June 24: Fargo to Page, North Dakota - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

June 24: Fargo to Page, North Dakota

TWO FARMHANDS from North Dakota save for years and go on the trip of their lives. They arrive in Britain and are much taken by the place, this strange land so full of history and legend.

"We gotta see Coventry," one of them says. "They tell me Lady Godiva rides naked through the city on a horse."

His buddy is impressed.

"Yeah, let's go," he says. "I ain't seen a horse in years.

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WANDA IN HITTERDAL will be annoyed by that joke. "When we lived in California and I said I was from North Dakota, people there were convinced we were all duking up it every night with gunfights. They think we're just a bunch of ignorant cowhands."

On the other hand, you can see in the hours after Fargo quite how the impression was born. There is nothing here. Folk say it will improve later but for hours today we rode beside the interstate, looking not away but towards it, for the sake of something to look at. Were there more red trucks or blue trucks? Is that ambulance the one we saw going the opposite way a few moments earlier, with its siren going?

We watched a yellow plane spraying crops and were disappointed when it stopped. We saw an animal cross the road far ahead and we spent a contented ten minutes discussing whether it was a cat. A man waved from a van. We passed a sign for Herefords but saw no cows.

We made matters worse by going straight on where the route turned right. Had we followed the Northern Tier, we would have ridden through Arthur, a curiously proletarian name in a country prone to calling anything more than a cow shed and a post office a "city." After Arthur there would be nothing. We just opted for complete nothing, 50km of straight, unsheltered and frequently bumpy road straight into the wind.

Ayr: one dusty street...
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Why? Because by going the other two sides round a square to get to Page, we would see the astonishing village of Ayr. The first impression, largely accurate, is that there is nothing there but a dusty road, a collection of grain silos which

...a lot of huge grain silos...
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cast a shadow over half of North Dakota when the sun sinks, and a combined post office and cafe which closes after lunch. But walk across the grass behind an unremarkable white building and you come to a ghost town, or at any rate an outdoor collection of buildings from the start of the 1900s.

...and one man's personal ghost town
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There's a Mobil gas station with pumps and canopy, and a schoolhouse with desks and a mannequin teacher, and the original Ayr railway station and a railway caboose, and an ice cream parlour, a general shop, a fire station with old fire engine and huge triangle to summon the volunteers, and a barber's shop. All in wood and with the original fittings.

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Inside the barbershop
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The story is that a man called Keith Johnson began the collection in memory of his son. Some of the buildings were originally from Ayr, others brought from elsewhere. Steph spoke to an itinerant engineer at the grain silos. He said Johnson was now in his 80s, lived elsewhere and didn't want to sell. So there it stands, just off the Northern Tier, a ghost town that never was.

The fire engine and a triangle to bang to summon it.
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Inside the gas station.
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Inside the store.
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Page was much livelier half an hour later. We stopped at the cafe and looked through the guest book. We recognised several signatures, including that of Jeff Lee, who enjoyed a condemned man's last meal here before going off to fall in love with Joy Santee. We stood and watched a street auction of rusty hinges, beer signs and

"Do I hear a dollar..."
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"...for this wonderful 1960s car manual?"
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cartons of 1960s car manuals. A torrent of words from the auctioneer invariably ended with "sold for $3." The woman at the bar said he toured other auctions and bought everything that went unsold. He kept it all in barns around the area and tried to shift it at auctions of his own.

She introduced us to a man called Tom, drinking beer at the bar - "always a bottle, never a can" - and wore a T-shirt printed "Proud to be American." He said he would down his Bud and then open the toilets and hot water at the baseball ground across from the camp park.

We set up there but left before dusk. Why? Because a splendid woman called Vicky drove up in a pick-up loaded with logs. "I was wondering how committed you are to sleeping in the park tonight," she asked in a strong voice. "Only they say there's gonna be a storm and they're talking o' hail. You may not wanna be out in that. Ain't saying it's gonna happen, but it might."

She looked at us seriously.

"I gotta room back of the bank that I usually hire out. But you can have it. No problem."

It was an unbeatable offer, our second, in fact, of somewhere to stay if the weather turned bad. Such a friendly town and, once more, such wonderful people.

AMERICAN FLAGS SEEN: 20

RUSTY HINGES BOUGHT: 0

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