On Saturday I joined the hiking group in Winamac, Indiana for a day of tubing the Tippecanoe River. It was about a 2.5-hour drive (what I've come to think of as Midwest Standard Travel Time) through a very rural countryside. The kind of countryside where vegetables stand in piles on tables by the side of the road, their prices written in black marker on cardboard, a large coffee can placed beside them for you to put your money.
I passed through Knox and Winamac, feeling like I'd driven into a movie: towns where the tallest commercial building was two storeys, where almost all of the businesses were small and local and unique. A cinema that showed one movie at a time.
I met the group (about 25 people) at the tube-rental facility, paid a trip to the porta-potty, and piled with the others into one of two small buses (inspiring several Otto impersonations) that drove us and our rented tubes to a spot upriver. There, we splashed into our tubes and began floating down the lazy river.
The Tippecanoe, at least our stretch of it is not fast, and it is not deep. I was grounded on several occasions; the water usually came to my ankles or shins, and once, to my hips. So we all floated, conversations created and ended by the various speeds of current that brought us together and pulled us apart. It was beautiful. We saw a crane underneath overhanging branches, and exchanged waves with people sitting in the back yards of the houses built along the banks. It was a good time.
Driving home, I became drowsy and looked for a coffee spot. I don't know what it says about Starbucks or me when I found it alien and somewhat satisfying that there was no Starbucks to be found in either Winamac or Knox. I felt a sense of..peace? Relief? I'm not sure.
Not far from Valparaiso, I saw a roadside gas station, which also doubles as cafe in these parts. This one was gas station, convenience store, Subway, and Dairy Queen rolled into one. I went inside to the convenience-store section and got some hot coffee. I stopped in the bathroom, which was clean, and after I washed my hands, looked above the dryer at the condom dispenser. One brand in particular caught my eye. Now, I don't know what you call it when a condom manufacturer stocks a condom called Evening Magic in a gas-station restroom off the highway near Valparaiso, Indiana, but me? I call it gumption. Everlasting, optimistic, dream-making gumption.
The feeling of being in a movie is strong for me in these parts; as cliche as it may be, when I am traveling through rural America I feel that I am truly in America. A true, immutable America. Am I romanticizing it? Probably. Is this the America that many people dream of escaping? Maybe. But there's this feeling of groundedness that I can't really explain. It attracts me and at the same time scares me, because it's not a life I know, and I feel like it must show on me like some kind of mark others can see. I feel enchanted, and weak.
I bought some Jay's potato chips, since the rotating hot dogs in the heated display case weren't calling my name. A nice high-school girl took my money, and I hit the road, back to Chicago, the big city. It felt a little like leaving Oz and going back to Kansas.
Or maybe the other way around.