Ritual

Every four weeks during 2020, Thaddeus and I drove home to visit family in Minnesota. It was an evenly divisible drive: two hours from Omaha to Des Moines, two hours from Des Moines to the Minnesota border, and two more hours to my parents in White Bear. Leaving Omaha on I-80, the speed limit was high, and despite the surrounding city centers, the freeway quickly shrank to four lanes. We weaved around the eighteen wheelers, up and down and around the hilly pastures leading to Des Moines. For a beeline east, there were more turns and banks than made sense.

In Des Monies, we stopped at Ritual—a hippie college town cafe that was exclusively vegetarian. The walls inside hosted the political discourse du jour. If you had hibernated for the last decade and somehow arrived at Ritual shortly after waking, the walls would digest and catch you up on the political fights of the moment. This was the type of place I would have obsessed over when I was college-age. The friendly food, colorful walls, and proximity towards campus, Ritual was like the cafes that I called home during my time at UMN—before I had even met Thaddeus—before I had even discovered Omaha. These cafes were where I grew beyond the bubble of my hometown. Where I woke up.

Back on the road, the last leg of the drive was the longest. Sometimes we could make it all the way to White Bear if we perfectly coordinated the gas tank and our bladders. Often though, the remaining two thirds of the drive transformed from four to five hours with us stopping, what felt like, every forty minutes. Roadtrips go one of these ways. You either merge with the road and glide along with the hum of the freeway; or, you feel the full intensity of 75mph—never quite able to settle in.

The first milestone that signaled “we’re close” was exit 84, Randy Moss’ jersey number, Thaddeus would remind me. When we first started dating, this was Thaddeus’ exit. He still lived with his parents at the time in Prior Lake. We passed through Prior Lake each time on our way to White Bear and every time I would notice the exit. Here, we reminisced, let the bittersweet out, and felt the early honeymoon of our relationship all over again.

During this bygone time, Thaddeus and I hiked Prior Lake’s trails—meandering across ponds, wooded areas, and paved suburban developments. Gesticulating, fighting, in therapy, comedy, and planning the future together. We shared some of the hardest and most elated moments of our early years on these trails. After moving to Omaha, we went back to Prior Lake to visit Thaddeus’ mom, Tami, who still lived in his childhood home. With Tami in tow, the three of us repeated the same trails. We caught up on the events of the family, and Tami shared her latest creative project. She was a prolific upskiller who wrote children’s books and always had arts and crafts on hand.

It was fall, and without realizing it, we arrived right before the leaves fell. Moving to Omaha where prairie and open land dominated the landscape, nestling into the woods was a treat. We walked along the same wooded areas that Thaddeus and I had explored years earlier. This time though, we were wrapped in a cocoon of amber autumn—embedded in the trees like a snow globe. The cool blue sky juxtaposed the hot, sun-colored leaves. Since the leaves were just about to fall, they reached the peak of their transformation. The leaves gradiented from green to orange mimicking the sun’s color as if to call it back—reminiscing the long summer days.

Thaddeus and I stole glances at one another—treasured a grin back and forth to silently acknowledge how bucolic it was that we were retracing our steps. It wasn’t until this retracing that I realized how much we had changed. The time that elapsed between this walk and when we moved to Omaha felt huge. But being there under the transforming fall leaves, we were able to look back at our younger selves, hold them, hold us, in bittersweet. We connected without words on that walk. Silently together, held by time and place and pace.

We continued past exit 84—heading north. Prior Lake and White Bear were both equidistant from Minneapolis but in opposite directions. Prior Lake, 25 minutes to the south west, and White Bear, 25 minutes to the north east. The freeway connecting both towns arched around the metro, across the Minnesota River Valley, the Mississippi, and then straight north.

The closer we got to home, more memories arose—usually the same ones. Like a slide projector, these would flip into and out of my mind’s eye sometimes coinciding with a bump on the road. At the I-94 interchange, I remember taking the freeway to soccer practice near the Wisconsin border shortly after I got my drivers license. It was a big deal to go so far from home, and navigating the interchange, after school and during rush-hour, was a delicate maneuver. A little further, the movie theatre my grandparents used to take me to as a kid. It was a different theater than the one my parents usually went to, so this felt new and exciting. Manning Avenue that Sam taught me ran all the way to Stillwater.

The pace of the slide projector picked up the closer we got. The density of memories increasing. The first gas station I filled up at. That one time I accidentally drove off with the hose still in the tank. The lane that as a stubborn teenager I would ride to the last minute and then merge. The pedestrian bridge I watched get built. The college where I took and failed the ACT. The neighborhood where John lived. The grocery store where they accused me of stealing oreos. The walgreens that I snuck to with friends while my parents were away (and where I had actually bought the oreos). The sidewalk with the most incredible weeds growing through the cracks.

As I turned onto Wedgewood, the slide projector shut off. Not from lack of material but from not being able to decide what to play. The density of memories exceeded the capacity of my mind’s eye. Like the calm after a yoga class, in meditation, or the awe you feel walking into a place that commands the attention of all the senses. Too much bandwidth to consciously process. You realize you’ve arrived on a subconscious level. My arms shifted the steering wheel right and left—how I had done hundreds of times gliding up the road.

Most of the surrounding homes were some variant of taupe. Yellow taupe, green taupe, blue taupe, gray taupe, brown taupe. My mother hated taupe. The exterior of our home was evergreen and glowed in contrast—almost in protest. Inside, many of the walls were yellow, and the oak cabinetry in the kitchen had been refinished in french lentil green and distressed at the edges. Green bead-board ran the perimeter of the kitchen and complimented the yellow walls. This vibrancy and warmth is what I remember most about Wedgewood.

We neared the final dip in the road that signaled home. I shifted the car right a bit until I felt the tire meet the familiar concrete curb. We slowed, and I shifted into—home. The front garden undulated across the yard gently reminding the rain to run towards the north end of the property. Pulling up to the front of the house was always the highpoint of the trip. My dad would be rearranging in the garage, my mom planting perennials in the garden, and Nikko, the family dog, watching over everyone from his favorite chair in the window. They all greeted us—equally excited as us to be done with the drive. The warmth of that initial embrace, to be home again, was everything. A sense of ultimate community—people excited to see you, in a warm, familiar place.