By Emily Erickson
I woke up and peeled my face off the slightly damp pillow. The blankets I nestled under fell just a bit heavier than usual on my body. The windows were studded with beads of moisture against a foggy backdrop of glass. Everything in the converted-for-sleeping van was subtly accented with moisture.
Using the edge of a blanket, I wiped the nearest window clear of its condensation and peered outside. A river babbled below a canopy of trees that hardlined into a rolling field. Above the field was supple grass dotted with black-and-white cows, lazily meandering over their hillside breakfast. Atop the whole scene was a big red barn, its giant silos towering like sentries over a beloved castle. The scene was quintessentially Wisconsin, and I was home.
Two weeks ago, my guy and I set our sights east, embarking on the first leg of our roundabout road trip from Idaho to Wisconsin to Colorado and back. Fuel stops, coffee refills and the pavement under our wheels took us from the rolling mountains of North Idaho to the sage trees and cracked earth of South Dakota and, finally, the seas of trees and lake-speckled countryside of Wisconsin.
More poignant than the change of scenery in my home state — with its cheese stores, Packers insignia and family farms at every turn — was the flood of emotions and memories I experienced with every stop on our tour. With each former “home” we visited, I was reintroduced to the version of myself that lived there, confronted with the differences in the person I am today.
My first encounter with a former self occured when we stopped at the site of my alma mater, a polished little town just outside of Green Bay. Driving past the campus, I saw the old brick-and-vine-covered buildings along the riverbank — exactly as they were years ago.
Approaching the library, my favorite building on campus, my eyes instinctively flicked up to the third floor, landing on a single east-facing window. In it, I could almost see my messy blonde hair and glowing face, turned to catch the morning light. This version of me would have been in my library perch for hours, even though the sun had just started to rise. My eyes would have been tired but sparkling with the anticipation of an impending due date.
I almost watched my former fingers blaze over the keyboard, passionately applying a social theory to some systemic injustice, only breaking to twirl the single, hidden dreadlock between my thumb and forefinger.
After this former me left the library, she’d spend hours daydreaming about what mountain town she’d live in during the summer, apathetic to her current surroundings. This disposition of perpetually reaching for a different life was one by which this me defined herself. College Emily was willful, passionate, restless and eager.
The next former self to emerge on our journey was in the 1,000-person town in which I grew up: Amherst. As we braked at the single four-way intersection in the town center, I examined the rows of buildings lining the small streets. I was intrigued by the facades I recognized from my childhood, wondering if they’d always had chipped paint and rusty doors. Even more intriguing were the buildings that had new faces, standing as testaments of change within a place I considered constant.
Speeding down the hill on a pink and blue bike was Childhood Emily, clutching a napkin-wrapped donut purchased with quarters from the grocery store bakery. She was pedaling hard to catch up with her older brother and sister, who were yelling “slow poke” over their shoulders. They were all cruising the town looking for packs of other neighborhood kids to accompany their made up games, all before finding someone’s dinner table to join before the 6 o’clock whistle.
This version of me had scraped knees and dirty hands, preferred making stick forts to watching TV, could get lost in any book with fantastical characters and would run up the street when her parents got in a fight. Childhood Emily was scrappy, creative, sensitive and resourceful.
Now, leaving Wisconsin and entering the next leg of our journey, I understand that nostalgia is often the acknowledgement of our former selves by current ones. Current Emily is still scrappy, eager and sensitive, but, resourceful, creative and passionate, too. I’m shaped by the lives I led in the past, gaining new facets of personality with each closing and opening chapter.
This nostalgia, spurred by reflections on a visit home, cannot only act as a companion of memories gone by, but a marker for just how far I’ve come.
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