Nothing bad had happened in Ellendale, but on my way out of town I felt lonely and depressed. I had been back a few times since my family moved to California, but the last time I’d seen the old crowd, I’d changed and nobody else had. Now I was adrift on my own, either unable or unwilling to commit myself to relationships or a community. When you romanticize them, you don’t remember what a drudgery they both can be, but they can. They can even turn deadly.
I thought I knew how to find Ritchie’s Wallace’s farm, where I’d worked as a hired man for a few summers, mostly just hanging out with Ritchie, driving the farm truck around, helping out with chores. Either it had changed hands, however, or I was just lost. I wasn’t able to find any of the landmarks I was looking for. I made my way back to the highway and crossed into South Dakota, pulling over at Frederick, where we used to look for seniors to pimp us beer, since the drinking age across the state line had been eighteen at the time. It was just about thirty more miles to Aberdeen.
When we lived in Ellendale, Aberdeen had been the closest big town. We used to drive down there if we wanted to get fast food or shop at a mall. It was more than just that though. My mother had a step-grandfather in a nursing home there. The first time we went to visit him he was throwing water at the nurses. The second time we brought him a box of chocolates and he yanked a rubber knob off his bed post and ate that instead. She also had a step-uncle who lived in Aberdeen with his wife and well-endowed, blonde daughter.
Nowadays, I’d been around the world, and Aberdeen seemed more like a big town than anything. I looked for the Pizza Hut where my friends and I used to try to get served pitchers of beer at. Then I tracked down the Holiday Inn where my family had gone for brunch after my confirmation and my friends had held a going away party for me before we moved to California. My mission was to track down the little farm town, Pierpont, where my mother’s side of the family was from.
Both sides of our family come from Scandinavian immigrants who came over to homestead South Dakota at the end of the 19th century. My mother’s family had a farm around Pierpont. My father’s family was from Viborg.
It was just forty miles from Aberdeen to Pierpont, but I never would’ve found it without Google Maps, as it wasn’t even on the map. Karen, the voice of Google Maps, by now my savior a dozen times over, directed me there. I’d only been there a few times in my life. My grandpa’s sister had been married to a farmer who’d shown us a good time when we stopped by, letting us ride the riding lawnmower and shoot a pistol. Along with some second cousins, my brother and I had put ourselves in some danger, walking a beam along the pig pen and pissing on an electric fence. Now I was there, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but Google Maps and a small sign to tell me I’d arrived.
My Grandpa had gotten sick of life on the farm and gone off to business school with a cardboard suitcase. It was hard to say who was left in the town. The population is just over a hundred people, perhaps most of them on the outlying farms. I found a small service station, restaurant, and baseball park, but that was about it, beyond a few blocks of houses. The family farm was long gone by now. There was no trace of any living relatives.
From Pierpont, I drove to the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation, home to the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. It was created in 1867 and has some ten thousand inhabitants. There I drove past the Sisseton Wahpeton College. One of the buildings features four drummers in a circle, holding drumsticks in the air. I then followed a sign pointing to the powwow grounds and came to the Winfield Thompson Sr. Memorial Dance Arena.
By now I was just frazzled. My circuits were starting to short out due to over-stimulation and fatigue. I had some idea about driving into Minnesota and finding a campground. It shouldn’t have been that difficult to do. Instead, I got on Google Maps and went from the 127 to the 9 to the 108 to the 59, through Pelican Rapids and Detroit Lakes, past all these beautiful lakes that seemed perfect to stop at, but only had resorts, rather than campgrounds. I followed one lead for a long way, only to find myself in a field where they occasionally staged big concerts, with no one else out there and no facilities.
The leaves were changing all around me, orange, yellow, red, green. It was spectacular for a leisurely drive, but I was about to have a seizure and run my car into a ditch. I got on the 34 and headed west, ready to just pull over and sleep by the side of the road. Karen, from Google Maps, had a last place to check out for me, the Hungry Man Forest Campground. I took the 37 east, past Shell Lake, then the 58 to the 44. Night had fallen. Oh my, God. There was a sign.
I pulled off and followed in in the wrong direction, down a private driveway. I turned around and took it the other way, pulling into a spot, just when the night couldn’t have gotten any blacker. What a profound relief. I kept the headlights on and threw up the tent, then crawled inside and just lay there panting.
It was so dark when I pulled in, that I’d had no idea where I even was. As soon as the sun came up, I found I was only about a hundred yards from a lake. I went down and found a dock that I walked to the end to. Mist was rising from the water.
The lakes of northern Minnesota are frozen and buried beneath the snow for half of the year. When they break free, they are rare jewels, a testimony to those who suffer, that beauty is right around the corner. When it is time to go out again, they do it in grand fashion, waving flags of every color, knowing that it is not really the end, but just goodbye for now. They were getting ready to say goodbye for now. I was lucky to be crashing the party.