It had been a while, Ohio. Seven years, in fact.
Long enough ago that I still didn’t own a smartphone that time; how I managed to find my way in the era of printed-out directions is somewhat of a miracle. (Have I mentioned that I’m directionally challenged?)
But that time I had a co-pilot, a real-live friend going to the same place. This time, armed with Google Maps in the palm of my hand, I still managed to miss my exit; but Google – bless her heart – led me across unfamiliar country roads, through small towns and cornfields. Unfamiliar, that is, until I saw that sign – Welcome to Knox County.
I skirted Mount Vernon – the side I wasn’t as familiar with – skirted around it to Route 229. The hills, they started rising. My Oberlin cousins didn’t believe me when I said that Ohio is hilly – but here I was, climbing an incline that started off gently, and then rose again. My excitement rose with it, as I veered left at the 308 split, and left again into downtown Gambier, to begin my week-long summer camp for grownups.
My nostalgia swelled, as my stomach grumbled for one of two things: a market dog, or a Deli sandwich. My excitement deflated rapidly when I walked past two empty shells: The market was in the middle of moving across the street, and would not reopen during the entire week I was there; and the Deli was in even more of a state of disarray, as the the space had been stripped to begin renovations on that corner of the building. Perhaps a slightly less than auspicious start, but the fine (if humid) weather helped me stay undeterred as I checked in and set up camp in my dorm room. (There is something…strangely hilarious about staying in student housing as an adult, especially in student housing that did not exist during one’s original time on campus; I had a good chuckle at whoever – the architect, or lawyer, or both – decided that the windows should only open 6 inches, and then remembered what college was like.)
My nostalgia was challenged several more times over the course of the week. There is still a path through the middle of campus, and there are still adirondack chairs on many of the lawns. We sat around seminar tables and in auditoriums with our instructors. We hiked over trails through the neighboring farms, and hiked down a steeper trail to the aptly named Sunset Point on the Summer Solstice.
But things had changed, too – a new building here, a refurbished building there. I was able to find a few of my old classrooms, but none of my old dorm rooms – without a key card to enter the dorms, while I was sleeping in these new buildings. Mostly I was the one who had changed in the 7 years since I’d last visited, and in the 12 years since I’d last been on campus in a real way.
My food-nostalgia was easier to manage. We were given three meals a day in the cafeteria, but in a downstairs room that was vastly different – and better lit – than during our college days. My nostalgia was reaffirmed on the second morning, when I was greeted with – my inner-22-year-old jumped for joy – French Toast Sticks alongside the trays of bacon and scrambled eggs.
My initial disappointment in not finding my market dog or Deli sandwich was assuaged later in the week, when I “escaped” campus a few times into Mount Vernon, with lunch at our favorite Tex-Mex place (enchiladas – one beef and one chicken, with mole sauce on top and an almost obscene amount of melted cheese); and our favorite Chinese place (steamed dumplings, doughier than we recalled, and sesame beef – still huge pieces, covered in its slightly sweet and sticky sauce). The refried beans were much more delicious than I remembered; the sesame beef, slightly less so – but more due to a change in ownership, the lack of familiar faces (aside from my friend sitting across from me).
And during the week, I tried to reconcile my sense of nostalgic longing with the distance of 12 years since I’d truly interacted with this place. But my nostalgia week eventually came to an end, and I had to make my way back – over those same unfamiliar country roads – back into Columbus for one last evening. And here, my nostalgia was met with a sense of newness, in a neighborhood I didn’t know.
Once again with the help of Google Maps, I followed my feet first to a huge bookstore, the Book Loft – the kind of bookstore you get lost in for an hour, and have still only explored two corners of, and which I could have stayed in until they kicked me out. But my stomach eventually had other designs, and so I followed my feet (and Google Maps) through a park and up a few more blocks to the exact place I needed to be – a dive called Thurman’s Cafe. I sat at the bar and let the evening unfold – I ordered my burger, and chatted with the folks next to me, and the folks behind the bar. I fought my way through a massive, perfectly pink, perfectly seasoned cheeseburger with its side of spicy fries, while I watched the natural humor, the natural empathy, of the bartenders as they interacted with each other, with their patrons, and with their regulars; one of the bartenders, Kevin, told me he hardly ever remembers names, but would remember mine – and asked me if I knew the eponymous song by Joan Armatrading. I found, here, an odd sense of nostalgic longing – for a place I didn’t know, but wanted to. But I had to push on; I made my way back through the park, past a Shakespeare in the Park production of Pride and Prejudice, and back into my motel – my strange, literal-motor-hotel in the middle of a state capital.
The next morning, I knew I’d need coffee on the way to the airport; Google Maps had several suggestions near me, and so I meandered past a place called Skillet – the type of place that, especially on a Sunday, is crowded before it even opens. The mood was almost quite the opposite of Thurman’s, bordering on chic; but I once again greeted with warm, welcoming staff, and a steaming plate of biscuits with creamy brisket tip gravy, scrambled eggs on top, and perfect, oft-refilled coffee. I might not have gotten the same sense of longing in my last meal in Columbus, the same feeling I’d gotten in Thurman’s, or even in our Chinese restaurant back in Mount Vernon, but the warm coffee – and the warm sendoff from my server – was enough to get me on my way home.
I’m still not sure I reconciled the version of Ohio I’d known back then, with the version I experienced this time around; it was the same, but it was different, and I knew how to reminisce in the memories and still find the new, in what I had not yet discovered.
I never did end up getting that market dog, but my nostalgia was fed in other places – both old and new. It was a week of as Dave Matthews once put it, “she just goes stumbling through her memories” – but with a damn good burger in a damn fine place at the end of it.