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Monday, October 31, 2022

Long Memories In Small Towns

Bring a song and a smile for the banjo,
Better get while the gettin's good,
Hitch a ride to the end of the highway,
Where the neon turns to wood.

C'mon the risin' wind,
We're goin' up around the bend,
Up Around The Bend, John Fogerty (1970).

Mrs. Joyce Rathje, 92 years young, recently retired school teacher at Rising City, Nebraska.

Admittedly, I've been a Point A to Point B traveler for so long that it's my default mindset. What's the fastest, most direct route to drive to my destination? Got to be efficient. Got to get there. Things to do. People to see. Let's go. Time is short.

Since pedaling across the country on the back roads of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (See, 2021 GDMBR), however, I find myself more often taking local roads, slow rolling through small towns, checking out city parks, and even stopping for a meal at a local cafe. It's always worth it.

Sometimes, the back road route creates a highlight of the trip. Even a drive to a back road bike ride.

Memorial marking the Rising City K-12 school, long since removed.
The auditorium in the background is still used by the multi-town school district.

Earlier this fall, I fashioned a road trip that included a long weekend in Marysville, Kansas for the Pony Express 2 Day Bikepacking Adventure. See, 2022 Pony Express Bikepack. Starting the Kansas portion of the trip from Eastern South Dakota, I consider several routes to drive the remaining 250-ish miles. I decide to venture south of Yankton on U.S. Highway 81, at least until it turns westward. Then I'll take a few local roads 40-50 miles east and south to eventually connect with U.S. Highway 77 just outside Lincoln. It seems like a reasonably direct route on a nice mix of roads.

A few hours down the road, after neglecting to get gas in Columbus, I find myself looking to refuel in the midst of little but corn fields. Finally, a few buildings appear along the road, one of which is a gas station. Hey, it's actually a small town called Rising City, Nebraska, population 413. Well over 40 years ago, my wife's oldest brother married a girl from Rising City. Maybe I'll surprise her with a picture of her old school.

While at the gas pump, I notice the car next to me sports Nebraska license plates. Since my Great Divide ride, striking up random conversations with complete strangers is now second nature. So I ask the lady there if she knows where I can find the Rising City school, so I can take a picture for my sister-in-law. 

The lady politely asks, "She grew up here? What's her name?" 


"Dulcie Gross. I was her kindergarten teacher. I'm Mrs. Rathje."

I stood in disbelief. How does this nice old lady remember a student from her kindergarten class 60 years ago? Mrs. Rathje simply goes on, noting Dulcie's musical talent and quiet nature. Amazing.

Mrs. Rathje then adds that the old school was torn down years ago when Rising City joined a multi-town school district, although the old gymnasium still is used. She also said she wasn't about to tell me where Dulcie lived, because that house has fallen into such disrepair that it would "break her heart." 

She says she's sorry, but she must be going. At 92 years young, still driving her car and living in her house, she leaves to care for a couple of her great grandkids. Amazing. If not for her family commitments, I think she'd hop on a bike for a tour around town.

The entrance to the Rising City school gymnasium.

A few weeks later, I tell Dulcie of my encounter with Mrs. Rathje and show her these pictures. Of course, she remembers her former teacher and joyfully talks of growing up in her hometown. Dulcie is not a bit surprised by Mrs. Rathje's overall spryness and vivid memory. Besides, says Dulcie, "Small towns have long memories sometimes."

This traveler will certainly remember this stop in a small town along a back road.

Up Around The Bend, Credence Clearwater Revival (1970).

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