The town of Hitchcock, S.D., which boasts a population of 108, has only one restaurant—the Hitchcock Cafe—and the only waitress working there, presumably with a pot of coffee in her other hand as she picks up the phone, immediately puts me on hold.
By put on hold, I mean that she says “Can I put you on hold?” and drops the receiver onto the counter. In the background there is the clink of forks and the flat murmur of what sounds like old men telling jokes.
The waitress is talking to someone in the distance. “He says he’s writing an article,” she shouts.
“Well good for him,” answers a different woman—an older, sassier one, by the sound of it. This is Darlys Closs, owner of the Hitchcock. She’s probably in her early sixties, but she’s not the type one feels comfortable asking that kind of question. She has a brash, no-nonsense style, and a habit of emphasizing the ends of her sentences. “I run a restaurant,” she says. “You do realize that you called a restaurant?”
I explain again, with fading confidence, that I am calling people in small towns across America, and that I would love it if Darlys would grant me a short interview. “I’m wondering what the story is in your town,” I say. “What are people talking about? What’s on people’s minds? I think it’s interesting.”
“Well, all right,” she says finally. “But it’s not real exciting.”
It takes a while before Darlys warms up to me. Then she won’t stop talking. She tells me about the seven new houses that have been built, most of them for farming families. She tells me that a massive elevator complex has recently finished construction just outside of town. It means about a half a dozen new jobs for Hitchcock, and that the local farmers won’t have to drive as far to store grain. “It’s a great, big thing,” she says about it, sounding excited. “It’s maybe five miles away, but you can almost see it.”
“It’s real flat here,” she explains. She takes an apprehensive breath. “You do realize that you called South Dakota?”
For the first time in my life, I telephone Alaska. The woman who picks up is a librarian. I’ve intentionally chosen to call a library, believing all librarians to be kindhearted and forgiving to those in pursuit of knowledge. I am not disappointed. “Sure you can interview me,” she says without hesitation. “You just want to know what’s happening in Ketchikan?”
Pronounced in her chipper voice, the name of the city sounds like a game a toddler might play, Catch ya can.
This is Linda Gens, who is in her late-fifties, and just moved last year from Guthrie, Okla., to take over as Ketchikan’s Library Director. From my vantage—via Google Street View—I can guess what lies outside Linda’s office window: a dense jumble of broad, barn-like buildings the color of driftwood, bordered by the sea on one side and sky-daggering hemlocks on all others. To the left of the library’s front doors is a totem pole, like the entrance of a summer camp.
“Hmm. Let me see,” she says, sighing. Weirdly, it’s not an easy question for people to answer—they never know what to say until they say it. “Well it’s been awfully wet here, I guess?” Linda finally says. “The wettest on record. We’ve only had 31 days without precipitation since July. I know that must sound really boring, but it’s a pretty big deal when you live in a temperate rainforest.”
“Wait, did you say you live in a rainforest?”
There’s a lumber yard in Holgate, Ohio, where a man named Mark has the low, unhurried voice of a cartoon tortoise, and a laugh like brittle leaves being stepped on. “You sound like you’re talking in a cave,” he says. “Are you talking in a cave?”
“No, I’m actually calling from my computer. I guess that’s why I sound a little echo-y. Gmail has this really cool feature.”
“Oh they do, huh?” he says, sounding distracted. “Well that’s good.”
The major topic of conversation in town, according to Mark, is that the local boys basketball team are “pretty darn good.” Last night they stomped the team from nearby Ayersville, 41-24. “Check out the Girls team this year, too,” Mark tells me. (As of last Monday, the girls’ team had won 10 of its last 11 games.)
Then there’s another long pause in Mark’s speech—a pause so long that I’ve already moved on to other topics in my mind, and so for a moment it strikes me as an unrelated general statement when Mark says: “Yup. They’re pretty darn good.”
The Giving Tree, a store in Craig, Colo., specializes in items like embroidered pillowcases, silver jewelry, dream-catchers, and wind chimes. Liz Davis, a kind and articulate woman, is both the owner and sole employee, and is happy to talk to me.
The whole town of Craig is abuzz with excitement, she says, in anticipation for what’s informally known as “the Super Bowl of livestock shows,” which takes place every year in Denver, four hours away. “It’s a big, big deal,” she says. “It’s been happening for over a hundred years, it’s become kind of a social event.”
It’s embarrassing, but I have to confirm with Liz what a stock show even is. She does her best to explain.
It’s embarrassing, but I have to confirm with Liz what a stock show even is. She does her best to explain. “Yes, people here actually go there to show their livestock. Goats, sheep, pigs. It’s a real thing. Everybody’s talking about it.”
I run through a quick inventory of what everybody around me has been talking about in the past few days: the Republican primaries, the “Shit People Say” videos, Coachella tickets. I feel a slight pang of envy directed toward Craig, if only because its interests are less disposable than mine. But I doubt I could live there.
I ask Liz if anyone from Craig has ever won the stock show.
The answer is yes. In fact, a high school freshman from Craig named Andrea Maneotis is already a two-time champion goat showman; she is expected to do quite well this year. Last week she even made the front page of the Craig Daily Press. “Yeah, she’s pretty famous around here,” Liz tells me, laughing. “Or at least her goats are.”
Moab, Utah, with its beautiful red rock scenery, is a tourist draw during the spring and fall seasons, but winter can be harsh, with negative wind-chill and slick mountain roads. That’s why residents are mostly talking about the surprisingly mild weather, according to Tara Beresh, who manages Back of the Beyond, a bookstore. “It’s really unprecedented for this time of year,” she says. “And without any tourists around, there’s really nothing to do but enjoy it.”
Tara, who’s in her mid-twenties, moved to Moab from the Pacific Northwest four years ago to be an intern for an outdoor learning institute. She fell in love with the landscape and has been there ever since.
I ask if there are many customers today.
“Very few,” she says. “Mostly they’re disgruntled because nothing’s open. Even most of the restaurants close during the off-season.”
Can it get boring, living in Moab during the off-season?
“Sometimes,” Tara says. But she also enjoys it. “Things slow down, which I like.” In her spare time, Tara keeps a personal blog. We spend so much time... moving to and from each place, so quickly, she wrote in one post, almost three years ago. I am stopping now, I am interacting with the life around me and seeing with more clarity and appreciation. I am happier.
Besides, Tara says, with all the tourists gone, Moab feels more like a small town should. “It’s really nice, getting to talk to people who actually live here for a change.”