Tag Archives: Storytelling

Sometimes the people we meet break our hearts a little

Maybe the best thing about Newberry Springs, California, was Christian.

If he lived in Ancient Greece, he would have been a cherub, if a sardonic one. His dark brown hair, probably trimmed at a Cost Cutters, framed expressive brown eyes and the chubby cheeks of a fifth grader. He was hanging around his grandmother’s cafe, fresh off the school bus, helping us kill flies.

“I spend so much time here, it feels like my house,” he said with a sigh as he slumped in a nearby chair, clearly hungry for conversation.

Bagdad Cafe

His second home is Bagdad Cafe, a dumpy little place decorated with ripped paper lanterns and T-shirts stapled on the ceiling. While we sipped on cold Coors Lites (me and my Beloved, not Christian), Christian told us that sometimes four tour buses at a time stop to see the place, a stop on Route 66 made famous with a 1987 namesake movie out of Germany starring C.C.H. Pounder and Jack Palance.

Thirty years haven’t been kind to the Bagdad Cafe. Our order began and ended with the beer (to be fair, it was icy cold).

Christian told us his favorite class with his teacher Mr. Cole is science, and he knows how to write Ls in cursive. He’s part Cherokee (“the climbing part”), and he paralyzes flies by spraying them with water before swatting them.

unearthly-blue.jpg

Newberry Springs RV Park. You have to wonder about the origins of any place in the desert with a lagoon.

Before we left Newberry Springs, our first stop a few weeks ago on our trip north through California, we enjoyed another beer at the Barn, where there was underwear stapled to the ceiling and the bartender’s shirt advertised her clear understanding of what inspired good tips. We couldn’t imagine ordering anything from the kitchen there either, but we discovered it was Taco Tuesday at the local American Legion, which looked like it had been standing for decades but was clean and filled with friendly locals. The tacos–beef, chicken or pork–were a buck a piece. Add rice and beans for another buck. They were hot and fresh and mighty tasty. Eventually, we ended up back at the Newberry Mountain RV Park, where the lagoon was unnaturally blue.

But back to the 11-year-old, who chatted with us until we were ready to leave the Bagdad Cafe. As I counted out my change for the beers, he helpfully pointed out that I had more than enough $1s for the $4.35 bill.

“Yeah, but I need a tip,” I said, thinking the server could have used a dollar more than I could.

“You got a tip, Andi!” Christian called out. (Tips were rare around there?)

Christian followed us to the door, and we bid him farewell.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, wondering if Christian would grow up to serve cold beers in this place.

“Are you ever coming back?” he asked hopefully, breaking my heart a tiny bit.

“Nope,” my Beloved said definitively.

Christian’s brown eyes peeked around the front door, covered from top to bottom with bumper stickers in every language, his eyes following our walk to our truck.

“See ya never, then,” he said and ducked back inside.

Stories of place

Many of the stories we tell are stories about places. Sure, they’re stories about courage or sorrow or fun or work, but those circumstances usually occur in a distinctive place and well-told stories illuminate those places.

I’ve read a number of fascinating books this year that use place as main characters, and today I’m sharing a little bit of my own attempt of telling a story about a place.

Example No. 1 comes from a historical story about constructing a train to Key West, Florida:

“It’s an osprey’s-eye view here at Mile Marker 84, out over the patchwork-colored seas. Splashes of cobalt, turquoise, amber, beige, and gray alternate, then fall away to deeper blue and steel, and off toward a pale horizon where sky and water meet at a juncture that’s almost seamless on the brightest days. The variations of color have to do with the time of day, the cloud configuration, the nature of the sand or grass on the sea bottom, and the shifting depths of the water itself surrounding the Keys, which can range from a few inches to a few feet, and then plunge several fathoms and back again in an eye-blink.”

~ Les Standiford in Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean

Example No. 2 comes from a memoir set (mostly) in Kansas. The author’s descriptions of the state disabused me of my assumptions that Kansas was flat and boring (an opinion I have of North Dakota, mostly because I spent so much of my childhood viewing the landscape from the back seat of the car my parents drove from our house in Minnesota to my grandfather’s house in western North Dakota):

“Halfway between Denver and the Kansas border, I could still see the snow cap of Pike’s Peak hovering ghostlike in my side mirror. Otherwise, nothing but smooth grasslands defined the circular horizon. The land lifted and fell gently, meandering along dry streambeds. Two pearlescent cloud wings stretched toward us from our destination, where morning rimmed the earth in turquoise.”

~Julene Bair in The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning

Example No. 3 comes from the memoir I’m currently reading (and very sad to see coming to an end). Apparently, everyone in the world but me has read this one (seeing as it was in Oprah’s book club and made into a movie with Reese Witherspoon before I got to it). Better late than never, I love the author’s descriptions of her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail:

“Somber and elated, I walked in the cool air, the sun glimmering through the trees, bright against the snow, even though I had my sunglasses on. As omnipresent as the snow was, I also sensed its waning, melting imperceptibly by the minute all around me. It seemed as alive in its dying as a hive of bees was in its life. Sometimes I passed places where I heard a gurgling, as if a stream ran beneath the snow, impossible to see. Other times it fell in great wet heaps from the branches of trees.”

~ Cheryl Strayed in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Example No. 4: I attempted to use place as a character in my own memoir:

“While tulips bloom and snow is rare in other places in March, it’s just another month of winter in central Minnesota. Even for Minnesota, March 2002 was unseasonably cold and snowy. More than 3 inches of snow fell the weekend before Steve’s trial, muffling everything outside the house. … The landscape was dirty white as Steve and I drove in relative silence down Highway 10 to the well-appointed courthouse in Elk River.”

~ Monica Lee in The Percussionist’s Wife: A Memoir of Sex, Crime & Betrayal

So with those magnificent works (or at least the first three) as my inspiration, I’ve been turning over in my mind how to describe my hometown in north Central Minnesota in a compelling way. Here’s a start:

Wadena was a farm town that grew up at the intersection of Highways 10 and 71, roads which barely supported two lanes of traffic let alone four. It was, quite literally, set in the neck of the woods, straddling Minnesota’s three ecoregions: a tallgrass prairie to the west and south bordered a forest of pine trees to the north mingling with a forest of deciduous trees to the southeast.

Like the ecology of the town itself, the back yard of the house in the heart of Wadena where I grew up had three distinctive features: a box elder tree, a pine tree and a sprawling garden planted with neat rows of lettuce, carrots, peas and potatoes. The trees became hubs for kid activity. The knobby box elder tree was designed for climbing, and the children who lived in the house before us constructed a bench of sorts in the fork of the tree. Eventually, the bench became a tree house, an obvious shack in the naked winter but a cozy hideaway tucked among the leaves in the green summer. For me, the towering pine tree was an irritant, its boughs intruding on the sidewalk between the house and the detached garage, but for my little brother, the sandy soil shaded by pine boughs was Nirvana. He spent entire summers excavating, building and rerouting Tonka Truck roadways beneath that tree.

Music with a message

“Now every one of us was made to suffer.
Every one of us was made to weep.
But we’ve been hurting one another,
And now the pain has cut too deep.
So take me from the wreckage,
Save me from the blast.
Lift me up and take me back.
Don’t let me keep on walking,
Walking on broken glass.”

Oh, Annie Lennox put words to my angst earlier this month when I caught her belting out “Walking on Broken Glass” on xM Radio’s ’80s channel.

That song told my story that day. I began conjuring up other fragments of pop music that tell stories — not in only bits and pieces, but throughout the song. I wished for a Pandora channel that categorized storytelling lyrics instead of genres. Here’s the short list I developed of popular music that tells stories:

  • “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band.
  • “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes
  • “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot
  • “Cat’s In the Cradle” by Harry Chapin (a favorite of my Beloved’s)
  • “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Folgelberg
  • “Delta Dawn” by Helen Reddy (this might be a little bit of a stretch because we never find out what happens to Delta).

I thought for sure Phil Collins told some song stories on “No Jacket Required,” a tape (yes, tape) I wore out, I played it so often on my Walkman in 1985. But no. Like a typical percussionist, his lyrics are more rhythmic than narrative.

I could say the same for Jack Johnson. Like “No Jacket Required,” “In Between Dreams” only felt like it told a story because it was the soundtrack to a personal soap opera.

I am reminded of a fragment of a Natasha Bedingfield song I took as a personal anthem when it came out in 2006:

“Today is where your book begins;
The rest is still unwritten.”

We all have stories. Sometimes, they’re best told with a little tune.

Drifting

The bartender was the same guy we’d seen here a year earlier. Friendly and talkative, he was the quintessential bartender. I remembered him because he was so thin — his waist size was 28 at most, even though he had a vague hint of gray in his longish hair, trimmed neatly in a mullet.

The bar was in a town there’s no reason to visit unless you have a reason to: Your second cousin was getting married or your car broke down on the interstate nearby. Maybe, like us, you were doing business with a business in town.

My first thought: I’ve been living my life for a year while this guy has been working in this bar.

He attentively served us our beer and chips while telling a couple regulars about his 1982 El Camino, which I had noticed in the parking lot when we arrived. It guzzled too much gas to get him to California, so he was leaving it behind, he said. His mom would end up doing something with it, he didn’t care.

Lived with his mom. Couldn’t afford gas. But he was going to California? Wait a minute, this was the same guy who had been languishing here in small town America for a year. He’s going to California? What’s in California?

I assembled an entire backstory in my head, but the suspense was killing me. I had to know more. So when I ordered another beer, I asked.

Turns out he hadn’t been stuck with Mom in Nowheresville forever. Mom — and this bartending gig — were just the latest adventure in a life of adventure. He loved the beach, which he discovered in South Carolina. He once rode his motorcycle as far south as he could and found himself in Key West, Florida, where he found a bartending job the day he arrived and a crash pad the first week. He stayed in Key West four years. Then Mom in Illinois needed help closing her store. He answered the summons and ended up sticking with Mom, now in another state, for eight years.

Mom was great, don’t get him wrong, but Mom fussed too much when he got in late or when he had more than one beer.

So this unmoored soul was answering the call of the wild again. He was going to California.

Where? I asked.

Not entirely sure. Maybe Napa Valley.

You don’t have a job?

Nope. Gave his two-week notice a week ago. He was sure he’d find one wherever he landed. Maybe a winery.

Wow, I thought. This guy has courage. He trusts the universe.

I worry about what I’m going to eat for my next meal. I worry about how long my gel manicure’s gonna last. I worry about finishing my manuscript. I worry about how I’m going to decorate for Christmas. I worry about who’s going to take care of me when I’m 98.

I worry about such trivial things.

This guy, he doesn’t worry so much. He simply is. So calm. So implacable. So willing to roll with the punches and trust he’ll be just fine.

Did I mention the name of the bar where I met him a year ago and again today? The bar he’s leaving for a life of adventure in California, maybe in the Napa Valley?

Tumbleweed.

Cares of the past are behind
Nowhere to go but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

~ Sons of the Pioneers