When you're the only customer at the counter of an all-night joint in Bottineau, North Dakota, it is hard to stay out of a conversation. You're a little like a solitary astronaut meeting two other alien astronauts during a stroll around the Moon. You tend to strike up a conversation. In fact, there are many who feel that a couple of days on the Great Plains of Northern North Dakota is every bit as good as any trip to the Moon. In some ways, it is.
The land is so flat it seems to have been planed down to some kind of giant billiard table. The narrow two-lane highways run straight as a monofilament fishing line to the
horizon under the endless sky. The summers are murderously hot, and the winters are cold enough to make a Malemute go on the booze. North Dakota is what they were talking about when whoever invented the phrase "wide open spaces" invented it.
So naturally, being a lonesome stranger and the only one at the counter in the Cottage Kitchen 24-hour diner, I had to get into the conversation.
"You got another job during the day?" I asked one of the twin crypto-Sonia Henie's behind the counter, as though I didn't have rape and seduction on my mind. You never know in these small towns. When you're a stranger, it could go either way. Some waitresses are friendly. Others just call the cops. I guess I had arranged my face OK.
"I was driving a truck on the farm today. My back's killing me."
"What kind of truck?" I asked.
"It's a ten-tanner."
Gawd, I thought, they really do do it big out here in the West.
"How big a farm you got?" I asked with the bland innocence of the Eastern urbanite, whose idea of a big spread is maybe a half-acre. She looked a little thoughtful and then turned to her friend.
"We got a few sections. How many acres you think Daddy's got, Marge?'' Marge thought for a couple of moments.
"Gee, I don't know. I guess around eighteen-hundred."
Good God. Eighteen-hundred acres. "Wow!" was all I could think to say. She looked a little surprised.
"That ain't so big, is it, Marge?''
"Nah. They's plenty bigger."
"What do you grow?" I spoke in the respectful tones a poor city boy talking to a cereal heiress.
"Mostly wheat. And about two hundred or so hogs on the side."
I had a brief vision of this buxom, nubile, 18-year-old Farmer's Daughter wading hipdeep in a sea of grunting hogs after driving a ten-ton truck full of feed and gravel around all day. It was a curiously satisfying image. It was also a first class opportunity to try out the latest Farmer's Daughter gag which, I swear to God, an actual farmer had told me just the day before.
"Hey, did you hear the one about this guy who was a traveling salesman, and he was looking for a place to stay, see, so he ... "
"You might as well cut it. I heard it. I heard 'em all. Every truck driver on the road comes in here and tries 'em out on us. Hey, Marge, you live on a farm. Did you ever once have anything like that happen to you? Or anybody you ever heard of?"
"Nah. l should live so long." Another illusion shot to hell.
Back out on the main drag the only movement was a slow-rolling police car with a lone cop, oozing past the dark storefronts. I could see the bulk of the grain elevator that is on the outskirts of every town in this part of North Dakota, then nothing but blackness and the stars above. I went back to the Loveland Motel (yes, "loveland").
Next morning I drove my borrowed Camaro into a Shell station for fuel. The elderly party who was operating the pump gave me a couple of long hard looks, which I couldn't quite figure out.
"Nice day, ain't it?" I tried.
"Uh, ahem. looks like it might be warm."
I fished around for my credit card. He kept looking me up and down. A steady wind blew in off the prairies. A bright smog-free sun made everything look bleached with a thin film of yellowish dirt.
"Betty know you got her car?"
"Uh . .. what was that?"
"Betty know you got the Chevy?"
"Oh, yeah. Sure. She lent it to me when I come in town yesterday."
"Thought I'd check." He gave the windshield a casual dusting with a greasy rag, manage only to rearrange the grasshopper carcasses slightly.
"How'd you know it was Betty's car? Are you a friend of hers?" I asked.
" Know damn near every car in town." Another Chevy pulled in at the opposite pump. It was the end of the conversation.
Later, I went over to the college, which was the reason why I was in Bottineau. Formally known as North Dakota State University, Bottineau Branch & Institute Of Forestry, it has a clean windblown look, a light yellow brick American Gothic sculpture by Grant Wood. It is one school that has no problems of expansion space. The students, mostly big, wide-cheekboned Norwegian farmers majoring in Ag. or Forestry, drifted in and out of the tiny coffee shop in the Administration Building. One of them, a bearded hulk wearing chinos and a corduroy jacket, sat down at the table where I was holding court with a few f aculty members hungry for word of outside civilization. He leaned forward over the table and whispered in my ear.
"You coming to the kegger?' '
Being a born conspirator, I whispered back, "What's a kegger?"
He glanced around to make sure the coast was clear. "You never been to no kegger?" he hissed.
"Nah. When is it?"
"Ask Betty. Get her to take you." He picked up his tray and left, after laying a sneaky wink on me.
That afternoon Betty and I drove out of town, heading for the woods up near the Canadian border. It's not as far as it sounds, maybe len or 15 miles, and suddenly the country breaks up into short choppy hills, woods and lonely lakes. It looks a little like a tiny piece of Wisconsin or Minnesota thrown out there to fend for itself.
"What the hell's this kegger?" I asked.
"You mean you've never been to one?"
"Never heard of it. How's it work?"
"Well, somebody gets ahold of a few kegs of beer and they come out in the woods here by one of the lakes and drink it up. You're lucky."
''The graduating seniors are throwing a Hawaiian luau kegger."
"A Hawaiian Luau kegger?"
Only in America, I thought. The Norwegians from North Dakota are throwing a kegger on the Canadian border with Hawaiian overtones. What next?
We rounded a bend and down to our left through the brush was a clearing. Maybe fifty or a hundred dusty, battered late-Fifties student-type cars were parked every which way-in the ditches, in the weeds, under the trees. We struggled through the cattails down to the clearing. A couple hundred students milled around in the chill North Dakota air, swilling beer with a steady dedicated pace. A kid, stripped to the waist, operated a hand pump on the side of a huge keg of beer on top of a tree trunk. The crowd milled around him, carrying paper cups, jelly glasses and official NDSU beer mugs. A couple of hefty girls wearing lumpy grey Tshirts stenciled across the bust with "I'm A Gross Girl" wandered over and offered us big soggy paper cups of beer.
"That's really a truthful T-shirt," I said, sticking my foot in it. The girls giggled.
"I mean, it's like having a T-shirt that says 'I'm A Fat Slob,' or something."
"It doesn't mean that." They giggled again and spilled beer on my feet. " It means we live in Gross Hall."
"Oh." Life is nothing but one letdown after another. My bearded friend showed up, clutching a giant stein in a huge mitt.
"See you made it."
"Welcome to your first kegger. How do you like it?"
"OK. Kind of strange, milling around in the weeds here like this, drinking beer. But I guess it's OK. How come everybody's so secret about it?"
"You can't drink beer out in the open. The cops get wind of it, they'll come down and bust it up. Take all the beer and everything, and give us all a hard time."
"You mean this is illegal?" My voice instinctively dropped to its primordial Outside The Law hiss.
"You bet. It's illegal to drink beer in this state if you're under 21 ."
I looked around at the mob of very large blue-jowled student foresters and plow jockeys and was again struck with the curious illogic of many laws.
Off in a corner of the clearing next to the tall grass, three cars-marginally shinier than the rest-had been pulled together in a circle. Their stereos were tuned to the same channel. a bilingual Canadian rock station, and a small knot of keggers had gathered to pay homage to the static-ravaged sounds of civilization. For the most part. however, the students were content to silently swill beer and engage in harmless conversational banter punctuated with occasional playful scuffles_ Then a fistfight broke out, with two guys slugging it out knee-deep in the lake water.
"Just like on TV," a kegger muttered to me as he took a hefty swallow of beer. Another kegger, also stripped to the waist, had climbed to the top of a very high spruce tree and appeared to be chinning himself on a swaying branch maybe fifty feet above the ground. A few guys cheered. A gaggle of Gross Girls giggled.
"Yep. That means the kegger's in high gear. Karl climbs a tree when he gets a snootful, and a fight breaks out." My bearded friend had reappeared with his stein reloaded. North Dakota is very basic.