In branding and in life, make the most of what you’ve got. Give them credit for doing that in Valentine, Nebraska.
Valentine regards itself in civic and tourism materials as “Heart City.” Every February, local postal workers handle about 10,000 extra cards and letters sent with the purpose of getting a Valentine postmark.
There are worse things than aiding in the commission of love.
It matters little, in the “Heart City” scheme of things, that the town in northwestern Nebraska got its name not from Valentine’s Day but from a congressman, Edward K. Valentine. History does not record whether he had a romantic streak.
Most summers, the community and its 2,700 residents do a good business in canoe outfitting, an essential trade considering the demand for float trips on the picturesque Niobrara River.
At no time during my stays in Valentine have I been floating. I have spent time in a motel room and at the wonderful Peppermill Restaurant, a cattle-country establishment that promises, in one portion of its menu, “incredible choices to make your salad taste less like lettuce.”
A block down the road resides Henderson’s IGA Store, where I have spent some time.
During these trips, on the way to visit Lakota friends on the Pine Ridge Reservation just northwest and across the line in South Dakota, this market stands as the last sizable stop at which to buy produce and other perishables that remain hard to come by in more remote stretches.
With others from my church, we arrange a before-hours shopping time, the IGA managers even trusting us with the secret, employees-only, button that lets workers in prior to regular hours.
Thoroughly accommodating, the workers help us load hundreds of pounds of potatoes, dozens of egg cartons, crates of milk, all as the sun rises. No better ambassadors of Heart City exist.
These scenes flashed back to me of late. My new shopping habits did this.
It’s been more than a week since going to a store in the light of day. For reasons of social distancing, I now shop either very early in the morning or late in the evening, shadowy wanderings to see what might be available.
This must be how vampires go to the market.
I can’t really say whether the scenes seem normal, because nothing these days seems normal.
Americans have become accustomed to the bounty of food stores, not only a wide selection but selections within selections.
Mustard comes in yellow and brown, the Dijon varieties stone-ground and with white wine, also assortments of deli-style and honey-flavored and horseradish-laced. We live, in this nation, for variety.
So it confounds us to see shelves go suddenly barren, the bread aisle cleared but for one lonely loaf of pumpernickel. And the pasta stacks became a stroll on desolation row. Can a man be expected to face the lonely days without a package or two of rotini?
While an ugly incident or two might have occurred in some store over the last available offering of ground chuck, I’ve seen nothing of this.
A better than usual forbearance appears along these passages, courtesy rising from the ashes of our anxiety, even a smile or two when rounding a corner and nearly bumping another cart.
I spotted a friend in an aisle with a still plentiful inventory of pickles. We kept a non-communicable distance. “These are strange days,” I said, my mind blank on chit-chat.
“Strange days,” he replied.
The sun had not risen by the time I checked out. But the sun did rise.