I am content in the final miles to our back door.
In the everyday sights of tree-lined neighborhoods, sleepy main streets, and stretches of flat fields and crisp, white barns silhouetted against waning sunlight.
After a successful fight for window rights, I roll mine all the way down, ignoring the moans of siblings wishing to remain buried in the stuffy confines of the car.
I stick my head as far out as I can, searching the darkening skies for the first star of the night, and I inhale summer – long and hard – accepting the occasional collision with a bug on its own nocturnal journey.
Sheridan Road (which extends north all the way from Chicago) is the final stretch from Lake Bluff to home, straight and uninhabited – except for the occasional sighting of the reflective, red eyes of wildlife at its edge, hoping to survive fields and forests, cars and trains, on their way to wherever.
Alongside Sheridan Road, for much of the way, runs the Northwestern Railroad. Its green and yellow cars, faded and familiar, appear beside us, long after its piercing horn signaled its approach.
I race the train. Stepping on an imaginary gas pedal on the candy wrapper-riddled floor. Pressing harder and harder, as if my will will make Dad to drive faster and finally beat the northbound beast.
But the train rolls past our station wagon and all I can do with the same, old loss is gaze into the windows of the train cars passing. Into the yellow-tinged lights where, returning from leave, the white-capped sailors of the Great Lakes Naval Base lean heavily against the worn, green leather seats and dingy glass.
Their lonely figures the last thing I see before Dad signals right and I close my eyes for the final mile to our front door.
There is comfort in this blind ritual.
Comfort in the knowledge that I know this route – this mile of road – so extraordinarily well that the sight of it is secondary to the feel of its curves, the sounds of its inhabitants, the smells of fresh cut fairways and a giant of a freshwater lake, Michigan.
Unlike the miles behind us, we travel more leisurely along Shoreacres Road. Breathing easier and rejoicing in nature. In the great, silent custodians – the Maples, Oaks and Elms – which stand over nearly every inch of it. Shading us from the summer sun like a vast, green awning and warming us with their blazing, dazzling, daring reds, yellows and oranges in the autumn.
Come winter, tree-lined comfort turns to forest mischief when laden branches drop dense clumps of snow on our hoods and on our heads, surprising us and swamping us as we pass below.
The first curve is less than a quarter of a mile along, and drifts sharply to the left, as it begins to follow a tiny, twisting creek; where moonlit nights make the water dance and daylight hours invite Mallards to its mossy banks.
Each fall, just before this curve, an old Black Walnut tree drops heaps of its brown-green nuts onto the road, which explode beneath the wheels of the wagon as a seasonal signal of that first turn; and a “Come ‘n get it!” for local wildlife who delight in the meat of the thick-shelled nuts.
Up ahead, in my mind’s eye, I can see where the road abandons the tiny creek and veers ninety degrees to the right.Toward much greater waters.
We call this part of the road, The Straight-Away. It’s the longest, lineal stretch in the mile journey, where speed bumps do little to dissuade teenagers in first cars from pressing down on gas pedals.
I stick my head even further out the car window as we head down this long strip of cracked and well-worn pavement marking the half-way point, and envision the great expanse of manicured green on my left, the tangled woods to my right. And just ahead, at the end of The Straight-Away, the exact spot where Lake Michigan demonstrates its greatness by influencing the weather around its shores.
That sudden shift from the warmth and near-stifling humidity of a Midwest summer night, to a sudden, clammy chill – like the feeling of leaving the glow of a campfire.
A couple of sleepy siblings even raise their heads and reach a hand out the nearest window to feel the lake-effect wall as we pass through it.
Because feeling its presence is feeling home.
At the very end of the Straight-Away, I know Dad will turn left and we’ll soon pass the old, white clubhouse standing at the edge of the bluff and the lake to the right. I imagine it dimly lit by street lamps lining its long, intimidating entrance; reminding me of every scary movie I’ve ever seen – especially when wrapped in the lake’s fog.
About as welcoming, too.
Just past the clubhouse, I can feel the wagon gently turning left, bringing us past a faded, old, foamy green water-tower that stands at the entrance of our neighborhood. A sad sentry – rusted and outdated, and destined for demolition – its large, steel legs, are our gateway to high jinks in the forests and on the footbridges of the golf course just beyond.
An expansive, white, Georgian house is next on the left; with three, enormous, old pines nearly hiding its existence. Planted long ago in a very neat row, they dominate even the grand, columned entrance. Each pine, a story and a half higher than the two-story house.
Shadowy and green and fabulously fragrant after a spring shower.
Giant villains in the fog.
Spectacular Yuletide beacons, strung annually and fastidiously from top to bottom with tiny, bright, white lights that always make me cheat – and peek.
Across the road from where the pines stand tall, there’s a big, brutish fence. Behind which stands a tragic folly created by a strange woman named Felicia. (We call her Fishy.) I like when my eyes are closed to its unhappy walls. But there are nights when its colossal, indoor tennis court sets the sky and woods on fire with its jarring, unnatural lights.
Which stir the forest – and me – uneasily.
I hear my father grumble and open my eyes for the few seconds it takes to see if – in between the pickets, like a stop motion scene on the edges of a paperback – I can catch a glimpse of this sad, slightly mad, lonely woman, living her sad, slightly mad, lonely life.
Grateful to pass it by. Happy to be moments from home. Minutes from bed.
A slight right at the fork and our driveway’s just ahead, on the right. I know exactly when we cross the threshold of home by the sound of gravel crackling like popcorn beneath the wheels of the station wagon as it winds its way the final length.
Bringing me ever nearer to succor and sleep.
It smells of wild onions and Queen Anne’s lace, pungent and sweet.
Only when I hear the garage door begin its sluggish retreat and the dogs begin to bark, do I open my eyes and end the game, content for having found my way home again.
But one more game I have in mind, so I close my eyes, once more, and pretend to be fast asleep, so Dad will carry me the final steps to my bed.
And to my dreams.