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COMING HOME: Boomtown makes room for new travel center in old schoolyard

WATFORD CITY, N.D. -- It’s not open yet, but the big black and yellow sign sits stuck in the frozen ground to remind me and the 10 million trucks and pickups that pass on the intersecting highways that it’s coming soon.

“Future home of Travel Center.”

It makes sense. The little building sits in the middle of a big lot at the busy junction of Highway 23 and 73, and if you’re coming to Boomtown from the oil fields or wheat fields, you might find yourself passing through.

It used to be the middle of nowhere, but, just like most intersections out here in the Bakken, it seems now to be one of the most passed-by pieces of properties in the state. If I were to build a place to sell fuel and energy drinks, Cheetos, ice scrapers, powdered donuts and egg salad sandwiches shrink-wrapped in plastic, I would look pretty seriously at this place.

Because all those 10 million men and women behind the wheels of those big rigs and pickups are passing by here anyway, and, well, they need gas and those wrinkly looking hotdogs rolling under heat lamps to keep on trucking.

Funny, I used to eat hot dogs there, too, in my macaroni or on a bun in the lunchroom/gym/theater under the roof of that humble brown building.

Because it used to be my school. Johnson Corners Elementary School. If I remember it right, (and I should, I too pass by nearly every day), that wooden sign is still up. Or at least it was until that new plastic one appeared.

“Travel Center.”

Oh, it’s not so tragic really. It’s not such a shock. That elementary school’s been closed for years. Almost 20 actually. For 15 of them, the previous owner who converted the school into a residence kept the cement slab and basketball hoop up in what was then his front yard. Funny, I never saw a single soul out there shooting hoops, but it was there anyway, to remind me.

My class of four was one of the last to finish out sixth grade there and move on into the high school in town for junior high. My little sister completed third grade before the doors closed and the kids were bussed to town.

It was a sad day then, the end of an era when kids who worked on growing up on the end of dusty red roads miles from the nearest place to buy milk played their own version of soccer in scuffed cowboy boots, helped the cook with the dishes after lunch, dug up wild onions by the barbed wire fence that separated our school yard from the cows, and convinced the janitor to flood the little field in front with water in the winter so we could practice our figure skating routines and hockey games for the Olympics.

When I was reading Judy Bloom books and practicing flash cards between those walls, I used to imagine us growing up and coming back to this school for a reunion years later.

I knew then, somehow, that what we had was special. I knew that most schools were bigger and most teachers didn’t have time to read just one more chapter of “Old Yeller.”

Most schools didn’t let you perform plays based on your favorite books. Most schools didn’t let you plant a garden out the lunchroom window. Most schools didn’t have kids who could care less if you wore your favorite horse T-shirt nearly every single day.

I haven’t stepped foot on Johnson Corner’s turf since my sister’s last Christmas program on that little lunchroom/gym stage with the green and brown tile. I wonder what that room looks like now? My guess is probably much smaller.

When I was growing up this wide open space was my most prized possession. After the school closed, not a rural soul would have guessed 20 years later there would be enough traffic at our quiet little intersection to turn Johnson Corners Elementary School into a “Travel Center.”

After the school closed, no one out here would have thought we would be able to get a hot dog and a carton of milk so close to home again.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at