“Bad Route Road”
Exit and turn left
For the Rotten Food Diner
And No-Sleep Motel?
The Badlands? They weren’t so bad. In fact, thanks to a premature winter blast that left them lightly dusted with snow, they looked more like cream puffs when Ace and I passed through Thursday, making it as far as Beach, North Dakota.
Forbidding as it sounds, the pockmarked terrain looked more like a bakery shop, as if powdered sugar had been sifted from above, turning buttes into bundt cakes and craggy pinnacles into cream puffs.
We whizzed from on end of the state to the other, sticking to I-94 and stopping only for coffee, gas, bodily functions and to take a picture of Salem Sue, the world’s largest cow.
On a mountain top in New Salem, whose high school sports teams are named the Holsteins, Sue, who was erected in 1974 to honor the area’s dairymen, overlooks the interstate and is visible from miles away.
Tourists can drive up the mountain’s gravel road and, should they so choose, drop a donation into a milk can. They help pay for her maintenance — and a 38-foot-high, 50-foot-long, six ton fiberglass cow does need maintenance now and then.
I-94 also sports what are touted as the world’s largest metal sculptures, created by artist Gary Greff. Greff, a former school teacher, started fashioning as a way to bring people into the small community of Regent, home base of The Enchanted Highway.
Of course, North Dakota’s landscape is art in itself — both before and after harvest. In late summer, there are fields of sunflowers blooming for miles. By then end of October, only their dark brown stalks remain, curled up and shriveled.
Hay bales dot the roadsides, boxy ones and coiled ones, stacked sometimes higher than houses. On this day, they too were sugar frosted — looking like they belonged in a really big cereal bowl. Just add a little of Sue’s milk, and breakfast could be served.
We didn’t pass through any heavy accumulations of snow — mostly, despite predictions of a blizzard, just a light dusting, but it was enough to draw Ace’s attention. Usually, he only bothers to look out the window when he feels the car slow down. On this 300-plus mile leg of the trip, he spent a long time looking at the scenery, and when we made a pit stop, he was eager to traipse through the snow that was left.
We didn’t stop and camp in the Badlands, as John Steinbeck wrote that he did in “Travels with Charley.” In the book, Steinbeck described how the “unearthly” landscape lost its “burned and dreadful look” as the sun went down, and took on a glow; and of how, in the night, “far from being frightful, (it) was lovely beyond thought …
“In the night the Bad Lands had become Good Lands. I can’t explain it. that’s how it was.”
I too didn’t think the Badlands lived up to their ominous name, probably because of the light snow-coating. Instead they left me with the song “Candy Man,” stuck in my head, and with a strong urge for some bundt cake.
When I finally pulled out of Fargo, I was certain any visions of fall colors were over. No way, I figured, could any leaves still be clinging to their trees. Those winds, like a heartless gang of thieves, surely stripped them bare.
But, as Ace and I traveled west across the state, there were a few bright exceptions: groves of yellow-leafed trees — birch or aspen — that, by virtue of being tightly grouped together, still sported their fall colors.
The only way I can figure it, they were saved by the copse.
By being huddled together in a group, they — at least those not on the periphery — were able to keep their leaves a little longer. They, like early American settlers, bees in a hive and the huddled masses everywhere found safety in numbers.
You don’t hear the word “copse” that much anymore. In “Travels with Charley,” it shows up a few times. When John Steinbeck camped, it was usually in a copse, alongside a river, which is where you’ll generally find the copse — despite what you might have heard about donut shops.
Driving along, I wondered if the copse might hold some lessons for us humans, or at least remind us of some.
When pioneers set forth across America, they did so in groups, depending on each other, and each other’s skills, for their survival. When Indians attacked, pioneers circled the wagons, recognizing that forming, in effect, a copse, was the best defense. They established towns for the same reason — so neighbors would be close, so that help would never be too far away.
And long before that, cavemen and cavewomen learned — apparently from sources other than reality TV — that, by forming alliances, they could better protect themselves from the elements, evil-doers and scary creatures.
For long time Americans lived a copse-like existence. We established a home. We dropped our seed. We watched it grow. Once it did, it stayed around, mingled with other hometown trees and dropped its own seed. Children lived where parents lived. The apple didn’t fall, or roll, far from the tree; it stayed in its parent’s shadow, at least until it ended up in a pie.
Somewhere along the line, that went by the wayside. Children grew up and ventured off, carving their own paths. Mom and dad, once on the periphery of the copse, shielding us from the nasty winds, were relocated to places they can get some assistance with living.
The copse-like closeness has diminished not just in the family, but in the family of man. We’re less inclined, I think, to help each other out. Rather than thinking we’re all in this together, rather than the stronger helping the weaker, the richer helping the poorer, the franchised helping the disenfranchised, we look out for No. 1.
And the more insular we’ve become, the more we fail to stake up those in need of support, the more we turn away from those stuck out in the cold, the more robbers we produce.
In the 21st Century, when it comes to protection, we rely on the cops.
But maybe the real answer is the copse.
He kept Rocinante rolling another 40 miles until he stumbled upon a more idyllic setting — yet another riverside camping spot, this one along the Maple River, near the sleepy little farming town of Alice. There, he just so happened to run into what would turn out to be one of the book’s more colorful characters, an itinerant Shakespearean actor.
Steinbeck would break out the coffee, and the whiskey, and listen as his flamboyant fellow camper explained that he performed Shakespeare around the country, in tents, in high schools … “wherever two or three are gathered together … With me there’s no question of doing something else. It’s all I know — all I ever have known.”
Steinbeck recounted the meeting in great detail — including how the actor unfolded a packet of aluminum foil to reveal a note he once received from John Gielgud. After that, explaining the importance of a good exit, the actor makes one.
Was the Shakesperean actor a dramatic invention in Steinbeck’s classic work of non-fiction? We’ll probably never know. But indications are, just maybe, something is rotten in the state of North Dakota.
From all existing clues, it appears Steinbeck didn’t actually sleep in the town of Alice on the night of Oct. 12, which can only lead one to wonder if the actor was real, or if, like Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath,” he was artfully concocted by the author, most of whose works were fiction.
If so, it wouldn’t be the first discrepancy between Steinbeck’s account in “Travels with Charley” and what his papers and other sources reveal about his 1960 trip.
Many of those are now being brought to light by blogger Bill Stiegerwald as he retraces Steinbeck’s route. (Bill, who we met at the begining of our trip is a good two weeks ahead of me.)
“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 Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960,” Stiegerwald concluded on his blog, Travels Without Charley. “He stayed at… in Beach, N.D., some 300-plus miles to the west.”
This, along with some of the recent stops on our own retracing of Steinbeck’s travels with Charley, brings us back to our discussion of the truth in fiction, and the fiction in truth.
We’re all for the former, but have some problems with the latter. We have nothing against using the techniques of fiction writing in non-fiction — in portraying the innate suspense of a situation, or the turmoil raging inside characters; or in skipping over the boring stuff. (Otherwise, a writer might end up boring readers with something as mundane as tossing french fries to his dog.)
But we’d argue that a reader of books, even a reader of blogs, deserves — like an eater of food — to know what he’s consuming. What sort of liberties an author of non-fiction has taken in processing the facts is information to which a reader should have access, much like a diner should be able to find out what sort of oil a fast food restaurant uses to cook its french fries.
Earlier this week, our “Travels with Ace” took us to Sauk Centre, or as Sinclair Lewis called it in his 1920 novel “Main Street,” Gopher Prairie. “Main Street,” while labeled fiction, exposed many truths about small town life — more, at least initially, than some Sauk Centre residents cared to be exposed, proving that not only does the truth hurt, but fiction can as well.
Our next, and latest, stop was Fargo, which most people know through the Coen brothers movie of same name. The movie starts off with the words: “This is a true story … At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
But “Fargo” — whose characters were mostly portrayed as dull-witted sorts, living in a frozen wasteland — wasn’t a true story at all; rather it was a concoction of the wonderfully degenerate minds of two brothers from neighboring Minnesota.
Both the movie “Fargo” and the book “Main Street” brought some unflattering notoriety to the towns they were depicting — much like Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” offended some Oklahomans.
In addition to criticism that “The Grapes of Wrath” was too political, didn’t accurately describe the migration of farm families from the dust bowl to California, and some nitpicking that Sallisaw, the town it opens in, was not actually part of the Dust Bowl (a fairly major nit), there were those who thought the novel portrayed “Okies” as illiterate hicks.
(Possibly, that’s why when he was traveling with Charley, Steinbeck sidestepped the state of Oklahoma.)
In each case, though, once the dust settled, there was something close to a happily-ever-after ending — some acknowledgement of the truth beneath the fiction, or at least some evidence that any perceived slights were forgiven.
Sauk Centre, where Main Street now intersects with Sinclair Lewis Boulevard, has embraced Lewis, its most famous son, with an annual festival.
In Fargo, chamber of commerce types proclaim there has been “a renaissance” — not so much due to the movie itself, maybe, as to the efforts to show the world there was more to Fargo than the movie portrayed. In 2006, on the movie’s 10th anniversary, it was projected on the side of the Radisson Hotel, the city’s tallest building as part of the Fargo Film Festival.
And even Sallisaw, on the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth, started a “Grapes of Wrath” festival, though it was short-lived. It has since been replaced with the annual Diamond Daze Festival, which isn’t Steinbeck-related at all.
All of which, in addition to just being interesting, serves as proof that — as the maybe real, maybe not Shakespearean actor in “Travels with Charley” might have said — all the world really is a stage.
There’s the Celebrity Walk of Fame at the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, where Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond, Debbie Reynolds, Jesse Ventura and others have left their signatures, handprints and footprints in cement.
There’s the Plains Art Museum, the Fargo Air Museum, the Red River Zoo, and just across the way from my motel, a big mall.
Yes — despite the stereotype of it as a place where boredom reigns, where temperatures lean toward the bitter extremes (and we won’t even go into woodchippers) — there are things to do in Fargo.
We’re just not doing any of them. Instead, we’re holed up in a Motel 6, where I’m flinging french fries into Ace’s mouth.
Why? Because it’s so damn cold.
Just as John Steinbeck, on his trip west with Charley, worried about getting across the northern states before winter set in, we’re beginning to fret as well; only we have ample reason — predictions of a October blizzard.
All night long, the wind rattled the windows of my motel room. The three-to-five inches of snow the local weatherman predicted hasn’t fallen — at least not here, not yet — but the warnings were enough to get me to book another night.
Just walking to the Burger King next door yesterday was bone chilling. Ace thought so, too. As eager as he was to get outside, he was even more eager — once experiencing it — to get back in.
Back in the room, for entertainment, I set aside half of my French fries and, in what’s become a habit during our travels when I get fast food, tossed portions to Ace. He gets the discolored ones, and the pointy ended ones. For some reason, I don’t like my fries to have pointy ends. Though he was on the bed, four feet away, he missed but one fry, snagging each of the rest with a snort.
So far I haven’t seen much of Fargo, and that which I have has been through fast-flapping windshield wipers. The night I arrived, after checking in, I went off in search of downtown Fargo. On my only other trip here, three years ago, I didn’t explore at all. I did, during a stop for lunch, ask a waiter where downtown was, and he informed me there was no downtown. Maybe he was new here, or it was his way of saying Fargo’s downtown didn’t meet with his standards. Maybe he was having fun with tourists.
But I can report there is a downtown, and that the road to it, at least from my motel, is lined with pawn shops. Once there, I couldn’t see much, because it was so dark and rainy, but I sensed tall buildings.
It has remained grey since then. That alone normally wouldn’t keep me inside, but the wind is downright cruel, and the rain is a stinging one and the one time I did go out in the car — to buy dog food — my car door, powered by the wind, attacked me both when I got out and when I got back in.
Even the wildlife thinks it’s too cold. Tonight, when I went downstairs for ice, I saw a rabbit huddled between a trash can and the wall by the motel’s side door, seeking shelter from the wind and rain.
I was going to offer to share my room with him — invite him up for a discolored French fry, maybe suggest he consider relocating to warmer climes — but he ran off when I approached the door.
What weary motorist couldn’t use a jolting cup of Joe, a $5 footlong and a peek into the life, times and works of a long dead novelist?
Exit 127 in Sauk Centre spills you onto Main Street — and it’s not just any Main Street. It’s THE Main Street.
The Sinclair Lewis book of that name, published in 1920, was — though labeled fiction — based on small town life in Sauk Centre, renamed, to protect the not so innocent, “Gopher Prairie” in the book.
A biting satire that exposed the hypocrisy of small town life — showed that, in fact, it was not as carefree, pure and idyllic as it was often portrayed and perceived — the book was denounced by the town, many of whose residents saw themselves and their indiscretions show up within its pages.
With time, though, and in light of the phenomenal success of “Main Street,” not to mention the Nobel Prize for literature Lewis won in 1930, Sauk Centre decided to make the most of its newfound fame.
Since 1930, its population has tripled — it’s up to about 4,000 now — but much of it is unchanged since 1960, when John Steinbeck, a fan and acquaintance of Lewis’, stopped by while crossing the country with his poodle for the book, “Travels with Charley.”
By 1960, Steinbeck noted, Sauk Centre had realized that, whatever embarassment Lewis had caused, he was their claim to fame.
“I don’t know whether or not it’s true, but I’ve heard he died alone. And now he’s good for the town. Brings in some tourists. He’s a good writer now,” Steinbeck wrote in “Travels with Charley.”
Another 40 years after that, parks, streets, campgrounds and more in Sauk Centre bear his name. His boyhood home is a tourist attraction (though closed in the winter). There’s an annual Sinclair Lewis festival, and it seems like every other business uses “Main Street” in its name.
The 21 white pages in the Sauk Centre phone book list a Main Street Real Estate, Main Street Theater, Main Street Cafe, Main Street Chiropractic Center, Main Street Coffee Company, Main Street Photo and more.
Ace and I checked into the Gopher Prairie Motel, operated by Wayne and JoAnn Thorson. They’ve had the motel since 1976, and in 1979 renamed it after the fictional town in “Main Street.”
It was part homage to the book — no one perturbed by its original publication is alive anymore, Thorson noted.
Originally, when he and his wife took it over in 1976, it was the Starlight Motel, one of many Starlight — or Star-Lite — motels in the 1970s, none of which were connected to each other in any way. But when a guest told Thorson she almost didn’t stop there because of a bad experience at another “Starlight,” he decided it was time to change names. So he grabbed one out of fiction.
We willingly coughed up the $5 pet fee and, as directed, refrained from relieving ourselves in the grassy front lawn. The next morning I stopped for breakfast at the Ding Dong Cafe on Elm Street (using a two dollars off coupon from the motel).
There, the world’s most attentive waitress filled my coffee cup nearly every time I took a sip. The only other customers were seven men sat at a long table, alternating between talking politics and playing Yahtzee. The quintessential small town, judging from the quick glance we had, remains one.
We cruised by the high school, and saw that, as we’d heard, the football team is called the “Mainstreeters.” Supposedly, opposing teams gave them that nickname, and they later officially adopted it as their own.
Then I popped into the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center, located at the end of the I-94 exit ramp. There, in addition to restrooms and the Chamber of Commerce, there’s an exhibit on Lewis in the back room, featuring old photos and handwritten outlines, maps and character lists.
Because of its valuable, close-to-the-interstate location, there has been talk of closing or relocating the Interpretive Center. The City Council has voted to sell the property, but no buyers have come forward.
At Greenwood Cemetery, Lewis’ cremated remains are buried next to the graves of his father and mother. His gravestone says:
1885 — 1951
Author of “Main Street”
My original plan for the drive from Madison, Wisconsin to the quiet little town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota — where Sinclair Lewis grew up and which he mercilessly skewered in his book “Main Street” — was to listen to an audio version of the book on the six hour drive.
Sauk Centre was one of the stops John Steinbeck — a fan and acquaintance of Lewis’ — made with his poodle in “Travels with Charley,” though they didn’t seem to spend much time there.
When I told my sister and her husband of my plan, they both got online to find me an audio version of the 1920 book, and managed to turn one up at the library branch in Stoughton, about 30 miles from their home in DeForest.
I drove there to pick it up, planning to mail it back when I was finished. What the Stoughton branch of the library had, though, were cassettes, and I needed a CD. As we all know, this is the American way — to get us all hooked on one form of technology, and then, when we’re not looking it, switch it, leaving us lost, even if we have GPS, which I don’t.
A friendly library staff member checked her computer and rerouted me to the main branch in Madison, printing out directions to help me find my way.
Downtown Madison was easy to find, but somehow I managed to get lost. The state Capitol serves as a nice huge landmark, but because it looks the same from all sides, and because I’d accidentally strayed from the directions, I circled around for about 30 minutes — crossing Madison’s Main Street about six times — before I accidentally pulled up next to the library.
I parked and ran in, only to find what they had wasn’t the book on CD, but a group discussion of the book on CD. Back at the car, where Ace waited patiently, I had a $20 parking ticket.
So when I set off in the pouring down rain from Madison the next day, Sunday, it was, thanks to my sister, with three sandwiches, three apples, two bananas and a Thermos full of coffee — but no “Main Street.”
That segued into “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” which featured Dick Van Dyke as a guest. He revealed something I didn’t know. The theme to the old Dick Van Dyke Show, which went on the air the same year “Travels with Charley” was published, actually had lyrics, though they weren’t written until after the show went off the air.
The lyrics were written by Morey Amsterdam, who always reminded me of my grandfather, who was always quick with a pun and a musical ditty.
I’m not sure how we got from Sinclair Lewis to my grandfather, with stops at John Steinbeck, Garrison Keillor, and Morey Amsterdam. Blame it on the stream of consciousness that tends to babble so briskly — if not always clearly — when I drive.
While they were all fine storytellers, we shall close as we pull into Sauk Centre and get situated in our room at the Gopher Prairie Motel with the sweet and simple words of Mr. Amsterdam, and one more sappy 60’s song — the lyrics to the Dick Van Dyke Show theme:
Why not hold your head up high and,
Stop cryin’, start tryin’,
And don’t forget to keep your fingers crossed
When you find the joy of livin’
Is lovin’ and givin’
You’ll be there when the winning dice are tossed
A smile is just a frown that’s turned upside down,
So smile, and that frown will defrost.
And don’t forget to keep your fingers crossed!