Letters From America 2.2 – Stories From Indiana

Well, I’m here .. in San Diego at long last with dear dear friends Marko and Jeannie. Well technically, Marko’s not here, still enroute from Grand Rapids. Technically it’s also my birthday .. well just, for another few hours. I’m sad to not be with family and friends back home in NZ or even in Brownsburg but… it’s also quite fun to have a birthday that lasts for 32 hours instead of the regular 24hours. And these friends are lovely too!

The Dance of Falling Leaves and Other Adventures In Indiana

Walking through the Maple Ridge Trail in a cool autumn afternoon, you see the final cycle of summer coming to it’s close. The leaves hang by tender thread to branches drying out in the wind. The crisp blue light of clear mid-western skies falls down through golden tree cover and the breeze comes through the branches with enough gasp that the last of the leaves slip out of their grasp and descend to the ground. But the descending is just transcendant because the wind coming through the woods is slow and easy enough that the leaves just twirl and waltz their way to the forest floor. It’s like watching cartoon snowflakes but in red and gold maple leaf stars instead. Standing in the midst of a shower of falling red and gold, falling gently and slowly enough to be captured on film and to watch with wonder is like standing under warm water rain for the first time. The rising breeze hits your nose with still clean grass and the sweetness of decay setting in.

We drove out through Plainfield and stopped at the Chateau Thomas winery for a sunday afternoon tasting. Indiana is one of those states you still can’t purchase alcohol on a Sunday, unless at a restaurant. The winery counts as a tourist attraction so is governed by different policy but it still felt good to be breaking the rules. A wide assortment of zinfandels, blush wines and shiraz blends was on offer from the barmaid who was probably more aptly suited to the phrase Wine Nazi. Within moments of thinking it, she echoed my own thoughts by gleeing telling us her exact nickname was precisely that. Suitably impressed that I asked for water to cleanse the palate between each tasting she brought out the gold star award winning wines for my tasting pleasure. Unfortunately my winetasting buddies made the mistake of sampling from the chocolate selection before supping the complementing wine. Tut tut. They received the short, sharp and icy cold shoulder from the buxom, blonde, big-haired mid-western lass. Turns out though, that she walks in the same park behind the Brownsburg abode as I, home to the Maple Ridge Trail and all.

There are plenty of people to meet when it comes to travelling through new places. And then there are those that you don’t meet, but you observe or just plain hear about, like the old man on the bicycle that liked to ride around the park. He’d ring the bell on his 1960s pushbike to let you know he was coming. Trouble was, he was ringing it a full three minutes before he got to where I was by which time I’d forgotten again. He lapped me four times and it was the same each one. Ding, ding, ding and then he crawled by at snails pace.

There’s Keith, who works in my uncle’s shop and got married the Monday after I arrived. Took two days off, the first day for the wedding where he roasted a whole pig for the party, got married to a bride wearing camoflage pants and an orange tshirt in the backyard of their house. They served up as much roasted hog as they could and still had to load the rest into the freezer next to the other critters they’ve collect for good eating. Same hatchet that was used to carve and cut the pig was used to cut the cake, a red velvet interior with white buttercream icing. You can imagine the glory of the new bride and groom, dressed as they were with hatchet in hand. It comes as no surprise to learn that both are returned from various forms of military service. Keith took Tuesday off work as well but by Wednesday had had enough honeymooning so was back at the workshop, along with 15 bags of roasted pork and buns for lunch. It was a good day to stop by.

Weird Neighbour deserves the capitalisation of his nickname, as well as a cautionary approach at all times. Renowned for being a little unusual, the first words of warning I received from any and all regarding my stay in Indiana were typically “Watch out for weird neighbour.” You could be forgiven for thinking that it was just because of the upcoming Halloween festivals that a fully grown man would dress in full costume (sometimes a park ranger, sometimes Santa Claus, sometimes a Hungarian shepherd boy) and sit outside his house. But no, according to the locals, that’s year round madness to enjoy right there. Occassionally his mother joins in as well, which made for a heightened awareness on October 31st. It’s not unusual for the Brownsburg police to be stopping by the brick and tile on the corner. However, Weird Neighbour remained relatively quiet and sedate for the duration of my stay, even on the 31st, when the scariest little trick-or-treater came knocking on the door so hard I thought the glass was due to break. Then he yelped “trick or treat, wanna smell my feet” while digging a chubby claw into a bowl of fun-size chocolate bars. With eight or so of them in his sticky, hot grasp he turned and hightailed it for the sidewalk where his parents were waiting patiently. What a little punk. The unexpected bonus of all that Halloween activity are the amazingly discounted kids dressup costumes (handy dandy for the men in my life, jesse and liam) and the practically fast food service at the restaurants we ate at, an early birthday dinner!

I took the truck out and hightailed it respectably through some of the small towns that lie along highway 36 and 136. The cornfields and farmhouses that were so beautiful in 2004 have almost all made way for new subdivisions with enchanting names like Stoney Creek and Oaks Crossing. Even the Clermont drive-in is finally facing the final curtain call. Clermont was not only the finest drive-in experience in Indiana, but it was also one of the first multiplexes ever. Now it’s just a dustbowl of steel pipes, swings and slides with two white monuments to cinema facing off against one another at the first stand. The romance of it all is falling under the construction spell of the expanding population.

Traversing 36 and 136 I found a cornfield opposite a church, the sign offering more hope than perhaps what I was expecting. The light was getting more and more opaque into the evenings, but I was glad for that one cornfield in the midst of the sadness of years of family history and hardwork being covered in by concrete. In a nation of consumers, that’s it’s still more financially rewarding for farmers to let go of family property into the hands of developers and superstores. Even some into church parking lots for the expansive houses of worship. The road into the heart of downtown Indianapolis doesn’t reflect any of that expansive skyline though. Short and broad brick bungalows line the street pushed up next to railroad lines, over bridges and
industrial buildings being built and falling down on top of each other. Washington Street takes you from the Wal*Mart superstore in Avon right through the executive homes in the outer belt of Indianapolis proper, then through the Latin populated suburb, complete with walk-up stores and festivities. Then down beside the Indiana Zoo, Victory Field and the White River State Park, you find yourself in the one-way grid of Monument Circle.

You can tell a friendly city not by the doors of the inner-city churches flung wide open into the daylight, or by the lack or presence of street folks. It’s the free parking offered in the central city that is the biggest clue. It says… stop here a while. Pick up a hot chocolate and bonbon from the chocolatier, listen to the local radio being broadcast outside it’s studio. Walk around the monument to mid-west boys that fought in the Great Wars, Korea and Vietnam. The architecture rises tall around the Circle, but the streets are wide enough to allow for streaming light to hit the cobblestones. It’s a clean, bright city.

The drive back to Brownsburg from the city is a mixed observation of small houses slowly being rebuilt, repainted, refreshed and those that almost seem like they’re collapsing in on themselves, the weight of all this city progress just a little too much. The people are friendly though, no matter where you stop, unless it’s at Bob Evans, where the waitresses are stealing from you left and right. Thankfully, the somewhat corrupted manager and her boyfriend were since disposed, but not before becoming the talk of the town. Uncle John knew he’d seen her face somewhere before..hehe. Yup, small town is still small town, even when small town is getting bigger by the day.

So, that’s Indiana.