I see the gentle rolling of the low breakers—in the sun-glare, they are almost winking—and they encourage my shaky, novice hands. I’ve liked to drive next to water ever since my dad first took me to the harbor and let me coast around beside the vast Lake Michigan. He makes me practice reversing, three-point turns, letting the wheel slide through my tense grip as I bear left or right. I never believe the car will straighten out unless I force it to. It is the perfect spot to learn, though, because it is soothing and free of distraction. Sometimes we will park and walk around in the company of gulls, picking out distant lighthouses or orange buoys in the fast-fading daylight.
Three years later as I’m following the winding path of the Rock River, I remember those waves glinting beyond my windshield and feel perfectly at peace. The Sauk Indians used to call it the Sinnissippi, meaning “troubled waters,” but I’ve seen this river at night with the full moon illuminating it like the back of a long black snake, and I’ve seen it when it floods and the treetops stick out of it like there is some alien landscape submerged hundreds of feet below. It only brings me tranquility. After all the times I’ve driven up this river, I’ve built a relationship with it, and we are like old friends. I steer with the pattern of its curves, my hands much steadier than in a parking lot of a marina long ago.
I pass through the little town of Oregon. Sights like the large, square sign for Fun ’n’ Sun Tan are re-colored in my memory after fading with a period of unfamiliarity, like a painter touching up a mural. I am far better at following landmarks than directions. The flatness of a map has for me no relationship to the multidimensional world. The Oregon Trail Festival has begun and artful tepees dot the streets, commemorating the area’s Sauk ancestry. Each tepee is hand-painted; one, in particular, has a rough rendering of horses dashing around the sides. The artist called it “Running Spirits.” When I pull into the gravel summer camp driveway, careful to go the approved ten miles per hour, past our stop sign announcing “Whoa” (I have wondered whether it is an authorized traffic control device), I feel the quiet joy of one who has come home.
Illinois Route 2 takes me only one place—White Pines Ranch. To me it is the only successful utopia; a cluster of modest buildings set forward on two hundred acres of wooded riding trails and sandstone canyons. Every Sunday afternoon a group of children arrive with bulging duffel bags, and every Saturday morning they leave again with teary smiles. I claim the privilege of lingering long after they’re gone, and have seen enough to say that if all civilizations replaced their residents as frequently, people and regimes might be happier. The circumstance of being gathered together briefly, by chance, creates a special bond. Even so, I’m glad I get to stay.
I make this journey once a year, twice if I can, coming to see the brown and green landscape frostbitten and the horses in their winter bulk like woolly bears. But the real reason I take any chance to return is the rare sense of seeing people with my soul rather than my eyes. Sitting on the wagon-wheel couches that have been around since I was nine, and probably longer, we can be as we are. We are heading nowhere here; there is no career in camp counseling. Be as that may, I get the impression I am storing up another kind of wealth for my future. I learned from the water how to drive a car, and now I teach the kids how to find the water. All I want from them is to be able to breathe the smell of manure in the summer air and hike, where else but along the creek.
Alexandra Becker is a Northwestern University undergraduate majoring in Comparative Literary Studies and minoring in Environmental Policy and Culture. Her work has been published in the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans and TeenInk Magazine.