Growing up, I’d take two trips per year with family to Lake Superior’s North Shore. We’d go once around New Years and once in summer, usually August. This routine was, and still is as I write this, one of the enduring traditions of my life. Over the years, the soundtrack of our trips up north evolved.
My earliest memories are of my grandma listening to books on tape in her minivan. I can’t remember the model of the minivan but it had these big buttons on the inside sliding doors that you’d push like you had a big fat thumb and they’d slide open with gravity. There were so many seats and belts inside it felt like a jungle gym.
One year, in a break with tradition, I drove up to the lake with my dad—just the two of us. I-35 was the main road up and we usually took the same exits and rest stops every year. Tobies in Hinkley was a common waypoint. This year though, we took an unusual exit. I got to see a different part of the world! Dad bought a coffee and picked up a best alternative hits CD which we listened to the rest of the way up. Arcade Fire was on it and it set off my love for the band.
I listened to Car Talk for the first time with my grandma and felt like a cool kid for knowing about something the adults would talk about.
My grandma eventually upgraded her minivan to a Toyota Highlander. Compared to the SUVs of today the Highlander was small—rightsized for her. Eventually the summer trips as a family gave way to grandma taking the grandkids for half a week—no parents allowed. I had a portable Sony CD player, this was after the Walkman brand (sad face), and listened to music my friend Meg had given me. Included was 30 Seconds to Mars, Keane, Tokyo Police Club, Two Door Cinema Club, and Phoenix. On one of these trips with grandma I decided that I must have an iPod. Carrying around a small collection of CDs was too much. A year later, I had saved up for an iPod and timing was such that I would order it after we had gone up north. This meant an entire trip in agony, waiting to order my iPod so I could bring it up north next year.
My iPod generation was a lot of 2000s indie pop and indie rock. I discovered Spoon which to this day is still my favorite band. I finally got to see them, over 10 years later, while I was still living in LA. I can report, my inner child and adult outer child thought they were as good now as I thought they were then. Similarly, 1901 by Phoenix immediately ignites child-like joy. I remember having a pizza party with a few friends in middle school and dancing on the desks to Two Door Cinema Club.
Almost half a decade into the iPhone’s existence, I finally got one. My early days of listening to music on my iPhone 4 (the best iPhone ever to exist) was a lot of the same music I listened to on my iPod. Maybe add in Vampire Weekend, Hellogoodbye, Bombay Bicycle Club, and the latest sensations: Fun. and Foster the People. Basic, I know!
Eventually this all gave way to high school angst—no more fun indie tracks. Bon Iver and Rhye delivered the feelings (we didn’t call them vibes back then) to punctuate the lonely bittersweet I felt. Bittersweet about what? No clue. Rhye especially blew my mind. It was the softest electronic, most serene vocals, and calm pacing I had ever heard. This shouldn’t exist.
One summer with grandma on the north shore, we decided to go further north and explore Ely and Grand Marais. Looking at the map she stored in the glovebox, we took Highway 61 north and then went due west to Ely. It was over a 2 hour drive but thru beautiful national forests. We made it to Ely after what felt like an eternity. I listened to Bon Iver the whole way. Once in Ely, we comically discovered that we could have taken a single road, Highway 2, due north from where we were staying and cut the trip in about half. We drove home and the next day went to Grand Marais. This morning it was foggy, and I listened to Rhye’s 2013 album Woman. They must have written this album driving along Highway 61 past Lake Superior. The track perfectly matched the setting and mood. This synchronization of track and setting only happens occasionally but this is like half the reason music exists.
Giving ourselves a soundtrack to the current chapter of life justifies our place in spacetime. We feel community that, oh—someone else must have felt this way too and that’s why they wrote this. We feel we’re going thru something similar. Reflecting back, my life is syncopated by albums and tracks that defined the current era. The waking up, talking, going to work, walking, it’s all just fodder for music. The music is the stage play and life are the characters looking for purpose.