A sign boasted “POPULATION: 25,501” if you took exit 132 off Highway 41. It hadn’t been updated since 2010. Neenah was growing slightly each year.
If you continued down Main Street, you’d run smack-dab into one of the oldest parts of the city. Bar and grill restaurants would slowly give way to million-dollar mansions on East Wisconsin Avenue if you continued towards Lake Winnebago.
Across the street at Riverside Park, kids would dance in the fountain during the hot summer months. Winter brought subzero temperatures. A few brave souls would walk the winding paths, breath visible in the bitter air, admiring the ethereal beauty of the frozen ice shoves.
My family would sometimes parade our boat around the marina in June, gliding softly through the water. Sailboats bobbed lazily, gently straining against their buoys. The hospital stood proudly on the shore, proclaiming the name of a wealthy businessman’s daughter.
I had been born there in 1992. I left in 2016.
When I came home from college for the summer, I’d aimlessly drive down the country roads. At about 6pm, I knew the streets would become bathed in gold light.
The sky seemed bigger back home. It always did.
Cornfields blurred on either side of my Ford Fusion. Sunlight streamed through the windows, the AC blasting, my family’s newly acquired golden retriever sitting shotgun. Her loose hair swirled around the car.
I turned up the radio. 101.1 FM spun an overplayed hit from a few summers ago. I didn’t care. I turned up the volume anyway. I loved my hometown.
I couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else.
I left for New York in the summer of 2011. The night before, my best friend dropped me off at my house. We spent twenty minutes crying, sitting in her Chevy Impala on my driveway.
Will you come visit me? Yes. Let’s keep in touch. Of course! Volleyball will be weird without you. I knowwww. Let me know if you meet any boys! Ugh, same for you. I hope.
Tears mingled with watery smiles.
I had a long trip ahead of me, in both distance and maturity.
I’d return the next summer a vaguely different person, but I had no indication of this while I sobbed and embraced my friend.
We’d spent nearly every day together from Junior year until now. After college started, our days together were few and far between.
But every time we got back in touch, it was like we’d never left our hometown.
In Wisconsin, the horizon line is finite.
Upstate New York is different.
Mountains burst through the soil, boldly reaching to the heavens. Clouds often tangle themselves within the trees; firmament interlacing with earth.
What had seemed so far out of reach in Wisconsin was now within grasp. I felt as though I could touch the sky.
Senior year of high school finally arrived.
Let’s get a picture of the Resch Center and hang it up in the team room. Yeah, then we can tape it up on the wall as motivation for the State Tournament. I don’t think the underclassmen get how badly we want this. It’s our last year, we just have to beat Fondy. I’ll see if I can find a picture. Sounds good. I’ll get tape. What time is practice again? It’s at four-thirty. I’ll count the volleyballs to make sure we have them all before we do dynamic warm up.
The photo of the Resch Center never made it up in the team room that year.
It was my fourth year on Varsity and we had a young squad. Four seniors. Our libero left the year before to play in the Big East Conference.
We practiced Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school. Matches were on Tuesday and Thursday nights at 7:30pm. Occasionally, we’d have weekend tournaments.
The dedication was there. We had heart.
I wore my jersey with pride. Rocket red and white.
R, R-O, R-O-C-K. K, K-E, K-E-T-S.
My parents belted out the same cheer a couple decades before me. My mom had been in pom-poms. Class of ‘85. My dad probably skipped out on school assemblies to go burn rubber in the senior parking lot. Class of ‘80.
I picked the number thirteen freshman year. I had last dibs. The jersey was far too big for me, but I was ecstatic. I was the first freshman to make varsity under the head coach who had taken over the program in 1998.
We didn’t make it to the state tournament senior year. Our rival, Fond du Lac, won in four games. I’d never made it beyond sectional finals, the last step before the state tournament.
I didn’t cry. We had come so close.
While one athletic career ended, a new one would begin.
Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” blared. Fans heckled me as I warmed up in the harsh light of Rec Hall.
Bright white banners hung limply above, undisturbed by the excitement below. Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Ohio State…
The crowd rose, roaring in approval as the number one seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament jogged in.
Our coach told us not to give Penn State the satisfaction of watching them warm up. But it was impossible. They were mechanical. It was everything we aspired to be.
And they had no idea who the hell we were.
Binghamton? Losing record. Must be an automatic bid.
I now wore number three across my back and chest. Number thirteen had already been taken. And green, I decided, was so not my color.
Two years later, I fixed that very statement across my graduation cap.
I had that Binghamton Bearcat pride, but I was still a Neenah Rocket at heart. My small town pride permeated who I was and how I identified my actions.
Do you live next to a farm? Yeah, within walking distance. I bet you go cow-tipping in your spare time. Oh, all the time. Do you like cheese? Cheese curds are the best.
I took a deep, shaky, breath and listened as the Penn State’s starting lineup was called.
I still went to basketball games with my parents and siblings when I returned home for winter break. My brother had been on Varsity and could dunk. My sister joined me on the volleyball team her sophomore year. Teachers knew my family and called us by our last name.
It would get confusing when we all joined track that spring.
Running was not my gig. That was fine. I remembered liking high jump in middle school and decided to give it a try my final year of high school.
That June, I made the lateral trek across the state to La Crosse for Track and Field State Finals.
For the last time, I wore my Rocket uniform. A small Neenah “N” was embroidered onto my shorts. High jump offered a low-pressure alternative to volleyball.
I finished 7th.
Not bad for joining the team a few months prior.
The people are just different out east. How so? I don’t know…they just are. I’ve heard the people in Midwest are nicer. Yeah, that’s true in some ways. Is Wisconsin west of the Mississippi? Did you really just ask that? Yeah. It’s east of the Mississippi. Wow. Is it like Fargo? What? The show. Is it like the show Fargo? That took place in North Dakota. Oh.
Nearly everyone had access to a boat at home. Either you did, your friend did, or a friend of a friend did.
Minnesota prides themselves for being the “land of a thousand lakes”. Wisconsin has thousands more.
I grew up around the water and learned to swim at a young age. My dad taught my siblings and I how to sail and would occasionally let us steer our power boat through slow no wake zones. We’d later brag to our friends.
While at a family friend’s cottage, I pulled our Sunfish sailboat back to shore after the wind died out in the middle of the lake.
Though our parents could’ve easily tugged us back to the dock, I insisted. I tied a small knot around the clip of my life jacket and steadily sliced my arms and legs through the clear water. My friends cheered me on from the cockpit.
Summer days were often spent on the lake. Any lake. We’d go tubing, water skiing, fishing, and swimming for hours until the sun began to sink behind the trees. Slightly sunburnt and tired from the day, we’d plop into folding chairs by the fire at night, stuffing our faces with walking tacos.
If we were lucky, our parents would let us stay up late playing Ghost in the Graveyard or Kick the Can. After we were hushed into silence, we’d lie on our backs, trying to spot satellites and shooting stars.
Miles away from city lights, we could easily the detail of the Milky Way. I taught myself to recognize the Little Dipper, Big Dipper, and Orion’s Belt.
I could still recall the constellations nine years later as I drifted quietly in Round Lake. Surrounded by the Adirondack Mountains, I gazed up at the night sky. Some of my innocence had been lost since I’d left Wisconsin. Slightly drunk, my hands fanned out beside me to keep me afloat in water. The lake reflected the heavens overhead.
I was in a trance. Though I’d changed in remarkable ways over the last decade, Orion’s belt still glittered above me, unchanged.
Tears trailed down my cheeks silently into the black water.
I had never felt so infinite.
It was the perfect time to leave.
A sign proclaimed, “POPULATION: 179,154” once I hit Interstate 44 in North Providence. I didn’t remember seeing this sign last time I visited in 2011.
I continued on 44, stealing glances around me.
Urban. An unfamiliar skyline reached to a hazy stretch of sky in front of me. A left, a right, and one last left.
Jittery, I finally parked my Ford Escape and vault myself eagerly out onto the hot pavement.
I left my hometown in 2016. I started my new life that same year.
The more I return home, the more I accept that I’ve outgrown Neenah.
I pass my high school, remembering the times I roamed the hallways during ten minute passing periods. I ran sprints on the track out back and had soccer tryouts on the field scores of feet away. I walked across the stage in the Ron Einerson Fieldhouse for graduation like my parents before me. Class of ‘11.
The cornfields are still there too. They remain unchanged, much like the constellations that light the night sky, no matter where I am.
I’ll always call it my hometown.