We left the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, our last connection with what we knew, and ventured onto the plains of Minnesota and into North Dakota, 80 miles an hour through fields of sunflowers. Outside Minot, the two-lane highway was under construction, but there were no rows of orange barrels striped with reflective tape; instead, both lanes of pavement were ripped up, and I drove the dirt roadbed between earthmovers, graders, and dump trucks while my wife slept in the passenger’s seat and my seven-month-old son made faces at me in the rearview mirror from his car seat. Finally the roadwork ended, and we drove on through a valley where each hill held white rocks stacked to form the year of a high school’s graduating class. Almost twenty years were covered in as many miles, and I wondered what would happen when they ran out of hills. We crossed into Canada at a small town called Portal, then made our way across the plains, trying to remember to read our speed in kilometers. The city of Regina appeared on the horizon like a skyline drawn in elementary school art class: the sky and ground meeting on a ruler-straight line, while boxes and rectangles extended upward from it. Past that, the highway skirted the Arm River Valley, the only variation in the tabletop prairie, where each town was marked with a wooden grain elevator rising in the distance.
We stayed with our dearest friend Scott in his parents’ farmhouse, ate fresh vegetables from his mother’s immaculate and enormous garden, walked waist deep through fields of Durum wheat, and watched our son learn to crawl and cut his teeth on an empty beer bottle. We taught them how to make sweet tea and fried green tomatoes, which struck them as exotic delicacies; and we slept with the windows open, breathing cool dry summer air instead of air conditioning. The days were long with the sun staying up until nearly 11pm; one night, as we sat in lawn chairs drinking gin and telling stories, the northern lights appeared in the sky like ghosts.
We drove to Moose Jaw where we took a tour of the tunnels under the town that were once used by Al Capone as a starting point for bringing booze into the U.S. Our guides were theater majors home from college for the summer, dressed up as flappers and gangsters, and we played along without giving them a hard time. Later we visited Joyner’s General Store, which had become an antique shop after being in business nearly 100 years. Cables lined the ceiling as part of the world’s largest operational Lamson Cash Carrier. Installed in 1915, the store clerks could take cash from customers and put them into little boxes which ran on the cables to the back of the store where another clerk would mark everything in ledgers and store the money safely away. We left without buying anything, though my wife had eyed a small setting of Queen Anne Bavarian China, a pattern white with blue flowers called Blue Haven. We hadn’t picked out china when we were married because we couldn’t see the point of getting the same plates as everyone else who had registered at Pier 1. We wanted something with a story. As we walked away, we imagined a farmer’s wife ordering this set of Blue Haven dishes from a catalog some night many years ago, looking out her window at the frozen plains, and after a few blocks I said, “Let’s go back and get them.”
When we crossed the border a few days later, now a caravan, as Scott was following us back to begin his Phd, we put the dishes in his car so we wouldn’t have to declare them. If asked, he would say his great aunt had given them to him. But no one asked. They didn’t even want to know why our license plates had been expired for over a month. You could simply pass through then.
It may seem odd that we drove 1,500 miles to visit a town of a thousand people, but it was as if the town of Portal was true to its name: a passageway into a parallel universe, one that was familiar, rural and beautiful in its clarity, where life was split into hard work and simple pleasures, a life much like the one we remembered growing up. And yet, everything was new to us: the landscape, the history, the accents, the money, the weather, the time of sunset, the way of things. We saw a better version of ourselves there, the slight change in perspective like looking through clear glass after spending years seeing things through glass that was aged and warped and cracked. There’s no accounting for it. Like most trips, if we tried go back to find what we found then, it would not be there.
A few years later, Joyner’s General Store burned down on New Year’s Day, and the water the firemen sprayed on the flames froze almost instantly. The next day, only two walls were left standing, along with the burnt remains of the antiques that had been inside and the world’s largest cable cash carrier, all of it covered in a thick layer of ice, like the ruins of some frozen palace from a story book. Salvage would have to wait through the winter until the spring thaw.
James Alan Gill holds an MFA in Fiction from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and his work has appeared in Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Sou’wester, The Laurel Review, Grain, Night Train, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and Midwestern Gothic. This is his seventh dispatch for The Common.