Day 34. SD/ND: “unique” shops, metal sculptures, Royston Vasey, crappy boxes

by Kevin May

Noise from the corridor woke me at 6.30. A family was shipping out even earlier than I had intended to, and the kids didn’t like it one bit and were kicking up a right noisy fuss.

I suspect that the adults weren’t that chuffed either. It was a disturbance that worked in my favor though, as I really had no desire to hang around Stepford Cove any longer than necessary. Deluxe continental breakfast consisted of some bread and bagels that you could put in the toaster yourself plus as many polystyrene cups of coffee as you could drink.

I was soon on the road heading up to Spearfish, and north to the state-line. There was nothing new to see all the way to the North Dakota, unless you counted the numerous small snakes that were wriggling across the highway. The roads were straight, the fields were flat and other vehicles appeared at approximately fifteen-minute intervals. It was the basic story of most of the US west of the Missouri.

An astonishing item came over the radio, which even the otherwise bullish host almost balked at reporting. A speculator in Baltimore MD had invested $4.5 million putting together a new concept restaurant called the Crash Café. Its features had been due to include the tail fin of a DC 10 sticking out of the lobby and a burning engine as the charbroiler for the outside barbeque. He had now changed his plans because he had worked out it might be considered an inappropriate theme under current circumstances. No shit, Sherlock.

As I entered North Dakota, signs anticipated imminent arrival in Bowman with the imprecation “ a time to stop for our unique shops”.

It appeared that North Dakotans had come to terms with their lot by developing a huge sense of irony. I remembered New Mexico Pete’s stories about the tourism posters, and here was another example when entering the state from the south. The only shops in Bowman were all parts of chains, as were the hotels. The town was full of things like Burger King, Super 8 Motel, Walmart, Conoco and True Value.

It was, in fact, a place with nothing but run of the mill shops. The Gary’s Jack and Jill Food Shop was the only frontage I spotted that I didn’t immediately recognize from elsewhere.

I sensed a foreboding of the thrills to be had in the state when the question was posed over the radio: “Have you ever looked at your garage door with disgust?” It transpired that Midway Stores in Dickinson were sponsoring an ugly garage door competition. In order to win first prize, you had to take a photograph of your garage door and send it in to them with an explanation of why you thought it was worthy of the accolade. There was no mention of what the prize was. Lobotomy vouchers possibly.

NM Pete had assured me that the only place worth visiting in the state was Medora. It was an eighteen-mile diversion west on the Interstate. I took the exit and drove past a row of old wooden shops then on past a park.

Two miles later, I was approaching the Interstate again. I’d managed to miss the town altogether. Back at the row of shops, I filled up at the gas station. I was about to ask the obvious question about where the town was and what had happened to it, when I noticed a rack of free maps. I asked if I could take one and the woman kindly showed me where the gas station was so that I could orientate myself.

I felt a little foolish to discover I was actually right in the middle of town. I found a phone box and called Pete’s sister, Kathleen. She told me that of course it would still be OK to stay and that they were looking forward to meeting me. She gave me careful directions, pointing out that if I got as far as Leonard then I had gone past their turning.

She told me not to worry about food as she would have something for me to eat there when I arrived. It felt like I was talking to an old family friend, not someone about whom I knew nothing but her name, where she lived, and the fact that she was interested in art & crafts and travelled all over the country.

One of the shops in the original row that I had seen when I first passed through the town was open (unlike everything else in town), and so I was able to pick up a North Dakota letter opener. I had heard stories that since September 11th no knives of any description were being allowed on to planes, but nobody seemed sure whether this applied to checked baggage also. As a precaution, I bought a North Dakota scented candle also. My accumulation of tat was blossoming nicely.

I was still faced with about 350 miles to cover that afternoon, but at least North Dakota allowed 70 mph on its Interstates. I joined at the 27-mile point. My exit would come just before Casselton at 324 miles.

I set the cruise control to 72 mph and sat back to enjoy whatever was to come into view. The mountain removal project most certainly had been completed. North Dakota was as flat and featureless as a billiard table.

It wasn’t that there was nothing to see though. My curiosity was first roused by a succession of what can best be described as scrap metal edifices. A variety of metallic animals littered the verge at regular intervals. Then a big metal eye. A large sign invited me to “hop hop hop over to the Enchanted Highway” nearby, where more of these creations were displayed en masse. It claimed to be the “World’s Largest Metal Sculptures”. Superlatives obviously didn’t always need to be singular.

I did pull off the road at the New Salem exit briefly to take a snap of the largest concrete cow in the world. It was pretty big and I was able to photograph it from about a mile away at the top of the ramp. I was unaware of any challengers to its claim to fame elsewhere in the world.

They had a thing about odd roadside adornments in these parts. A few miles down the freeway, a row of perfectly choreographed scrap cars adorned the grass verge like a junkyard showroom.

As I neared Bismarck, something very strange happened. The radio was interrupted by a voice, apropos of nothing, saying “I knew they didn’t put red dashed lines on the ground where the time zone changes. What were Rand McNally thinking of?” As chance would have it, this broadcast came over the air at precisely the point that I was crossing the time-zone line. It was either a coincidence, or showed a sophistication of pointless interactive marketing that I didn’t even know was technologically possible.

Since September 11th there had been a run on US flags to the extent that it had become virtually impossible to get one for love or money. This had turned out to be good news for the nation’s tattoo artists who were reporting a massive upswing in business. According to the radio, full chest tattoos were proving very popular and the three most requested designs (in order) were the stars and stripes, a teary eyed eagle and the World Trade Center on fire. It seemed quite a gesture of solidarity to have a picture of the burning twin towers seared indelibly across your chest or back.

So single-minded had I been about the drive that I reckoned I might still have time to visit Fort Ransom, which had been my planned stopover before NM Pete had offered up his sister’s house.

I swung off the Interstate and headed south, pursuing a maze of roads before I finally got there. This place, with its population of 105, really was off the beaten track. The bar across the road from a general store cum gas station was full of faces staring out at me. I filled up my tank, conscious that I was taking loads of their local gas and they probably wouldn’t get another delivery until December.

It felt like visiting Royston Vasey. A hush descended in the store as I went to pay, and all heads turned to look at me. The Fort itself was nearby, so I went to have a look only to find it closed. Returning to the village, I got out of my car to take a photograph but jumped back in quickly when a number of those in the bar spotted me and came out to see what I was playing at. With mild wheel spin, I made safe my escape.

I tried to take a short cut to Leonard, but soon found myself stranded at a dead-end on an unmade track in the middle of some fields. It was a costly mistake. By the time I had retraced my steps, I had lost almost an hour. I roared off to make up the time, but in my haste I missed Kathleen’s turning and ended up in Leonard itself.

It was almost quarter to nine by the time I thought that I had found her road. I needed to look for the second farm and a redbrick building. It was dark, but I passed one building after about a mile and it was white. Another two miles down the road and I saw a silhouette of what I assumed must be the second building.

If so, I was there. The precariousness of my position suddenly struck me. I was alone in the middle of nowhere and about to knock on the door of a house that I did not recognize, hopefully to be greeted by someone whom I’d never met. I didn’t have the faintest idea what she looked like or even what age she was.

I was saved from my concerns by the front door opening. A kindly middle-aged woman bustled towards me and I nervously said hello. To my enormous relief she greeted me with a “By your accent, I guess you must be Kevin.”

She welcomed me into the house and we took off our shoes. Her husband, Jerry, was at the computer. He jumped up and invited me to check my e-mail if I wanted to. I took him up on the offer and he said he’d go off to fetch some coffee. Fifteen minutes later, I was perched on a stool by the breakfast bar and already on to my third cup.

Jerry disappeared and I didn’t see him again all evening until he went to bed, except for the frequent times that he returned to the kitchen area to fill up both our cups with more coffee.

By the end of the evening, I must have had a least a dozen refills. At one stage I steered the conversation gently around to beer. I had a couple of cans in my bag that I would have loved to crack open. I was thankful not to have suggested this prior to learning that they had a strict policy of not allowing any alcohol inside the house.

Kathleen had clearly given herself a brief to make North Dakota sound as interesting as possible for me. She was narked by the press that it tended to get within the US itself. Some people thought that the whole state was snowbound for half the year and that nobody could even leave their homes. I told her that I blamed the Coen Brothers, but she didn’t seem to get the Fargo reference.

Her conversation seemed almost rehearsed, but jumped all over the place. One moment we’d be talking about travel, or London, or September 11th and the next she’d be off on an anecdote that bore no relevance to what we’d just been discussing.

She had a list of things that she wanted me to know: the things that were good about America, and about North Dakota and then a few left-fielders, such as the four people that she was most looking forward to meeting in heaven (for the record, they were a couple of country and western singers, Abraham Lincoln and Sacagawea).

On the subject of her brother Pete, she told me that he was in the Guinness Book of Records for being the oldest man to throw a Frisbee. I had to admit that I hadn’t realized that the category existed, but thought that I might have a pop at it myself in a few years time. Pete was only 43.

Kathleen was unusual for an American because she had done so much travelling around. At her son’s wedding a year or so previously she had finally met a couple from Delaware and that had completed her set. She now had at least one friend in each of the fifty states whom she could call up at any time for a quick chew of the fat.

We started to talk about her arts and craft, and she explained to me that she made boxes and decorated them, and that formed the basis of most of their livelihood these days. We went through to her workshop to take a look. She showed me some small plain boxes, the sort that cigars sometimes come in. She had a pile of what looked like magazine cuttings and greetings cards, and explained that she cut out things like this and glued them on the boxes. Nice.

She showed me an example of a finished box. It was certainly very distinctive. It would have been great to have been able to take one (or even buy one) as a souvenir, but Kathleen explained that they were so in demand that she only made them to order nowadays and all of her stock was due for pretty immediate delivery. I’d have to live with just the memory.

Back in the kitchen we jabbered on for a while until Jerry went to bed at around eleven. She was clearly proud and happy to come from North Dakota. She had been amused to see me lock up my car and explained that this wasn’t the done thing around there.

This wasn’t the usual “oh in the country everyone leaves their front door open” malarkey that you even get back in the UK. It had a practical benefit. With so many people working in remote fields, it had become acceptable just to borrow the nearest person’s car if you needed to get back in a hurry.

One local had recently been informed by the police that his car had turned up in Minnesota and he hadn’t even been aware that it had been stolen. It had been missing for three weeks, and he had just assumed that a neighbor had borrowed it. I silently congratulated myself on locking my doors.

The chat was still going strong at midnight, when I glanced at my watch and apologized for keeping Kathleen up so late. She said that it was fine because she never really went to bed much before two or three usually. I was far too knackered for such a marathon, much as I was enjoying my chat with her, so I made my excuses.

In the bedroom, I examined all the windows to see if I could get one open. I was dying for a cigarette, but was going to have no joy. The caffeine was coursing round my body. I felt like my whole torso was pulsating.

In the end, I might as well have stayed up with her as it took me about three hours to calm down enough to sleep.