Rolling downhill, eastward across the Saint Croix river, I leave the bluegrass stations of Minnesota Public Radio behind, and and play bottom-end-of-the-dial roulette. I find Dar Williams, “Traveling Again”, and honestly, the song kind of spooks me. I’ve known it for almost 20 years, and it’s always felt a bit like a conversation I’m having with myself on roadtrips – a soundtrack written for the landscape as I roll along. Ahead, the open road beckons.
Last night: We were sitting out in Paul’s backyard with the neighbors, poking at the remains of spicy dry rub BBQ ribs and contemplating seconds on dump cake with Cool Whip. Somewhere behind the lowering clouds, the sun was still up, unreasonably. It was the end of the day on the last day of school, and the kids were running amok with plastic lightsabers, loudly contemplating inadvisable activities involving the power lines hanging low overhead. Sharon, mother of the twins, looked like she might need another drink.
We were talking about the midwest – all of Paul’s family live within a ten minute drive; Lisa’s family are scattered a little wider, but still inside the county line. “People just don’t leave here,” Paul said. Oh, sometimes to go off to college, or out to California for a job, but they always come back. My co-worker Alex is from here, Paul reminded me. Making big splashes out at Google. But he’ll be back. It wasn’t a prediction – it was an observation, and I had no reason to doubt him.
And I can understand it, completely. The feel, the Mayberry vibe, was exactly what drew us to Pittsburgh. It’s a place that gets under your skin that makes you think “Yeah, when it’s time, this is where I want to raise my kids. This is where I want to grow old.” In the American mythos, the Elysian Fields look a lot like Saint Paul.
But that was yesterday, and back there. Today is the road. Today is grain silos and red barns across the green fields, water towers, each announcing the name of their town – Boyd, Stanley and Thorpe – as I fly past. Cows. Cows, cows, cows. The sky plays an overture of midwest weather: blue above me with billowing summer clouds, ominous rain to the south. To the east is Interstate 94, and 280 miles to Appleton.
I’ve always felt at home on the open road. Years ago, preparing for college, my parents sprang for aptitude testing at the Johnson O’Connor Institute. They track their test subjects and, over the years build models of which aptitudes correspond to satisfaction with which vocations. I remember the facilitator showing me a scatterplot of scores at the end of my two days there. There were swirls and clusters like galaxies in a star map, showing typical combinations of aptitudes and affinities. Then he pointed to a region, a vast dark hole in interstellar space where only two or three lonely lights shone. This one here, he said, that’s you. It wasn’t that I was particularly more or less gifted than the average person – it was just that my combination of strengths and weaknesses was…unusual.
At the center of many of the chart’s galaxies and nebulae were symbols with labels – labels like “artist”, “accountant” and “schoolteacher”. These were careers that, statistically, the Institute had found were satisfying for people with those combinations of skills. The problem with me, he explained, was that they didn’t have enough data to map what sorts of things a lonely data point in my sector might find fulfilling. He pulled out a pencil and drew two long lines. The two closest clusters, if anything might be considered close, were “nursing” and – he paused and chuckled – “long distance truck driving”.
I pull off the highway in Chippewa Falls to stretch my legs and use the facilities at a roadside all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. The air, the grass at the edge of the parking lot smells different, new, something to tuck away for a future memory that I won’t be able to place. Then it’s back onto Highway 29, eastbound again – 180 miles to Appleton.