It was a few years ago, now. More recent than many of the other adventures I’d had in America, but still disappearing into the cognitively dusty corner of things done in the past. Some memories, most memories, fade, but some memories are sharp enough to endure.
I’d been dating H. It wasn’t good. The hot summer in the rust belt, and the previous baggage we’d both brought to the relationship, had stifled it pretty quickly. She was coming back to England with me. We both knew this was a mistake, but neither of us wanted to say. Eventually, we were both proved right.*
Her mom and her partner had a trailer. No, they weren’t the stereotypical rednecks – they also had a house – but this was a trailer in some kind of middle class holiday park, in northern Indiana. It was ridiculously big; and comfortable, with “all mod cons” and places to sleep, and a large TV on which reruns of Top Gear could be watched by Americans easily amused at the comedic value of British men. Back in my own country, I’ve lived in smaller apartments.
As I said, it wasn’t good between me and H. That’s in the past – the receeding past, thankfully – and it’s unlikely we’ll ever speak again, especially when I’ve published all of the memories that are emerging, some years in the future when it’s more appropriate. And speaking was something we weren’t good at doing anyway, even when we were together.
In the trailer park, I’d increasingly go off on my own to avoid talking. One evening I took the golf cart out, something I enjoyed doing on my own, less so with other people. It had cup holders, meant I didn’t have to exercise in any way, and therefore made me feel a little bit American.
The air was oppressive; hot and still that evening. The heat had been nudging 100 in the daytime, and the insects were feasting on my slowly cooking skin that week. Driving the golf cart gave a little relief; a slight and silent breeze.
I drove it to the entrance to the trailer park, on a few yards more, to the top of a rise. Not a big rise, but in Indiana, a rise is a rise. Feeling … something … I turned around.
To the northwest, the view swept over the border into Michigan. In the distance, far far into the distance, huge storm clouds, impossibly large thunder clouds, moved imperceptibly across the sky, like silent buffalo in great numbers, on the move. Lighting lit up random clouds, but no thunder rolled across Michigan and Indiana to where I sat in the golf cart, the storm was so distant.
I tried to work out where the clouds were, and realised that, with the distance, the storms were likely to be over Lake Michigan, moving out of Chicago, trundling towards Canada. But here I was, in Indiana, close to the border with Ohio, watching storms sweep across a lake so vast that you sail on it and soon lose sight of the shore from where you came. A lake larger than countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium or the Netherlands. A lake which I’d swam in several times, watched fireworks fall into, and pottered around on, in boats. To an Englishman, used to tiny lakes not much bigger than ponds, and a gap from his birth country to continental Europe much narrower than Lake Michigan, the scale of this unobstructed panorama woke me from my evening heat slumber. And woke me from the place I’d retreated to, inside myself, that summer.
I watched the silent lightning and wondered; were there boats on the lake? Under the storm? Being battered by large waves, and worked desperately like Truman Burbank trying to keep the Santa Maria afloat? Ships heading for safe harbour, in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Benton or Evanston?
That was the America I was looking for. The big sky; the big country; liberty defined in a thousand ways, but an important one being that with wheels and cheap gasoline, you can drive in the same direction for hours, days, and still be in the same country. Where a quick trip to your favorite restaurant for dinner can be a hundred miles or more. And train journeys between major cities are sometimes measured, not in minutes or hours, but in days and nights. A landmass so big, many people go a lifetime and never see the edges.
Only a third of Americans have passports, I’d read in the paper. True or not, it suddenly seemed plausible; the place was so big, endless, rolling, why go elsewhere when there’s much still to see here? I’d only experienced this feeling of scale before in Scandinavia, the overwhelming size of the fjords of Norway, the coastline that seems unimaginably long, the hundreds of thousands of islands, and the endless roads through the snowy northern European landscape. Nowhere else, apart from here in America, had a landscape this epic.
I drove back to the trailer before the golf cart battery drained completely. No-one had noticed that I’d gone; symbolic, obviously, of the dying relationship that would unfortunately stagger on for another half year.
And that is my most vivid, persistent and positive memory of that relationship (for even out of the worst ones, some good things usually come). Ironically, an event in which I’d found a near-perfect moment, but in solitude. Watching lightning and storms, from an American state away, move slowly across an inland sea. And understanding a mixture of emotions of calmness, liberty and freedom that come with watching a natural display of this scale, this distance and this grandeur.
* Update: August 28th 2012
Having said that, things did work out well – eventually – several years down the line, though in odd ways involving social media, patience, mistakes and regret, cheese and other things. If I hadn’t been tweeting, blogging and whatever else that summer from Ohio and Indiana, they may not have. Guess social media has its upsides, after all.