Up to Fargo for my father’s 80th birthday. He looks 70 and acts 50.

The drive up was serene; no construction anywhere. I took Highway 10, which was the old route between the Cities and Fargo; it pierces a dozen small towns, each of which have their own character. Some have a solid contentment – the resorts and cabins feed a good economy, enough kids stay around after high school, and the downtown, while decades past its prime, still has a movie theater. If there’s a second floor, there might be something up there besides ghosts and rodents. When you stop at the Dairy Queen, you will be find a giggle of tween girls in the back chattering into cell phones; the new gas station has six kinds of coffee and the Wall Street Journal. You’re in the middle of civilization. Two minutes at 75 MPH, and you’re in the middle of nowhere. Which is how they like it, I imagine.

The road runs past some towns – instead of heading straight through, it skirts the edge as though this might be a place to avoid. What you see of the town looks sad and sullen and suspicious – a few buildings with the false square second floor of a backlot Western town, a barn that spent most of the latter 20th century collapsing, houses, homes with sagging porches. You think: well, the vampires got them all. Pity. There’s always a swinging yellow light by the sole intersection. You don’t slow down.

And then there are the in-between towns waiting to go one way or the other. Just enough of everything to keep some folks around. Maybe the consolidated high school won a state tourney in 1983 – if they did, there’ll be a sign announcing the fact, freshly painted every year. Maybe the Lions don’t meet on Tuesdays anymore, but if anyone wants to get the chapter going again, you’d find a guy who could still run a meeting from memory. A few empty storefronts – a restaurant that died when the Burger King up the road sucked all the money out of the street, an auto garage whose owner died and had no one lined up to take it. A few old houses with old ladies behind the curtains, sitting in rooms with a big ticking clock and an empty bird cage. A brick church with a well-kept boneyard, but no money left for the roof, not this year. You slow down to 40 – you’re supposed to go 30 – and you put yourself in the mind of a kid growing up here. This would be the drag on Saturday night. This would be the sort of street that would drive the clever away, and grind down the rest. Sure, you’d spend your life watching the day run away with the road to the west. On the other hand, it comes around again fresh each morning down the same highway. Even hangs over head for a while. There has to be a reason the day keeps coming back. Might as well stick around and see if I find it. (Update, sunset: not today.)

On one hand, there’s the sky:

On the other hand, there’s the world below:

We got in after five hours on the road, and drove to the Holiday Inn. It has a big water park, and Gnat likes to swim. She bounced on the bed, pretended to order room service, begged for a movie, then announced that she loved the Holiday Inn. As do all kids. Off to Grandpa’s.

It was a fine time; all of Dad’s friends & siblings were there, and you will be hard-pressed to find a more rambunctious & genial group of seniors. Dad got lots of Harley gear – gloves, a jacket, a trailer hitch cover, without which no self-respecting man can hold his head high; just thinking of all the naked trailer hitch covers out there fills you with shame. He went out to the garage and revved up the beast: ah, the lovely sound. Ah, the perfume of the exhaust. Gnat got to sit on the bike, but looked as though she feared it would rip through the garage door and take her off to Oz.

Inside for cake and coffee. The party ended at ten, as though by presidential decree, and the house emptied out. We helped wash up, chatted a while in the driveway, and noted with awe that the sky was still smeared with light at 10:30 PM. There’s something about a summer day on the prairie that makes everything loathe to let go.

They stood in the driveway and waved goodbye and I’m sure they didn’t go inside until our taillights turned the corner.

Back to the hotel. I got a drink in the bar, which had an excellent cover band playing enthusiastic versions of horrible shopworn songs no one needs ever hear again, and took Gnat to the arcade. It’s the only place where you can drink and drive without consequence. We played a racing game, both of us being very bad – I never brake, she oversteers – and between the two of us we lost every race. No matter. We walked around for a while marveling at the hubbub around the pool; the place was thick with teens, all walking in groups of threes, bumping into other groups of threes. (Three, apparently, is the magic teen girl number; there’s always someone to pick on, someone to suck up to.) Then to bed. The fan kept clicking, the same sound over and over again, like a morse code operator with a stutter; the toilet was in a ruminative mood. I didn’t sleep at all and woke to the lovely view of suburban commercial Fargo:

But that didn’t stop us from getting up and out and planting ourselves at the Breakfast Buffet. Good lord: the last time I saw expressions like that on creatures who moved with such unthinking slowness there was a nail gun and a chain saw waiting for them at the end of the chute. I had a pancake, for the first time in a while, and much in the bacon genre. Dad and Doris had showed up as well, and for once – for once – I beat him to the check. Hah!  You’re slowin’ down, old man!

We sat by the pool and watched Gnat swim, chatting about things until it was time to check out.  Back on the road. I had the state to myself for most of the trip, it seemed; things thickened up around St. Cloud, as people started coming back from the lakes. (The point of having a cabin up north, it seems, is to leave it early to beat the traffic. But now everyone’s trying to beat the traffic. So the beaters have become the new traffic, which another group will try to beat. Eventually people will just have cabins, but never go there, and content themselves with the knowledge that it exists.) We pulled in five and a half hours after saying goodbye, dragged in the bags, and looked around the house: still here. Back to normal life, then. I made some coffee, went out to the backyard and checked on the Oak Island Water Feature.

The main tank was down seven inches.

Back to normal life, indeed.