December 21, 2020…
I took a road trip to my home town of Mountain Lake yesterday, to visit the sites of places I lived long ago and collect inspiration for a few essays that I’m writing. My sweet 15 yr. old niece, Amelia, accompanied me for the ride. Lucky me, to have such a divine traveling companion.
Mountain Lake is a small town scratched into the topsoil of southern Minnesota, population, about 2100. If you’re at all familiar with the area, you’d be correct to guess there’s not a mountain in sight for hundreds of miles. The namesake “mountain” is a large hill south of town that once made its living as an island in the middle of the namesake lake that is no longer, because it was drained for farmland around 1905. The ghost of the lake is visible in aerial photographs, an apparition outlined in trees.
My mission would be quick—drive to the addresses where I used to live, snap a few photos, then a meandering drive through town to wax nostalgic and show Amelia the sights, which would take all of fifteen minutes, even if I drove the speed of molasses in January, to use my father’s likely only g-rated quip. We’d go by the school, the park, the lake that isn’t the namesake, on the northwest end of town.
In case you’re confused about the lake thing, let me clarify: Mountain Lake’s “mountain” had a former life as an island in the middle of a lake south of town for which the town was named, which was drained for farmland in 1905. (An aside: in 1976, an archeological dig on the mountain-nee-island revealed evidence of an ancient native dwelling, carbon-dated to be about 2100 years old, the oldest dwelling found in MN thus far.) The lake that now exists in the city limits, is a manmade WPA project of the 1930’s. This lake has what we always called the “island”—even a campground near the lake, Island View Campground, says so. Except it’s not really an island, but more a peninsula. So much more could be said about all this, but I’m going to contain myself, because I need to get to bed soon.
The first home I lived in, on 9th Avenue, no longer exists. I suspected this, but wanted to confirm it. It was the home my parents brought me to after I was born, where my two brothers were anxiously awaiting my arrival, I can only guess. I shocked my mom one day when I as older, when I told her I remember this house. “How can that be? You were just a baby when we lived there,” she asked. I proceeded to draw the floor plans of my memory, telling in great detail each room looked like, how the furniture was laid out, of things I remember happening. She stared at me, shaking her head at the accuracy of my memories. “Good lord. I’m not surprised. You were a weird kid. Still are,” she laughed.
My sister, Jill, came along two years later. Our growing family was busting out of the seams in this little home; when I was nearly three, we moved to 538 6th Avenue. This house sat on an extraordinarily huge city lot on the edge of Mountain Lake. My parents purchased, contract-for-deed, the plain white three bedroom, one bath clapboard from the original owner who had raised eight kids here. The house came with a two-acre plot of land, though it might be more accurate to say that the two-acre plot of land came with a house.
The house itself was a rather dilapidated mess of peeling paint, crumbling foundation and windows in mismatched frames. The lean-to kitchen looked like an afterthought, hanging off the back of the house by threads. That didn’t matter to three-year old me. I wandered the expansive lot with my mom, awash in awe: all of this belongs to us? This tulip garden bursting in pastels? Those lilac trees with their heady, enveloping perfume? The strawberry patch at the bottom of the hill, spread out like a blanket next to the apple and plum trees, with a fringe of currant bushes? And the sea of tall grass beyond the patchwork of fruit trees, with that little shed poking through? And this massive silver maple next to the kitchen, with a canopy of leaves spread wide like a parachute and arms are begging for a treehouse to hold up to the sky? All this? Ours? I thought we’d won the fairytale lottery and had moved to our very own land of make-believe.
It came like a punch in the gut, one day in fifth grade when a couple of classmates announced that they had compiled a list of richest to poorest kids in class, and declared my family the third poorest. What? By what authority were they able to decide this? I recall asking, though likely not as articulate. Because of your house, and the clothes you wear, I was told. Did I burst into tears upon hearing this news? Did I lash out? I don’t remember, but it might have been then that I became acutely aware of things that matter to the rest of the world. An extraordinary fairytale of a backyard isn’t one of those things. A ramshackle house is.
This house, too, only exists in my memories; it was razed years ago. Still, I had to drive by and check on our tree. I barely recognized the property—the house and garage is gone, so are the lilac bushes, the fruit trees. The pasture is neatly mowed and the maple tree is a hacked-in-half version of its former parachute self. My heart was so startled to see so much of it missing, my eyes tried to trace the space in the sky that those branches used to occupy. Had lightning struck it? High winds? I don’t know, but still, in its wounded state, its massive trunk beckoned me.
I pulled over and to Amelia’s horror, I told her I needed to go and give our tree a hug. She cringed and shrunk low in her seat, “Oh God, Jen—there’s people over there! You’re going to get arrested for trespassing!” I couldn’t help but laugh, which softened the lump that had caught in my throat. “This is Mountain Lake, that won’t happen. I don’t think so anyway,” I said as I hopped out and ran across the lawn to give my old friend a hug.