Behind me is the home in which I spent much of my childhood. The night before, twenty-some people and a recently-neutered great dane crammed into the living room and pawed open presents. I’m the last guest to leave.
Before me is a four-hour drive down to the Twin Cities and out beyond the St. Croix River. Christmas morning for me is the type your car needs warming for. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Tom Chiarella once said, “A man loves driving alone most of all.” At least one man agrees.
From the moment I back out of the driveway, it will be approximately 35 miles before I can see the surface I’m driving on. Until then, I’ve the company of the Electric Area radio station (the only one not playing Christmas music) and Highway 23 – a twisting asphalt Jezebel who gets at least a cross or two pounded into her shoulders each year.
This is the easy part. This is the part I enjoy most.
I ease my chariot over a hilly curve and coast into Pine County. It’s snowing, but lightly. The first town I encounter is one of Minnesota’s most anonymous. The highway is its anthill top and a dozen dark, spooky dirt roads wind off into the dark. No pop sign for the town and no name sign for the bar, but the town is Nickerson and the bar is named Nickerson Bar – why not just name it what it is, right? It’s a dark red shed with a Bud Light banner nailed to its face and what appears to be a three-room hotel beside it.
Holyoke used to have a bar, The Hitching Post, but some wacko burned it down a few years back. I had heard whispers about somebody buying the land and rebuilding it, but the site offers no evidence of that.
Over the next half-hour or so I pass through Duquette; home of the Duquette Bar and the only store between Askov and Wrenshall; Kerrick, home to
74 65 people, the Kerrick Bar, and the morbid shell of a Mobil shop; and Bruno, home to 102 folks and the Bear’s Den Bar. I bet nobody carries a gun in that place.
My radio is pumping me with triumphant, conquering beats as I pass through these dots. The music charges me for an end-game boss fight, but gives me one old man shoveling his driveway instead. No saber-clashing; the old man looks at my car like it’s a flying turd and turns back to his driveway. Otherwise, a man is no more alone than he is on this highway on this morning – and I love it!
Askov, home to 342 folks and a high school, is the final town. I take its turns gently, drop into a long valley over the Kettle River, rise out and deposit myself onto I-35.
I merge onto the Interstate and the hard part, the part I do not so much enjoy, begins.
I have a moral shortcoming.
Traffic slows about a mile before Mora when a line of cars parked alongside the highway piques curiosities. In the median is a beige van on its side, front end smoking like George Burns. Cars are pulled over off both lanes with people tottering like penguins back and forth between them. A man stands shin-deep in snow by the van, with a small child propped on his forearm like a bag of shingles. Nobody looks hurt. I’m still trying to calculate my worth as a helper when I’m past the scene.
“There are a lot of people there already,” I tell myself. “Too many cooks.” I approach the Mora exit – I could have doubled back, driven a mile, and been back there. I creep into the slow lane, I feel my car downshift, but I keep going.
“Everyone was taken care of,” I tell myself. “What could I have done but stand there?”
But that’s just it. I’ll never know what I could have done, on Christmas no less. It gnaws at my insides for the next 60 miles or so. It still kind of does.
Along the next 80 or so miles, I see plenty of people worth a little Christmas pity. It’s the “I am despair” scene in Wishmaster (Start at 2:20, don’t do it at work), set on a frigid freeway. An empty car sits in the median, facing the lane it had been driving in. A few minutes later, I watch a crossover lose control in the other lane and fender-bangs the shoulder cords. Its back onto the highway and drives off like nothing happened. A rear-ender and his victim are exchanging un-pleasantries a few miles down. Merriness levels are getting negatively adjusted on a good many Christmases, but nothing bad has ever happened to me on I-35 and nothing does today.
I exit onto 694 and plunge into a one last irritation. Four – FOUR! – snowplows are marching down the highway, blocking every lane, roof lights flickering in frenzy. Two of them are trailing behind with their plows disengaged. At best, it’s a demonstration of men being paid $60 an hour with nobody checking efficiency; at worst, someone’s getting pulled out of a driver’s seat and beaten on Christmas.
This part isn’t exciting. I go 45, then I go 20, then I maybe go 30. I hear a loud thwack of a salt rock smacking my windshield, and go back to my caffeinated house beats. The trucks eventually disperse, and I pull unceremoniously into my Lego-block townhome complex.
I’m not done with my drive yet, but I need this to be a trip from Holyoke to Woodbury with a trip from Woodbury to Hudson later; otherwise, I’ll be a cantankerous lot and Hudson will send me back for credit.
I think about pulling into the garage but I don’t. I think about taking a nap but I don’t. I take a piping hot shower with my own soaps, and loaf around on the couch for an hour.