BEACH, N.D. -- Flying J Restaurant
I don't know what John Steinbeck did for laughs on the night of Oct. 12, 1960, when he slept in this agricultural town of 925 people on his way to Montana and Seattle.
In a letter to his wife Elaine he said he was about to take a bath in a motel he jokingly called "the Dairy Queen."
That night in Beach he could have gone to the Bijou Theater a few blocks away and seen Alec Guinness in "Our Man In Havana," a good little movie that was shot in oppressive Havana shortly before Fidel Castro came to power and made everything perfect.
Steinbeck probably didn't go to see a movie for the same reason I didn't go to the Bijou last night to see Angelina Jolie star in "Salt." We had both spent our days driving almost 408 miles across North Dakota and we were both beat.
I spent this morning checking out Beach and trying to pin down where Steinbeck slept as part of my insane one-man, no-dog quest to separate fiction from fact in Steinbeck's classic "Travels With Charley."
Based on my quick spin around town, Beach is a mix of perfectly nice homes and some shabby ones, old neighborhoods and new.
Beach seems to have everything it needs -- several churches, a couple of banks, a county courthouse, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a few shaky restaurants, a busy railroad line in its city-center and one of those cool town water towers that looks like a rocket taking off.
Beach is in no way quaint or charming or hip or artificially polished by local boosters to appeal to tourists. It is what it is and it looks to a parachuting journalist like what it is -- a working-class town.
Susan Davidson, the Golden Valley County recorder, prefers the term "blue-collar."
I had stopped in her office at the courthouse shortly after 8 this morning. I explained what I was doing, begged forgiveness for my superficial assumptions about her fine town and got the names of some local historians.
I also found out a few things I could never have learned just from driving around town:
-- Beach's economy, like the rest of North Dakota, is doing better thanks to the regional oil boom. Unemployment is down. A local entrepreneur was starting up a vineyard east of town on old US 10.
-- You should eat at the La Playa Mexican restaurant downtown, not at the Flying J at the I-94 exit -- where I ate two perfectly fine breakfasts.
-- And you should go to the Prairie Fire Pottery, where Tama Smith's beautiful high-kiln pottery creates little traffic jams during the summer by pulling thousands of cars and RVs off I-94.
By noon, I had stopped by the Prairie Fire Pottery and the office of the Golden Valley News newspaper. I had also snooped around some shrub-strangled tourist cabins behind the liquor store on Old Highway 10.
I also talked to Harold Lassell, a lifelong Beach resident who said he was the oldest living mechanic in the county.
Lassell, 86, instantly became the last word on what the intersection of US 10 and 1st Avenue NW looked like 50 years ago.
He didn't just know the names of the owners of the Westgate Motel, the owners of the Dairy Queen that sat diagonally across from it and the owners of the long-gone tourist cabins on the empty lot across the street from the Westgate. He also knew whether they were dead or alive.
Lassell looked at my crude map of the intersection. He listened patiently to all the evidence I had marshaled:
John Steinbeck came into town from the east on US 10. The Westgate was the only modern motel near enough to the Dairy Queen to become a joke. Steinbeck called it a "motel" in his letter, not a "cabin."
Lassell agreed with my TV-detective logic and my conclusion -- it is almost certain that Steinbeck slept in one of the Westgate's 11 motel rooms exactly 50 years and one day before I happened to stay there myself after a series of coincidences.
I don't know what room he and Charley stayed in. But I was in Number 5 and I slept well and encountered no ghosts.
UPDATE, Dec. 7, 2010: Doug Davis of Bozeman, Mt., was only eight in 1960, but his father owned the Westgate Motel and the Mobil gas station and small picnic grounds next to it.
Davis, who called me from Bozeman after hearing I was looking for information, grew up helping his mother run the Westgate. He did everything from cutting the grass and cleaning rooms to "mangling" sheets in the motel's basement.
After Davis' mother died in late November, he said, he and his older brother found all the motel's registration books, including those from the fall of 1960, stored at her house -- and threw them all out in the trash.
No Davis-family lore talks about John Steinbeck visiting the motel, which his uncle designed and his father built in 1949. But Davis believes the Westgate was Steinbeck's "Dairy Queen" motel.
It was the only "modern" hotel in Beach in 1960. Across the street were "It Happened One Night"-style cabins, but they wouldn't have had what the Westgate definitely had in each room on Oct. 12, 1960 -- a bathtub.