Coming Back Home to Wobegon

If you grew up in the suburbs going home is no big deal. You probably never knew every one of the folks in your neighborhood. It is even less likely that you knew most of the people that lived in a several mile circle around you. So, for the indigenous suburbanite, going home means visiting your parents in the house you grew up in.

It’s another thing to go home if you grew up in the country. That’s what it’s like for me to go home. Once we get off the main highway onto the winding roads through the hills of Western Pennsylvania the memories start coming back.

First it’s the little town that I used to stop at to get gas and eat. Then it’s the huge hill with a Country Music radio station at the top with a hotel and restaurant across from it. I ate at the restaurant once and the food was lousy. It looks like it has changed owners a few times since then. I don’t care to risk the food again.

As we get closer in the memories begin to come more rapidly. Here’s the town that I used to work in during the summer. The place where a truck turned over once and we collected scattered wooden pallets. There used to be an antique store on the one side with a hardware and auto parts store in it. Those are closed now. Come to think of it, it’s a wonder they ever stayed open so long at such a distance from town.

Then to see the fast food restaurant closed in the next town, remembering stops for food on the way home from sporting events. Now I wonder where you can get a cheap burger anymore. Some houses look run down, some look a little better. Everything looks different and the same at the same time.

Once we get within a few miles of my house–the only one I lived in until I went to college–most of the houses are familiar. There’s the one with the crossed skis hanging on it. It has changed colors, but still the same. The houses next to it look a little worse for wear and they were shabby to begin with. I remember the names of most of the residents, at least the ones that lived there a decade ago. Some of them moved on, some dead, some probably still there.

I remember the times I rode my bike down that hill and walked it up the next. I remember picking up pop cans along many stretches of the road because I could earn a nickel for them. It took a while, but you could earn some money that way.

This is what it feels to be from Lake Wobegon. Instead of getting there with a little bump as you cross into Mist County--which doesn’t show up on any maps--I can get directions on my phone as long as I can get signal--which isn’t a given. The geography is different between Lake Wobegon and my hometown, but the stories all sound about the same.

Much like Garrison Keillor’s fictional town, the big news is the weather, the neighbors, and the local news. It’s a long way from Raleigh, North Carolina where terrorism, the global economy, and many social ills seem to be on the doorstep. Visits home make moving to the middle of nowhere seem like an option, at least for a little while.

But then the reality sets in. The nearest bookstore is 45 minutes away and most places like this don’t need someone with a PhD. And then, it gets old when too many people know your business and you get questions at the store, at work, and at school about why you cut a tree down. Was it rotted? Are you going to use it for firewood? How are you going to get the stump out?

The first explanation is fine, the fourth alright. By the twentieth you start to wonder whether Mrs. Granger would call the police if you told her you wanted the stump dug up as cover for the grave of the guy from the city you caught hunting on your land.

But you don’t tell her that. You just smile and talk about how it was leaning toward the house and killing the grass. And life goes on about the same as it ever did.