We were traveling through. I said that I was looking forward to our lunch date and J laughed because he was thinking the same thing. As we were talking about how a hamburger really sounded good, we saw this vehicle sitting up on a hill – an old milk truck with “Prairie Dog Cafe” painted on the side. I laughed and said it was a sign from God telling us where we were to eat.
The next left was the main street of town, a busier town than the previous one we explored – it has a paved main street. The Prairie Dog Cafe is easy to find because it has cars parked in front, being close to noon. We walk in and as is typical, all conversation stops and all eyes are on us. We are strangers in town.
Strangers. We probably look and sound different, kinda strange. However, they quickly go back to their conversations – the group of older men and a woman sitting at the long table, three women sitting together, a couple over by the window, and a group of four workmen who sit down behind me. Given my background in psychology and my interest in sociology, I am also sizing them up, not the individuals so much as the community.
I am fascinated by how location and environment impact on people and how they live. I am also aware of the assumption I make as I travel through “strange” areas, areas that are different than where I live. The small towns of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota seem so different. I wonder about their life – what it is like to live in these small communities that are so separate from other places.
What strikes me is how isolated and insulated they seem to be from the “more developed” life that I’m used to. Most of these small towns don’t have fast food restaurants, let alone fancy coffee shops. There aren’t shopping malls, strip malls, Walmarts or K-Marts. Does this make the people isolated and deprived? Or do they have enough of what they need without the stress that comes with lots of choices. I wonder if I see them as deprived because I have been co-opted by the spend-more-money consumerism of advertising and capitalism gone amuck that is part of more densely populated areas.
The basics of a good life are (1) the ability to do work that brings meaning to life and provides for basic needs and (2) relationships with others that meet our emotional needs. I look around and see what I see everywhere I go, like the small family run restaurants in the places I live. People talking and laughing – but here is a community I don’t know – the one where everyone knows your name – where they automatically spot an outsider. But they all know each other, who is related to who, and who lives where. They probably know even more – because this is a small community where everyone knows everything about everyone.
And there are hints that they have social lives. I turn around and notice the back of the tee-shirt of the young man behind me.
Of course I ask if I can take a picture of his tee, and he laughs and says of course – he even poses for me. The man across from him says to give it to me – and the young man starts taking it off with everyone laughing. I probably blush and definitely decline (although I secretly covet it). There is other bantering with laughter, and our interchange ends with him proudly stating that now he is also a model.
Maybe I don’t need to pity them because they seem isolated and maybe backwards. They have relationships and they are working and they get together for lunch at the Prairie Dog Cafe. Did I tell you that the hamburger is the best I have ever eaten? The town sign we drove past when entering has their slogan, “Beef – Our Steak in the Future.” This is community.