Travel north from Minneapolis on Interstate 35. Past Forest Lake, past North Branch—
suburbs become exurbs. Past Grantsburg, as the houses push further apart until they disappear into open fields and pine groves. Past Pine City, past the crazy farmer whose hand-painted billboards of dogs pissing on the French, Mexican, and United Nations flags jut like ignorant totems from his fence-line.
Take the exit for Hinckley. Turn right—you are now headed east on Fire Monument Road; State Highway 48; Pine County, Minnesota. Just after the Tobies Restaurant/Bakery complex and the gas station and Hardees/Burger King/Dairy Queen/Taco Bell fast-food mini-mall that barnacles this freeway exit, you drive past the Rose Hill Cemetery on the right. Your father’s father is buried there. Next is another cemetery on the left, the Lutheran Memorial Cemetery, dominated by the giant obelisk monument to the 418 people killed in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, during which scattered fires, smoldering through that drought-ridden summer, united into a firestorm that reached 1000 degrees and reduced 420 square miles to cinder. It was the second-deadliest fire in Minnesota history—and it was this fire that turned the pine forests into the farmland that your great-grandfathers settled.
Now, pass the Ford Dealership on the right—the first sign Hinckley’s transformation two decades ago from a sleepy little town of 980 residents to the Vegas of Minnesota. Atlantic City? Well, maybe the Laughlin of Minnesota.
Now pass Lady Luck Drive—the entrance to the Grand Casino Hinckley R.V. Lot. This is where your father stays when he makes his semi-annual R.V. excursions down from Alaska to the lower Forty-Eight. Past Grand Casino Hinckley, bane of your country relatives’ existence, the weekend casino searchlights strafing the formerly dark, peaceful night skies, Hinckley’s sleepy Main Street now pocked with pawnshops.
Directly across Highway 48 from Grand Casino Hinckley is First Presbyterian Church, built after Grand Casino Hinckley, perhaps to lure broken gamblers to The Lord, where in 2007 you delivered the eulogy for your mother’s mother.
Past the God and gambling complex the sprawl dies back, aspen and pine trees crowd up to the edge of the road, filtering the sunlight in mesmerizing, strobe shadows across the two-lane highway. A mile further, to your left, the road to an uncle’s former home, a log cabin house with an open great room and stone fireplace. The Thanksgivings of 1984 through 1986 were held here, where you and your fellow city cousin became once-a-year, teenage pool sharks, leaning over the table in the basement.
Now, pass a turnoff on the right, the entrance to the former home of a dead aunt, gone three years now from this well-manicured swath cut out of the woods, anchored in the center by her doublewide trailer. Now, second driveway after that – your aunt’s former homestead – a dairy farm now run by her son, the place where your city cousin’s dog was shot after he’d been given away to this country uncle.
Now, on the left, a wide clearing, a field of clover, the plot of land your father’s father farmed after your father rejected – via letter from boot camp in 1968 – the original family homestead. Your grandfather sold his ancestral farm and then leased this lesser land, moving a singlewide trailer onto it after burning your father’s possessions and telling him he had nothing to come home for. This sad little trailer of your childhood visits, choking on the smoky air as your evil step-grandmother coughed and wheezed her way through three packs a day. The single-wide burned to the ground in 2006, eighteen years past the expiration date, fifteen years after your grandfather’s death, fifteen years after your step-grandmother’s children looted the place upon hearing of his passing, stealing your one promised inheritance: a Japanese officer’s sword your grandfather returned with from the Pacific. Your grandfather’s corrugated steel garage still stands.
Next on your right, a bizarrely symmetrical grove of pine trees planted in 1961 by your father’s father as part of the land-reclamation project that became the St. Croix State Park. The now sixty-foot spires laid out in a perfect grid—your grandfather dropping the seedlings from the flatbed trailer into the mesh of pre-dug holes, your father following behind on his hands and knees, tamping the dirt tight around the future.
If you stay on Highway 48 for another twenty miles, you will cross the Saint Croix River into the little shit-town of Danbury, Wisconsin, where you will find the house that your step-grandmother moved into after your grandfather’s death, the house she lived in until 2003, when an acquaintance of her grandson—in an Oxycontin robbery gone bad—killed her with a nail-gun to the head.
But you are not going to Wisconsin. Your history is in Minnesota.
Take a left at the bottom of a slow sweeping hill onto County Road 138. Your mother and father were born in close proximity, growing up neighbors on farms bisected by this road when it was nameless rutted gravel. In the visits of your youth, the comings-and-goings of everyone who lived along the way were announced by the crunching stone and dust-cloud trails. The road was paved in 2006, by decree of Pine County—the blacktop creeping further into the countryside like the lava of civilization, permanently stamping the need for efficiency of travel.
The first left on the newly paved road is your maternal grandparent’s house. Your grandmother has been gone from this house for ten years, gone from this earth for seven, your grandfather proceeding her into the great unknown back in 1991, back when you had barely crossed the threshold into adulthood. Your grandfather had this modest one-level house built into a hill on the southeast corner of his 320 acres after he sold the farm to his oldest son. Your grandfather poured the slab for the garage himself. You remember that slab because of the frog holocaust of 1982, when your grandfather, working after dark, left a web of ragged footprints in the shape of his size eleven boots, crisscrossing the recently cured concrete, footprints comprised of that spring’s dime-sized frogs which, having finally lost their tadpole tails, had emerged from the pond and were migrating en-masse across the property.
Continue up this road to the adjacent farms your mother and father grew up on, where the two families merged. There is a sagging fence-line—weathered wood and rusted barbed wire—that forms the border between these two clans. This is where you begin.
KIRK WISLAND hails originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. After stops along the way in Tucson, AZ (MFA), Ventura, CA (Beach Bum Writing Tutor), and Houston, TX (Adjunct Bliss), he landed in Athens, Ohio, where he is currently pursuing his PhD in Creative Nonfiction. His work is dispersed across print and internet, and has most recently won the Iron Horse Single Author Chapbook Prize. (@KirkWisland)