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Lileks: But what do they do to the cows? What?

July 29, 2018 GMT

Drove back and forth to Fargo this week. Split time between Hwy. 10, the miniseries, and I-94, the three-hour movie. Here is a report.

1. There is a segment between Evansville and Alexandria where the four lanes become two, and semis are rushing past you close enough to peel off your paint. Remember, fines are doubled in a work zone — but you can do the normal speed, because there’s no one working.

There’s never anyone working. You know they have to work at some point, because after three months the cones disappear and the road is ... well, flat, like it was before. But you never see anyone. Perhaps burly elves appear at midnight from under the orange cones, and get to work, singing lusty pavement shanties and puffing on pipes that stink of asphalt. MnDOT doesn’t let on because everyone would show up to see them, and I have the feeling Construction Elves would be prone to mooning.

2. When you see a billboard that says only “We do cows,” you want to slow down to see if it’s an ad for a slaughterhouse, a vet or a tattoo shop. You don’t know what they do to or with cows because you’re not the sort of person whose life involves finding a place where cows can be done.

Yet, someone is driving around worried and jumpy, thinking: “Where the devil am I going to get these cows done? Every day I come home, and the wife asks if I did the cows.” And then there’s the sign; what a relief.

3. If you’re on Hwy. 10, always pull off to study each historical marker.

“On this spot in 1864 Olaf O. ‘Ole’ Olafson built the first ‘left turn on green’ turn signal. The area had not yet been electrified; Olafson employed a team of painters, or ‘arrow boys,’ to quickly daub the arrow, then paint it over after a minute.”

You see a sign for Left-Turn Daze, Aug 4-7. You can just imagine. Everyone gathers for a cookout and movie in the park after dark, some Disney thrown up on a bedsheet. The kids run around in the twilight margins of the celebration, the teens sit on the hoods of their cars deriding everything but secretly loving it, and the old folks tell stories about the year they replaced Olafson’s sign with a newfangled electrical one and the arrow boys got a snootful and ran it over with a John Deere.

We stopped at New York Mills to look at the historical markers in Central Park. There’s just something about visiting Central Park in New York Mills that makes you happy to be a Minnesotan: “Ohhh, well, might not be as big as the other Central Park, but we like it fine.”

There’s a plaque that identifies the spot’s importance: It sits astride the Continental Divide, and you wonder if there’s a giant dotted line visible only from space.

4. I miss the big green-and-yellow Holiday Inn sign. When I was a kid, the highlight of the summer was staying at a Holiday Inn. For starters, you might stay on the second floor, and when you’re from North Dakota, whoa: vertigo. “We’re actually looking down on things. Is this safe?”

The Holiday Inns of the era were all alike: pastel-colored panels outside the rooms, a lobby with a faint smell of cigarettes mixed with tendrils of French fries from the coffee shop. If there was a pool, the chlorine perfume hit you like a wet towel; it was humid as a rain forest in there, and echoed with shrieks of kids diving and the bongs and chings of a pinball machine in the game room.

The room was full of marvels: a TV set where CBS was Channel 5 instead of Channel 4. It was like a different dimension! The glasses were wrapped in crinkly paper. The toilet had a seatbelt. There was in-room music, as the postcards put it: a radio embedded in the cinderblock wall. The phone had buttons and one was red. “Does this one call Russia, Dad?”

Years later, working as a seed salesman for Northrup King down south, I fell in love with the lower tier of motels. The independent joints on the edge of down where they hadn’t flipped the NO on the VACANCY sign since ’58. Scratchy towels, buzzing neon sign with a flickering letter, an ice machine outside your room that sighed once an hour and birthed a litter of cubes, TV sets that showed ghosts in a snowstorm. There was nothing to do in these places. So you sat outside your room with a Coke from the cooler and watched the cars go past.

Taking a road trip? Of course you’ll choose a modern hotel. It’ll have cable. It’ll have Wi-Fi. The omnipresent effervescence of pointless connectivity. Once you’re in that room, you’re everywhere. And nowhere.

Find a place in a town where they’re having Left-Turn Daze. You never know what you might learn over a beer and corn. And if they ask you what you do down there in The Cities? Resist the temptation to say “cows.” They might say, “Really? Me, too!”

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks