Approaching Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport from the east, the plane descends over the green fields of Wisconsin and the St. Croix River into Minnesota, just above the farm in Denmark Township where my mother spent happy summer days visiting her sister Margaret—snapshots of girls in white summer dresses standing, holding their bicycles, Grace and Elsie and Ina squinting in the bright 1934 sunlight—and passes south of downtown St. Paul and the gleam of steel rails that carried Dad in the mail car of the Empire Builder departing Union Depot for Seattle, a .38 snub-nosed revolver on his hip, and past the cathedral near where I now live on a street of old stone mausoleums and the hospital where I walked in one day and said, “I think I’m having a stroke” (and I was), and we bank over Mendota, where back in my drinking days I hung out in a club devoted to New Orleans jazz and heard the great Billie and DeDe Pierce, and Willie and Percy Humphrey, and we come in low over the Minnesota River and as the plane touches down on the runway, I can see the hill where I used to park in a car with a girl and watch planes land and also make out, back in the days of the front seat when two people could get involved with each other in thrilling ways. A one-minute flight into the past, and if we’d landed from the north, there’d be more.
There’s a newer north-south runway, and on that approach I don’t recognize a thing. It’s all road tangle and malls, small and large, and we descend below 5,000 feet, and still I can’t get my bearings—it could be the outskirts of Dallas or Tangier—and I start to feel I’ve lost my place in the world. I was born here. I’m 71 years old. I’ve lived most of my life here. I refuse to use a GPS here. And it is distressing to come home and not know where I am. But driving east from the airport, there is the Mississippi, and I am reoriented.
My grandma Dora Keillor was riding in my dad’s car one winter day in 1957 when the car spun out of control on an icy highway and did a doughnut or two and stopped, still on the road. Grandma didn’t cry out; she looked straight ahead out the windshield. “John,” she said, “which way is north?” I share that need for clarity. When a man has lived in one place so long, he takes comfort in landmarks. The State Theater, the Basilica of St. Mary, the Grain Belt beer sign on Hennepin. I will go out of my way to cruise by the white tower of the horticulture building at the state fairgrounds and the grandstand and the remains of the racetrack where auto thrill-show drivers raced late-model Fords off ramps and through flaming hoops and a woman in a spangly suit dived from a high tower into a water tank. When Northwestern National Bank was sold to a giant chain, whose brass decided to do away with the beloved Weatherball (“When the Weatherball is white, colder weather is in sight”), it was like a death in the family.