Town Without People

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 08:29 AM Written by 

BISMARCK, N.D. -- McDonald's

 One minute I was in Moorhead, Minn., the next I was in deepest downtown Fargo.

I can see how John Steinbeck missed out on seeing much of Fargo because he was sort of swept along by the traffic. Just keeping track of US 10 -- those dumb one-way city streets again -- was too hard for me.

 I lost its signs and then found them again just as US 10 disappeared under the interstate that was built on top of most of it all the way across North Dakota and Montana all the way to Seattle.

 DSC_2011_copyI got to metropolitan Alice, N.D., via I-94 and County Road 38 about 1:30 p.m.

Not a soul was there to greet me. Hardly a soul is left in Alice, which sits in the middle of a flat agricultural zone -- what 99 percent of North Dakota apparently is.

 The town, like some big cities Back East we know and love, has bled population since 1960, but it started out with about 150 people. Now it's closer to 50 and the post office is gone, the grain silo is gone, the school is gone and the Catholic Church, St. Henry's, is gone.

There's still plenty of room in the town cemetery, though.DSC_2015

 To find out this sad local history, I needed a human. To find one of those, I had to hail a farmer who was running a big tractor on the edge of his 1,400 acre farm. His wife -- he pointed to a dust cloud half a mile away -- was running the family combine.

 The farmer, who didn't want the whole world wide web to know his name, grows wheat and soybeans and not corn (like most of his neighbors) because wheat doesn't take as many people or tractors to produce.

 I told him the story about Steinbeck coming to his flat corner of the world to camp out by the Maple River 50 years ago and asked if he knew a spot where Steinbeck could have pulled off the road. It turns out there could be a dozen such spots.DSC_2004_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

The friendly farmer went back to his disking.DSC_2024

I drove around the endless sea of dense yellow cornstalks that rattled in the relentless, not very friendly wind.

 I went to several places where the gravel farm roads intersect the meandering Maple River -- creek, really. But I had to give up and -- as my GPS Girl always says -- "take the highway."

 Contrary to what he wrote so nicely and in such detail in "Charley," Steinbeck didn't camp overnight near Alice on the Maple River or anywhere else on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960.

As he told his wife in a road-letter, he stayed at what he called the "Dairy Queen Hotel" in Beach, N.D., some 300-plus miles to the west. That's where I'm headed -- the Beach -- after a 39-degree overnight sleep in my RAV4 in the Bismarck Walmart parking lot.

 I was fine under my blankets and sleeping bag and actually slept too late. I had tried to get a motel room under $125 in this oddly popular filled-up town, but there was none available in an affordable place I could trust.

The Dairy Queen Motel in Beach -- or whatever it was really called -- apparently is gone now. But maybe I can find some of its remains when I get there later today -- as soon as I defrost my laptop.

UPDATE, Dec. 8, 2010: The downside -- and danger -- of doing drive-by journalism is that you don't take the time to do all the reporting you should.

I should have realized then, but didn't, that the Maple River flows south past Alice on the west side of town but then doubles back and swings northeast and passes to the east of the town.

Steinbeck didn't camp overnight at Alice. But he could have stopped by the edge of the Maple River somewhere for a few hours.

If he did, there are several places about 4 to 6 miles to the southeast and east of Alice where local roads intersect the snaking, tree-lined Maple River.

Did he pull over at one of those quiet spots to eat his lunch? Maybe. Did he meet an itinerant actor there? Possibly. It's just not very probable -- east or west of Alice.

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