Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Valley City, North Dakota

Beyond the valley and through the rolling country all is silent. A gentle wind brushes to life a few sunflowers standing between wheat fields, thus serving their purpose of safeguarding the crops. The sun has slowly begun to set over the distant dairy farms and grain fields as the bus gets off I-94. It winds through the sunset-lit empty streets and crosses an old narrow brick bridge to finally stop outside a café.

The Hilltop Café is a combination gas station/convenience store/restaurant. From the outside it looks like it’s been here for ages. The rusty wooden exterior needs a new coat of paint and the roof tiles have seen better days. An “Open” neon sign on the window keeps going on and off and the wooden floor just outside the entrance door creaks as I approach the double screen door.

Inside it’s actually cozy. The smell of burgers and fries invades my senses as I come in and I realize that I’m hungrier than I thought. A couple of regular patrons sit by the counter drinking beer and chatting over the loud sound of a hockey game on TV. There are only a few tables to sit at and I decide on the one closest to the door. I look around for a waitress. At a corner table opposite mine, a six-year old boy is sitting, knees perched on the chair, doing homework. Opposite him is his mother who’s helping him. The kid points at me and says something to his mother. When she realizes that there’s a new costumer she raises her finger to me, letting me know that she’ll be right over to take my order.

I look at the menu, but, before I have time to go through it, the waitress is standing next to me, welcoming me, asking if I already know what I’ll be having. The comforting smell of homemade burgers and fries coming from the kitchen makes my decision easy. She calls out for the special of the house and a voice from inside the kitchen yells back, “Alright, honey!” She fetches the pot of coffee from beyond the counter and pours me a cup.

Then she goes back to her kid. Her boy has stopped doing homework and is standing on his chair, scribbling on the steamy windows with the tip of his index finger. On TV someone has scored and it makes a ruckus loud enough to have the waitress call out to the men by the counter to turn the sound down a bit.

As I wait for the food I look outside the window. The sun has already set completely behind the valley and the town seems very much asleep already. No one is outside except a few of my fellow travelers who are smoking or coming out of the convenience store. I sip from my coffee cup when the cook, the waitress’s husband, sets my plate in front of me, a very generous serving of cheesy fries surrounding the very appetizing cheeseburger.

I break into the delicious food in front of me and look outside the window to ascertain how much time I have until my bus leaves. A brand new full moon seems to have propped up behind the old narrow brick bridge. It gives so much light that overpowers the dim street lights. From where I’m sitting I’m able to see almost the whole town. The Sheyenne River quietly streaming down, with such a strong bluish color that reflects the light of the moon perfectly. The succession of bridges, both small and big, that follow the trail of the river that crosses the town. Old standing bridges so beautifully nestled between the moon and the river that gives this town an unusual touch of old romance.

When I finish my cheeseburger and fries, I look back inside and the waitress is still helping her kid. Not wanting to interrupt, I locate the husband, who’s now keeping company with the two regular patrons and watching what seems to be the last quarter of a tied game. I order another coffee to go and ask him to make my bill. I head to the restrooms and when I come back, my bill and a Styrofoam cup steaming wit hot coffee is waiting for me at the table.  I pay up, leaving a $10 bill on the table to settle the $6.50 I owe and grab my coffee and head to the bus.

I settle in my front seat and look out the window at the “Hilltop Café” one more time. The waitress is now clearing my table and the kid is back on his knees perched on the chair. He begins again to scribble something on the steamy windows. The full moon is now hanging high over the town as the bus drives off the parking lot. The waitress is back with her kid trying to finish the homework and before the bus turns to leave I believe I can make out the words that the kid has written on the window, even from the disadvantage point of trying to read them backwards. “HOME” it reads. I smile as we leave the café parking lot behind and soon find enough courage to start believing again in something I thought I had lost forever out here on the road.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful reflections on my home town.

    - Greg Hager