I live in an oasis in a desert of suburban sprawl, a small neighborhood called Biltmore in Barrington, Ill.
Barrington is 40 minutes northwest of Evanston, an hour south of Wisconsin, and 14 hours west of where I was born. Five minutes down the road from my house, the name of the town changes from Barrington to Lake Zurich, and the sprawl begins as most suburban sprawl does: with a Starbucks. There are five major fast-food chains in the immediate area — Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Subway and Wendy’s — not to mention two grocery stores, an abandoned K-Mart, an abandoned KFC, and the skeletal beginnings of a new building whose purpose will become clear as soon as it takes a definite shape. Anything that you could ever need can be found in this strip of stores. I myself have purchased a bag of regular Oreos, a pair of gray Chuck Taylors, a bottle of eye drops and a turkey club sandwich (no mayo) in the past two weeks.
What I have discovered about the strip is that, when you run behind it, it all looks the same. The infinite variety you see from the front is wiped clean as soon as you turn the corner. Once you do, the strip transforms into a single gray building with dumpsters every 20 feet and a fence running parallel. I run there because the building provides a source of consistent shade, and because it’s quiet, and because I have run out of new places to go.
Five minutes east, and all that disappears. Trees replace the hollow buildings, and empty, narrow roads replace the rush of traffic. The houses that surround mine are all unique: one white with pillars, one cramped and red, one shaped like an observatory, one traditional white with shutters; red brick, white brick, white wood, brown wood, gray wood. Then the houses disappear behind the trees, and there are only mailboxes and the ends of driveways. My house is hidden from the road. The driveway twists and turns at angles hazardous in the winter months, and might strike me as unnecessary if not for its one redeeming quality: It opens to reveal Honey Lake, shimmering in the sun behind our stone home. The driveway is a path to a new world. Green creeps across the ground, looming over the roof, huddling at the corners of the walls. Time slows down. Our house is full of open spaces.
My town is just a continuation of another town, just an extension of Evanston and Waukegan and Lake Zurich and Palatine and Skokie. Though they are separated by miles of road, they are essentially the same. Most of the time, I don’t refer to my town by name, it’s just a northwest suburb of Chicago, like any other northwest suburb of Chicago. One of the reasons for that is to make introductions easier — who knows where Barrington, Illinois is, anyway? — and one of the other reasons is that I don’t really feel like I live there. I’m not sandwiched between a Taco Bell and a Starbucks. I am buried in the forest, perched on a lake, living in green.