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Storms over Lake Michigan

Storms over Lake Michigan

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.

Aurora Over Lake Michigan

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.

Solitude

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.

Conversations with librarians

Conversations with librarians

Three months wandering around the Midwest of the USA come to an end in a few days, when I get on the plane from Chicago to London. It turned into a bit of a road trip in the end; during which I’ve met some fun people, expanded the social circle and contact network, eaten a spectacular range of finest American cuisine, explored cities e.g. Detroit, Ann Arbour and Toledo, wandered into Canada, swam in two of the Great Lakes (Michigan and Ontario), watched several baseball matches, seen numerous firework displays, got up close and personal with buffalo, travelled by road, plane, Greyhound bus and Amtrak train, started geocaching, and explored parts of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. And also got some work done.

All of that was enjoyable, every last baseball observed and calorie consumed. But the most fun was visiting rural libraries in Indiana and speaking to the librarians who direct, run and staff them.

Fremont was my first experience of a rural Indiana library. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The building was large, roomy, cool and quiet. Furniture was tasteful; electricity sockets were everywhere; the wifi was free. There were areas to do historical research and to generally sit down in a group. As with every library I visited, at least one large American flag would be prominent in the building:

Comfy seating area

The computer labs would be the envy of public libraries in Britain (as well as possibly a few schools and university departments). Several banks of – new – PCs were complimented by several areas of – new – Macs with large screens:

Mac Lab

I chatted with a male librarian, who seemed pretty friendly. He, and I quote, “real enjoyed” working there and enjoyed helping out the patrons who came in.

Topeka was a small town – basically a crossroads with a few building either side – deep in Amish country. Their library building was opened in March 2009, and like many of the newer buildings was well lit, cool, and roomy:

Topeka library

The friendly librarian chatted for a while. She ran various teen programs, such as movie nights, which helped bring kids in from a wide area around. It helped that the building had a community room (free for non-profits, a small fee for businesses) which was kitted out with various media kit, plus a piano. Topeka libraries serves a rural area of some 25 mile radius – and rural it is, with the town surrounded by corn fields and much of the traffic being Amish buggies. The Amish made up a sizeable proportion of the patrons of the library, and while we were chatting several came in and borrowed books.

Angola public library was also in a new building. Actually, the old library – restored and used as the reference centre – was also inside the new building, which also included the fountain that also used to be outside. It’s not everyday you see a fountain inside a public library, but there you go:

Angola library

One of the library staff was happy to give a guided tour, then introduced the director. She explained the (horribly complicated) way in which libraries in Indiana were funded – basically a combination of property taxes, donations, fines, and fees for out of township residents. I think – the system of funding, and who was eligible to use the library, seems complicated and differs between libraries, even in the same county. For example, a town and a township are not the same thing. From what I understand, villages, towns and cities are inside townships, which are inside counties, which are inside states. And each level has its own criteria (stop press: just been told that some can be incorporated – which adds another complication).

Angola library itself received most of its funding from local property taxes, as well as some clever auctions of items and services donated by local businesses:

Angola library

The collection itself was interesting, with ‘weeding’ being a counter-productive aspect. The Amish bishop instructed the children not to read any books published after 1975 or 1980, which meant that Amish children finding a book on the mobile library would first of all flip to the date of publication before checking out the book further.

LaGrange public library was inside a cramped building. It looked nice from the outside, near the centre of the town and opposite an Amish farmers market where I bought some jam and sausage bread. Inside, it became very obvious that this is a library that needed to move to a larger building. Desperately. Signs on the road coming into town indicated (as confirmed by a librarian) that the move/upgrade was the focus of some local controversy:

LaGrange library controversy

Inside, the staff were struggling moving around a building clearly not designed for either a growing collection of the current size, or people unable to use the many flights of stairs. Like the old library in Angola, the one in LaGrange was a Carnegie Library, one of many funded partially by a Scots philanthropist during the development of many rural American towns.

Stacks

Despite the small size of the rooms in the building, like the other public libraries on this tour there were several newish PCs for free Internet access, plus a whole pile of community information. LaGrange had several churches offering community meals, as advertised through the library and other places in the town. On the bannister of the stairs in the library porch was a stream of cards where residents could advertise, and request, services and goods from others. Sort of like a localised Saturday Swap Shop.

Community swap

All these public libraries were interesting and staffed by friendly, helpful people. But my favourite public library – not just in this corner of rural Indiana, but of the hundreds I’ve visited across America and Europe – deserves a posting to itself. Next.