But lest we forget, this is a land of extraordinary grandeur and remarkable people.
Our summer travels began in the West, where a young grizzly bear in Glacier National Park ambled across our car’s path against a breathtaking backdrop of mountain peaks stretching to the horizon.
This was not Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” evading foreign spies atop the carved presidential heads. But there was the crack of thunder, and the flash of lightning across the presidential visages.
By day, the monument was a moving reminder of American values and freedoms.
About 300 miles away, the field of white headstones at Little Bighorn, scene of Custer’s last stand, was a reminder of history of another kind.
At Moosehead Lake in northern Maine, we were awed by a full moon’s light rippling across the waters, and early next morning by a crimson sun rising from them, a prelude to a wordless but amicable dialogue with a moose, warning us to let her timid baby hurry across the dirt track ahead of our halted car.
As lasting as these vignettes were, it is individual Americans you meet who remind you of human kindness and fortitude and emotion.
There was the gruff, bearded Idahoan who ended up in tears telling us of the Labrador retriever he had been grieving over for more than a year.
There was the giant, ponytailed, much-tattooed veteran at a fast-food establishment who made up our order, then added a hot dog “on the house,” for our dog in the car.
There was the motel receptionist in South Dakota who lives with his wife in an RV. They happily work various jobs in different states each summer.
There is a small army of Americans who do this, with a network of friends and websites to guide them to willing employers.
John Wayne never made it there, but his cowboy actors, now somewhat older, did recently, eating at the Mish Mash restaurant. The owner, who left a marketing career in Denver to start it, says she’s been at it for seven years and thinks she’s “going to make it.”
In one of the New England states, we met a prosperous, 70-something innkeeper, who “flunked out of a training school for nuns when I was 16 because I laughed too much.”
Her life is a remarkable story of triumph over adversity. She postponed her own college education until her 40s to put her husband through medical school and help establish his practice.
But he “ran off with his nurse,” leaving her with six children and no financial resources. To feed her children she started raising sheep, moved into raising cattle, then innkeeping. All six children did well in college and became successful in various professions.
Today she owns and runs a landmark inn, rides a tractor, and rises at 5 o’clock each morning to cook gourmet breakfasts for her guests. “I just love to cook,” she says.
At an Illinois tollbooth, a female collector took our coins but made us halt the car. Then she reached into her bag to find a treat for our dog.
When I asked a woman in northern Maine how things were going she said: “Well, Obama says we’re pulling out of the recession, but I don’t know where. It ain’t here.”
Truly, America is an extraordinary country.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.