It had been a quiet week in Crown Point. It generally was, I think, or at any rate had been since that temporary blip in March 1933 when one John Dillinger escaped from the county jail there, not, as legend would have you believe, with a bar of soap, but with a homemade gun fashioned from a piece of wooden shelving, or a potato, depending on what website you believe. But at any rate the incident put Crown Point, Lake County, Indiana on the map, and remained, when we visited back in 2009, its greatest claim to fame. There is a whole museum dedicated to the famous gangster which, according to the town’s website, “teaches the important lesson that crime doesn’t pay”, and it is still the story locals will tell you, in authoritative tones, when you go there. It is everything I’d always thought a Midwestern town would be, that is to say, calm, convivial, with pretty architecture and its courthouse, unprepossessing public schools and oozing with a sort of quiet, modest pride. On arrival it announces itself as the Hub of Lake County, though after several days there I didn’t see evidence of a great deal of competition.
We were in Crown Point to visit a friend, who had encouraged us to visit on the basis that she lived in Chicago. And I suppose, in the context of the vastness of American geography, she did live in Chicago, which was a mere one-hour drive away across a single state border. This is a little like me, with my north London address, claiming that I live in Brighton, but proximity aside it was clearly not a prime tourist destination, and immediately raised alarm bells for the immigration official, who, on asking me to provide the address of my hotel in Chicago, was not prepared for my answer that I was in fact staying on a residential street in a small town over 50 miles away. He came out of autopilot and carefully laid down the stamp which had been poised to mark my passport, and leaned forward.
“Why are you going to Crown Point?”
This was a fair question, though I didn’t know it then, and indeed hadn’t researched it enough to tell him, proudly, that I wanted to see for myself the Hub of Lake County.
“I’m staying with a friend.”
Detailed questioning ensued: who was my friend? How long had I known her? Where did we meet? What did she do as a job? How long was I staying with her? What would I be doing during my visit?
Five or six minutes on, apparently satisfied, he asked me when I would be leaving the country again. Proud of my foresight, and in what turned out to be a moment of hubris, I triumphantly produced my flight ticket. He squinted at it, then in a tone of voice that said “ha! you nearly had me there, but I saw through you,” he said “this is from Dallas.”
“Why are you going to Dallas?”
“I have a friend there.”
He paused, folded his arms, then slowly, deliberately, “oh. Another friend. Huh?”
In a country with over 300 million citizens it was apparently inconceivable that I would know two of them.
Immigration cleared, we drove the 85 minutes from the airport, around the city and out of Illinois. As the Chicago suburbs grew more distant the roads seemed to grow longer and straighter, stretching as far as you could see, running through a never-ending landscape of lakes, and trees, and more lakes, and solid-looking houses as solid as their midwestern owners, flagpoles in many garden that signified a gentle but confident patriotism: “this land is our land, it’s a great land, it’s full of great people”. As the houses grew fewer, so the potholes grew more frequent: we’d arrived in March, the last of the winter’s snow and ice pretty much cleared, but the roads a casualty of their persistence. Arriving the following week in Texas, having travelled down from one very distinct area to another, louder, brasher one, we were greeted with warm sunshine, short-sleeves and brunch outside, and this reinforced my overwhelming impression of the Midwest: it was really very cold.
So, this being a travel blog, I should really give recommendations of what one can do if one is to visit Crown Point, Indiana. Well, there’s the Dillinger Museum. We didn’t go. There are a couple of nice diners where you will receive generous helpings of coffee, and where your thanks to the waitresses are greeted by a confusing “mm-HMMM???” that sounds sassy, that made is think we had made some sort of faux-pas, but which, translated, is apparently Midwestern for “you’re welcome. ” There is the compulsory bowling alley, right up there on my list of Most American Things I Have Ever Seen, with more lanes than I could count, a vast airline hangar-type building filled with groups of men in checked shirts drinking light beers and Diet Pepsis and indulging their inner Lebowski. There is a large shopping mall that’s open 24 hours a day, with a cavernous JC Penney, and an Irish bar whose Irishness extends to the fact it’s painted green, but where they inexplicably play Emmylou Harris over the speakers and the barmaid chews gum and sighs each time she has to put down her nail file to serve a customer. And there is Chicago on the doorstep – an hour away with its amazing Art museum, vertgo-inducing Willis Tower, and Gino’s East and their artery-clogging pizza pies.
It had been a quiet week in Crown Point, and as I boarded the Amtrak in Chicago for the long journey south I had Garrison Keillor’s voice on my headphones musing about Lake Wobegon, that epitome of Midwestern civilisation where my friend could almost have claimed to live. It was, after all, only 7 hours away, across the state border.