The mournful wail of a foghorn lulled me to sleep many a night as a child tucked into bed in a clapboard house in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, just seven blocks from Lake Michigan. I couldn’t quite see the lake from my home, but I could easily feel its presence.
It came in the cool breezes blowing through our neighborhood in the summer and the foaming waves that noisily crashed ashore when the lake was angry. It came in the piercing shrieks of the seagulls constantly wheeling overhead and in the lake’s annual ritual of belching ashore thousands of smelly silver herring.
Lake Michigan’s outsized personality drew me to its side whenever I needed a break from my family or my own rambling thoughts. Every time I stood in front of that vast sapphire sea, which was never silent and always in motion, I was reminded that Lake Michigan was the place that made me feel most alive.
One of my favorite days of the year was the Fourth of July when the lake graciously allowed the city to pile onto its shore for picnics, concerts, and more. In the evening, as bonfires dotted the beach and all manner of watercraft bobbed in the lake, fireworks exploded overhead, each one brightly reflected in the water below.
In January 1973, a new lake-based tradition started when throngs of people gathered in the cold, clad only in skimpy swimsuits and goosebumps. Following an enthusiastic signal, everyone raced into the icy froth, whooping and hollering, inaugurating the city’s first Polar Plunge. Surely, Lake Michigan raised an eyebrow at that—and was bemused when it became Sheboygan’s ritual for welcoming in the new year.
One summer, unable to resist the lake’s siren song, a friend and I created a hideout in some scruffy vegetation near a remote, rocky stretch of beach. Tucked inside the bramble, we shared secrets, scratched angsty pre-teen thoughts into our diaries, and giggled over boys, all while the lake quietly eavesdropped. At some point during these rendezvous, it became tradition to pop out and enjoy lunch al fresco on the sun-warmed boulders rimming the water.
I cried the day I graduated from high school when rain pushed the festive ceremony from a spacious lakeside park and into our stuffy, drab gym. It didn’t seem right that the lake wouldn’t bear witness to my special day.
Today, I live two hours southwest of Sheboygan in an area dimpled with several much smaller bodies of water. They’re pretty, for sure. But they can’t compete with my beloved Lake Michigan when it comes to grandeur, personality or, sass. So I return to the lake as often as I can. And despite the years, we always pick up right where we left off.