Pew research says 63 percent of Americans have moved from their hometowns. Some 15 percent, like me, have lived in at least four states. For most, it was to pursue economic opportunity.
If you’re among the 45 percent of movers who return home to visit a time or two each year, you know the feeling that envelops your soul as you near the place where you grew up.
It wraps me up when I turn off Wisconsin Highway 22 onto County Road B.
I’ve lived in the South since Uncle Sam crooked his finger in my direction in 1972, so coming home has always involved driving north, through the capital city of Madison. Forty years later I need my GPS to get me through town. New interchanges would divert me through strange suburbs sprouting where I once picked peas and corn as a summer canning company worker.
Billboards tout products and services that didn’t exist when I left town: computer sales and repair, wireless telephones, home health, Kia, Hyundai and Honda dealers, Mexican restaurants.
Traffic lights direct cars through intersections where cows once lumbered toward the dairy barn twice a day to make their contribution in an era when we thought, “milk does a body good.”
Driving north out of the big city toward my little hometown the change rate diminishes. I see some farmers have built new houses in corners that weren’t much good for crops anyway. There are fewer farmers, but they have bigger tractors.
They plant every inch, from ditch to ditch, mostly in corn, some soybeans. Oats, alfalfa and other food crops have been squeezed out, thanks to the insanity of subsidized ethanol production.
Fence rows are gone, to give big tractors space to turn, and in favor of raising crops to feed animals in enclosed places, rather than fencing fields for grazing.
Then I come to the top of the hill, and turn right at Rocky Run Cemetery, onto County B. The cemetery seems the same; no one has left.
A restful blanket of snow drapes over the sentinel stones.
County B needs repaving again.
It’s three rough miles down County B to the farmhouse where I grew up; where my parents lived almost 40 years. Each mile wafts the fragrance of memory through the car windows.
I see the Nelsons painted their barn; the Johnsons finally cleaned up that tangle of brush in the front yard; the Rogers’ neglected barn collapsed onto itself, its beams sticking out from the rubble like sun bleached ribs of an elephant carcass.
Hoel’s pond would be good for ice skating this year. In most years cattails eat up the space at the edges and make the ice rough. This year it’s clear.
The pond was our hockey rink. We just had to shovel off the snow. If the ice was thick enough, we could use a tractor and blade.
Driving past the home place the trees are bigger. All the buildings are smaller. Aren’t they?
The “new” owners don’t care for the place like we did. It looks seedy, like a newly retired man growing his first beard.
Dad bought it as a place to raise his family, and a place to putter when he grew old. Puttering there lost its charm with the ambulance that carried mom away.
I don’t stare at the place like I used to when dad lived there. He lives in town now, with a wife of almost 19 years. Although the old place is in the country, “in town” is just a mile further, where County B ends.
The big sledding hill behind the school building I attended for all 12 grades has been knocked down. In fact, the school has been knocked down in favor of a senior adult living center.
Houses fill the old playground. Dad lives across the street.
I drive a lot of roads to get home, but County B forever connects the child I was to the man I am.