What is it about these small forgotten towns and settlements like Desert Center that tugs at my gut the way they do? Nostalgia? An age thing? Maybe…
Sometimes they dredge up memories of trips made with my parents when I was a young kid. The interstate system was just getting started, so travel was still done on two-lane highways, what are now back roads.
Except for a couple of journeys out west, most of our trips were from Minneapolis to my grandparents home in northern Minnesota, which at that time was a four to five hour drive. We’d leave on Friday afternoon when my dad got off work, and the highlight was always stopping for dinner on our way. We’d stop in the small towns along the highway at our favorite cafes — The Sportsman’s, The Trolley Cafe, The Wagon Wheel, The Chuck Wagon. Most every town had it’s Sportsman’s or Trolley or Wagon Wheel. Chuck Wagon was a little more rare and exotic, at least in the upper Midwest. Dinner was always the same — a hamburger, french fries shiny with grease, and sometimes a chocolate malt. Gourmet food for an excited kid.
We’d stop for gas on our way back out at the Texaco. Dad always went to Texaco. There weren’t self-service stations then, they were all full-service stations. We’d pull up at the pumps and a guy would trot out in his Texaco cap and shirt with the name patch — I think everyone who worked at a service station was named Al or Bob or Butch — to fill the tank, check the tires and oil, and wash the windows. “Fill it with ethyl,” my dad would say and we’d go in to pay. I always went in too so I could cadge a nickel from dad for a Nut Goodie (yes, they were a nickel). It was part of the ritual of travel. On the way out he’d always remind me to save it for a little later, so I’d sit in the back seat and savor the anticipation of that candy bar. When I figured I had delayed gratification long enough, usually within a couple of miles of town, I’d tear in to it.
Maybe that’s what these dying settlements bring back. Long forgotten memories of small towns and independent people carving out their lives where they likely grew up and where they chose to stay. Maybe they represent a way of life that’s largely disappeared in the wake of the interstates and the mega-stops and the urban strips of golden arches and big red and blue box stores and self-service gas and convenience stores. A way of life that hasn’t been homogenized and pasteurized and compromised into a one size fits all canned conformity.
The standardized and corporatized travel experience may be more efficient and convenient, but a vital spirit is fast vanishing as these small towns, these small pieces of America, sink into oblivion.