Our unofficial tour guide, a friendly woman corralling her curls into a stocking cap, invited us into her second-hand store to warm our hands by the woodstove. On this unseasonably cold day in mid-April, our guide motioned toward a card table heavy with tattered Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, a Flowbee Haircut System (the intriguing device you once saw on late-night infomercials that cuts hair through a masochistic vacuuming process), and too many bodice-ripping romance novels to count.
There was an ease to the way she spoke to us, obvious interlopers, which revealed a profound belief that most people are worth getting to know. We had a feeling that the woman regaling us with tales of the once-burgeoning "metrop-ya-lis" of Mitchell - before they rerouted the highway - would just as readily have invited us into her home.
Being from a small town, I had my own set of even smaller town prejudices - afraid we would stick out in ways that movies like Deliverance have taught us all to avoid. My husband and I were the only visitors that afternoon, with a cast of characters including the man who pumps gas and keeps Henry the black bear (Mitchell's de facto mascot and current claim to fame) caged on his property. A store across from the cage called Needful Things sells not only staples like beef jerky and Red Bull, but the kind of calico bonnets Ma wore on Little House on the Prairie.
As the only lunch patrons at the Little Pine Café, we made no attempt to blend in with locals assembled around the counter. A sign above our booth saying, "Sit down-an' come often-you are one of the folks," put me at ease, along with our perky waitress, her Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and a menu of diner staples like fish and chips, the word "fries" following in parentheses. The owners couldn't risk any of their customers feeling disappointed if they expected a crisp stack of Wavy Lay's to accompany their battered and deep-fried cod. My husband proclaimed his cheeseburger the best he'd ever eaten. My hot turkey sandwich caused me to reminisce about a time and place I'm too young to have ever known.
Upon closer inspection I saw flyers for an upcoming pie auction, a donkey basketball game and the Mitchell pre-school penny drive. This innocuous place was nothing to mock, or to fear. The movies have it all wrong. What makes some of us suspicious of a town like Mitchell, or at the very least bored and uninterested, is the perceived threat of isolation. Our modern need to find constant stimulation in bigger and better roadside attractions.
I see Mitchell less as an attraction and more as a snapshot of Americana. Leave the anonymity to big city life, or even the swelling confines of our very own Bend. Once you experience, even for an hour or two, a town like Mitchell, you just might want to hold a pie auction in your own neighborhood. And if it's anywhere near mine, I promise to donate the first slice of cherry.