Two weeks ago a friend and I took a bike trip. I bought a book—Road Biking Minnesota—so we drove up to Willmar, Minnesota, the place where I was born and lived until the 6th grade. I’ve been back many times but this time felt different. We stopped in front of the address where my old house used to be, it burned down years ago but I noticed my old tree house still hanging on in the back yard. I saw the tether pole my dad put into the ground, and the old cistern on which I would line up my Star Wars action figures. Funny how taking the time to look at a place evokes feelings that seemed long gone. It was as if I could see the 7-year-old me standing on the hill, looking back at me suspiciously.
There’s a difference between driving and biking that isn’t quite as obvious as it sounds. You see the landscape differently; it allows you to stop at places you would normally drive by. Riding the back roads I pointed out farm houses, lakes, and parks. We stopped at the old country church I attended, where my grandparents and great grandparents are buried. Walking through the cemetery I was struck by the names I recognized, each with their own story. Sixteen year old Dale who was struck by a bus and killed while riding his bike on the highway. Casper and Selma, my great grandparents, who would have us over to eat freshly baked buns. My grandpa Virgil, who I don’t really remember – he died a few days after my 5th birthday party, and my grandma “seal” as we called her because none of us could say Lucille. As kids we would play in the cemetery after church, running between the stones, not thinking much about the people buried there. Now, I stopped and lingered at each stone, trying to make a connection.
Riding around Willmar we stopped in front of what used to be my grandpa and grandma Lief’s house. A hispanic family now lives there, which is ironic, because my grandpa didn’t like “Mexicans” very much. The night ended with a pizza at Jake’s Pizza, the local pizza joint. The downtown looked as I remembered it, only much more global. The Northern European vibe had given way to an African ethos. Somali grocery stores and business lined the street bustling with vibrant colors and woman dressed in long flowing muslim attire. The pizza was great—exactly as I remember it.
As protestants we’re not always good at recognizing the spirituality of place. The Reformed folk I live with tend to be more pragmatic and much less sentimental. The old always gives way to the new—it’s the way things go, and there’s not much use fighting it. Things change, people change, and places change—it’s best to just go with the flow. Yet, I found my self deeply moved by the places we visited. I could smell the lilac bushes on my grandma Seal’s yard, I could see the do-it-yourself railings that helped my grandpa Lief slowly meander out of the front door, a cane in each hand as he walked across the driveway to the garage where he would bullshit the day away. I could see my great grandma Selma taking the buns out of the oven, I could almost taste the buttery gooey goodness as I scarfed down as many as could get away with. All of these places seemed haunted, in a good way of course; haunted with the presence of people who I didn’t know I missed as much as I do. Maybe it was the exercise, maybe it was the beautiful weather, maybe it was breathing the lake scented air—whatever it was I felt my body relax and my soul rest. Praying with our feet, someone recently described it.