I always tell people that the lake keeps me sane. I’m so used to being constantly surrounded by water, coming from Florida. I couldn’t imagine being entirely landlocked.
However, Lake Michigan is not the Gulf of Mexico I grew up swimming in. It’s not the Atlantic Ocean I saw when I visited my family on the east coast of Florida. It isn’t the Pacific Ocean I stuck my feet in when I visited California over spring break.
Lake Michigan, first off, is fresh water. Salt water has that nasty, disgusting ability to linger on your skin, flaking off on car seats. It has a certain aroma that you can smell as soon as you get off the plane that only gets more potent as you slowly drive down the brick road of Mandalay Avenue. The salt sticks to hair follicles, drying out scalps and making hair brittle and messy.
The lake is murky and cold. You can’t even swim in it. But it’s water, and it rolls in with steady waves during calm weather and with choppy crests during windy storms.
The lake is also just that — a lake. There are boundaries, there is an end to it and even though it may not seem like it, I’m looking out towards another city or town with buildings and people unknowingly looking out towards me. But with the Gulf, there is so much space in between. I could be looking out towards Mexico or maybe Louisiana, but everything is just so much farther away. The waves could be bringing in water from other countries that has been home to exotic species.
At home, the beach is the best at night. It’s so humbling just to look out and see nothing. Everything is black and blended into one. The water is the sky, and the sky is the water. It’s boundless and completely bound together. But Lake Michigan is interrupted. It’s not connected inextricably to the sky. Chicago’s skyline juts between breaking the magic that holds the two blended together.
But what does bring it all together is the sand. Those obnoxiously sticky granules that hide in every crevasse of everything you own. It sneaks into your bed sheets on summer nights and dusts the floor of your car. It’s everywhere, on every beach causing the same discomfort. It’s stuffed under your fingernails for the rest of the Summer until you leave again for college.
It sticks to your toes and ends up dusting each of the stairs up to your floor in the dorm. It covers your laundry basket three weeks later when you finally find enough quarters for laundry.
The lake is a surrogate. It helps me locate myself, gives me direction. While it may be to the East rather than to the West, it still offers that comforting notion that I’m near its tides and currents.
The water does keep me sane. It’s beautiful in its own accord. It helps remind me of the beaches I will return to in just a few weeks and the home that I’m beginning to appreciate much more.