July 8: Havre to Chester, North Dakota - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

July 8: Havre to Chester, North Dakota

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"COURSE," KEITH PROTESTED, "this president of ours ain't helping matters much, giving shitpots o' tax money to people who won't work." He made no protest when I suggested that he was, perhaps, a Republican.

"I own guns, I hunt and I kill animals," he answered with a smile, as though that were as good a definition as any.

Keith runs Keith's Kafe, rather improbably, in Joplin. It's the last village, coming west, before Chester. The map showed it had somewhere to drink and, with no great conviction, we set off up the slope, across the railway tracks and on to an unsurfaced road. And there, on the corner, was Keith, his magnificent beard and the cafe that he has been trying for a long time to sell. There was still a community in the village, another of those in the shadow of grain silos and hooted at by every Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe that pulls through, but in the 16 years that he's been there the population has halved. Around a hundred souls cling on.

"This president of ours ain't helping matters much, giving shitpots o' tax money to people who won't work."
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Keith has bright, dark eyes above that long grey beard. "Fella in Z Z Top, his is the same but his is thicker, I guess," he says.

Joplin's story is the same as everywhere else. Folk leave because there's no work and because people leave the work doesn't come. I put it like that but Keith, a man who has thought about life and now pronounces on it, insists "But there is work." Or there could be. Trouble is that people round here can't see further than farming. Politicians round here don't have imagination. Some way from here, I saw someone has started a place handling straw. Maybe makes electricity by burning straw. Now that's the kind of small business that would go well all around here. No point in hoping some big employer is going to come in and save everything.

"But they lack imagination. Take Chester down the road, for instance. They had some money and what did they do with it? They built a swimming pool. That's not going to bring in work. That's a plaything!"

Keith asked whether we had met Jim, who's taken over the bar at Fresno, or at any rate near the turning to Fresno dam. We said we had, that we had found it unexpectedly and with some pleasure after setting off from Chester. Jim was a Londoner by birth who had lived in the States for 21 years, first in California and then in Colorado, in Denver. He was sitting in the middle of the big drinking area, changing his boots, when we arrived.

"I came over here to see my wife's folks and this place is on the market and so we bought it, just like that," he said. That was six weeks earlier. "It was in a real mess when we got it and we've just been sorting it out ever since."

He said the people down the road in Kremlin - nobody knows how the village got the name - were supporting him and that the bar had been packed for the Fourth of July.

"Wish he'd known about me," Keith said. "I been trying to sell this place for years. I'm sick of it, to tell you the truth. It pays me a living but then I don't ask much. Had a little shop alongside and that could be opened again as well. He'd o'been better off being here in a village instead of out there by the road. It's always the same, when you're new, people come and see you. It's what happens after six months that counts. That's when things change."

Montanotonous: clear road ahead
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We didn't say it but we rather hoped Jim would succeed. He seemed a nice guy. When we went to pay, he insisted the coffees were on the house and refused to hear more.

We thought he was Australian at first. Mix a strong London accent with American - he was born in the centre of London, in Southwark, "although I could have been born on an Italian liner, because my mother only just made it back from Australia in time" - and you get something that sounds Australian.

"I get on the phone to my old friends for half an hour and the accent comes back," he said, "and my wife can't understand me."

AMERICAN FLAGS SEEN: 18

ANGRY, BEARDED REPUBLICANS MET: 1

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