Thursday, September 11, 2014

Steele, North Dakota

You can see the world’s largest sandhill crane statue all the way from I-94 almost from a mile away. The first time you see it, it surprises you cause it’s so unexpected. It’s sundown on the prairie and on the horizon way  out west for as far as your eyes can see, and as the Greyhound pulls off the interstate and stops for supper, the sandhill crane statue up close feels iluminated by this burning orange prairie sunset sky which makes it an even more unexpected surprise. It seems to stand guard on this tiny place at the side of the interstate, so far away from anywhere, 60 miles to Jamestown to the east and 45 miles to Bismark to the west and nothing else in between. The statue faces the interstate and up there from its vantage point it seems to serve as a welcoming sign to the tired and hungry drivers as it stands on the same grounds as the “Lone Steer Cafe, Motel & Casino”.

I’ve seen quite a few places like this on the road, but none quite like the “Lone Steer”. I step into the cafe and the first thing that catches my attention are a couple of flies hovering over the apple pie display case.  That doesn’t help sell the place for me but this will be the last chance for a real meal before I reach Montana in the early morning. The waitresses seem to be more concerned with the local news gossip on the radio than to attend to the costumers. It seems Old Joe will spend another night in jail for riding his bicycle naked again. That is enough to have them laughing hysterically. I wonder how old Joe really is and how many times has he done it before or how senile or bored he must be to keep doing it. One of the waitress keeps chewing gum while the other is smoking a cigarette and they seem to me to be much older than they probably are. Only after my fellow patrons in the Greyhound come in after finishing smoking their cigarettes outside, and make a commotion, do the waitresses turn the radio low, drop the cigarette butt beyond the counter and the chewing gum under the grill and turn their attention to the costumers.

I’m still not sure what I’m having so I scan the menu for anything that catches my attention. One of the waitresses, Kitty, approaches my table and serves me coffee and asks what I’ll be having. I ask about their specials and if she will recommend anything. She recommends the blue-plate special with all the fixins and that actually sounds good to me. While I wait for my meal I look at the sandhill crane still hanging high over this place. The sunset has already been replaced by the first signs of dark outside but the sandhill crane still seems to cast the remains of that burning orange sky.  After I finish my blue-plate special I ask for the check and Kitty asks if there’ll be anything else. I say no, but she interrupts me by saying “Hone, you shouldn’t leave without trying our apple pie. It’s our specialty. We make it ourselves”. I can still hear the buzzing of those flies, even over the conversations, hanging over that display case, but can’t honestly have the nerve to say no to Kitty’s big smile. I say that I’m still full from the blue-plate special and ask her if she can wrap the pie for me to go. She says “Sure hone, I’ll put in an extra large slice for you.”  Kitty hands me the pie wrapped up in tin foil and I pay up at the counter leaving her a generous tip.

Outside the café it’s starting to get colder and darker. The lights of the motel office are on but there’s no other lights on in the place, which makes me wonder if anyone’s staying at the motel or if maybe they are at the next door casino. From the outside, I can’t even guess if the casino is open for business. In fairness, there’s a penetrating silence surrounding the parking lot that is only tempered by the distant traffic on I-94 and by a few rushes of wind every once in a while. I’m called in to board the bus and I take a long deep breath. The cold wind on my face invigorates me and I pass the sandhill crane statue on my way to the bus and finally take on the true measure of it. It seems to be so much bigger now than what I first realized when I arrived here. And as I take a final look at it from inside the bus as we’re already on our way to enter I-94, it still stands tall over the place and seems to irradiate light to the parking lot and the café. I fall asleep on the bus thinking who’d ever thought of putting such a thing in that place. I awake in the middle of the night. I look outside for a few minutes and all I see is the dark, interrupted from time to time by the headlights of oncoming buses and trucks going east in the opposite direction as our bus. I look around me and everyone is sleeping except the driver and me. It’s probably 3 or 4 in the morning and there’s at least another 3 hours before we stop again and I’m feeling hungry again. I remember the apple pie that still sits under the tin foil in the seat next to me. It’s still warm and I eat it without leaving any single crumb. The best damn apple pie I ever had, I think to myself, while looking outside the window at the dark cold American night.

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