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True Adventure, Happy Ending

Stuck inside of St. Johns with the Beulah blues again

August 6, 2006 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Sprawl hasn’t robbed St. Johns of its downtown charm or community connections.

ST. JOHNS—A sinking, scary feeling. Your car’s engine is lurching. You’re three hours from home. It’s after closing time, and you have no idea how to find a trustworthy mechanic or anyone else in this unfamiliar town along this busy highway who might help a stranger.

That’s me at 6 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, heading out of Lansing, Michigan’s car-cluttered commuter scene to my little bucolic village of Beulah, nestled in the hills of northwestern Michigan. It was the prospect of completely breaking down along one of those long, dark roads between me and home—far from any town, let alone a gas station—that had me looking into the handsome tow truck driver’s eyes and agreeing that yes, I guess, I’ll have to stay here in St. Johns and figure this out in the morning, when the place is open for business again.

Thus began my fun and satisfying ride into the center of St. Johns—and to what makes it and other hometown communities so essential to our humanity, no matter how feeble the flickering “Vacancy” signs and how abandoned the boarded-up roller skating rink may seem from the highway.

My worst fear—after the one about getting ripped off by an opportunistic auto shop—was the one about being marooned in that anonymous sprawl between the struggling downtown and the bypassing highway. I did not want to spend the night and next day in a chain motel with nothing but fast food to eat and blank stares for company.

Thankfully, that did not happen. Instead, I was dropped down a rabbit hole of time, place, and people into a space that taught me again how utterly wonderful and persistent community is, despite the ferocious assaults it endures from things as seemingly disparate as freeway commuting, television, mega-malls, cul de sacs, and our deadening convenience culture. Getting stuck in St. Johns reminded me that it is community—people connected through each other to their places—that will keep at least some doors opening to strangers no matter how frightening our economy and our politics become.  

My odyssey began with John, the tow truck driver, who, at no expense to me, drove his rig out to the convenience store where my sick car was parked to see if he could figure out what might be wrong with it. But the problem left him scratching his head, and soon we were trucking into town with my car loaded on a flatbed trailer--that did cost me!--with me wondering, as we drove by so many places already closed for the night, where I would stay, how I would get food, and what I would do the next day without a vehicle.

Not to worry. John deposited me safely at the lovingly landscaped St. John’s Motel and even offered to drive me in the morning to the repair shop. Five minutes later, as I head out of the motel’s office door with key in hand, another hotel guest steps up to save me from going to bed without supper. Like a cowboy in a Western movie respectfully holding his white hat over his heart, he tells me that he knows what it’s like to be stranded and that I would be welcome to join his party of six “loony” truck drivers from Kansas for dinner.

A big bowl of homemade chicken soup later (the motel’s local owner clued us into another local place with authentic comfort food), I’m sitting with new friends trading stories about traveling the country and inching tall loads under low overpasses. Eileen and her husband Glenn had the most, with something like 60 years or more of truck driving between them. Brad, the youngest, was wide-eyed, knowing he’d soon have his own stories to tell of accidentally knocking down rural cable television lines right about soap opera time. I related my own trucking tales from riding cross-country with my Dad in his Freightliner. 

I felt a real kinship with this family of truck drivers, with John the tow-truck driver, with the owner of the motel—who used to sell used cars there—and with several other characters I met, such as the business owner who had to let 35 people go when Wal-Mart came to town.

Part of this kinship probably had to do with the fact that we all came from small towns, where people come to know each other, tolerate each other, and love and annoy each other—at school, church, work, and through relatives, local history, and business dealings. But, the next morning, as I drank coffee and meditated on the poster in the downtown window for the five-ring circus coming there the next week, I sensed there was more to it than that small-town feel.   

Yes: It’s something universal, something that applies in big cities as well as small towns and even isolated areas.  It’s the little kid’s handprint on the window over the circus poster, the used car sign still hanging from the porch of St. John’s Motel, and the free coffee and ice cream that the little diner across the divided highway from the motel is planning for its longtime patrons now that the landholder has sold the lot for some unknown purpose—a Taco Bell, perhaps?

It’s what cities like Detroit lost a lot of when they bulldozed vibrant neighborhoods in the 1950s for highways that sped the urban exodus. But it is also what keeps many of Detroit’s and other cities’ neighborhoods going, keeps volunteers sweeping the streets and planting urban gardens even as crime rates and disinvestment offer plenty of discouragement. 

I’m looking through the coffee shop window in St. John’s and I see a place that, like any true neighborhood, will persist no matter what Wall Street and Wal-Mart do to the local economic ties that used to keep these streets and buildings busy with commerce.

The local connections that keep these people and this place together are alive and vital even though they are stressed and scattered. They show up on the side of the divided highway, in a St. John’s Motel full of 1980s country charm (I think someone emptied out their knick-knack shop to outfit the place) and in the owner’s recommendations of good places to eat. They show up in the graciousness of truck drivers and the integrity of local mechanics (I got out of St. Johns with a minor bill for replacing spark plugs).

Big-box designers try every day to stamp the feeling of neighborliness onto their outlet mall designs with flowers, benches, and faux 1950’s signs. But the fact is you can’t manufacture community. It takes people, place, and time. And I’m grateful for my 18 up-close hours, reminding me that wherever I am and whoever I’m with, it is community that we have an opportunity and an obligation to make.

Patty Cantrell directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s entrepreneurial agriculture program. Reach her at patty@mlui.org.

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