I am clutching on the steering wheel with two firm hands, barely going over 20km/hr in a street where the speed limit is 65. This is the first time I drive a motorhome, and maneuvering it is not as easy as I thought it would be; it’s bulky and heavy and any gust of wind makes it swerve on the road despite my best efforts to balance it. I better get used to it fast because I’m going to be driving and living in this vehicle for the next five months. First destination: Lebanon, North Dakota, some 2,000 kilometers away. This is roughly the equivalent of driving along the Lebanese coast nine times, north to south, from Aarida to Ras-El-Naqoura.
I should be excited. Everyone with whom I spoke about my project told me I should be. So why aren’t I yet? This is after all the adventure of a lifetime. Two and half months prior, in July, I had quit my job as a consultant in a professional services firm, gave up my rented apartment, and then in late September I flew in to San Francisco on a tourist visa, much to the concern of my family who believed I had lost my mind. But I had a clear purpose. I was going to get an RV and drive around the country to photograph all the towns called Lebanon in the United States. This project had been on my mind for close to a decade after discovering by accident the existence of a few Lebanon in the U.S. More research had me find over forty of them. And then one day this year, I woke up to “life’s too short” buzzing in my head. This nagging feeling wouldn’t let go, so I just caved to it.
It took me three weeks in San Francisco to get most of what I needed: some photography equipment to add to my gear, and a phone and an American line to keep me connected to the internet. However, I couldn’t find any decent RV, and I was starting to get nervous. Finally, three days before my deadline to move on the road, October 13th, I found a man offering his RV for rent. The car was in Seattle, 1,300 km away from San Francisco. So I rented a regular car, dropped it off there, picked up the RV, and I was on my way.
Even though I had lived in the United States for four years when I was going to graduate school in San Francisco, I had mostly visited the West and East coasts, and I wasn’t really prepared for what was waiting for me once I started driving towards the middle of the country. When I was driving at night from Washington to Montana, there were no lights on large parts of the highway, and the potholes were quite large. It made me regret all the complaining I’ve done about the roads in Lebanon being a ‘sign’ of the third world. There were even places where there was no phone signal, no station picked up on the radio, and I would drive for hours, disconnected from the world. The only contact I’d have with people would be at the gas station where I was filling up, or at a Walmart — a national chain of hypermarkets — where I would spend the night in their parking lot to sleep. It was a far cry from my quiet Brumana apartment, now sleeping meters away from night shoppers and moving cars. But I had a bed, a kitchenette, and a small bathroom. That’s more than what many do have, and I was still very grateful for what I had.
By the time I reached North Dakota, a week after starting the trip, I decided to put in more effort to meet people in these small towns where I was stopping. Getting to know people was, after all, one of the main goals of this trip. My initial hesitation came from all the warnings my friends in San Francisco and on the East Coast gave me. Americans were going to vote for a president in less than two weeks, one of the most contentious elections the country has known. And people in the middle of the country, as opposed to those on the coasts, were mostly pro-Donald Trump conservatives, and the stereotype I was warned about was that they were xenophobes given their candidate’s inflammatory rhetoric. Even Hillary Clinton said that half of them were a ‘basket of deplorables’. And I am, after all, an Arab, so I had better be careful.
I walked into a bar that night in Medora, North Dakota, and as soon as I stepped in, all eyes turned toward me. I’m not comfortable with this kind of attention. The place was filled with hunters, recognizable by their orange baseball hats and camouflage-patterned clothes. I find an empty seat at the bar and order a beer. I can see that the two men to my right keep eyeing me, but I try to not meet their gaze. Finally, a few minutes later, the man next to me turns and asks: “So what brings you here? This is a very small town. In this bar people are either locals or hunters stopping by, and you don’t seem to be out hunting.” As I begin to tell him about my project and I mentioned the word Lebanon, he interrupts me: “Hey, you’re the country that’s been without a president for more than two years!” I start laughing, stunned that someone in a place so remote would even know this about us, especially when none of my non-Lebanese friends knew about our presidential problem. “Well your next beer’s on me,” he continues, “I am John and this is my son Caleb. We’re farmers.” After that night, I started to become more at ease with the people around me, and I finally found my excitement.
Last Monday, I finally reached Lebanon, North Dakota. Or at least Google Maps told me I did, because I couldn’t find a single sign on the streets to indicate it. I turned back to the public library in Minot, the closest city there. I asked the librarian what he knew about Lebanon, and the name wasn’t familiar to him. He explained that many townships in the State were formed just to give a name to large plots of farming land, without there being any people living in them. But he referred me to a few books on the history of McHenry County in which the Lebanon Township resided. As it turns out, the county was formed in 1881, following a homesteading law the US government had passed, whereby public lands were given away for free for applicants, including immigrants and women. Most of the people that settled in the county were Lutherans from Norway. The old map shows Lebanon as being part of the county, but no explanation is given as to the choice of the name. It’s safe to say that it was a biblical reference.
I returned to Lebanon Township the next day, figuring I shouldn’t give up this easily. The area is as flat as can be, and even the streets were unpaved, which meant I needed to drive really slow given how roughly the RV shakes on gravel roads. I tried finding the Lutheran church and cemetery that the old map showed. I found the cemetery, but there was no church. There was only a steeple on the ground. I continued to drive around, past the cows and the railroad tracks, hoping to find traces of people. After half an hour or so, I found an old isolated house in the distance with smoke coming out of the stack. I headed there. As I pulled in towards it, an older man with a white beard steps out and asks: “How can I help you?” I asked him if I was in Lebanon and he said yes. I then proceeded to tell him my story and he then told me his.
His name was Tom Thoreson, a retired farmer. His grandfather had emigrated from Norway, settled the land, and built the house he himself still lives in. He said that at one point the township had more than a 100 people living in it. But the children grew up and started moving away, in search of better-paying, non-farming jobs in the surrounding cities. After a few decades, there were barely any people left. When a storm destroyed the church, it had already been empty for years, and now all of what’s left of it was the steeple I had seen. I couldn’t but reflect back on the state of the villages we have in my own Lebanon, where people either emigrated during the war, or moved to Beirut in search of an easier living. Initially I had thought that Tom Thoerson’s town might be a singular case of one town in one State. But as I moved on to my next destination, Lebanon, South Dakota, passing through similar smaller towns, I realized that this was no singular case. So many small towns were being deserted one after the next.
Note: This article was published on the website of L’Orient-Le Jour in French and English.