Nov. 1, 2022
Hopes I have for the strangers who left messages at the Custer Wolf restaurant
CUSTER, S.D. — I hope his journey through the Black Hills gave the man clarity and he stopped leading those two women along.
“Deep love on my mind,” he wrote. “Two beautiful women but only one will remain.”
Maybe the man measured himself against the gulches and canyons, soaked in the vapor of dreams that died with deserted mines, and returned home to Wisconsin with the resolve to choose, definitively, the one he loved.
If not, I hope those women both moved on, leaving him to his wandering and waffling. Perhaps he just needed to work on himself.
These are the thoughts I had while reading the messages left by travelers in the tattered copy of Khalil Gibran’s “The Earth Gods” that my check arrived in at the Custer Wolf. The restaurant used to double as a bookstore, and the books deemed too mangled for sale are given new life as carriers for diners’ checks, and public diaries where they’re invited to jot down their thoughts, frustrations, and dreams.
Long after I was done eating, I still couldn’t pull myself away.
I was now deeply invested in the relationship of Chris and Megan. Are they still together? I hope they didn’t burn too bright. They seemed so passionately in love those two days they spent in the mountains, sneaking off for kisses in the lantern-lit nooks of Jewel Cave and taking refuge from a summer rainstorm in this little cafe on Mount Rushmore Road. “Oh baby!” Chris wrote of their weekend in his jagged, slanted scrawl.
I turned the page and was confronted with some classic East Coast belligerence. ”I AIN’T AFRAID OF YOU, I’M FROM NEW JERSEY,” wrote Kevin Todd in all caps. Followed, disarmingly, by: “LOVE, PEACE AND HAPPINESS.”
And then I was mourning Deano, known to his friends as Mr. Incredible. “Rolled into town for a funeral for a man who died too young,” wrote his friend Susan. “You were always larger than life.”
I calculated Deano’s age. 54. The same as my dad when he passed. Two men who died too young.
I wanted to send Susan one of my favorite passages on grief, from another public notebook compiled by strangers: Reddit.
“Alright, here goes. I’m old,” begins the post, written by a man with the username GSnow. “I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don’t want to. . . . My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life . . . ”
I reached the last page and retreated to the shelves behind the bar where other raggedy books were crammed in next to whiskey bottles and pint glasses.
“Can I have another?” I asked the bartender. He handed me Tim Clancy’s “Best in Class,” a book I still know nothing about because I was only interested in the notes scribbled in its margins.
There were declarations of allegiance — to the Queen, to Joe Cocker, to the Custer Wolf’s walleye, to the Green Bay Packers, and to Jesus Christ — as well as admissions of romance (“Wow, I’m in love with this lady”), childish renderings of penises, expressions of confusion (“Who would live in Peoria, Illinois?”), marks of frustration (signed: “The Angry Ukrainian”), and earnest professions of appreciation (“We love our life, each other, this great land, and great food”).
I gathered up my stack of books and dropped them at the bar. It was time to go. We had lingered in the Midwest and needed to cross into Wyoming by sunset. As we rolled out of the Black Hills, listening to the Grateful Dead, I thought of what I should have written in the margins:
“On the road from Kansas City to Seattle and what a long, strange trip it’s been. Turns out us Americans are a bit of a beautiful mess — not unlike our country. We’re not perfect, but at least the Custer Wolf walleye po’ boy can be.”
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