TERRE HAUTE —
My family climbed into our van and headed to Michigan a few weeks ago, just as we do every other year or so, to stay on the great lake there, for we have come to love its cool breezes and blue water and lighthouses.
It was a fever blister of a morning as we packed too much gear into our wagon and drove north, our onboard thermometer already showing off a nasty 95 degrees before noon, but we wiped the sweat off our foreheads and settled into a not-so-unpleasant 4-hour drive to the land of beach sand and low humidity.
We had no problems whatsoever as we peeled off the miles through the flat, endless fields of corn and wind turbines in Benton and Newton counties, driving through Kentland and Schneider and Lake Station on the way to I-94 and the last leg of our journey. We stopped for gas and a bite to eat, stretched our legs, and soon dove into the five-lane madness of semi-tractor trailers and boat-toting pick-ups just as the day’s heat peaked at 97, content in our refrigerated front-wheel drive cubicle. Then, we smelled trouble — literally.
It came in the way of our front brakes locking up. The constant stopping and starting on the crammed interstate apparently put the finishing touches on a brake system that had ironically been inspected and declared “good to go” at a local garage just a few days earlier. We limped to a stop, managing to drag ourselves off the main road to an off-ramp, our right front wheel sizzling and smoking.
We keep a roadside service plan for such emergencies, so I took cell phone in hand and called its number. Due to “heavier than usual” business, I was told by machine before I ever spoke to a human being, it would be 90 minutes to five hours before anyone could come to assist us. After being cut off a time or two, I reached a young lady who seemed to be much more concerned about the color of our van than actually getting someone out to help us drive it, so instead of sitting along the road like an ant under an hourglass, I decided to creep our crippled wheels into the next town that happened to be along Indiana 6. It was Hobart.
I took the first left turn off the down ramp into town and immediately saw a huge brown sign that miraculously read “Brake and Muffler Repair,” so we crawled into the baking parking lot that sat beneath it. Within minutes, the problem was assessed, an estimate was delivered, and despite it being past 4 in the afternoon and all of the shop’s bays filled with other disabled cars, an already soaked and tired technician named William had our van up on a jack, its calipers and brake pads and metal lines dropping to the pavement at chop-shop speed.
What one does on the outskirts of Hobart with no transportation proved no conundrum: We sat and waited. But as unpleasant as that sounds, the five of us — my son’s fiancé, Lucy, went along — actually had a good time. We found a little shade under an awning, catching an occasional whiff of breeze, and we talked, and took part in the fine art of observation. I struck up a conversation with a lady who works as a cook at the local high school; she was concerned that her car’s transmission was kaput, but after numerous test drives, nothing could be found wrong with it. She left us with wishes that our repairs wouldn’t cost much and hopes for a better day.
By the time William was wiping the grease off his hands, co-manager Pete had done a test drive, and fellow co-manager Jim had us swiping plastic at the cash register; we were back on the road by 5:30, my credit card doing the smoking by then. But I have a lifetime warranty on that new brake system, by the way, and we were driving again. Life was good.
Within two hours, we stood on a breezy Lake Michigan beach, and in contrast to that sweltering asphalt in Hobart, I felt as though we were a world away. On that first evening, we were drawn to the water like moths to a back porch light, and we all waded and walked and gazed and sighed with our sandals in our hands until hunger drove us up the hill to supper and a bath and a bed (although they proved too small for this reasonably tall writer and his even taller son).
Early the next day, we returned to the beach, and I began a too-short string of days sitting in a chair, book in hand, feet buried in the sand; it was as ambitious as I wanted to get. In the time I spent in that place, and in the solitude that the sounds of the crashing waves helped me find in my own head, I tried to count the shades of blue reflected in the lake. I became a watcher of wind-blown marram grass, an observer of shorebirds, and a collector of round, smooth stones. I often gazed upward to see small glints of silver flying thousands of feet above us, but doubted that anyone on those jets was going anywhere I would rather be at the moment. I soon became interested in watching a sailboat that ambled along the horizon, its snow-white sail cutting a path across a bank of deep blue, and I heard Frank Sinatra crooning “Summer Wind,” despite there not being a radio in sight.
There was much to do besides read and work crosswords and tell my wife how pleased I was we were back at the lake. I watched a woman pull a Keystone Kops routine as she chased down a runaway beach umbrella and spied a Tony Siragusa look-alike drifting in the surf, the waves pounding his considerable bulk like a forlorn buoy. I observed people who, like my clan the day before, came out to the water for the first time, standing and staring out at the horizon. Like us, I suppose, that endless expanse of water drove them to dreams and deep thoughts and lower blood pressures.
The shorebirds kept us entertained. I wondered more than once how the big white and brown gulls could hover in one place without moving a wing as the wind blew straight off the lake so hard it threatened to tear my book’s pages. A flock of them — hundreds, I believe — landed en masse some 75 yards from us, bobbing in the waves like white apples in a blue-green barrel. They eventually took off together and headed north before testing the waters again.
I noticed that as the days wore into evenings, and the sun played tricks with its angles, that the water turned to bronze. I would occasionally take a short walk to stretch out the kinks in my legs and soon learned that not all on the lake was timeless and pleasant. The flotsam brought onto shore held an odd mixture of the natural and the man-made. Among the tiny brown shells and water-worn rocks was the detritus of the careless and uncaring. Cigarette butts and wads of gum, a rubber band and a length of balloon ribbon, the useless tubes of exploded fireworks and a long-drained beer can, all brought me back, for a few minutes anyway, to the messes people often make of such a place.
As we drove home a few days later, groggy from sleeping in strange rooms, too red from too much time in the sun, and tired from our long and full days, I could still see that stretch of beach and hear the rhythm of those endless waves, even as I maneuvered the highway lunacy that carried me away from it.
I daydreamed about that blue water for a long time, but I was just as thankful that we found a steam bath of a brake shop in Hobart, too.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at email@example.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/ mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mike lunsford.com. His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is due to be released in the fall.