Driving Lessons

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 vastness of Lake Michigan. He would make me practice reversing, three-point turns, letting the wheel slide through my tense grip as I bore left or right. I never believed the car would straighten out unless I forced it to. It was the perfect spot to learn, though, because it was soothing and free of distraction. Sometimes we would park and walk around in the company of gulls, picking out distant lighthouses or orange buoys in the fast-fading daylight.

I think that has a lot to do with why now, three years later as I’m following the winding path of the Rock River, I 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 its back like a long black snake and when it floods and the treetops stick out of it like there is some alien landscape submerged hundreds of feet below, and 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 as I steer with the pattern of its curves, my hands much steadier than in a parking lot of a marina long ago.

There is just one place I take Illinois Route 2, either to or from. It is, to my mind, 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’ve the privilege of lingering long after they’re gone, and have seen enough to say that perhaps if all civilizations replaced their residents as frequently, people and regimes might be happier. Even so, I’m glad I get to stay.

I pass through the little town of Oregon, sights like the square and the large, bright sign for Fun ’n’ Sun Tan being 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 Oregon Trail Festival has begun, also, and artful tepees dot the streets, commemorating the area’s Sauk ancestry. When I pull into the gravel 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.

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 without 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 riches for my future. All I want at the moment, though, is to breathe the smell of manure in the summer air and hike, where else but along the creek.





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