A Great Quest in a Vast Country

Small-town Americans differ greatly from those portrayed by big-city political rhetoric. Above all, they’re insecure and full of doubt.

Cleveland, Ohio. Black youths linger under the “no loitering” sign. Most of them smoke cigarettes and hold beer cans. Many liquor stores, many pawn shops, a lot of possibilities to get an advance on payday. If there is a payday. Many churches. Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Presbyterian. It reminds me of slums in Africa. There, where the hope of a better life on this side is already extinguished and the hope of a better afterlife is especially great.

A night in one of the small motels along the main street costs between $35 and $38-–bargain prices for a major U.S. city. But guests have to be willing to put up with harsh treatment: The welcome signs at the desk read “Cash in Advance” and “No Loitering in the Lobby” and “Absolutely No Visitors.” As I leave, I say hello to a man standing near the entrance. He looks at me, perplexed, then quickly plucks up his courage: “Spare a quarter?”

Close to the Badlands in North Dakota, I overnight at a dude ranch. Most visitors come there to ride, others to hunt. “They’re all city folks,” Chris scornfully says. Chris and his wife, Elvira, have worked at the ranch for seven months, she as the cook, he as a handyman.

One of his duties is to transport bagged game back to the ranch and dress it out into nice parcels that the amateur hunters can carry home with them. We strike up a conversation at the ranch’s bar. Almost every man wears a broad-brimmed cowboy hat. The women cluster around their heroes and listen adoringly to the cock-and-bull stories as if they’re hearing them for the first time. Big-time theater.

Chris, Elvira and I grinned at one another a few times. There’s nothing that connects strangers more quickly than laughing at others. Chris finally asks what brought me to these parts. I can’t answer that candidly because if I’m doing an interview the mutual understanding I enjoy so much is destroyed. Mutual understanding in unfamiliar surroundings is a rare and valuable opportunity. Instead of that, an interview creates a conversational hierarchy. The self-imposed rule that I always stick to in every similar situation throughout my travels is “no last names.”

I finally just say I’m on a three-month trip across the United States and both of them accept that without further question. The bottom line is, they’ve been doing the same thing all their lives except they do it in a 1970’s vintage mobile home, with four dogs and a bunch of birds, traveling wherever they choose.

Of course, they have no health insurance. That goes without saying because one sees it right away. Elvira has only a few front teeth left. Both drink too much. One sees that right away, too. What one also sees and senses: how satisfied and happy both of them are. After ten years of marriage they still treat each other with tenderness and consideration. We quickly agree that Minnesota is somehow silly despite their telling me, “You’ve got to go up north!” We don’t need to talk about Montana because we already know it’s wonderful. California? Well, if you absolutely have to go, go to the northern part. The rest is unbearable.

We indulge ourselves in beautiful memories and anticipate the coming, wonderful experiences. Chris and Elvira can hardly believe I’m leaving tomorrow – tomorrow, already! They would also like to travel on, but they’ve got more sense than that, so they’ll spend the winter at the dude ranch. “But come next spring, when we’re feeling our oats, then we’ll pack our trailer and take off,” Elvira says. With all four dogs. And the birds. Anyone in my situation has to take care to avoid falling victim to the lure of the romantic open road. But one also has to be careful not to put one’s own definition on the term happiness.

31-year old Justine Murray in Sandpoint, Idaho, can resurrect one’s faith in the American dream.

As a single mom with little education, she hasn’t had an easy time raising her 13-year old son and 11-year old daughter. She came from the small town of Dixon, Illinois and has had many jobs. She has worked in a homeless shelter, as a gardener and as a salesperson in a tea shop. “I’ve been so poor that I hardly had enough money for food. I once earned $9,000 for the entire year and had the feeling I should just give up,” she said.

But she didn’t give up. It’s hard to imagine this energetic, fun-loving woman with the infectious loud laugh could ever have been at the point of surrender. “Yes, I don’t know why but one day it just suddenly clicked with me: the most important thing is to believe in yourself. And I’ve believed in myself ever since,” she nods. She moved to Sandpoint because she wanted her kids to attend a Waldorf school and Sandpoint had one that was affordable. It was still too expensive for Justine, but she caught a lucky break: the manager of the hotel where she worked gave her, as she says, “a chance.”

She’s worked as the hotel cook for two years now and says, “My financial condition has improved so much it’s hard to believe.” She recently was able to afford a few days vacation on the Oregon coast. She now earns $20,000 a year. That’s still about one-third less than the average income in Idaho, but it’s enough for her family. “I’m a long way from running out of possibilities,” she says. “There’s a lot I can do.” She just recently accepted an offer to cater parties and I’m convinced her customers will be delighted. The homemade sushi she served me that evening was magnificent. Her daughter, Cora, came in and asked her mother for money to buy a birthday present for one of her friends. Justine gave her five dollars. “It’s nice that something like that isn’t a problem any more,” she says. “You know, I have a feeling I proved something to myself and I made it.” Yes, she’s proud of herself.

In Louisiana, I visit another church service, this time a Baptist congregation in the small town of Jennings. For the first time I realize that my choice of churches, which is completely arbitrary, has always landed me in an all-white congregation. Could be that blacks and whites work together, go to school together and even marry one another, but apparently they don’t pray together. A few weeks later in Georgia, I seek out a church in a black neighborhood. But I feel like an intruder, a religious tourist. I leave the service and a woman greeting visitors at the door nods approvingly and with understanding. When she asks why I’m leaving I tell her I don’t want to disturb anyone. She doesn’t try to stop me.

Less than six months later, the question of what’s happening in black churches becomes a major issue in the primary election, and the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, finds it necessary to distance himself from his pastor who ostensibly holds radical views. The pastor of the little church in Jennings, Louisiana, doesn’t have any presidential candidates in his congregation. He’s lucky.

A sermon delivered by Jerry Masters is one of the most vicious I have ever heard in my life. It’s delivered in gentle, compassionate tones, but the message can’t be misunderstood. People who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as their savior will roast in Hell forever, separated from God for all eternity. They’re damned. According to Jerry Masters, there are actually people who think all religions are basically the same, seek the same things and have the same goals. “That’s a lie,” says Masters. Not, perhaps, a mistake or just wrong, but an outright lie. An evil act done on purpose. I try to imagine what would happen in Germany or the United States if a Muslim cleric publicly declared that all Christians and Jews were damned to Hell and that it was a lie that they also sought God.

How well do I think I know the Americans after traveling among them in their country for three months? The longer I traveled, the more questions I had. But I experienced one thing for certain: people in small villages towns in the United States don’t feel they’re a world power. On the contrary, they fear globalization and the decline of the middle class. They fear social decadence. Many feel the best years for the United States are already behind them and that countries like China and India are looking forward to theirs. They know exactly how unpopular the United States is in large parts of the world and they would like to reverse that development.

If I had to sum up the prevailing feeling in the U.S. using one word, I wouldn’t have to think for very long: insecurity.

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