Category: rural

In Transit: From Fargo to Mason City, Iowa

I have to remind myself to take one day at a time, lest I go mad.

Last week, we packed our luggage and headed to Mason City, IA to explore our new hometown and begin the search for a house. Our drive south on I-35 triggered a lot of memories from my college years when I drove between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Waverly, IA countless times. The funny thing is that I never had the urge to pull off the freeway and explore back then. Now, that’s all I can think about as we pass quirky billboards and roadside attractions like the Spam Museum and tiny, country churches.

Although I hated the three and a half hour commute between Fargo and our hometown, Minneapolis-St. Paul, I enjoyed exploring the small towns along I-94. My husband’s usually in a hurry to go straight to our destination but agreed to stop for dinner.

I chose Freeport, MN, the small town with a smiling water tower. It’s also home to Charlie’s Cafe, a popular breakfast joint with a strong billboard presence. When I dined at Charlie’s last year, I felt drawn to the charming main street and wanted to return to Ackie’s Pioneer Inn, the interesting building next door. We hungrily eyed a supper club menu posted on the door, hoping for a meal.

The interior surprised us. For one thing, it was empty except for a small group of friends perched at the bar. It also smelled strongly of alcohol and not at all like food. The friendly locals told us they only served meals on certain evenings. As they directed us to their restrooms, a young man yelled something about falling spiders. I thought he was messing with us. My husband, who is typically even-keeled, emerged from the restroom unnerved because a spider had, indeed, fallen on his head.

The rowdy locals directed us to the Corner Pub down the street for burgers. The same young man who had warned us about spiders hollered an endorsement for their chicken.

The corner bar was also quiet except for a handful of locals and the menu was simple, consisting of fried appetizers and sandwiches. Jake chose a German burger with American swiss and sauerkraut while I went after a sloppy burger with sauteed veggies, bacon, and mayo, both with sides of crispy, crinkle cut fries. A friendly server took our orders and prepared our meals. She left a bottle of Thousand Island at our table and I put it on everything.

Weary travelers should never underestimate the power of a burger basket from a humble, small town bar. The patties were cooked all of the way through and nondescript, but the people watching was memorable. A couple of women celebrating a birthday were glued to the television mounted above the bar, closely following The Biggest Loser. A contestant fell off his bike and they laughed. Later, another man sat at the bar and turned around often to stare. He was located near the bathroom, so I chanced my bladder and held it all the way to St. Paul.

We now find ourselves in limbo as we live in hotels during the workweek and return to the Twin Cities to live with our parents on the weekends until we can buy our first home. Then, we’ll arrange for movers to bring the rest of our belongings down from our apartment in Fargo.

It’s stressful and it’s tiring. We’re always in transit and there’s no definitive end in sight. Fortunately, everyone we’ve met in Mason City has gone out of their way to offer warm welcomes and extend their assistance.

Getting acquainted with our new downtown

As my college acquaintance who lives here said, “It’s the Mason City way.” We’re grateful for this.

Dining With The After-Church Crowd At Travelers Inn Restaurant, Alexandria, MN

Whatever you do, don’t visit Travelers Inn when the after-church crowd hits.

On a recent drive to Minneapolis-St. Paul, I stopped at Travelers Inn Restaurant located along Alexandria’s historic main street on Sunday around 11 a.m. The restaurant was packed and people waited for tables along the sidewalk. I hoped the line signified good food worth a wait and walked inside. A man with a clipboard made his way through the crowd taking down names and seating parties as tables became available. Since I was eating alone, I figured my wait would be brief.

I told the man I just needed seating for one. “Great,” he replied and said he’d be right back. I assumed he had an open seat in mind for me. He never came back. He had walked away without taking my name and continued to seat others and add people to his list.

I noticed a couple seat themselves along the diner’s bar and wondered if I was allowed to do the same. Despite my attempts to make eye contact with the gentleman with the clipboard, he didn’t return. A server said I could also seat myself at the counter. A woman at the register brought me a menu and, eventually, a very harried server brought over hot coffee and took my order for a single biscuit and gravy. It was evident the servers were overwhelmed and frantically trying to keep up with their tables.

An older couple seated themselves next to me at the counter shortly after I ordered. They waited for so long that they asked me if a server would assist them at the counter. I replied that one would stop by soon and pointed out how staff seemed overwhelmed.

They patiently waited for another stretch of time and then asked for assistance. An employee at the front told them they were slammed with the after-church crowd. I realize she was stressed, but her response struck me as gruff. She alerted a server to check on them when she got the chance. They continued to wait for so long that I wished I could share my huge pot of coffee with them. If I could have located extra mugs, I wold have offered.

Another stretch of time went by and the server returned and brought them coffee with no cream so I shared my extras. The couple asked for a caramel roll while they waited, because they could see how busy the restaurant was and that the rolls were selling quickly. They glistened in front of us, just a few steps away.

The caramel roll never came. With concerned expressions on their faces, they watched the roll supply dwindle as servers grabbed them from the case. They asked a second time about their caramel roll when they placed their order, yet it still didn’t arrive. Finally, they asked the woman at the counter if she could pack up a caramel roll in a to-go box before they were gone. At this very moment, the register was hit with customers wanting to pay for their meals, so she helped the long line of people while other servers continued to grab the remaining caramel rolls.

As a bystander, I found myself feeling very concerned about whether or not that couple received a caramel roll. The line at the register never ceased, and I wished the employee would just pause and take the couple seconds to pack up a roll. After all, their request was were being put behind the line of customers who showed up after they asked. Heck, I wished I could have packed up the damn caramel roll for them. Like I said, they were sitting a few feet in front of us and it would have literally taken 30 seconds.

The older couple exchanged glances and the wife softly stated, “This was a mistake,” earnestly.

The kitchen seemed as slammed as the dining room and it took a while to get my order. The biscuit and gravy was fine. I’m guessing the plate might have sat on the line waiting to be picked up. I found the gravy mostly tasty and a little pasty.

By the time I paid my tab (under $6 before tip), the staff was calmer and made a concerted effort to be more friendly. The couple finally got their caramel roll but was still waiting for their meal.

This summer, I’ve worked as a server and barista at a local cafe. I’ve also been the person behind the counter at various restaurants and retailers in the past. Therefore, I try to tip well and give staff the benefit of the doubt. I’ve gotten overwhelmed during busy shifts, written down orders wrong, and made my fair share of stress faces. However, I can honestly say I’ve never been rude to a customer or spoken to one in such a gruff manner.

The couple sitting next to me wasn’t rude or condescending (if a little cranky), and overall mostly patient, all things considered. I found the staff’s treatment of the couple striking. I left with an uncomfortable, sad feeling swishing around in my gut.

I don’t know why the staff was so overwhelmed. Maybe someone called in sick. Maybe the management likes to minimally staff the restaurant. Either way, it wasn’t an ideal situation for either servers and customers.

I love small towns and independently owned, old fashioned diners. I just didn’t love this one after church.

Waiting For AAA & Eating A California Burger In Hankinson, ND

I drove south because I wanted to.

Not only did I drive south because I wanted to, but because I’ve never driven south from Fargo. I’ve driven west on I-94 to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, east to the Twin Cities, and north on I-29 to Mayville, but never south.

Consistent with Murphy’s Law, my day off started out with some literal and figurative gray clouds. I stopped at the dealership to get my oil changed. The mechanics recommended another $500-600 of recommended maintenance. I picked three of the five which still cost me over $200. Then, I drove south through the rain.

The storms disappeared an hour into the drive, so I pulled off the highway to explore Hankinson, ND, located minutes from the exit off I-29. I noticed a small drive-in restaurant along the main street and parked for a lunch break. At the Dakota Drive-In, one orders from those old fashioned windows with the sliding glass doors where the menu is posted. It offers a selection of ice cream treats, sandwiches, and every type of fried doodad imaginable. Customers can then choose from one of many picnic table nestled under an open-air roof, perfect for watching the sidewalk traffic pass.

I ordered the daily special featuring a California burger with a side of fried, crinkle-cut potato coins for $4.75. While I waited for my order, I used the restroom and returned to find I couldn’t locate my car keys. I rummaged through my purse a few times, just to be sure, and when I saw them sitting in the passenger seat of my locked car, I tried not to panic.

Fortunately, I had my purse and called AAA as inconspicuously as possible. My phone reception was terrible and the AAA representative had trouble finding my location. Eventually, she confirmed that help was on the way and would arrive in an hour. Had there not been a cheeseburger in my hand and the day not been so beautiful, I would have been so much more upset. I perched on the edge of a picnic table bench, ate my lunch, and waited. The smell of fried onions from other people’s orders drove me crazy and I wished I had chosen whatever they were having.

I noticed how the Dakota Drive-In functioned as a popular watering hole for the community. People came and went, from first-timers like myself, truck drivers, to families, alike. Most everyone seemed to recognize and warmly greet at least one other party and no one made me feel weird.

The burger and cottage fries, by the way, were fine.

The contracted AAA employee arrived as a group of children ran around my table, hurling precocious insults at each other involving bodily functions and body parts. Within minutes, he unlocked my car and I jumped inside. I was in such a hurry to leave that I neglected to take any photos of my meal. I did, however, take a few photos of interesting buildings on the way to the freeway. Then, I kept driving south until the landscape changed and I reached the rolling hills near Sisseton, SD. I poked around until the weather started to scare me and then I went home.

St. Philip’s Catholic Church, Hankinson, ND




Roberts County Courthouse, Sisseton, SD

Solo Road Trip: Harvest Thyme Bistro, Wadena, MN

I don’t know a darn thing about cars and it stinks.

My car tires were going on 80,000 miles. This has been no season to prolong purchasing new tires with the slippery roads. I called car shops and received quotes ranging by hundreds of dollars and varying in brands. Of course, each shop claimed their tire recommendation was the best. A family friend who owns a car shop was kind enough to provide his personal recommendation, which is why I ended up at Discount Tire in Baxter, MN.

When I reminded the staff member which tire I wanted, he offered to find a “deal” for a higher quality tire at a lower price. I explained that, although it may sound weird, I wasn’t interested in any specials. I just wanted that certain tire. “But I think I can find you a higher quality tire for less money. . .” he replied.

But, tire guy. I drove all this way for these tires. Tire guy. Stahp

I didn’t actually say that. And in all seriousness, the service was friendly and efficient. Within ten minutes, I was on my way back to Fargo.

The journey to and from Baxter was pleasant, thought it wasn’t as scenic as I expected. Still, the drive provided an opportunity to daydream and sing along to Katy Perry songs. At least it was more interesting than the drive to Minneapolis-St. Paul. As I slowed down to pass through small towns, I curiously eyed signs pointing towards dinner clubs, bars, and church camps. Lots of church camps.

A solo road trip isn’t complete without stopping for a meal or snack in a new town. Once, a friend had mentioned enjoying a meal at Harvest Thyme Bistro in Wadena, MN, situated about halfway between Fargo and Brainerd. Author Brett Laidlaw was also kind enough to suggest Harvest Thyme via Twitter, mentioning the food wasn’t necessarily earth shattering, but made from scratch with local ingredients.

On some solo road trips, I’m in a more adventurers mood than others. Sometimes I feel plucky enough to walk into a divey establishment, alone, with a c’est la vie outlook. Or, I may wait until Jake can join me. Generally, solo dining adventures are pleasant. At worst, the service may not be the warmest or it may be tinged with apathy. I can deal with this. Every once in a while, these experiences are flat-out uncomfortable.

Today, I was just not in the mood. I wanted people to be nice to me. I wanted to feel comfortable and I did not want to be stared at or hit on. Fortunately, Harvest Thyme Bistro was just this place.

The bistro is located along the Wadena’s main street. To reach the cafe, one must walk to the back of a beautiful, independent bookstore. It’s spacious and decorated with colorful sculptures of hanging birds. I couldn’t help but hope heaven would also be a bistro within an independent bookstore.

Harvest Thyme serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The lunch menu was concise, consisting of a few chalkboard specials, soup, salad, and sandwiches. I chose the wild rice burger with a cup of soup (sandwiches come with soup, salad, or chips), $8, and hot green tea, $2. I practiced self control by only admiring the ramekins of creme brulee in the dessert case. Then, I chose a seat between ladies who lunched and an older couple celebrating a birthday. A server brought over a large mug of hot tea and came back to deliver a teapot filled with more hot water.

I took advantage of the wireless Internet service provided to patrons of downtown businesses. A short wait later, the server brought my burger and soup.

I wasn’t so crazy about the potato soup, though it was far from inedible and served hot. It’s texture was a little pasty and the flavor was bland, save for red dots of smokey, hot sauce.

On the other hand, the wild rice burger was wonderful. The patty was clearly homemade. I really liked its crispy and chewy texture. It was sandwiched by a toasted bun and topped with caramelized onions and mushrooms. The bottom half was spread with a tangy barbecue sauce that tasted much better than those overly sweet, bottled versions. A umami bomb.

I dare say this wild rice burger was every bit as good as the HoDo Lounge’s. Totally craveable.

Harvest Thyme Bistro made me happy. From the general atmosphere and hospitable service to its affordable, hot food.

One visit was enough to add it to my short list of happy places.

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