Long Way Home

“Forgive me pretty baby, but I always take the long way home” – Tom Waits

My father used to pick my brother, sister and I up every other weekend for the four-plus hour trek to his little rental house on an abandoned farm in Park Rapids, MN. He would pull into our four-bedroom suburban home in his dark blue two-door Ford Festiva (still remember the buzz that little piece of tin made in reverse – nnnnnnnnnnnnnn!) and the three of us would pile in for the long haul up North, probably arguing over who would ride up front. I mostly just wanted to tune out the world with the help of my Discman and the latest Green Day record, so the front seat was not a concern of mine.

Anyway, he always took the long way to Park Rapids, or as he often called it, “The Road Less Traveled,” or so as I remember.

As a kid, you really have no say in the route you take to any given destination. Heck, I thought his way was the only way up to Park Rapids from the Chisago Lakes Area, and when I was afforded a driver’s license I took this exact same route, always weary I would get lost, but never did. So many turns and highways to remember! It was not until the advent of maybe Google Maps or a $4.95 McNally’s Road Atlas from Target that I realized you could cut the trip by about 45 minutes by making a left turn here or a right turn there.

What was my father thinking?

He knew exactly what he was doing and I remember those drives vividly. There was never much traffic, but you had to sneak through a dozen or so towns to get to Park Rapids, slowing the pace substantially. The most electrifying part of the journey was when we had to wrap around Mille Lacs Lake (The Walleye Capital of the World!) – this took a solid 30 minutes, my father’s favorite part, eventually becoming mine as well, likely the only reason he took the “long way.” It was half an hour of pure Northern Minnesota beauty – the road hugging the massive lake, you’d often see families out for picnics or young children braving the lake’s frigid waters, as the wake from the tourists’ boats splashed against the shore. Maybe a fisherman would be casting off, hoping for the evening’s catch. We’d often stop for lunch on the way home in the small town of Garrison right on the lakeshore to scarf down a couple sandwiches my grandmother had made the morning before. My father did not have much money back then, but he never, ever did miss a weekend.

The long way home. It is a part of me. Always will be. It is a time to clear your thoughts and to focus on nothing but the highway or bike path or sidewalk or train track ahead – possibly catch a good tune here and there.

Recently, I have been spinning the Tom Waits’ song “Long Way Home” on a near daily basis. Having only heard two of his records, I am no Tom Waits expert, but this has to be one of the best songs he has ever written.

This song makes all those endless JR Local Train station waits and train rides bearable and even enjoyable (as if they are not the best thing anyway!).

“Money’s just something you throw off the back of a train”

It makes the 20-minute walk from the train station to the apartment door more memorable than putting your left foot in front of your right foot 400 times over.

“Well I stumbled in the darkness, I’m lost and alone”

It makes the breathtakingly dark night-drive around the entire perimeter of Suo-Oshima Island seem like a dream in and of itself. Was that real? It was.

“Let’s go out past the party lights, where we can finally be alone, come with me, together we can take the long way home”

And it makes all those drives to and from that little farm house a magical memory.

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