Socks and pillows.

As I settle ungracefully into being a full-fledged fortysomething, I have decided some things are worth splurging. (BTW: How fun is the word splurging … say it aloud. Do it.) Everyone has their certain things for which they are willing to pay top dollar. Our things, currently, are nicer pillows and higher quality socks.

About a decade ago, Brian and Linda Knudsen at Plymouth Shoe Store in downtown Albert LeaI introduced me to Smartwool. I can wear them numerous days in a row, in all conditions warm or cold, and they don’t stink. That’s impressive.

When we moved overseas last fall, a small part of the motivation was to pay down some of the debt we’d accrued. Of course, in order to do that we knew we’d have to avoid spending more just because we were making more. But we decided nicer pillows was an exception, as we were both waking up sore in the U.S., despite a fairly new bed. So we bought new pillows.

These are still IKEA pillows, mind you, nothing too highbrow. Mostly, we just splurged on more of them. Watching my wife be pregnant twice, I learned the trick of a pillow beneath your legs. I’m shaped like I’m permanently pregnant, so I figured I’d try it. Me likey.

But the reason I bring up pillows is because people so often associate where you lay your head at night with one of the most important words in the English language: Home.

Home is …

Home is where you lay your head at night. That’s the utilitarian answer. And it sounds much better than the cheesy, cliched Hallmark card phrase “Home is where the heart is.” Sigh.

But, for me and certainly many others, home is more of a combination of things, including but not limited to: 1) Sights; 2) Smells; 3) A place that brings an instant sense of calm to your body.

For some, the home or location they grew up in doesn’t bring them calm, so I say that’s not their home. That’s a house, a structure, a cover from the wind and rain. That’s important, but it’s not a home. I happen to call myself lucky, as I love the place I grew up.

With that said, I consider La Crosse, WI, a home, too, a place I knew almost nothing about until I was 25 years old. Fifteen years ago this month, my wife Amanda and I met in La Crosse, WI, one of the midwest’s best kept secrets. I definitely feel that sense of calm mentioned earlier when I drive down the steep road that hugs the west side of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota and cross over into Coulee Region and Grandad’s Bluff comes into view.

Sights and smells

We returned recently from a bucket list trip to Cairo, Egypt, back to our compound villa in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. We were gone six days, and the morning after our return, as I stood on our front stoop and smelled the rows of flowers lining our walks, and the many other ambient smells of the compound, I thought “This smells like home.”

I hopped in the car to run errands. We purchased the car just a few months ago. It’s a 2008 Nissan Pathfinder. It’s been kept in good shape by previous expat owners, and I truly enjoy driving it, certainly more so than the Chrysler minivan I have waiting for me back in the U.S. As I ran errands and got lost as I am wont to do, it felt good to grab the steering wheel again and be in the driver’s seat after six days of being shuttled everywhere in Cairo. Granted, every driving experience in Saudi Arabia is harrowing, but even the roads around here are starting to become more familiar. Even when I was lost, I recognized a few landmarks and problem solved how to get to a more familiar area.

Destination Locations

As I drove out of the compound on to the hectic streets of Khobar, I pondered that word: Home. I have taken part in two Story Shows that centered on the theme of Home, so it’s a word I’ve spent some time with in the past few years. And I’ve lived in a lot of places in three different states, if you count college. The last two places Amanda and I lived before making this move were the first two places we lived together: Spring Valley, MN, and Albert Lea, MN, both in southern Minnesota.

Spring Valley, the biggest city in sparsely populated Fillmore County, has 2,500 residents. It’s officially a commuter town for Rochester, but barely. It’s insular, and most of Spring Valley’s residents have lived in Spring Valley for most or all of their lives. You definitely get the sideways glance upon entering Spring Valley’s adult libations stations. Spring Valley sits on a flat spot, but has beautiful bluff country just a couple miles north and east of it.

Albert Lea is a town of 18,000, and has physical beauty abounding. Snuggled inbetween two lakes, it’s located just a few miles north of the Iowa-Minnesota border. Albert Lea  has an incredible park system, including state park Myre Big Island on the banks of Albert Lea Lake, and Bancroft Bay Park, home to the Big Island Rendezvous.

It’s got two things going against it, and only the latter of these two things is actually a bad thing: 1) It has an image as a retirement town and caters heavily to that population; 2) It has a negative self image, possibly tied to the fact many of its longtime residents feel like it should be a larger town because it is located at the crux of two major highways (I-35 and I-90). Ryan Nolander, Albert Lea’s Economic Development Agency Executive Director, once explained to me what a misnomer that is, being that Interstate 90 is not heavily traveled, especially westbound once you pass Albert Lea.

And now I live in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, where tourism is more than discouraged, it’s nonexistent except for family members of expats working here. Safe to say it’s not on any of the tourist or travel lists of Hot Spots You Must Visit. It’s not a “destination” location.

What do Spring Valley, Albert Lea and Khobar have in common? None of them are “destination locations”. None of them are places that people pick out on a map and say “Hey, I have a friend who lives there and I’ve heard it’s a beautiful place. I think I’ll go visit that friend.”

I visited some friends in St. George in southern Utah a few years back. Now that is a place you find excuses to visit. It is beautiful in a vast and colossal way. I was awestruck by the natural beauty of the Arizona/Utah/Nevada border area.

Having spent considerable time in northern Minnesota (and I hear northern Wisconsin is a replica), I know what it means to be a “destination location”. My grandma Kathy lived in Walker, MN, on beautiful Leech Lake, in the center of northern Minnesota, and she used to have to plan her own retirement summers around her summer visitors’ schedules. You practically had to call ahead to book a bed at Casa Kathy. But it’s easy to forget Walker is a cold, barren place 7 months a year.

So where is that magic spot? Where is that place we should put down roots where our kids, when grown, will want to come back and visit us? A few years back we discovered Mount Vernon, Iowa, and it felt like a mystical and ebullient little village with about 10,000 inhabitants. We’ve been back to visit a few more times and it has only gained traction with us as a place we might want to spend more time.

Or what if we become lifers in the international teaching scene, finding new destinations to inhabit every half-dozen years? And what if we return home to the U.S. each summer and live on the road for two months, traversing the vast and varied U.S. landscapes, gaining inspiration from the Klemme family’s current adventures?

For now

Home is a tricky and elusive word. I am not sure at what age I quit telling people New London, MN, when asked “Where are you from?”, or when I quit saying “I’m going home this weekend” in reference to a visit to New London. Whenever it was it certainly opened up my senses to the idea that home could be anywhere that looked right, smelled right and gave me that sense of calm I so yearn.

I know our U.S. base right now is Albert Lea, MN, partly because we established some amazing friendships there in the dozen years we lived there, partly because it’s the longest we’ve ever lived in one spot. Maybe it’s because I’m excited to order the Old #5 breakfast (smells) at Green Lea Golf Course (sights) and hit the links after (sense of calm). But let’s be honest, part of the pull to go there this summer is because we still own a home there (two actually … housing market hasn’t recovered everywhere). Life is too often dictated by responsibilities. Sigh.

With that said, I can’t wait to go back for two months this summer. I was working this week to hammer out the details of payment for our family golf membership. I am looking forward to seeing my family, who’ve all migrated there in the last five years. I’m excited to see the continued revitalization of the downtown area and eat a pulled pork sandwich from the 112 food stand or a Bruno’s corn dog at Wind Down Wednesday. And Jake’s Pizza lunch slices. Nom nom.

But where will our future home be?

That’s not a question that’s meant to be answered today. For now, I’ll stick with simpler questions, like “Should I upgrade to Goose Down pillows?”