When my husband and I lived on Milwaukee’s East Side, we lived on the top floor of a building on Prospect with a view of Lake Michigan from our dining room, which we’d converted into a study while John was in law school at Marquette. We pushed the desk up against the window so we could look out as we worked.
First thing most mornings, I made a point of looking out at the lake, which was like looking at a landscape painting that changed colors and textures every day. The lake was either calm or turgid; the water various shades of blue, green, white, black and brown; the sky clear or cloudy, sometimes blue, sometimes pink, and sometimes, when the air show was in town, laced with speeding jets and contrails.
Although we had our view, we didn’t "go down the hill," as we called it, as much as people would think. "You’re probably at the lake all the time," they’d say when they found out where we lived. But we weren’t. I’m sorry to say that in that way, we took Lake Michigan for granted far more often than it deserved.
Part of this, for me, has to do with at times not wanting to be where everyone else is. I never really understood this until some years back, when I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test at an office I worked at Downtown and scored a "1" on the extrovert scale. As I have no problem talking to people I meet at a party, I found this amusing, and so would my friends and family. Shy and quiet are the last things they would characterize me as.
"But it doesn’t have anything to do with being timid or outgoing," said the test administrator at the time. "It really means that when you need to recharge, you tend to want to be alone than with lots of people."
Suddenly, I had a cogent explanation for why I loved when East Siders left town for the holiday. Why I could only take my former in-laws for so long before barely politely excusing myself to a locked bedroom. Or why I’m in the middle of a long phase of limiting my participation in group activities.
It also explains why, during our recent sub-zero temperatures in a snowstorm on the first day school was called off, I drove to Target and relished being one of only 20 customers there (probably all teachers too). Going out when everyone else is in is one of my favorite things. As much as I do enjoy other people, there are times I also love to be where they are not.
One of these times was last winter – Milwaukee’s coldest in about three decades – when I had reached my threshold for football and "Real Housewives" and living with 50 other people in one building (including the chain smoker next door), went down the hill, and took a walk on Bradford Beach along Lake Michigan. It was the most restorative thing I had done in a long time.
What I enjoyed about being there most was the quiet. The lack of evidence that any other human being had been there in days – maybe even weeks. Only a car here and there on Lincoln Memorial.
On the snow-covered beach, another solitary soul wearing a balaclava and dark glasses walking a dog passes by, and you can’t exactly discern each other, but you nod and recognize. No words necessary.
Snow drifts in rippled patterns across the beach and up against the snow fence. When the sun is out, it squeezes through the wooden pickets, casting hundreds of shadows across the bright white snow. Summer furniture is stacked up against the cabana and tiki huts, reminders of the summer that has been and the one to come. Waves crash up against frozen waves. Grasses and bare trees wave in the wind, and when the sky is blue and the sun shining, the colors remind me of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Every once in a while, you find something strange lying in the middle of the frozen beach. Last year, it was the aluminum frame from a pop-up shelter that had blown away from the stack against the cabana and tumbled across the snow, a weird little satellite. Sometimes dogs barrel past, and you try to focus your camera on them, but they’re already gone.
After 12 years on the East Side, last June we moved a few suburbs away from the top-floor apartment with the lake view. Having moved doesn’t mean I never come to the lake anymore. When I lived in Cleveland, there were grown West Siders there who had never ever crossed the Cuyahoga River to visit the East Side of the city. I’m not going down like that in Milwaukee.
So when our recent minus-eight degrees reached 18, I got into my car and drove over to Bradford Beach for the first time this winter. The sun was blazing, the bright blue sky spectacularly streaked with clouds. A bundled-up man with two Great Danes was leaving as I arrived.
I walked the entire length of the beach and back, stopping to look at the long snowy stretch of it where no other person had trod. There were beautifully carved drifts; places where the snow had swirled into white sand dunes; a large field of ice that reminded me of the pond at the end of our street when we were kids that we skated on every winter. Each single picket of snow fence cast its own shadow onto the sparkling white beach. I didn’t encounter another person the whole time until I left – a couple with a dog.
The most striking thing I noticed on this trip was that the tiki huts had been wrapped in white plastic sheathing with large black letters, to protect their thin wooden walls from the elements, I guess – their thatched roofs exposed and shooting out the top of the plastic like spiked hair in an '80s hairband. I was immediately grateful that I went as often as I did last winter and got pictures without the sheathing.
Even with it though, to me Bradford Beach in the wintertime is one of the most beautiful places in Milwaukee. When my Myers-Briggs ENTP self needs to go off alone and regroup, there’s nothing better. An hour or so there, and I’m ready for the world.
Now, if you would please excuse me, I’m going dancing in Riverwest.