A nostalgic road trip challenges my aging memory banks.
One of the great ironies of growing old is this: Aging is all about change, the gradual erosion of physical and mental capabilities, yet many of us tend to become more set in our ways the older we get.
I was pondering this the other day as My Lovely Wife and I were driving to the far western reaches of Minnesota to explore a weekend art crawl in and around a small river town I’d last visited nearly 40 years earlier. Road trips on their own often nudge me out of my comfort zone, but traveling to foreign destinations for the purpose of wandering around in cramped artists’ studios searching for something to say about the creative process can push me into a semi-catatonic state.
But I know this sort of thing is good for me in some way that I often have trouble grasping, so I wasn’t completely feigning enthusiasm when MLW proposed the trip. “Sure,” I said. “I haven’t been out in that neck of the woods since 1979.”
My memory was a bit foggy, I told her, but I recalled traveling there from Minneapolis with a ragged band of food co-op activists for a meeting. We gathered at a hippie farm somewhere outside of Montevideo that was owned by a couple whose names I couldn’t quite retrieve. What I did remember quite clearly, I admitted, was that it was a very hot afternoon and everyone scampered down to a nearby pond after the meeting, stripped off their clothes, and splashed around buck naked.
Well, not everyone— that was a couple of Zip codes outside my comfort zone.
So, with those memories swirling in my head, MLW and I drove westward through landscapes only a corn farmer could love before landing downriver from Montevideo in Granite Falls, where our art crawl began.
I’m the type of guy who can appreciate the artistry of a duck decoy or the ingenuity of a hand-woven basket without necessarily grasping the creative process behind the whole thing. MLW, on the other hand, is an artist herself and slightly more sociable than her husband, so she likes to chat with the creator of a piece. This gives me plenty of time to really scrutinize such wonders as the snow-capped mountain in a landscape painting — as well as my decision to spend my weekend this way.
Those thoughts receded, however, when we wandered into an empty storefront on the main drag and met an excitable woman who described the plan to transform the site into a cooperatively owned bar and grill. MLW struck up a conversation about the art crawl, co-ops, and my long-ago visit, noting that she was looking forward to seeing the pottery at Moonstone Farm, just outside of Montevideo.
“Oh, that’s Richard and Audrey’s place,” she said. “They’re members of the co-op.”
The light went on. “That’s the farm!” I blurted. “That’s where we met back in 1979.”
Or was it? The older I get, the less I trust my memory. It’s no secret that aging can distort recollections — whether that comes in the form of forgetfulness or misremembering. So, as we followed the map to the farm later that afternoon, I found myself looking for familiar landmarks without success and wondering whether I’d made it all up.
We drove up to the house, which didn’t register at all in my memory banks, and parked next to a small outbuilding where other art crawlers were mingling. I didn’t remember the other buildings on the property either. We walked in and wandered from shelf to shelf admiring the pottery. It was getting late; the sites were supposed to shut down in about 30 minutes. MLW expressed an interest in a couple of mugs. I figured we’d grab them, pay at the counter, and head back to town for dinner.
The door opened and a lanky fellow in Wellies and a flat cap entered holding a glass of wine. He glanced at me and the slightest flash of recognition showed in his eyes. I extended my hand. “You must be Richard,” I said. “You probably don’t recognize me . . . .”
“Of course I do!” he thundered, grasping me in a one-armed hug and nestling his head against mine in a way that suggested the glass he held had been refilled more than once. Still, it was the Richard I remembered, however vaguely, from that summer day 39 years earlier: ebullient, energetic, indomitable.
We chatted about his pottery and the 146-year history of his family farm while he showed us his wine-making operation, the outdoor pizza oven, the guest house, and other improvements they’d made since I last visited. They’d turned the farm into a learning center and recruited interns interested in the finer points of what Richard called “polyculture.”
I’d like to say this was all pretty inspiring to a guy who’s been doing the same thing for the past four decades, but I was more concerned about bringing a foggy memory into sharper focus. “Where’s the pond?” I asked. “I remember everyone walking down there after the meeting and going skinny-dipping.”
“Not everyone,” MLW chimed in.
He laughed and pointed at an archway framing a trail that meandered down a hill. “Can you see where the path winds past the vineyard? It’s just down there.”
I couldn’t, but I took his word for it. There was a pond. I didn’t make it up.
“Let’s go see Audrey,” he offered. In an old granary they’d turned into a summer kitchen, we encountered a gaggle of visitors. Richard handed each of us a glass of wine. Standing at the stove and supervising a small crew slicing vegetables stood a gray-haired woman who 39 years earlier might have passed for Audrey’s mother, but it was Audrey herself.
Richard pointed at me in lieu of a formal introduction. She blanked for a moment, figured it out, and wrapped me in a hug. A brief conversation ensued (there was a meal to be made, after all) that nudged nostalgia aside in favor of present-day initiatives and future plans.
“When do you have time to do the farm work?” I asked.
“We quit growing crops a few years ago,” Richard explained. “Now we graze cattle. They do all the work.”
Audrey invited us to join them for dinner, but we demurred. “Thanks, but we have a sociability threshold, and we may have already exceeded it today,” MLW explained, quite to my surprise. “We need to head back into town and just take it easy.”
“Take a walk down by the pond and chill out for a while,” Richard suggested, as he headed out the door. We considered our options for a few moments — it was way too cold for skinny-dipping — but stuck to our guns. Audrey bid us farewell and we walked to the car.
A half-hour later, we were relaxing over dinner and a bottle of Pinot Noir at a supper club on the road back to Montevideo. It had been quite a day for a couple of old homebodies. The evolution of Moonstone Farm, I admitted, had been pretty inspiring.
Except for one thing, MLW noted: “Richard’s wine could’ve used a lot more aging.”