PLAINSFIELD—This tiny upper Midwest farming community is forty miles from its nearest neighbor, so remote along the old, weather-battered county road that cartographers routinely forget to include it on their maps. And it has a mystery, one that unites it every Christmas.
The approximately two hundred residents are all members of families that settled the area generations ago. The main businesses in town are the old general store, the coffee shop and bar that also serves as an unofficial town hall, and, next door, a Conoco station with just one set of very old pumps. There’s a little motel that officially closed a few years ago, though Grace Tucker, co-owner of the general store, will open it up for a night or two if a traveler happens to want to stay in Plainsfield. That doesn’t happen often. Across the crumbling main street, the abandoned railroad tracks run in front of a set of loading docks and empty grain silos. The hundred or so houses, some of them now abandoned, are scattered along the county road and three unpaved side streets. The older residents claim that Sid Jackson, now 95, built the last new building in town—the house he still lives in—in the 1930s, though others remind them that the post office recently was rebuilt.
Most of the year, nobody misses Shelly and Bobby Ray Ralston. They didn’t live in Plainsfield for very long, and until they left, they made little impression. But their exit created a legend and mystery that lives vividly in the memories of this village a decade later, long after they would have been completely forgotten had they simply packed up their furniture and moved on.
One week before Christmas, everyone in town crowds into the coffee shop for the year’s biggest party, the centerpiece of which is the annual holiday video Shelly and Bobby Ray send from parts unknown. Ask them what’s on the tape, though, and you can expect a response as chilly as the wind blowing down from Canada. To the citizens of Plainsfield, it’s like asking to read their most private mail. It’s admittedly an odd thing for a town that otherwise barely remembers them.
“Oh, they used to come in here for coffee or a meal, like everyone else in town does,” said Joanie Hilton, whose family has owned the coffee shop since it opened. “But they were really quiet, kept to themselves.”
“Well, she didn’t do that so much. It was more Bobby Ray. Remember, she used to put on those little plays for the kids?” Grace said.
“That’s true. I recall now, she was a bit of an actress. Of course, no one wanted to help her much. I think she said once that Bobby Ray helped her write them. All the other adults were always just too busy working.”
“I don’t think they was ever comfortable here,” Grace said. “Shelly didn’t grow up here. She grew up in Pierre. I think she might of come here to visit as a child. She was Daisy Thompson’s niece, and the Thompsons never had no kids. When Daisy died, she just left the house to Shelly. Bobby Ray, I don’t know where he came from. He was a short guy, a lot shorter than Shelly. Had a Southern accent. Probably Texas or Alabama or someplace like that. Anyway, I think the problem was that they was city folk. They just didn’t fit in here.”
“He wasn’t any Southerner,” Joanie said. “I’ve traveled a bit, and that was a fake as a Southern accent can get. It was more like a Norwegian faking a Southern accent.”
“Well, they never bothered nobody while they was here, so I guess it don’t matter now if he was hidin’ something.”
“They were here only a year,” Joanie said. “but they were the only newcomers I can ever remember moving here. That alone would make them special.”
Perhaps no one remembers the despair of that Christmas season better than the children. For 17-year-old Jason Jackson (Sid’s great-grandson), the memories are quite fresh.
“The year before, we were just hit by one blizzard after another, for weeks and weeks. The post office burned down, and the roads were all closed, and it just wasn’t safe to try to get to Stanton by snowmobile. There was just no way for our letters to Santa to get out of town, and we didn’t get any presents.”
“We were just devastated,” said Peggy Crawford, 16.
“That was a horrible year, anyway,” said Peggy’s father, Dan. “A really bad crop, and then this storm that lasted forever.”
“And it looked like it was going to happen again,” Peggy said. “They didn’t rebuild the post office for a couple of years, and with the roads as bad they were, the folks down in Stanton just didn’t come up here when the snow was bad. They plow our road last.”
“Well, we usually just do it ourselves, but the snowplow was broken down that winter, and we were waiting for the parts to fix it.”
“We were just terrified it was going to be the same thing all over again,” Jason said.
“The amazing thing is that they even knew about it,” Peggy said. “I mean, Shelly did those plays for us, but it always seemed she was doing them more for herself than us. She never really talked to us or played with us or anything, and they didn’t have kids of their own.”
“Bobby Ray didn’t talk to anyone,” Jason said.
Dan laughed. “I’ll tell you how they knew. They overheard us, the adults, at the coffee shop, talking about what we were going to do about it. We were just getting drunk, coming up with wild ideas. Eric Fasselman, remember him? He wanted to get all the big dogs in town and make a dog sled team. God, we laughed at that. Can you imagine that, all those dogs, and not one of ’em a husky. And Fasselman’s dogs would fight almost every other one in town if they got loose. Someone said we should’ve just roped him up and made him pull the sled.”
“Some of us think you drew straws,” Jason said.
“Naw, we didn’t draw straws,” Dan said. “Bobby Ray himself volunteered. Shocked the hell out of us.”
Bobby Ray had a monster of a truck, even by local standards, according to Tom Spears, the owner of the Conoco station. “Four-wheel drive, a camper on the back, and enough clearance to drive over a cow without touchin’ it. It always amazed me he didn’t need a ladder to get into the damn thing. But he would hop up, real graceful. Her, too, she would just glide up, it seemed. He didn’t mind gettin’ it dirty, but he would sure clean it up nice and shiny after. I made a fortune sellin’ car wax to him. He said he bought it to go huntin’, but I don’t recall ever seein’ him go. Don’t know for sure, really, if he even had a rifle.”
“We were grateful for the offer,” Dan said. “It was probably the only vehicle in town that had a chance of getting through.”
Sid Jackson recalled that things got pretty tight at the end. “Who was it, Amy Gannon and Jeff Brown, that was holdin’ things up? I don’t know how many times I went over to the Gannons and Browns and said, now look, it’s gettin’ kinda late for the letters, don’t you think? The Ralstons ain’t gonna have enough time. But the Ralstons, they were rocks. They said, give us a week, and everything will be okay. They said they weren’t leavin’ until then, anyway, even if the all the letters were done. Had a lot of packin’ to do I believe was the excuse. Thought it was a little funny, since I figured they’d just drive down to Stanton and drop the letters off at the post office. Thought maybe it was just a show for the kids. You know, there’s a long trip ahead. They never told nobody they weren’t comin’ back.”
“It was Jeff Dawson, Grandpa. Amy and Jeff thought the whole thing was dumb,” Jason said. “They’re a couple years older than Peggy and me. Both in college now.”
Peggy remembered the party at the coffee shop, when the kids all brought the letters and dropped them in a cloth sack. “Shelly dressed Bobby Ray up like an elf. She said the costume was from a play she did down in Pierre. We had a big cake that Joanie Hilton baked, and all the hot chocolate we could drink. Bobby Ray didn’t say a thing the whole day, just sat there holding the bag until the party was over, and it was time for them to leave. And then Shelly said good-bye, very quietly, and we all followed them out to the truck. They gave us a quick little wave, got in, and that’s the last we saw of them. Except on video, of course.”
“I think I saw ’em once from a distance,” Grace said. “A couple years ago, in Minneapolis at the Mall of America.”
“You ain’t never been to Minneapolis,” her husband, Ralph, said.
“Have, too. Me and Ellen did for a couple of days, when I went to visit her.”
“You ain’t never even been to Fargo.”
“It was never a missing person’s case,” said Keith Morgan, a retired sheriff’s deputy who is the closest thing Plainsfield has to a law enforcement presence in town. “They let us know they were okay. But it was a bit disconcerting to get a call a couple of weeks later about the Ralston’s truck being abandoned in Kugluktuk. I said ‘what?’ And they said it’s in northern Canada, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. What the hell were they doing there?”
Joanie said, “I’ll be surprised if we ever find out where they really are. I know for sure we’ll never find out why they left.”
“It was the best Christmas we ever had,” Jason said. “We all got everything we asked for, and a whole bunch of stuff we would have wanted, but didn’t even know existed. I always wondered if maybe our parents somehow set the whole thing up. You know, snuck out on us to buy the presents to make up for the year before, or bought them during the summer and hid them, or something.”
“We couldn’t have,” Dan said. “We didn’t have any money. The harvest was almost as bad as the year before.”
“It was three times better than the next best Christmas,” Peggy said. “But they’ve all been good since.”