Map Quest

A journey through Alsace-Lorraine to the town that gave America its name

I chose a back road and followed it up into the mountains. Somewhere along the way, I passed from Alsace into Lorraine—and not long after, I arrived in Saint-Dié. I made straight for the town museum. It was only a short walk from my hotel, across the river and into the town center. The streets, festooned with blue-and-white banners announcing the Festival International de Géographie, were full of wandering packs of festivalgoers: middle-aged French geography teachers, aimless local teens, the occasional African immigrant, and an alarming number of people dressed up as cowboys and Indians.

The museum holds a small but precious collection of Waldseemüller-related artifacts: a copy of the Cosmographiaeintroductio, a few other maps and texts produced by the Saint-Dié scholars, and an assortment of other rare printed materials from the late-fifteenth and early- sixteenth centuries. (When I arrived, though, I was disconcerted to discover that for the festival, the museum had decided to pad its historical collection with displays of Amish quilts, American Indian portraits, and toy American soldiers.) The museum is well worth a visit, as is the nearby church, parts of which date back to the twelfth century. But to fully appreciate the region’s role in Renaissance history, you should also make time for a trip to the wonderful Bibliothèque Humaniste, in the town of Sélestat, just off the Route des Vins, which possesses a rich collection of early manuscripts and printed books, many of them once part of the private library of the famous humanist (and friend of Erasmus) Beatus Rhenanus.

The afternoon took on a surreal quality after I left the museum. I drifted down to a pedestrian area along the banks of the Meurthe, where I caught sight of the Tower of Liberty—a looming white structure that the town’s promotional literature describes as “a dream of steel, of cables and canvas, a boat, a bird, a plane.” Improbably, two white tepees had been set up on the lawn below the tower, and a sign in front of them invited visitors to take a walk in The Wild Forest of the Americas—a short path of wood shavings that led past a row of traumatized little saplings native to North and South America. Nearby, a troupe of middle-aged women in cowgirl outfits performed a dance to Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York.”

I left the tepees and found a tent set up for cooking demonstrations. When I walked in, a chef in uniform was delicately placing a small flower garnish on a dish he had just prepared. The room was packed, and at first I couldn’t tell what he was working on, but soon enough I figured it out. We were watching the preparation of … hamburgers (“à la Vosgienne”), blueberry doughnuts, and milk shakes flavored with the distilled essence of locally grown buds of fir.

Florally enhanced American food, dancing cowgirls, tepees, the Wild Forest, Amish quilts: it was supremely ridiculous. But if this was how I was going to spend my time at the birthplace of America, then so be it. I didn’t need to insert myself ironically into the audience at “Do Americans Eat So Badly?” Instead, I could just have a hamburger and a milk shake right where I was.

They were delicious.

Toby Lester, an Atlantic contributing editor, is at work on a book about the Waldseemüller world map of 1507.
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