It’s been a while since I took Highway 10 at night, and I’m sure things have changed. The Turkey might be dark.
On a hill in Frazee stands Big Tom, a symbol of local industry. I know I pulled off one night to see it glowing behind the trees. I wonder if it’s lit all night. I wonder if the bird greets the dawn with a quiet click! as the lights go off, or whether it goes dark at 1, and kids coming home from a party in the fields know they’ll be in trouble if Big Tom isn’t shining.
I know there was a neon sign outside the Country Manor Motel, but it’s gone now. The Motel was converted to apartments. To be honest, it was already apartments for a while before they admitted the obvious - there’s not much reason to tarry at that spot unless your log book says you have to pull over. I don’t know if I ever saw it lit. At some point the tubes lose their electrified essence. People think, sign’s out. After a while people think: sign’s never coming back. It takes a bit out of the town when a light goes off for good.
I know I went through Staple at nights, because you didn’t have a choice. Now Highway Ten has a bypas , and you needn’t spend a second in Staples. Wave when you pass, and wave farmer-style: one finger raised from the wheel in greeting.
Maybe you pulled over at the SuperAmerica to gas and grab some coffee and use the bathroom in the back. Clean enough. The machine on the wall offered condoms for a few quarters. Several varieties, too. You didn’t have to ask Sally at the counter, which was good, because you went to high school with Sally, and it would be awkward.
It’s still awkward, because you don’t have much to say to each other, even though you’ve known each other all your lives. She was one of those people who was a few desks over, and that was all there was. Her mom didn’t know your mom. Her dad bought something from your dad once.
Then you drove through downtown to get back on the highway, and saw the signs: Lefty’s bar, neon still burning. The marquee for the movie theater. The sign for a bar called The Spot: three concentric red circles and an arrow, blinking in sequence to guide you right where you had been telling yourself you didn’t want to be, but here you are, turn signal on, waiting for the traffic to clear so you can drive into the gravel lot. It’s a hot night and your engine ticks when you turn it off, a metronome for a one-verse song.
Now the bypass means you can keep going. I always pull over and spend a few dollars. Staples or Wadena, that’s the point where some coffee helps.
There’s an intersection on Ten where you're supposed to slow down, because there’s a town here. You don’t see it. There’s a bar and an old empty gas station and a sign that says BUSINESS DISTRICT; it points north. There’s a sign for the Lions. There's a sign for the local high school team, because they won the AA tourney in '86. (GO HAWKS) All that’s to the north. Here there’s an intersection and a sign that drops you down to 45 and a light on a string that’s never been anything but yellow.
It’s a quiet drive. Everyone’s asleep because everyone has to get up. Once upon a time, the story goes, pilots could look out the window and see the lights in town go off after Cedric Adams finished his broadcast on WCCO. That was the end of the day, and the last sound you heard before you dropped off was your creaky farmhouse bedsprings as you settled in bed.
Maybe you heard a car on the highway, but those were common as cicadas in August. You never wondered where the cars were going; the sound never made you want to leave. A train whistle can reach across the prairie and put a hook in your heart that could drag you to the other end of the country, but a car’s just a car.
You don’t run out of Minnesota gradually; it happens all at once. New York Mills could be anywhere, southeast or north. Detroit Lakes is bustling, with a proud old downtown and the smell of fish and weeds. The small towns along Ten ought to be moribund, but they’re close enough to Fargo - the big city - and people who don’t like living close come out here to live wide. Then Moorhead, a town that wrecked its downtown for urban renewal and still seems stunned by the stupidity of the act. Then the river and the lights of Fargo.
I can’t tell you if the 1st Bank Sign’s neon bars are going up or down to tell you the temp, but I can tell you that they did, once.
Anyway! Don’t know how I got started on that.
In unrelated news, Garrison Keillor wrote a piece about driving around Minnesota at night. Fine novelist, and deserves all the credit and acclaim he got for his radio show - not my style, from the music to the skits, but this is a minority opinion, and the show’s popularity and longevity testifies to its creator’s talents. But I've never thought they extended to the short form. Here’s a recent essay that ran in my paper. (I know how that sounds. MY paper! He’s in MY paper!)
He’s driving on Highway Ten, I gather. At night. Doesn’t name the road.
All last week I got to drive around Minnesota late at night, drifting through the little towns, just me and the truckers out on the road and Merle and George and Emmylou on the radio. I was doing a little dog-and-pony show around my home state and I like driving at night. Less traffic, more romance. You look ahead down the open road and you’re no longer an old retired guy in a suit and tie, you’re a Woody Guthrie song, you’re a man on the run, you’re the perpetrator of the biggest art heist in years, with Hopper’s “Nighthawks” under a blanket in the backseat along with “American Gothic” and six Jackson Pollocks. It’s a big backseat.
Okay. That whole sense-of-place thing Well, that’s the next paragraph.
The yard lights of farms sweep by, some well-kept farms, some ragged ones, and fields waiting for planting, and scraggly woods and old mobile homes half-hidden in woods. You feel the contours of the hills and valleys, the creeks and rivers, you watch the ditches for suicidal deer.
Hmm: must be driving south; not a lot of hills and valleys on 10.
There used to be late-night DJs who would send out dedications from listeners — “This is for you, Wayne, and she says she still cares about you” and he’d play “I Fall to Pieces” — but the stations all seem automated now, waiting to be sold at a loss for tax purposes.
I listen to satellite radio, and the 60s channel has a guy called “Cousin Brucie.” Don’t listen to that channel very much, but the other night he was taking requests and talking to truckers and shut-ins and anyone else who was a teen at the time. I thought what I usually thought: like most of the DJs on Sirius, he was someone once, somewhere else. The VeeJays of the 80s channel. Magic Matt on the 70s channel. Paused in the Target lot and googled his name - indeed. The man’s 81 and goes back to the Beatles. Still working. The engineers give him a little reverb, because that was the style back then.
All these old talents had a single market locked up for a while. Now they're painting the whole country with their voices.
Meanwhile, you stop at the gas station/mall for coffee and are stunned by the sheer number of potato chip varieties: bacon, B-B-Q, blue cheese, green onion, balsamic, jalapeño, mesquite, garlic, guacamole, dill pickle, rockin’ picante, spicy Cajun, three cheese, Szechuan, sour cream, wavy mango, wasabi, BLT, plus “natural” and “old-fashioned” and “40% less fat” chips. A potato chip is a potato chip. Do we really need all this?
Again, the guy’s got his thumb on the common carotid, no? You really get the sense of the delights and melancholy pleasures of a late-night drive through small-town America, no?
Speaking as someone whose family runs a gas station: The reason for the variety isn't because we need all this but because people want all this, and the store provides. If they don’t sell we don’t reorder.
There is news on the radio: a new tax plan, a government shutdown (no? yes?), the chance of a “major major” conflict with North Korea, a big harangue against the press, but it’s meaningless. The fabulist in the Oval Office has mesmerized us, like the boy in my fourth-grade class who kept letting poots, as we called them. He pooted frequently and in various musical tones, and we sat waiting for the next one, and as a result we did poorly in math and now we can’t figure out our laptops, but out here on the ribbon of highway, the land goes on and on and on, and there is a new life waiting out ahead.
He hasn’t changed at all. No matter what the topic, his hatred of the right is always waiting in the wings to take the stage like Daffy Duck beating a bass drum and clashing cymbals. Wrap it up with some sonorous booshwa that sounds American - the ribbon of highway, the land that goes on, and new life where a man can still learn things, like the math he couldn’t grasp because a kid in fourth-grade had gas.
Now the line that gives it all away, and he can’t even see the admission:
At home I am an old liberal but out here at 2 a.m., I am all about freedom.
That’s an interesting distinction. I find it hard to believe that a writer like Keillor doesn’t see how this might be an unintentional revelation to the careless reader, so it’s assume he meant the distinction ironically.
All I need from the government is a good road — I don’t need the government to put up signs warning me to fasten my seatbelt and drive carefully and dim my headlights for oncoming traffic. On some straightaways, headlights on high beam, I hit 80 and 90. Let Bambi’s mother look out for me.
Now the paragraph that gives you the bitter pit at the heart of the old mealy fruit:
At home I try to be kind, but out here, to the disgruntled voter who feels ignored by Washington, I say, “Put away the 12-pack and the three-cheese chips, lose the gut, stop smoking, turn off the TV. Papa is not responsible for your sad life. Go back to school, arise at dawn, take brisk walks, think big, show your kids how it’s done.” That’s me talking at 70 mph.
That’s a man driving in the dark, yelling at farmhouses and angry about wasabi potato chips. You wonder if he had to invent a fictional place full of curious Lutherans because the actual residents of such a place were a constant disappointment.
Out west of Detroit Lakes (ed note: that would be Highway Ten now, and the phrase “out west” is perhaps meant to give the WaPo audience a sense of being lost in the expanses of the Great Plains. He’s out west now! Eh. It's half an hour to Fargo if you floor it) tuned to classic country, Emmylou’s fragile voice drifts in with “I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham, I would hold my life in his saving grace,” from an album I listened to over and over back in the ’70s sitting in a basement working on a novel that even then I knew was going nowhere.
I admire that guy. He was young and naive, uncowed, indomitable. Now I’m old and cautious and on Social Security, a burden on the rest of you, but it ain’t over yet. I could still make my mark in the world.
“Humblebrag” is a useful portmanteau.
It’s a great country. Nuts to the guy writing the executive orders. He is a lightning bug in the marsh. I could shuck him and head west and get me a job bartending in Bismarck and listen to the scuttlebutt of the drifters and barflies, weave their b.s. into a musical called “Beautiful Losers” and earn 45 million bucks and buy an island in the Caribbean.
You sense he drives at night so he doesn’t have to meet anyone.
I was kidding about the paintings in the backseat. That was fake news. At 2 a.m. going 75 mph just east of Fargo, I think I am on the verge of doing something really good. You watch and see if I don’t.
I have other things to do, but good luck. Keep in touch.
Another week of our old friend, the Worst is Yet to Come. What horrors are about to befall ordinary Americans now?
Ha ha he's going to vomit
Oh no, no, not another Western
Something is keeping me from going through every detail of the plot, and it could be sheer boredom. If you remember last week, Zorro, who isn't, was about to be forced to remove her mask. This would reveal her secret identity, which is terribly importance in the Zorro business.
Run away! Then, stuff happens:
That's pretty much it. She goes to the Wounded Prospector's tent, and Hammond's men decide it's time to put those bowling skills to good use:
How did she escape? Tune in next week. We'll be done with this one quickly, and then . . . oh, I can't wait.
That should be enough. If it's not I can't help you.
No, I can! Five 1933 World's Fair postcards below.