The welcome sign for Brilliant, Ala., is a big, blunt, dirty thing, and makes a point of mentioning a national Checkers champion from the area. Follow the two-lane highway around the bend––you’ll have to avoid the man on the blue tractor who’s blocking the road in Google Street View––and you’re at Main Street, which serves as the heart of this old mining town of about 800 people. That’s where city hall and the water department are––they share the same small building––along with the post office, whose stout brick pillars make it the most impressive structure for miles.
“Actually, I do have a minute,” says the man who answers me there. His accent is rough and wobbly, like the sound of a cassette tape warped by the sun. This is P.J. Gossett, Brilliant’s 31-year-old relief postmaster.
P.J.’s only been employed by the Brilliant post office for three years, but he’s a lifelong resident of northwest Alabama. He briefs me on the surrounding landscape (rolling hills, hollows, streams), describes nearby tourist attractions (the largest natural bridge east of the Rockies is in the town Natural Bridge, a few minutes away), and tells me about a website he runs in his spare time, which is devoted to Alabaman Civil War history.
When asked about Brilliant itself, though, P.J. is silent for a long moment. “It’s a pretty small town,” he says. “Not too exciting. You know I don’t actually even live here. I’m from Winston County––that’s about a half hour away.”
Probably the most exciting thing happening lately, P.J. says, is the closure of Main Street for the past few hours. “They’re, uh”––his voice strains a little, as if he’s leaning over to look out a window–– “they’re trimming a tree, I think. Yeah, they’ve been working on it for a while now. An old oak. I think they’re sawing it down.”
“They closed the whole street to cut down one tree?”
P.J. makes the same straining sound again. “Yep, it’s an oak,” he confirms.
“Is that sad, that they’re cutting it down?”
P.J. laughs. “You ought to visit here,” he says. “We’ve quite a few trees.”
The new police station in Walla Walla, Wash., may be larger and more technologically advanced than its predecessor, a local wine-seller named Jackie tells me, but it’s a whole lot uglier, too.
“Me, to my tastes, there are a number of beautiful historic buildings in town, and I feel like we could have utilized some of the current real estate and just updated it with wifi and what have you. But they chose to go with a whole new construction,” Jackie says with a sigh. Then, as though careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, she adds: “Oh, but I’m sure it’s nice on the inside and everything.”
Jackie has a breezy but dignified way of talking. She is a salesperson at Walla Walla’s Seven Hills Winery. Walla Wallans, she says, are mad for wine. The city has nearly 150 wineries––an enormous amount, given that only about 30,000 people live there. “It’s the most adorable little town,” Jackie says.
I call up an image of the new police station on my web browser during our conversation. It is hideous––indisputably. It looks like a polished cinder block. Harsh even by old Soviet standards.
“Yeah, luckily I don’t have to see it too much,” Jackie says. “Just when I’m on the freeway. Still, I think you should use the resources you have and build on it. But that’s me, and I’m not running the world yet.” She lets out a little swoon. “Maybe next year they’ll let me.”
The city of Santa Claus, Ind., went dark on Wednesday night, and stayed that way for about four hours before power was restored. While driving a friend home from a movie, 24-year-old waiter Brandon noticed the blackout right away. It was obvious––all the Christmas lights were off.
“Here people keep Christmas lights up all year round,” Brandon explains. I’ve reached him at St. Nick’s, a homestyle restaurant in town where he works. “Most people keep their Christmas trees up all year round, as well.”
“And the rationale for that is that your town is named Santa Claus? And that it’s just, fun?”
Brandon laughs. “I’m not sure if ‘rationale’ is the right word, since, you know, it’s totally crazy. But yeah. We’re famous for it. It’s Christmas here every day of the year.”
Jim is originally from Wisconsin, and his voice retains the obvious markers. He’s patient, often breathlessly amused, and begins thoughts with a slight falsetto inherited from Swedes.
“I’m confused. But it’s a real town?”
“Yes, it’s real. I’ve lived here all my life,” Brandon says.
Santa Claus, I learn, is also the reputed site of the world’s first theme park––Holiday World––and the place where children’s letters addressed to Santa Claus go. “Postmasters respond to as many as they can, but it’s impossible to get to all of them,” Brandon says.
As for how this experiment came to be, Brandon only knows bits and pieces; he says there’s a plaque at city hall that explains everything. “Something about how the founders of the city let their kids name it. There’s a big statue of Santa there, too.”
But so, what was the blackout like?
Brandon says it was different to see the town without its Christmas lights, but it wasn’t much of an event—he didn’t see anyone come out of their houses.
I feel compelled to ask: Is it ever a little magical living in Santa Claus?
“I know it’d probably be better for your article if I said it was,” Brandon says. “But it’s not really. It’s just an everyday place. People don’t really think about it too much.”
Brandon, who majored in journalism, says he’s anxious to move away from Santa Claus––maybe to Chicago, where he’s hoping to get hired at a newspaper someday. “It’s definitely time to make a change,” he says. “There are obviously a lot more career opportunities elsewhere. And to be honest I think I’m getting a little too old to live here.”
Churchill Equipment, a farming machinery outlet off Highway 90 in Amsterdam, Mont., is surrounded by dead things. The landscape during winter is unremittingly desolate––bare, brown fields where there was grain, and stark, crunchy stubble where there was hay.
Still, people were surprised when last Tuesday a swarming dust cloud more than 15 miles wide came through town.
“Pretty different,” a worker at Churchill named Jim tells me. “I’ve lived here for 30 years and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that.” No doubt the bizarrely dry winter bears some of the blame, he says. “It was so thick, you couldn’t see as far as the hood of your own car.”
Jim is originally from Wisconsin, and his voice retains the obvious markers. He’s patient, often breathlessly amused, and begins thoughts with a slight falsetto inherited from Swedes. He moved out to Montana in the early ‘80s to work on his brother-in-law’s ranch. Today he spends much of his time renting out tractors, lawnmowers, and manure-spreaders to barley and hay farmers.
When I ask what happened to the ranch, Jim gets quiet. “Oh, you know. That’s an old story,” he says after a while. “They went and sold the place.”
Does he ever miss it?
“Things are always changing on you,” he says, dismissing the question. “Nobody can help that.” About a minute or so later, sounding a little lost in thought, he adds: “Can’t wait for Spring.”