Driving from Bismark ND, to Morris, MN for the 50th reunion of my 4-year college class, driving in rain so fierce it feels like I’m in a carwash, only it lasts for 20 minutes at a time, with just the slightest let-up before the next roaring onslaught, rain so thick and dark that I cannot see the sides of the freeway, or the next lane, or the tail lights of the vehicle in front of me until I’m just a couple of car lengths behind, driving in that kind of weather takes so much of my attention that I fail to notice the warning light indicating I am soon to run out of gas, fail to notice until the modern electronic car computer says I only have 21 miles before I am dead in the water (pun intended).
Since I can’t take my eyes off the road to look at a map, and dare not pull to the minimalist shoulder for fear of being side-swiped, I drive past the next exit, where there is no sign at all of conveniences, noting that now I only have 15 miles in the tank, deciding to take the next exit no matter what. I take the “Hwy 108, Pelican Rapids” exit, with enough gas remaining for 6 miles, no service at the exit, and a sign indicating 12 miles to the pelican town. Should I get back on the freeway not knowing what is ahead or take a chance on computer error with a prayer that 12 miles ahead there is a gas station? I decide it’s safer to run out of gas on a minor highway than on the freeway, at least in this situation where there is virtually no shoulder and extremely poor visibility in the pouring rain.
Sure enough, at mile 6 of the 12, the car starts to sputter, losing power. I coast down a gradual slope, luckily finding a reasonably wide place to pull off the road at the bottom. Hmmmm. Now what? “This isn’t serious,” I tell myself. I just need to put on the 4-way flashers, get out the cell phone, find the AAA card, and call for help. As I’m looking for the card, the only other vehicle I’ve seen since leaving the freeway passes me. Instinctively I raise my hand, presumably in an “asking for help” sort of gesture. The car whizzes past without slowing.
Just as I find the card and the cell, I hear a car pulling in behind me. A young woman gets out, comes to the window I’ve just lowered, and asks if I need help. She tells me her husband doesn’t like her to stop to help people when she’s alone. “He always stops to help,” she says, “but most people don’t these days. I saw your hand. I just thought you looked OK, so I turned around and came back to see if you need help.”
I explain I’m out of gas. As she asks where I’m going, and I tell her how I came to be headed toward Pelican Rapids, in the opposite direction of my destination town, I can see she is relaxing and trusting me. She takes me to town, chatting along the way, asking me where I’m from and why I’m in Minnesota, telling me a little about her kids and the birthday party they’ll be going to after we get the gas, explaining that the town is on the Pelican River and yes, there is a falls right in town. She stops at the station, learns their gas can is already being used somewhere else, and finally takes me to her house where she has a 2 gal. container she recently filled for the lawn mower. When I tell her I’ll pay for the gas, she says, “Na, you don’t have to pay.” But I take $10 from my wallet and put it in her cup holder. In hindsight, I wish I’d given her $20. She even pours the gas for me. Thanking her, I give her a hug, because after all this, we’re practically friends.
It’s 3 pm, and suddenly I’m very hungry. So now, with 46 miles worth of gas, I drive into Pelican Rapids, the highway forming the main street of town, the way it does in most small towns in Minnesota. An artful sign reading, The Muddy Moose Bistro, attracts me. On entering, I see and smell at once my instincts are right on target! I order the special, home-made tomato bisque soup with a grilled cheese sandwich, and a decaf Americano. Oh heaven, it is delicious!
The only other customers that late in the afternoon are three bicyclists, who later tell me they still have 40 miles to ride before reaching their campground destination. Like me, they are having a late lunch, sandwiches and beer, while drying a bit from riding in nightmare conditions. One of them notices an old piano against the wall behind where I’m sitting. He asks the waitress if he can play it. I and probably she are wondering if we’ll be hearing “heart and soul” or maybe a little boogie-woogie riff. But no, the young man sits down, and plays such beautiful classical piano music that it brings tears to my eyes. I sip my coffee, my tummy satisfied, my shoulders at last dropping into their normal position, the music soothing nerves frazzled by tense hours driving in extreme rain, my mood shifting from nervous fear to relaxed happiness.
Before filling up at the gas station and heading toward Morris again, I ask a passing stranger about the rapids. Learning there is a small water fall right in the middle of town, only 2 blocks away, I walk there to take a look.
On the road leaving town, even though heavy, dark clouds are dumping rain again, my mind replaying conversations with the young woman who helped me, the friendly waitress, the piano musician, and the stranger who directed me to the falls, I smile with the knowledge that all is well in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota.