I crossed a river to Indiana, turning east to follow its general contour through cornfields which formed sharp green walls along the road, their leaves stabbing the sky. American flags lined the route, leaning out from telephone poles, their material folding and unfolding listlessly in the already steamy breath of morning. The Chief rolled with both ceiling vents open, and both windows down, his red faux-leather driver’s seat ran with rivulets of my sweat. It was going to be another scorcher.
A short drive up the Ohio was Historic Madison, Indiana. Nearly every town along my path seemed to be Historic, probably an accurate designation, since they’d all endured History in some way. There’s always an Historic Downtown, and sometimes an Historic Park, or Bench, or Bridge, or Museum, or Fountain. All of these were packed into the village of Madison, where I stopped, and all of these I saw.
From the local police perspective, sitting in reflective sunglasses, in air-conditioned patrol cars guarding the bridge, an unshaven, shirtless man in a white van made several suspicious crossings. I was looking for a State Sign to dance under, in an effort to catch up with Kentucky (I’d missed my State Sign Dance a week before). But there wasn’t a sign, so I made one from a brochure and a popsicle stick, and sweated through a few shameless iPhone takes while construction workers watched from their trucks.
Then I made a run through Madison’s delightful Historic-ness, strolling the quaint downtown, cooling my feet in the famous fountain, and eating mini-cheese burgers at Hinkle’s, where I spied on an old lady doing crossword puzzles. Outside, my primary strategy was to escape the heat, thus gladly paying $4 for a swim in the Historic municipal pool down by the river.
Kids lined up at the snack bar clutching wet bills, parents lolled along the pool edges, their shoulders above water and burned bright red. Lifeguards slept at their posts, child-shaped projectiles ejected from the base of the water-slide. I found shade and took a nap until a host of curious ants explored my scalp, inspiring me for an immediate soak in the pool. There I bathed in pure American summer, inner-tubes and the smell of sunscreen. It reminded me of so many days as a kid, sun-drying by the pool, leaving an imprint of my body on the pavement for the sun’s kiss to whisk away.
Evening came, and parents appeared with clusters of kids for swim lessons. Under the awning, instructors reassured them, parents included, before they migrated to the broad blue basin, the sun angling low over the trees. I wandered to the river and waded in, letting the coolness and relative quiet of the great water wash away the last vestige of day. Surrendering to a dusky breeze, it prodded me gently back to the Chief, who deposited me up the highway, amid the familiar sounds of Walmart carts and parking lots.
As in Kentucky and Tennessee, painted quilt patterns adorned many of the barns I passed the next morning. Like family crests or insignias, some as decorations, they marked territory. One by one the colorful patterns led me north to Columbus, a small town famous for its support of cutting-edge architecture. Great names were invited to build there, Saarinen and his son, Muller, Valkenburgh, Roche. Names that meant nothing to me, but I was impressed with what they’d achieved, a variety of interesting and Historic buildings, bridges, and memorials which I passed in a sun-wet walkathon around the city.
Heat compressed me into a ball of sweat that dripped down the blacktop to Nashville, an artists’ enclave simmering at 101F in the shade with brow-drenching humidity. It was also National Ice-cream Day, according to the almost-friendly lady at the Visitor’s Center, but the Ice-cream stores were inexplicably closed. The streets were virtually empty as well; everyone coagulated in the shops with the best air-conditioning, shops filled with all sorts of crafts and paintings and carvings. I went straight for the primary hotel, stood over a floor vent and let the icy fingers of air reach up my shorts, while sipping pink lemonade. Around me chirped snatches of small talk, consumed with a single subject: The Heat.
The friendliest police so far were in Indiana. One talked to me in Madison, another at a gas-station on the roadside, and yet another amiably chatted me up at my next refuge, McDonald’s. Chill and packed, all-seats were taken and everyone ate soft-serve (although, McD’s apparently didn’t abide by National Ice-cream Day, discounts promised by the Visitor Center did not apply). The officer told me about his family, and his time in Indiana, and a covered bridge I should visit up the road. I asked if I could swim in the stream. He squinted with a friendly “you certainly aren’t from around here” look, and said, “Thayr is nun.”
So I went to the bridge up at Bean Blossum, down a steep incline where the officer was right about the water…Nun. But the bridge was worth the drive, red and old and sleepy hallow. I was worried about my gas, on empty. I doubled back to town, filled up, grabbed a slice of heat-lamp pizza and headed towards the big city, aiming for sleep near Indianapolis.
On the other side of town lived an old Dungeons and Dragons private-school pal named Bill David, whom I’d known since I was around 11. His nickname growing up was Flame, appropriately chosen for his bright orange hair. When I entered, the glowing tangle had been shaved down to a pink orb, but he was still huge, with perfect posture, and the impish smile I remembered. He gave me a hug and handed me a beer when I entered. 80s music played on Pandora. I met his two intelligent and well-mannered daughters in the kitchen, and his beautiful and cool wife, Kristine, shortly after. Hungry, the adults, me included, headed to Bonge’s Tavern, where we sat outside with family friends and pre-partied on folding chairs imbibing local brews, before heading inside for an amazing meal.
At home Bill and I descended onto the porch, continuing with bottles until we upped the ante, seeking out the apothecary jar of moonshine in the van, partnered by Cuban cigars. We babbled about old times until the light blurred and our chins dropped to our chests. Bill eventually crawled upstairs to his wife; I awoke to a head-ache and his daughter staring at me through the sliding glass door.
Bill loved Indiana. An avid Colts fan, he informed his kids when they moved 8 years ago that he’d only support the team if they won a Super-bowl. They did. Now he’s an outspoken booster. He loved his homogenous neighborhood in Fishers, just outside Indianapolis, where the backyards had no fences, where the layouts swirled into safe cul-de-sacs, where neighbors knew neighbors. A magical place where you could ride your bikes to the local outdoor mall for a movie, lay them on the grass, and return to find them undisturbed; apparently, common in the Mid-West.
He took the day off to lead me around Indianapolis. Grotesquely hung-over, Bill had to pull over at an office park where I promptly threw up, emptying the night’s Kentucky paint-thinner in full view of the building’s multitudinous tinted windows. Although I wasn’t feeling well, the city was beautiful, and stacked with monuments. Downtown centered around an ornate tower crowned by an angel. We walked into the solemn Indiana War Memorial with its echoing interior vault, circled the street to arrive at hip Mass Avenue with its eclectic stores and restaurants, then shifted to the Canal Walk towered over by various Museums. He raced me by the Indianapolis track before filling my achingly empty stomach with Handel’s ice-cream near his house.
I licked my wounds and took a nap, then drove Bill and his buddy, both clad in khaki shorts and black concert t-shirts, to see Iron-Maiden, dropping them off to disappear into throngs of middle-aged dudes in Eddie gear. The next morning I learned that Kristine had worked a table selling beer for charity (Bill got his drinks from her) while a storm pummeled the venue; Alice Cooper’s hot blond Aussie guitarist rocked, and Iron Maiden kicked ass. I wished I’d gone, but I didn’t have it in me. I said goodbye to the Davids, passed the American flag, crossed their green lawn, and hit the farm roads for Fort Wayne.
I was intent on seeing James Dean’s grave but missed it in a drizzle, driving right past. I left my lights on at Subway, and had to get a jump before hitting the town fair in Fort Wayne. I walked among the rides, talked to the carnies, grabbed a hotdog at Coney Island’s Famous Hotdogs, and slept in the grass at the zoo.
The week ended as we pushed towards Michigan, perusing car museums at Auburn, where I salivated over the stately old Auburns, and next door, the Barracudas, Chargers, and Coronets. Angola drew me off the freeway (where there was another Historic Downtown), the Chief and I made a loop around Fox Lake, and passed the State Line at Lake George, filled with boats and glittering water. Behind as usual, I flipped a U-ey, and picked up the Indiana State Sign Dance nearby.