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« Goodman Theatre Stages Chekhovian Love Letter in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Investigating the Investigators: A Murder in the Park Makes Chicago Premier »

Culture Sun Jul 05 2015

Heart of Americanness

By Tore Rasmussen Steien

I was headed for Nebraska. Now, there's a
sentence you don't want to have to say too often
if you can possibly help it.
—Bill Bryson

"Good to hear. I assume it will take us about 10 hours to get from Chicago to your bed and breakfast, so we'll see you around eight o'clock Saturday evening."

"That's great. Can you repeat your name?"

"Yes, Tore, T-O-R-E." (It's hard to pronounce the Norwegian "o" for English speakers since there is no similar sound in English. It's something like the "ooh" in "ooh la la.")

"OK, I'll probably just call you Honey."

And thus began our journey into the heart of America.

We had been living in Chicago since January. When spring break came, my wife had some time off. I had nothing but time, so we decided to go on a road trip — that hallowed American tradition. Florida, California and Cancun are places we might go on vacation from Norway. Nebraska isn't. So we decided to go west into the American prairie, a legendary place in the mind of every Norwegian born after the Second World War, and we chose Mount Rushmore in South Dakota as our main destination. After two months we had gotten truly fond of Chicago. Still, that Saturday we wouldn't have dreamed of what a relief it would be returning to the city by the lake.

On the road

I was advised to rent a car from O'Hare, and early on a Saturday morning we picked up a rental car outside the airport. On the road, we followed Interstate 88 and 80 through Illinois and Iowa. After a couple of months in Chicago it was good to get out in the open. When we stopped, I felt the air change. The dense air of the city was replaced by clear air that flowed easily down my lungs. We ate an unremarkable lunch somewhere close to Des Moines. My wife, who is a lover of gourmet food, was impressed by the quality of the food, considering it was a roadside diner in the outskirts of nowhere. That was the last time in a long while that she ate with a smile.

Driving hour after hour on the interstate through Illinois and Iowa we didn't see much, and we were happy to get onto smaller roads after crossing into Nebraska. The road lay higher, and we could see prairie and grassland flow into the horizon. For somebody born and raised in a mountain valley in Norway, where the longest stretch of uninterrupted view is about the length of Millennium Park, the flat vast expanses of Nebraska are overwhelming. The experience gives two distinctly paradoxical feelings. The emptiness can almost be frightening and induce agoraphobia — nothing changes, and you ask yourself, "Is this all there's going to be forever?" It can also be beautiful and calming — driving through the boundless landscape, listening to Wall of Voodoo's desert hallucinations in "Far Side of Crazy" and looking into eternity is a zenlike experience. You really feel that nirvana and eternal bliss are just around the next bend.

The essential reason for this calming sensation is the notable lack of said bends. In Norway, you blink — you drive off the road on a curve and hit a cliff wall. On the Nebraskan highways, and on most roads in the US interior, you can eat lunch, take a solid nap and flick through your Facebook updates before you need to touch the steering wheel. If you should have the unlikely misfortune of going off the road, it would still take a good while before you actually hit something.

Driving along the highway, we talked about America. Our goal was Mount Rushmore, followed by Devils Tower a couple of hours farther west in Wyoming. Of course, our real goal was something far more ambitious: experiencing the real America. And I got a well-deserved scolding presenting that objective to Chicago friends before we left. "What do you mean? It's no more real than Chicago." This is true. No part of the country is more real than any other. But Norwegians never think we have seen the real USA. In New York, Chicago and San Francisco it feels like Europe. In New Orleans it feels like Africa or South America. LA is another world altogether. The problem is that America is such a large and diverse country that Europeans have difficulty pigeonholing it. We can't understand how a country that elected Barack Obama and has the best universities in the world also has schools teaching creationism, and serious racial issues. But it is all America, and you have to see a lot of it to get a feel for it. You need Manhattan, you need LA, you need Deadhorse, Nebraska and you need a lot more, and we wanted to get a greater understanding of America.

To see as much as possible, we chose a route taking us through Nebraska on the way out and Minnesota on the way back. So at the end of our first day on the road, we were driving west along the border between Kansas and Nebraska. I considered taking a detour into Kansas and back. But my wife is illiterate when it comes to American popular culture. I would have gotten zero response when we crossed back into Nebraska and I would say, with childlike glee, "Dear, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," so we kept a straight line through Nebraska.

We drove into the West with the sun going down in front of us. Willie Nelson was singing "On the Road Again" again and again (my wife is really fond of that song) interspersed with "Free Bird," Janis telling us about herself and Bobby McGee, Christopher Cross riding like the wind and Norwegian Marion Ravn singing about "Driving." When passing a freight train that went on forever we realized we had left work and everyday life behind and were traveling through the thousands of American movies we grew up watching. We were riding with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper through the desert. At that divine moment, neither of us reflected over how Easy Rider ended or that one of the best known movies about Nebraska is the relatively true and definitely sad story about the treatment of transsexual Brandon Teena.

Smaller roads took us through tiny towns. I know there is large inequality of income in the US, but except for the urban ghettos and the remotest parts of the Appalachians, I hadn't expected so many signs of serious poverty as we saw. The Nebraskan small towns we drove through presented a grave image of America. Closed stores. Dilapidated buildings. Crumbling infrastructure. Battered cars. Small half-finished or half-collapsed houses (obviously for the better off; the worse-off had trailer parks). Every other yard overflowing with junk. Unhealthy looking people in frayed clothes. It's a kind of poverty I didn't really expect to see in the Western world. My wife has been working in one of the poorest countries in Africa, the Central African Republic, and as she pointed out, things are worse there, but at least the people look healthy.

The sun was almost down when we drove through a town with a population barely in the three digits. Downtown consisted of boarded-up storefronts. The only remaining commercial establishment was a soda machine. We passed several sagging small houses. At the edge of town, with a view into an endless field, a beautifully maintained three-story house sat in a neat yard. Stretching around the whole house was a porch perfectly crafted for enjoying a beer and dreaming of the good life in the country. In the doorway we were greeted by one of the B&B owners, a small woman in her early sixties dressing like Dolly Parton in her early twenties — the nicest, warmest woman I have ever talked to.

We were the only guests for the weekend, and she and her husband gave us a tour of the house. Every floor was filled to the ceiling with antiques. The B&B had only five rooms, all luxuriously large, painted in dark red, warm green and brown, and bursting with old furniture in mint condition. Large beds with thick wooden bedposts, Victorian dolls, soft recliners, old-fashioned toys, sturdy wood dressers and antique radios.

heart of america bandb
Heading down the stairs in the B&B. Photo by Tore Rasmussen Steien.

On the first floor they showed off a hall with walls painted pink and covered in mirrors, paintings of sunsets and plastic flowers, and a dining room covered in more plastic flowers and Christmas lights. It would've been extremely tasteless if it weren't for the singularity of the obsession and the apparent love and warmth of the whole house. I don't even have the heart to call it kitsch, we just fell in love.

We were too late for dinner, so the owner sent us to the next town. She recommended we visit the American Legion Club. After a short drive, we entered a restaurant full of locals and were greeted with big smiles from both the clientele and the staff. Small-town Norwegians don't really go to restaurants, so it was a pleasant surprise to see many locals out having a good time. There were families eating their Saturday supper, young people flirting and drinking, grey-haired high-spirited ladies with big colorful cocktails, and an older man, probably a widower, sitting alone with his enormous ribeye and exchanging words with all who passed by. An older woman from behind the bar led us to a table.

Our waiter was a blonde woman in her late thirties with a friendly smile. It took me awhile, but I think I learned to interpret the big grins of the shiny happy people of the rural Midwest. They are all smiles and helpfulness, and I sincerely think they mean it, also sincerely, but there is something in the smile and niceness that intimidates me. They can be overwhelmingly, almost aggressively nice, as if they are overcompensating. Even more unnerving is the feeling that I just have to say one wrong word, the smile disappears and the mood changes. This I learned the very first night from our beaming waiter. I wanted a beer, and I asked what beers they had.

"(Big smile) Which beer do ya want?" Implying that she could offer me any beer I would ever want in this world.

"Do you have any kind of ale?"

"(Smile gone, speaking fast and firm) Naah. We don't have that."

"Okaaay... What do you have?"

"Miller, Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Budweiser, Budweiser Light, Coors, Coors Light, 64s and 55s."

I never heard about the numbers beer before, so I nervously asked for a 64. The big smile was back, and she retreated to the kitchen shouting greetings to new arrivals and chatting by every table. Several times during the rest of the trip I had the same feeling. We meet somebody, and they are warm, interested, welcoming and generally really nice. But say one wrong word or sentence ("But I thought Obama is a Christian"), and everything changes. The people of the plains are the nicest people, but there often seems to be a pent-up anger behind the niceness.

Food arrived, with a smile. In print, the food had seemed tempting: steaks, fish, salad, green beans. I chose the fried chicken. My wife wanted fish, but she's not that fond of deep fried food. The waiter reassured her that the fish was just lightly breaded, so she went for the fish. And we decided to share some green beans. On the plate, the food was another story. The fish was lightly breaded in the same way bread is, and though I saw something green, I am not certain that there actually were green beans inside the small oblong lumps of grease and bread. It didn't really taste bad; it just didn't taste like anything except fatty bread.

And the beer? Everybody knows what Monty Python says about normal American beer. It's like making love in a canoe — fucking close to water. Regarding the Miller 64, the canoe even has some big holes in it and water is pouring in. Why do people who eat fat-soaked broccoli and chicken dough think it will help to drink low-calorie beer? That's like bringing a water pistol to a gun fight.

We drove back, and had a good night's sleep in what must be the most adorable bed and breakfast in the world.

The niceness! The horror!

In the morning we were greeted by the owners and served a large breakfast of hearty farm food — eggs, sausages, potatoes and tomatoes — heavy, but delicious. For dessert we got a danish the size of my head with a cup of icing poured over it. The couple were accommodating, interested and, with no other guests at the time and being of Danish heritage themselves, eager to speak to Norwegians. We had a pleasant conversation talking about Scandinavia and our experience of America, until we inquired about their life.

That question initiated a long explanation about how rural America is taxed to death, that people, especially in the cities, have no morals anymore, and how it has become worse than ever during the last seven years with the crazy communist in the White House. At one point they pointed out that the antiques that filled the house weren't just for the d├ęcor. It was a way to save money since the banks can't be trusted and the dollar is probably losing all value soon. Also, the neighbors, of another ethnic background, were millionaires; they just didn't bother to keep their house or yard in order.

We were dumbfounded. I know that political discussions in the US can be more polarized than in Norway, but such hatred and seemingly irrational assumptions about how the world works surprised me. I didn't get the feeling that those two were on the extreme fringe of political attitudes either. These attitudes seemed to be the consensus in their area. To be fair, it can be hard to say. I think the explanations for the rural problems are more complicated than that it is being taxed to death, but as a partial explanation it is probably debatable. That the President of the United States is clinically insane and a communist I find hard to believe.

We didn't want to be rude or start a discussion. We explained that being from Norway, we didn't really know the situation in America, and we asked some careful questions about how it had gotten this way. My wife did, to be accurate. She is excellent at talking to people, and she maneuvered the conversation perfectly between the controversial subjects by asking naive questions and giving diffuse answers. America's problems seemed to boil down to the lack of good Christians except for in the small towns of Middle America. After a while, the husband, who reportedly read a lot of history, started inquiring about Norwegian history and where Norwegians originated from. We explained about the prevailing historical and archeological theories that say that Norwegians originate from the same place as all Europeans: we came out of Africa somewhere between 100,000 and 125,000 years ago and reached Europe more than 40,000 years ago. He was taken aback by our time estimates, but he had even more problems with the place of origin.

"Don't Norwegians come from the 12 tribes of Israel like we all do?," he said and was quick to point out that he, of course, was talking about the six northern tribes since the southern tribes were the Jews. That was when we realized it was time to hit the road.

I felt like Marlowe in Heart of Darkness as we left the B&B and drove further into the heart of America. But the horrors we found weren't in the shape of an evil cold-hearted and violent Kurtz. More like a rambling Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now — a man completely out of touch with the rational world, but who means well at heart.

Tourists in the land of cowboys and Indians and the best henge of all — Carhenge

Nebraska is trying to sell Highway 2 as a scenic byway: "The Sandhills journey — You're on 2 something!" And it is a really beautiful stretch of road. After too many hours on the interstate the day before and a breakfast accompanied by a worldview that frightened and confused us, it was a joy to start day two in the Sandhills listening to The Hooters and The Proclaimers disagreeing about whether it's good or bad to be 500 miles away from somebody. Though beautiful and scenic, there was nothing on the scene, and we were happy when we approached our subsidiary goal for the day: Carhenge. But first, there was another meal coming up...

heart of america Highway 2
Highway 2. Photo by Tore Rasmussen Steien.

That people in the US, and especially in the rural US, are fat isn't interesting to point out. It's a fact that obesity is a problem in America. Anyway, it seems as if the rest of the Western world is trying to reduce the head start the US has had. We are all getting fatter. Still, some places it's hard to understand how people get to be so fat. The food at the greasy diner was on the wrong side of edible and we left hungry. I actually think we got thinner during our trip in the west.

From then on the food got better. I hope it was because we had been unlucky that far, but I suspect it's mainly because we got careful in our choice of restaurants. The absolute low point, though, was at the end of the trip at a roadside motel in Minnesota, where breakfast was dry donuts, sticky bagels and something that might have been coffee. Everything served in an unventilated indoor pool area that smelled of chlorine and mildew.

During the week on the road we saw renowned tourist attractions like Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse memorial and Devils Tower, all massive and impressive, but I think I got the most pleasure from seeing Carhenge. It really is a crazy idea, to make a copy of Stonehenge with cars somewhere close to the middle of nowhere. It's a stretch to call it art, but it is truly a fascinating example of pure creativity. How this idea sprang into the minds of a family having a reunion boggles the mind. What's more mindboggling is that this seems to be an American pastime (which I realized after the trip). Supposedly there are at least two dozen replicas of Stonehenge spread all over the nation. Stonehenges exist in every size, from the almost one-to-one Carhenge to a small styrofoam Stonehenge in a Michigan front yard.

heart of america carhenge
Behold, Carhenge. Photo by Tore Rasmussen Steien.

The fascination exists in Norway too. A comedy duo called Ylvis (of "What Does the Fox Say" fame) had a YouTube hit with the song "Stonehenge." They sing, "My life is so successful. I've got everything a man could ever need. Got a $ 1,000 haircut and I even have a talk show on TV. I know I should be happy, but instead. There's a question I can't get out of my head. What's the meaning of Stonehenge?" The real question is, "What's the meaning of Carhenge?"

After we left Carhenge the world turned kind of normal. We'd had a couple of days with strange new experiences with the people and food of the plains. Now we entered a standard holiday mode of mostly normal hotels, acceptable restaurants and tourist attractions. More comfortable, but slightly boring.

We saw the buffalo — I would love to say roam, but it was more like standing absolutely still, chewing and looking bored — in Custer State Park, which is beautiful, even before spring turns it green. At Mount Rushmore I ran around trying to take a photo of a fat person in front of the mountain so I could post a mean Instagram post saying "George, Abraham, are you proud of your descendants?" Luckily no fat people appeared. We hiked around Devils Tower, which is a really spectacular sight. The last day we visited the town of Deadwood and saw the chair Wild Bill Hickok supposedly was sitting on when he got shot. I think even the legendary pimp, brutal entrepreneur and general greed head Al Swearengen would disapprove of slot machines covering every surface of every restaurant and every hotel in the otherwise charming town.

heart of america Deadwood
Just one corner of Deadwood. Photo by Tore Rasmussen Steien.

After three more or less stationary days in the Black Hills we started the trip home to Chicago.

I have been fascinated by Native Americans as long as I can remember and wanted to see an Indian reservation, so we programmed the navigation system to go to Chicago via the small town of Eagle Butte in the Cheyenne River Reservation and left the cowboys and gold diggers of Deadwood for the Indians of the Cheyenne tribe. We met fewer and fewer cars as we drove north. When we stopped for gas in yet another small town, I asked the girl behind the register if we would reach the reservation soon. She explained that it was still quite a long drive. Considerate of my well-being, but inconsiderate of everybody of Native American descent, she also told me not to stop in the reservation.

"Why is that?"

"Well it's... I don't know. Do you know the word sketchy?"

We drove on along Highway 212, and after two hours on a barren, cold plateau we reached Eagle Butte, which was just as depressing as we feared. The same worn-down houses and junk as in many of the other small towns we passed, with the added drabness of people just milling around. The whole issue of Native Americans is so complicated and sad that I would need copious amounts of alcohol to even think about it. We drove on.

The rest of the trip back was rather uneventful. We stayed our last night at a classic drive-to-the-door motel we have seen in a hundred different movies. I was really annoyed when I realized that the customer before me got the last outside room and we didn't get to drive all the way to the door of our room. Even worse, he didn't even drive his car up to his door. He just left it in the parking lot.

Best city in the whole wide wide world

The last day on the road we started to look forward to getting back home to Chicago. Meeting people we have more in common with, desk clerks who know that sparkling water doesn't contain alcohol and waiters who might be a little aloof or abrupt, but who know good ale and don't get angry when you ask a wrong question. We were discussing which restaurants we should visit and singing along with Lupe Fiasco: "I'm from the city in the Midwest best city in the whole wide wide world. Say it now: I'm from the city in the Midwest best city in the whole wide wide world."

Since we got back I have been trying to understand the things we encountered on our trip, especially in Nebraska. Visits to several bookstores were needed to find a single book about Nebraska, the Midwest or the Great Plains. I only found Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. It's a funny book, he confirms our experience and describes every hill, field and other aspects of the landscape as "rolling," but gets me no closer to an explanation. Nobody was able to explain why there are so few books about these areas, either. I feel there is a reluctance to talk about Nebraska. It seems to have turned into an abstract symbol in the minds of many Americans — It's no longer a real place. When you want to evoke a bleak image of barren lands, poverty and simple folks you use Nebraska. Bruce Springsteen's album Nebraska (1982) isn't about Nebraska, at least most of it isn't. The album tells dark and sad tales about murders, hopelessness and all other ways that life is hard. The movie Nebraska (2014) isn't really about Nebraska. It's one hour and 54 minutes about universal and dreary themes like dysfunctional families, alcoholism, broken dreams, bitterness and false hopes in gloomy black and white.

I found at least one bit of information that helped me understand what we saw. Even though there are a lot of wealthy people and areas in Nebraska (Warren Buffet lives in Omaha), the rural parts of the Great Plains have been sinking into poverty for decades. According to Thomas Frank in his book What's the Matter With Kansas?, in 1997, eight of the 50 poorest counties in the US, and the three absolute poorest, were in Nebraska. We passed through or alongside several of them on our trip. This changing — or in some eyes obliteration — of agrarian communities is happening in most of the Western world. Coming from a rural town myself, I understand the feeling of helplessness and distance from political and economic power. But the hatred and the obvious irrational worldview are harder to understand.

In the end there is one trait that, at least for me, defines America and, in my mind, explains some of what we experienced. The fundamental feeling of being anybody's equal makes Americans extraordinary. They left Europe so they wouldn't be burdened by old structures and nobody tells them what to do. It's a nation of teenagers, always charming and warmhearted, but always in opposition — to the Man, to the liberal elite, to the 1 percent, to the government, to the fat cats on Wall Street, to the intellectuals, to the arrogant Europeans, to everybody who's trying to instruct them or question their ways (on this occasion, me). This unwavering individualism is an endearing trait, but sometimes, when the world doesn't seem to reciprocate, it can turn into bitterness and self-righteousness. I feel this is happening in the heart of America, and I find it depressing. Still, people are so nice and warm-hearted and the land so spectacular, I can't help being enthralled.

~*~

Tore Rasmussen Steien is a sociologist, farmer and journalist living in a farming village in the mountain region of central Norway. He lived in Chicago for five months and loved it — all except the lake effect which chills even Norwegians from the mountains to the bone. He documented his time in Chicago on instagram as usa_for_nybegynnere.

 
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Marsha Dunn / July 11, 2015 12:04 PM

I am saddened by your views on Nebraska. Yes, I live in the capital city of Lincoln but have had families in small town Nebraska that formed me to be the person I am today. There is poverty everywhere. the plains being one of the worst. However there is nothing wrong with a state that feeds at least one third of the world. I am proud of my state that we still have people that get their hands dirty by volunteerism and not just writing checks, that we do have gardens to feed ourselves that we have established ethanol plants that try to keep our air clean. Yes Warren Buffett lives in Omaha and is one of the richest men in America. There is a reason. he is frugal, stayed in the Midwest and does have lots of books to read. Nebraskans are some of the smartest people in our country. We have great school systems and yes did I say we have books!!! To insinuate that we are illiterate makes me sad for you that you did not meet the townspeople of Minden where there is a wonderful Opera house with great music, where Stuhr Museum has fabulous classes for kids to learn about the plains, where we have one of the best medical centers in the USA for cancer research, liver transplants and much more. If you are comfortable in Chicago than you are with all the Europeans that have settled there and truly have not lived in the HEART of America!! Come stay with me sometime and I will help enlighten you to hard working farmers, small towns that have drilling, community colleges like Curtis, NE and many other parts of NE that you obviously did not see. I hope Nebraska is the best kept secret so we are not filled with people that do not see the sunsets that we do. Enjoy Norway, I love NEBRASKA!!!

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