Like a scene from a surreal dream, Kate and I currently find ourselves in the abandoned tourist town of Medora, North Dakota.
Medora is the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a huge and gorgeous tangle of bluffs and cliffs out in western North Dakota. It’s a kitschy western tourist town, complete with saloons, general stores, wild west storefronts, and street signs hewn from wood and set in western fonts to mimic old time sign posts. This town was born wearing cowboy boots and listening to shitkicker music, and Kate assures me it’s a bumpin’ place during the summer.
The story is completely different come the winter. By the time we pulled off the freeway at the Medora exit it was already dark outside. And boy was it ever dark. “Are you sure there’s a town here?” I kept asking Kate. Nowhere was a town in sight. There were no street lamps, no road signs, no glow in the sky. Just, dark. And a road that wound through a narrow valley.
We pressed on, and after a few minutes of emptiness the road dumped us in the middle of downtown Medora.
There was not a soul to be seen.
We checked into our hotel, and left our car alongside the three others in the parking lot. At least one of those cars, obviously, belonged to the staff of the hotel. The others? They could belong to other guests, but there hasn’t been any other sign of them yet. The desk clerk told us that during the summer tourist season the town held a permanent population of 200 people, but right now there were only 80 or so. We would soon discover that even this number is probably quite generous.
Kate and I decided to hit the town on foot, so we’d be able to stumble back to our hotel after whatever secret revelry Medora would offer us. We made for the Iron Horse Saloon, after the desk clerk suggested that it was probably the only place in town that was open this time of year. On our walk we found some sort of bicycle (it wasn’t a bicycle so much as it was a regular human-sized tricycle, with a large basket on the back) abandoned on the side of the road. I hopped on the bike with glee, excited to cruise around town in style, only to find that the likely reason it was abandoned was because the chain was missing.
We gave up on the tricycle and made for the Iron Horse Saloon. The first few doors we tried to open were locked, but thus encouraged by a beer sign claiming the saloon was open, we eventually found our way inside. We were met by the harsh glares of two people, a lip-pierced fellow in a red flannel shirt, and an emo gal with bleach-blonde hair.
We said we were looking for supper (that’s what they call it in these parts, supper) and the fellow hinted that they might could do such a thing. If taken literally, the words he spoke suggested that they could indeed cook us supper. Taking into account the tone of his voice, however, it was obvious that he intended for us to fuck the fuck off. Kate whispered in my ear, and we pushed away from the bar and bound out the door.
Not yet ready to call it a night, we decided to explore the creepy town of Medora a little bit more. Besides the people at the bar, we hadn’t seen any other people. No one. Everything was closed, the streets were empty, the houses dark. In the middle of every intersection was a large pile of snow, five feet high. There was a police car that would pass by us every fifteen minutes or so, but beyond that we never saw any other cars. No one had bothered to rake the leaves from autumn, but the wind had gathered them into random piles in the quiet corners of town.
Many of the sidewalks in Medora are made of wood planking, and our footfalls would echo across the town. Other times the sidewalk was covered in a thin layer of crusty snow, and the loud crunch of our footsteps would make us shiver. As we toured the town we nary spoke above a whisper, lest we awaken the ghosts.
Before long our imaginations were getting the best of us. We started seeing people out of the corner of our eyes. I swore I smelled someone cooking doughnuts. Some life-sized cowboy cut-outs were arranged in front of the Medora post office, and both of us thought for a moment that they were real people.
At one point we walked up to a gift shop to peer in the window, and remarked at a stuffed cat that was seated on the window ledge. Suddenly it moved its head, blinked, and after a few seconds of confusion we realized it was actually a real live cat.
It was the only living thing we would see that night.