A Trip Back in Time to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota

September, 2009

Simone de Beauvoir titled one of her books, "Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be." I knew that, and I knew "You Can't Go Home Again". But when a trade show took me to Minneapolis, I couldn't resist the urge to stay an extra day and make a mad dash for Detroit Lakes, the tiny town in northern Minnesota where I grew up, and that I ran away from as fast and as far away as I could when I was 17 years old.

When I was growing up, every town in northern Minnesota had to have a large cement sculpture &mdash of a sunfish, a duck, or Babe the Blue Ox. After three hours on I-94, it was a relief to find myself on a secondary highway, and discover that the giant pelican in Pelican Rapids was still there.

My hometown of Detroit Lakes was another matter. Like many small towns across the Midwest, the city fathers have defined progress as a row of big box stores on the outskirts of town, leaving the downtown very much as it looked 40 years ago, except that most of the storefronts are empty. But the sunset on the beach at Lake Detroit is still lovely, and the Pavilion, scene of so many teenage fantasies, looks the same, right down to the big sparkly ball above the dance floor.

I woke up Sunday morning to a desert dweller's ultimate fantasy: a soaking wet fog so thick you couldn't see to the end of your nose. I headed out Richwood Road in a hurry, looking for Sunlite Grocery, the country store that my parents bought in 1960, and where we all worked side by side, seven days a week, from 7:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night, for the next 10 years.

I had made one trip back to Detroit Lakes in 1983, so I knew that two of my classmates had grown up, bought the store and turned it into a roadhouse. Now, 26 years later, it's a roadhouse gone to seed. Our long green yard on a narrow spit of land between Little Floyd and Mud Lakes is now overflow parking and a mobile home pad.

More shocking was the amount of vegetation choking the edge of the lake. I continued up the road to one of my favorite childhood haunts, a tunnel under the road where we used to run our fishing boats between the lakes. I remember it as a passageway with about two feet of water and overhead clearance of at least four feet. But today, it's just a cement cylinder, and the sandbar at the entrance is choked with weeds. Eutrophication was a looming problem even when I was growing up, but in the intervening years, the casual lake cabins I remember have all been torn down and replaced by supersized split-level ranch houses with vinyl siding. And I can't help wondering — shouldn't some of that money have been spent on improving the lake?

I made my way around the lake to District 115, the one-room school I attended from grades 1 to 5. This tall, well-built wooden structure with its gleaming hardwood floors and tall windows looking out at fields of hay and corn often appears in my dreams. I have vivid memories of hauling water to our gravity-fed fountain, playing fox-and-goose in the winter, hopscotch in the summer, and making toys from snow (since we had little else). But most of all, I remember my teacher, Dorothy Engberg, who made monthly trips to the public library in town to satisfy my voracious appetite for the printed word.

On my 1983 visit, the school had been taken over by a branch of the "House of Agape", a religious cult. Today the school is still standing despite decades of abuse and neglect.

I'm sad that so many places I loved about Detroit Lakes are either gone or altered beyond recognition. But northern Minnesota is still there, and it's still home to the most naturally friendly people in the world. And it's still the land of enormous skies, rolling hills covered in fields of mustard and sunflowers, and glassy lakes whose edges are defined by oak and maple trees struggling to support the weight of their enormous canopy of brilliant green leaves. My lifelong love of the natural world is the result of growing up half wild in the lakes and woods of northern Minnesota.