If you want a slice of rural America, visit a Cenex station

My niece Ada walked right up to him, a man in work coveralls, thick glasses and a Scotch cap. His face was weathered from years of living and I had my hands full of Icees and personal pan pizzas and a couple treats I let the two 4-year-olds pick out after preschool that day.

We were having a special lunch while we waited for my kindergartner to get out of school on Friday and so we chose the Cenex station because they have basically everything. And Ada broke away from my side to say hello and he reached into the inside pocket of those coveralls and handed her a million dollar bill with a laugh.

Then I had to abandon our lunch with the cashier because Rosie had to go potty really bad, like most 4-year-olds do at the most inconvenient times. When we finally sat down and got them settled in the dining area of the convenience store, I couldn’t help but think of what a slice of life this place is.

This old Cenex station used to be on the corner of Main Street in my hometown when I was growing up. A small store with a few candy bar treats, but mostly supplies and parts and sunflower seeds and a drink cooler and most everything you could grab to get you by for now on the ranch or in the field — and if not, they could order it or help fix it in the shop attached.

I remember popping in there with Dad when I was a kid, maybe getting an orange pop for the ride home. And when I finally got my driver’s license, it’s where I would gas up because I could put it on the ranch account. It’s where most kids who lived in the country gassed up and where some of them worked after school and on the weekends.

When I was a teenager, my boyfriend (who’s now my husband) took me there to get wasp spray for the wheel well of his dad’s old boat trailer after he witnessed me getting stung right in the middle of the forehead when he disturbed the nest in our attempt to escape to the lake. I don’t know why, but something about walking into that Cenex store with that giant wasp sting and that boy looking for revenge, well, it stuck with me. Must have been love. Anyway, when I look up for the memory I swear I can still smell that place, a little bit of grease mixed in with diesel exhaust, probably what that old man’s coveralls smell like.

The Cenex store is a fixture on the landscape that is rural America. As a musician, I’ve traveled enough county roads and highways to see my fair share of versions of this place, each one retrofitted to make sense to the size of the town. The fancy ones exist along the highways and interstates, but I prefer the ones tucked into the Main Streets of small towns a long way from the exit signs. There you can usually find what you need, plus a couple old timers in a booth in the back having coffee and looking up to see if the person coming through the door might be familiar. Or even better, someone they don’t know about yet.

Anyway, that old Cenex store looked nothing like this bright, shiny pizza pit stop we have now in a newer development in town, complete with a mini food court, fancy restrooms, a wall full of anything you want to drink, clothes, parts, gloves, coolers, toys, and of course, wasp spray. You name it. I picked the pepperonis off of the girls’ pepperoni pizza and watched them wiggle and giggle and use too many napkins in the booth and couldn’t help but think that this place is sort of a metaphor for my hometown turned boomtown. The idea is the same, but we can afford to have some nice things now.

And so there we sat, a mom with an SUV full of car-seats and cracker crumbs dug into the floorboards making a Friday special with a couple of Icees. And in the booth behind me two middle-aged men sat facing one another, a bible open between them, talking about Jesus and what it means to be a man. Across the room, a job interview, one man in work boots asking another about his driving record and through those sliding glass double doors (they’re automatic now) the faces come in and out, some familiar, some new, some we don’t know yet and some just passing through with million dollar bills…

An abandoned service station in small town ND.

Listen to commentary and the column on this week’s podcast

In this week’s podcast I took advantage of the rainy weather and had my husband Chad as my first guest. We visit about how things have changed in our hometown since we grew up there in the 90s. He also proves that he’s intellectual by using the word “unbeknownst.” You’ll hear Rosie in the background and also our thick ND accents take the stage before I read the column and share a song. Thanks for listening!

Listen below or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts