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Features and Series
Around America: The Long Journey Home
By Mitch Traphagen
Jun 7, 2007, 22:43

Part 3 of a series

Like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, the simple water tower often points the way to the heart of a small town – as it does here in Skyline, Minn. Mitch Traphagen Photo
. – The nights are very dark in Claremont, S.D.  Since the grocery store closed, the Home Plate Café sells milk in cartons to save the residents a 15-mile drive to Groton for that basic staple.  No highway runs through town and few people visit the small island of buildings in the midst of farms and cattle.  It wasn’t always that way.

New Auburn, Wis., may be dying.  A few businesses remain open but more seem to be forever shuttered.  On those, the plywood covering the doors and windows has been up so long, the rotted wood already seems at home with the decaying buildings.

But then again, maybe it isn’t dying.  Young people gather in clumps at the Bridge Stop convenience store, marking their presence in clouds of strongly scented shampoo and cheap cologne along with the sounds of overexuberant chatter.  The town is still regenerating – new generations are still here to call this place home.

Claremont is regenerating, too.  A surprising number of kids wile away summer days playing baseball in the town park, which is bordered by small gardens of colorful flowers that grow easily in the rich soil.  Around town, people can be seen working on their homes, and even the vacant lots have been neatly mowed.

But will the kids stay?  If not, will they return?  The answers to those questions also provide the answer to whether the towns will survive.

A few of the world’s great cities can be found in the Midwest, but the heart of the region lies in the small towns that dot the map like so many stars in the night sky.  The soul of the region and, possibly, everything we’ve come to believe represents the good and noble of America can be found in these small towns.  Perhaps these flyover states provide the anchor necessary for the sometimes-adrift nightmares of urban sprawl being created on the coasts.

Mike Traphagen learned to run and ride a bike on the handful of streets that make up Claremont.  Along with his family, he moved to a bigger town, but still small, in the middle of nowhere on the prairie.  He graduated from high school, moved to a bigger town to attend college – and then came home again.

Like his father once did before him, he returned.

The school year is winding down in Worthington, Minn.  As with every graduating class, the high school seniors are absolutely certain that theirs is monumental – that somehow they staked a claim in the history of the school that no other class before them has ever staked.  Next year, it will be the same.

My brother, Mike Traphagen, at his school in the small town of Worthington, Minn. For 28 years he has helped thousands of young people find footing on the road to becoming adults. Mitch Traphagen Photo
My brother, Mike, taught these kids.  Perhaps in some cases, he taught their parents.  For 28 years, he has watched the most monumental senior classes ever walk out of school and into lives of their own.  He had a hand in the direction they are walking.  Over nearly three decades, that has amounted to thousands of kids.

Michael Perry went home to New Auburn.  He bought a house on Main Street and joined the volunteer fire department.  Eventually, he wrote a book titled Population: 485 in which he chronicled how he met his neighbors one siren at a time.  A large publishing house picked up the book and people bought it.  People, most of whom no doubt lived in cities and suburbs, bought a book telling a story of life in a small, insignificant town.

As soon as they sprouted wings, the baby boomers flew out of the nest.  In a way, they were only following the example set by their great-grandparents, who pushed west and created new lives where there was little life before.  But now, their new lives were in generic suburbs in which relationships between neighbors were fleeting.  Unlike what their forebears experienced, survival in the suburbs was easy – supermarkets and electronics stores were just down the street.  Unlike their forebears, their purpose was not simply to survive and, along with their neighbors, build something out of nothing.  Goals, which were crystal clear generations ago, were now unclear and questions about life began to mount.  For the first time ever, this generation has the luxury to ask the questions – and that is a very troublesome extravagance.

But perhaps many of the answers being sought could be found among the shuttered buildings on Main Street.  Perhaps people began buying Perry’s book not only to enjoy the story, but also to find out if it were possible to live without the retail supercenters that now dot the map like so many stars in the night sky.  Perhaps they were looking for answers to questions that snuck up on them shortly after yet another big screen television had been delivered to their home.

I am sentimental to a nauseating degree.  As such, I would have expected to feel an overwhelming sadness at walking through my now empty childhood home in the small town in the middle of nowhere.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I was happy for my mom – she was beginning a new life in another small town in a house on the same street as my sister.  She is on an adventure, and for that I am glad.  She is still young enough to enjoy it.

It was a wonderful place to grow up, but now it will be the stage for someone else’s life.  The buyers of the house have children – perhaps one day they, too, will have memories of building forts and sliding face first down the banks of Whiskey Ditch on a ski-bob on cold, dark winter nights with the sky so frozen-clear that it seems anything is possible.

I was fine with everything until I walked into the little, freestanding garage. Inside was a thick wood and oil smell that instantly transported me back to the day my dad built me a go-cart.  

And suddenly, he was there.  I could see him wearing a gray T-shirt and paint-splattered shoes, drilling holes for steering ropes on the wooden front axle.  I could see a younger me standing nearby, watching him with amazement – he knew everything and could do anything.  But I could also see in my young face that I lacked the wisdom to appreciate it all.  I also lacked the foresight to see that one day soon, my dad would be gone.

Like his father before him, my brother is an educator of the best kind – he is dedicated not to a career but to an ideal, that of teaching young people.  Working with kids is as much a part of him as breathing – it is simply what he does.

Mike is the Teacher of the Year in Worthington.  He appreciates the honor but is uncomfortable with the title.  “That’s not why I got into teaching,” he said.  He did it to make a difference in the lives of young people.  After 28 years, there are thousands of people out there, some now nearing middle age, who might all say he did just that.

During the Teacher of the Year ceremony, when his name was called, a woman in her 30s walked him to the stage holding his hand.  She told the audience that when she was in kindergarten, all the girls wanted to hold his hand when he came to their classroom to walk them to the gymnasium.

Downtown Claremont, S.D., stands like a small island of buildings among the farm fields. Mitch Traphagen Photo
I watched him at work.  On the faces of his students, I saw respect and admiration.  No one, not even in a big city, could possibly achieve more than that.  Perhaps some of those kids will return home someday.  And maybe their kids will congregate in a convenience store in clouds of scented shampoo and cheap cologne.

Briefly, the thought occurred to me that I no longer have a home to return to.  But then I realized that home isn’t a house from childhood, it’s a way of life.  To me, home is wherever you can get to know your neighbors, a place where people ask how you are doing and really want to know.  Home is something created through your own choices and your own conduct.  Home could be anywhere.

Back in Ruskin, Fla., in a still rural part of a county of more than a million people, 87-year-old Bill Russell had a big problem.  One of his cows, a cow that had recently given birth to a calf, had wandered away.  He found her trapped in a bog, up to her neck in the muck.  The cow was going to die.

As he ran off to look for something to save his cow, he came across his neighbor Sonja.  He told her about the cow.  She called her husband; he dropped what he was doing to come to Russell’s aid.  Sonja called other people, who all came running to help their neighbor.  The effort took five hours, and the bog claimed a few shoes of those working to help, but it didn’t claim the cow.

It was well after dark when Russell and his cow went home.

In the middle of New Auburn – on a block between Main Street and the volunteer fire department – is an old barn. That’s just how things are in a small town. Mitch Traphagen Photo

For more information about Michael Perry and his book Population: 485 click here for related story.

Click Here for Part One of Around America- Sailing Into The Past

Click Here for Part Two of Around America - From The Outside Looking In

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