In the pre-dawn light today, I saw a friend had posted a Facebook check-in from Scottsdale, Arizona. Not familiar with the restaurant name, I clicked the map and saw that it was less than a mile from the house where my parents had lived from the early 1970s until they died; she in 1997; he in 2001. Stretching and zooming on the Google map I browsed the now-unfamiliar road veins that litter the Valley all the way out to its mountainous borders.
Back in 1971, I sat in our house in Des Plaines, Illinois looking at another map of Scottsdale. I hated it already though in truth, I had no clue what I was looking at. What I did know was that the inked dot on Lincoln Drive marked the place where our new house was. In six months-time, smack in the middle of my senior year of high school, we would be packing everything we owned and moving out west. On the map of the dreaded destination my finger traced the nothing just a few blocks away from the new neighborhood. I remember feeling very much that my life, like the horrible place we were headed to, was also teetering on the edge of the world.
Beyond the little neighborhood surrounding the 82nd Way Cul-de-sac, was desert stretching out until it bumped up against the mountains that I could see in the distance from my second-floor room. A few blocks away you could rent a horse for $25 on the Pima Indian Reservation and ride all day. All the way up to Taliesin West nestled in the foothills of the McDowell’s, the only big road you crossed was Bell. It was so empty then that a car half a mile away could be heard; plenty of time to push into a gallop across the two lane pavement to the safety of the other side. Back then, names like Gainey and McCormick graced real working ranches with corrals and Drinkwater was Herb, the mayor.
I was furious that my father had bought a house so far out from everything. What mad voice had he listened to that told him to drag us out on the edge of the world? In the following years the landscape has changed as thousands have moved to the Valley. This morning, looking at the new roadmap it occurs to me that even I, a former Arizona tour-guide, might have a hard time finding my way around the tight web of highways and neighborhoods that jam pack every square inch of land where I used to hear the click of horseshoes touching rock.
The old map of the Scottsdale area , circa 1970s
That made me think about my father’s other choice of the house where I had sat in my glorious teenage angst holding the hated map to the “new” place out west. What was he listening to back in 1959 that inspired him to make a life on the edge of the northwest Chicago suburbs? The edge of the freaking world. One town over and forests gave way to farms. The wild plan to build a giant shopping center in the middle of nowhere and call it Woodfield held the same weight in my young mind as George Jetson’s flying car. Today, of course, you would need to enter an address in a Google search to locate that mall amidst the suburban sprawl. Was my father trying to get away from civilization through his choice of real estate or was he hoping other family would follow?
Which made me think of my grandfather, who crossed an ocean as a teenager, leaving the tiny Sicilian village of Gratteri for the bustling streets of 1905, Chicago. That same call my father had heard twice must have started in his own father. The call to push out and make a new home where you could breathe. The money my grandfather had saved working on the rail-yards was used to start a business and make a home in Melrose Park. Back then that was the edge of the local world to Chicagoan’s before farms yawned their way across Illinois to the Mississippi. Some of that rural-ness was still there in some form when I was a kid. I remember my grandfather making my dad stop the car on some dirt road and taking his pocket knife out to cut some mushrooms he had seen growing beneath a tree. He knew his plants and proudly cooked it up for us. Today, that would be a gourmet find. Back then it was Grandpa being weird again.
Tomorrow morning I’m heading out on a short road trip. Back to Chicago. Back to the city, now chock-a-block filled with a million souls and the ghosts of a thousand small businesses that rose and fell with disinterested younger generations. The new businesses that were built on their bones are also gone now and have been replaced again.
My son lives in the heart of the city; back to where my family’s Chicago story began. I’ll talk with him about the call I’m now hearing in my empty nest. It sounds like a sweet lullaby inviting me to follow a dream to the end of the Leelanau. You could say it’s the edge of the local world to me. There’s a little town up there where the buildings stop just a few blocks from Grand Traverse Bay. Beyond them the farms and vineyards stretch across the peninsula until they reach the other little towns that line the waters of Lake Michigan. In the middle of the town that’s singing to me, there’s a perfect business for sale and the promise of many new days in a place where I can breathe…and dream.
I hear it. More so, I can feel it; the pull of my heart needing to spend time in smaller places right now, before the rest of the world arrives and they change forever. I need to do this before the road maps need to be redrawn to accommodate the farm-turned neighborhoods and shopping centers that will inevitably arrive even into these quiet spaces. My dad would have loved this place. My grandfather, even more.
The timing is right and it feels like one of those decisions if left unmade will become a gnawing regret in time. I’m listening to the song that little town is singing to me while it’s still possible to tell someone to take a right at the apple orchard and look for the big red barn so they could find you without a GPS voice breaking the quiet of the drive. It should be now, before there is no one left in that new place who remembers the sound of morning birds rising in a field or a single car approaching from half a mile away.