Extract 9 from Toad’s Road-Kill Café and we’re in North Dakota, the journey almost completed. I met some kind, decent people on that trip and received a lot of unsolicited hospitality. This particular encounter, with a guy I met on the banks of the Missouri river, reminds me how the typical westerner conducts himself with a stranger.
Probably The World’s Biggest Collection of Hot Wheel Cars
I’d left my car on the road that sloped down towards the water’s edge, and walked out a few hundred yards along the mud-flats. It was dry enough under foot, the ground being covered with bits of straw, broken branches, swirls of driftwood and other trash where successive waves or tidal shifts had cast them over the past winter, and, the mud being clay and this being the springtime, it was starting to crack, even as the new season’s weeds started to poke their way through the litter. Around me were dozens and dozens of grey tree-stumps, widely spaced, their outlines not as sharp as they once were, their flat tops now frayed and weathered, the bark all gone, the trunks slowly being eaten into by deep vertical crevices. They were all chopped off at about the same height, a few feet above the river-bank I was standing on. If these trees – cottonwoods, most of them – were still growing, and if the under-brush were still there, then I might at last be seeing something like the country Captains Lewis and Clark battled through as they hauled their boats this way in the autumn of 1804, the kind of country where Dolores Westover picked grapes on golden autumn days in the 1940s. For there, as if at the end of a wide, gently shelving beach, was the broad expanse of the Missouri, half lake, half river, and subject to a pattern of rise and fall ordained not by Nature but by the Corps of Engineers.
I stood there for some time, enjoying the fresh breeze and the sun. I even knelt down to place the flat of my hand on the warm dried mud. It reminded of the very best of spring days when you’ve just planted a row of seeds, when you can feel the heat and the moisture in the ground and know that another growing season is finally under way and that you’ll be back, day after day, until you finally see the line of inverted u-shaped shoots crack the surface.
When I stood up I could see once more what an odd landscape this was. I wondered why the trees had been felled, and by whom, and when. It was starting to cloud over now, and I realised that if it had been one of those cold, grey days you can get up in the Dakotas in early May it would have looked heart-breakingly bleak. Even on a day like this it had a slightly post-Apocalyptic look, especially when I turned back to the car and saw the whole scene against a background of giant grey boulders which had been tipped along the bottom of the low mud cliffs that formed the boundary of the lake, or river, or whatever it was.
By the time I got back to the car I had company. Up the hill a way was an old station-wagon, and parked right beside my car was a pick-up with the County logo on the side and two men in grey overalls standing there talking. They were working on some sort of Conservation project. Duane, slightly the older of the two, and wearing a John Steinbeck beard, remembered the trees being cut down. “Wasn’t long after they first flooded the valley,” he told me. “Must’ve been forty years ago, maybe more. Real cold winter. The ice was two feet thick, and a bunch of guys applied for licences to cut them for firewood. You crouch down you can see they’re all the same height above the water – so you can more or less guess where the ice came up to.”
We chatted for a while about the river. Duane told me that once I got north of Mandan and Bismarck, the state capital, I should find something like the original littoral. And, he added, if I was wanting to camp I ought to try Sugarloaf Bottoms, along towards Fort Rice Historic Site.
I headed north along the side of what was, he assured me, still Lake Oahe. The hills were starting to press in from the west, slightly domed hills not unlike the ones I’d seen in an illustrated version of the Lewis and Clark Journals, although when those drawings were made the hills were covered with the circular, straw-roofed houses of the Mandan Indians.
I pulled in at Sugarloaf Bottoms, and looked around. The sky was now grey, the wind had got up, and the tall trees, still bare, looked gaunt and unfriendly. Old cottonwood branches don’t make the cheeriest fires: they’re inclined to be grudging, especially if they’re damp. I checked my AAA CampBook, got back in the vehicle, and was halfway to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park (dump station, museum, snack bar, flush toilets, snowmobiling) when I saw an ageing station-wagon coming up behind me flashing its lights. As it pulled out and drew level I saw it was Duane, flagging me down.
“Not much of a night coming up,” he shouted against the now strengthening wind.
I had to agree with him. “I’m heading for Abe Lincoln,” I said.
He shook his head. “Follow me into Mandan and I’ll cook you a deer sausage supper. Shot it myself last fall. You can sleep in our spare room.”
Duane’s house was a modest, comfortable place quite close to downtown Mandan. It had a basement, a double garage, an airy ground floor and a little back garden. As he cut off a couple of fat, foot-long sausages from a string and tended to the potatoes, he started talking. It would be a while before he stopped.
“I just retired. Thirty years a high school teacher. Maths. Never made more than $30,000 in a single year, but I guess that’s enough up in North Dakota. Hell, I built this house on it, back in the seventies. And I got a Presidential Citation. Had to go to Washington, of course.” He whacked a machete through the half-frozen sausage. “Never got to meet Slick Willy Clinton, though. He was otherwise engaged. Had to make do with Hillary. And then I retired, and one day I was chewing the fat with a few guys I have coffee with down at the bake-shop. We play dice, and the loser buys the donuts,” he added. “One of them mentioned he was quitting a job in Conservation. He was eighty, so I guess it was about time. Told me to write a letter, and here I am. Two three days a week. Keeps me outa mischief.”
While dinner was cooking he took me into the garage. There was one whole car in there – a 1960 Rambler – and parts of several others. He pointed to a grey metal chassis, some oil-blackened engine parts and a stack of sheet-metal panels. “This here’s a `39 Chevy I’m re-building. Gradually. And down here” – we clambered over an antique lawn-mower and the front half of a `68 Mustang as he led me downstairs to the basement – “Down here I’ve got my other hobbies.”
On the walls around us were rows and rows of custom-built wooden shelves just a few inches deep and a few inches apart. And on each shelf was a little cardboard box, and above each box the little Hot Wheels car that had come in it. “My kids got me started,” he said. “Got over two thousand – just about every model they ever made and I’m still collecting. Look, here’s one of your British Jaguars – and there’s one of them little Minis. Got a Rolls Royce, and the one from Thunderbirds. Got a limo….” But by now we’d turned the corner into the other room and there, piled up to the ceiling, was another collection.
“Don’t know when I’ll get around to doing these,” he said. We were looking at six hundred Airfix kits, all still in their boxes. “Probably when I get these shifted” – he’d now moved on to his racks of several hundred commemorative or comical or promotional coffee-mugs. But by this time the sausage had cooked. “It good?” he asked as I ploughed my way through fifteen inches of solid red meat, a pile of mashed potato and green beans. “Damned good,” I told him. As indeed it was. “You’re allowed one deer a season,” Duane told me between mouthfuls. “I got a doe licence this year. Got maybe seventy-five pounds off her, eighty to ninety per cent of it lean meat. Here, have some more.”
Before it got dark – and before I collapsed under the weight of home-made sausage – there was just time to take a drive around Mandan. Here at last was another small town that was thriving. It obviously helped that Bismarck was just across the river, but people seemed to be getting wind of the quality of life available in these places. The down-side of that – just as in my own North Yorkshire, just as in the Frio Canyon in West Texas – is that outsiders are pushing up property prices and laying waste to what remains of the original landscape. As Duane showed me the last few remaining stands of virgin bosque – the tangle of riverside woodland – he pointed out the stack of felled timber where it was being ripped up to create a marina, and beside that the signs advertising the $1.25 million homes in the riverside subdivisions, the ostentatious ranch-style houses with the huge fibreglass boats, not unlike those gin-palaces you see on the Thames, parked on the front lawn.
Duane didn’t strike me as a bitter man at all. He had no reason to be. He seemed perfectly happy. Nevertheless, his jaw seemed to tighten as he said, “Well, you never know. Maybe it’ll flood anyway.” All right! I thought, but I kept my mouth shut.
We drove over the iron bridge that links Mandan to Bismarck. There, in the grounds of the state Capitol he showed me some of the loveliest sculptures I’ve ever seen – a bison, and a mustang, elegant, poised, and delicately wrought out of twisted steel reinforcing rods. And then, for the first time, he fell silent. We were standing by the All Veterans Memorial, a stone and metal shelter in the middle of which was a bronze globe. And on the globe every American state was carefully outlined. “It all makes sense on November 11,” Duane said. “The sun comes through that little hole up in the roof there. And at eleven o`clock precisely it casts a perfect impression of the outline of North Dakota right there on the map. “I’m sorry” – he turned away, wiping his eyes – “can’t ever seem to come here without remembering. Some of my own pupils went to Vietnam – and some of them never came back.”
A few moments later we walked up to the state capitol itself, and Duane pointed out the Heritage Center, but I knew I’d be giving them a miss next morning. I’d had enough museums, and I was starting to think I’d probably had enough of the road.