In The Middle Country(Sculptress unknown)
I am usually content to enjoy life here in Palmville Township (pop. 42), but in early spring, having survived a long winter, I grow restless and long for the open road. I usually leave home early on my birthday (March 26) and drive west into Dakota country. This year my birthday was on Easter weekend so I set my trip back a week.
Now that I'm on the retirement track, I can come and go as I please. I started looking at the long range forecast which I know is mostly guesswork. Wednesday, April sixth looked sunny out west, though it might be raining at home. I'd be driving into the sunshine. Next I consulted the live music schedule at Laughing Sun Brewery in downtown Bismarck, ND. Bismarck is exactly 400 miles from Palmville; as far as I care to drive per day when I'm supposed to be having fun. Laughing Sun is a great little place if you like freshly brewed beer. They also have live music almost every night, mostly blues, folk, jazz, etc. On Wednesday "Boston Steve (the last of the hippies)" would be performing. I gotta be there! I grew up in Boston. I pictured myself handing this guy a beer during the break and saying, "Hey Boston Steve, what part of Boston are you from?" As a hippie, he'd be around my age and maybe he'd be from my neighborhood and we'd swap yarns about good, old Rozzie and catch up on who was above ground and who was not.
I got up early on Wednesday, kissed my wee lass goodbye, and fired up old Nellie, my 2006 Corolla with 180,000 trouble-free miles on it. Always an adventure. The long-range forecast for Roseau County was dead on: it was snowing and there were two inches of the wet, heavy stuff on the ground that will flip you in the ditch without thinking twice. I kept my speed to 50. I was the first set of tracks on the road to Strathcona and I was amazed at all the deer tracks in the fresh snow. I slowed to 45.
The first signs of day appeared as I crossed the Red River at Robbin. I can't say the sky was streaked with light. It was more like a 15 watt bulb encased in wax. At least the road was clear as I persisted on through Grafton and Park River. It was rush hour now for people going to work in these prosperous towns. Beyond that I began passing through the not so prosperous towns. Most of these towns were settled a hundred or so years ago and they were important to the people who lived in and around them. Few people owned cars back then and the roads were terrible, so each town needed its own churches, a school, a bank, hotel, hardware and grocery stores, cafes...everything a person could need within a seven mile walk. As the roads and the cars improved, many of these towns sank into obscurity. Through some Darwinian struggle one town in the center of a 50 or 60 mile circle would emerge the winner and people would drive there for their needs. The weaker towns would gradually lose all or most of their attractions. The bank was the first to go, then the school would consolidate in another town. Next the grocery store would close and last and most lamented, the café would give up. But I'm painting too bleak a picture. Many of these shrunken towns still support a bar where you can get a pizza or a pickled egg. The church still has Sunday services with a circuit riding pastor, and almost always, the Senior Center will have a few cars parked out front. As a senior myself I find this encouraging and sometimes stop in. There is always coffee on and the denizens are delighted to see a new face.
I never like getting up at 4:15 a.m. but by the time I passed Adams and headed south, criss-crossing my way along less travelled roads towards Devils Lake, I started getting into the trip. I had left behind the flatlands of the Red River Valley and the rough country that edges the valley and had emerged on that high rolling country where you can see in all directions for many miles. This is where the cobwebby thoughts of winter get blown away and a health-giving peace settles upon my brain.
Devils Lake is a most prosperous town. It even has Amtrack service. It was busy with kids headed to school. I passed out of town on the amazing causeway that was raised a few years ago above the swelling lake. Numerous birds rode the whitecaps that covered the lake. I thought I saw a distant flash of sun on the hills, but it continued overcast in my vicinity.
I stopped at ten for breakfast in Harvey. When I stopped here last year and asked for directions to the café, I was told that there was a really good café in town, but that sadly it had just burned down. But they would be rebuilding. I found the place this day in a new cinderblock building on a side street. It looked like they had salvaged the sign from the old place. That sign was the only cozy thing about the place. The interior resembled a small auditorium. A radio talk show buzzed out of a bad speaker, possibly saved from the fire as well. There were only a few diners at this odd hour. "Coffee please." Ah, they have half orders of biscuits and gravy. I am a connoisseur of b.& g. I eat them all over the country, awarding stars (up to five) based on my own unique standards. This café received three stars. The biscuits were forgettable, and I only recall them to write this review. You can't just heap on the gravy in hopes that people won't notice the sadness of the biscuit. The gravy itself was pretty good, and it contained a small bone fragment. I awarded points for this as it indicated meat from a real cow.
From Harvey I went out of my way a bit up to Anamoose in order to take new to me back roads into Washburn, home of the Fort Mandan Interpretive Center. Lewis and Clark built a fort near Washburn in 1804 and spent five months waiting out the winter. If the local Indians had not shared their food, the expedition may well have foundered. There is a replica of the fort nearby, though no one knows exactly where the original stood, the site probably now being under the meandering Missouri. The interpretive center is well done, very most interesting. The Lewis and Clark expedition took place over two hundred years ago, and though there were many, many artifacts sent back east, the vicissitudes of time have swallowed up many of them. Those that remain are jealously guarded. This interpretive center only had two. One was a button from an army coat, found during the excavation of a nearby Indian village. It is presumed to have belonged to a member of the expedition, possibly even to Clark. The button did not make the entire trip. The other artifact however did travel to the Pacific and back east. It is a small brass hasp from one of the journals used to record the trip. These several journals ended up in a scientific society in Philadelphia. In the late 1800s a scholar was given permission to take the journals home so he could edit them for publication. Crazy! This joker pried off several of the hasps and gave them to his buddies as souvenirs. Somehow this particular hasp made its way back to the authorities who kindly granted it to the Washburn Center where is sits under glass in a place of honor. That little hasp is the kind of thing I'll travel 350 miles to see.
(Boot of Clark, replica)
(The hasp, authentic)
But Boston Steve awaited another forty miles down the road. I checked into my hotel at 3:30 and took it easy till showtime. The sun came out! Great. I liked that, because I planned to walk the 1.8 miles downtown so I could enjoy my beer with a clear conscience. At 5:30 I headed for town, but as I went out the door I banged my hand and my knuckle started bleeding. Dang! I returned to my room to staunch the flow, then noticed my whiskers needed trimming. The snipped hairs bedecked my clean shirt so I removed it. I was going backwards here. Then I heard a terrible rattling on my window. A heavy shower was drenching Bismarck. Now I was glad I had wounded myself. I would have gotten soaked. The rain soon quit and I carefully shut the door as I went out. There's a gentle downward slope towards the river and my path went through the grounds of the state capitol, a pleasant place to walk unless it starts to thunder, as it did now. I scooted through the grounds and headed for an alleyway, hoping I could duck under a carport if it started to rain, which it did with vigor. I spotted a three car garage with a wide overhang and scrunched myself against the door hoping I wasn't triggering a security light. A car passed up the alley and turned into its own garage across the way. Ten minutes later the rain quit and I continued on my way. One point eight miles is a long way when exposed to passing showers. I was still a good half mile from my goal when the rain began again. I was now in the older part of town. The houses had big porches, but there were lights on inside. I spotted a big spruce with tent like branches and darted in there, invisible to the world and perfectly dry.
Now the sun came out for good and a beautiful rainbow as well. I made my way to the Toasted Frog, a place I know well, and ordered my favorite Vietnamese shrimp. "Sorry sir, we don't serve that anymore." I was disappointed, but I'm a trooper and got the scallops instead.
Now it was time to meet my old Boston buddy. Laughing Sun Brewery is long and narrow inside, with tables along its length, and a short, low bar and small stage up front. You couldn't get more cozy. I took a seat at the bar and ordered their darkest, freshest brew. Boston Steve was just about to start, accompanied by a fellow guitarist who I'll call Bismarck John. Someone mentioned that Merle Haggard, age 79, had died that day. A hush fell over the crowd, then someone called for "Okie From Muskogee." "I don't have the words," Steve said. He motioned to an older gentleman, a regular obviously, to join him on the stage. With some effort this fellow got onto the stage, took the mike, and made Merle proud, if he was looking down on us just then.
That was the last truly Country song of the night. Steve had a lyric book thick with pop songs of his and my day. He was pretty good on the guitar and John was even better. During the break I grabbed their mugs and got them refills. "So Steve," I said. "What part of Boston are you from?" "I'm from Portland, Maine, actually," he replied.
OK. I get it. Maine Steve sounds like he's saying he's the main man. And if he went by Portland Steve, he'd be disappointing all the Oregonians. I suppose from Bismarck Portland looks like a suburb of Boston.
I had a pleasant and dry walk back to the inn. Slept well. Had surprisingly good biscuits and g. at the inn's continental breakfast (four stars). Even talked to the chef. "I doctor up the canned stuff," she said.
And so I hit the homeward road, enjoying the sun-kissed buttes and listening to my favorite road tape, "Dead Souls" by Nikolai Gogol. That great epic of the road.
(Cloudometer, downtown Bismarck)
--Thanks to Joe Stenzel for encouraging me to add color to my blog.