I found myself thinking — not for the first time — of the Thomas Wolfe novel “You Can’t Go Home Again’’ after my brother-in-law and I tried to find the farm where his dad grew up.
We gave it a go, Tim and I did. He knew the name of a family he thought owned the farm he wanted to find. I recognized the name, placing it among others in the extended rural neighborhood of my youth. I figured my memory alone could get us there. Since the memory was from at least 60 years ago, though, we checked it against a directory of county land ownership.
We haven’t always been so cautious in our adventures. You should have seen us cutting down an evergreen on my lawn in Pierre using a chain saw with the chain installed backwards. We ran that poor saw engine into a heat stroke. Nancy, Tim’s big sister, worked that incident into the conversation as Tim and I readied for our journey.
I drove as we headed west. He studied the directory while I called out names of people who used to live on the farms we passed. When we rounded a corner a few miles from where I thought our destination should be, he told me the directory agreed. The farm we sought should be up ahead somewhere.
We never reached that spot. I popped a hill to the sight of water across the dirt road from one ditch to the other. “Did we miss a road closed sign?’’ I asked. “Didn’t see one,’’ Tim said. “I guess everyone who’d normally travel this road knows you can’t get through.’’
The water didn’t look deep, but I couldn’t see what kind of road lay beneath it. If I’d been 15 and driving our old farm pickup, I’d have dropped the gearshift into low, gunned the engine and given it a shot. But when I did things like that, my dad was around to get me out of my mess, shaking his head and muttering the whole time. Without his presence, I put the gearshift in reverse and turned around, pleased with my judgment but a bit disoriented by water on a road I’d never known as anything but dirt dry.
I retraced our route to town, thinking about Thomas Wolfe. On the drive out, I’d been pleased at recognizing the countryside. I knew this area. Obviously, I no longer knew it well enough. A bit of water over an old road is a small thing, yet it unsettled me, made me a little dizzy.
I’ve felt that way before when I’ve encountered change in the old neighborhood. Some things are so unaltered by the decades it’s as if I just saw them the day before. Other things are so changed I barely recognize where I am. A steel bin I helped erect is nowhere to be seen. A barn where I played in the hay loft (keeping an eye on the snake skins hanging from the rafters) has disappeared, making that piece of the landscape unfamiliar. Fences have been moved. Windmills have fallen over. Section lines have been closed. It’s the same countryside, but it isn’t.
My big brother and I experienced a similar mix of feelings last month when we drove through the area after a pheasant hunt. We could name farms and families. We recalled skating ponds, shelter belts and prairie-dog towns. But we got mixed up more than once. Where we remembered a great, sweeping curve in the road, for example, it ran straight as a chalk line. It took us a few moments to align old memories with new reality.
Wolfe’s main character concluded he couldn’t go back — not to the family, childhood or dreams he had once known and still remembered. Things that once seemed forever turned out to be fleeting.
The lesson for me, I guess, is that I can go home again, whenever I wish. I just can’t expect it to be sit and wait for me, unchanged by time. When I go home now, it’s to a place of memories, familiar and comforting to my heart, even if the reality can be dizzying to my mind.