The road less traveled can be a dangerous journey

Thou shalt not be perceived to speak ill of rural Minnesota.

James Lileks’ column last month in the Star Tribune seemed innocent enough. Lileks got off Interstate 94 and traveled on U.S. Highway 10 instead, finding the enchantment and mystery that those of us who like to take the roads less traveled like to find.

The small towns start to pop up, spaced like a morning’s ride by horse. You pass Royalton, where ancient buildings huddle on one corner.

You don’t know if that’s all that’s left, or if that’s all there ever was. You pass through the homely heart of Motley, a town whose very name seems rueful and apologetic, then juke west toward Staples. Let’s stop here first.

Should’ve kept going, James.

A few years ago, I stopped to take pictures of the empty hulk of Batcher’s Department Store, and was set upon by a local who wanted to know if I was from the Cities. Sure. Are you going to buy it? I know you’re going to buy it. Someone’s going to buy it.

Had to break her heart. Can’t imagine anyone ever will. It’s the biggest building in town; the old yellow painted sign on the top still blares BATCHER, and the peeling sign in the back lot points you toward the parking lot. It’s been closed for years.

Same goes for the movie marquee: STAPLES, it says, in case anyone wondered. The marquee is blank. It went dark last year, but the marquee still fronts a three-story building from the 1910s. Buildings like this were emblems of civic pride.

Around the corner, a grand old neon sign for Lefty’s bar, a one-of-a-kind landmark, the sort of thing people remember from childhood: Coming home from Grandma’s, asleep in the back, waking to see the sign, and knowing they were almost home.

Verndale, Wadena, New York Mills, Detroit Lakes … they were all something in their day, not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, just different. But woe to the outsider who stands in the moment, trying to transport to the past.

That didn’t sit well with some people in Staples-Motley, judging by an op-ed in today’s Star Tribune, which insisted that the writer wasn’t personally offended, but a lot of people were.

The women were offended, as were others in our community of Staples, by Lileks’ seemingly ridiculing visual aspects of various small towns as he drove along Hwy. 10 — maybe praising some small towns over others.

I took the article to be more of a nostalgic journey away from the freeway and into smaller communities along less-traveled routes.

If there’s one thing we do well in Minnesota, it’s taking offense at perceived slights.

Why didn’t he mention the schools, and the health care clinic, and the wellness center?

Our community works hard to sustain, and we are thriving. So are our neighboring communities. I am not sure what Lileks intended to say in his article. Personally, I was not offended, but many others were. Maybe he was too ambiguous in the message he was trying to convey.

I would like to believe he was suggesting we get off the “interstates of life” and take the roads less traveled. Americana remains in the small towns. And if I were a Perham or a Frazee resident, I would question that Lileks failed to mention those towns, instead jumping right over them to Detroit Lakes. Heaven forbid!

“My guess is that James Lileks is from the asphalt jungle of the Twin Cities and has no idea of how great it is to NOT be from there,” a commenter opines. “All he hears is gunshots,sirens, honking horns and screeching brakes.”

Lileks, perhaps the most gifted writer in the big city, is from Fargo, for the record. His dad owned a Texaco station — a Texaco station, people! — in West Fargo, N.D.

And the man has a gift not shared by many anymore. He’s interested in Minnesota’s communities that don’t rhyme with Skinneapolis or Ain’t Paul.

On his blog today, for example, he headed south, to Kasson, discovering the old art-deco theater, the closed department store, and the cemetery. He was delivering the ashes of a former resident home.

At the furthest point from the grave I looked back. A man had appeared with a spade and was replacing the grass. Once the flowers are gone there’ll be no sign anything had changed recently, although of course everything had.

The small towns of Minnesota are fascinating spots. But if you want to stay out of trouble, stay on the interstate.

No offense.