July 11-14, 2017
Lake Ashtabula, North Dakota
I liked our campsite in North Dakota. It was maybe my favorite spot ever. We stayed midweek, so we nearly had the campground to ourselves. Our site was right next to the swimming beach and playground, where we swam in the water, played in the sand, and watched giant pelicans slowly float around the lake, stalking fish. The girls even saw one catch a fish in its giant beak and gulp it down! Our site had a normal size entrance, but once you passed the first few trees it opened up into a large site in the forest, like a place I would stumble upon as a kid and pretend was big natural clubhouse. The view out every window was quiet green forest, with the sounds scurrying of birds and squirrels in the leaves below. The North Dakota wind almost constantly blew through the tops of he highest trees above, creating a chorus of clapping green leaves. But it almost never blew hard enough for us to feel it in the protection of our natural clubhouse.
This campground was on Lake Ashtabula which was a long, skinny lake nestled between rolling hills. It felt like we had finally crossed a line that brought us into the west. The hills were mostly bare so you can see the shape of the land for miles, with patches of trees, many which were planted as wind breaks, speckled here and there. The girls had a blast hiking with Brad on trails around the campground, picking and smashing berries, finding deer footprints, and keeping an eye out for the resident campground bunnies.
About 15 minutes south of our campground was Valley City, which was not in a valley, nor would I consider it a city. But in this small town we found a very interesting coffee shop where Brad spent one day working and I spent the next day catching up on the blog. It was called The Vault. Aka the community’s living room. It’s completely self serve with drip coffee or keueig selections and a full case of fresh bakery items. A fridge was stocked with pasta salad and sandwiches and the freezer was full of local fudge. You helped yourself to the selections, and then dropped cash or check into a deposit box, total honor system, or keyed your amount into a small credit card reader on the counter. The walls were lined with shelves stocked with a random selection of books, also for sale by honor system. The sign read, “If you like it, pay $1.00. If you love it, pay $5.00” There was a cabinet full of board games, a piano, a children’s area with a few blocks and books, and a small stage. The middle of the room was full of random tables and chairs, and free fast internet. What an amazing concept. While I sat there writing all day, I met the people who bake next door, keeping the treat case stocked and keeping a general eye on things. They told me about how North Dakota is the most wonderful place to live in the world. “This is where God lives,” they told me. “He visits other places, but this is where he lives.”
The vault was a revolving door of characters throughout the day…middle schoolers stopping for a cookie and soda and watching YouTube videos on each other’s phones, business women on lunch break sitting to break open their sack lunches, a meeting between an older foreign couple hoping to immigrate here and a civil rights advocate, a bible study, groups of teenagers sharing a drink and a laugh, at least one person who was possibly homeless, and a number of people who just walked in to use the restroom or the free wifi for a moment and then walked back out. I can difintely see how this place could be called the city’s living room. That’s exactly what it felt like. Everyone paid for the things they took out of the fridge, and most people said hello to at least one other person in the room as they entered. Everyone seemed to know the lady refilling the bakery case, and she couldn’t drop off a platter of fresh orange buns without stopping to have a conversation with someone. An older man stopped by my table to say, “I haven’t seen you here before. Are you from around here?” When I told him no, he asked if I’d already picked up one of the North Dakota guide books. “My husband got one yesterday, but we used it to get a camp fire started before we had a chance to read it,” I laughed.
“Well,” he replied, “I’m the one who puts those here, so I’ll get you another one.”
I stayed at The Vault until the bluegrass band arrived to start setting up for their weekly concert, which I would have loved to have attended but logistics didn’t allow it. This place has been going strong for 3 years, and it felt like getting to see the beating heart of this little community. I think it’s great that this type of place could be so successful, and I’m glad I got to spend the day welcomed in Valley City’s living room.
As we left town the next morning we stopped at a grass station to fuel up, and I took the girls inside to the restroom. My buddy from The Vault was inside, sitting at a small table having a donut. “Hello again! Well, what do you think of our city so far?” He asked when he saw me.
“Oh, we’ve loved this place, but we are headed out. We only get to stay a few days at most places.”
“Well, it was nice to have met you,” he said. I returned the compliment and hurried past, before he had a chance to ask me if I’d burned my 2nd copy of the travel guide.