Trekking north along the closest major artery, Canada-bound travelers are treated to a small hotel with a decorative windmill, several car dealerships, and a shopping center with a McDonald’s, a Blockbuster, and a Subway—all common manifestations of the Pax Americana.  Then, however, they reach a graveyard.

Bisected by Front Street, the bricked-in cemetery with decorative iron bars is the first landmark people see that bears the sign “Lynden”—one on each side of the street.  Not “Welcome to . . . ” with a grandiosely narrow claim differentiating it from other towns (“the world’s largest manufacturer of grilled cheese”).  Just “Lynden,” take it or leave it.  A visiting missionary recently thumbed his nose at the city’s decision to place the bus depot just east of the graveyard: “Where I come from, they put busses where the people are.  They had the right idea but forgot to check for a pulse.”

He was quite wrong: The graveyard has a pulse all its own.  The ebb and flow of the seasons brings a steady stream of families to lay flowers on the graves and to remember and to pray.  While dead men don’t tell tales, their mourners do.

I’m a recent enough immigrant, with an outsider’s distance still intact, so I go there to disconfirm an old wives’ tale.  Driving my Pontiac Sunbird up and down the rows of tombstones, a familiar pattern emerges.  On the south side, the marble is etched with a certain kind of name: Price, McTavin, Johnson.  To the north: Bovenkamp, DeBoer, Vander-Kam.  My jaw drops: The old wives were right, at least with regard to that departed generation: If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.

Most moderns shy away from their dead: too depressing, too macabre, too vivid a reminder of our duties and failures.  But Lyndeners, through an accident of geography or grace, send ours ahead of us to meet the world.  It makes an odd sort of sense.  We are fierce democrats—small “d”—and staunch traditionalists, and what is tradition but Chesterton’s democracy of the dead?

Lynden, by reputation, is a thoroughly Dutch Reformed town.  The new version of the yellow pages—plaid, actually—confirms what any fool with legs, eyes, and an hour to kill can observe.  At least 12 Reformed churches; one Lutheran; one (ugly) Catholic church; one Nazarene; one Baptist; one Evangelical Free; one Assemblies of God; a couple of “non-denominationals”; a United Methodist church on the utter outskirts of town (“personally diverse; unified in the faith”); no Mormons, Unitarians, Christian Scientists, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists need not apply.

Public schools struggle to pass levies because as many as half of the local children attend the Reformed Lynden Christian Schools—nursery, elementary, middle, and high.  It is also common for parents to homeschool their children for a few years—to get to know them better or to avoid particularly bad teachers.

As a result, the public-school system—whose superintendent goes to my own Baptist church—tends to resist the wackier trends in the field and be more receptive to parents’ input.  That doesn’t necessarily make for a world-class education.  Lynden youths, with their mocking assurances that “I gredeeated frum Linden [Lynden High School],” prove that hicks can be ironic, too.  In the main, however, they get an education and aren’t passed on just for the fun of it, which is more than can be said in most communities.

The influence of the Reformed churches has diminished some over this past decade as the population roughly tripled—to within spitting distance of 10,000 in the town and surrounding area—without a corresponding tripling in church attendance.  Certainly, the pulpits couldn’t muster the same collective pique that roiled Lynden in the first decade of the 20th century: a total war between the “wets” and the “drys” that resulted in two ties for the mayoral race and two different city governments in 1904—an election that, much like the most recent presidential contretemps, had to be resolved by court order.

Then again, it is uncertain that the ministers would need to agitate.  Not all Lyndeners are strict teetotalers, but our one tavern recently closed, at least partly because of a lack of business.  The town so frowns on wastrels that the boozers tend to migrate to nearby Bellingham, where they can bother the students of Western Washington University for a dollar.  When asked what field he wanted to pursue, my brother’s classmate quipped that he wanted to become “Lynden’s first bum.”  Good luck: My guess is that he would starve to death.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t new problems.  For many years, raspberries and milk were Lynden’s main products, and they have been disrupted by wild price fluctuations brought on by international markets.  (The sanctions surrounding the war in Kosovo allowed enough breathing room to turn some raspberry growers into raging neoconservatives—at least temporarily.)  In keeping with the traditions of the Dutch farmer settlers, there are very few Lyndeners—including this one—who haven’t milked cows, hayed, picked berries, or worked in the canneries.  For some, this work provides mad money to blow on cotton candy and roller-coaster rides at the annual Lynden Fair.  For others, it’s the difference between making the mortgage and not.

So people are seeking employment in Lynden’s one growth industry: dotage.  On the golf courses, in restaurants and nursing homes, the youths who stick around are helping our largest immigrant group, wealthy retirees, to stave off boredom and further deterioration—for a hefty price, of course.

Except for the healthy restaurants—these Dutch are pro-gluttony—most local businesses have to be lean and mean to cut it.  The picaresque downtown is turning into a ghost town as new firms and shopping centers sprawl outward to meet the needs and wants of a larger, less-focused population.  This prompted the great Haggen controversy of the last few years.  The Haggen supermarket chain approached the city council about buying a plot of land in the downtown area upon which they could erect one of their yuppie marts.  It was a dream come true with one long string attached: The chain would be open on Sundays.

A few businesses are open on Sundays, including one of the two grocery stores, but such Sabbath-breaking is frowned upon.  The second supermarket is kept alive largely by people who quietly boycott the first.  We are not strict sabbatarians, but Sunday, broadly speaking, is a day of rest: Lawns go unmowed, cars aren’t washed, a goodly number feel the need to attend some sort of worship service, and the core of the town is almost silent.  Lyndeners understood that Haggen’s presence would change that.  So there was an old fashioned dustup, with countless reversals of position on the city council, mailboxes of angry letters to the local paper, and an abortive search to find another chain that would not open on Sunday.  In the end, Haggen threw up its hands and headed elsewhere.  The downtown merchants screamed bloody murder about the “backward, anti-business environment” of the town and then went back to their antique shops.

The Haggen rejection is less of a victory—for Luddism or common decency, depending on your point of view—than it might seem at first blush.  Opposite the open-on-Sunday supermarket stands a construction site for a brand new Safeway.  The two Sabbath-breakers will probably put the Sabbath-keeper out of business.  So modernity wins again, but not totally and not without a fight.  The core will still be silent on Sunday, and there is a relatively new, shiny, Sunday-compliant family grocery that people may flock to.

This, in its own small way, highlights what I love about this town.  It’s conservative enough to respect the past and pragmatic (and Calvinist) enough to accommodate human nature.  We Lyndeners welcome modernity at our own pace.  The hysterical warnings of the local business interests are politely listened to and then weighted accordingly.  Best of all, our impressions are not just so much Oprahfied mush.  But, there is something more, something that struck me in a passage by Stephen Fry:

[A]s I understand it, [Christ’s] triumph on earth rests on the fact that he was fully a man.  God, the argument runs, abdicated all his divinity and made himself one hundred per cent flesh.  He ate food therefore, he wept, suffered, slept, went to the lavatory and in all other ways sustained the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to.  Christians have no right, if they accept this story, to rail at God and say “you don’t know what it’s like, being a human,” the Christian story is all about God showing that he did find out precisely what it was like, and thereby offering us an opportunity of salvation.

Quite so.  To Lyndeners, Dutch or otherwise, this is a familiar sentiment that we carry with us as we enter into the world.