We slid up from the south, pop songs blazing and engine putt-putt-putting happily along the highway path.
The sun had burst through the clouds behind us, gray skies ahead from cumuli not yet scattered. We were in the light and dark at once.
Through the distance, so far ahead that it looked a shade of blue, Sears Tower poked.
“There she is,” I said, gesturing at the blue-tinged city skyline.
“Ugh,” my girlfriend replied.
I felt the same.
We were driving back from Starved Rock, where we had slogged through mud for half-ice waterfalls, climbed canyons and trails, kept eyes out for bald eagles and generally ruined shoes and pants and had a wonderful time.
Now we were returning to the grim grime city, where the waterfalls are muck trickles under interstates and the closest we have to eagles is Eagle Man insurance commercials.
We go away so we can come back home. Come back a little more relaxed or wiser or a little tanned and with a bunch of great photos, sure, but the point is the return.
We want to see our streets with new eyes. We want to come back in, slam down a bag of dirty laundry in the corner and let the experience wash over us, rate its effect by how different home feels now that we’ve returned.
Seeing that city skyline from the comfort of a car I wasn’t driving, I just missed trees. I missed trees and raccoon tracks, swooping hawks and air that doesn’t smell like gasoline.
Don’t worry; the story gets better.
Later, after the girlfriend dropped me off and I avoided unpacking for an acceptable amount of time, I wandered out for tacos.
The streetlights cut through the night, evaporating all the stars above.
But the streetlights glistened.
There was noise and commotion and too many damn people wandering around.
But they were headed to bars or restaurants, off to visit friends using convenient public transit or, in my case, heading to a 24-hour taco joint with carnitas to die for and an old Mexican man plucking a guitar in the corner.
I loved that too. I loved the home and I loved the away. I loved the skyscrape castles and the green-clad cliffs. I loved the swooping hawks and the scurrying rats.
I hated the crime here and the dead Main Streets there.
Part of this is me forcing myself to love this city, Nelson Algren’s famous lovely with a broken nose. It’s a love that wanes with each sad headline I read or waxes with each uncovered secret I write, but it’s a real love.
It’ll just feel more authentic after I’ve been back a day or two.
Right now, even as I type about tacos and streetlamps, part of me wishes I could slog through that mud for the rest of my life and look up each night at a sky filled with stars.