The Great Lake

The Milwaukee neighborhood I’m originally from is roughly three miles from Lake Michigan.

Growing up, it was easy to take the Lake for granted–it was just always there, providing the city’s Easternmost boundary. Like any ocean, it was impenetrable, for you couldn’t possibly see across it to the other side.

Alternately a backdrop for picnics, walks, beach days, fireworks displays, arts festivals, afternoon cruises, fishing and swimming, the Lake stretched on for miles–even within Milwaukee County, there were parts I never visited until my early 20s in the mid-90s, like Atwater Park in Shorewood.

As a Marquette University undergrad, I often walked down from campus to the Lake, usually reaching it via this long-gone pedestrian bridge that crossed over Lincoln Memorial Drive pre-Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Once at the Lake, I’d walk North along the footpath, occasionally stopping to sit on a bench and take in the birdsong, the often cool breeze and the not-unpleasant smells of the shore.

The footpath stretched on to Veterans Park, a large swath of green space that was usually empty except for special occasions and festivals like Maritime Days every Labor Day weekend.

My last night in town before moving to Boston in 1997, a friend and I went for an evening stroll through South Shore Park in Bay View, providing one more time to take in the Downtown skyline as seen across the Lake and industrial Jones Island.

Although my parents moved to Iowa the following year, we’d all meet up in our hometown from time to time. Here’s a snapshot taken from roughly the same vantage point at South Shore Park nearly six years later.

On this particular visit (July 2003), we attended Festa Italiana at Maier Festival Park; above are the white jagged rocks along Lakeshore State Park Inlet.

For more unadorned views of the Lake, travel North past Downtown over to Bradford Beach, which above appears suspiciously empty for a mid-Summer afternoon (perhaps it was unseasonably chilly, or “cooler by the Lake” as the expression goes.)

The most convenient way to experience the Lake (if only by sight and maybe smell) is to cruise along Lincoln Memorial Drive–my favorite Milwaukee road (and probably most others as well.)

Returning for a visit in August 2006, I was excited to see a new and improved Oak Leaf Trail Footbridge connecting the end of Brady Street to McKinley Park over Lincoln Memorial Drive.

The rocks along this part of the shore brought back so many memories, including that time a decade before I had snuck down there with a few friends one late Summer night.

The rocky shore seems less mysterious in daylight, although one can still feel like they’re standing at an edge of the world as they feed or just watch the mass of gulls circling around.

I concluded that same trip with a walk along the shore of Grant Park in South Milwaukee.

Because it’s further away from Downtown, the Lake along Grant Park tends to be less patronized than other coastal parks and beaches–it’s often an ideal spot for serenity, meditation and quiet.

Again, the Lake just seems to go on forever. No tides coming in or out like you’d see at an ocean, just waves lapping against the shore, usually gently depending on which way the wind blows.

For over two decades, I’ve lived close enough to the Atlantic Ocean to be able to visit it whenever I wish; I’d like to think growing up so close to Lake Michigan conditioned me for that–the need for proximity to a large, seemingly endless body of water. I only make it back to Milwaukee every few years or so; no visit is complete without spending some time close to the Lake.

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