Growing up in the boondocks of southern Aitkin County, there’s a question that’s never had an easy answer for me: “Where’s your hometown?” If I have to give a name, I’ll usually say McGregor because 12 years of schooling there meant it was the environment I was most actively socialized in. However, when I recently made that claim on Facebook, an old friend from high school put me to task. “Weren’t y’all from McGrath?” she asked. While I jokingly replied that McGrath was more a sign on Hwy. 65 than a town, I do think it’s a fair question. After all, my parents still have the zip code 56350. That counts for something, doesn’t it?
And my relationship with McGregor has been, at times, complicated. I can clearly recall the Jack Keroauc of my childhood schoolyard asking why I went to McGregor when I lived so much closer to Isle and Aitkin (nevermind that I was about equidistant from all three). I’ve long held the theory that I dealt with a number of bullies in the McGregor school system in part because I was a sort of outsider to that community. That my mother’s entire family graduated from McGregor didn’t overcome us living 20 miles outside of city limits.
At the same time, if my relationship with McGregor is rocky, my relationship with McGrath is non-existent. I’ve attended many Fourth of Julys there, that one day of the year you can see more in McGrath than cracked asphalt and a derelict city hall. One day out of 365 equates to about .27% of a year, and even accounting for other random visits, I’d still estimate an exceedingly small percentage of my life has actually been spent in McGrath.
So where’s home? If I answer that question as truthfully as possible, it’s probably that unnamed plot of land out along That Dam Road, where I spent 18 years of my life growing up. I know the turns in the back woods that will take you out to my grandfather’s gravel pit, two different deer stands, or a long forgotten refrigerator. I intimately know the bumps on the driveway, where the rain water pools. I know on which hill three family dogs have been buried. There’s a part of me that will always associate some peace and security with 228th Lane, out in the swamp north of McGrath.
But only a part. I’m no longer that child that lived at the swampy homestead. As Rebecca Sugar wrote in a song for the television series “Adventure Time,” “Everything stays, right where you left it, everything stays, but it still changes, daily and nightly, ever so slightly, in little ways, when everything stays.” It’s hard not to feel the passage of time when I visit That Dam Road these days, the subtle changes to the house and property, and a youth that I know is a decade, give or take a few years, in the past. It’s home, but also largely in memory.
I’ve also lived in Northfield, Isle and Garrison since then. Of these places, Northfield, or specifically, the St. Olaf University campus, is the closest one of these places has come to feeling like a home. I think there’s two components of a home: the physical space and the community. The St. Olaf space consisted of the clustered residential quarters of Ytterboe, the perplexing geometries of Holland, Moen and Larson, the ethereal quiet of Rolvaag. And there were the communities. I bounced between numerous nerdy cabals: the English department, the Suddenly Wizards Club, The Defenders of Write-ousness, the Magic: the Gathering scene, and, of course, that tight-knit Kildahl Hall friend group first brought together by the Magical Steampunk roleplay forum.
I still keep in touch with that friend group, or at least a decent portion of it. We have multiple active servers on the Discord instant messaging app. Some may find the idea that such virtual spaces could start to carry a sort of physicality, but they certainly enable a community. In a way, I also see these servers as a sort of home.
Sometimes, in my years living in a small town, I can’t help but feel there’s pervaded in such communities a belief that one should take on the locale as part of their identity. It’s a belief that rankles me when I encounter it. There’s a freedom in letting a place of origin grow unfamiliar, in untethering yourself from it, and accepting that once the cord is cut, you may never come back. For all the safe harbors I know, I’m less certain I know a place called home, and for the time being, I’m happy to be uncommitted.
Evan Orbeck is a Messenger staff writer.