or six years ago I bartended an event for a friend. He was doing car shows in the parking lot of his bar every Monday. Cars don’t interest me in that way. I just have no interest in putting in the time and the work to turn an aging gas-burner into a piece of art–yet I liked the fact that there are people out there who do. Perhaps that’s were I find America; in the mediums we use for our self-expression.

    • I read a lot of stories about farmers not paying expenses and the cost to their P/L because of low commodity prices. The one thing I NEVER read in those stories, though, is actual numbers. I’d love to see a profile of a farmer who opens the books so that we can get a decent picture of the finances and economics of farming.

      • Khatti

        Well my days in it are long gone so I wouldn’t be of much help. I would assume somewhere online you could find out the average cost of putting in an acre of corn, find out what the average yield is for that acre, then you can multiply the number of bushels with the price of corn and see where you end up.