It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part X

I woke up on the morning of October 15, 1985 knowing that I wasn’t going to get any last-minute stalls like unplanned federal holidays. Nope, it was the REAL D-Day.

I went to the bank – open, today – and pulled out my cash. I loaded all my stuff back into my car, shook Dad’s hand, hugged Mom goodbye, and drove off up Second Avenue, the street I’d lived on for 14 years. It was about 11AM. I saw Mom crying in the rear-view mirror. I kind of understood – and as I am four-eight years away from my own oldest leaving, I know I do, today.

Anyway, I turned onto main street. The freeway was off to the left.

I took a right. I wasn’t done yet.

I topped up my gas tank, stocked up on munchies for the road, and took one last drive around town. I drove up main street; the old post office was in the process of being converted into some sort of senior citizen’s home; the JC Penney’s that had replaced my grandmother‘s old photography studio was shuttered (it had moved to a mall on the “South Hill”); most of the other old stores were either closed or reeling from years of lousy farm prices.

Up the hill, through the college one last time, then out on Airport Road to the long-cut to the freeway, the ten-mile back-road detour that led through durum fields and along the Northern Pacific tracks to the Ladish Malting Barley plant, a huge concrete monolith that looks like a three-times-larger, Soviet grain elevator. I used to bike out there all the time; it was a strip of Old Highway Ten, a road that used to link Billings with Chicago, but these days was mainly a utility road. It was a gorgeous fall day, chilly and windy, but with a deep blue sky and cumulus clouds that piled up in serried waves, 180 degrees across the sky from horizon to horizon.

I slipped a cassette of John (nee“Cougar”) Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow” in the tape player as I gunned down the access road to the Spiritwood exit, a little truck exist off I-94 that really connects the freeway to, almost literally, nowhere. “Minutes to Memories” came on:

On a greyhound thirty miles beyond jamestown
He saw the sun set on the tennessee line
He looked at the young man who was riding beside him
He said I’m old kind of worn out inside
I worked my whole life in the steel mills of gary
And my father before me I helped build this land
Now I’m seventy-seven and with God as my witness
I earned every dollar that passed through my hands
My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known
Through the eye of the needle I’ll carry them home

Days turn to minutes
And minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams
That we have planned
You are young and you are the future
So suck it up and tough it out
And be the best you can

In that adolescent way that music acts, that song (like the whole album, the best rock and roll album ever about small-town America) had been a hammer to my forehead all the previous summer.

The rain hit the old dog in the twilight’s last gleaming
He said son it sounds like rattling old bones
This highway is long but I know some that are longer
By sunup tomorrow I guess I’ll be home
Through the hills of kentucky ’cross the ohio river
The old man kept talking ’bout his life and his times
He fell asleep with his head against the window
He said an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind
This world offers riches and riches will grow wings
I don’t take stock in those uncertain things

What were those “uncertain things?”


I mean, I knew all sorts of people who were happy living on the Plains – Blue-state fantasies aside, many of them were sharp, sometimes brilliant people. Many of my college professors had been leaders in their respective fields, hardly intellectual slouches – what did they know that I didn’t?

How could my father, no dummy himself, be so happy there?

The old man had a vision but it was hard for me to follow
I do things my way and I pay a high price
When I think back on the old man and the bus ride
Now that I’m older I can see he was right

Another hot one out on highway eleven
This is my life it’s what I’ve chosen to do
There are no free rides no one said it’d be easy
The old man told me this my son I’m telling it to you

Days turn to minutes
And minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams
That we have planned
You are young and you are the future
So suck it up and tough it out
And be the best you can

I’d have to figure it out later. I had a life to try to start.



I stopped for gas and said hi to some friends in Fargo, and then kept going – and I was about to learn a key truth of life in the upper midwest. Over the years, I’ve driven that same route a couple of dozen times; while the Dakotas are beautiful driving, once you get between Fergus Falls and Saint Cloud, probably a 150 mile stretch, one gives up all hope of getting oxygen to one’s brain. No radio, no scenery (“Ooh. More trees”). No nothing. I got a vague sense of ennui on my first trip. It’s become an iron law of physics since then.


It was strange; in 1985, there was a point where you could say “The Twin Cities metro starts here”. There was a sign on I94 on the west edge of Maple Grove, MN, by a grove of trees in the middle of some farm fields. A mile from the sign was an abandoned barn. It had been there three years earlier, when the college choir bus had passed through town; it was still there. And over the next rise, you could see rows of beige suburban ramblers marching off toward the east along the freeway. The barn is long gone – since before 1990, I suppose – but for the first several years I lived in the metro, that barn was the sign that I was home again.

The road got wider; the traffic got busier. I was coming in just after the afternoon rush hour. The sun was just starting to amble down behind me as I made the broad ,swooping turn onto I494, the south bypass, which curls down past the southwest corner of the Cities, then swerves left through the Bloomington Strip, which even in those days before the Mall of America was a major commercial center. I’m sure my eyes goggled as I drove down the mainstreet of the south metro, past rows of tall, gray buildings and tall soundwalls that never seemed to end, to my just-off-the-turnip wagon consciousness at the time.

Then, the cloverleaf south onto 35E, the broad avenue across the Minnesota River into the leafy beige ocean of Burnsville…

…where I began a streak that lasted ten years. For that whole time, I never once found a place in the suburbs on the first try. The streak kicked off in style; I zigged when I should have zagged on some suburban side street, and ended up somewhere in Eagan (ironically, right by what are now the Patriot studios, although that meant nothing to me at the time). It took me 40 minutes and a phone call to unscramble things, and arrive at my college friend’s house…

…where I met the couch that’d be my home for the next two weeks.

1 thought on “It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part X

  1. Pingback: Planet Of The Humans, Part 5 – Fizzle On The Launchpad | Shot in the Dark

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.