We're going to ride up the old road again. Highway Ten. The reason will be clear in a while; it's a good one. I do this a few times a year, and I always look forward to the trip. I-94 is the lonely road. I-94 was fraught with filial guilt going or returning. Highway Ten is the good old road, the line that snakes through the small towns and abandoned places, the first highway that connected the farms to the hamlets to the big burgs with 15,000 souls and a movie theater and a newspaper and a department store with two floors, land sakes. It's all modern now - two lanes expanded to four, for the most part. Cars are faster and you whiz between towns faster they could before. The satellites in the sky put music in your car so you don't outrun a local radio station, hearing it fade to static as bids goodbye. You can pull over in the middle of nowhere and use your pocket computer to read what happened in India a few hours ago.
But it's still the old road, and while it's a good slice of Minnesota as it is Now, it's a story of where Minnesota was Then. At the end of it is the other state, the other home: Fargo.
Oh, did I say home? That's a pity. We all know you can't go home again. Some writer said that. It's a book title, often quoted when people go home and it's different. I've always thought that was a pretentious and facile line. Of course you can go home again. Yes, yes, you're different. Yes, it's different. But it's like saying "you can't go to the office again." How could you? They moved the chairs around and painted the walls! You have a new title! You can't go to the office again.
The more I go home, again, the more home feels like home. It's been a long, long time since I went to the north side and pulled into the driveway where I grew up, but Fargo is no less home now for my father's relocation, and since the regrets and emotions left over from growing up and moving away have evaporated, it's home in a sense no other place will be, simply because this is where it started, and where it will end.
In the sense that it never really will.
It takes a while to get out of town. The exurb towns get farther and farther apart. I passed a spectacular gas station - four pump islands, a car wash, an oil-change shop, AND a taco store next to the convenience store. Corner location, lots of traffic. Brand new. Boarded up. Someone had really gone out on a limb, apparently. If you ask "what brand of gas" then you are an old-timer; no one cares about branded gas anymore. Gas is gas. Even though there are differences - different brands have different additive packages - no one will pass up the 2.09 Casey's Convenience Store to get to the 2.10 Tesoro down the street. Unless you have a branded card that takes the price down, or the gas station participates in an affinity program. That bankrupt gas station had one problem you can't escape: your profit margin on the main thing you sell is ridiculously low - say, seven cents a gallon. You're probably carrying at least 100K of inventory in the store. The taco store has perishable inventory. The car wash makes money, but it cost a hell of a lot. Throw in taxes and wages. Now sit there with a million dollars of debt all around you and watch people fill up and leave, knowing you just cleared $1.40 on each transaction.
Anyway. , I stopped at Treasure City, the sprawling kitschy roadside attraction that's the last of its kind in these parts.
I have a newspaper piece coming up about the place, so I would be foolish to spend all those words here. I'll just leave you with this:
Onward up the road, to Motley.
Then the split - you have to commit. Going north to the lakes? Heading west across the farmland? These were choices before there were paved roads; in the 19th century great caravans of wood-axle wagons squeaked and shrieked on the paths that went to the rivers and the trading outposts. Millions of years undisturbed, and then the alchemist mammals showed up and figured out ways to turn fur into gold. After the split, Staples, with its tidy main street decorated with flags and new lampposts. They don't like me there. The last newspaper story I wrote about Staples, I said it was empty and bereft compared to bustling Wadena down the road. It is. Sorry. The great hulk of the department store is still empty; the movie theater closed.
I always gas up in Staples, partly as an apology.
Between Staples and Wadena is the tiny town of Verndale. I always stop here for a small cigar. Sometime the train blows through, and I like that; coming or going, I know those trains carry Lileks Oil fuel, because we top them off in Moorhead. Fewer trains this time. Rail traffic's down, a lot. Not so much coming any more. Not so much going.
Sat on a bench by the old WWI memorial and scrolled through news of Orlando. More dead in a day than all the names on the Verndale plaque.
Drive on. Gnarled clouds; thick spattering rain like a plague of wet bugs. It stayed with me for half an hour, then it was blue skies and heavy air. Rolled into Fargo and thought: It's been a few months. It was just the other day.
I got in early, so I had some time to drive around and look at things. Fargo's always changing, and these days it's often for the better. Sometimes you see something and think, perhaps it's best this way. It hadn't been its old self for so long there wasn't any point.
But it was still sad.
It was never a Howard Johnson to me; it was always the Town House, a crisp piece of post-war motel design dropped downtown after urban renewal flattened the area. (More here.) Next door was Shakey's, which changed pizza in Fargo (what was that mysterious new spice? Oregano?) and family dining, as it was now the height of style to sit at a battered wood bench and listen to a rinky-dinky player piano and have root beer served by the pitcher. I had no idea they'd been slated for demolition.
Well, you can't go home again.
On NP Avenue I saw the sun strike some old survivors, and caught a peek of some ghost signs I'd never noticed.
Then I drove north, up on 8th, past the intersection my mother always warned us about - people just sped right through without looking! Wonder if that happened once, and she had a close call, and never forgot it - and then past my old house. The garage door was open. The back door in the garage was open. I could see right through to the back yard - a little sliver of the past open by chance. Would've taken a picture, but there were lots of people around, and suddenly the act of snapping a view of your past looks like you're a creepy voyeur. Explain that to the police. Well, I grew up here, and for a moment saw the green expanse on which the early years of childhood played out
I wasn't due until 7 and it was six, so I drove to West Acres. This is one of those sights that will always say Summer to me. It's not a good sight; it's not a bad one. You grow up in certain parts of the country, there's familiarity with the fading light of day lighting up the mall and the empty lot. That's all.
Then I saw it.
It was finally here.
To explain: there was a King Leo's hamburger stand by I-94 on University Avenue, and I never, ever forgot eating there. The fries were crispy and delicious and came in a small paper sleeve. Everything had the logo. The design was classic late 50s / 60s. Losing it to a half-dozen mansard-roof ugly McDonald's made us less special, less unique - and because the memory was so deeply rooted among some, it has returned.
I mean, look at this branding.
Oh how I wish I could say it was the same. Oh how I wish I could say it was fantastic. The fries were great - that matters, and they were as crisp as I recall - but the hamburger had opted for the BIG THICK style; the shape suggested it had been previously frozen, and it was overcooked and dry. The bun was nothing special; it was dry, too. They had a chance to bring back the little thin buy-'em-by-the-sack style, and they went with a generic burger. It was such a disappointment.
Well, you can't go home again.
Points for the ads on the wall, though. This one - which I've seen before, probably from old newspapers - suggests that they didn't think things through enough.
"Doesn't that suggest something unpleasant that one must endure, because that is what a man does?"
"But it rhymes!"
Then I drove to the event - and that's tomorrow's story. But you might wish to listen to this first.
||Grandpa's Victrola - or, the moral degeneracy of electric razors & the decline of laughing records. Go HERE.
It's partly about how you can't go home again. Because they burned it down.
But there's something else . . . and that's for Wednesday.
Oh, er, ahem:
More tomorrow! No Product, because, well, there's a lot of this, and it's nice to be able to have one in the bank.