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The Milk House: The 20s, revisited

Ryan Dennis Published on 17 October 2014

As I write, it is only two weeks until I turn 30. Although I’ve known it was coming for a while, only now, seeing it in print, do I realize what a large sum the number contains. Although it is a common and predictable angst shared by all of humanity that makes it this far, that does not lessen its totality.

One is assured by those older that it is a benchmark of no great import and that more significant turning points lie ahead, but the jealously for what they now consider youth lingers behind their words.



Those younger state in plain language that I am simply old now, but I sense – perhaps willingly – the attempt to swallow the fear that they too will one day be this old. The best I can figure, turning 30 is something faced alone.

I have just returned from a road trip across the Pacific Northwest. It was with an Irish friend, Jonathan, who was also attending the Iowa wedding of our former housemate. He asked if we should rent a car and keep going after the ceremony.

There were logical reasons why I shouldn’t have said yes. On the other hand, nonetheless, was the fact that I had a credit card. I also thought, retrospectively justifying myself, that it would put a fitting bookend on a decade spent.

At the wedding in Ames, I ran into other people from Ireland I hadn’t seen in four years. Word of the rowdy Irish wedding party spread across the quiet town that was mostly ours for five days. Afterwards, Jonathan and I flew to Las Vegas. The glitz and self-boasting architecture was not surprising, but fine to see once.

The $16 I won at the roulette table did little to manage my student debt. From there we took a day trip to the Grand Canyon, driving five hours to arrive just after the sun had gone down. We took in the view for the five minutes of light remaining before driving five hours back. “It’s all about the journey anyway,” Jonathan said.


The rental car got us to Portland, Oregon, where we stayed with Jon – a friend from my year in Iceland. Hipster capital of the U.S., the city’s fighting words are “Keep Portland Weird.” Not only did I feel bizarrely normal among the kitschy bars and plaid-wearing people, but slightly regretful for it.

In Seattle, Jonathan and I stayed in a hotel likely to be out of a Wes Anderson film, seemingly unchanged from the ’50s. We met up with a writing acquaintance from my early days in college and swapped names of unknown poets. Vancouver marked an appropriate ending point, the city being as expensive as it was beautiful.

Like a distraught parent, I watched the hard-won $16 leave my grasp over and over again at the bars and markets. We stayed with another mutual friend Jonathan and I had in Ireland. We knew he was a doctor, but only then realized the differences in our standards of living.

Although I had not meant it to be, the trip was a partial cross-section of how I had spent my last 10 years. In every city but one was someone I had known well from somewhere in my 20s. Three of the four countries lived in were represented along the path taken, as was the different person I was in each of them. It was as if my 20s had gathered together to say goodbye at once.

If a man is lucky, he gets to choose the feelings and metaphors he uses to negotiate the past. When approaching a perceived crossroads, it is a mark of being human to reflect on the things one has or has not done and the reasons behind them.

I have been very fortunate in being able to travel and experience other cultures, becoming another person than I had expected to be. Still, with the benefit of 10 years to think about it, I also realize that it was only possible by remaining a semblance of what I was and seemingly fated to always be: the son of a farmer.


The trip to the Northwest ended the same way every other experience has: by going back to the farm. I leave it often, but it has been an anchor, one from which I can participate in the rest of the world. It keeps the parts of my identity I am most sure of and most invested in.

It has given me something to measure everything else against. The appreciable absurdity of Vegas would not have been so poignant if I had not spent summers in a quiet tractor cab – nor the elegance of Vancouver if I had not grown up in manure-stained clothes.

The friends I had met on the trip, which is to really say in the last 10 years, know me as someone who comes from a farm and can’t isolate that from their understanding of me.

The feelings I will choose for my birthday will be the most logical ones: those of gratitude. The 20s were good to me, and instead of belaboring their passing, I will be thankful for the people I have met along the way and the friends that were made.

With confidence, I will try to accept that the next 10 years could be fine or may be wretched to compensate for previous good fortune. Either way, if there’s a farm to go back to, I suspect there will be a way to make sense of it. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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