Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota has a very special place in my heart.
We had many a vacation up there when we were kids. I just loved the smell of pine trees everywhere you went. I loved the smell of wood burning in fireplaces, the log buildings, the fact that you could actually walk across the mighty Mississippi River.
I even liked the nature walks, even though those were never my favorite as a child. But at this magical place, even going on a long walk with your parents, hungry, tired and bored, was better than most other things you could be doing.
I especially loved the fact that every time you went back, it was always just how you remembered it. Oh, there were a few changes here and there. But for the most part, it was like a moment frozen in time. The Douglas Lodge, the Forest Inn, the Old Timer's Cabin, the headwaters of the Mississippi River; all of it locked away for safe keeping.
As an adult, I went back up there. I was so excited. I wanted to relive the magic, revisit a part of my childhood; to bring it back to life so that maybe just for a moment, I could be a kid again.
It didn't work.
For starters, we couldn't get a cabin in the park; they were all booked.
No problem. I just booked a cabin in nearby Park Rapids.
But it wasn't the same. Dropping by for a visit just wasn't the same as staying there: going to the Douglas Lodge to have breakfast, enjoying a fire in the fireplace, popping popcorn over the open flame. Something was missing. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something was different. I began to resign to the old adage of not being able to go home again; that your memories are just that: memories. If you try to go back, you'll be disappointed.
A few years after that, the rest of my family arranged a week-long stay in the park to celebrate my parents anniversary. I want to say it was their thirty-fifth, but I'm not certain.
I didn't go. I didn't have any paid time off at the time, didn't feel like I could afford the time off combined with the expense of the trip.
Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Of course, I thought of my disappointing visit and figured it would have been more of the same.
Then came my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. For the sake of the story, we'll say it was their fiftieth, but to be honest, we didn't plan it in time ... so we pushed it back a year. But we won't tell anyone it was actually number fifty one. That'll be our little secret.
We all stayed in the Clubhouse: a quaint, ten-room log hotel with a large center gathering space; complete with a large fireplace. I had stayed there once before on a trip that was just me, my brother, and my parents. My brother and I shared a room and my parents slept in the adjoining room.
When we arrived at the Clubhouse for my parents' anniversary trip, the place was smaller than I remembered. Of course we were much smaller then, you know how that works. When you're a kid, everything seems so much bigger.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I was optimistic. Along with revisiting a favorite place from my childhood, the trip would also serve as a chance for my family to better get to know my wife, who had only been in the family for a little over a year at that time.
The disappointment from my previous trip was soon a thing of the past; a mere bump on the track for the ol' nostalgia train. The first time I heard a squeaky screen door slam shut with a bang, it all came rushing back. I was home. At least a part of it. It looked as though the experts were wrong. You CAN go home again. You just have to do it right.
I remember my mom saying that this would be the last time she would ever see this place. I knew she was right. At their age, it was a tough trip for my parents to make. Once they were up there, they were fine; but my mom's health wasn't the best. It made me sad to think this would be the last time they would make the trip, but I understood; and I was glad to be up there with them to enjoy it.
My mom didn't know at the time that she had cancer. I remember a phone conversation with her after she found out; she was contemplating an experimental treatment, not necessarily expecting it to cure her, but wanting to do her part for helping others; maybe her case would shed some light on how to treat people in the future.
I remember the conversation quite vividly. I was in my car, sitting in the parking lot of the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis. I remember her reminiscing about our trip to Itasca and how much it meant to her to spend that time with her family, gathered together in one room, playing games together like we used to do when we were kids. She told me that was one of the most special moments in her life, surrounded by her family; the grown-up versions of ourselves that we had all become.
That trip was ten years ago. I still find it hard to believe that much time has passed.
My mother never got to read my book. She read a few short stories I had written, always praising them, of course; the way only a mom can do.
I like to think she would have been proud of her son. I was never the successful one, the driven one. Maybe being the baby of the family, she protected me a little more. When I finished the book, I couldn't help but wonder what she would have thought of it. Her baby ... a novelist.
Someday we'll go back up to Itasca; maybe another family gathering, who knows. I have a feeling that when I'm back there, I will be just as nostalgic about that last trip as I will be about all the previous trips.
It's a strange feeling to feel nostalgic about nostalgia itself. It makes you feel like you're in the Twilight Zone. Maybe it's more like the Nostalgia Zone. No matter what you call it, it serves as yet another reminder of how quickly time whizzes by. And maybe that's why I love that place as much as I do; it freezes time. Both with its serenity and its ability to preserve a moment of my past to replay for me whenever I go back.
And I will go back. That much, I can promise you. I will go back.