It’s Still All There

 

Forgive me. It’s late and I’ve had a whiskey, and I really shouldn’t. But.

Sunday I went up to Fargo for a funeral. It had been a while. Your sister texts you that your last aunt died, and you throw a bag in the car and head up the old road.

The fastest way to get to Fargo from Minneapolis is the interstate, a friction-free road.  You can cruise at 80 – okay, well, 79, if you want to avoid the Smokeys – and slide through the farmland. You don’t see anything but crops and tall signs for gas stations and franchise burger joints. Faster is not better. Take the old road, Highway 10. Until the interstate was built, this was the only way to get from here to there. It winds through towns with names that span high and low – Royalton, then Motley. It skirts the perimeter of some towns, drives through the downtowns of others. A few years ago the highway department decided to do Staples a favor, and run a bypass on the south side, so trucks wouldn’t always be grumbling down the main drag. In compensation, the city got state money for local road improvement, and if you pull off 10 to drive through the downtown, you see nice planters and banners and new sidewalks. But the movie theater is closed, and the paint on the sign for Lefty’s Bar is faded and peeling. You wonder if people miss the trucks and traffic. It was a sign that you were connected to the world. The bypass is only two blocks to the south. But traffic is fast and no one stops.

I stop. It’s a ritual: get gas at Staples. I don’t need to get gas; a tank can take me from my Minneapolis front door to my sister’s house. But it’s a good spot to stop, stretch, hit the head – and if there’s anything I learned from being the son of a gas station owner, it’s that you’d best buy some gas if you’re going to use the restroom. It’s only fair.

The gas station has a fair-sized C-store (convenience store, in the parlance) with a Subway franchise. They redid their coffee station. It’s now brewed on-demand. The owner had to make a calculation: the on-demand system will probably break down now and then, but the old coffee urns had to be tended hourly. Someone had to make the coffee. Someone had to make sure the coffee hadn’t been sitting on the burner for six hours. The new machine was spiffy. It had an option for bold. Of course, I went with bold. Why wouldn’t you?

The clerk at the counter was pushing late 30s, or a fine early 40s. The tips of her hair were tinged with watermelon hues, and she had a nose ring. Cheerful as a June dawn. I told her the windshield wiper fluid on the second island was almost dry, and she appreciated the information and turned around and told the other guy at the register. Young kid, beefy, wearing the company smock. She told me to have a nice day now! and I wished her the same.

The next stop was Verndale, a tiny town with a park on the edge of the highway. There’s a faded LIONS CLUB plaque on the chain-link fence. A playground for the kids: a dad was wrangling two happy tots. A WWI memorial with the names of the local boys who went over there. A flagpole dedicated to a citizen who died in WW2. The flag was at half-mast. I sat in the shelter by a building that houses the town’s first fire wagon, smoked a cigar, had my coffee, thought of the last time I was here, and all the times before that. Sometimes a train comes through while I’m there, and the ground shakes. The effort of bringing the goods from the coast makes rings appear in your coffee go-cup.

Back on the road. Cruise control at 69, kiss the breaks when you enter a town, slow your roll. An old gas station, no pumps. Bar with a beer sign. Hair salon with a font from a 1990s Windows package. Lions, Elks, Rotary. State Champs, 2003. World’s Largest Turkey statue. Divided highway. 65 again; floor it.

Pulled in around five. Fargo was Fargo – bustling, prosperous. A new 20-story office tower and hotel sits on Broadway. A few blocks away, a new apartment complex rises, six floors. Downtown thrives while the outlying neighborhoods boom; West Fargo is still building. New houses, new shops, new restaurants. Amazon built an enormous facility in the industrial park. The area by the airport has huge new cargo buildings. Every gas station, fast-food joint, restaurant, and retail place has a sign begging for workers.  My brother-in-law laments the difficulty of finding and retaining help at the store. 

We went out to eat at a restaurant that hadn’t existed eight months before. Loud calamitous din, fantastic food. No one wore masks, aside from a few. I asked my sister and brother-in-law how the whole mask-and-COVID thing was going. It’s not a pressing concern. So it seemed to me – the only time I noticed a mask was the face of the young Starbucks employee handing me an Americano from the drive-through window. 

It reminded me that the moment I left the Cities, I left the masked society behind. Everything felt like 2019. 

The next morning I went to the boneyard to visit my forebears. I’d forgotten that they’d laid out another cemetery next to the church’s graveyard, a military cemetery. All the headstones were identical, like Normandy, or Snelling, or Arlington. There were too many already – but surely many of those were vets, of which Fargo has many. They laid it out to accommodate many.

On the way back to the Cities I thought of some writers who are perfectly empowered to discuss the fate and foibles of the Fargos of America, but would probably twitch in their seat if you drove them around, first out of fear that Red Indians would come whooping over the horizon, and then out of dismay that none of this comported with their preconceptions. There’s the classic movie theater, still open, all the marquee bulbs flashing. There’s where the symphony plays. There’s the museum. There’s the central library. There’s the coffee shop with the rainbow flag. There’s the 30s office building with Moderne lines; there’s the dense housing; there’s the bright new big school, lavishly funded. There’s the big newspaper building. There’s the University. Oh, look, there’s the other University. There’s the historic architecture. Here’s the river. Beyond all this, endless grain and toil. 

But not in the old sense. My cousin gets Netflix in the cab of his tractor. The last time I saw him was at the VFW. It was a new outpost but had historical elements that kept up tradition. It was across the street from the funeral parlor where we’d both seen our fathers in the box. I learned a lot about the rural co-op he was in, and talked with his wife about family history. She’s the official historian, updates the genealogical sites about all the people who came here and carved straight lines in the dirt and grew things. It was a great night. I often feel like a lesser man because I knew all this, and I left. 

But there’s failure, and then there’s failure, and then there’s utter, uncomprehending, arrogant, fatuous, savior-complex failure.

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  1. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    All this, and yet you haven’t done The Ramble since May of 2017?

     

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Nothin’ wrong with being a Southron, of course.

    • #2
  3. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Is there anyone more provincial than people who never visit the provinces? 

    • #3
  4. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    The beauty and tragedy in this post is so profound I’m at a loss for words. It’s my town. It’s America’s towns. It’s the ideal of our memories we try to leave behind because Progress! but deep down still yearn for the simplicity and familiarity. Thank you for this.

    • #4
  5. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Thank you. I needed that.

    • #5
  6. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Beautiful post.  Although I’m less than 40 miles from Pittsburgh, it’s been 2019 for most of the past eighteen months, other than visits to the doctor and the supermarket.  A land where the TRUMP signs seem to be proliferating, and the people have time for, and take care of, each other.

    BTW, I’ve never heard of Noah Smith.  But I’m glad I have his number (so to speak), so that next time I don’t quite know what I’m supposed to think about something, I can write to him and he can tell me what it should be.

    Crimenutely.

    • #6
  7. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I grew up in the deep south.

    My betters have always looked down on me.

     

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
    My betters have always looked down on me.

    FTFY.

    • #8
  9. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    kedavis (View Comment):
    All this, and yet you haven’t done The Ramble since May of 2017?

    Yes! I had the exact same thought. (“Why isn’t this a “Ramble”?)

    • #9
  10. Blondie Thatcher
    Blondie
    @Blondie

    @bryangstephens, we think alike. This is the first thing that popped into my head, too. Thanks for a great post, Mr. Lileks. I wear my southern/rural roots with pride. We are thinking it may be time to physically return there since urban has crept in on us. 

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Rural Americans are to be fitted out with a new identity? I’m sure they will be thrilled beyond measure. Will there be a bureaucracy in charge of creating and assigning this new identity?

    • #11
  12. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    Percival (View Comment):

    Rural Americans are to be fitted out with a new identity? I’m sure they will be thrilled beyond measure. Will there be a bureaucracy in charge of creating and assigning this new identity?

    That would be DHS. DOE is taking care of the re-education.

    • #12
  13. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

     

    • #13
  14. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    I think the first tweet is a useful thing to discuss.

    I think there is merit to the idea that mass media transferred a southern style musical and fashion culture to the larger country.

    I don’t think a musical culture of the problems of urbanism like banging out tranny prostitutes (looking at you lou reed), or the desperate gang and drug culture (looking at your early 90s rap) speaks to the life experience of swimming in local creek/pond and making out with the local young ladies (looking at you brooks and dunn).

    But then there is the particular suburban middle class musical genre called punk where the primary motif is dealing with the emotional vaccuity and disaffected meaninglessness found in the perfectly room temperature life.

    And then there is a useful conversation to be had about how the cultural furniture of our life may in many ways dictate our worldview.

     

    The other guy, well thats just old timey european racism just pointed a different direction.

    • #14
  15. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    James Lileks: Forgive me. It’s late and I’ve had a whiskey, and I really shouldn’t. But.

    I don’t appreciate you plagiarizing the intro to about 2/3 of my posts…

    • #15
  16. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    James Lileks: Forgive me. It’s late and I’ve had a whiskey, and I really shouldn’t. But.

    I don’t appreciate you plagiarizing the intro to about 2/3 of my posts…

    Okay, that was worth a laugh!

    • #16
  17. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    The monumental hubris behind the Noah whatshisname  tweet is just staggering.    An entire population requires a new identity?    And one that will be thrust upon them be a third party?   That’s jaw-dropping.   

    • #17
  18. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    Percival (View Comment):

    Rural Americans are to be fitted out with a new identity? I’m sure they will be thrilled beyond measure. Will there be a bureaucracy in charge of creating and assigning this new identity?

    This is not new. Progressives have been around for a long time. The issues change, but in reaction, Populists arise from time to time to put order back into the universe. From William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech

    Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic coast, but the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose — the pioneers away out there [pointing to the West], who rear their children near to Nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds — out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their young, churches where they praise their Creator, and cemeteries where rest the ashes of their dead — these people, we say, are as deserving of the consideration of our party as any people in this country. It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest; we are fighting in defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them.

    The gentleman from Wisconsin has said that he fears a Robespierre. My friends, in this land of the free you need not fear that a tyrant will spring up from among the people. What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of organized wealth. …

    … we reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

    The last paragraph is demonstrably true.

    • #18
  19. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    The monumental hubris behind the Noah whatshisname tweet is just staggering. An entire population requires a new identity? And one that will be thrust upon them be a third party? That’s jaw-dropping.

    Noah is an opinionator for Bloomberg living in San Francisco, so naturally he thinks that deplorables like you cannot even have an identity without the assistance of superior thinkers like him.

    • #19
  20. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    I love this post and all you describe. I think about my folks/ ancestors who have passed on, and how they would have handled this pandemic. They survived WWII, The Great Depression, and I don’t remember hearing any complaints. They survived the 60’s and all the riots, the music, the bad hair. The news, and decisions made that we have no control over can swallow us up, and make us believe that it’s miserable just outside the door. But you show that it’s not. We should all get in the car and drive to a place of sanity every week! “This too shall pass”.

    • #20
  21. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    This post would have made a great episode for The Diner.

    Here’s “I Am A Town” by Mary-Chapin Carpenter:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHAVjfURfrw

    • #21
  22. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    I love this post and all you describe. I think about my folks/ ancestors who have passed on, and how they would have handled this pandemic. They survived WWII, The Great Depression, and I don’t remember hearing any complaints. They survived the 60’s and all the riots, the music, the bad hair. The news, and decisions made that we have no control over can swallow us up, and make us believe that it’s miserable just outside the door. But you show that it’s not. We should all get in the car and drive to a place of sanity every week! “This too shall pass”.

    And the 1957-8 Flu Pandemic and the 1968 (Hong Kong) Flu Pandemic and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic which is still going on.

    • #22
  23. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    Stad (View Comment):

    This post wopuld have made a great episode for The Diner.

    Here’s “I Am A Town” by Mary-Chapin Carpenter:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHAVjfURfrw

    I love this song, as I do everything Mary Chapin Carpenter has produced.

    • #23
  24. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    She (View Comment):

    Beautiful post. Although I’m less than 40 miles from Pittsburgh, it’s been 2019 for most of the past eighteen months, other than visits to the doctor and the supermarket. A land where the TRUMP signs seem to be proliferating, and the people have time for, and take care of, each other.

    BTW, I’ve never heard of Noah Smith. But I’m glad I have his number (so to speak), so that next time I don’t quite know what I’m supposed to think about something, I can write to him and he can tell me what it should be.

    Crimenutely.

    Over the last 4 months, I’ve worn a mask 3 times: For a blood donation, a doctor’s visit, and yesterday at a visit to the bank, which I hadn’t set foot in for almost a year. The bank’s web site said masks are still required, but while I sat with the person trying to help me (they ended up not helping), several customers walked in maskless but no one said anything to them.

    Pretty much the only people around here wearing masks are school children.

    • #24
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Royalton:  That’s where we used to make our obligatory gas station stop. In the late 60s my college buddies showed me the little place with one pump that had the cheapest gas between the Twin Cities and home (2/3 of the way to Fargo).  Somewhere around 21-25 cents/gallon. Even then, before all the four-lane highways, you would most likely not notice it if you weren’t looking for it. Fast forward several years and it’s a big place where half the traffic stopped for gas, it seemed. It was that way for decades, but now the prices aren’t anything special, and there seems to be less reason to stop. 

    Staples: Back before the bypass, Dad was often willing to stop at the Dairy Queen because he knew the people who owned it from church gatherings.  Now it’s a bigger place where you go inside.  For decades, a landmark was the upside-down neon liquor sign on the south side of the street. Batcher’s V Store used to advertise on the Wadena radio station.  (I’m pretty sure it was a V, but I never knew what the V stood for.) I don’t remember ever shopping there, but we’d always pass it in Staples. Now it’s preserved as a historic building. Staples was a high school rival of sorts. It was also in our church circuit, so I slightly knew some of the kids from youth events.  Nowadays we take the bypass. But you have to slow down, so there is time to look to the north and remember the old sights.  One of the kids from the next high school class after mine became a teacher and coach in Staples; now his son is a NBA coach.

    Verndale:  It’s a speed trap.   During the “oil crisis” in the early 70s I decided to get with the program and drive 50 mph.  Problem was, I didn’t slow down for Verndale and got my first and only speeding ticket.  Well, no longer the only one.  One can cut north from there for a shortcut to Park Rapids, where my parents and siblings ended up. (Some are still there.)

    Between Verndale and Wadena is the sign for Oink Joint Road, which always used to remind me to tell the kids that here is where the Apollo 11 moon landing took place in 1969.  In recent decades we would usually get off of Hwy 10 at Wadena to go to Park Rapids, but back in the 60s, when we lived at Ottertail, that’s where we’d get on Hwy 10.  Between Wadena and Detroit Lakes there are a lot of family connections and memories. Almost all of the aunts and uncles are gone now, but one of the cousins keeps having grandkids who are growing up in what used to be a typical agricultural setting, with typical rural farm adventures.  The oldest is in elementary school and has already accumulated a considerable set of adventure stories with which to regale his own grandchildren some day. 

    We haven’t been up that way since covid started, but I’m hoping that will have changed by the end of the month. A wedding and a college class reunion are still on the schedule. 

    Except at certain times of day we always drive through St Paul-Minneapolis on I-94 rather than take the I-694 around the city. It’s partly for old times’ sake, but unless it’s rush hour, it seems faster.  We cross over the river to US-10 at Clearwater-Clear Lake.

     

    • #25
  26. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    TBA (View Comment):

    Is there anyone more provincial than people who never visit the provinces?

    They fly from city to city, never visiting 90% of the U.S.A. nor learning anything at all about the rest of us; and they think they know us and have a right to tell us how to live!!

    • #26
  27. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Nice post, thanks. One July 4th my university friends and their families spent the week-end with another friend and his family in eastern Oregon. Driving through one small town after another to get to our destination every small town was celebrating the 4th with their own rodeo. Monument, Oregon was no exception. During the Monument rodeo one of the kids in the group was cheering for every calf in the roping competition. Her dad was a bit concerned, but one rancher’s wife told her dad; Dad, don’t worry she can cheer for whoever she likes here.

    I’m reminded of Garrison Keillor’s observation (paraphrase) that; if the bright lights of a big city are a sign of intelligence then chicks in an incubator must be geniuses. 

    • #27
  28. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Well, I mean, It’s Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center. What would you expect?

    And the rest of that Tweet thread needs to be seen, too. Noah Smith makes lefty Will Wilkinson look sane.

    • #28
  29. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    The monumental hubris behind the Noah whatshisname tweet is just staggering. An entire population requires a new identity? And one that will be thrust upon them be a third party? That’s jaw-dropping.

    I really don’t think you want white people to develop a “white identity” and join in the identity politics fray. But that’s what these people seem to be pushing us towards.

    • #29
  30. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    My wife and I grew up in smallish cities in the Carolinas, and after we got married we moved to a five-acre piece of land in a rural county outside a town with a population of 3000. Like a fish that never notices the water it swims in, I have to admit I often don’t really see where I live; I just go through my daily patterns and live my life, not really considering what I have and take for granted.

    It’s nice to be reminded once in a while how extraordinarily lucky I am, and how sorry I feel for people who don’t get it.

    • #30