A couple of months ago, we were Carhartt deep in craft beer and hipster life as we wintered in Bend, Oregon to spend time near two of our three adult children.
Between the meatless dining options that kept the town folk fitting into their Patagonia ensembles and kombucha lovers, we had our fill of the namaste lifestyle after eight months. Surrounded by Subaru lovers, we also had enough of the stares when parking our big ass diesel truck at the local market.
Too hot to head to our home state of Texas and too far from the east coast, we decided to head straight into the corn-fed stomach of America’s heartland – the Midwest. The only part of America we’ve missed in all our years of traveling.
Driving out of the arrogant beauty of the west, Greg navigated our luxurious estate on wheels through the forests and over the mountains as the dad in him felt the need to point out picturesque views every few miles of the thousand or so we still had to go. We’ve spent the last twenty years living and traveling throughout the Northwest, so the beauty of it hardly makes the wanderlust in me horny these days. Looking up from the pages of the paper atlas, I mustered up some old nostalgia I once had for this area. I joined him in a sentimental send-off as we set forth on the carefully studied routes that led to the tender Midwest beef served up in substantial portions. In my opinion, Spandex is far more forgiving than Patagonia.
Making our way across the top of the country on Highway 2, America’s northernmost highway, we zigzagged along the central plains rotating between our favorite Sirius XM channels, Canadian Folk (him) and Glam Hair Metal (me). Stretches of active missile silos operated by the remnants of the US government laid feet away from our combustible tanks of propane as we blazed along their ‘love it or leave it’ guarded fences. We passed these silos years ago – under a different administration and in a time when the American people were happy, and World War 3 sounded like make-believe. Nasty ass racist rednecks were only seen and heard when they came out to replenish their Mountain Dew stash at the local Walmart. But in the years that have passed, the good ol’ red and white and blue looked just as weary as the rest of the country as it hung off the flagpole, flapping in the desolate wind.
Bruce Springsteen, please won’t you come save us all.
After days of slow crossing the country and consuming handfuls of Skittles, we captured a photo of our first new state in years – Minnesota.
But just as we crossed the state line, tornadoes in the area forced us to seek shelter in the arms of a remote, cheap trailer park somewhere on the road near that other road. When storms descended on the area, the Sheriff came through and evacuated us into the communal cinderblock bathhouse. As the sirens that blared throughout town implicated death and destruction, we huddled together with an anxious dog and a wide-eyed cat at our feet. Our fire safe box padded with a stash of cash somewhere in the thousands, and Grandma’s banana pudding recipe tucked safely between us, we rode the worst storm of our lives. Unrelenting winds snapped trees and peeled off portions of the pitch-black trailer park bathroom as we held onto one another. Like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, we emerged from the restroom, stepping over debris as we set foot into our first Midwest experience. Although I’d bet, Oz was never this humid.
In the small, homegrown towns cultivated by the callused hands of Minnesota’s blue-collar community, plastic bags were still a thing, and sprinklers on every lawn glistened in the summer afternoons. People around these parts moved at a slower pace, and unlike the rest of the country trying to survive a pandemic, stores were stocked with plenty of essentials. The only thing my Mexican ass had a hard time finding was the skirt meat needed to make fajitas. After striking up conversations with every butcher in town looking for the right cut of meat, I came up empty-handed every time. Frustratingly, I began to tell them that there was indeed a basement in the Alamo when I explained I was from Texas and felt the need to make fajitas pronto. Thanks to the cult classic movie, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Texans have never escaped answering the age-old question ‘Is there really a basement in the Alamo?’
In a series of small-town drives and completely fajita’less, we continued down the metaphorical yellow brick road, aimless both in direction and in our life. We made our way around the shores of Lake Superior, blazed through Wisconsin way too fast to grab a collectible magnet, and landed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Rural, remote, and without the promise of reliable internet – the Upper Peninsula was quite the commitment for two people who like their decaf mocha blended frappe with coconut milk and a tall latte with one raw sugar and a half pump of vanilla. Traversing the country for nearly twenty years has gifted me two obsessions in life: my love for touristy gift shops and a deep fascination with the evolution of suburbia in America.
Meandering through Michigan’s offerings of small-town Americana, I spent weeks studying the Midwest suburb culture from the passenger seat of my traveling lifestyle. Antiquated Main Streets boasted mildly conservative fashions in the windows of the cornerstone J.C. Penney while drug stores and diners decorated the rest of the town’s slow-going two-lane approach to life.
As guests in neighborhoods we do not inhabit, we roll through at slow speeds hoping residents don’t notice our out of state license plates creeping down their streets. Money may not buy happiness, but it managed to buy us an expensive high-end truck, giving us the incognito mode needed to stay off HOA’s most-wanted lists.
Older houses built far larger and full of character reinforced the unions and gritty work ethic of life in old ‘Iron Country.’ American flags dangled off most front porches while manicured lawns lined the streets in a yesteryear throwback to middle-class pride.
My eyes followed the empty sidewalk outside of my window as we twisted and turned our way through the neighboring streets. Like a suburban highway system, these sidewalks have always intended to connect all these houses and the people who live within them together. Yet, in the middle of a beautiful summer day, there was not a person or kid in sight. We’ve stalked enough neighborhoods over the years to know the pandemic isn’t entirely to blame.
Sipping on the locally made, knock-off version of my Starbucks drink, a strange mix of nostalgia and bewilderment came over me.
Where were all the kids, and what the hell happened to the bustling suburban life of the 70s and 80s?
Before twenty-four-hour news channels, social media popularity, and Pornhub clicks, there was a time when these sidewalks were the traffic lanes of a childhood lived. Jammed with bikes and skateboards, kids used to be out in force to see which of their friends could come out to play. A new pair of Nikes never stayed clean and handheld electronics like the Walkman only enhanced outdoor playtime, not abolished it.
“Take a right,” one of us guesses at the stop sign.
I’m not sure why the fuck we’re even here in Michigan, but since unemployment doesn’t have us following a map or timeline, let’s just go ahead and follow my imagination down this rabbit hole.
“Remember when rolled-up newspapers were a thing? Tossed onto your lawn by some neighborhood kid on a bike,” I asked. “Those were some good wages,” I chuckled.
I wasn’t wrong. Back then, Pac-Man only cost a quarter, and video arcades still existed. You know, right next to the partially covered nudie mags at the 7-11, where we spent that five-dollar bill, three quarters, two dimes, and a nickel paycheck. The same place my friends and I got our first recreational glimpse of a naked man’s body. I don’t remember which one of us was brave enough to pull back the plastic cover on that Playgirl magazine, but I do recall what we saw, and it looked nothing like the illustrations in those awkward pamphlets we walked out of gym class with.
”Ewww! That thing is huge! We’re supposed to put that thing where?” we whispered with genuine concern for our future womanhood.
No Becky, not that there. The other one.
As my prepubescent friends gawked at our first encounter with paper porn, I tilted my head in disappointment. I expected more chest hair, a desire I carried into my adult years. Yeah, feel free to rip that shirt open if you can give me a good Burt Reynolds feel any day. I said this was a rabbit hole, and it’s my rabbit hole, so I get to call the shots in here.
“Turn left.” Another guess.
The late-model cars parked in front of the houses gave me pause to think of the missing adults in this story. The gas-guzzling, fossilized relics we were occasionally buckled into as kids had long been replaced by eco-friendly vehicles and technology much too complicated for the suburban garage.
Like digging out an old highlight reel of family memories from the back of a closet, my mind went into full-blown sentimentalism. Flickering images of the dads who wrenched on the family ride, polishing off a few cold ones as they went, seamlessly projected out of my head and onto the garage doors of each passing house.
The theater, or my ADD with a side of Asperger’s, at work in my head, shifted into the kitchen windows just as the day came to an end in a serendipitous culmination of timing on this nostalgic trek. I closed my eyes and pictured old school moms in the heart of the home as they called the other neighborhood moms and summoned their kids back home for dinner; all while they handled hot pans and home-cooked food. Minutes later, bikes abandoned in mid-flight were laid over on the front yard as gluten-fed kids raced to the dinner table marking the only time of day you’d ever find them inside.
“Keep going or no?” one of us pondered at the last stop sign in another session of neighborhood drives.
Wow. I had spent the entire day in my rabbit hole and lost track of time as my mind wandered through a storybook of scenes just like these.
“Nah, let’s head back before it gets dark,” I answered as that same mom in me summoned our asses back home for dinner. Besides, our eyesight at night is just as old as our memories these days, and the wildlife on these roads don’t give a shit about this nice new truck.
After four weeks of living in a remote part of my mind and in my country, I left the Upper Peninsula, having learned a few things. For starters, there are still places in America where mailmen walk across the yard to deliver the mail door to door. A little bit of nostalgia for my reminiscent heart. Another thing, the beauty of the Midwest looked a lot like the things I love about Texas, something I did not expect but happily welcomed. But my favorite thing learned in my obsession with suburbia and the life it once fostered is knowing that I’m lucky enough to be part of a few that can look back on the iconic decades of the 70s & 80s and think…man, that was one hell of a time to be a kid.
Eddie Money, take me home tonight.
By the way, if any of you suburban dwellers happen to see a black Dodge Ram with Texas plates and tinted windows cruising past your place, don’t worry. I’m just gathering inspiration for my upcoming book ‘1980 Something’ based on the real-life characters and stories that shaped my childhood I currently keep stored in my vintage Trapper Keeper.