Oddly Cool

Take Highway 55 east from St. Louis, to Illinois 70, then into the rolling hills, soybeans, and hamlets where Lincoln lunched to find Carlyle Lake, the biggest manmade lake in Illinois. The Army Corps capped 69 oil wells and dammed the Kaskaskia River to make the 15-mile-long lake, which was finished in 1967. There’s a Sufjan Stevens song about it that goes, “Oh, stop thinking of tomorrow, don’t stop thinking of today / You’re not getting any younger, you’ve got nothing to explain … ”

It is hard to overestimate the role of water in the region. The Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri were central to making us a nation, and keeping us a nation, in a world on the move. Lewis and Clark started their journey in nearby Hartford. Their Corps of Discovery’s main charter by Jefferson was to find a watery path to the West. Much has passed since then, including the Industrial Revolution and 25 quadrillion gallons of Mississippi River. That is a lot of water under the bridge.

But away from the city it was still a sleepy summer Saturday at Carlyle Lake, where sweat bees buzzed, a dozen families sat on the rough Midwestern sand, and a brave few swam in the cold water by the riprap of the dam. Behind the beach a split-rail fence marked the start of the hillside park, covered in mature and even ancient oaks. “Here Comes the Sun” played from a Bluetooth speaker. The smell of brats and carne asada wafted from grills set in concrete next to the picnic tables.

Around the world, heat records were breaking. Los Angeles hit 111 degrees for the first time. Death Valley got to 127, which helped it clinch the record for history’s hottest month on earth. Asia, Europe, and the Arctic Circle all set new recorded highs.

But the Midwest was unseasonably cool in July. Usually, by late summer, heat and humidity are the same up the Mississippi Valley from New Orleans to St. Louis. When I was growing up nearby without air conditioning I thought St. Louis was the hottest city on earth. Time spent in Panama, Vietnam, Miami, and Louisiana never changed my mind. Yet here we were, enjoying pleasant temperatures. Local weather makes us all provincials.

By one o’clock the temperature was in the mid-90s, and more people were in the lake to their hips. Two dogs on leashes chewed ice in the shade. A boy chased a giant inflatable Homer Simpson donut across the sand. It rolled faster in the breeze than he could run.

At the top of the hill a 1974 Plymouth Valiant the color of sand sat with other cars in the sun. Its windows were down, and two pine-tree air fresheners hung from the rearview. The man standing next to it evidently came standard with the car. He was an early Boomer now long of tooth and ponytail, scruffy but not exactly an aging hippie, just a local.

“Hey,” he said as greeting. “Been cool enough you almost want it a little hotter,” he said. “That would feel good.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.