I can’t get a handle on GPS. Being a moving blue dot on a screen just doesn’t do it for me. That annoying turn left, turn right, go straight is enough to drive me to distraction. So we navigated our way across the Mojave desert using a hand-drawn map that spanned 200 miles. There were times I wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn but there had been no wrong turns to take. For miles and miles, all we could see was road, and desert.
Lines of lonely mailboxes were clear indicators of the inhabitants and the houses that blended in so perfectly with their surrounds that they were invisible. We drove and drove and nothing much changed. And then we happened across Kelso Depot. Marked with an X on our map, it was somewhere to stop, to break the monotony.
Once a boomtown, Kelso is now home to a renovated train station that houses a museum and a café – a café run by a chap called Mike who wants to sell out and retire, yet again. The 2013 version of this town is a far cry from the 1943 version when troops, tanks, and trucks were shipped through here by rail, creating a hive of activity that begot buildings, people, and commerce. All was well until 1985, when Union Pacific pulled out and the trains stopped pulling in.
The old jail – a two-cell steel contraption – was used to house those who caused a ruckus after a few beers on a Friday night. Open to the elements, no one spent more than a night here – anything more would have been close to torture. The town was called after a railroad worker who won a competition to have it named after him. Its main claim to fame in the 1970s was that it was a town without television. Now its main claim to fame is that it breaks the journey across the desert and offers root-beer floats to thirsty travellers.
I’d forgotten what root beer tasted like. But the concept of a root beer float (vanilla ice-cream floating in a glass of soda) was too all-American to pass up. And the decor, with its bar counter and high stools, looked as if it had come off a TV set for a 1960s American sitcom. So we tried them. And didn’t like them. But struggled through. If you’re wondering what root beer tastes like, it’s remarkably similar to that horrible eucalyptus toothpaste – the pink stuff. Bless him though, Mike didn’t want to take our money. But traffic was light that day so we compromised and paid just $5 for the experience.
America isn’t just big cities, skyscrapers, and football stadiums. At its backbone are people like Mike, ordinary people, trying to eke a living from the cards they’ve been dealt. America is more attitude than atmosphere. That instant familiarity can take a little getting used to but then you stop for sustenance in the boonies and spend a pleasant half hour talking about nothing with someone you know you’ll never see again. And that someone, that stranger, does something nice – like buy you a root-beer float – then you get it. However superficial it might seem, America has an abiding interest in other people’s business, a curiosity about the world outside, and a opinion on just about everything. And when you strip away the commercialism, the bright lights, the designer labels, and stumble across places like the Beanery, and see small-town America for what it is, the kindness comes out.