Ceil Wiegand / Special to The Bee

"Charlie's horses," Makoshika State Park, Glendive, Mont., Aug. 29.

Op Images: No need to harness the serendipity of small towns

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

This is a photo of Charlie's horses. I don't know their names. I don't know Charlie. To tell the truth, I don't know for an absolute certainty that these are Charlie's horses.

What I do know is that every time I look at this photo, taken by my wife, Ceil, on Aug. 29, I don't think of horses. I think of how life dances along to a different tune in small towns.

We spent a lot of time this year in small towns all over America.

One of them was Glendive, Mont., home to Makoshika State Park. While ambling around the park, we came across what we were sure were wild horses.

They were exceedingly amenable to having their photos taken.

Later, we were in a small museum in town, and mentioned our equine encounter to Dorothy, who was behind the counter. "Wild horses?" she said. "I didn't know there were any in the park."

She checked, via phone, with her husband, Robert, who was upstairs. "Robert says they're Charlie's horses," she reported. "Those park people are going to have a fit, they've told him to keep those horses on his own property. But you know how that is."

Actually, we didn't. But as we left the museum – after Dorothy made sure to invite us to an upcoming community picnic – I reflected on how often small-town folks readily engaged us in conversation after sizing us up as strangers.

While shopping in a Belfast, Maine, grocery store, a woman noticed Ceil's shirt bore a reference to the Galapagos Islands. The result was a 20-minute conversation on Darwin, vacations, and our daughters' careers. In Moncks Corner, S.C., a fellow saw my S.F. Giants baseball cap, and engaged me in a friendly debate on who was better: Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays.

And in Hannibal, Mo., two fellows on a Main Street bench noticed our California license plates and invited me to take a seat while Ceil was in a quilt shop. I asked them about the horrendous drought they had been through. They asked me if Arnold Schwarzenegger was as mediocre a governor as he was an actor. One of them was worried that the upcoming presidential election was fixed, because some voting machines in Ohio might be rigged. His son-in-law had told him about it. His son-in-law was named Charlie.

I don't know if he owned any horses in Montana.

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