According to the official website of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, if we had stuck to the prescribed route, our excursion would have taken us approximately 1,160 miles. Here on our 12th day out, however, we have just logged our 2,200th mile, and we are still 30 miles east of Rockford. My obsession with lighthouses (a product of a youth lived near one of the most impressive pier lights, complete with catwalk, on Lake Michigan) has taken us out to the tip of every peninsula along the Lake Michigan shore, most of which turned out to be much longer than the maps indicate. With a few side trips and a bit of backtracking, we have traveled a distance greater than the length of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, all within a few miles of the most pleasant of the Great Lakes.
This vacation has been the longest any of us has been away from Rockford in the almost nine years since we moved here. Twelve days of camping with five children, with no more than two nights at any one campground, has been enjoyable but tiring, and, for the first time, the long drive through the flat, unexceptional plains of Northern Illinois, stretching off to the horizon in both directions from I-90, feels truly like coming home.
A few months ago, in a long, rambling, and pleasant conversation about the past and possible futures of Rockford, Chuck Sweeny, the political editor of the Rockford Register Star, remarked that he thinks of us at Chronicles as “micro-localists.” His comment was occasioned by my criticisms (in this column and elsewhere) of the Register Star for pursuing “regionalism” at the expense (in my mind, at least) of Rockford proper. Chuck lives outside of the city boundaries, in Winnebago County, and so he sees the situation a little differently.
His description of our position, however, is apt. Increasingly, I find my daily life bounded by a triangle, approximately two miles to each side, stretching from our house along the Rock River north of downtown down to St. Mary’s Oratory, then across the river to Uncle Nick’s Gyros. St. Mary’s and Uncle Nick’s represent, respectively, the western and eastern limits of what is left of Rockford’s downtown, and it is no coincidence that I can walk each leg of the triangle in about a half an hour, at a fairly comfortable pace.
The triangle encompasses our church, the offices of Chronicles and The Rock-ford Institute, the Cathedral of St. Peter, most of the halfway decent restaurants in Rockford, our credit union, the main branch of the public library, City Hall and the county administration building and courthouse, Sinnissippi Park, and (if I stretch the boundary just a little bit) my barbershop. (It does not, unfortunately, include a full-service grocery store, though there is a fine meat market, Mead’s Meats, and the 320 Store, a greengrocer.)
This is life on a human scale, where almost all needs can be met, if necessary, on foot. It is more like life in a small town than life in the sprawling cities (including, ironically, the city that contains this small town) that make up the postwar Midwest.
Once upon a time, those cities were composed of neighborhoods like this, and automobiles were reserved for vacations, drives in the country, and shopping trips that couldn’t be made by foot. Now, walking the mile and a quarter back and forth to work, I rarely pass more than one or two others, usually out walking dogs. Downtown is close to deserted at lunchtime, as even those who work there make a 20-minute round trip out to the chain restaurants on East State to devour microwaved hamburgers and frozen french fries dipped in batter.
Russell Kirk once wrote that the automobile is “a mechanical Jacobin, overthrowing dominations and powers, breaking the cake of custom, running over oldfangled manners and morals, making the very air difficult to breathe.” As his small village of Mecosta withered over the years, however, even he became dependent on the infernal machine to provide for his family’s daily needs. The advent of the “superstore,” placed within walking distance of nowhere, has made life on foot largely impossible for most residents of the flyover country. But if life on foot is impossible, in what sense is human life—the rooted, local, parochial life that man has lived for millennia—still truly possible?
Children, by virtue of their limitations and dependence on their parents, still have a sense of that life, and ours—while they have enjoyed their vacation—are restless for home. Their horizons are still limited, and, even though they have studied maps and globes, I know that their experience still echoes that of the young boy in Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County:
Johnny Shawnessy decided that some day when he was big enough to go away from home by himself, he would go over and get Nell Gaither, and they would get into a big covered wagon and go down and find the National Pike, and they would ride off together toward those big plains and those far western mountains beneath the shining stars, where the land was fair and free, where the Indians lived in tepees, and the streams were full of fish, in the country called the United States of America, which was somewhere in Raintree County.
As we grow up, our horizons necessarily expand—and, indeed, they should do so. Our trip around Lake Michigan encompasses much of the landscape of my life, and I recognize, as I often do in the summer, how much I miss life on the Big Lake. At some point, however, our horizons should contract once more. Getting married, choosing a career, settling down, rearing children of your own—these essential activities of life can only properly be performed within the limits of a well-defined place. And as we cross the Auburn Street bridge and turn in to our neighborhood, the Rock River has never looked so broad, or so blue.