I bowled the ball, bocce style, for my slightly myopic dog across the dirt lot of the only store in Buffalo Ridge, South Dakota. The pumps of the defunct gas station were so bleached out they looked like they hadn’t been used in 50 years, and there was not a human in sight. It was early October but the 40 mile an hour wind whipped up the 34’ air to a cutting chill that made memories of surfing on a perfect New England Indian summer afternoon a few days earlier seem like a figment of my imagination.
I had my doubts about trying to cross the vastness of South Dakota, which seemed as uncharted and mysterious as a vast body of water, in the rising darkness, on half a tank of gas.
Mia trotted over to the equally bleached building, and with total surprise I noticed a slightly less faded OPEN sign. I looked doubtfully at it, and then back at my car, which I had simply stopped in the middle of the dusty lot. Following Mia over, I realized with shock that the gas station was not abandoned and was in fact open, and also was a general store, of sorts.
Hastily, I stuffed Mia back into the car and pulled up to the pumps, pausing with the old fashion contraptions before heading inside to pre pay.
The store was what I can only describe as a poorly stocked quickie-mart combined with the collection of a serious newspaper hoarder and casual rock hound, who was not at all concerned about the health board. And there were the large buffalo skulls all over the room, resting casually atop coolers and tables.
If you travel fluidly, going where the road takes you often enough, you recognize situations which are tipping points, and as a woman, you are hyper attuned to them. There are moments when you recognize you have perhaps found something really fabulous, or perhaps, something really bad. What you do with that is up to you.
The grumpy looking owner stood at the Formica counter in his plaid shirt, as if customers rolled in every few minutes. We briefly talked dog briefly he had seen Mia and I stretch our legs oblivious to his extant business, but I got to gas pretty quickly. After taking care of essentials, I eyed the buffalo jerky. I had gotten hooked on the good stuff, no chemicals and no refined sugar, a few years back, and it’s a rare find. When I asked he cracked a grin, the pride showing, as he told me about the many head of buffalo they raised on site and the curing. I said I’d take a few and headed out to fill the gas, throwing back that it was a shame I couldn’t eat in the car without Mia climbing down my throat to extract each piece, as I was famished. He said something about a Subway as the door slammed.
Car gassed up, I got my card and jerky, thanked him for the Subway suggestion but said I hated chain food. He smiled again, and said I was in Buffalo Ridge. I raised an eyebrow, looking around the dusty quickie-mart and newspaper piles, less in dismissal and more in confusion, and asked if it would be a bother to cook food-by which I meant where?
He pointed out an ancient looking stovetop grill item behind the counter in what I suppose was a kitchen, and said he could have it served up in 15. But I needed to order. A quarter pound or half. Oh, and tomato’s or not. Those were fresh too. He had me, and I laughed.
But this is what I live for. When serendipity presents quiet moments or human connections-the kind of unremarkable experiences you cannot plan, and which, compiled, make trips entirely worth taking.
I had the best bison burger I’ve ever had, served up on a paper plate, with equally massive condiment bottles, set on a decrepit faux wood table, complete with pile of newspapers and buffalo skull also on the table top. The wind whistled on the grassland and the sky turned from pink to deep purples and blues outside.
While I devoured the burger and fresh tomatoes, we talked Vinatieri, beloved son of South Dakota and Patriots glory days kicker, and about engineering, something he had many degrees in. These moments where a stranger tells you some of his story, about his family in detail, and you realize it is fascinating, so utterly compelling, and oh so different from yours-man that is what you travel for.
I washed my hands so poor Mia woudn’t burst into tears at the smell and thanked him. Grateful and buoyed on every level, I headed out to the car and continued to chase the setting sun for as long as I could.