After nine, or not quite ten hours, Wisconsin and Minnesota were behind me, as was the 70-odd miles of open landscape running from Fargo to Grand Forks. The day was remarkably cool for early June, with the kind of overcast sky that teases the sun but never quite enough to let any but the palest of rays reach the ground. A steady wind from the northern reaches buffeted my face as I stepped out of the hotel this late Friday afternoon. The gathering was the next day, and with no events planned for the evening, I made my way back to the truck, engine still quite warm from the day’s work.
Within minutes I was headed west, to a little place 20 miles away and 33 years in the past. A place that was, for a while, called home. Within my heart, there was a quickening and a hesitation, that confounding tension that sometimes arises between the dueling senses of uncertainty and adventure.
Driving down roads such as these, considering the times and one’s state of mind, can be disconcerting. For as the landscape glides by, and as the trees, homes, and an occasional business or storefront comes into view, there begins a merger of memory with the now. You see these features, at once familiar and alien, not only as they are, but increasingly as they once were, creating within the experience a poignant sense of double vision. Two universes coming together into view, stealing away any words that may form in your mind or on your tongue, for the moment – and its sensation – crosses over into the surreal.
You may think this description extravagant and overstated, and that would be your right. But we all have these moments of duality that are sensed deep within, moments that no manner of prose or elocution could ever hope to express. This was one of those moments, a dimensional view that upsets the fragile foundation that is our perception of our world – of my world. Still, both the moment and the memory are real. The only thing alien here is me.
This sense of time and duality only intensified as I pulled to a stop just past the post office, the crunch of the gravel beneath my tires kicking up a cloud of dust quickly taken away by the steady breeze. As I put my feet on the ground, and survey the scene, past and present at once began to blur my vision.
The little store, or maybe it was a bar, has been replaced by an empty lot, as has the multiple-dwelling housing unit across from it.
The old schoolhouse, long-abandoned even when this was home, still stands, a little worse for wear than that recalled from memory.
The railroad line has long since closed, iron and ties pulled up and harvested for other use. The abandoned grain elevator has been stripped of its exterior, and it seems to me there is yet more there to salvage. It stands as a forlorn reminder this place had a purpose once, perhaps not grand, but a function just the same.
Walking down the main stretch, the gravel crunching beneath my feet, the remembrances accost me full force. Winter scenes of mountainous snow drifts, ice-filled ditches that serving as a proving ground for boys and their bikes, river walks, and northern lights. Summers and flies, and a job cutting grass on half-a-dozen properties for a pittance in spending cash. Endless fields of wheat, sometimes soybean, sometimes corn, often fallow. Finding things to do in a place where there wasn’t anything to do, and managing to get by and even have fun sometimes.
And the little house, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room. Sharing a room with my little brother. The garage we had built, a driveway pad we poured, a basketball goal. At once, I see it as it was, which made the present state of things so much harder to comprehend. For a while the structures still stand and the grass is roughly hewn, the house that was once my home lies abandoned, overgrown, unlivable. And somehow, smaller. A wave of melancholy comes over me, threatening to pull me out to a gray, empty sea. But just then a dog barks, and the driver of a Ford F-250 Super Duty waves as he drives by, friendly but wary of this stranger standing in the road. There is still life here, families getting by, finding things to do in a place there’s not much to do. Still battling the dual images, I turn back the way I came, taking in everything as it was and everything as it is, for later contemplation and retrospection.
At some point, and in our own way, we must come to terms with the passage of time and its impact upon us. All the wisdom and all the sayings about these days of our lives, so often trivialized, are – in those quiet moments of unexpected revelation – are nevertheless seriously profound. What was, what is, what is to come – sometimes just out of range of view, sometimes strikingly clear and yet unsettling.
We can despair, and many do. But perhaps the better course is simply to acknowledge our helplessness in the face of time, and to redeem whatever we can of its passage. Celebrate the joys, lament the sorrows, and respect the struggle and even the pain. But above all, embrace with gratitude and wonder the grace that we’ve been given to live this life. It means something. It means everything.
The present beckons, and tomorrow’s gathering at the school has an anticipation all its own. With the town behind me now, I pull out onto the asphalt, leaving the gravel and dust behind. The memories, and perhaps a greater appreciation of the time, these I take with me. And that is good.Published in