I remember my face pressed against the window of our family car, my eyes wide as trees and open fields zoomed by. Everything was so... green. It wasn't anything like the Las Vegas landscape we had left behind five states ago, where grey rocks stood in place of grass and brick walls cordoned off each house.
"It will be nice for you girls to experience the four seasons," I remember my mom saying.
I had my doubts. I was twelve. Nobody wants to move across the country when they're twelve.
I remember the first few days in our new house. A neighbor welcomed us to the neighborhood with a plate of brownies. That was my first example of Midwestern kindness, and it is a real thing.
That night, my sister and I ran through the backyard with plastic cups in our hands, capturing lightening bugs and taking the cups into the pitch-black bathroom so we could really see them glow. A few weeks later, we danced in our first rainstorm in our brand new raincoats and rain boots.
I remember registering for my first day of middle school, acutely aware that everyone seemed to know everyone in this town with just two middle schools and one high school. I begged the school counselor not to enroll me in honors math or English classes -- I didn't want to be the "new kid" and a nerd.
I remember the first time I saw snow. I was in my 6th grade advisory class and it was a light dusting that barely covered the ground. I could barely contain my excitement, but I remember being disappointed that the snowfall was not enough to build a snowman like I had seen in the movies.
Even worse, I waited months to see a snowflake. They looked so pretty and big in my kids' Highlights magazine, but they must be really rare because I never saw one fall from the sky. I don't remember when someone finally told me that each flake of snow was actually a snowflake and that the photos were magnified for detail. I had been stomping on snowflakes for months.
Snowflakes aside, as soda became "pop" and pop music became country music, Valpo slowly but surely became home.
It's where I spent summer nights playing laser tag with neighborhood friends and buying candy from the Blockbuster in Heritage Valley.
Where middle school half-days were spent milling through downtown Valpo, streaming in and out of shops but never buying stuff and splitting milkshakes at Valpo Velvet.
Where ten minutes out of town, you hit backroads lined with soy and corn fields, windmills and barns, raccoons and deer.
Where pick-up trucks and minivans sport bright green, tell-tale bumper stickers: Proud Parent of Ben Franklin MS Honor Student.
It's where I got pulled over for the first time on 50W, rushing to get to high school so I wouldn't end up parking in the pot lot as the final bell rang.
Where you know which train tracks you can fly over and which ones you crawl over based on how well the road is paved.
Where saying "there was a train" was an actual excuse for being late to school, but not an actually valid one.
Where the Popcorn Fest was really cool in middle school and suddenly really lame in high school.
Where we all piled in my best friend's jeep - the white one with the eagle painted on the hood - as we headed to Lake Michigan or the 49er drive-in on summer weekends.
It's where I fell in love for the first time, cruising down backroads in his red truck with my prom garter hanging from the rear view mirror.
Where prom itself was held on the same grounds as our county fair, students sneaking in flasks and grinding on the same floor where pigs and sheep compete for blue ribbons every July.
Where everyone dreaded gym class because swimming was mandatory and the girls had to wear men's old wrestling uniforms as swimsuits, the armpit stains a fast and fading yellow.
Where waking up early on a school day - a novel feat - meant breakfast at Jimmy's or Schoops.
It's where I earned my first paycheck, blowing whistles at kids getting too handsy with eachother at BF Skating and carrying baskets of garlic knots as a waitress at Greek's Pizza.
Where Chicago was only an hour away and the Blackhawks, the Cubs, the Sox, the Bulls, and da Bears held way more significance than the Colts, the Pacers, or Indianapolis ever did.
Where the Porter County Fair was the place to be, dressed down in short shorts and boots, pretending not to look for your summer crush while actually running into your summer crush as you're mowing down deep-fried Oreos.
Where the changing leaves meant County Line Orchard would be opening soon and the first snowfall meant ice skating dates at Deep River Water Park.
It's where I returned every holiday in college, picking up a turkey from Strongbow Inn for Thanksgiving and waiting on that white Christmas.
Where Blackout Wednesday became an actual thing at Franklin and Duffy's, when everyone came home sporting IU hats and Purdue sweatshirts.
Where summer bonfires brought all my friends back together, wine in one hand and a S'more in the other.
Where being from "The Region" went from an eye roll to an actual source of pride in this forgotten flyover state.
It's where my grandpa died and where my niece was born.
And it's how 9,000 miles from home - in Vietnam, Myanmar, or Malaysia - a country song could bring me back to front porches, lightening bugs, and fiery sunsets over empty roads.
That's where home is.