I’m back home for my high school reunion.
I drove alone up Highway 10: the grand adventure I’ve been planning for a while. Had all the time I wanted. I could pull off the road, wander into small towns, browse the antique stores, take pictures of the main streets that otherwise slide by at 30 MPH. I’d eat in a small town café! I’d nod, stoically, to old salts-of-the-earth in seed caps! I’d finally get a chance to explore the undercurrents of this thin river of civilization that winds between the farms and fields. Old Highway Ten: the Voyage Home. Without bringing whales back to Minneapolis, of course. Then again, who knows. I can fit a lot in the back of the Element. Some transparent aluminum . . . no. Concentrate.
My first stop was a corner antique store in Royalton. Either the town’s too small to have a proper downtown or the store was the old downtown. It wrapped around a corner lo, and in the old days before the car, when Royalton was an afternoon's canter from anywhere else, I imagine this was a sedate intersection. The horses would stop at the red light until the Town Signalman ambled over and painted it green. A simpler time. Now the trucks and SUVs barrel past at 70 MPH most of the day, and the building just looks like it’s holding its breath and closing its eyes until the evening comes.
Inside the store was the usual crap heaped high and deep, but there were a few booths of interest: the obligatory Beer Collector’s prizes offered up by indifferent children (these collections always consist mostly of glasses from the 70s, the nadir of the Beer Logo art, with a few cheap metal ashtrays); the booth of Innumerable Doilies; a booth of rusty crap rescued from the back of a barn. One booth, however, would have made an audiophile’s jaw hit the floor: rack after rack of 45s, all neatly re-sleeved and arranged by genre and year. I bought one – the Minnesota Men’s Choir singing the Minnesota State Anthem. I’ll never hear it, but it was commissioned for the 1958 centennial, and items about that event are rather rare. Also bought some 50s Life magazines - $2.50 each, which is cheap – and an obscure soda bottle from 1956, which would roll around in the back of the vehicle for 30 miles until I pulled over and stowed it.
The clerk was a grizzled grey-haired man with bifocals and a sleeveless “Hard Rock Café” T-shirt. He looked like he should be in an old Twilight Zone episode, wearing a pince-nez and a high-collared frock coat, peering with weary bemusement at the hopeful customer who believed this item would bring him happiness; he’d say goodbye in a cryptic fashion, knowing I’d be back in a week, sweaty and sleepless, begging him to take the 45 record back. I can’t get the song out of my head! Ah, but isn’t that where you wanted it to be in the first place? Very well, young man. I can help – for a price.
And then I’d sign over my soul. If the devil was smart, of course, he’d find a way for you to sell your soul in small increments, using some sort of debit card; once you went over 50 percent, it would be his. Half the country would hit 49 percent in three months.
Outside the store, across the street:
It’s like a chapel for extremely tall people.
Back on the road. Next stop:
This is the ultimate small-town tourist trap. A low building surrounded by lawn figurines, in case you want to make an impulse purchase of a 90 pound wolf:
You lookin' at us? You lookin' at us? 'Cause we don't smell nobody else here. You lookin' at us?
The dreck-density rating is delightfully high:
Inside you’ll find narrow dark crap-crammed aisles: buckets of shells, fireworks, cheap toys, a cubic buttload of fake coral (with or without a leaping dolphin), patriotic kitsch, boxes with lacquered lids featuring Noble Indians or Wolves or both, staring stoically at the cloud-shrouded moon. Souvenirs, as we used to understand them. There was a heavy scent of incense, and while I couldn’t quite place the particular stink, it was the same thick aroma that floated through the Spencer Gift stores and record stores in the 70s. The smell of someone burning a paperback guide to the I Ching, perhaps. Outside, attractions you just can't find in yer big important city:
Disclaimer: no men eaten. Back on the road.
Old motel, still in business, with that all-important attribute: AIR. Why use your own? They've got plenty.
Next stop: Staples.
I’ve always loved the Lefty’s sign, and wanted to explore Greater Staples. Alas, the downtown was small and forlorn. There is a movie theater, though, and it still lives. It’s in the Desmarais Buiding, the main commercial structure, built in 1916 with high hopes. It looks tired and bereft now, and that Faye-Dunaway-era wooden renovation didn't really help.
The water tower says "100 years of progress." Even accounting for the most elastic definition of the word, the Desmarais doesn't seem to be leading the way into the 21 century.
The rest of Staples consisted of a Dollar Store, a bar, and many empty storefronts. The old Antique Mall was shuttered, to my chagrin. It used to be a department store, and the ancient sign was remarkably well-preserved:
It's not dead yet, and you can read its history here, if you like. This building was started in 1905; there's an older building next door, abandoned, the room filled with boxes and junk. You can detect the remainder of another BATCHER'S sign - perhaps it was the original store, or an annex. In any case, the ancient door latch still exists, a century or more later:
A local gave me an eye-roll when he saw me take this picture: another dork from the Cities lookin' for local culur.
Down the street, another well-preserved sign from the 60s, complete with Ultra-Modern metal-trimmed overhang:
Nothing had touched Staples in 30 years, it seemed. The train station was grand but forlorn:
Shot this through the window, enhanced in it Photoshop:
Either it's still in use, or that light burns eternally for the Unknown Satchel, lost in 1944. (Actually, it is still in use; the Empire Builder stops here, and the depot is under renovation. So the signs said.)
Did I say nothing had touched the town in 30 years? Hah:
The modern world, piped in hot and strong.
Back on the road. By now I was a bit disappointed. Not in the journey, necessarily; I was having a grand time. I found Mark Davis on the XM radio feed – he had a talk radio show in DC in the early 90s, and I’d always thought he had some of the best radio chops I'd ever heard. I'd listened to some old radio. I'd listened to some old Shelly Berman comedy albums I'd found. (Larry David's "dad" on "Curb," if you're curious; he was a sharp "intellectual" comic in the 60s observational humor, dry 'n' wry, gently neurotic. For lack of a better word, a grown-up.) I had not, however, eaten or taken in any coffee. So. I stopped at a truck plaza for gas, and considered eating there – but once inside I got a flash of all the truck-stop meals I’d ever had. The Rote-burger with those puffy fries, the coffee in the brown mug that’s never quite hot enough. Couldn’t take it.
I waited at the counter to pay for my gas. There was a young woman buying a liter of Mountain Dew. Tweety-bird T-shirt over a capacious gut, lank hair, smeared glasses. She picked up a lighter shaped like a beer mug and tried to light it. She couldn’t.
An older woman joined her; she was obviously the mom. Short, squat, grey hair, sweat pants, beady eyes. Whasat?
"Look ma, it’s a lighter in a little beer mug. But I can’t get it to worrrrk."
“Like this,” said the clerk. She showed her how the handle summoned the gift of Prometheus.
“Aaaaah,” said mom and daughter. The clerk gave the younger woman her change.
“New pennies,” said the clerk.
“I guess,” said the daughter. “Shiny.”
They waddled off, headed home. Where thirty years from now the daughter will still live, sitting in the same old chair, surrounded by the figurines Mom collected. Frogs. She loved frogs. Couldn’t get enough frogs.
Back on the road. I stopped at a fast-food joint for a salad, which was made entirely of a strange albino form of lettuce. Not an atom of greenery in the entire thing. I guess they figure that if you’re one of those salad people, you’ll take what you’re given.
Back on the road. Music time. I switched to the 70s playlist on the iPod, and it was one guilty pleasure after the other. If I could sum up the entire trip thus far in one joyous moment, it would be the time when I came alongside a train, the iPod kicked up “TSOP,” and I disco-danced in place until “Anarchy in the UK” came on, at which point I floored it and outran the train.
And then came Wadena, which redeemed everything. The story, such as it is, continues tomorrow. See you then.