Friday, July 6, 2012

Small-town America isn't dead yet!

A few days ago, circumstances beyond our control (a broken water pump) forced us to spend a few days in the small town of Malta, MT.  We'd broken down July 2 (Tuesday) on highway 191, and limped into town late in the day, but the garage was booked up for July 3, and of course July 4 was Independence Day ... so it couldn't be fixed before the morning of July 5.  We had little choice but to stay, without transportation.  Fortunately, the motel where we stayed was able to give us the room for 3 nights in a row and it was close to the town center.

A short walk away was the Great Northern Hotel Restaurant and a bit farther away was the Westside Restaurant - coincidentally, we had had lunch at the Westside on our trip westward a few days earlier and had enjoyed the hospitality and good fare already.  The salad bar at the Westside was quite good, so if you're there, be sure to take advantage of it.  And the food at the GN was uniformly excellent, plus their "glass of wine" was quite generous, which naturally was an endearing characteristic for me!  Plus, the Maltana motel where we were staying gave us complimentary beverage tickets at GN!!

This mandatory time spent in a small town reinforced my feelings about small towns in the American Plains that spring from my time spent with relatives on a farm in northwestern Illinois:  the people are wonderful!  In this blog, I suppose a disproportionate fraction of my writing is negative - I'm upset about something and so I write about it.  But I'm not a fundamentally negative person, despite what some might conclude from my blog.  One aspect of storm chasing I've always enjoyed has been, and continues to be, small-town America.  I can think of only a tiny number of bad experiences in small towns - the overwhelming hospitality and friendliness of people in small towns dominates.  I could provide many, many examples from past storm chases.  Interesting local museums and parks, unexpected hospitality, great meals, and wonderful human interactions with total strangers!

Our chase trip hasn't had much in the way of storms this year, but we've definitely been enjoying our travels anyway.  In Malta, during our days of enforced leisure, we did some laundry, bought groceries, surfed the Web in the motel room, and were treated to a delightful fireworks display put on by the town a short distance from our motel.  We had a front row "seat" in the motel parking lot and the fireworks went on for about an hour!  Not the sort of elaborate display some towns (like Norman, OK) put on, but many diverse and spectacular fireworks that continued for a long time.  We enjoyed it a lot!

The USA has many challenging problems, but the one thing that constantly strikes me when I travel about our nation is the warmth and easygoing friendship shown to transient strangers.  I think Americans still have a core of goodness and decency that shows up constantly.  I may not like everything going on in America, but I think America is a great place at its core.

By the way, the work done on our car put us back on the road by about 1:30 pm on 5 July, with everything working just fine and a reasonable bill for the effort.  Pete was our mechanic and he was very apologetic about not being able to do anything until 5 July!  He was right there bright and early Thursday morning to do the work and the bill turned out to be less than I feared.  All in all, it was a good outcome to what might have been a nightmare, save for the good folks of Malta, MT.  If you're traveling through Malta and have the chance, stop in at the Great Northern or the Westside and have a meal.  It's quite likely to be excellent and you can enjoy a chat with the friendly wait staff at either place. 

They don't call it the "heartland of America" for nothing!


Garrett Fornea said...

When exploring new areas (which I love doing), it's often fun to find a small town. I have to say that I love localized restaurants, privately owned by families and individual people instead of major corporations. Their food is generally better and the people are almost always much friendlier. One example is a restaurant just up the road from my Mom's house, owned by our next-farm neighbors. I go there to visit with them about as much as I do to eat their food - and believe me, they know me there!
And I can agree with that they show unexpected hospitality. When we fled Katrina and stayed in Tupelo, MS - hardly a small town, but still comes to mind from this - we were shown this unexpected kindness multiple times. What sticks out in my mind the most is this: some restaurants, in knowing that we had fled from Katrina, compassionately did not charge us for our food. We would have been fine paying for our food, but they were willing to give it to us for free.
These kinds of things give me hope for America. It is the people who made our beloved country great, and it is up to our people to keep this country great.

Liz Heywood said...

Wonderful post. I agree: small towns are the heart of the country. I grew up in a Boston suburb until I fled to upstate NY when I was just out of my teens. Barn dances, Grange dinners, ice cream socials, putting up hay for an injured farmer, butchering bees and sounds dated but it's still going on. I feel bad for everyone who misses out.

Chuck Doswell said...


I too was a 'burb kid, born and reared on the west side of Chicago. I spent the summers (and occasional other times) of my youth (up to about 16) on a farm near a really small town (~500 in-town residents) in northwestern Illinois. No question the experiences I had have affected me for a lifetime, in a wonderful way. I"m so grateful for that time spent in rural America, my heart bulges with gratitude!! And I, too, feel bad for those who never had such an opportunity.

Blake Knapp said...

Chuck, I'm happy to agree that the majority of experiences I've had with residents of small towns on the Plains have been largely positive and reinforce the thought that there still are some good people left in this country. Last year I was chasing in NE Colorado one day, and as I waited for initiation at a crossroads in the middle of the grid I encountered 3 vehicles. All three vehicles stopped to see if I was alright and if I needed anything. Being from the East Coast, it was especially refreshing to experience a seemingly intrinsic need by the people of that community to help others.

This year I was driving for a chase tour (I know we probably have differing opinions on a number of aspects of this - but let's save that debate for another day) and we happened to run into some 5-6" hail. Needless to say we lost a few windows. Early the next morning, we took our vans to the Ford dealership in Chadron, NE to see to the windows. Unfortunately they weren't able to replace our missing windows in the time frame we could work with, so instead they did something strange. They let us pull our vans into their garage (which was operating) and clean the glass and dirt out our vans with their shop vacs. They helped us remove some of the remaining glass that was sharp and dangerous. Then, they got some temporary plastic sheeting and taped the empty windows over. Finally, when all the work was done, we asked what the damage was, only to be told "nothing". To encounter that kind of free charity in this day and age, especially from an entity with corporate affiliations was nothing short of remarkable to me...

That said, I've had some not-so-friendly encounters in small towns further south and east. Upon attempting to find a safe place to turn around one day in South Texas (we chose a dirt frontage road instead of backing over train tracks or doing a k-turn on the highway) a guy sped up to our vans, almost colliding with them, began screaming profanities and threats at us, and then repeatedly made short "charges" at our vans with his truck. Everything's bigger in Texas, they say... At least I know that includes assholes.

Blake Knapp said...

In my limited experience, I've seen an apparent trend of generally friendly attitudes associated with locales further north and west contrasted by a less friendly collection of attitudes further south and east (the major exception to this being South Padre Island, which really doesn't feel like it belongs to Texas at all). I wonder if the prevalent social attitudes in these places are reflective of differing sets of social and moral values, and of educational quality. In some quick statistic work, I took two sets of states, (MT/ND/SD/CO/NE vs. TX/LA/AR/NM/OK) and compared their avg. education level for persons 25 and over in 1990, 2000 and 2007. The northern set achieved 80% high school or greater in 1990, followed by 86% and 89% in 2000 and 2007, respectively. Over that same time, the southern set achieved 71%, 77% and 81% respectively. The percentages of that age group completing a bachelor's degree or greater are 20%, 25% and 28% for the northern set vs. 17%, 21%, and 22% for the southern group. As I see this data (from the US Census Bureau), there is a disparity between the education level of the average person in these two areas, and an apparent correlation between the overall experience of genuine hospitality and friendliness I've experienced in these regions. Again, I've had both positive and negative experiences in both areas, but the majority of those fit.

I haven't done the full research, but I don't feel I'm going too far out on a limb to say that if some of the states in one subset are teaching such progressive topics as Creationism and revisionist history such as the renaming of slavery as the Atlantic Triangular Trade System, then their views on what constitutes being a "good person" might also be skewed by some perversion of fact...

What have we learned? Not much, really. Individuals will be individuals, whether for better or worse. There may be a loose connection between education level and the ability to reason that being a better person is, well, just better. And that yes, in places, our notion of friendly, small-town America is still alive and kicking...