“Wow, this is great! We should come here all the time.”
This comment dropped from the lips of an adolescent male as he talked with three companions last summer. They, along with many others, were walking the lake front path at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus last June.
“It’s like a resort here,” uttered a woman I guessed to be the mother of a student as they began they began the walkway that is flanked on the east by Lake Michigan and on the west by a soccer field and a lush collection of pines and maple trees.
Beautiful indeed. The photograph above accurately depicts the southern view from the start of the path. On a clear day, the graceful downtown Chicago skyline extends into the puffy blue waters of Lake Michigan. It’s impossible not to whisper to yourself, “What a city!” in response to that gorgeous panorama.
I have come to this site many times over the years, with family, friends, or for solitary visits. It is lovely at any time of year. My most recent visit was late this past December during a day meteorologists might describe as showing “temperatures well above normal for this time of year,” given the 50+ degrees we enjoyed.
It was the kind of day when folks break out their shorts, jump back on the bikes recently stored for the winter, or step back into flip flops for one final fling before the long winter chill settles like a dome over the city. I was here for my own final fling, to squeeze in a late afternoon walk before the sun dropped below the tree line.
Given the forecast for sub-zero temperatures over the coming days, I can report that this was a good decision.
The lake front holds allure for many of us, and we know that it’s one of Chicago’s main attractions. I was hooked immediately upon arriving here to go to college many years ago. Since my dorm was on the lakefront, I could stare endlessly at the water from my window, easily soothed by wash of the waves against the sea wall . During the summer I took chilly dips at the beach along Sheridan Road, and often watched in awe as my young niece played joyfully in the water for long stretches, emerging reluctantly, but blue-lipped and grinning, at my sister’s admonition to exit the water. A few years later when I lived along the lake, I resumed my habit of staring at the water, this time from a living room window. I also set my bed right up against the window so that the water was the first thing I saw upon opening my eyes each morning.
The lake holds the same attraction along the Northwestern path, of course. But there is another feature of this site that is intriguing.
Well, they’re man-made boulders, really, placed along the shoreline to combat erosion. Piled up at the sweater’s edge they jut in every direction, like a massive heap of knocked-over building blocks.
There are endless rocks from which to choose as a vantage point for gazing at the water, for sunning, picnicking, or reading. A few courageous individuals occasionally defy the no swimming signs, crabbing their way downward and slipping into the water for relief on hot days.
During my recent visit, the rocks seemed particularly intriguing to me, especially on my return walk. They are covered with all kinds of verbal and pictorial illustrations, and have been for years. During previous visits I’d taken momentary notice of notes and drawings, but had given them little thought. This time, though, the tapestry of messages drew me off the path onto the grass, slowing my steps to study the rocks more carefully.
Some rocks hold paintings that have faded from the effects of time, wind, and water. Others are brightly colored, their tidings only weeks old. Few remain untouched.
The words and drawings convey myriad sentiments. Expressions of friendship or loyalty. Philosophical concepts. Biblical quotes. The Serenity Prayer.
Marriage proposals. Expressions of romantic love. Anniversaries. Tokens of support during troubling life events. Congratulations on accomplishments. Memorials to lost loved ones.
An outlier: one creative artist, cleverly taking advantage of the shape of one rock, painted a shark rising menacingly out of the water in the universally recognized image from the movie poster for “Jaws.”
Messages so personal, yet so positive and so publicly offered. The sincerity of messages so confidently displayed made me wonder where these artists and writers are now. Are the lovers still together? Do the friends stay in touch? Do they come back to the lake to visit their memorials?
Whether they do or not doesn’t matter. Their notes mark a point in someone’s personal history, and lend permanence to their story. That story is re-told each time someone reads the rocks.
Studying the rocks anew that afternoon renewed my love for Lake Michigan and for this walking path. The rocks, for me, are a symbol of hope and human connection.
Carrying this image is also a way to don the proverbial snow pants as we enter more deeply that dark, cold tunnel known as January.
OK. It’s your turn now. What are you doing to bolster yourself against the chill? What places or images are helping you push back against the darkness? Share!
And for those readers residing in more temperate climates, you may submit a 500-word essay on how much you appreciate your geographic location. Responses are due by midnight tonight.