When You Walk Into a Biker Bar in Rural Nebraska

Saturday night I found myself in a podunk, one stoplight town amidst the rolling hills of Northwestern Nebraska. It was the kind of town where my friend and I kept asking each other “what do people do who live here?” And yet we found ourselves hunkering down on a Saturday night to spend the evening. 

We bypassed the two chain hotels – a Best Western and Motel Six, if I recall – and opted for a local inn. The bottom floor was a bar. Most of the patrons we saw were bikers headed to or from Sturgis and local Native Americans. This was the kind of place where the wall of liquor was filled with dusty bottles because everyone here drinks beer. (And maybe the occasional shot of Jack Daniels.) Checking in, we signed a register – remember those? – and were each given a drink on the house. It was like stepping back in time.

We walked up the two flights of stairs to the third floor, wooden floor boards creaking every step of the way. The rooms were wood paneled, the art kitschy and it looked as if nothing in the place had changed in at least 30 years. We dropped our bags and headed downstairs to claim our free drink.

We met the owner, who had an innkeeper’s knack for conversation. Where are you from? What brings you to our small town? Where are you headed? The normal conversation you have in a small town when you have nowhere to be and you aren’t in a hurry.

After she got us taken care of, she moved over to a corner of the bar where she pulled out a spinning wheel and started spinning thread. I had just read an article in the July issue of National Geographic about how Gandhi encouraged his followers to spin their own thread as a basis for Indian freedom from British rule. I asked her if she knew that tidbit about Gandhi, and her eyes lit up and we launched into a conversation about Gandhi, mediation, Martin Luther King and Jesus. 

Meanwhile, her 90-year old mother had entered the bar and my friend started talking to her. We found out that as a young woman, she was a real life “Rosie the Riveter,” drilling the holes on the leading wing of B-29s for the riveters to put the rivets in the wing. When she opened the Inn in the early ‘60s, she was the first woman in their city to apply for a liquor license and had spent years working against “the establishment.” Along the way, she befriended the local Sioux, welcoming them into her bar and treating them as friends, to the point where they made her an honorary member of the tribe. 

We left to grab some dinner at the place across the street, and I said to my friend as we marvelled about the conversations we had just had, “Funny, you’d never guess it, but that place is holy ground.” Unbeknownst to us, we had walked into a place that, just below the surface, was full of Spirit. Just below the surface, there was a desire to live deeply in the now, there were actions for justice, there were struggles for equality. 

Something I’ve come to learn about myself is that while I’m a raging extrovert, it’s not the party that I’m always looking for. Rather, I want to go deep. I want to go below the surface and hear what’s really going on. I want to create a space, wherever I go, that allows for people to open up and feel safe revealing their true selves. But in the hustle and bustle of “real life,” it’s difficult. It takes intention and the skill to ask good questions. Mostly it takes time. It means not being in a rush to get off to the next place. But I’ve learned that this space is where I feel most alive.

And I don’t think I’m unique in this. I think all of us long for true, deep interaction with people. But we don’t know where to begin. All I’d say is begin where you are. Try out a question. Ask somebody something beyond “how’s the weather,” and “what about the Cubs,” and see where it goes. Not everyone is open to this and you’ll know almost immediately when someone has their guard up. But more often than you think, if you really lean in, people want to talk about their lives and have more than surface conversation.

So, may you this week find holy ground in unexpected places like an odd little biker bar Inn in podunk, Nebraska.

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