Jenss Family Travels: Americana

This month, Rainer Jenss and his family started their trip around the world, and they’ll be sending us dispatches from the road over the course of the next year. Check back each week to keep up with the Jensses and see where they’re headed next.

“Jeez Dad . . . It’s not Americana, it’s American!” Tyler barks at me with his typical 11-year-old sarcasm and “know-it-all” attitude.  “Why do you keep saying it wrong?” Looks like we both will be learning a thing or two about the true meaning of this word during the first – and longest – leg of our round-the-world tour.

I can’t seem to remember which incident sparked this reaction during the first half of our seven-week drive across the country, there were so many occasions to have uttered it. Ever since we passed through the border patrol in Port Huron, Michigan after our brief stint in Canada, we’ve encountered one uniquely American experience after another, starting with the food.

Carol will tell you that the biggest adjustment so far to life on the road is the almost incessant need to eat out. When we were offered the opportunity to stay in a house in northern Michigan by a colleague of mine (thank you Karen), little did we realize that perhaps its biggest draw would be the chance to eat home-cooked meals for a few days. Never have I seen my wife more excited to go to a grocery store!

To deal with the constant quest for appropriate family-friendly dining, our investment in the book Roadfood proved fruitful. Far from a Zagat’s, this book highlights some of the best local eateries along our nation’s most traveled roads, according to Jane and Michael Stern, a husband-and-wife pair who have traversed the country writing about food for 30 years.  If nothing spells America more than M-c-D-o-n-a-l-d-s, perhaps we are doing this country a disservice by not recognizing the likes of Thompson’s Restaurant in Bingham, Maine; Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Chicago; Bob’s Café in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and the Sundance Café in Dubois, Wyoming.  For me, these are the places that serve up real “American” cuisine. Sure, most of them offer regular menu of burgers, pizza, and greasy fried food we normally try to avoid, but it’s the atmosphere in which they are served that makes them oh so Americana.

We also have had no issues conforming to the American family tradition of going out for ice cream during the summer. Besides getting carried away by ordering the lobster ice cream in Maine (which I don’t recommend, despite the novelty), we also had what could be the most delicious cookies ever baked in Harbor Springs, Michigan at a small shop called Tom’s Mom’s Cookies. And then there are the pies…  Is it because we are from New York City, or do Americans have some sort of newfound infatuation with pie we weren’t aware of? Blueberry in Maine, cherry in Michigan, and apple just about everywhere else!

Besides the food, it’s of course the people that bring out the true character of this country. We found that patriotism is alive and well in towns like Charlevoix, Michigan, which seemed to have every house decorated with some sort of U.S. flag presentation, and this was well after July 4th. There was the very moving playing of ” The Star Spangled Banner’”and accompanying video during the evening lighting ceremony at Mt. Rushmore that made many in attendance, including Carol, well up.

But perhaps the most poignant moment came when Park Ranger Larry Smith did his evening talk at the Cedar Pass Campground amphitheater in the Badlands National Park. For more than an hour, he fascinated both young and old alike with his self-made PowerPoint presentation about the night sky. We learned about supernovas and the constellations. I found out how to identify one of the oldest stars in the solar system and saw the International Space Station orbiting above us. Then he told us about what his 19-year-old son who’s serving in Iraq recently told him, that the only stars that really matter are the 50 found on an American flag. When he followed that story up with a short video clip featuring some of the 57 other spectacular national parks in this country (with “America the Beautiful” as the soundtrack), the applause that followed was as genuine and well deserved as any I’ve ever witnessed. Thank you Ranger Smith for helping me discover the true spirit of America, and perhaps teaching me and my son the meaning of Americana – the culture of the United States.

So we’re off to continue “to look for America,” to take a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s hit song “America.” We still have almost four more weeks and a couple thousand miles to cover. Today, in yet another spectacular national park, Grand Teton, we all watched a bald eagle fly overhead as we rafted down the Snake River.  With that as an omen, we just may find it.

Photo: Rainer Jenss