A few weekends ago, I found myself in a car driving on familiar interstates taking me west and south. I felt the same excitement crossing over the Mississippi River (the best part of the trip), the same disdain at seeing the “Welcome to Iowa” sign and the crazy awesomeness of stopping at the I-80 Truck Stop – “the largest truck stop in the world.” Once upon a time, I had memorized every town and exit on these roads, nearly navigating them on auto-pilot. As the exits disappeared behind me in the rear view mirror, I knowingly smiled at towns called What Cheer, Amana and Dixon, just to name a few. These signs acknowledged me as an old friend, welcoming me back, whispering in the wind, “why have you been gone so long? Where have you been?”
I’ve been gone for more than ten years living elsewhere now, I silently replied.
I was a willing companion on this trip, always game to go anywhere, everywhere. The ultimate destination was Kansas City on the Missouri side by way of Des Moines, Iowa for my friend’s former roommate’s wedding.
For four years during college I called Des Moines home. I’d had a few friends from Kansas City and spent several enjoyable weekends there, visiting Worlds of Fun amusement park, the Renaissance Festival and haunted houses like The Beast.
I was intrigued to see my college campus and Des Moines again. In preparation for the trip, I Googled familiar restaurants and hangout spots including Stella’s Blue Sky Diner. Stella’s was a kitschy, 50s-style diner and quirky because of the way the wait staff served malts and shakes. They’d pour the creamy mix from a tin cup into a glass you held on your head. Or, if you were feeling a little more adventurous, you could lay on the formica floor, glass perched on your forehead and malt clumping into your glass from the waitress standing above you on a vinyl chair.
But Stella’s, like a few other places I’d once patronized are sadly shuttered. It made me kind of sad as I read this on Google. I guess I expected Stella to still be around, waiting for me.
Turning off I-80 for I-235 into the city of Des Moines itself, it felt strangely like coming back home.
I drove my friend around Des Moines, pointing out this place and that, telling stories here and there. The streets were all more or less familiar: more so to the 20-year old me and less so to the 30-year old me, like I was looking at the world in a haze through smudged glasses. Everything had changed: new buildings on this corner, old ones gone on that corner. How could I not expect the city to grow and change? It needed to, of course, just like I needed to move on after those four years had passed. Yet, I remembered it the way it was all those years ago, frozen in time. And I guess I expected it to be that way still.
The nightclub I used to frequent with my friends was still there. Everything there was (for the most part) exactly the same. Same smell, same mirror on the back hallway, same bathrooms, same familiar feel. The big change was how quiet it was for a Friday night. The place was always packed, but back then it was one of the few clubs in Des Moines. With a revitalized downtown, a Riverwalk and a nightlife district, I’m led to believe that business may have suffered some. I hope that it will remain there for years to come, and not fade away like Stella’s has done.
I wondered what it was like to go to school there now. Downtown Des Moines looked more exciting now. Maybe these kids were more at home than I was that first semester of freshman year; whereas I wondered if I’d made a mistake choosing to go to university in Des Moines and not Los Angeles or Chicago. How did I wind up here amongst the corn? I remember wondering what I’d gotten myself into as a I sat in my first Journalism class in Meredith Hall and a large handful of fellow students admitted that Des Moines was the biggest city they’d ever seen. Eventually, for better or for worse, Des Moines became my home.
Saturday morning as we said good-bye to Des Moines and drove on to Kansas City, nostalgia overwhelmed me. I stupidly thought I’d never fall victim to it. It was grandparents who were nostalgic as they reminisced about when the price of milk was only 25 cents and delivered by a milkman or how they had to walk to school in the wind, rain and snow, unlike us kids now who got to take a bus.
The past and memory is a deceptive and conniving convention. How we remember things is always markedly more perfect, lovely and flawless than how it was when we were actually living life in that moment. We are the directors of our memories, capturing times and moments in our lives when we may have been younger, more vibrant and the world was full of possibility…or at least, that’s how it seems to us now, in our mind’s eye.