Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dickinson, North Dakota

For hours there was nothing but darkness. Crossing North Dakota in the middle of the night offers no relief from sleep. The landscape that adorns I-94 becomes invisible. All the way from Fargo where I boarded the bus at one in the morning the prairie has eluded me. Four hours later we arrived here and although the town seems to be asleep I can see as I step off the Greyhound a bright red sky taking shape in the horizon to the east.

The parking lot of the “Paragon Bowl” doubles as a bus depot and this cold October early morning wind is a nice change from the rarefied AC air of the bus. Across the road is the “Queen City Motel” with its parking lot packed with pickup trucks full of hunting gear. A street light flickers every once in a while above me and in the distance, howls of prairie dogs and coyotes echo through the grasslands. A couple of pickup trucks are parked outside the “Paragon Bowl”. Inside the cabs, waiting patiently for their owners to come back, sit a couple of Pointer dogs.

Inside the “Paragon Bowl”, the place is surprisingly packed at five in the morning. A mixture of late night partiers and early morning risers seem to fill the 24-hour restaurant and lounge. A group of hunters sit in the restaurant and talk to the bartender who is complaining about the meth addicts and the high school drop outs who are sipping their beers by the bowling lanes. The bartender takes the hunter’s orders for bacon and eggs and heads to the kitchen as the hunters each boast to one another about last year’s hunting season and predict a drop in number of game as this year’s waterfowl season is beginning. I sit by the exit door so I can check on the bus. The bartender comes back from the kitchen and serves the hunters their grub and asks me what I’ll have. I scan the menu and the smell of bacon and eggs has me tempted but I decide instead on coffee and a blueberry muffin. I still got a long way to go on the road and they’ll be plenty of chances to clog my arteries before I reach my destination.

At the lounge adjacent to the restaurant the lights are turned down real low. The lights of a TV set mounted in the wall keeps flickering and from afar I am almost certain I can see Sterling Hayden and Marilyn Monroe in “The Asphalt Jungle”, a favourite film of mine. The sound of the TV seems to be muted and I wonder if that TV set is ever turned off or if it keeps playing whether somebody’s watching or not. The dogs in the pickup trucks outside bark as an answer to the hungry howls of the prairie digs and the coyotes. The hunters have finished their breakfast pretty quickly and ask the bartender for the usual doggie bag. They pay and leave the restaurant, opening the front door which reveals the first signs of sunlight, still weak as it is. A commotion from the lanes has the bartender reaching for a baseball bat under the counter and threatening the meth addicts and the high school drop outs that this is their last warning. I look at them and among the six or seven that make up the group, all in their twenties, I see a young girl much younger than the rest, who seems to be out of place. Her behaviour is the opposite of the others and I wonder what she’s doing with them, the sole female of the group. I catch her looking at the TV in the lounge and then she catches me looking at her. I tip my cap at her and she just turns her attention back to the TV. They start laughing a little too loud and the bartender has no other option than to jump behind the counter, which seems to silence them for now. I take this as my exit sign, not wanting to be caught up in an awkward situation. I take my muffin and pay up on my way out.

Outside, in the parking lot of the “Queen City Motel”, hunters pack their hunting gears into their pickup trucks and their dogs are barking like crazy in anticipation. The street lights suddenly begin to be turned down one by one and are slowly being replaced by the first morning light. A block east down the road, the neon sign of the “Oasis Motel” is suddenly turned on which I find curious. Emerging from the parking lot are a group of men all geared up for oil drilling I’m sure, with their hard hats and work gloves on. I hear the Greyhound engine coming to life and the driver stepping out and heading to the “Paragon Bowl” with a coffee thermos. Inside the bus most of its occupants open their eyes and watch the sun starting to rise for a few seconds and then go back to sleep. The driver comes back from the “Paragon Bowl” with his thermos steaming with hot coffee and stands next to me by the door of the bus. Some of the high school drop outs emerge from the “Paragon Bowl” as well and stand by the parking lot acting drunk and talking loudly to each other. They head out each in a different direction. Looking at them the driver tells me, in between sipping his coffee, that he finds it ironic that this place was once dubbed the “Queen City of the Prairies”. In the “Queen City Motel” parking lot, the dogs keep barking as the hunters are ready to drive away. A yellow school bus stops just outside the “Oasis Motel”, picks up the oil drillers and drives away.

I board the Greyhound as the driver is announcing on the speaker that we should reach our next scheduled stop in Billings, on time. I look around the town one last time as we’re driving towards I-94 and at six in the morning it has finally quieted down, leaving it deserted it seems. At the intersection before entering the interstate, the bus stops at a stop sign and I look out the window and see the young girl from the “Paragon Bowl” standing at the crossroads seemingly doing nothing. She’s looking at the horizon to the northeast where the grassland starts. I look in the same direction and witness one of the most beautiful sunrises I ever saw. The bus drives off into I-94 and the arresting beauty of this North Dakota prairie sunrise keeps hovering over the oil fields and the farm lands and it seems to follow me for miles all the way through the Montana borderline.

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