It was the dead of night, we were in the middle of nowhere, and we were just about out of gas when we met the old man.
I don’t know whose idea it had been to keep driving; there were three of us in the car. Our last good chance to fill the tank came in Dickinson, North Dakota. But we stupidly blew through town and turned south onto Highway 79; Chris, Paul and myself, (yes, two Pauls) crammed into a tiny little Honda hatchback, driving across a wide, wind-swept portion of the North American continent.
It was the summer of 1990, back before cellphones and laptops and GPS. All we had was a CB radio and a road atlas. We’d started outside New York City, crossed the Appalachians, passed through the Rust Belt, into and out of Chicago, that capital of the Midwest, up into Wisconsin and Minnesota, and across the Great Plains. We wanted to see the nation, and see it while we were young.
I wanted to hike the Grand Canyon, climb the Tetons and dig Wall Drug, but more than anything I was hoping to sit down in the middle of absolutely nowhere with some old-timer and get his life story. For some integral reason I don’t remember anymore, that was discovering America to me. I was pretty idealistic back then.
We were headed south through Dakota farmlands to Mount Rushmore. We’d gotten directions in Bismarck from a trucker over the CB—a better, more direct route, he’d said. Hours later, after brushing off Dickinson, we were driving across a pitch-black landscape, nothing visible save the immediate patch of highway turned white by the car’s headlights. But that little orange light on the instrument panel—the one that indicated the tank was nearly empty—lit up the whole car. Meanwhile, it had started to rain.
We’d kept going because we’d never been anywhere where there wasn’t a town and a gas station within a mile or two. We passed towns, of course, but none of them fit our definition of what a town should be: lots of houses, some strip malls, gas stations, all-night diners. At least a traffic light. So we just kept driving, expecting to find a town that fit our definition.
No such place showed up. On the map there was Haley, and Ralph, and Riva, but none of them were actual towns; nothing there but mile after mile of flat, dark farmland. This was obviously going to be a real problem—the Honda was famous for its fuel efficiency, but it would eventually run out of gas.
The next town on the map was Hoover. It was the only town left on the map, at least the only one as near as we had any hope of getting to. If Hoover didn’t have a gas station, well, that’d be that. We’d have to become instant Dakotans.
Finally, a sign planted in the side of the road: “Hoover”, it read simply, with a small arrow pointing to the left. “That it?” Chris asked.
I peered over. There was a road leading down a hill to a couple of houses, or barns, or something, silhouetted against the night sky. I couldn’t see much in the pitch black. “No,” I answered, “that can’t be it.”
We drove past, but on the other side of the road was a sign facing the other way that, when we stopped to look, said “Hoover”, and pointed right. There wasn’t anything else in sight.
“That must have been it,” Paul said.
“All right, then,” Chris said. He turned the car around and headed back. We twisted down the gravel road and entered Hoover.
Even in the darkness, there wasn’t much there to see—a house, some barns and a small, Western-style, wooden general store, which looked like it’d been closed for hours and wouldn’t open for hours. Cows milled about in a pen. But, there was a gas pump in front of the store.
“What now?” I practically whimpered.
“We wait,” Chris said, pulling the car up in front of the gas pump. He was right, of course. We had no choice; we had almost no gas. We each settled into our seats.
Then a dog started barking, from a house across the street. And a light filled a second-floor window in the house. “Need gas?” a voice called out.
“Yes!” Chris answered. We heard nothing back. A moment later, another light filled another window, then a few minutes later another light filled yet another window, this time downstairs.
We got out of the car and waited under the store’s wooden awning, staring at the house through the rain. The porch light blinked on. The whole thing had taken maybe five minutes before the door opened and an old man emerged, the screen door slapping shut behind him. He walked slowly and awkwardly; his legs swung so violently, they looked like they were just hooked onto his torso. He had on overalls, a striped shirt and a hat that said “Beef Belt Feeders, Scott City, Kansas.” He walked over to the car, in the darkness, in the rain, and stared at the New York license plate.
“You boys are a long way from home,” he said. He filled the tank and we paid him. I asked him if I could use the bathroom, and he brought us inside the general store.
The old man walked behind a counter, bracing himself on it, and turned on the lights. The store contained an odd array of old and new. There were three white, low, long refrigerated cases, and a newish looking Pepsi machine. But the walls were full of old animal skulls—one had a dusty, torn, worn black cowboy hat on it. There were black-and-white pictures of the store with long-gone cars from the ’20s and ’30s in front of it. There was a pool table, and a couple of card tables. A plaque declared the building was on the National Register of Historic Sites.
“You boys want some coffee?” the old man offered.
“Yes,” I said quickly. He led us through a side door into a cramped, dark apartment, with a living room, kitchen and bathroom. We sat at a table under a dim light as he brewed a pot of coffee, fresh and hot and strong.
It amazed me then, and still does, that this man opened his doors up to three strangers in the middle of the night. That would never happen in New York City. New Yorkers have to put up myriad mental partitions to preserve a little space for themselves, because the constant crush of millions of people threatens every minute to overwhelm them. But out here, there wasn’t any need for those kinds of walls. What in a big city is perceived as coldness toward strangers just doesn’t exist in a place like Hoover. Why wouldn’t he invite us in and make us coffee?
And so we sat in the dark little living room off the general store, drinking coffee and talking, no rush at all, even though it was the dead of night. Paul asked him how many people lived in the town.
“Well,” he said, “there’s me, the wife, my daughter and her baby.” We couldn’t believe it. Hoover: population four.
We talked about his family. There was a son somewhere else, I don’t recall anymore. And the daughter had a husband, a trucker, who was off earning a living.
The old guy told us what roads to take to get down to Mount Rushmore. He’d lived in Rapid City as a kid, and he watched them carving the great monument out of the side of the mountain. But he came up here to escape the civilization and traffic. I laughed and told him he should see New York City sometime.
The land Rushmore was on had once been promised to the Indians, he said, but then they found gold, “and that ended that.” Now the farmers were being ruined, and so the farmer, he added, was the next Indian.
He asked us who was the toughest athlete in the world—“Roh-dey-oh cowboy,” he said, answering his own question. Maybe he had been one once, because he then told us he had arthritis of the spine, which could explain his pained walk and leaning on the counter.
He said young people needed good jobs so they could raise families. He asked us how we knew each other, and when we told him we were college friends, he asked our majors. Paul was Business, Chris was Biology, and I was an English major.
“So you,” he said, pointing at Paul, “will make money off his work,” he said, pointing at Chris. He asked if I was going to teach, and I said I wanted to write.
“Don’t write Westerns,” he said.
It was getting toward dawn. The rain let up. We’d been there two hours, maybe more, and Chris and Paul were getting anxious to go. We headed back to the store, and to our car. Before we left, I bought a hat that said “Hoover Store,” to remember the place.
“Just wanted to be sure you boys weren’t too tired to drive,” our new friend said.
We thanked him for the gas and the coffee, and for the generosity that was so exceptional to us then, and that still is to me now.
fiction poetry "fact" photography