Towner, Rugby, Minot. Where was I going? Some where in north central North Dakota, that’s about all I really needed to know. The trip was four months away. It was early April, and I was in North Carolina, in the Triangle, for work, but had managed a side-trip to visit my sister and her husband on the coast, near Jacksonville.
My brother-in-law’s grandfather was to turn ninety years old in August. Due to circumstances outside of his control, my brother-in-law would be unable to attend the birthday. My sister, on the other hand, intended to attend the festivities. She loves the grandparents. I, too, would be attending the birthday party. Who was going to be at this party, again? I think I met the grandparents – once – at Meg & Bruce’s graduation.
I’m not entirely sure who initiated the conversation. Myself, volunteering to attending the event, or my sister asking me to attend. Maybe somewhere in the fuzzy middle. Maybe there was not really an ask whether Meghann would want me to go with her, and maybe there was not really me making an explicit volunteering. I honestly cannot remember.
Where did I just say I would go in early August, was it Towner or Rugby?
Plans firmed up somewhere in early summer. Meghann would fly from Raleigh, NC, to Bismarck, ND. I would drive to Bismarck, and we would then drive to…where were we driving to, again? Two or three hours north of Bismarck, maybe. Near the Canadian border? Close to the border?
August seemed to have arrived, as did the trip. Shortly after noon, I was on the road. Didn’t I just drive through Bismarck, less than a month ago? Yes, yes, I did.
I tend to have, what I consider to be a minimal needs plan. An MNP is something that has the least number of steps required to have an event be successful. It is something akin to the Minimally Viable Product of software development and project management. It is not that I am against details and minutia,. When I am driving, there usually is little need for me to do things like plan my exact stops for fuel or food, or even figure out the the fastest route between points A and B. Beverages and food get packed in a cooler in the car, the car tells me when is likely going to be in need of fuel, and Google Maps finds me a decent route. All I really need to think about, and it is often a brief thought, is when do I need to leave, to be at the place I need to be at?
12:00pm on Friday, August 5th, is the answer to that last question. Basically, I needed to be to the Bismarck, ND, airport by 7:00pm. It’s a 6.1/2 hour drive with 30 minutes built in for fuel and bathroom breaks. Five miles over the speed-limit; I would get there with a nice cushion of time. A couple cold Bragg’s vinegar+juice drinks in the cooler, a few snacks, and Gareth Emery‘s album, Drive: Refueled, on my phone, I headed out. The track, Long Way Home, seemed fitting; I pressed play and headed westward.
Meghann and I pulled into the driveway of her brother-in-law’s house in Bismarck, close to 7:20pm – Meg’s flight had been slightly delayed. Her brother-in-law had nicely offered us a couple rooms at his house for us for the night. I still really did not have a clear picture where we were going to be driving to the next day. North. Towner, maybe Rugby. Why were staying at this house? It was an incredibly nice gesture, allowing us to stay at his house. Sleeping on an air mattress felt very early-twenties-college-esque.
I was the first to wake in the house. Other guests had also showed up later in the night. Meg’s brother-in-law forgot that he had also told some friends from out of town that they could stay at his house. It really did feel like I was back in a shared-college-house. I ducked out for coffee and returned to find the house still a sleep.
Once Meg was up and called some of her in-laws who had a better idea of where things were going to take place and when, we knew we had the morning the kill in Bismarck. After breakfast we headed to the capitol grounds for a walk – Bismarck’s annual Capital A’fair arts & crafts festival was taking place.
After enough wandering, we headed out. Meg was on the phone a bit with her in-laws. Two aunts might be in Garrison. We headed to Garrison.
Miscommunication. The aunts were going to be Minot. We were in Garrison when we found this out.
Garrison, North Dakota, is a small town. A small upper midwestern town. Like many upper midwestern towns with water supporting fish, fish that tourists like to catch & eat — the town has a large fish statue. Garrison is located just north of the east end of Lake Sakakawea. Other upper midwest towns that one could happen upon a giant fish statue include Bena, MN – they are home to a diner shaped like a muskellunge, or the fiberglass walleye in Kabetogama, MN, or, not to be outdone, Garrison, MN, also has a large walleye statue similar to its neighboring state’s Garrison. Most places that have waters that contain walleye fish, will also have signage and statues proclaiming that place to be The Walleye Capital of the World. Not to leave Wisconsin out, in Hayward is home to the North American Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. A giant muskellunge statue can be found there.
We headed to Minot to meet the aunts at a McDonalds for coffee. Driving to Minot, I kept thinking of a book that I had read a long while ago, Big Mutt, by John Reese. It takes place in the North Dakota bad lands – which were just to the west of where we were driving. The book has nothing to do with visiting family in North Dakota. It’s just one of those odd memories that gets triggered periodically by place.
The aunts recalled meeting me at Meg & Bruce’s graduation – years ago. I probably did meet them, but that graduation was a month prior to one of those hard turns in life – our father having a stroke. It is like when I think of around Thanksgiving 2014. I immediately think of our grandmother, Clarice, passing away. However, two days prior to Clarice’s passing, I was best man in a wedding; that fact rarely crosses my mind. Those perceived larger events tend to over shadow those seemingly smaller ones. I’m sure I met the aunts, they remembered me. They gave Meg some old family photos; gave each of us a hug, and we were on our way.
Towner. That was where we were going. The festivities were in Towner, ND.
A family, in general, is odd to an outsider. It might even be weird. There is nothing wrong with this. Every family has that relative, maybe it’s a cousin, or a cousin’s spouse that gets talked about in hushed tones. You know what went on with them, but you still act like you are ignorant. Maybe there is an uncle who hugs just a few seconds too long. Every family has these characters. Some characters are just perceived to be stranger or weirder by outsiders than other characters in the family. Every family is a bit of a community, even if the members of this community are scattered around the country. The birthday party went off without a fuss. Meg and I, not being much of meat eaters, managed to eek out a meal of pasta salad (we eat around the pepperoni), potato chips, and mixed fruit. Many tributes were raised to the birthday boy; he is much loved within the family.
I am not sure how long we were actually in Towner. When a few people left, Meg took the cue that it was time to head to Rugby – the nearest town with a hotel. Rugby is a twenty minute drive east from Towner. When we pulled into the hotel’s parking lot, the sun was still hanging a bit above the western horizon. We were in the hotel for a short time. At 8:30pm, I ran to a store in town to pick something up for Meg. That was about the first time all afternoon and into the evening that I actually knew the current time; the store closed at 9:00pm, but it was just across the road.
The next day, Sunday, we had a small window of time to get in some small town attractions. Rugby claims to be “The Geographic Center of North America.” I immediately started to wonder how this was determined. Was a map used? What was the projection of the map? Would the center be different if the projection was Albers Equal-Area Conic Projection versus Robinson Projection? What is different with this center from the Geographic Center of the Nation, in Belle Fourche, South Dakota?
In addition to the Center monument, which just happens to be in the parking lot of a souvenir shop, Rugby has the World’s Tallest Salesman Exhibit. It was closed, because it was Sunday and still early in the day.
I started to think about these road side attractions as we drove out of Rugby. Next stop: Silva, ND. Yup, another road side attraction. This time, it was a bank vault in a pasture. You see, Silva, ND is a ghost town. There are a few buildings remaining of the what used to be the town. Down a dirt road for a few miles, a left down another dirt road, and we had arrived. Before leaving the hotel, I had read about Silva. It was originally home to Cliff Thompson, the World’s Tallest Salesman. As it turned out, Cliff only lived in Silva until he was seven years old. He eventually ended up in Portland, Oregon where he practiced law, presumably as World’s Tallest Lawyer. Like many small towns, a certain segment of that town’s populace build a cottage industry around the hometown hero who, often, has moved on from that town. Some towns’ heroes have long passed away, like Cliff Thompson, who died in 1955. Other town heroes are still around – like Bob Dylan – who is claimed by my hometown of Hibbing, MN. Small towns are like families, a bit weird to outsiders, but perfectly normal to those that reside within them.
Back to Bismarck where I dropped Meg off at the airport. With Long Way Home streaming from my phone to the car’s stereo, I headed home. I stopped at two more small town attractions, both fitting into the same category of World’s Largest of certain types of bird. In Steele, ND, you can find the World’s Largest Sandhill Crane. And, in Rothsay, MN, you can find the World’s Largest “Booming” Prairie Chicken. Sadly, the prairie chicken statue does not “boom.”
Small towns and families are weird, but, hell, you cannot help but love both of them.